readers respond | wyeth & peterson

4 04 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 178 | April 4, 2009


Wyeth & Peterson, THE LOCAL ARTIST


Editor’s Note: One of the immediate pleasures in writing to various websites is the work itself. Some of it comes easy. But most of it requires considerable time, thought, reading, research…and finally the act of putting it all together so that it will mean something, register in the hearts and minds of readers. Which is why the writer remains engaged at all in this habit.

Given our present age of communications (the screen you are reading from as I write) some call what I am momentarily caught in the act of doing, “blogging”–a term I intensely dislike. I call it good, old fashioned writing. I have essayed this topic before, ( . And I’m sure I haven’t written the last word on the subject.

Those about to test the blogging waters for the first time sometimes ask for tips. I have none. You get into it because you believe you have something to say that matters. Given the shortage of real readers these days, given the publishing predicament for those who know in their bones they are writers who must get their words out—there are not a hell of a lot of options left to practice the trade, pursue the art. And none of this, whatever you want to call it, however you my feel about it, in any way guarantees readership.

The payback for all this (writers and ‘bloggers’) remains an indeterminate factor. Readers’ response. Reaction. (Hello, out there!) I tell you…You tell me.

The disappointments are plenty. You may end up hating what you “blogged” and put out there without thinking through. You may easily lose hours, days, weeks, putting in (up, on the screen) what you consider your very best–and hear nary one damn word from anybody. (Why the hell am I doing this?) Or you may get the most incredible response from a friend, a total stranger, readers in distant parts of the world.

Now, that’s exciting. (For me.) To be ‘in’ all those countries.

There is absolutely no accounting for, no telling how many readers may have seriously taken your words/ideas to heart—but just plain can’t, won’t. don’t respond, for reasons entirely…well, for the same reasons (many of them legitimate) you can’t, won’t, don’t respond when someone rings your bell.

I’ll leave it at that. Except to share some responses to a piece recently put together after reading about the death of American artist, Andrew Wyeth…then remembering my friend, ‘local’ artist, Charles (Chick) Peterson who lives just a few miles from me…juxtaposing these two artists, the idea of ‘local’ artist…my own fascination with ‘the ordinary’—which I “read” in the images of both these painters… and, and…well, I’m just pleased and thankful for these ‘early returns’/responses from a variety of folks I know from a little to nothing about except: three of them are writers (novelist, poet, essayist, newspaper writer—Midwest, Northwest coast); one a photographer (Florida/the Midwest); one a cantor (East Coast); and one a potter/poet, the Southwest. Such a thoughtful gathering of minds and hearts.

This makes it all worthwhile. –Norbert Blei

Thanks for this, Norb. Peterson is a marvelous artist! I recall your fine piece on him in one of the books?

Best, Aryeh

appreciate this, Norb … damn, the format in which you present things is so utterly rich…jb . [kudos to Monsieur K.]

Norb –

A wonderful piece–on Peterson & Wyeth, on familiar things as medicine, on the bleigeist.



Interesting thoughts on art. I would be interested in the viewpoint of your good friend Emmett Johns on the relative importance and relationship between traditional representational art and contemporary abstract art. He is, in my estimation, equally facile at both.

My personal view is that they are not mutually exclusive, nor does the recognition of quality in one diminish the validity of the other. As usual, thanks for a piece that inspires consideration.


Hi Norb,

I really enjoyed your Wyeth and Peterson story. They are two of my favorite artists. I’ve like Wyeth for years. I like so many of his paintings, but my favorite painting is “Distant Thunder.” Not sure what it is about the painting that makes it stand out more than others. I think it’s the peacefulness of the woman lying in the grass with the pine trees nearby and her dog also resting near her. I can remember times when I was picking berries and how peaceful it was to lie down in the grass out in the middle of nature, far from artificial sounds. I can just hear the sound of that distant thunder!

I have a couple books of his paintings, plus the Helga book, and also the books of Peterson’s paintings. We always have at least one of his paintings on our walls.

Hope all goes well on your side of the fence. Hope to get up your way again sometime before or after the majority of tourists descend on you.


Hi Norb-This one got my motor running.

“What we yearn for are those values that refute our materialism…simple pleasures, country people, solitude, beauty of the commonplace, nature serene…the quietude of the country…Something to comfort our spiritual blight.”

It is pretty hard to separate out the material from life which is both material and immaterial. I keep thinking the material stuff is there to remind us of the things we can’t touch even though we can feel them. Spiritual blight and too much stuff. But, I do not think of country people, solitude, nature as simple. Or maybe it is simple and I don’t know how to be.

Pictographs could communicate such urgencies before the written word evolved; a penetration of the spirit world through a direct appeal to our subconscious, art being more like music than literature (which involves the reading and thinking ).

