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Me and Rodin

Art is a tool for rescuing the planet ...

Jerry Atkin
Portland, Oregon

Art, Brecht said, is a hammer. A tool for shaping the world. Art is a tool for rescuing the planet as surely as it is a tool for rescuing the heart, and art is a tool for building the bridges that connect us in time and space. Art is a sledge, a pry bar, finish nails and crocus cloth. It overcomes inertia and reminds us of what is real and what is possible. On the one hand, it polishes the contours of the inner world, revealing the grain, making it shine with an inner light. On the other, it shines a light into a darkening world. Art, if it avoids the traps of cynicism and despair, the trap of bourgeois art, is an act of witness, and act of construction, an act of insurrection.

The Portland Art Museum has mounted a wonderful Rodin exhibit. Not just the final bronzes, but the plaster studies, the studies in bronze, terracotta sculptures and a few prints. Balzac looming, Le Penseur brooding, figures embracing, hands reaching out. Genius, genius, genius echoes off the walls. Bronze muscles ripple, the face of war howls into empty space. Caryatids crouch beneath unbearable weights, Camille Claudel, out of Rodin's life for a decade, peers out from blued metal, reborn as France.

One of Malcolm Lowery’s characters sees the deep blue sky of southern France and the towering cumulus clouds, "like billowing thoughts in the mind of Michelangelo." I don't know if thoughts billowed in Rodin's mind, but forms surely did; the form of his art, the patterns of light and dark, patterns of shade and shape filling up the sky. The human form shaped and reshaped, waiting for the pure alchemy of molten bronze so that it might live forever, safe from fragile impermanent flesh. As I stand in awe of Rodin’s creative genius, I am also in awe of the labor and the craft that are the midwives of this miraculous birth. Imagined images became drawings, drawings became sculptures of wax gouged out, plaster studies were cast, forms built, liquid metal, giving off light, splashed down from the glowing ladle. The billowing forms of art find their final shape not in a salon or gallery, but in a foundry, a place of labor.

My once and future studio is cluttered with the refuse of the practice of art. Scraps of paper, photos, frames, glass shards, razor blades, mat board, sea shells, soldering irons, groziers and grinders, old coffee cups in high places with a fine patina of mold, band-aids, blood stains, the paper cutter for ordering the universe, and mat knives and razor blades gleaming in the corners of drawers. Trash on the floor and absolutely none in my mind. Shaping and reshaping visual space. Words scrawled on the walls, collages of colored paper, old photos. An enlarger cloaked against the dust, biding its time. Knowing that the magic of the darkroom pulls at me like a slowly rising tide.

Me and Rodin, we’re brothers. And genius, genius, genius echoes off my walls as well. Because the genius is in the human act of creating art, whether it is Rodin (big G genius) or me or some six year old kid who puts glitter on the face of the moon. Genius is in the process of distilling and refining our experience, in reshaping it, using hearts and minds and found materials. Sometimes working with a fierce intelligence, but mostly with a fierce heart, a fierce desire for beauty, which is truth, which is beauty, which is truth. Which, for me, is justice and compassion.

Art is a hammer, an act of insurrection, and me and Rodin and Brecht want to use art to change the world - the way we see it, how we live in it - but they’re dead. I guess I'll have to do it myself.

Published in In Motion Magazine September 20, 1999.