Learning From Roy Lichtenstein

August 31, 2015

A few weeks ago I went to Guild Hall in Easthampton to see its current show of works by Roy Lichtenstein, “Between Sea and Sky.” It was a dreary, rainy day, and the joyfulness of Lichtenstein’s work, its playfulness, its exuberance was just the thing I needed on such a day.

Accompanying the exhibit was a documentary in which Lichtenstein talked about his work and his process. I always find that documentaries about artists have something to teach me about the creative process, something that I can learn and use right away.

Lichtenstein said that when he got an idea, he went into the studio to see what he could do with it. I was struck by this statement because Lichtenstein didn’t say that he got an idea, then evaluated the idea he got, then tried to figure out whether it was worthwhile to pursue this idea.

No. He got an idea. And he went into his studio to see what he could do with it.

What would our creative process look like if we did the same thing? If we got an idea (a sentence, an image, a subject) and went to our desks to see what we could do with it. No self-censorship. No consideration about whether it was worthwhile to pursue this idea. No hemming and hawing. No deliberation. No second guessing.

We get an idea. We go to the desk to see what we could do with it.

After I heard Lichtenstein say this, I thought about how often ideas, sentences, images, memories come to me. And how often I don’t pursue them. I let them go. Or I consider them not worthwhile enough to take my time. Or I worry about whether there’s enough potential in the idea to make it worth my while to pursue it. Or I criticize it because it’s not a “big” idea.

Lichtenstein’s paintings in this show are, as its title indicates, about sky, sea, and horizons. That’s the idea he had; that’s the idea he went into his studio to work with; that’s the idea that propelled him to find new materials to work with (something like the material used on dashboards in cars; a motor to tip one of his paintings back and forth as the horizon tips when we’re on a boat); that’s the idea that he played with to produce the magnificent works in this exhibition. He didn’t say to himself, “Sea, sky, horizon, a million painters have done that; that’s not a very good idea.” He had the idea and he saw what he–and not anyone else–could do with it.

After I saw the show, I promised myself that I’d try to incorporate this way of behaving into my process. Get an idea. Go to the desk to see what I could do with it.

And the line that came to me was simple, “My house is filled with my sister’s pottery.” When I went to my desk to work from this line, I began to capture important moments that I hadn’t written about before—one, that my sister started making tiny pieces of pottery close to the time she died. I thought that they looked like votive offerings put into tombs to accompany the dead on their journeys. Another, that when my sister gave me a dinner set it took her a long time to make, she told me she wanted me to use it every day, to use it every day so that I would remember her. Remember her: I didn’t realize then that she might have been indicating her desire to kill herself a year before she did so.

Had I judged writing about my sister’s pottery to be unimportant, I never would have recalled those moments, the uncanny making of those tiny pieces, the words she said when she gave me a gift of dinnerware that she made the year before she died. I’ve been working with this since I saw Lichtenstein’s show and now I have another piece for the book I’m writing. It’s close to 1400 words long. More important, it helped me continue to unravel the conundrum of my sister’s death. And I have these words and these meanings now simply because, like Lichtenstein,  I got an idea, and I went to my desk to see what I could do with it.

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5 Responses to “Learning From Roy Lichtenstein”

  1. ardisanelson Says:

    This is really good food for thought. I’ve been reading “Healing as a Way of Writing” and see how this post documents the writing process that you describe.

    As far as writing about an idea, and not judging it, I can say that as a person with ADHD, I had to actively stop writing based on the thoughts that pop into my head. It seemed to overwhelm me. Unfortunately I think that led to a writer’s block. I’m trying to find the balance. Hence, my decision to read your book.

    I’m enjoying the recent posts to your blog. You are inspiring me to write again.

  2. Marylou Says:

    Wonderful insights…yes censoring ourselves and dismissing good ideas before we actually “try them out.”
    But also what about scareing yourself? At times I’ll be moved to write something, but the content is so unsettling I drop it because I don’t want to face it. Thinking that if I went with it, it’d be tortureing myself.
    The courage every day living requires is often enough to bear, to add to things, well…
    Hmmmm…
    I’m sure you wrestled and are wresting with this in your current writing about your sister. I know that writing can clarify and heal. Still it takes guts!
    I’m looking forward to your book.

    • writingalife Says:

      Hi Marylou,
      Thanks for your comments. About scary material. I always think it’s important to have someone–therapist, perhaps–in our lives as we deal with difficult material. And it is very important not to use our work to further traumatize us. Still sometimes what we find we’re afraid to write about isn’t so scary after all. I like James W. Pennebaker’s suggestion to set a timer, and write for fifteen to twenty minutes only: what happened, how did we feel about what happened, how do we reflect about what happened. Pennebaker found that just three successive days of doing this helped his subjects’ immune systems. The idea is this: that what’s not expressed is perhaps more harmful than what is.


  3. Today I finished reading “The Art of Slow Writing” (I’ve been dipping in and out of it for months). Your book changed me from an idiosyncratic writer to a disciplined one. This blog post has inspired me to stop vetoing new and perhaps odd ideas and just go into my study and write.


  4. […] Learning from Roy Lichtenstein by Louise DeSalvo- A wonderful post about following our impulse to create something, even when it seem like it has been done before. I always say start with the first thought, word or image that arises and follow it. You never know where it will lead. […]


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