The Acuity of Memory

Fawn's Leap
Fawn’s Leap

When one works with any subject one needs to depend greatly on one’s memory.  Memory holds things fast. Only memory can retain what is lasting- all superfluous details melting away when one no longer has the subject before him. As the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it, “own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.” This comes from a man who memorized in detail his own novels to prevent their discovery by the communist authorities during his exile in Siberia. He learned how to retain that which was most important to him- his own creative acts.

Memory identifies that which leaves its mark upon us- a movement, a gesture, an insight. “Painting is the intermediate somewhere between a thought and a thing.”  (Sydney Smith)  I think this quite profound. Does  not memory in a sense occupy this place where the artist in the creative act vacillates between what is observed and the thoughts and emotions provoked by the thing itself?

Plattekill Falls
Plattekill Falls

This week I painted some falls in a deep ravine. The light of the sun entered the ravine in a dramatic fashion creating a direct shaft of light that traveled quickly across the end of the ravine where the falls were located. It was a beautiful and dramatic vision of the falls. But this view was ever changing, constantly in flux. I had to choose the moment I wished to paint as well as retain in my memory that moment that most affected me- constantly attempting to capture what it was that created the drama within myself as well as in reality. Henri states, “the most vital things in the look of a face or of a landscape endure only for a moment. Work should be done from memory. The memory is of that vital movement. During that moment there is a correlation of the factors of that look. This correlation does not continue…The special order has to be retained in memory… Memory must hold it.” (Henri, The Art Spirit, p.27)

The flux of life itself makes it difficult to hold something fixed in the memory. All things change from moment to moment. But one of the greatest assets of memory is that by becoming conscious of that which is retained, we come to know ourselves more intimately and come to understand what our real connections are to the world. What we carry with us is an insight into our own geography.

Painting itself is a confluence where memory and experience converge. From these two forms of human activity emerges the image, that which will remain beyond our own personal investment. One informs the other-the multitude of memories that we have effect the present, shaping and ‘coloring’ our present experience. I like to say memory and experience together create ‘significances’. As a painter this is what I hope my images present- the materialization of that which affects me deeply on more levels than I am conscious of and in a sense would find it difficult to explain. These ‘significances’ symbolically identify the nature of my being and my capacity to retain what is most important. Through memory, experiences manifest these ‘significances’. And this is the ‘ exceptional’  moment to be held on to. Reverie and dreams connect us with our memory and the storehouse of these ‘significances’, allowing our experiences to have greater depth and tie us emotionally to the present moment. The late poet, Robert Creeley states in his poem Caves, “…Memory is the cave one finally lives in, crawls on hands and knees to get into.” (Robert Creeley, On Earth, Last Poems and an Essay, p.30)

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

One thought on “The Acuity of Memory”

  1. What beautiful paintings. They are clearly of particular places beautiful examples of representational work yet there is also something other worldly and mysterious about them. I get a feeling similar to one I had while at the Medici Tombs by Michelangelo .A sense of being in touch with an other realm an unknown place perhaps a source. Something to do with the mystery of existence. It is hard to describe this experience it is a profound and rare one for me and one of the most powerful things a work of art can do in my experience. Your painting of Plattekill Falls especially evokes this feeling . You have a very personal style ( as did Michelangelo ) .Perhaps because of the way you use memory so well. There is a lot to think about in this post you really get to the “heart of the matter” in your writings Judith and I will be reminding myself each time I start a new drawing or painting to keep in my memory what moved me to start it as the work progresses.

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