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A Letter To Agnes Martin And A Surprise Reply

August 27, 2007 by Guestwriter By Joanne Hunt

Agnes Martin Room, Harwood Museum, Taos, New Mexico, August 2007, photo 2007 by Kevin Moul. All rights reserved. Dear Agnes, Im back in Taos. Its February and as I slow-walked from Mabel Dodge this afternoon, I scuffed through snow still lying on the ground. Ive paid my seven dollars to gain entry to the Harwood Museum but all I will visit today is you. I feel at home in this octagonal room. The four yellow wood benches clustered under the skylight in the center; simple in their symmetry. The horizontal golden hardwood planks that run across the floor soothe and ground your work. I am, as ever, stunned by the seven linen canvases that surround me. I am sitting in my usual place on the floor leaned against the white wall next to the absent eighth wall that forms the canopied entrance. I am wearing my faded black cotton pants and shirt. I dont think youve seen me in anything but black. Few people have. I have been doing sitting practice in the zendo at Mabels for many hours today. I feel still and wide and ready for you. As I look out at your paintings, these incredible 5 X 5 canvasses of pale blue and white, I am both deeply content and anguished. I wont be back to visit for awhile probably not until December. It is a difficult good bye because I have been coming here every three months for a year. Ive gotten used to these trips to the Harwood. Like a trip to a favourite church or synagogue where you can sit forever in

some form of prayer or communion. Silent. Unmoving. This room is as familiar to me as the zendo in my own home. This is my sixth visit and I am still awed to sit here. It has been three years since that first November afternoon when I walked into this room, felt my lungs contract and my body hit the floor as my knees buckled. Gasping and wide eyed I looked around the room, overcome with emotion. I crawled over to this spot against the wall and carefully gazed out while steadying my shaking body. I have never had a painters work strike me so deeply. Each time I come here to sit and write, I can feel myself preparing to walk again into this room. Each time you hold a mirror up to me. Like an aunt who sees her niece once a year and registers how much shes grown in a way that parents cant. I see myself and where my writing is during each visit here. With each trip to Taos, this room is my Writers barometer. I dont want to leave Taos. I dont want to head home. I have let my life get fuzzy. Cluttered up. Too much. Too full. When I get back to Ottawa, I am going to clear out some of the piles to make room. I am not sure what I am making room for but I will do it anyway. I want to live cleanly like you. Clear. Crisp. No distractions. I want to live directly. Single-pointed. Nothing extra. Agnes, is there anything you want to tell me?

Ordinary Happiness, crop of Agnes Martin painting, Ordinary Happiness, Harwood Museum, Taos, New Mexico, July 2007, photo 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved. Yes, Joanne You can do it. Dont be so hard on yourself and be ruthless too. I threw out all my early paintings and I never regretted it. I hadnt found my form. I needed to clear everything out. Some art is going to have to die in your book in order to bring clarity. Dont be afraid to get rid of stuff. Dont be afraid to move to smaller canvases. Dont make excuses. Dont explain.

Dont justify. Do what you need to do. Not everyone will love your art. Some people dont like mine. They just see stripes. Oh, and by the way, they are just stripes. Dont make them such a big deal. Theyre No Big Deal and theyre a Very Big Deal. Both. Just like how you wrote the two sides of your aspiration on the altar in the zendo this week. On one side of your folded piece of paper: No Big Deal. On the other side: Very Big Deal. You got it right. It is always both. Joanne, blue is a happy colour. Now I know that makes you want to cry because youre not very good at being happy yet. Youll get better. All these things you already have: Lovely Life Love Friendship Perfect Day Ordinary Happiness Innocence Playing These are not just the names of the seven paintings. These things are present in your life. Right now. Blue is an ordinary, happy colour. Ordinary Happiness is the kind of happiness Im talking to you about. The wild kind of happiness comes and goes. It rolls in and out like a storm. Ordinary Happiness has staying power. You have kept coming to visit me all these years in your travels to Taos; you have sat and written in this room of rounded edges and light in the middle. You can go now. Im inside you. You dont have to wonder about when youll be back to visit. You can visit anytime. Even in the middle of teaching. I am not separate from you. Joanne, I want to speak directly to your search for something bigger. You have been troubled about what you call your lack of faith. I know that you want to rest in something bigger than you, trust something bigger than you and be held by something bigger than you. I think thats good. It is good to be open and available to wider sources. But know this: Youre the one who has to get up and go to your desk each day. Trusting in something bigger than you does not bring you to your writing. You do. That bigger thing might meet you once youre sitting there but it is does not provide the motivation or the propulsion. It meets you. You need to be ready. Like when youre settled into the belly of your writing and Big Mind is flowing out of you so clearly, effortlessly, not seeking anything while your hand moves across the page for hours. You can trust that. Did you hear me? You can trust that. Is that outside of you? Or inside of you? Is that that bigger than you? Or just you? It doesnt matter. Thats not your concern. What matters is that you write. What matters is that you show up and wait to see what shows up to meet you. I once sat still every day for three months waiting for an inspiration to arrive. Three months. Every day I waited. Still. Silent. I didnt know if it would come or not. I didnt have faith that it would come or not. It was my job to sit and wait. It came and I painted again. But I might not have. And thats not the point whether I ended up painting again or not the point is that I knew what my job was. So: I did it. It doesnt have to do with faith, Joanne. It has to do with knowing that youre a Writer. Thats your job. To show up and write. You get inspired. You use words to express it. I got an inspiration. I painted. You write, as truly as possible, to capture that inspiration. I painted to do the same. Not in a tight way. But in a true way. Theres math involved. And calculations. And measurements. And elegance. And simplicity. In the form and in the math. It isnt all soft and mushy. Theres discipline and rigour and study and figuring it out but it is held in a soft hand. Clear. Steady. I led a disciplined life, some say, like a Zen monk. I dont know about all of that. I didnt need much. None of us do. My paintings sold for more than a half a million dollars each. You are surrounded by $3.5 million dollars worth of art. Isnt that something? How can Lovely Life be worth that much? Yet, should it be worth $20 million or $150 million or $50 bucks for the canvas?

