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Alone in the Moonlight: Portraits of the Muse

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Laura Orr by Beth Shibata

Laura Orr by Beth Shibata

When a bit of inspiration goes a long way Being practical sometimes means leaving aside the practical and doing what comes from the heart. Early last year I sat down with Laura Orr and explained that I wanted to write an article about the Artist and the Muse. I’m not sure if I mentioned to her that she was actually the Muse. Bear in mind that I did not and still do not know Laura very well. I did, however, have some idea of how I might describe her, in tangible and intangible terms. But what I thought might be fascinating and revealing would be to ask a handful of photographers, each with his or her singular style and sensibility, to photograph Laura, and then we would see what sort of essence or inner radiance they were able to find and evoke. Magicians, to your battle stations. (View the preview image gallery.)

The project grew slowly and changed course after Peggy Zask offered to show the finished work in her gallery. That handful of photographers became a dozen, then 20, and eventually hit 30. Laura stoically did not pack up and leave. In time, the project acquired a name, “Alone in the Moonlight: Portraits of the Muse,” and a new location for the exhibit, at the Creative Arts Center in Manhattan Beach. The exhibition opens tomorrow evening, the Moon herself will appear, and Laura has not yet moved away to an undisclosed location.

You take my breath away
Everyone knows what it’s like to be inspired: We watch a favored athlete make an incredible play and we resolve to try out for the local team; or maybe we listen as renowned surgeons discuss their calling and later we strive for acceptance into medical school. What I want to talk about, though, is a different kind of inspiration, in which an artist – in whatever field, be it poetry, dance, music, painting, literature – encounters a Muse, a “precipitating presence” in the words of May Sarton, and not only realizes that he is enchanted by her, but solemnly understands that he must buckle down and create a work of art in her honor.

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Laura Orr by Bob Barry

Laura Orr by Bob Barry

There is nothing of commerce or commonsense in one’s relations with the Muse, but it’s nonetheless a Romantic throwback that artists in general comprehend. To quote May Sarton one more time, “It is the gift of the Muse to polarize the poet, to transport him into a state of privileged perception.” As Robert Graves said, “Man’s strongest concentration of mental power occurs when he falls in love,” and in this case possession – for I suppose it is a possession – of the poet by his Muse that heightens his senses and broadens the field of what he deems possible to achieve.

The Muse, then, her spirit incarnated, as it were, in one specific individual, awakens and rejuvenates. On the heels of inspiration is an incredible buoyancy and enthusiasm. But if the artist seems to hear the music behind the music and senses the woman behind the woman, one might hazard to say that this is a symbiotic relationship. If the artist needs the Muse, so does the Muse need the artist. She did not actively choose to become a Muse, or at least this one person’s Muse, but she may come to realize that each breathes new life into the other. She may or may not actively encourage him, but she may well sense that if he gives up then there’s a part of her that dies as well. Or rather, is never allowed to be born.

What fuels the Muse-driven artist is his enchantment. He adores her and reveres her, but more often than not he has projected qualities on her that she may not possess to the degree that he believes. On the other hand, if his self-deception induces a state of euphoria, and a work of art emerges, it may in the long run be a good thing for us and a fair exchange for them. Muses tend to be more apparition than substance, because while real people with all of their foibles and faults may inspire or motivate us, the artist needs to be sustained in his belief that the woman he is trying to please is no ordinary human being at all. The artist seeks to be worthy of his Muse; so, too, does he secretly hope that she is worthy of him.

Without evoking higher powers, there is something here that is sacred and spiritual. “The Muse,” said Etienne Gilson, “is precisely the woman through whom is revealed a beauty which transcends her and which the artist serves through his art with completely religious devotion.” The Muse is a living sanctuary; and it’s not amiss to say that when we adore God’s creations we adore God. Jokingly, perhaps, I could say, “You were always very pretty, Laura Orr, but now you are divine.” An artwork created for a specific woman is a tribute to her, born of this time and place, and yet by implication it pays respect to all women and, let us not forget, to the spirit that illuminates and shines through them.

Laura Orr by Jim McKinniss

Laura Orr by Jim McKinniss

If I loved you
Women at the opera and women at art openings are women at their most alluring, but in the two years I’ve known her I’ve never been able to entice Laura to either one. Someday I’ll write the opera, but in the meantime I’ve created an art show around her. No word yet on whether she’ll actually attend. In a couple of days from now my batting average may still be stuck at zero-point-zero-zero. I guess it’s a good thing I have a sense of humor.

