In preparation for a forthcoming studio move, and before leaving for a two week stay in coastal Maine, I started gathering a large number of old datebooks, half-started sketchbooks and journals, scattered across my current studio and apartment, as well as lodged in almost every one of a pile of boxes that have moved, unopened, from studio to studio, apartment to apartment, over the last ten years. I often make small drawings, ideograms or notations in the margins of these, and have developed a sort of superstition about their importance to the development of future paintings and a fear of losing track of them. After spending a few moments each day sorting, stacking and examining in search of notations or drawings of beginnings of ideas, I noticed the recurrence of two sorts of pages in almost every notebook and journal, going back years and years. In fact, in most cases, the notebook will be mostly empty save for a few examples of each of these pages, near the beginning or sometimes at the end.
First is the (to do) list, which for me is a kind of de facto diary. Notations of things that I do not want to forget, chores and errands to be completed, ideas and sketches for works, books I’d read or wanted to read, movies, phrases not to be forgotten, ideas for titles, etc. Once, doing a big purge in my early thirties, I found a trove of these notebooks from my twenties and discovered that almost all of these lists-cum-diary pages were actually notations about money: lists of bills, accounts of paychecks, overdue rent additions, roommate utility bill computations, and calendar countdowns to forthcoming incomes. As an accounting (literally) of my twenties in New York City, these “diaries” were fairly depressing. I think it was this realization that pressed me in the ensuing decade to try to keep a real journal, and that’s where the second typology of page comes up.
Usually closely following the to-do page there will be the “I’m starting a diary” page. Unfortunately, these also display an alarming consistency, the first being that they are usually standalone, there are almost never any second or third entries, and secondly, in a way, they are barely discernible from the list pages. They are filled with anxieties, accountings of guilty feelings about things not done, things to be done, albeit lodged within sentences and paragraphs, rather than separated by bullet points. Stacks of notebooks with only two or three pages filled out. Inevitably, one of the tasks listed, year after year, is START DIARY.
Ironically, I am continually reading other people’s diaries, or collections of letters. In fact, one of the reasons I was heading to Maine was on the trail of an idea I had formulated of the state based on the diaries of the poet James Schuyler, himself an avid reader of other people’s journals and letters. Schuyler was a close friend and sometime lover of the painter Fairfield Porter, whose family owned a small island in Maine, not far from where I was headed. Schuyler’s diary entries while staying with the Porter family on Great Spruce Head Island are full of pastoral indolence, watchful recordings of ever-changing weather, strangely satisfying catalogues of island flora, and a lazy hazy evocation of an East Coastal, 20th-century bohemia that had attained almost mythical status for me. This imaginary rendering of Maine is furthered by Fairfield Porter’s paintings of life on the island; scenes that mostly took place in the family’s grand and eccentrically painted island house or on Porter’s “painting porch”. They are populated by a parade of visiting friends, mostly painters and poets from New York City, and members of the ever-growing Porter family, including the family dog, Bruno.
Armed with a biography of Fairfield Porter, I arrived in Corea, a small lobster fishing village where another favorite (and queer) painter, Marsden Hartley, had once lived and worked (setting up studio in an abandoned church and subsequently a disused chicken shack). Once launched into the biography, I quickly came across a vastly different picture of life on Great Spruce Head Island. The Porter family were an odd and sprawling group and, while decidedly independent-minded and quasi-bohemian, also had the deep chill of the East Coast American WASP. Island life seems to have been one of privation rather than indolence or indulgence. The family was more often than not cold and hungry, communication was terse and camaraderie somewhat absent. In fact, one of the Porter brothers eventually bowed out of trips to the island and ceded his shares of its ownership as he so much disliked spending time there.
Once Fairfield and his siblings officially inherited the island, and by the time Schuyler was a frequent houseguest (often visited by other New York School poets Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch), the environment had softened a bit — but seemingly still retained its rough edges, if not emotionally then definitely in terms of comfort levels. The Buckminster Fuller family, who owned a neighboring island, were frequently seen nude sunbathing on its shores. I also learned that Schuyler’s presence among the Porters was fairly fraught. I knew of this from other readings around Schuyler and Porter, but the intimate details of this conflicted attachment, in addition to the reality of life on the island, had the effect of fading my one-sided image of this Maine pastoral, constructed as it was mostly from Schuyler’s distillations in his journals and subsequent poetry.
I had been struggling (with the help of recently begun psychoanalysis), to resist the urge to judge myself for a lifetime of aborted diary attempts and ‘to-do’ list entries repeating themselves year after year. Strangely, this disillusioning view into the fallibility of Schuyler’s journals helped a bit. Porter’s descriptions of his own epiphanies while undergoing analysis also struck a chord; and gave me some peace…
“In psychoanalysis of course you follow your free associations without criticism. And what you get when you’re all through (or, you’re never all through) is that you get yourself. This is your shape. And you get it by following, not by ordering or using your head — but by being unconscious… What is the form is what is real.”
Originally published untitled in four parts in Failed States issue no.1: island, September 2017.
Matt Connors is an artist and the founder of Pre-Echo Press. He lives and works in New York City.