I think that letters, words, literature, poems can certainly be as direct an appeal to our subconscious as can art. Especially well chosen words. I sometimes think/feel that there are circumstances when one word can be worth a thousand pictures. The wonderful thing about pictographs and petroglyphs is that, for the most part, we cannot translate directly what the artist may have meant. We create our own meanings, whether its pictures, music or words. We can’t help it. We often assume that the ancients who created the petroglyphs were using a symbol set that their contemporaries understood. But we don’t really know if that is so. If we agree exactly with the artist or the author, and they confirm that is exactly what was meant, the wondrous miracle of cross-referenced experiences and the same understandings has occurred.

the iconic Christina’s World is an amazing portrait of both a woman and a place. When I first saw the painting, I remember thinking of the loneliness of farm landscapes in New England, West Virginia and the Midwest, anywhere really outside the population centers, anywhere that you feel that you are the only person, literally and figuratively. And I thought that the house, a supposed place of nurturing, of family and fellowship, was so far away, symbolically unreachable from the woman’s emotional point of view. I thought that the woman’s perception of her alone-ness had felled her. When I later read about Christina Olson and her physical disability, her crawling across the fields, the painting changed for me and became a symbol of perseverance rather than desolation. The words, the reading and thinking part, changed my mind, appealed to my subconciousness about this life.

Guernica and Goya and Rothko: The abstractions of Guernica and Goya are close enough to our nightmares of war and senseless destruction to translate immediately. Rothko is just as facile at bringing me quickly to a similar sort of fugue state where I’m walking and talking on the outside but grieving about death in my heart. Then, you go back to Lascaux Cave and the drawings: marvelous running horses and oxen and mammoths and then those strange untranslatable abstract shields that make me think of Rothko’s paintings. What? Some say they are clan shields. Are Rothko’s painting not clan shields of a sort? Shadows on the cave wall? Abstract art here in the cave of the ancients too? And they supposedly did all this in the dark? Or have the flashlights disintegrated?

Representational art expressing spiritual aspiration. A sort of contradiction on the surface but then Charles Peterson paints then and now, the quick and the dead, even the ghosts of sounds and music. We are reminded of our past times, past people and places forever changed. Yes, representational art can make it easier to get there. Your thinking is guided carefully to the place of understanding. Words can get you there too. Abstract art can get you there. But you have to admit that it is interesting that we use all these visual surface clues to get us to the invisible, the non corporeal, the subconscious. How did we end up with so many surfaces? Why are we so interested in the one we can’t see at all?

Andy Warhol’s soup cans: So is the medium the message; or how far from reality can you go? Why is it we can trust, feel a level of comfort with the realists, the Wyeths, Charles Peterson, and even the abstractionists, Picasso and Rothko? They paint lifetimes and places we can recognize. On the other hand, Warhol shows you your trained reactions to things out of context. Would the Campbell’s soup can be OK if it was a ghost on a table in an old abandoned Midwestern farmhouse with the ephemeral family smiling, slurping up warm soup next to the long gone woodstove on a cold winter’s day? What if Warhol takes the screaming woman from Guernica and puts her on a soup can and labels it WAR? What if Wyeth paints the windows in the bedroom to match Rothko’s canvases. What if the Dadists write poems by cutting the words out of the newspaper, putting them in a paper bag, shaking them up, throwing them out, and recording the order as poetry? What if it takes a profoundly deaf Beethoven four years to write Missa Solemnis? Me, I’d rather eat the soup, look at the paintings and read the newspaper. But I have to keep making art and writing words.

It takes a consummate artist to bring us into the picture. The crux of the matter-not many of us actually enjoy alienation. Composition, where objects are placed, in or out of context, gives us balance, draws us in or throws us out-whichever the artist might want if good enough. We like the artists that include our lives in our perception of their works.

“They TALK a good painting.” I can remember reaching the point with my writing and my writing education, where I became disgusted with words. Writing became just a snobbish erudite manipulation with no truth in it. I stopped writing and began to make art. I can remember reaching the point with the pots that I decided there were enough objects taking up space in the world and went back to words as more ecologically and materialistically sound. Then I saw that the words take up invisible space in the mind that can become just as cluttered as the attic in that old farmhouse we love to look at with the ghosts paging through the old books in the abandoned library.

Ordinary life: I bought a book of Charles Peterson’s paintings a while back to give to an old friend because we had spent good times in Door County long ago and then after some 30 years had become ghosts in one another’s lives. There is a refrain that runs through Peterson’s paintings and Wyeth’s paintings and Francis Mays’ poems and your books, Norb, that keeps us turning into ourselves. Our ordinary lives-that is all we have and it’s grande. We like to be reminded of this.

“Art or illustration?” This ongoing argument is much like the one for potters, ie is it art or is it craft? The NCECA recently asked the NM Potters and Clay Artists to donate $1,000 to their proposed $100,000 conference in Santa Fe next fall for a symposium “Criticism on Contemporary Ceramics.” to address this problem again. They want to raise the ceramic arts to be the equal of the fine arts like painting. I’ll bet they use a lot of words on this one. We can’t give them $1000 but will probably have a reception and serve them some green chile or something.

