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By Timothy Gillis
This interview with Brown Lethem appeared previously. The painter will speak at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland, Maine, on Sunday, June 11.
“I learned to think by watching my father paint,” says Jonathan Lethem, the acclaimed author, in an essay on his dad, Richard Brown Lethem, the 81-year-old avant-garde artist. Father and son have long been inspiring each other.
After his reading at SPACE Gallery a few weeks ago, Lethem looked to the audience for questions, and saw his dad with his hand raised. Brown, sitting next to Andy Verzosa of Aucocisco Galleries, asked his son about his recent time living in Berlin and what European reactions were to his latest book, “Dissident Gardens,” which has just been translated into Spanish. While the author has written much about his dad’s influence on him, the painter says no one asks him how his son has also informed his art.
“It’s worked both ways,” Brown said last week. “His work has influenced me. His interest in science fiction, which I wasn’t into when I was younger, and (Jorge Luis) Borges, and some of the writers I hadn’t read – he turned me on to. They’ve been a big influence.”
The two areas the father and son most overlap is the tendency to never repeat by continually reinventing themselves in their art, and the use of fantasy and imaginary relationships. Brown has always had an interest in the subconscious and the fantasy life and how it influences art, working out of imaginary sources, “and I think that’s been prevalent in his work also,” he said. He’s read all of his son’s books, usually cruising through an advanced copy.
“This last one is so dense I have to go back and read it again,” he said. “His writing has really made me alerted to the environmental crisis. He was on top of that long before it became a meaningful aspect of my thinking.”
Brown works at his Berwick home, in the big barn studio during much of the summer and the stable, a smaller studio that he can heat and work in through the winter. His nickname, Brown, comes from his grandfather’s first name.
“I adopted it a few years back as my real name,” he said. “It seemed earthy and appropriate for a painter.”
During our visit, his cat, Chomsky, made friendly, but Sophie and Whippoorwill, another two, stayed out of sight. Brown was a carpenter for years in Brooklyn, and those skills came in handy when he moved to Maine. The Berwick house is a typical New England cape built in 1846. The barn burned down in 1900 and was rebuilt the following year. When Brown moved in, there was a lot of renovation work to be done on the barn and house, but he didn’t mind the labor. He still spends time in his woodworking shop, which is part of the stable studio.
“Richard Brown Lethem: Figure ↔ Abstraction” is an exhibit at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art that runs though the end of August. The show features many of the paintings he created while living in Maine. A six-foot tall wooden sculpture was done in 1991 while he was artist-in-residence at the University of Southern Maine.
“I’ve always done three-dimensional work,” he said. “The carpentry has influenced my artistic work, assemblages where I use woodworking as a basic form for building.”
Lethem, at 81 years old, still remains flexible with the artistic process.
“I work whenever I feel good, and inspired,” he said. “I try to do something around my studio every day. Sometimes it’s just paperwork, or thinking about the art work, and sometimes it’s a laying on the hands.”
Brown Lethem grew up in the Midwest, in the triangulation of Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa, and spent his summers in “the Divide,” the high prairie land of Willa Cather.
“It’s an interesting part of the county with the character of flat prairie geology that extends into northern Kansas, beautiful buffalo grass,” he said. “It was a little desolate, scary growing up with fire ants and rattle snakes and hand-to-mouth farming, hardscrabble. Many farmers went into debt. I always retained those feelings that Cather talked about, the innocence of sensing death in the landscape.”
He spent most of his first 11 years in a small town in Missouri, half a block from his best friend’s farm.
“Farm animals were a big part of growing up,” he said, then related his early days to his more recent ones. “I come up here, and I’ve gotten back into the country, where the relationship between animals and people are a big part of the subject matter. I have a lot of paintings of horses and riders.”
Lethem’s parents rode horses to school. His dad, Walter Roy Lethem, was a traveling salesman who did well enough to keep six kids through the Depression. His mother, Faye Marie Gifford, also grew up in a rural situation and never lost that love of close proximity to riding horses. Young Richard always had a great ambition to be a painter and got his first set of oil paints from his older sister when he was nine.
“It’s pretty much what I have focused on for 60 years as an adult. I wound up being a carpenter and a teacher by default,” he said.
Lethem brought up his own children – Jonathan, Blake (a graffiti and graphic artist), and Mara Faye (a writer) – in New York in a free-sharing artistic existence.
