From Chasing Matisse
Pub date April 2005, Free Press
LEARNING TO SEE
THE CREATIVE LIFE is a wonderful life, which is why it pays so poorly. That’s
the trade-off for getting to spend your days following your heart instead of
the life-sapping dictates of some neurotic middling manager. Who among us needs
to go elsewhere for neurosis?
My wife, Beth, and I are both writers. For many years before that I was a
magazine editor, a period of my life I refer to as being on the solvent side
of the desk. And yet I came to envy my writers their apparent freedom. Their
idea of a meeting was a long walk in the woods with a dog. My conversion was
inevitable: Friends who knew me in junior high school say I talked even then
about becoming a writer. In college, in the home of Faulkner, I studied Hemingway.
I admired his direct sentences and his pregnant omissions, and for a long time
I didn’t even mind his buffoonish posturing. I reveled in his doomed brilliance
and wished that I’d been in Paris in the 1920s, sitting in a café on
the Left Bank scribbling my own stories into notebooks with covers like swirled
Very quickly, though, life got in my way: At 21, marriage; at 24, career;
at 25, fatherhood; at 28, homeownership. From there, it’s a short leap
to believing that the perfect car, the perfect lawn, the perfect suit, the perfect
portfolio are the balms your restless soul aches for.
At age 45 I escaped the tyranny of the requisite celebrity profile and the
numbing predictability of the annual football forecast. (Not so incidentally,
I also “escaped” the salaried life.) Newly married, Beth and I moved
with her two young daughters into a wonderful old Craftsman bungalow in Little
Rock, our dream to live and write together. We soon found ourselves turning out
celebrity profiles and other magazine pieces in order to pay for the time to
fashion screenplays and plot book ideas.
In the meantime, our house became the outer manifestation of our internal
life together. We nurtured it, fussed over it, embellished it according to the
advice of Beth’s late brother, Brent Arnold, who was then a decorator in
New York. “Matisse colors, Vuillard patterns,” he prescribed. Until
then, I hadn’t paid much attention to the vivid, decorative canvases of
Henri Matisse—and none at all to Edouard Vuillard’s soft renderings
of highly-textured interiors. My idea of an artist was the American Edward Hopper,
whose edgy themes of light versus dark told ominous, and ominously recognizable,
stories of alienation and domestic silence. But we took Brent’s cue, painting
our walls in shades of Mediterranean blue, sunflower yellow, ochre, terra cotta,
periwinkle, and our favorite of all, a color that reminded us of geraniums.
For 13 years we lived and worked there together. Beth wrote a novel that earned
her finalist distinction for a Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe, and a screenplay
that won her recognition as a semi-finalist for the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship,
presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I wrote several
books, one of which debuted on the cover of the New York Times Book Review and
was named, along with another of mine, a “Notable Book of the Year” by
the New York Times. All the while our girls were growing up and heading for college,
and my own two sons were becoming men with degrees, careers, and wives.
For all the romance of it, however, our life wasn’t easy. In any chronicle
of the creative process, money and art are Siamese twins; usually, only one can
survive. Trying to save both, we amassed a considerable amount of debt—not
by buying things, but by buying time.
SOMEWHERE IN THERE I became disenchanted with my old hero, Hemingway. I still
appreciated the cleanness of his prose, but the messy matter of the shotgun in
the mouth began to supercede the solid sentence. By that time I had lain awake
a lot of nights thinking about the creative life. I had vacillated between fearing
that it might be the ultimate selfishness (“Get a real job!”) to
deciding that it was the ultimate generosity of spirit. You can be creative in
any endeavor, but to create is something unto itself: It’s contributing
a piece of your soul to the world. It’s struggling to find the exquisite
beauty in the mystery of life. To pursue a life of creating is to follow the
archetypal “hero’s journey,” a path of danger and hardship
leading toward a beautiful goal. The closer I came to the age Hemingway was when
he took his life, the more strongly I felt that it was wrong, even uncool, to
off oneself just because of a little writer’s block. Nor was this a merely
intellectual epiphany. Cliché of clichés: Gloom and doom runs in
my Mississippi family—along, thankfully, with a sense of humor that recognizes
black as a primary color. My grandfather retired to his study and shot himself
after lunch on a beautiful spring day in 1924, with the jonquils swaying just
outside his window. Not much funny in that, unless you count the man who stopped
his car for the 14-year-old girl who would become my mother. “Git in, Patti,” he
said. “Your daddy’s done shot hisself.”