“We attribute much to chance meetings, refer to them as turning points in our lives,” Henry Miller said, “but these encounters could never have occurred had we not made ourselves ready for them.” When I met Laura, whom I had arranged to interview as the head of the British Film Festival Los Angeles, it took little time for me to realize – as if someone had leaned down and whispered it all into my ear – that this person was the reason I’d been immersed in the arts for so many years. None of this was reciprocal (what a different story it would be had that been the case), but I did seem to know and to accept right away that patience, a courtship of patience, was my only option if I wanted to continue seeing Laura. This wouldn’t be a dating game. I’m not telling anyone that it’s working out; I’m not telling anyone that it ever will.

At times, this has mattered a great deal to me, and at other times, well, also a great deal. It is, to be straightforward, part of the exhibition that one is unlikely to notice, that hidden iceberg of futility and frustration. I think of those hefty art catalogues I often read, group efforts penned by fledgling or seasoned academics, which dryly skip over the painter or sculptor’s cries and whispers, the real foundations of their work. If I was to write a catalogue for “Alone in the Moonlight” it wouldn’t excise the many disappointments. The ache in one’s heart would have to be acknowledged, and then not revised or softened an hour or two before going to press.

None of this is meant to subtract from what I perceived when Laura and I sat down to talk on April 17, 2009. “Beautiful is what is at once charming and sublime,” said Friedrich Schlegel, and Laura certainly exuded the first, for her reserved Southern manners are quite a draw. She was nicely dressed and groomed, pleasant and polite, although she never did strike me as someone too interested in or knowledgeable about film. But once more another certitude stepped in as we conversed, another voice in the ear so to speak, which told me that this was a good person, an exceptionally good person, in whom I could place my trust. On that day I listened, but I also detected, as I said earlier, the woman behind the woman, her strengths, vulnerabilities, joys and possibly sorrows. Life is a floating bridge of dreams, as we know, and I sensed the poignancy, the immediacy, and even the transience of this woman in this time and place. She was grace suspended in a world veering towards atrophy. Carlos Fuentes wondered if “eternal beauty is best preserved in the most fragile objects,” and perhaps for a moment the clouds parted and I glimpsed something profound. That something, of course, became the winding path that led one year later to asking Laura if she would allow herself to be photographed for my article. Contrary to what one may think, it took some time for her to agree.

Laura Orr by John Middelkoop

Laura Orr by John Middelkoop

Beauty beyond words
With a gun, we are shot for eternity; with a camera we are shot for posterity. And yet nothing can be held forever, even in photographs. Nonetheless, it’s their job to stir up something in the living. When we look at a picture it comes down to activation. If we can’t activate the image, or vice-versa, then it remains a dead thing. These words by André Breton seem appropriate: “How much I admire those men who desire to be shut up at night in a museum in order to examine at their own discretion, at an illicit time, some portrait of a woman they illuminate by a dark lantern. Inevitably, afterwards, they know more about such a woman than we do.”

Now imagine 40 portraits of the same woman, but instead of someone familiar to us from television or the internet, a person fairly anonymous about whom we have few if any preconceptions. She is not a 25-year-old bombshell, whom one might look at rather than into, but rather a single mother in her early 40s with something of a pleasing, plain-spoken, late summer appeal. For the viewer walking into the gallery, Laura Orr could be almost anyone. His or her impressions will be based on what their eyes whisper back to them, impressions filtered through the lenses of carefully observant photographers. Why just pictures of Laura? Because we’re not comparing or contrasting her with other women, only with herself.

However, to what extent are these subjective portraits of Laura and to what extent are they objective? Or are they inevitably a little of both? Robert Sobieszek noted that “the modern portrait has been an artistic enterprise that at times speaks more eloquently about photographers’ agendas than the inner nature of their models,” an observation that wouldn’t have sat well with W. Eugene Smith: “No matter how much of a photographer you are, how dominant your personality, how passionate your feelings, the subject must dominate what your result is.” As something of an addendum to what Smith said, there’s Lincoln Kirstein’s description of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s approach to photography as “the steady conscious reconciliation and distillation of sympathy, sensibility and intelligence.” One shouldn’t neglect to remember the at-times painstaking preparation that each artist brings to the table, and that leads, of course, to the decisive moment when the shutter is released.

