Whisperings from the Wormhole with @talluts

Let’s Keep Thinking About Pollyanna

A painting of a person leaning on a table

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Woman in a Window (detail) 1957 Richard Diebenkorn, Collection Buffalo AKG Art Museum / Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1958

Have you heard about a mysterious note found among Richard Diebenkorn’s papers that he made for himself in his later years? It’s a motivational studio credo titled Notes to Myself on Beginning a Painting and is comprised of ten tips. All ten are fascinating to think about, but number eight is the most enigmatic:

“Keep thinking about Pollyanna.”

A close-up of a piece of paper

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Richard Diebenkorn’s studio note Notes to Myself on Beginning a Painting, © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

I was reading through these as an artist and as a painter and was nodding along one to seven, but then screeched to a halt at number eight. “Pollyanna?” What did he mean? Google returned only a light dusting of blog coverage. Everyone seemed to be avoiding discussion about the perplexing number eight. And that just fascinated me more.

This painterly riddle casually began gnawing at my brain as the weeks went on. Doing the dishes: Pollyanna? Going to the grocery store: Pollyanna? Watching TV: Pollyanna? I was a Miss Marple; a Hercule Poirot. What did The Dieb mean? As we all know, in cultural parlance, “a Pollyanna” is shorthand for a naively optimistic person. So, did he just mean to stay positive in the face of cynicism, career disappointments, and negative feedback? Or was it something deeper?

Although the dictionary Pollyanna is a term we all know, I wondered about the original book that had started it all. I went back to the source and read Pollyanna, written by Eleanor H. Porter in 1913. The book tells the story of an eleven-year-old Pollyanna Whittier, who is orphaned and goes to live with her begrudging Aunt Polly in a fictional town set in Vermont. In the months to come, she proceeds to charm the pants off the whole cranky community. And in truth, Pollyanna does meet every challenge with a buoyant optimism, constantly making lemonade out of lemons. But boy, does she have big challenges. Her life consistently sucks, and, to fight off depression, she practices something called the “glad game.” Her recently deceased father taught her the glad game when she was disappointed that a doll didn’t arrive in the missionary barrel (They were flat-broke and depended on charity to make ends meet, especially at Christmas). The game was “to just find something about everything to be glad about, no matter what ‘twas.”

The doll didn’t come, but a tiny set of doll crutches did. The person packing their alms had felt badly that there was no doll, so they put the little crutches (an accessory to the doll) inside, hoping that they might bring some solace. Pollyanna and her dad reframed the sad: “No doll,” to the glad: “We don’t need crutches ourselves.” Later, finding herself alone after her father’s death, she turns to the glad game for comfort: to endure her grief, her aunt’s cold neglect and her temporary paralysis after getting hit by a carriage. Spoiler alert: she glad-games her way through it all. But it’s hard, even for her. Eventually, she learns to walk again and even defrosts her grouchy aunt and yentas her back together with her ex-boyfriend, the town doctor.

A blue and yellow painting

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Ocean Park 89.5 1975 Richard Diebenkorn, Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Anna R., and Frank M. Hall Charitable Trust by exchange, H–3091.1999

But back to Diebenkorn’s number eight. Did he mean “play the glad game”? Perhaps in the studio, when working on a particularly difficult piece, he needed cheering. Or maybe when he found himself in a lull in his career? The art market is infamous for being New York-centric and for holding up only an elite few. He worked far away in California and could have felt left out at times.

In my search, I also discovered some psychological thought out there that references Pollyanna. The Pollyanna principle, developed in 1978 by Margaret Matlin and David Stang, asserts that people show a positive bias towards their past (i.e., the good old days). And there’s a tendency for folks to remember pleasant things more accurately and vividly than unpleasant ones. In our studios, we tend to remember our past work as having fallen right into place – kismet. Like a parent post-childbirth, we forget the pain and remember the process with an over-optimistic glow. Making an object that holds meaning for us can be difficult, has been difficult and will in the future still be difficult. We forget that some of our best works seemed doomed at times during the creation process. We remember only that great feeling of its final resolution. Was Diebenkorn thinking about his painterly struggles and reminding himself to persevere through periods of painterly despair?