Our heroes gain complexity as we gain maturity, and today, as I look around
at age 59, my hero is Henri Matisse. This has been building for a number of years,
beginning, undoubtedly, with Brent Arnold’s admonition about “Matisse
colors.” I had drawn and painted when I was a child, copying the faces
of the presidents from the encyclopedia, then moving on to cowboys, soldiers,
and knights, with their guns and helmets and shields, and eventually spending
many hours trying to capture the exact shape of Elvis Presley’s sneering
lips and the way his hair ducktailed just above his turned-up collar. In seventh
grade, I often sat in class sketching various examples of the female breast—pointed,
cylindrical, voluptuous, pert—on notebook paper hidden beneath my textbook.
I took an art course in high school, achieving excellence mostly as class clown.
Then I put away my pencils and brushes for the better part of the next quarter-century.
A year after Beth and I moved into our Little Rock house, I felt an inexplicable
urge to paint again. I signed up for a three-month course at the Arkansas Arts
Center, my only formal art instruction other than that year in high school. It
was good to smell the oils after so many years, but while I could create recognizable
shapes I still had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know if I wanted
to be a realist or an impressionist (impressionist looked easier). I didn’t
know if I wanted to paint landscapes, still lifes, or portraits. And even if
I’d known my mind, I didn’t know how to control the paints so that
they would express what I wanted to say. The three-month course was way too short.
After it was over I didn’t sign up for another. Instead, I plodded on,
hit and miss, all by myself. I also began reading about Matisse and studying
his work. But the more I painted, and the more I pored over Matisse’s brilliant
panels of shape and color, the more importance I attached to one thing the teacher
had casually tossed out during one of his art lessons that summer: “Most
people don’t really see,” he said. “They just look. If you’re
going to be an artist, you have to train yourself to see.”
For the first time in my life I understood how Monet could continue to paint
the same water lilies and Degas the same ballet dancers—and why Matisse
inevitably returned to his pewter pitcher, his wrought iron table, his goldfish
bowl, his Rocaille armchair. What I suddenly grasped was a concept as profound
as it was simple: It’s not the scene, it’s the seeing.
In due time I ran across a galvanizing quote on the subject from Matisse himself: “Everything
that we see in our daily life is more or less distorted by acquired habits,” he
said in 1953, “and this is perhaps more evident in an age like ours when
cinema posters and magazines present us every day with a flood of ready-made
images which are to the eye what prejudices are to the mind. The effort to see
things without distortion demands a kind of courage; and this courage is essential
to the artist, who has to look at everything as though he were seeing it for
the first time: he has to look at life as he did when he was a child and, if
he loses that faculty, he cannot express himself in an original, that is, a personal
When I read those sentences the hair stood up on my arms. Here was not only
a manifesto for the creative life, but a guide to living itself. Most of society
wants to fit us with blinders, and if we accept them, we proceed through the
world narrowing, rather than expanding, our focus. Eventually, that view becomes
the only recognized view. Even our self-images are beamed back with the sides
Maybe that’s what happened to Hemingway. His blinders permitted only
his mythology to enter, and he was no longer the man in the myth. The day Hemingway
committed suicide, I was parked in my high-school girlfriend’s driveway
and heard a radio announcer report the great man’s death. Much later I
would understand that he gave up because he couldn’t see himself with fresh
Matisse resisted the blinders every day of his long life, and his story is
both literally and figuratively that of a journey from darkness to light. Born
in the cold northern textile town of Le Cateau-Cambresis and reared in nearby
Bohain, he was a sickly, frail child. His father was a hardware and grain merchant,
his mother a milliner. Not knowing what he wanted to do with his life, young
Henri went to school and became a law clerk. He found no meaning in it. After
taking early-morning drawing classes for a couple of years, he discovered his
calling. Eventually he persuaded his parents to let him go to Paris and study
art. “From the moment I held the box of colors in my hand, I knew this
was my life,” he said. “Like an animal that plunges headlong toward
what it loves, I dived in…. It was a tremendous attraction, a sort of
Paradise Found, in which I was completely free, alone, at peace.”