With each photographer who agreed to participate in what became “Alone in the Moonlight” I tried to convey my notion of the Muse and inspiration. Mainly this was in hopes of circumventing an approach that could be deemed too gimmicky or distractingly provocative. On the other hand, I often told people to be thoughtful or creative. As Peggy Zask had said, the last thing we want to end up with is a collection of merely pretty photographs of a pretty model. That, of course, wouldn’t reflect well on the person who took the picture and it would reflect even less well on the show itself. (People would say: Bondo hung the show – and the critics hung Bondo) One thing I can see, though, is that the cumulative effect of so many varied images manages to transcend the sum of its parts.

Variations on an ideal
A photograph by itself may be autonomous, but it changes when we surround it with other images. Whether we call them companions or collaborators or co-conspirators, we have initiated a dialogue and a conversation. A collection of images like this can square off against one another or swim in synchrony like a school of fish.

One evening Annie Appel and I discussed how the placement of one image beside another will alter both, creating an exchange between the two that the viewer will then merge into one general response. Each of the 30 photographers in the show has absolute control over his or her final print, but they have to relinquish how it will be perceived within the larger context and as part of a group. Suddenly there are visual echoes. Also, in this case, each Laura silently provides a subtle commentary on every other Laura. Another reason, I think, to return at 3 a.m. with a dark lantern.

Arnold Newman said something that makes perfect sense when we inhale first this and then that visage of the lovely Miss Orr: “It seems to me that no one picture can ever be a final summation of a personality. There are so many facets in every human being that it is impossible to present them all in one photograph.” Along the same lines, Paul Strand pointed out that “the portrait of an individual is really the sum of a hundred or so photographs.”

Funny, because in one of my grandiose Wagnerian moods I proposed to Laura that we go for 100 images. If Fate green-lights the idea then we will, but either way what we’ve seen is that each additional image reconfigures all of the others, it helps to create a new dialogue, a colloquium, and the result of so many works depicting the same individual is not greater clarity but more ambiguity. What we find is that there isn’t just one defining image of Laura but as many as there are imaginative photographers. In other words, her multiplicity as a human being comes through. If we are fortunate, this body of work will resonate as a whole, and the afterglow will linger with each visitor to the gallery who comes to see them.

Orpheus descending
We are born with one foot in the grave and one hand in the lion’s mouth, and eventually our lives become a litany of what has been lost and what will be lost. We’ll remember days that were and things that might have been, but in the interim we try and muscle up our strength and energy to leave behind something dignified and noble. It may come easily, or it may face terrifying odds. Failure circles like a shark, as does embarrassment and humiliation. “The risk I take to win you is equal to the risk I’m taking to lose you forever,” Orpheus may have said as he took a deep breath and descended into Hades. At the center of the universe, of course, is the human heart, just as it is at the center of this exhibition. W. Somerset Maugham said it well, “The great tragedy of life is not that men perish, but that they cease to love.”

“Alone in the Moonlight” was always meant to be a bouquet of roses for Laura Orr, a bouquet that would never fade. Not in five years, not in fifty. With the indispensible efforts and enthusiasm of 30 photographers I was able to celebrate her with something other than a poem or a pop song. It is a gift, and gifts require nothing in return. For this is how we honor our Muse.

Alone in the Moonlight: Portraits of the Muse opens tomorrow (Friday, June 10) in the Creative Arts Center, 1560 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach. The photographers include Niki B., Melanie Shatto, Alison Walker, and Bob Witte, who came later to the project, as well as Don Adkins, Joelle Adkins, Annie Appel, Bob Barry, Paul Blieden, Amy Cantrell, Ray Carofano, Deidre Davidson, Slobodan Dimitrov, Philip Earl, Bernard Fallon, Pauline Falstrom, Barry Fontenot, DeAnn Jennings, Michael Justice with collaboration by Audrey Barrett, Gary LeBlanc, Gil Mares, Jim McKinniss, John Middelkoop, Jan Milhomme, Kat Monk, Melinda Moore, Tom Sanders, Beth Shibata, Mark Tanner, Cristy Thom, and Nancy Webber. Harold Plople contributed a painting. Brad Webster, Herbert Waltl, Warren Tarbell, and Joelle Adkins contributed to music and multimedia, and Tina Zarro loaned a dress for the scuttled shipwreck scene. Thank you to Ildy Lee, Homeira Goldstein, Michael Puckett, and Jim Wood for making possible the classical music concert on Saturday, June 18, from 7 to 9 p.m., also in the Creative Arts Center. Cost, $10. Gallery hours, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 2 to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. Through June 29. Call (310) 802-5440 or go to


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