"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. 
In effect, the people who change our lives the most begin to 
sing to us while we are still in darkness. If we listen to 
their song, we will see the dawning of a new part of ourselves."

Rabindranth Tagore

Existential Intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to engage questions about human existence – how we got here, whether we have a purpose, and whether there is meaning in Life. Existential intelligence embraces the exploration of aesthetics, philosophy, religion and values like beauty, truth, and goodness. A strong existential intelligence allows human beings to see their place in the big picture, be it in the classroom, community, world, or universe.

First proposed by Howard Gardner, existential intelligence is one of nine theorized intelligences and is considered to be amoral – that is, it and the other eight categories of human intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Choice and Surrender

It’s been a quiet block in this existential neighborhood for several months. Time reserved for contemplative writing diminished as projects that required active doing entered in.

The good news? A studio dream that has been manifesting for years is coming to fruition. There are pictures and street level, get your jeans dirty stories at artclothchangepurse.blogspot.com. I am very proud of this solid project. It will touch lives and do good. But it sure is time-consuming hard work.

I also returned to the board of the Surface Design Association as vice president. For those of you who aren’t familiar with SDA, or who couldn’t attend the international conference last summer, there’s a podcast of my talk, which was entitled What Matters? on the SDA website, along with several other great talks from the conference.

Time invested in SDA is worth it. It’s an opportunity to sculpt the association into a fresh, 21st century version of itself. But it takes an awful lot of time. I didn’t realize it would be such hard work. I didn't realize how fragile making decisions can feel sometimes.

Which leads to true confessions. I’ve been busy but I haven’t been happy. Studio time disappeared. Contemplative writing time vanished. A book project went stale. I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights. A lot of sleepless nights.

I know it, but I forget it; a spiritual practice is so important. Praying is good. Rigorous self-examination is good. I had to get a few years under my belt before I could recognize this is why we call it life cycles. Facing down fear and self-doubt; coming through the dark night intact. Reclaiming equilibrium. It doesn’t happen just once.

A long time ago my father tried to tell me this. But I couldn’t hear him. I thought once you got through school and fell in love and got a job, life would be set. Two marriages, an abortion and a bankruptcy later, I let go of that idea.

I could characterize this as growing into balance, but that’s not really it. Maybe growing up and choosing balance says it better.

After I got over the idea that life isn’t automatically once and for all set, ever, I embraced Joseph Campbell’s admonition to follow my bliss. This is not a bad idea. It’s echoed in a book title from 1989, Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow. Good advice for anyone mired in the belief that fulfilling someone else’s expectations will make your life work out ok. Following your bliss is another way of saying you have to take care of yourself first. Put on your own oxygen mask; then help the person next to you on the plane.

But following your bliss is just one more station along the road to enlightenment.

What then?
I believe it’s in this prayer:

Stay in present time
Seek only the truth
Surrender your will to God
Love is the only true power
Honor thyself
Honor one another
All is one.


Surrender is the stage I’m in now. I thought I would be happy following my bliss off into the sunset, but I realized I was wrong. There is another kind of happy. The happy that comes from surrendering to the opportunities that manifest, even when I feel unable, or ill prepared. Choosing to put aside studio time for a while, because it feels better to spend time on projects that will ripple wider. It feels like an alchemical mix of surrender and choice.

And it’s just another stage. It’s where I am right now.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Hubris

There’s a whole lot in Life to be unsure of
But one thing I can safely say I know
That of all the things that finally desert us
Pride is always the last thing to go.


-Mary Chapin Carpenter

I should have known what was coming when I had a reading in January. I must follow that statement with this one: I believe in the possibility of everything. I believe in prayer, readings, intuition, healing arts and evil. I mainly believe in all of these possibilities of reality because I am old enough to have been humbled by all other realities. I am a witness to the broad scope of the unknown. And yet I have faith. I do believe we each have a path we are meant to follow. A place we are meant to be.

Hubris. Pride. Caroline Myss writes poignantly/powerfully about this very basic human failing. We are each more afraid of humiliation than we are of anything else we experience in Life. Why shouldn’t this be true? It’s all about survival. Evolutionists and Biblical scholars alike must admit that past tense humans were better at surviving when they were capable of rebuking humiliation. As if we didn’t know where those phrases came from - Buck up. Get over it. Get some balls.

Whatever it takes don’t let anyone humiliate you.

I look out my window and there is a squirrel 50 feet up; jumping from branch to branch in the late afternoon light. The squirrel looks fearless. The branch springs and then there’s a bounce. My breathless gasp - followed by a touch down on the next branch, whether higher or lower.