Thanks for this piece. I’ve taken a long lunch break from working on a big old pot, played with visions and words, and now I’m ready to go back to moving the clay around with my fingers. I don’t know where art comes from but I’m glad it is here. But you know that.-Kris


wyeth & peterson | the local artist

1 04 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 177 | April 1, 2009


Wyeth & Peterson

some thoughts on the painter and his setting, in memory of Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)—Maine & Pennsylvania, in praise of Charles Peterson—Door County, Wisconsin

by Norbert Blei

“I don’t really have studios. I wander around people’s attics, out in fields, in cellars, anyplace I find that invites me.”—Andrew Wyeth

“The eternal quest for effective composition while telling the truth about ordinary life is endlessly challenging for me, and I pray that I can follow Wyeth’s example of dedication until I reach my own end.”
Charles Peterson

Reading the obituary of Andrew Wyeth one night some weeks ago, remembering the first painting of his I had ever seen–the iconic Christina’s World; recalling all the attention and criticism he received in his years, from “illustrator or artist?” to controversy surrounding the nude “Helga pictures”; considering all a single American artist contributed to the greater good in one lifetime, his eyes focused most keenly on home, the local, the ordinary, I was both saddened over his loss yet grateful how he sharpened my own perspectives of a similar rural setting, pleased and satisfied to be part of a landscape with a quiet, celebrated, ‘local artist’ of our own, Charles Peterson, who daily goes about his work of paint, brush, pencil and pen, putting down images on paper close to prayer.

I am reminded of something Wyeth once said: “What we yearn for are those values that refute our materialism…simple pleasures, country people, solitude, beauty of the commonplace, nature serene…the quietude of the country…Something to comfort our spiritual blight.”

What do we lose, as a country, individually, within ourselves, our ‘place-of-being’ when we lose an Andrew Wyeth? I ask my friend, Charles (Chick) Peterson.

“Of course, the role of the artist evolved with the Paleolithic Age when it was recognized that some kind of “outside help” was needed in seeking food and shelter. Pictographs could communicate such urgencies before the written word evolved; a penetration of the spirit world through a direct appeal to our subconscious, art being more like music than literature (which involves reading and thinking ).

“After the Armory Show of 1911, the trend toward increased abstraction began to take  over 20th Century art, and that direct appeal of representational art began to lose dominance. Increasingly mystified viewers came to rely on interpretation by those whose critical judgment was presumed to offer superior understanding of the artist’s intention. The artist no longer spoke directly to our inner beings. Picasso’s “Guernica”, hailed as the major anti-war statement of 20th Century art, doesn’t hold a candle to Goya’s “Disasters of War” as a statement conveyed by the art itself, not what some oligarchic critic tells us what we should be seeing in it. And later, of course, works like Rothko’s panels communicate nothing beyond simplistic color harmony, one of the most elemental ingredients in anyone’s art. Generally, the ordinary person loses confidence in his own reactions to art and turns to aesthetes for guidance in an experience he could have ‘felt’ for himself in the stone age.

“I like to think that direct appeal still obtains. I know from reactions to my own work that it reminds viewers of their own experiences in life, really completing the process I began as a kind of ‘conversation’ between us. They bring their own life experience to the viewing process, which then reminds them of aspects of ordinary life we all share. Could I suggest it becomes a kind of humane sharing of life by direct, instinctive means?

“The struggle of the Western world to illustrate its spiritual aspirations reached a peak in the Greek Golden Age, lost its way during the Dark Ages and then gradually was rediscovered during the Renaissance, a representational art which expressed through visual means not only spiritual aspiration but all other aspects of our existence as well.

“It seems to me Wyeth, an exponent of that representational tradition needs no clarification. He ‘speaks’ powerfully to our inner beings. He does so through his utter devotion to the simple life he grew up in, giving us characteristic genre themes carried out with consummate skill. His passing is a significant loss because he was such a famous exponent of that tradition, rivaling in the popular mind the fame of our leading abstractionists and maintaining thereby the legitimacy of his mode. ‘Our mode’, really, there being thousands of first rate painters out there who are simply ignored by a market ruled by an oligarchy of galleries, museums and art criticism.

“I think we lose as a culture when Wyeth’s influence wanes. Especially now with our suffering economy, we need an appreciation of actual life with all its trials but also its real beauties, the kind of expression we see in “Christina’s World.” Warhol’s soup cans won’t help.”

There’s something immensely satisfying about ‘being in place,’ in both the realistic and metaphorical sense. Knowing where everything is. Where one can expect to find it, though time diminishes everything. There’s something equally satisfying when there is an artist in the midst of it all, with the skill, knowledge and integrity to celebrate and enhance life, nature, and the history that surrounds us.

Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to drive through the rural roads of this county in all seasons, find comfort in woods and water, fields, pastures, animals, old farmhouses, country churches, villages, stores, stone fences, orchards, old farm machinery, people…’objects placed upon the landscape”…and see everything twice: through my eyes in a fleeting moment, and the memory of a Charles Peterson’s painting where everything I feel is there–or was once here. It takes a consummate artist to ‘bring us into the picture’.

Placing objects on the land… Peterson considers the significance of this.

“Fundamentally, placing objects is the most basic step in composing, the effort to achieve rhythm, balance and emphasis. Composition is the essence of any work whether representational or completely abstract, whether it be music or writing or the visual arts, composition is what makes it memorable.

“On the other hand, placement has limitless expressive possibilities beyond formal composition; moving objects closer or further away, larger or smaller, or into surprising locations carries messages to our instincts which powerfully influence interpretation. To use a famous example, Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” places the awkwardly handicapped Christina at a great distance and downhill from the house she aspires to reach, emphasizing the difficulty of her situation. The house, a style familiarly seen in the comfortable old sections of cities, says something to our inner beings about her isolation when we see it standing in disrepair, utterly alone on its hilltop. Placement, far beyond its basic compositional function, really carries the message in this painting.