A painting of a blue and yellow rectangular object

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Ocean Park 132 1985 Richard Diebenkorn, © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Or was it something else? Another psychological term I found is Pollyanna syndrome. This is a quasi-delusional state marked by a person who is excessively positive and blind towards reality: the commonly known definition. And being a total Pollyanna in the studio is not advisable. One can’t grow as an artist without also having an editor’s eye.

Early in the story, Pollyanna’s no-fun Aunt Polly scolds her for having a day of fun (or a day of “living,” as Pollyanna calls it). In the future, she instructs her young charge to ensure that her activities are ”profitable, as well.” Shocked, Pollyanna asks her aunt: “Just being glad isn’t pro-fi-ta-ble?” And Aunt Polly responds sternly, “Certainly not.” Always doing one’s duty and having something to show for our time is a stifling concept artistically. Pumping out products of commercial value without joy or experimentation is a grim prospect indeed. Pollyanna models the creative spirit for us (and maybe for Diebenkorn) by allowing herself some time to do the “unprofitable” things she longs to do. In Pollyanna’s case, that was playing outdoors, reading, climbing hills, and talking to Mr. Tom in the garden. She believed a fully lived life was more than “breathing” and working.

Richard Diebenkorn’s Studio 1993, © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation (left) Untitled 1992, © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation (right)

Maybe Diebenkorn was reminding himself to lighten up sometimes. When his career ascended, he might have felt constrained by the new market expectations and commitments.

Ultimately, Diebenkorn says he found a Pollyanna-like freedom in making his Ocean Park series:

“I wanted to get away from having to follow all the obligations, so to speak, that were carried by a given

subject. I suppose I just wanted more freedom, but it doesn’t take long before that totally different set of disciplines starts to, in a bad moment, throttle you. And so, it’s finally the same difficult thing. But one has moments of hope when he changes to a new scene.“

In other words, keep thinking like Pollyanna.

As a successful artist (canon-bound at the time), I wonder if Diebenkorn might have also thinking been about how fame can come with a certain level of sycophancy and parasitic opportunism from one’s own artist friends. In other words, no one will tell you that they don’t like your work anymore. Everyone becomes (at least to you) a Pollyanna. In the 2004 New York Times article, One Brief Scuzzy Moment, Gary Indiana describes the Pollyanna-friend-of-fame perfectly: “Too many esteemed local talents had acquired an insulating crust of uncritical creative worship. The banal efforts of once exciting artists received rote adulation from clacks less concerned about quality than about sparing a friend’s feelings.” The once exciting artists were kind of trapped in a gilded cage, out of touch with what people really thought. Because they had something others wanted (prestige, shows, acclaim), they were doomed forever to insincere flattery. All the while, they were losing their edge, and everyone knew it but them.

A close-up of a book

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First edition of Pollyanna (interior illustration on the right) by Eleanor H. Porter, 1913

My final theory, and the one I’m leaning towards myself, centers on illness. In the 80’s and until his death in 1993, Diebenkorn suffered from worsening heart disease. He was in and out of the hospital a lot at this time. Even when he was home, his recovery periods and weakness often prevented him from simply walking across the backyard to his studio. How frustrating for such an artist, only in his sixties and making the best work of his career, to be repeatedly debilitated and prevented from working. His creative mind was wound like a spring, poised to paint, but he could only release the tremendous backlog of ideas in fits and starts.

He was in the midst of his famous Ocean Park series when illness hit. He couldn’t work large anymore. But instead of succumbing, he pivoted and found a way to persevere. He made spare, whimsical Paul-Klee-like lithographs full of lines and occasional letters. He made soft, radiating paper collages that extended the Ocean Park work. And he made studies of mundane objects around his bedside and in the house, including floral still lives — all full of that Pollyanna-ish joy of living.