But his studio was the only place he found peace. Matisse’s art teacher
at the Academie Julian told him he couldn’t draw and would never learn—and
furthermore that he had absolutely no understanding of perspective. For the next
decade and a half Matisse struggled, fighting against the art establishment to
do the work he felt called to do. He was jeered and ridiculed, and didn’t
sell a painting for years. At the lowest point of his artistic career, when he
and his family were so broke that he was considering giving up painting, Matisse
couldn’t even persuade his younger brother, Auguste, to buy a canvas for
100 francs. Auguste bought a bicycle instead, as Henri liked to remind him in
But Matisse persevered. He boldly abandoned the art establishment palette
of browns and grays and took up the exuberant and, in his day, dangerous cause
of color. He also rejected the dictates of realistic representation, arguing
that the way of the true artist was to express what he felt inside. Beyond his
purely artistic struggles, he fought to establish the kind of life he knew in
his bones that he had to live—a life conducive to making art. It was a
life marked by enough leisure to think, enough isolation to act, and enough resources
not to compromise.
My favorite Matisse paintings are his interiors, perhaps for the same harmonic
reasons he chose to paint them. Many people look at his works and dismiss them
as merely decorative, pretty paintings for pretty people. But there was in Matisse—as
there is in even his most beautiful paintings—what some of his contemporaries
described as “smouldering, sometimes barely contained fires.” I was
surprised to learn that he was a tormented man, a chronic insomniac beset by
demons. Painting—which he attacked with relentless, seething intensity—was
his way of bringing order and beauty to his own rocky universe.
Matisse’s relentless need to create inspires me, and no doubt more today
than if I had discovered him when I was 30. Now I can appreciate the courage
and commitment he showed, time and again, when circumstances threatened to snatch
away his dream. Now I can understand what he meant about learning to see the
world the way we did as children.
What I admire about Matisse’s story, compared to that of Hemingway,
is that Matisse went the distance—he kept finding ways to plumb the new,
the creative, the life-affirming within himself. Hemingway quit at age 62, just
three years older than I am now. But at age 85, when he could hardly even see
to paint, Matisse sat in a wheelchair in the sun-drenched south of France struggling
to express himself by cutting shapes of brightly-painted paper and pinning them
to his studio wall.
AN IDEA BEGAN taking shape one day four years ago when Beth and I were sitting
in my upstairs office at home trying to figure out what project I should do next.
By then, my easel had begun to vie with my writing desk for my affections. But
even as I found solace in applying colors to canvas, I wondered about the very
nature and purpose of painting. Writers write to describe, to interpret, to explain,
to show how smart they are. Many painters probably paint for similar reasons.
But at this stage of my life, which I hope can still squeak by as middle age,
I found painting taking me back to someplace I hadn’t been in a long time.
Painting is pure expression—a pre-verbal language, the language of feeling
we all started with. There’s something profoundly therapeutic about mixing
primary colors into a harmonious whole; there’s also great therapy for
viewers able to lose themselves in such harmonies. Exactly what, I wondered,
accounted for the healing relationship between tubes of paint and the human heart?
Not that I was any more adept at the language of painting than I am at French.
Making a painting is, on some level, the physical expression of living a life.
Despite my loftier intentions, I tend to dash them off, usually without preliminary
sketches. I don’t clean my brushes well enough, even as I’m painting—instead,
I might take the brush that was already dipped in viridian and swipe it through
the ultramarine, which makes for a portentous sky. And I don’t take time
to mix the precise color I need. In other words, I’m an amateur painter
with a reckless streak. But since when has that ever stopped someone from applying
paint to canvas?