I have witnessed the death of a squirrel when it leapt accidentally onto the electrical transformer that faces the alley. A blast of sparks. A flash of life exploding. It took down the power for four hours. It can happen.

Two weeks ago a friend of mine died. In retrospect he was one of the most alive human beings I’ve ever met. His death was crushing. His wife, with whom I am fortunate to have a long and deep friendship, told me that before he died he asked her why she’d never been willing to let him take care of her. “I’ve always had to do it myself.” she said to me. “That’s who I am.”

I could relate. Even in the depths of love and trust, something calls us to do for ourselves. I can’t judge whether it is right or wrong. It just is. Painfully just is.

So I continue along my path; often feeling that the best I can do is to rebuke scattershot BB’s in favor of one clear bullet, focussed on the task at hand. All I can do is get up early, take time to figure out how the day should go. Focus on what a class needs most in order to be self-propelled. Admit it when I am wrong. When the supply list asks for two yards of silk and I recognize way too late that this was an errant cut and paste. Apology needed. Humbled self. Keep on going.

Is your work calling to you? Family? Love or death?

Take your best shot.
Get up the next morning and do it again.
Amen.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Symbolic Color and Hard Content


Last week I got an invitation to review the latest issue of Hand/Eye from Annie Waterman. If you aren’t familiar with Hand/Eye, check it out. This issue is devoted to Global Color and the photos alone will knock your socks off. Icing on the cake that the writing is solid, too.

Activist Mary Fisher writes poignantly about red. It was timely. I was coming off the second week of my 2011 Mastery Program and we discuss strategies to take work deeper. Participants are charged with assessing their own symbolic use of color. Sure, there are cultural and societal memes related to color - holiday colors, Halloween colors, colors for weddings and mournings. But each of us has a distinctive color vocabulary - one that’s personally symbolic. If we don’t analyze it intentionally, it operates in our work by default.

So what does blue mean to you?

India Flint wrote about her iceflower recipes and she’s always a good read. Author and Fulbright scholar Catherine McKinley describes the rich black mourning cloths in Ghana as one of her most memorable textile encounters, and shares her memories of the funeral of a friend’s husband with Hand/Eye readers.

Emotion. The profound power of color and pattern and making. Color is a life lesson. The essays from Hand/Eye this month are contributions worthy of rumination.

The profound power of making and art. Color and emotion. A rich and offensive - even frightening - mix for some viewers, and perhaps by association, for some artists.

There are various sorts of controversy in the art world. Some of it is manufactured. Stunts by artists who are 99% personality and 1% art. It takes all kinds. What about artists who want to comment on sensitive topics in their work? A discussion in class focussed on work that references the destruction of the World Trade towers. On the anniversary of 9/11 artists’ responses to the loss were featured on Facebook and on the front page of the major newspaper in Seattle. When is work honor, when is it an invasion of privacy and when is it shameless self-promotion? Are images of people jumping from collapsing buildings ever legitimate subject matter for a work of art?

I suspect each reader will have his or her own opinion of this, and it may be based on how close to a tragedy he or she is. Hard to have an impersonal opinion when the tragedy is personal.

And what about the potential to be criticized or ostracized because of work you’ve made? We’re all familiar with the idea of being politically correct. If I make art that offends someone’s sensibility, will it impact my ability to make a living? Am I morally obligated to make it anyway? Andres Serrano is an artist who has spent an entire career challenging societal and religious norms and it’s probably safe to say that viewers either hate his work or love it, but the reaction is never neutral.

Recently a colleague wrote to say that a piece of hers - which featured an AK47 gun and real letters from soldiers (some of which contained profanity) - was returned by an exhibition that accepted it, before the exhibition had actually been mounted. The work was considered inappropriate. It was probably the profanity that blocked the piece from exhibition, since the venue was a family oriented one. Or maybe it was the anti-war sentiment of the piece.

My friend questioned whether she should continue with the theme. I wondered how she could not. It’s hard reality that difficult work may not find an approving audience or a welcoming venue. But hard work still needs to be done.

Challenging viewers is one of the honorable duties of a committed artist. But shock value has to be handled carefully. In my opinion, it’s morally wrong to use shock value just to provoke a reaction and draw attention to yourself. On the other hand, the world can be an inhospitable and unjust place. Not every artist feels compelled to address this in her lifetime, but if it’s the call you get, you must honor yourself, and answer.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Being Distinctive

What are artists really seeking if it isn’t a way to better marry meaningful work to enjoyable work? Far too often, we pursue work that doesn’t have any personal significance. It isn’t distinctive in any way. Satisfying work begins with being able to start from meaning to create a work that seamlessly interprets your ideas OR it is work driven by a set of processes you love. In this case meaning is eventually unearthed as the work unfolds. Either way is satisfying. Any artist can start from either place, based on the goal at hand.