“As the 20th Century art world moved toward abstract composition, its leading exponents have eliminated inconsequential subject matter and produced ‘pure’ art which speaks directly to our souls. I think pure abstraction can certainly speak, stir, even thrill the soul. But abstract order is basic to all art, including that which can involve the mind as well. Wyeth’s powerful abstraction amplifies his painstaking descriptions of subject matter. This is basic in all effective works of art, like Vermeer’s women seen in quiet contemplative activities with which his exquisite compositions are in perfect harmony.

“I recently ‘placed’ an abandoned buggy on the edge of a scrub woods with snow covered evergreens actually growing through it spokes. Quite aside from forming a reasonably balanced composition, the placement ‘spoke’ to viewers, many of whom said they felt at peace, at ease with the tired old wagon, experiencing perhaps a kind of metaphor for their own aging .

“Art or Illustration? The question has slowly become interesting to our 20th Century minds, increasingly attuned the advance of abstraction. As it exponents concentrated on “pure” form, their audience rejected the traditional skills of representation as ‘unnecessary,’ and felt that those who continued to work in a realistic vein were merely ‘illustrators’, as though excellence of composition was possible only in the abstract. I don’t suppose the questions ever came up before our time; did the Medici accuse Michelangelo of being an illustrator when the saw his ceiling? Or Botticelli’s “Birth Of Venus”? Or Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”? Or Degas’ “Ballet Dancers”? The bulk of art of the Western world has been concerned with people doing something.

“Art or illustration? Now, to be fair, a lot of representational art is superficial, relying on some literary explanation to be understood. We have been inundated with romantically charged ‘illustration’ through our flourishing publishing industry for some 150 years now, and yet much of that has been first rate art; i.e. Homer’s illustrations of the Spanish American War, or N.C.Wyeth’s work, and hundreds of others.

“When Wyeth says he was an ‘abstract painter’, I think he was talking about the vital necessity, the overriding importance of composition , which is fundamental to any effective art (and the summary of abstraction). But his art certainly speaks to our hearts directly without any literary explanation.”

An added, personal pleasure of ‘local identity’ is knowing Chick Peterson as a friend. Someone I can call, write. see. Someone who is always there, in place (village, home, studio) when I need to talk, share ideas (art and politics) and, if I’m lucky, have him regale me with a story only he can tell, inevitably filling his serene, studio atmosphere with raucous laughter.

Wyeth too, was ‘of a place.’ He rarely left Pennsylvania except for Maine in the summers. “You know,” Wyeth said, “after you travel you’re never the same—you get more erudite, you get more knowledge. I might lose something very important to my work—maybe innocence.”

‘Innocence’ returns my thoughts to childhood–Wyeth /Peterson. I recall Chick having mentioned in the past how Andrew’s father, the great illustrator, N.C. Wyeth, played a role in Chick’s development.

“As a kid I apparently was unusually interested in drawing, which I did constantly, even while brothers and neighborhood kids were playing baseball across the street. I do remember being especially excited by N. C. Wyeth’s wonderful illustrations for books like “Robinson Crusoe”, which our mother was reading to us boys evenings after our homework was done. I had a natural interest in cowboys and Indians, horses and boats, etc. and his stuff was enchanting for me.

“His son Andrew was apparently also ‘turned on’ by N. C.’s work, and one can only wonder at the impact of life at home with a successful, practicing artist. A rather sickly child, Andrew never got beyond the lower grades in school, but took up painting under the disciplined instruction of his father. Currently rare, such an early concentration in one’s field, produced a remarkable mastery of traditional technique.

“I remember Andrew Wyeth’s work was becoming known while I was studying at the American Academy in Chicago after WW II , but I didn’t encounter an original of his until I went to a Carnegie International with some fellow MFA students from Ohio U in 1954. This was one of his Maine barn scenes which deeply impressed me with his mastery of traditional representational technique and I took encouragement from that (at a time when my chief painting instructor at OU was trying to sidetrack me into abstraction, an older man who had gone through the same training as I at the American Academy and who claimed empathy with me facing the new directions of art). Wyeth’s exhaustive attention to visual truth communicated a sense of the importance of ordinary life, of its difficulties but also its beauties. And I think his dedication helped shape my own goals and choices thereafter. It gave me a sense that sharing the experiences of life was a valid effort. I think he gave me courage to paint “what I see, as I see it.” As Manet said, “If it succeeds, it is art. If it fails, start again. All the rest is trash.”

“Wyeth lived in quiet surroundings and painted the life around him. I am reminded of Cezanne who, when urged to move to Paris and join that exciting world of painters, said dismissively, “They TALK a good painting.” After a career as professor and department head, I felt encouraged by such examples to live in this very pleasant place and devote my life to painting “what I see.” I am one of thousands who keep an essentially traditional approach to what interests them. The eternal quest for effective composition while telling the truth about ordinary life is endlessly challenging for me, and I pray that I can follow Wyeth’s example of dedication until I reach my own end.