“We lived in an old brownstone in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn. We had a big house. It became a commune with always three or four or more housemates living with us. The kids had a wide-ranging diverse environment, people-wise. There were a couple of guys from Africa, a guy from Okinawa, a couple from Germany – many involved in the arts in one form or another. It was pretty stimulating, a little bit chaotic. The neighborhood was rough, a lot of threatening stuff on a huge street for a kid.”
Brown taught at the Kansas City Art Institute and at Columbia University (his alma mater), as well as the University of Kentucky and the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1994, he became an assistant professor at USM, where he taught for seven years before becoming an adjunct professor, still instructing a couple classes until three years ago.
“I loved teaching at USM. The students were wonderful,” he said. “They came mostly from working backgrounds and were serious about their work. They were cooperative and really worked together. They also had an independent streak that Mainers have growing up in close contact with nature and working situations. They were great. Other than the Kansas City Art Institute, working with USM painting majors was my very best experience.”
The next wave of Maine artists can check out the works of one of the most inspired, at Richard Brown Lethem’s show in Ogunquit.
By Timothy Gillis
Pleasure’s no one I have met who did not seek a favor.
Pain’s an undemanding friend whose company I savor.
Granted laughing brings relief from unabated pain,
but crying offers me a sea that fills up when it drains.
Scott Cairns was born in Tacoma, Washington. He earned a BA from Western Washington University, an MA from Hollins College, an MFA from Bowling Green State University, and a PhD from the University of Utah. This interview was conducted by Tim Gillis ahead of Cairns’ reading in South Portland on Jan. 30.
TG: How does geography influence your poetry?
SC: I don’t know that I consciously am aware of how it might. I do know I’ve been in exile for 40 years, in the wilderness. I grew up here, but left for grad school in ’77 and then didn’t really get back until just now. Despite having lived and taught all around the country, this landscape has always been the landscape of my imagination. Maine is similar, the evergreen trees that creep down to the shore, the low skies on a cloudy day – I found it analogous to the kind of quiet that one pursues when settling into writing a poem or saying a prayer.
Besides writing poetry, Cairns has also written a spiritual memoir, Short Trip to the Edge (2007), and the libretto for the oratorios “The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp” and “A Melancholy Beauty.”
TG: Talk about the element of spirituality in your work.
SC: When I started out, I was like most of my American contemporaries, working off of my own experiences and trying to find something useful to talk about. I guess at some point, around my second book, I started writing to find out, instead of writing what I thought I knew, pouring over the language on the page looking for something I hadn’t apprehended. Most of my career now has been comprised of composing that way. Not too far along that way, I started attending to my own personal obsessions with God – using that practice to lean into an understanding of the nearness of God, developed through the poems, meditations, through that contemplative compressing of language, and figured out how I commune with God. Not every poem, but most in the past 30-plus years have commenced that way.
Cairns has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was awarded the Denise Levertov Award in 2014. He has taught at numerous universities including University of North Texas, Old Dominion University, Seattle Pacific University, and the University of Missouri. He also directs a low-residency MFA program at Seattle Pacific University.
TG: Tell me a bit about the nitty-gritty of your writing process?
SC: I use a legal pad and a pencil, and am usually reading something. What I’m reading is varied – a great poem or some theological text – Patristic Greek, the fathers of the church, early saints and their writings.
TG: Can you contrast when process when writing poetry, memoir, and libretti?
SC: They require a different filter of the head. With poetry, my primary mode, I write to find things out. If I have an idea before I start, I wait for it to go away. I want the language to tell me something I don’t yet apprehend. With the memoir, a template of actual events that I allowed into the text in a way I wouldn’t have done with a poem. I wanted the events to be recorded and examined. Memoir is a way to revisit those occasions and glean from them a more useful sense of what to make of them, these visits to holy places and discussions with holy men. Libretti were pretty much defined by historical occasions – e.g. the martyrdom of St. Polycarp of Symrna. I worked with a composer who did the music. He supplied verses for moments in the score. Then the composer worked from those and educed from those musical phrases.
TG: You’re founding director of Writing Workshops in Greece, a program that brings writers to study and engage with literary life in modern Greece. How did that enterprise come about?
SC: In college, I started reading patristic texts, which led me into becoming an Orthodox Christian. Most noticeable Orthodox Christians in America are Greek Orthodox. An understanding of the faith led me to pay more attention to these early writings – usually in Greek. I started learning Greek and going to Greece. I visited a monastic enclave at Mount Athos. The Byzantine Empire covered much of the Mediterranean from Venice east, and subsequently succumbed to Islamic takeover. This place is the last vestige of the Byzantine Empire, a finger of a peninsula. It still goes on to this day, a part of Greece but self-governing, like the Vatican. I developed the writing program as an excuse to go to Greece more often. By now, I have gone to this holy mountain 24 times.
