Streams of Consciousness

Art is a history of the stilled self.

How many times have I stood by a stream, lost in its juicy wetness, lulled by the blue-green sheen, hypnotized by the wash of gravity and flow of endlessly unique frames?

Perhaps Heraclitus was wrong.

Standing here, on a rainy and cold day in March of 2016 at the Metropolitan Museum, I am gazing at a stilled moment from someone else’s life. An artist’s life. A man who looked at irises in a pitcher one day. Well, not really just one day, but the day before he left the asylum at Saint-Rémy. It was 1890. The artist was Vincent Van Gogh.

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Van Gogh, Irises, 1890, courtesy of Metropolitan Museum, NYC

I slip from the bank of my own moment and Walt Whitman (b. 1819-1892) pulls Vincent (b. 1853-1890) and I under:

“ And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.”(1855).

Van Gogh and Whitman. Stilled selves, stalled in art and poems, thinking of others, thinking of us. I wonder if Van Gogh ever read Whitman? Or if Whitman ever saw “Van Gogh’s Irises”? Van Gogh’s lifespan is submerged within Whitman’s. Whitman’s died two years after “Irises” was painted, the same year that Van Gogh died. I doubt if he ever saw them. The river they stepped in, the moments they stilled, is the same river we stand in. We are in dialogue across all these years.

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“Cascade” by Dan Nuttall 2016

And what to make of my own stilled self, in this tiny painting “Cascade”? Why this moment? It was a river that someone sat in front of before they were lost to addiction. I can still see their outline and the coursing abstraction around them. It is a floor tile, a mosaicos, from a lost house in Mexico. It is a whisper from a Group of Canadian painters and their graphic lives.

Art allows us to stand in the same river as earlier artists, to know something of their lives, if stilled for only a moment. Heraclitus was wrong.

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The Art of a Coney Island State of Mind

As part of my work in NYC as a landscape architect I had to spend considerable time in Coney Island, working on a project that never came to fruition. Knowing some of the history of the place and experiencing it as part of my work has never left me (neither has Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem For A Dream” but I digress…). Today I got up early and rode the Q train to the Coney Island-Stillwell Station and walked via the beach back to the Brighton Beach Station.

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Coney Island Boardwalk, 2016

Some lovely sights met my eyes – a woman of perhaps 60, speaking Russian, clad in her swimsuit, who unflinchingly walked into the water (it’s COLD) and began her swimming workout; the men unabashed in their brightly coloured speedos; my real and imagined memories of the carny atmosphere. Was there really a midget village? Diving horses? A freak show?

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300 Midgets* by Dan Nuttall

As part of preparing for more formal (paid) design work I often sketch to “loosen up” my mind (sigh, unpaid work). Once achieved, my “Coney Island state of mind” loosed a torrent of work from freakish to childish, inane to historically accurate. Below: Coney island 1, 2, 3 and 4. And no, I can’t explain them.

Though much debated, the version of “how Coney Island got its name” that I always cling to, is the one that suggests that it is derived from the Dutch words “Konijn Eiland” meaning “Rabbit island”, after the rabbits that populated the area.

My Coney Island state of mind led to some quite light-hearted sketches, below, which depict “Alba” (a rabbit modified to glow in the dark, intended to reference a contemporary “freak”) as a new immigrant (not yet landed on the shore) and with reference to both the Dutch via the waterside statue “The Little Mermaid” found in Copenhagen, Denmark and my own country, Canada, which has a “version” called “Girl in a Wetsuit” by Elek Imredy. That same week I also sketched some diving horses.

Below: (L) Alba, Coney Island, 1 and (R) Alba, Coney Island 2.

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Diving Horse by Dan Nuttall

Such “simple” things, these sketches,  laden with memory and meaning, the real and unreal, the kind and the cruel.

*Though the term “midgets” is inappropriate in our current society it was an uncontested term during the time of Coney Island’s heyday – more info HERE.