“Being human, I dream of achieving perfection, but being human (and not Vermeer) I know it will never happen. I take inspiration from painters like Wyeth (who came closer than most of us ever can ) and who dedicated his life to the quest and, in the process, shared with us his insights into the magnificent reality or ordinary life.”


norbert blei | a meditation on ‘getting it out there’

28 07 2008

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No. 147 | July 27, 2008


“Getting It Out There”

Norbert Blei

MEDITATIONS ON A SMALL LAKE, Requiem for a Diminishing Landscape by Norbert Blei. Published by  Ellis Press, David Pichaske, editor. 2008, $15, PO Box 6, Granite Falls, MN 56241Meditations on a Small Lake copyright 2008 by Norbert Blei. Originally published in 1987 by Ellis Press, Peoria, Illinois. Front Cover and page 71 art by Charles Peterson, Ephraim, Wisconsin. Back/inside covers, text page drawings by Emmett Johns, Fish Creek, Wisconson. ISBN: 978-0-944024-45-4

The easy part is writing a book. The hard parts include: finding a publisher; finding a newspaper, magazine, editor/reviewer/critic, somebody in the media to take note of your book; and (over the long haul) developing an audience of readers who will buy your book and look forward to purchasing your next one. They may not like everything you publish, but if you have touched them in any way with your words, if you have gotten hold of anything (in story, essay, poem) the way others see it, or may want to see it—you are on your way to establishing an audience.

The problem remains: the chasm between writer and reader. How do you find each other? Touch him/her? Cultivate them?

There’s always an outside chance every dream about your book comes true: agent, publisher, contract, advanced money, publication …book tours, bestseller list/sizzle, speaking engagements, movie options, prizes, university invitations/appointments, enough money to get you out of hock and almost make you comfortable for years to come. It happens.

But don’t count on it. There are some dreams that are best small…or forgotten. Most serious writers learn to live with these.

Let’s say the easy part is done. You have a first book (or another new one). And let’s say you’re holding the first copy in your hands .Finally. Now comes that hard part: getting it out there. PR, marketing, advertising, mail orders, readings, book signings, word-of-mouth… None of this a given by any publisher, large or small. None of it easy.

Friends and family can buy only so many books. The aura and excitement of publication fades quickly. Here’s your book. Here you are now, a published “author”… But nothing’s happening. Your parents smile and wish you had a real job. Your friends say, “Hey, nice! Congratulations,” may or may not buy copy—they have their own bills and busted dreams to deal with. Your spouse is thinking So what now? It’s still not bringing food to the table…contemplating greener pastures. Your Significant Other is feeling Insignificant. The attention you think your book deserves… that circle is smaller than you ever imagined…and grows smaller. You’re entering (or re-entering) the danger zone of no-man’s-land.

How to reach out? For writers who become disillusioned by the whole process, the question is not how? But why?

I would hate to estimate how many potential and practicing writers walk partway down “the road not taken”—turn back and take the other one which is more crowded and less unpredictable. How many of them give up, fail to develop, lose faith, see nothing but futility in attempting to live by one’s words alone. Years ago a friend of mine created this timetable: “If I don’t publish a book in the next few years…first I’m going to sell insurance. Then I’m going to shoot myself.” (He’s still alive. With a shelf of books to his credit.)

Shall we do the dance of promotion? Most writers and artists are notoriously bad at it. And even for those who are reasonably good at doing the hustle, find it more difficult these days as newspapers grow thinner, book sections disappear, advertisements are ineffective, and nobody knows your name. Everybody has more important things to do than pick up a book, and what readership remains often dwindles to “books-everybody-else-is-reading”—those books and non-books usually featured on major network-TV talk shows, often owned or in bed with the larger publishers whose books are being flogged…often by authors who lost their soul to the very nature of the corporate process of manufacturing books that sell. Not always true of course. But true enough.

Now I’m into ethics. This is all too large a problem to consider in so small a space.

Does the internet sell books? Well, yes. And no. sure does. But that’s another dance. So too bookstore signings, readings from every venue imaginable—living room book clubs, cofeeshops, bars, libraries, various speaking engagements–townhalls, beaches, parks, street corners… Most “underground writers,” have done them all, or will. And continue to do the dance to the end. Or walk off the floor.

Can you survive as a writer in America? Well, not really. Not anymore—if ever. It’s always THIS, and ‘that’—whatever else a writer has to do to make his life work. Too often ‘that’ destroys him. It all goes back to selling insurance and self-destruction. Or to mix some more metaphors, it’s a high-wire act. It was high-wire walker Karl Wallenda who said, “To be on the wire is life; all the rest is waiting,” shortly before he fell to his death.