TG: A sharp contrast to disturbing recent new of religiously motivated attacks and threats of violence nationally. In Portland last Thursday (Jan. 19), a bomb threat was called into a Jewish pre-school. You’re reading at Congregation Bet Ha’am, a Reform Jewish congregation in South Portland, at an event hosted by the BTS Center, a United Church of Christ affiliate that’s ecumenical in nature. Talk about these intersections of politics and religion, and the possibilities for peace. And how can contemporary poetry speak to that end?
SC: Orthodox Christianity is probably the most Jewish of Christian expressions. In orthodoxy, that connection has been maintained, even the way the priests dress. I studied a lot of rabbinic texts, a lot of early writings that revolve around a puzzling moment in scripture. In terms of poetics and politics, one writes poems from a place of understanding words, and the power of words, and honoring what truth and attention can avail. If there is a relationship between the poet and the politician – the poet examines the language of the politician for veracity. Poets in our culture now are in a position to challenge careless or misleading uses of language in the political realm. We have to call people on it. For that reason, we have an obligation to share what we see against euphemism or obfuscation.
Poetry Reading by Scott Cairns
Hosted by The BTS Center
Congregation Bet Ha’am
81 Westbrook St, South Portland
Monday, Jan 30 7-8 p.m.
Cairns is the author of eight books of poetry, including The Theology of Doubt (1985), The Translation of Babel (1990), Philokalia (2002), Idiot Psalms (2014), and Slow Pilgrim: The Collected Poems (2015). His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Poetry, and elsewhere, and has been anthologized in Best Spiritual Writing and Best American Spiritual Writing.
By Timothy Gillis
Jack Wyatt knows what he likes at the new Print Bookstore. (photo by Caeli Shadis)
Just in time for the holidays, there’s a new shop in town. Print: A Bookstore has taken up residence in the former Angela Adams building on Congress Street, downstairs from the East End Lofts.
Print is a wide-open, well-lighted place, with wide aisles for strollers and a great children’s book section that will help keep the youngsters occupied while you’re browsing the bestsellers. A wall had to come down, and new lighting was installed, but other than that, the space was ready-made.
Co-owners Emily Russo and Josh Christie took the plunge two weeks ago, braving the competition and defying any notions of reading as a dying industry. They offer new books only, leaving the sales of well-worn tomes to Yes Books, Carlson & Turner Antiquarian Books and Bookbindery, and The Green Hand Bookshop. Longfellow Books sells both new and used books and has a loyal following, but the folks at Print are confident there will be enough booklovers to support their endeavor.
“Any business is a challenge,” Christie said. “But the American Booksellers Association says that, since 2011, there have been more independent bookstores opening than closing.”
This is not a leap taken blindly. Russo worked as events coordinator at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Ma. and at the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn before that. Christie started at the Sherman’s Books & Stationery in Freeport before he designed, opened, and managed their affiliate in Portland in 2014.
A job that combines the business and pleasure of leading people to great literature is worth the risk. Print plans to relieve the stress with some evening events, book-readings and author appearances. They say that within two years, they expect to be hosting as many as 200 shindigs a year.
Coming up in 2017, Jason Diamond will read from his non-fiction work Searching for John Hughes on Feb. 3, and Maine author Ron Currie will read from his new book, The One-Eyed Man on March 9.
Here are some of the booksellers’ picks for must-reads in the New Year, as well as overlooked books from the past:
Coming in January, Paul Auster checks in with a 980-page doorstopper called 4321. The main character rolls through four different trajectories of his past.
The Gentleman by Forrest Leo. Written in the P.G. Wodehouse style, the book follows an 18-century poet who, running low on money, meets the devil on the street and maybe a makes a deal with him.
The Mothers – Brit Bennett’s debut novel about a group of women from southern California who run a church. Things get complex when a young girl falls for the pastor’s son.
Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein. A short story collection reminiscent of TV’s “Black Mirror” and its surreal take on how technology affects people’s lives.
How to be a person in the world by Heather Havrilesky. A collection of writings by the syndicated advice columnist. Havrilesky is a modern-day Dr. Abby for millennial misanthropes.
Check out Print for your holiday shopping, and chase away the Bah Humbugs.