Mastering the art of biting the bullet

Amidst the clutter of studio work space, painter Lily Scherlis makes the edges of the canvas – and the world outside – disappear.

By Lily Scherlis '18
2016 Artist Development Fellow

Lily Scherlis ’18, a resident of Dunster House and joint concentrator in Comparative Literature and Visual and Environmental Studies, was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship to explore links between the visual and the textual and between the practice of oil painting and theories of modern media. Scherlis is a staff artist for The Harvard Lampoon and a staff writer for The Harvard Advocate. She studied oil painting at the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts in Paros, Greece in 2013 and was an intern during the summer of 2015 at the Art Farm in Marquette, Nebraska. She plans to continue pursuing art and writing. This is the second of two blog posts about Scherlis's work in Cambridge this summer; here is the first.

Mornings are for reading – Rudolf Arnheim's Visual Thinking, which is supposed to partially explain why Harvard's studio art department is called Visual and Environmental Studies; Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and ArchitectsMaurice Merleau-Ponty on Cezanne’s painting practice and his temperament. I'm known to show up at the Fine Arts Library with a suitcase for books. I have started a notebook which is one long list of the hundreds of artists I've read about or heard about and now need to go look up, and a notebook of the names of all of the artists I've already looked up, looked into.

I keep a third notebook of painting ideas. I add to it feverishly, on a whim, 10 or 12 times a day. I don't read back through it. One in 20 of these ideas goes onto a canvas. Of the remaining 19, another two become sketches or performances or photographs or films. Seventeen ideas were born to sit on the page, and I am still not sure what separates the three from the 17. Here I am learning to follow my gut.

Around 1 p.m. each and every day (this is how I have to do it: I have to set a time, an alarm on my phone), I cycle to the undergraduate literati's glorified clubhouse: My studio is on the ground floor, in a back corner office which is not more than 30 square feet. It contains a giant black filing cabinet that doesn't really fit well anywhere in the room. An enormous wooden desk. My 20-ounce aluminum easel. A side table for palettes. Two windows, both falling off their hinges. An industrial lamp on a flexible arm, screwed into the desk. I have accumulated clutter: dozens of art books and old wax-paper palettes litter the desk. Canvases pile against every wall. The point of all of this, it turns out, is to fade into the background.

I don't waste time: I get right to it. I have mastered the art of biting the bullet, of getting brush in hand before I’ve even decided what I’m working on. I have my long-sleeved t-shirt-turned-smock on before I’m in the door. I jam a box-fan into one window and hook up my tiny bluetooth speakers, which play at max volume to compensate for the fan. I make the first mark before I can get too precious about it.

There is an officer who checks documents at the border between my right brain and my left. When I have a brush in my hand and the music turned up loud, he closes the border and takes his lunch. No judgments may pass through. While he chows down, time slows and stalls. I cease to be present in the stuffy room with the hot tubes of paint and the tinny small-speaker music: I am inside the canvas.

 

There’s a limit to how long I can stay there. I’ve been trying to push that limit further out all summer – to paint uninterrupted for four or five hours at least. On a fresh canvas, I can keep that officer out to lunch for a good three hours or so, at which point the line of judgments in their big old SUVs stretches so far back that the re-energized border officer has no choice but to take his legs off his desk, puts his sunglasses back on, and start checking documents.

Right about then I pick the wet, oily canvas straight up off the easel and climb out through the window and lean it up against the side of the building. I sit down on the sticky-hot asphalt in the parking lot beside the clubhouse and scrutinize my work. I scrutinize, in silence, for a good 20 minutes.

 

All this is really about one thing: making the edges of the canvas, the world outside, disappear. If you can’t do this, you won’t be getting anywhere. All you will see are the page numbers in books, the clutter on the desk of your studio. All you will feel is each word you try to get down on the page crawling like a bug up from the back of your throat.

All this carefully constructed ritual and routine has given me the precious ability to suspend the obsessive efficiency and self-judgment and to stop constantly running the internal algorithms that give me an approximation of how many different layers and how many hours on each layer I am going to need to bring this painting to an end. I haven’t made two-dozen masterful paintings this summer but I have learned to disappear for hours at a time into a single one, to suspend my awareness of the heat in the room or the way my shoes feel on my feet.

When I come out of it many hours later, however, I couldn’t tell you how much time has passed. I haven’t been here. I have been absolutely present in the separate, linear world of text or inside the picture plane. I have been in Cambridge all summer but I have also left daily for parts unknown. I am ineffably grateful for the opportunity to get to know each and every one of these places.

The Artist Development Fellowship program, jointly administered by the Office for the Arts at Harvard, the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships and Office of Career Services, awards 10-15 fellowships annually to promising and/or accomplished student artists and creators who have an unusual opportunity for artistic growth and transformation. The program is open to all undergraduates currently enrolled in Harvard College, and applications are evaluated by the Council on the Arts, a standing committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. For more information, visit the OFA website or call 617.495.8676.