But to return to the dance. In THE SECOND NOVEL (Becoming a Writer), December Press, 1978, (o.p.), I quoted Henry Miller for my forward:

You want to communicate. All right, communicate! Use any and every means…
At a certain point in my life I decided that henceforth I would write about myself, my friends, my experiences, what I knew and what I had seen with my own eyes. Anything else, in my opinion, is literature, and I am not interested in literature. I realized also that I should have to learn to content myself with what was within my grasp, my scope, my personal ken. I learned not to be ashamed of myself, to talk freely about myself, to advertise myself, to elbow my way in here and there when necessary…
You will have to do it yourself, dear man. Or do it as Homer did: travel the highways and byways with a white cane, singing your songs as you go. You may have to pay people to listen to you, but that isn’t an insuperable feat either. Carry a little “tea” with you and you’ll soon have an audience.
—Henry Miller

To repeat: Can you survive as a writer in America? I can give you some references off the top of my head, writers of considerable record, history, persistency: Ask Todd Moore (New Mexico); John Bennett (Washington state); Ron Baatz (New York state); A.D. Winans (California); Grace Butcher (Ohio/Alaska); t.k. splake (upper Michigan); Dave Etter (Illinois); Ron Whitehead (Kentucky); Alan Caitlin (New York); Jack Saunders (Florida); Bob Arnold (Vermont); Larry Smith (Ohio); Tom Montag (Wisconsin); David Kherdian (California/New York); Bill Kloefkorn (Nebraska); Eric Chaet (Wisconsin); Ron Offen (Illinois); Gerald Locklin (California); Leo Dangel (South Dakota); Antler (Wisconsin); Lyn Lifshin (New York/Virginia); John Brandi (New Mexico); Kenneth Gangemi (New York); Don Skiles, (California); David Clewell (Missouri): …for openers, I could easily add a hundred more, not to mention the ghosts of Frances May, Cid Corman, and Curt Johnson…reading their works, knowing their lives, how and in what shape they made it to the finish line.

You can persist—though that doesn’t guarantee survival unless you define survival on your own terms. Some years ago in Bisbee, Arizona, I walked past what looked like a deserted storefront window, but seated only a short distance behind the window at a table was a writer with a stack of books. BUY MY BOOK his sign said. Which was unbelievable, funny, desperate, and almost scary. I’ve never forgotten that. Nor the fact I never went into the abandoned store to engage him in conversation. I was married at the time, living in a desperate emptiness of my own. I feared that’s what could become of me if I continued to believe I could write and survive.

If somebody, anybody, gives you the smallest break by way of encouragement or exposure…you gotta give thanks. Which was my intention when I began writing this—only to see the piece swerve into whatever the hell I have here so far. You have to thank anyone who in any way responds to your work, even negatively. Any attention at all is important to a writer’s survival., from a professional critic, to a writer whose work and judgment you value highly, to a friend who speaks from both heart and mind, to a stranger you meet on the street who simply tells you: “I really like your book.”

“Thank you.”

All of this by way of acknowledging Joe Knappen of the Door County Advocate, and Doug Moe of The Wisconsin State Journal for their reviews of MEDITATIONS ON A SMALL LAKE. Hopefully other reviews will follow, though I wouldn’t bet on it, given the writer’s situation discussed so far. Trust me, these two reviews alone are more than many serious writers in the Midwest (especially with smaller, regional presses) could ever hope for.

In addition to the newspaper reviews, I’ve decided to include/print the “unsolicited testimonials” I have received thus far. (Forgive me, I didn’t ask anyone’s permission and only used his or her initial and will gladly remove it if your are uncomfortable seeing your words in print.) What my friends, readers, fellow writers say and think, matters too–and plays a huge part in my own history of survival.

by Joe Knappen

Door County Advocate,
May 24, 2008

Readers who know only the bluster of Norbert Blei might have missed the point.

To get a better grip on the writer and his favorite theme, readers might want to treat themselves to the re-release of “Meditations on a Small Lake,” an expanded version and third edition of his 1987 best selling book.

“Meditations” is a far from the powerful invective of Blei’s “Chronicles of a Rural Journalist in America”—compendium of columns published in the Door Reminder —or his sesquicentennial blistering of aspects of Peninsula life.

“Meditations” is more in keeping with Blei’s signature work, “Door Way, Door Steps and Door to Door.”

The three works went a long way to define and/or explain Door County, its characters and its special nature.

Indeed, “Meditations” is , all the word implies: Quiet, reverential, a devotional to the start beauty of his adopted landscape, a love letter to the fragile Peninsula.

In the 40 years since Blei escaped Chicago to settle into an old farmhouse in northern Door County, he has done nothing but write and help other writers write.

In that time, Blei has built a considerable body of work: stories, poems, public and commercial radio commentaries, public television programs, newspaper columns, magazine articles, online writing and books. Nearly all focus on Door County

The loss of the rural character and community of Door County continue to be recurrent themes in Blei’s print work and online writing (www.blei and books.

In April, Blei released the third reprinting of the 1987 book, and the “Meditations” continue to be a testament to changing times.

He remains staunch in his defense of preservation of the natural landscape — in Door County or any rural landscape threatened by over-development and crass commercialism.

Blei muses to pin down and define the quintessential elements that make Door County the place it is and explain why its people are the way they are.

The new edition contains three new essays, and the whole takes on a more mellow aspect, like exchanging an electric hard body for a mellow acoustic guitar.

Reenforcing the natural mode is the substitution of the original photographs of the first two editions with drawings by artist Emmett Johns.

The quiet cover drawn by Charles Peterson of Ephraim continues to retain its force in drawing the reader into the book.

Emmett Johns’ portrait of the author on the back cover is real enough to convince the readers they can hear the howl of the Coyote.