It takes a lot to be distinctive. In a recent class we tossed out the word unique because it’s cliche’d in this culture. But you could try it on for size by asking - what is unique about your particular take on a subject or process. Loads of people know how to do shibori. Loads of people know how to put dye on a screen and let it dry out so that it can be reactivated and printed later. Lots of people are thrilled by bubble wrap as a part of this printing. But technique has limitations. Most of it looks the same. If I line up fifteen samples of breakdown printing in a row, will I be able to tell who made what? Highly unlikely. The technique itself isn’t that distinctive.

And then there are artists who got there first. Nancy Crow appropriated and perfected improvisational piecing. Jan Myers Newberry has taken the use of shibori in quilts to a masterful level. Trying to outdo either of these masters is not for the faint hearted. I don’t think it can be done. So the point is - what are you going to do with a technique to make it distinctively your own?

There’s a lot of bad art in the world. There are bad paintings and bad art quilts. We don’t want to lose track of the basic reality Don Henley tapped when he wrote “You never see a hearse with a luggage rack.” My bottom line is the importance - the value - of the process. What you learn from engaging with materials. How making defines, refines and reshapes the core of your soul.

You may never achieve anything that is as famous or perfect as a Nancy Crow quilt. We’re not all visionaries. But you have a right to create distinctive work and this is a worthy goal. You’ll be more likely to succeed if you align your preferences, skill sets, and goals with what you care about. Because it is what you care about that makes work distinctive.

And it’s not just about content. You may care deeply about color or pattern or line. Passion is not predictable. It’s personal.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Simultaneous Contrast

I had a great trip to the dentist last week.
Well, actually that’s only half true.

Having molar crowns replaced introduced me to a new experience: panic attacks. I couldn’t handle the cement form in my mouth. I started to choke and it got worse from there.

But the counter balance to the bad dentist appointments was a visual treat I am still processing.

The examining room had pale green walls. Chartreuse green, to be exact. Directly in front of my face, positioned so it was difficult to look away, was a computer monitor, used to display the inside of your mouth to the dentist - and to you - in case you care to look. The screen on the computer glowed an unusually vibrant red-violet.

Are you familiar with the term simultaneous contrast?
It’s a physical phenomenon that occurs inside your eyeball when you look at colors. Suffice it to say, those rods and cones you learned about in high school physiology are pretty miraculous devices. Simultaneous contrast always occurs when you look at one color a long time - say 60 seconds. The physiology of the eye causes it to generate the complement (opposite) to whatever color you are seeing. To discover simultaneous contrast for yourself, stare at a red square of paper on the wall for 60 seconds, and then look at a white wall. You will be rewarded by a green square (your eye’s reaction) on the white background. Kids love this. It's like magic.

The longer I stared at the red-violet computer screen in the dentist’s office, the more vibrant the chartreuse after-image on the wall became when I looked away from the screen. The visual effect was heightened because the wall color was already the complement to the computer screen color. So the illusory intensity of the chartreuse square on the chartreuse wall was heightened, and majorly incredible to my eyes.

There’s an important color lesson here for artists. Studying color is never over, and never enough. The more you understand the subtle complexities of visual phenomena, the more capable you are of deliberately employing color illusion in your work. Masterful use of color generates combinations that glow, vibrate, fade and illuminate shape; adding dimension where none actually exists. All illusion. Check out Richard Anuszkiewicz as a 20th century example of profound mastery over color.

The other thought rolling around in my head is harder to quantify. Simultaneous contrast generates an illusion, but it’s real. It’s really happening, but the color on the wall isn’t real. Stare long enough at the wall and the chartreuse square fades away. My eyes are left with the original chartreuse wall, nothing less and nothing more. I can reactivate the square over and over again by staring at the red-violet computer screen before returning my gaze to the pale green wall, but the square will always fade.

What’s that got to do with life as an artist? Or Life in general, for that matter? Most of us try again and again to produce the perfect image we see so clearly in our minds. On occasion, we triumph. What was inside is successfully interpreted outside. We live up to our potential.

But so often, the image fades and then reasserts itself. We struggle toward alignment. You’ve got to be in the right chair, with the right light, the right tools, and the right intention. Easy? Often not. But keep working anyway.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Little Nutty Piece

A non sequitur can denote an abrupt, illogical, unexpected or absurd turn of plot or dialogue not normally associated with or appropriate to that preceding it.
-Wikipedia


My therapist sister, Ann, says she is convinced we all have a little nutty piece. Your little nutty piece can be an elephant in the room if you don’t befriend it and acknowledge it, because a little nutty piece has the power to undo your equilibrium or totally annoy your friends if you don’t admit it’s there.

