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A Conversation With An Artist: Christopher Victor


Once upon a time, when I was very young and scoured New York galleries with my collector father, I imagined that artists spent their days and nights in the studio for the benefit of the collector, or gallery owner, or curator, and even if the artist was dead, none of my naive assumptions were less true because the whole point of collecting, according to my father and his art-loving collector friends, was beyond the joy of the work itself, it was for the value of the work and its monetary appreciation as the years passed. Nonetheless, somehow, the joy of feeling transported by visual work rooted in me. And I am thankful for that and my ability to discern what I like and don't like, almost instantaneously, and to parse what is mediocre and what is well-made. If there is a gallery or museum in proximity, I always walk into it. I deepen my enjoyment of art with every new artist I encounter and I talk to artists about their process whenever I have the opportunity.  


When I saw Christopher Victor's installation in the SUNY-Ulster gallery, I knew I liked his work right away. He was in the gallery talking to students and I went up to talk to him. He had been invited to install a show and give a guest lecture or two. The images were strong and I held them in my eidetic memory as I returned to the Writing Center where I work. I had already decided to visit Chris in his studio, if he was willing. Fortunately, he was.


I had driven my husband to the bus for a city day, my NYU term over, and I was thrilled to have an afternoon in the mountains, road winding, the GPS dropping out and returning, the trees turning to green. Chris and his wife, Rochelle, left Brooklyn many years ago and moved here; their home is an idyll. They're raising two sons and a boisterous puppy on land close to a stream in an open plan house with a deck overlooking a forest, mountains in the distance.


"I grew up in the country in New Hope, PA, where I walked barefoot everywhere and lived next to a stream. Now I live next to a stream again," Chris says.  His mother is a ceramicist and Chris spent many childhood hours in her studio watching her make art, and making his own.  Nature and art are contiguous in his heart and mind. Having moved to the Hudson Valley just over a year ago myself, I am beginning to feel that way, too. We are embedded in nature and forget this at our peril.


Has my writing changed since I have been here? Am I contemplating new genres? Has my voice and point of view shifted?  I am not yet sure. Certainly I have more time to read and write, and though I don't live in the mountains, surfacing from my apartment into the fresh air, the birds chirping, the mountains in the distance, the pulse of life is softer, which I am sure is good for writers and artists.  I feel freer, more at ease. And I only miss the city occasionally when I am here. My fast-paced, competitive urban self will never disappear, but at least it has gone quiet now, it's resting.


After art school Chris made props for commercials and still takes on assignments when he needs money. It's creative work, but not as satisfying as his own work, he explains, as he looks around his  tool-packed studio which is filled with found materials, works in progress, and finished work.


The term "careerist artist" surfaced. I had never heard this before, but it immediately reminded me of the way agents work these days. They look for young writers with two or three books ahead of them, writers who are willing to build a career attentive to shifting fads in the marketplace. And some agents consider themselves "editorial" agents; they shape the writer and the work rather than permit the writer to struggle for herself. Stories abound about these travesties, Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver, the most noteworthy. I can't imagine Chris allowing anyone to manipulate his art in this way in order to sell it.  "We're all creating our own wild places," he says.  And I believe him, or want to believe him. 

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A respite today from the election and international bad news as I prepare for two writing workshops this week. I love teaching and meeting my new students. So here's a post I wrote before the Chelsea bomb blast and the first presidential debate. I hope that my readers who are not writers will find metaphors--boundaries, for example-- buried herein:

Palimpsest: A manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.

I worked hard on a blurb for the jacket of a book. It was a commissoined writing job from a publishing house and there was no reason for me to take ownership, to feel pride, or to demand anything. So when the editor completely rewrote the blurb and said, “pretty good, huh?” I could and should have felt nothing. It wasn’t my book, it wasn’t my publishing company, it was just a job. But I couldn’t let it go. I felt resentful. He’d used my flair and expertise and made it his own just enough to claim it as his work. Traces of my work were there. They had provided inspiration and I could still see my well-wrought phrases inside the editor’s sentences.

I’d been working with the editor for a while and knew that he was a frustrated writer. I might have had compassion, but I didn’t. I said something mean and then regretted it. Not only on a personal level, but professionally. This guy was not going to hire me again.

Then there’s the story of one of my writer’s groups many years ago, or a writer’s group that failed instantly, I should say. I’d gathered some colleagues I didn’t know well for an introductory evening of discussion. Everyone brought two pages of a work-in-progress, any genre. I had been writing poetry and printed out a still raw long poem, just a first draft, I said when it was my turn to present to the group. I skipped out to the bathroom as everyone was reading it silently to themselves and by the time I returned, they were all abuzz with comments. Except for one person. She remained silent. When everyone else was done, she handed me my manuscript which she’d scratched over with multiple suggestions, corrections and rewritings. “It would work better this way,” she said. My words were visible under her words but my connection to the poem was damaged. When everyone left, I tore it up, and even though it was still in a file on the computer, I never could go back to it.

It was my first experience of a writer/editor who thinks she’s being helpful by overwriting my work with her words.

Kingsley Amis talked about a bad editor as someone who “prowls through your copy like an overzealous gardener with a pruning hook, on the watch for any phrase he senses you were rather pleased with, preferably one that also clinches your argument and if possible is essential to the general drift of the surrounding passage.”

Most editors don’t want to make the copy their own, nor is every editor a frustrated writer. They are another breed altogether, as are fellow writers who think they know better than you do how to revise your work by stealing it from you.  Read More 
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