“Meditations on a Small Lake,” 122 pages in the il¬lustrated 2008 edition, can be obtained from Ellis Press, P.O. Box 6, Granite Falls, Minn., 56241 for $15 plus $2 for shipping and handling. The book can be | obtained from the author) at Norbert Blei, PO. Box 33, Ellison Bay, Wis. 54210.

[Joe Knaapen is the assistant editor of the Door County Advocate. Contact him at joeATdoorcountyadvocateDOTcom or at (920) 743-3321]

Emment Johns Illustration taken from Meditations on a small lake by Norbert Blei

by Doug Moe

Wisconsin State Journal
June 6, 2008

Norbert Blei doesn’t get angry so much anymore but when he does, he knows what to do. As one of Wisconsin’s foremost men of letters, Blei recalls Mark Twain, who said, “When angry, count four; when very angry, swear.”

In other words, we all must suffer fools and foolishness in this world, but there comes a time when enough is enough.

Now, thanks to Blei and Minnesota’s Ellis Press, discerning readers angered by the noise and mushrooming commercialism in everyday life have an option apart from swearing a blue streak in a primal scream room.

They might instead get themselves a copy of Blei’s “Meditations on a Small Lake,” a cult classic when first issued in 1987 and now reprinted in a fine new edition that includes three new essays and beautiful illustrations, including one of the author, by the artist Emmett Johns.

“It’s a hodgepodge of a book,” Blei said Wednesday, when I tracked him down at home in Door County. “But sometimes that can click.”

This one clicks. Blei offers a mix of his essays — alternately evocative and angry — on his beloved Door County with a selection of magazine and newspaper interviews in which Blei is the subject. Inevitably, the changing face of Door, where Blei moved from Chicago four decades ago, is the subject, too.

Madison-area readers will smile to see included in “Meditations” a piece on Blei written by the late Madison author and radio raconteur George Vukelich. Twin sons of different mothers, those two, sharing a love of literature, the land, and a bedrock belief that humor trumps pomposity every time.

In his piece, originally published in Milwaukee Magazine, Vukelich notes that a mutual acquaintance had warned him about Blei: “He’s different. It’s like a mixture of Studs Terkel and Henry David Thoreau.”

Vukelich could relate because George, who suffered a fatal heart attack in 1995, was himself a man of many parts, a political activist, environmentalist, writer and broadcaster. I remember him captaining a stool at the old Fess bar, telling stories. Norb Blei heard many of those same stories when Vukelich took his WIBA radio program “Pages from North Country Notebook” to a statewide audience on Wisconsin Public Radio.

“I miss him so much on the Wisconsin scene,” Blei said of Vukelich.

Vukelich’s use of the description of Blei as part Terkel, part Thoreau was particularly apt because Blei’s life and writing has frequently shifted between Chicago and Door County.

I met Blei for the first time in 2003 when he was in Madison to read at Canterbury from “Chi Town,” his collection of pieces on his native Chicago that remains my favorite of all his works. It had just been reissued by the Northwestern University Press so a new generation of readers could get Norb’s inimitable take on Chicago institutions like Nelson Algren, Mike Royko and the hot dog.

Blei’s favorite Madison place is Nick’s on State Street, but that first time we met at the Laurel Tavern on Monroe, because Norb had been meeting down the street with the University of Wisconsin Press about the possibility of their reissuing his Door County trilogy that began with “Door Way.” (That collaboration, alas, failed to come to pass.)

He drank Scotch at the Laurel and proved as provocative in person as he is on the page. He signed my copy of “Chi Town.” He promised to stay in touch, and he has.

This week, Blei said he is happy to see “Meditations” back in print. It has given him a chance to re-examine his complicated relationship with Door County, which he loves for its beauty and quiet spaces and hates because that same allure may be responsible for its ruin in the form of condos and commercial development. In the book, Blei notes ruefully that a condo developer once called to cheerfully tell the author he’d put a copy of one of Blei’s books in all his condos.

Still, there remain places in Door where Blei can find the quiet he seeks. He quotes Melville: “Silence is the only voice of our God.” He told me that a former Door resident, returning from Maine for the first time in two decades, recently offered this assessment: “It’s not that bad.”

The first reading for the new edition of “Meditations on a Small Lake” came about when Blei was talking with a friend of his who is minister of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Juddville, in Door County.
“The proper place to launch this book is a church,” Blei said.

“Use mine,” the minister said.

The reading is Monday evening. “It’s perfect,” said Blei, Wisconsin’s amiable contrarian. “Nobody knows where Juddville is.”

[Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoeATmadisondotcom.]

Charles Peterson Illustration taken from Meditations on a small lake by  Norbert Blei


Just wanted to say what a GEM the revised edition of “Meditations” is! Pure Zen–in the feel of it in your hand; the black and white, spare drawings of Emmett’s; and, of course, in the words. The prologue and epilogue nearly made me cry, and the new color is perfect–the blue of the ever present, surrounding waters.