I've been drawing the conclusion that quite frequently a little nutty piece in your personality is there because it helps you deal with stress. So recognizing when a little nutty piece has kicked in may actually be a warning sign of mounting stress in your life.

When I am stressed I start waking up at four in the morning. It’s not uniformly bad. Four a.m. is also when I’ve gotten some of my best ideas – like the term complex cloth, interfacing stencils, and soy wax crayons. But more often that not, waking at four a.m. is problematic. Thinking turns into a minor panic attack and I can’t go back to sleep. That’s not good when you are expected to be fresh and fulsome for a class at 8 a.m.

I’ve mastered meditational breathing as a coping mechanism for this little nutty piece. Gradually breathing deeply, and focusing on the breath, works. Nine times out of ten I go back to sleep immediately. You might try this if you share insomnia as a sign of stress with me.

Byron Katie’s ideas have also helped. One of the questions she suggests you pose when you are troubled or stressed by your thinking is this: Where would I be without that thought?

When I wake up in the night, I ask myself where I would be without the thoughts. I start deep breathing. The answer is always simple: Without the thoughts, I’d be asleep again. So I go back to sleep. Doesn’t that sound crazy? But it’s true. It’s as if my mind is a little child, easily satisfied with a simple answer to a simple question.

But then there’s that tenth time. No amount of breathing or simple questioning quells the busy thinking in my head. Last night is an example of this.

Do you remember Ode to Billy Joe? If not, click on the title and check out the song.

“It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin' cotton and my brother was balin' hay
And at dinnertime we stopped and walked back to the house to eat
And Mama hollered out the back door "y'all remember to wipe your feet"
And then she said "I got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge"
"Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

Last night Ode to Billy Joe was playing endlessly in my head. Forty years more or less, since the song was a hit for Bobbie Gentry, and I still have the entire lyric in my head.

The fourth verse goes:

And Mama said to me "Child, what's happened to your appetite?"
"I've been cookin' all morning and you haven't touched a single bite"
"That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today"
"Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way"
"He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge"
"And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

From four a.m. on, one question kept cycling in my brain:
What did “she and Billy Joe” throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Getting Started Again. Grrrr.

One of the smartest pieces of advice I ever heard, came from a lecture the artist Nancy Crow gave at a conference in Ohio. “Always leave something unfinished,” she advised. “Then when you come home from a trip or you’ve been too busy to work, you’ll know where to begin.”

Good advice, but unfortunately I didn’t follow it the last time I left town.

I could blame it on the hectic preparation required when I am going to travel and teach for a month. I could blame it on the huge amount of time and energy that goes (I am recognizing this on a daily basis) into acquiring a new studio space. I could blame it on the many distractions of friends with hip and knee replacements, cancer, and/or the delight/trepidation of having a daughter who is a year away from college graduation. And assorted traffic tickets and car woes. (hers, not mine)

But it really comes down to not having any ideas.

In January I mounted a personal triumph – 48 pieces in the Etudes series. A few, very small bright ideas popped up in March and April. I assured myself that by the end of the summer teaching bits in August, I’d be good to go again.

But so far, no ideas. At least no bright ones.

What’s an artist to do?

I work best intuitively, but with a purpose. I adore having a goal, building tools to a theme and figuring out the symbolic significance of colors. But in the studio lately? Dry, dry, dry. As dry as the parched grass, or what’s left of it, in my backyard.

This afternoon I played around (rather listlessly) with some new Spoonflower fabrics. Tried combining them with each other, and then with hand printed dyed stuff. Not working. Not bad, but not singing, and why make anything any more - in this over-crowded creative world - if it isn’t going to sing?

Maybe because it’s therapy?
I can recall more than one conversation where all the artists in the room agreed that the alone time, the silence, often proved to be better than therapy.

I must agree. Maybe that’s the ticket. Alone time is what’s been missing. Since I didn’t leave myself an obvious start back into the routine of working (how could I forget about Nancy?) I am going to have to start from scratch.

But as another artist, the great Miriam Shapiro, once suggested, if in doubt or struggling, play. Fool around with materials or paints or whatever grabs your fancy and just begin.

So that’s where I’ll be tomorrow. Back in the studio, giving it another shot.

Because although the Tao te Ching states clearly that the journey begins with one small step, it takes a lifetime to get used to the idea that the journeys are never over. One creative journey begins and ends. If you are lucky or paying attention, you will have left a symbolic map and a compass on the shelf in the studio; ready to chart the course of the next trip.