D.W. Winnicott’s marvelous book, Playing and Reality, published in the mid-20th century, describes the intermediate area between external and internal experience where we play. As children play, they define this arena, beginning their relationships with the world. Play is the source of creativity, and Winnicott doesn’t mean artistic product, but instead the creativity of everyday life, the shared playing that creates culture.
Though the talk about play is complex, actual playing feels simple and natural, provided you weren’t a child whose capacity for play was damaged. It is a very big job to teach someone how to play. Or to re-teach someone. But on all the downward slopes in my life—which I think of as many mountains, not just one mountain—I know that I felt rescued, pulled upward, through play. It’s the basis of art for me—and perhaps for you, too, reader, if you’ve stuck with this series of five blogs.
When the estimable photographer Claire Holt (check out her dreamy portraits of Emma Thompson, Paul Auster, Mark Norris, Suzan-Lori Parks, Quentin Tarantino and more) suggested that we just play around taking some photographs, I quickly said yes. Holt not only has the famous and the corporate as her clientele. She also does the darkly internal series, We Chase The Things We Flee, a remarkable group of photographic images with words superimposed: young girls turning their backs and fleeing situation after situation. Girls with the courage to run.
Really playing, after a certain age, takes courage, too. Holt’s new project is a series of portraits of women writers. Here’s how she describes it:
I am working on a series of portraits of women writers for an exhibition and a book. I am doing a non-traditional, more collaborative portrait process where both the photographer and subject are fully engaged in the creation of the image. The resulting portraits are as much about the play and interaction of the creative process as they are about the writers.
So far Holt has engaged some marvelous (and beautiful) writers in the portrait play: Kimiko Hahn, Marie Howe, Honor Moore, Sigrid Nunez, Dawn Raffel, Victoria Redel, Roxana Robinson, Christine Schutt, Kate Walbert, Diane Williams, and more.
When Holt and I sat down to play in front of a splendid painting by Morton Kaish, we were inspired by Mary Delany. Delany is the 18th-century collage artist who pasted spectacular cut paper flowers on dramatic black backgrounds. I wrote about her in The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 and Delany's Damask Rose, an image from the book, courtesy of the British Museum, is at the left.
Holt brought the black velvet drop cloth; I arranged the flowers. Holt dropped the roses on the black background; I bent the roses into the painting. Both of us are yoga and Alexander Technique practicers, so she got me a pillow to cushion my sacrum and lift me upright while sitting for a lonnnnng time on the floor. The end result photograph won’t look like this one with the fun red arrows pointing to all our props. This is a working photo that the superb Holt kindly prepared for this blog. The final photo will probably have no sense of this context. But product isn’t crucial here. What’s important is Winnicottian intermediate space, the method of the creative life that leads to free exchange.
Now in my seventh decade, what I desire most is the internal time to play. I, too, want the ground that Delany claimed when she invented a brand new art form in her eighth decade. Thinking of her roses brings me back to the rose-colored chair at the end of the mind—the image by Kara Kosaka in the first blog of this series. Time to turn my back, then run and curl up in that chair.
Thank you David and Stacey for indulging the Mutual Muse!