Comforting, but disturbing, to know that, though I’ve been coming here for 25 years now, you’ve been here over 40, and still don’t know what it is about this place…but maybe it’s that Ultimate Question–we finally have to accept that we don’t KNOW the answer, never will and that is the peace and purpose of all…

I have read the prologue, the foreword, the epilogue. You know I don’t always agree with what you say, I don’t think you can “keep time in a bottle”, I think we are destined to evolve, to always be seeking and finding more. I wouldn’t want to live in Buckingham palace but I’m glad it exists. But even if I don’t always agree with what you say I always, always am awestruck and overcome with the way you say it. It is incredible how deeply you can embody each moment, feel every nuance, and then put it on paper in a way that enables, even forces, less perceptive people to enlarge their senses and experience it too. The epilogue especially. Oh, my God–catching a slap of wind in his eyes–hands curled warmly in black mittens—the wind in the tips of pine trees, –opens his mouth childlike, in communion, tasting the sacred quiet.

Maybe you do put time in a bottle. Charlie and Chester [from DOOR WAY] are caught in agate for the rest of us to see and remember the quiet beauty of their lives, for people long after we have “walked into our own shadows” as you put it. Maybe the exact circumstances will never be the same again, but you have caught them for others to remember and revere. probably for generations.

There is one place where you say it is not just the light, or the water or the light combining with the water that creates the mystique of Door county, that you are still searching for it and it is something spiritual, and that is so beautiful and so right. Everyone feels it. And that is what you are trying to save, to preserve. I understand that feeling and share it, and share wanting it to be saved. It is both tangible and intangible, and I think in a greater sense it is something within your own self Norbert, something that can’t be destroyed.

I think if you had never come to Door you would have found it in a Cathedral in the city when all the votive lights were lit, or in the glow of a woman’s cigarette beckoning from a dark door, or from the wild luridly colored lights on a wet city pavement. This “holy” thing is everywhere and everything. It is the presence of God, and you found it as much in Nik Klein who made rocking horses and the newsie and the hot dog seller as you did in James Farrell, or Charlie and Chester. And that is your great gift to witness and see it.

You are as the Gypsy said, “A seer.” and beyond that “a feeler.” You are able to see deeper and feel more and then give that gift to others, to open eyes and hearts.

Emmett Johns Illustration taken from Meditations on a small lake by Norbert Blei

It is truly wonderful, lyrical, poetic, you at your writerly best. We never had a copy, for some reason, maybe just didn’t run across it when we came here in 1989.

I don’t know if I’ve ever told you but it was “Meditations” (I picked it up at Passtimes Books, I think in 1994 or 95) that moved me to write to you about your other books and whether you did workshops. And I never never write those kinds of fan letters. You responded very graciously with plenty of info and a Clearing brochure. It took me another two years to get to the Clearing… When I got home…that year…after years of
floundering…I was committed and reaffirmed as a poet. It was at that point that I decided to make something out of my art.

So the long and short of it is that I can say absolutely that where I am as a poet today is a direct effect of having read “Meditations” back in 1994.

Part Terkel, part Thoreau, huh? And the soul and conscience of Door County, as well. I am glad you are reissuing “Meditations . . .” It really is time to reissue the trilogy too, isn’t it? Thanks,

Something in the Bible says a man cannot be a hero in his home town. You may be such in Door County and Chicago, but the commies in Mad-Town seem to appreciate your jaded view…

read it. great job. i am in fact reading the first edition. it’s great.

……as you know still my favorite [book] and I think one of Emmett’s best sketch’s…… look like a “Goat” I have named “Hairy” that is too stubborn to go up on the roof!!

congrats…that’s a really good review–hope you sell a ton of copies.

If you ever want to come read at the coffeehouse I have a couple months open for the 08-09 season, including Dec 20 (reconnect w/yr Chicago-area friends/students and sell books for folks to give as xmas presents)

Emmett Johns Illustration taken from Meditations on a small lake by Norbert Blei

Thanks for sending the new edition of Meditations… It is vastly improved in visual appeal and readability. The livelier blue cover with white title and illustration, the great Emmett Johns sketches (including portrait of NB), and the improved type font of the text — all make for a sweet little volume! And the added essays are great! Especially liked the quote from Everyday Suchness…

I realized as you read tonight…You articulated my feeling about the spirit of the county and that led me to become involved… Great to see you and I thank you for responding to my letters—nearly fifteen years ago. It meant and means much to me. (gotta see if they’re worth anything on e-bay ..)

your book of lake meditations is keeping me company late at night. it has a warmth, beauty and wisdom that is downright soulful.

Charles Peterson’s cover drawing of a lone man in a boat captures the essence of everything in the book. I can’t keep my eyes off it. I can’t keep from opening the book again to any page, entering the beauty and silence you capture in words.

The epilogue to the new edition of MEDITATIONS is so beautiful…

I wanted to write you a note and tell you how much I have enjoyed Meditations on a Small Lake…
It was wonderful!!!!!! I find it hard to believe that I had never read it before…
As I was reading it I was thinking…YES YES….as I feel many of the things you describe…so beautifully (“it’s the light … Moisture and light etc etc….)…….but could never express as you do…I enjoyed the story In defense of Abandoned Farms as I have always wondered about these places when walking or riding past them…

Emmett Johns drawings are so beautiful and such a gift to have in your book ~to think a person can create such lovely drawings with just pencil and paper…

I really thank you for making this lovely book is available again to us all….