In writing a biography, persistence aided by nosiness is a requirement. As collaborators, one of the qualities Sandra Jordan and I share is curiosity about the lives of others. When we discuss ideas for subjects for our biographies, we always ask ourselves, “What is their story?” More often than not, the artist’s childhood experiences are reflected in the art she/he makes as an adult. The sculptor Richard Serra at age four witnessed the launching of a tanker, and the angle of the ship’s prow formed a lasting impression, one that is evident in his looming metal sculptures today. The stories artists told us inspired us to move from books about learning to look at twentieth century art to books that dealt with the life and art of individual artists, such as Chuck Close, Louise Bourgeois, Andy Warhol, Christo and Jeanne-Claude and others.
Sandra talked about some of the ways we research, ferreting out new material, last month. Despite all the catalogues we read, interviews, visits to artists’ homes, studios, and museums that exhibit their works, there is so much more we need to discover. What motivated them? What made them unique? We had to examine their successes and failures, as well as their sometimes difficult personalities. Some of these talented people led messy lives. There is no correlation between being a good painter or writer or dancer and being a good person. As biographers, we must decide whether to make judgments or stick to the facts. We try to tell the truth up to a point as nonjudgmentally as we can because our focus is on the art. We tell details of the artists’ lives if they informed the work or shaped their personalities. For example, Jackson Pollock’s best work was done when he was sober; yet alcoholism led to a decline in his work and his eventual death. In Action Jackson, which was geared for younger readers, we focused on the creative process, describing how Pollock made one painting from start to finish. The book was nonfiction but not a biography. Therefore there was no reason to talk about his personal problems in the text, although we there is a reference in a short bio in the back matter. We don’t shy away from controversial material in full length biographies. In Andy Warhol: Prince of POP, geared for young adults, his homosexuality and involvement in the 60’s drug culture impacted his life, as well as his art. But his innovative work and influence in artmaking, films, books, and advertising were our focus. The anecdotal material of his full life was amusing, poignant, and always fascinating.
Another consideration is how much do children at age eight or above know? In our next book Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring (Fall, 2010), we made a number of school visits to share the text and ask questions to find out what dance, art, or music terms young readers know. We could then return to the study, revising and refining, based on what we learned. It was also fun to see what students responded to in showing the illustrations and reading the story of this celebrated collaboration between Martha Graham, Isamu Noguchi and Aaron Copland.
The details that delight children, delight us as adults. But in writing non-fiction, especially a biography, the goal is to get beyond the details, to dig beneath the surface, thus obtaining a fuller view of the person’s life. We gain so much more by setting ourselves aside and inhabiting someone else’s skin for awhile. We expand our view of ourselves. We feel better in the company of Martha Graham, Andy Warhol, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude, because they struggled with same human problems we all do; yet in spite of difficult times, they worked hard, cared about their art, and managed to say something fresh and meaningful about our culture. They never gave up!