A drawing of a briefcase

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Untitled 1990 Richard Diebenkorn, © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Pollyanna, too, half-paralyzed in her sick bed with her non-working legs, tried to play the glad game: “One by one, the short winter days came and went – but they were not short to Pollyanna. They were long and sometimes full of pain. Very resolutely, these days, however, Pollyanna was turning a cheerful face toward whatever came.”

Personally, I’m a big fan of the smaller, more portable late works. Limited as he was by energy and space, he nevertheless left us beautiful jewel-like collages made up of glued zips and slants of creamsicle California light and moody, ink-dark drawings of stoic household objects in graphite and gouache. There’s one of a half open, old fashioned lunch pail set atop a folded newspaper from 1990, and another of a single pair of folded eyeglasses (his signature style) atop a drawing of two card suits, spade, and heart from 1991, just two years before he died. One of the latest works is from 1992, a watercolor and graphite collage of a bulging skull with a vast forehead on a black background, with a colorful fat and thin geometric border. The skull seems to be collapsing under its own weight and crumbling before our very eyes.

He may have struggled to play the glad game that day.

Skull 1992 Richard Diebenkorn, © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation / Photo by Kathie Longinotti

Predictably, Pollyanna got back to the glad in the end: “Why, I’m glad now I lost my legs for a while, for you never, never know how perfectly lovely legs are ‘till you haven’t got them…I’m going to walk eight steps tomorrow.” Could her indomitability and radical not-taking-a-single-thing-for-granted-ness (even in the face of debilitating illness) be the model that inspired Diebenkorn to keep making? Little Pollyanna Whittier eschewed profitability for joy, and she built up a loving crowd around her of reformed curmudgeons. She was undaunted by tragedy, cruelty, or ungraciousness. Give her a hot, stuffy room in an attic full of flies, and she’ll happily scoot out the window onto the roof, sleep under the stars, and thank you for the opportunity. You can reject her, insult her, scold her, and she’ll be bouncing down the lane afterwards with nary a whiff of self-doubt or self-recrimination. She never worries about what life might throw at her because she always has the glad game in the back pocket of her worn gingham dress. Pollyanna gives us all some tough love: When life gives you lemons, drink a glass of glad – and get on with things, you big baby.

A person sitting in a chair

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Richard Diebenkorn at home in Healdsburg, CA, 1993, Courtesy Estate of Leo Holub

Naturally, I was thinking about Diebenkorn and Pollyanna when painter, Clarity Haynes [LINK: https://clarityhaynes.com], posted a short Emily Dickinson poem on her Instagram story a few months ago. And I couldn’t help but read it through the Pollyanna filter. The poem struck me as something Pollyanna might write if she were a reclusive yet witty poet from Massachusetts. The poem is a sort of ebullient who-cares-if-they-don’t-value-me-now-because-one-day they-might-if-I-just-keep-myself-from-quitting sentiment. And I’ll end my essay with this poem because I’ll never be one hundred percent sure about the meaning of the eighth note for a satisfying final reveal. But I also kind of love that, too. Here’s Emily:

They might not need me, but they might.

I’ll let my Head be just in sight;

A smile as small as mine might be

Precisely their necessity.

-Emily Dickinson

And never ever, no matter what, stop thinking about Pollyanna.

About the writer: Amy Talluto is a multimedia artist working in painting, sculpture, and collage who lives in Upstate NY and hosts a podcast called “Pep Talks for Artists.” This written piece can be listened to as an audio essay in podcast form, as well as many others on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere you get your podcasts. Amy Talluto’s monthly column “Whisperings from the Wormhole” will bring you artist-to-artist pep talks with topics ranging from self-doubt to artists who make work in their kitchens.