Winter skies are dynamic drawing boards. Lately, the morning skies in the Rocky Mountains, where OneClock was designed, have been like Agnes Martin paintings: horizontal color fields of cool blues and pale pinks divided not by graphite but by the thin line of a telephone wire or the slow-moving ellipsis of migrating geese.
When New York Times art critic Holland Cotter reviewed the Guggenheim’s 2016 retrospective of Martin’s work, he posed some questions about abstract art generally, and, one can assume, Martin’s minimalism specifically. “How do you approach an art empty of figures and evident narratives?” he writes. “How do you find out what, if anything, is in it for you? What do you do to make it your own?” The answer, he says, comes from Martin herself. “‘You go there and sit and look.’”
If seasons were art historical genres, winter would be abstract minimalism. It’s a season of stark restraint interrupted by erratic pencil marks or atmospheric paint splatters otherwise known as weather. In many, but not all, landscapes, winter is unchanging, monochromatic, maybe even downright bleak. How do you find out what, if anything, is in it for you?If we engage in Martin’s “sit and look,” we might find what some too quickly and wrongfully call an inert season to be full of unscripted, personal narratives.
Here’s one of mine: The longterm is resting. Let it. The short-term, what was meant to live for only one season, is leaving. Let it.
Winter is a powerful recalibration, a reminder of deep time and its cycles. It’s simultaneously the end, the beginning, and just another spot on the continuum. More than any other time of year though, in winter the human world slows in step with the plant world. As days shorten, temperatures drop, and gardens wither, activity turns inward, allowing us a micro view of the impulses and routines that hold our particular life together.
From our houses, or right there in the midst of it, we watch what pieces of the outside environment are staying (trees—skeletons though they may be), visiting (an intrepid chickadee at the feeder), in hiding (dozens of iris rhizomes and a spattering of volunteer tomato seeds), or leaving for good (frosty, waterlogged pumpkins).
Because I’m lucky enough to live where winter comes with snow and ice, I take note of its formations. Icicles and snowdrifts, including the massive pileups of graying snow-slush pushed to clear roads and sidewalks, are naturally occurring sculptures made by time, gravity, and light—their deterioration just as beautiful as their construction. Even more intriguing are the frost figurations that form on glass when warm air hits. Riding once in a car in Winnipeg’s sub-zero temperatures, I watched the words I spoke transcribed, line by fractured line, onto the windshield. Ice writing, the making of an impossibly ephemeral document.
In summer, I relish the fruits of the season for their ability to instantly gratify me. I see, I like, I take, I do. Things happen like clockwork. It’s fleeting, a forward march. The expectation in the colder months feels different—there is less knowing, more wondering and experimentation. From the elements, winter’s offering is subtle, slow, and usually, like in the case of the unseen, latent spring bulbs, relies on the meanderings of memory and imagination. The only real action is to give purpose to your waiting.
Here’s another narrative I cling to in winters of the year and of the soul, this one from rock and roll’s legendary Prince of Darkness, Nick Cave: When something’s not coming, it’s coming.
Every winter I endeavor to read Bernadette Mayer’s book-length poem Midwinter Day in the same amount of time the poem covers: a single day (for the poet, the day was December 22, 1978, to be exact). Bernadette Mayer, who passed away last November at age 77, was an American avant-garde poet. Midwinter Day, one of her most famous works, embraces the lyricism of everyday details, chronicling the mundanity of what happens in the space of one square on the calendar, from waking up from a dream to caring for children, performing the rituals of domestic labor, running errands, and finally going back to bed.
I’ve never made it through Midwinter Day as planned, which is part of why I try to every year. (It seems like incompletion and tradition are tightly bound.) Portions of Mayer’s book are written in verse, sometimes lists, and a good chunk of it in dense prose. Regardless of its form, the text is very much a poem throughout. When the language feels impenetrable or incoherent, which is what usually slows and hinders my goal, I think about the machinations of my own inner monologue, how little I really hear of them.
We often think and process information in disjunctions, paradoxes, hiccups, or poems, but we rarely tune in. We’re trained to find narrative quickly and dismiss other perceptions. The success of my failure with Midwinter Day is this reminder to pay attention. When the world is still, dark, fallow, slow, it’s easy to spot what moves, what dares to take shape in such strained conditions. I like winter for this. I try to listen harder and better, to sit and look, to ask myself what Holland asked Agnes’s paintings: “How do you find out what, if anything, is in it for you?”
You’ve done all this before, writes Mayer. Nothing happens / Let’s go over it again.