Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Monday, July 03, 2006


...gonna blog about Badgers and Basilisks...Last week marked six months since I began this blogging jazz, exactly half the life of Mike Bergin's I And The Bird blog carnival, which I've actively participated in since discovering it. In honor and celebration of IATB, I humbly present this post: my own response to the anniversary theme, “Why I blog about birds,” or something like that.

I've been obsessed with nature from the start, and the whole time, my means of translating what I saw and thought about animals, plants and ecology was through the media of drawing and painting. Over nearly half a century of doing that, I've become pretty well acquainted with the strengths and weaknesses of those tools as means of communication. The art ninny crowd (and here I include those of us who are actual practitioners) often states that great art is about great ideas, but for the most part, the ideas that all visual art trades in are rather small and vague. As a means of affecting social change, painting is a wimpy tool. The best we artists can hope to do is approach the bar established in 1937 by Picasso's Guernica, which offers up little more than a slogan. Over the past decade, I've found this increasingly frustrating. At the beginning of the 21st century, we stand at a critical point in our relationship with the natural world. The decisions we make today will affect the kind of world our species is stuck in for the rest of its existence, and those decisions are being made tacitly, often obliviously, with a shocking paucity of public dialog. By 2002, I had been thinking for a couple of years about writing and publishing some essays (without once lifting a pen). I was in the early stages of planning a coffee table book of my paintings at the time, and my publisher asked me how I'd feel about writing the text myself. I jumped at the chance and started writing, a process I assumed would take me six months. Three years later I delivered the rough manuscript to my publisher. During that unbelievably difficult enterprise, I grew enormously as a writer, and, while the final product was something short of Joyce, I was pleased with it, and decided at the end that I enjoyed writing.

After I'd finished the final edit, my friend Paula of Inkspots, suggested I start an art blog to post my most recent work. Since I only produce a handful of paintings each year, my normal website handles that adequately, but once I considered the soapbox possibilities, I started looking at the blogosphere, and I published my first post on December 27th. Tomorrow we'll celebrate the anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, and with it the United States' revolution and independence from Great Britain. That great revolution was kindled by pamphleteers like Benjamin Rush and Thomas Paine. Bloggers are the contemporary pamphleteers, and while the vast majority of us are irrelevant, it's my goal to play a part in the coming conservation revolution. The great advantage bloggers have over our pamphleteering predecessors is that little comment button. If I write something factually erroneous, or fail to take something into consideration, often something I'm ignorant of, a reader is often there to chime in with a correction (yes, you can take that as a solicitation for critical comments). The blogosphere is an unprecedented medium for public dialog, and I believe its full potential has yet to be realized.

A couple of months ago, Coturnix started a good conversation on his old blog, Science & Politics. He brought up the idea of using this public dialog system to post scientific hypotheses and data for grass-roots peer review. Predictably, the scientific blogging community responded with a fear of being scooped. I'm not a scientist, but sometimes I play one in the blogosphere. I studied biology in college with disastrous results. I had to take eukaryotic genetics twice just to learn how to spell it (that's genetics—forget about spelling eukaryotic) and I dropped out before graduating. Still, my unrequited love for biology never died, and much of what I write could be called science blogging. I have no academic investment to protect, and I already have a number of regular readers and commenters who know far more than I do about biology. It's daunting and exciting to post your own ideas before the scrutiny of your superiors. I haven't yet had the juevos to move too far in this direction, but I look forward to taking up Coturnix' challenge with greater vigor in the future.

I've noticed that being a painter affects the way you look at the world. You're constantly analysing what light does, and paying attention to details that non-painters miss. Blogging has proved to bring similar advantages, and I've noticed myself pursuing thoughts that would have quickly dissolved a year ago, and doing research that would have never occurred to me.

All of this is fairly easy, but in order to really participate in this public dialog, an audience is imperative. I'm still learning how to build one of those; there are a number of gimmicks, but none of them will do much unless you publish posts that people will enjoy reading--that's the difficult part. I don't write quickly, and I can't afford to blog at the pace at which I wrote my book. The writing therefore, isn't as nice, nor the ideas as fully formed, but a blog is a perpetual work in progress. I'm glad to have stumbled into this preoccupation, and hope to turn it into something worthwhile over the coming years.
upper: TINY HAWK & BLACK-THROATED MANGO (1996) acrylic 11" x 6"
center: SILVERY-CHEEKED HORNBILL (1998) ink wash 19" x 12.5"
lower: MARKEA NEURANTHA (1995) acrylic 30" x 15"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Carel: I've been admiring your writing, and your paintings, on your blog for a couple of months now. I can't wait for your book to come out. I dream about purchasing one of your (smaller and less costly!) paintings.

Although I've maintained a personal Web presence for over a decade, it's been inactive. I've kept it going because it provides a service to others. I've only recently started blogging.

I echo your reflections here. I find I pursue the thread of an idea more deeply, thoroughly, because I have a medium in which to document and share those connections with others. That in turn helps me make connections I otherwise would have overlooked. And on it goes.

I'm not a professional scientist. I am still, and will always be, a student of nature. I'm not an artist, but I have drawn. I continue to see things differently through the lens of a camera. As we observe uncritically, unconditionally, open to seeing things as they are, we come to love what we observe. That love is evident in your work and words.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks, Xris! I just discovered your blog the other day through Circus of the Spineless.

1:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I am very happy that you decided to enter this world. I find your posts to be thoughtful and thought provoking. The art is incredible, the writing wonderful. And, importantly, I always take something away from each one.

Now if only we could keep Alaska and Nunavut straight.

10:40 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks very much, Clare! The feeling is mutual, and I'm working on that Canadian geography thing, honest!

9:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post Carel. Keep on keeping on.

5:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent piece, Carel. I very much enjoy coming here to read posts which contain so much substance -- always so much information and your artwork never fails to blow me away too. (-:
I agree that there's a lot that can be done with these nature-related blogs. I'm new to maintaining one too and am just feeling my way along as I go. I like the aspect of being able to put together text and photos in a forum which is highly accessible to the public. It's a good way to get information out where people can put it to some practical use.
Anyhow, all this to say that you've got a super site happening here. Keep on keeping on!

1:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I've noticed that being a painter affects the way you look at the world. You're constantly analysing what light does, and paying attention to details that non-painters miss."

Well said- photography has allowed me to do the same.. and I'm happy you joined 'blogdom'. I kept a blog well hidden for many years and it took awhile for me to come out of the woods and say hello world, here's my words/photos. There are times I wish I'd stayed in my own little private corner, but for the most part, I enjoy the interaction and feedback. I'm glad you do too- your art is too good not to share, and I like the way you think.. you make ME think and I enjoy blogs that force me to look at issues in a different light. Blog on!

8:56 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Matt, Bev & Cindy: Thanks! It's nice to be appreciated by those I appreciate.

4:51 PM  

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