With Beth as my muse and model, I planned to spend a few months following
in the geographic footsteps of Henri Matisse, setting out to see and paint the
world he saw and painted—in the textile marts of his native Picardy; in
bustling, romantic Paris; on windswept Belle-Ile off the Brittany coast; in sunny
Corsica, where he fell in love with the life-changing light of the South; in
Collioure, near the Pyrenees, where color became an explosive in his hands; in
exotic Morocco, where he found a culture built around a sumptuous inner life;
and across the French Riviera to sybaritic Nice and spiritual Vence, where the
mature Matisse created so many of his masterpieces.
The idea wasn’t for me to try to become even the faintest shadow of
the painter Matisse was—I’m guilty of much folly, but not that one.
But I did want to concentrate on replacing my bent toward gloom and doom with
Matisse’s affirming spirit. Beth and I both hoped to draw renewed strength
from his commitment to a life of creating. And we especially wanted to co-opt
his fierce courage to see without distortion. Finally freeing my pictures of
breasts from behind their textbook cover, I planned to sign up for life drawing
classes. I even thought of staging a show of my work, hoping that my newfound
ability to “see” would translate readily to my canvas.
The more I pondered the adventure, the clearer one thing became: Mere months
weren’t enough. This was a project worthy of a life, not just a quarter
year. But even a few months was logistically daunting—what do you do with
a teenage daughter at home? With the dog and the cat? With the yard and the flowers
and the pollen on the porch? What about all the bills, which were hard enough
to manage while we were at home and not running up other expenses? We kept putting
off the trip, trying to thread it in between that teen daughter’s high
school graduation and her leaving for college in Virginia, and then between that
and my son’s wedding in California.
Sometime in that period, I began to see my own life with shocking clarity.
We had lived at the house in Little Rock for a long time. My book about that
house, If These Walls Had Ears, is the story of the 20th century told through
the struggles of the eight families who had lived in that one Craftsman bungalow
in the heart of America. After researching the lives that had been played out
within those walls, I wrote that I could walk into any room in the house and
see it in multiple dimensions: “This is where the Armours danced the fox-trot
during the Roaring Twenties; this is where Ruth Murphree’s heart was broken
when she learned her 16-year-old daughter had eloped during Central High’s
lost year; this is where the roller-skating transvestite hippies glided in their
giddy circle throughout the downstairs; this is the precise spot where the floor
caved in and took the Landers’ marriage with it…”
The truth was, I wasn’t seeing that way much anymore. So many views
had become habit: When I saw the pink morning glow in the Geranium Room, I knew
it was 8:30. When I spotted the square of sun on the guest room table, it was
10:30. When my pale yellow office/studio shimmered like a veil of Chinese silk,
it was no doubt half past four.
When the decisive moment came, it was as clear as the stars on a winter night.
There was almost alignment: Last daughter leaving for college…a commissioned
book project taking us to France…a hint of freedom beckoning. If we really
believed in creating as a way of life—if we really believed in Matisse’s
lifelong striving to see without distortion—how could we simply return
to our old existence? On the other hand, we could sell our house, pay off our
debts, and stay in Matisse’s France as long as we could make it work. Maybe
we could finally understand this compulsion that makes people like us do the
things that we do.
So the daughter went off to college, the dog and the cat went to visit Beth’s
mother, and the bills went to our accountant friend Lloyd Cobb; my job was to
keep enough money in the pipeline. For the month before we left, Beth and I listened
religiously to our CDs of Michel Thomas teaching students how to think out the
French language, not just to memorize it. “Je vaaaiis,” he would
say, “I’m on my waayyyy.”
NOW, AS I write these words, we’ve been in France a little over two
months. The book advance is long since spent; the house still hasn’t sold;
we’ve dropped the price $60,000; the economy is tanking; war is looming;
and our debts are rising like baguettes at dawn.
If I’m going to learn to see without distortion, I need to look clearly
at this project. It’s either the craziest, most self-destructive dream
of the craziest dreamers the world has ever known.
Or it’s the most important thing we’ve ever done.