By: Eleanor Morse
Spalding MFA Faculty
While I was teaching at the Spalding residency this past May, an artist friend died. Victor had been failing for some time, but his death still felt sudden. I’d gotten used to his fragility, to his heart-stoppingly thin, stooped frame. Because his spirit was so vital, I thought, beyond reason, that he’d manage to just keep going. But then it became clearer that he wasn’t going to keep going. When I brought him a bunch of purple and white lilacs the last time I saw him, I realized I’d probably not see him again, and when I returned from Louisville, he was gone. He died of a rare lung disease, only fifty-eight years old. He had wanted to live. His greatest expressed desire, that day of the lilacs, was to get strong enough to walk again.
I want to tell you how Victor inspired me as a writer. I hope what he stood for will inspire you, or perhaps he will remind you of someone or something who helps you breathe life into your own work.
The word, inspire. Enspiren in the mid-fourteenth century meant to fill the mind or heart with grace. The Latin root inspirare meant to blow into, or breathe upon.
Victor was an abstract painter, a photographer of the still life and the natural world. He was one of the most focused, hard-working artists I’ve known. Most days, he was up before sunrise, capturing the light inside an ocean wave, a great blue heron standing solitary on a rock, a sandpiper rocking forward in search of food, a gathering of dark clouds. He was not a conventionally religious man, but he brought to his photographs a stillness, a depth of attention that made his work feel akin to awe or praise. He reminded me that my work is not merely a reflection of my own small world, but of the large shining globe that stretches beyond anything I can fully know or understand.
His still life portraits—of a page of poetry next to the shadow of an apple, an arrangement of paintbrushes, a toy school bus, five peaches on a cloth—were illuminated with natural light, the light of the 17th century Dutch masters. He noticed the smallest details. In Victor’s portraits, there is no clutter between the viewer and the photograph: his depth of focus was intense, pure. He chose objects that evoked emotion, and he got himself out of the way so a viewer could open a door to a new world without distraction. He reminded me that the patient act of paying attention leads to resonance and emotional power in a piece of work. My job is to grow invisible; the work is what matters.
Victor was not afraid to be alone. Although he was kind, attentive, funny, he didn’t actively seek out people. Nor did he strive for attention, for worldly success. He lived, and died, by a bedrock integrity. I’m all too aware of the way that the world crowds in on the solitude required for writing. How do we participate in the world, care for the people around us, and not get consumed with responding and reacting, swallowed up in noise? Victor found his own answer to this, and I deeply respected him for it.
His work constantly changed and evolved. He read like a scholar, taught himself ancient Greek, was actively engaged with the life of the mind and the workings of the heart. He learned from his contemporaries and from those who’d gone before him—musicians, poets, painters. He reminded me that there are no limits to what can be learned and no boundaries. We can learn from a hang gliding enthusiast, a falconer, a neighborhood crow, a concert cellist, a plower of fields.
In a memorial exhibit last week of his work—with hundreds of pieces covering the walls—you could feel the hugeness of a single human life. And also the quiet inside the work, what it means to give your life to the radiant world. As long as I live, the memory of Victor will encourage me to go beneath the glib surface of things and to try to make sense through words of this tiny piece of the world I’ve been given.
Who or what inspires your work?
Eleanor Morse lives on Peaks Island, off the coast of Portland, Maine. She is on the fiction faculty of Spalding University’s MFA in Writing program and has three novels out in the world. www.eleanormorse.com