That was not my job so I dont know anything about those things. I tried to capture inspiration. Life is filled with beauty. Can you see it? Can you touch the beauty in your own life? You are living too full up right now. Dont despair. You can change it. One step. Then another. Sometimes I had too much too. Its okay. Just start changing it each day. It wont take long. Pull out Zen Mind, Beginners Mind to remember why you chose this path. I never stopped painting because I never stopped receiving inspiration. You will never stop writing and listening to music. You and music do have a special bond. It serves you well. And you hear well. Keep listening. Spend more time in silence. Walk more. While you can. And dont worry so much. It will all go fine because fine includes everything all the stuff we call good or bad. Its just stuff. It is being human. Thats all. You get to be a human so you get to have the stuff that human beings call good or bad. Dont worry. Youll get all the stuff that humans are supposed to get. Thats our true nature. Let it come. Receive it. And let it pass. Dont cling to it. The happiness or the sadness. Just notice the inspiration. Both inspire. Thats all. There is just the living of a life and knowing that is what you are doing. A living of a life. So pay attention. Top of mountain. Middle of mountain. Bottom of mountain. Doesnt matter. No need to decide. The mountain will find you. Take good care of yourself, Agnes Martin About Agnes Martin, Joanne says: She was Canadian born in Maklin, Saskatchewan on March 22, 1912 and died in December 2004 at the age of 92 in Taos, New Mexico. She lived most of her last decades in Taos painting (or waiting for inspiration) until the end; she was dedicated to capturing the beauty in life. Agnes said, My paintings are about quiet happiness like the lightness of the morningI look in my mind and I see composition. It is her simple clarity that left such an impression on me. I think that you have to have a really clean relationship with The Mind to paint the way she did. I want to write that way. About this piece, Joanne says: I was compelled to write a good-bye letter to Agnes that day in the Harwood at the end of a year long Writing Intensive. I asked her if she had anything to tell me. I thought that the response would be to sit in silence for awhile. I was surprised when I immediately drew a line on the page and my pen kept moving as the letter from Agnes emerged. It was calm and clear. I guess there were a few things she wanted me to know. I got out of the way and wrote until she was done. It came and went so easily. I slow-walked back to the zendo at Mabels that afternoon and read it aloud during our Reading Group. I was quite shocked. I still am. About Joanne: Joanne just returned from an August trip to Taos where she got to surprise Agnes with another visit. Kevin Moul stumbled upon Joanne sitting in her usual place on the floor writing and took the photos of her there. Besides sitting for hours on the floor of an art gallery channelling Agnes, Joanne is

the founder of an Integral Coaching Training School in Ottawa, Canada with her partner and beloved wife, Laura. You can read some of her Perspectives and Articles in the Resources section of their web site at Integral Coaching Canada. She is ruthlessly working on her first book while trying to write more in coffee shops rather than pubs where her libation of choice is a Guinness. She is Irish after all.

Agnes Martins Writings


February 4, 2009

Agnes Martins Writings read like art torah, striving towards an inner perfection and finding a place of honesty in ones efforts. In my work I am at a crisis and wish I could spend more time wrapped in her process. Her ideas are profound, yet resonate with the dailiness of life, as she seeks an underlying awareness of perfection. I found myself wishing I had some Agnes Martin chip I could have installed in my head (keeping these ways of thinking at the forefront of my thoughts about art and writing). She is wise in exactly the way I am not. At the center of her ideas are notions of Truth and perfection, concepts that historically were at the center of art, but nowadays seem sidelined as old-fashioned or outdated, maybe just too big. Art has become mired in a network of relativism, but Martins ideas elucidate a path of engagement, hinting at universal guiding truths that acknowledge the uniqueness of experience and individual consciousness. She warns that other peoples lives will look better to us than our own, more interesting and more rewarding (113), but that this leads away from the truth of our own work. To correct this state of mind you must say to yourself: I want to live a true life (113). At work in Martins writings and lectures on art is a very Platonic notion that our world is an approximation of an idealized perfection. At its heart is the idea that creating art is a process of translating ideas from our minds into an imperfect world that mirrors this Platonic model. Martin states that happiness is found in the brief instances when one becomes aware of this perfection, moments of insight. It comes through courting inspiration in our work, but our vocation is in the striving to perceive. We must surrender the idea that this perfection that we see in the mind or before our eyes is obtainable or attainable. It is really far from us. We are no more capable of having it than the infant that tries to eat it. But our happiness lies in our moments of awareness of it. (69) Perceiving for Martin is of the utmost importance, and in this perceiving one must be vigilant in the truthfulness of how one sees. Engaged in the moment and open to inspiration, this isnt an intellectual pursuit, but one of seeing. Thinking; we consider that which we perceived. It is a secondary experience. Thinking compares everything that we have perceived with everything that we are perceiving at the moment. (89) As someone who is frequently accused of thinking too much and over thinking everything I work on, Martins ideas are a useful balm. I need more engagement in the process of perceiving the truthfulness of the work I create, while cutting loose intellectual prattle and constant second-guessing. I am enamored with her statement that all true art needs to fail in order to succeed, because through this collapse, honest work emerges. Illustrating the tug of fear and pride on the validity of creating, Agnes Martin leaves us with this image: For those who are visual minded I will say: there seems to be a fine ship at anchor. Fear is the anchor, convention is the chain, ghosts stalk the decks, the sails are filled with Pride and the ship does now move. (74)