"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."
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.
Saturday, April 24, 2010
If self-discipline is practiced by working every day, it can also be practiced by intentionally NOT working every day! You aren’t off the hook for a month just because you decide not to make art or write. You must still commit to observing and recording the thoughts you have about art making or writing – whether they are good or bad. No one’s career is going to be ruined by not working for a month, but a month of study of the thoughts that arise around the topic of working should provide insight into what to do next - that is, in terms of your creative endeavors. Maybe half way through the month you’ll REALLY want to make something. That would break your agreement with yourself, so you’ll have to negotiate new territory – which I suspect would be very enlightening.
My own daughter begged to be given a year off from school after her sophomore year in college. The whole idea worried me, but she was adamant. I recognized the stand off that was beginning for what it was, and acquiesced, with some stipulations. She could take the year off as long as she agreed to do some traveling and engage in a few educational “experiences.” Halfway through the year she announced she was bored and missed the challenges of school. She enrolled in a community college for two semesters, and returned to her other college the following term. Zenna needed, as do we all, to experience the feeling of being without. Perhaps there is no greater motivator than missing something we used to do, and realizing we could go back to it, if only we choose to do so.
My goal in suggesting this strategy is to offer you an opportunity to reach a clearer understanding of your motivations, the level of your interest (which might be quite different from what you imagine it to be) and your sense of purpose or dedication. Relinquishing the hold guilt has in favor of a period of open-ended contemplation usually proves to be helpful.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
It’s always something.
On Sunday I described the experience of seeing a need for change within my current Sacred Planet series. Although I love the work as it stands, I was embracing a desire to perform a defiant act - desecrating the surface of a piece by flinging paint over the existing imagery in order to underline its symbolic content.
I screwed up my courage. I felt it was right. Today you see the results. Perhaps not everyone will agree that this was a good thing to do, but I can live with that. Because the longer I make – the more I embrace the reality of making. The process is what counts. If something worth showing the public comes out of the making, it’s gravy.
But on to the next realization. There are seventeen other pieces in the series. You can see some of them in my gallery at complexcloth.com. If flinging paint defiantly worked on one, does that mean I should continue flinging?
Just between you and me, I did. And it worked on two more pieces. But then it began to get hard! It occurred to me that a defiant act is defiant partly because it spills out. It spews from an uncontrolled moment. That’s where the energy comes from.
So can defiance be thoughtful? Anyone who has studied American History 101 knows the American Revolution happened through a combination of detailed planning and reckless daring – possibly the yin and yang of defiance. See the need, plan the actions; dive into daringly executing them.
So I backed away from adding more paint, in order to think about the ramifications of my choices. The color absolutely must be part of the message. The placement? Probably counts. Is the paint flung or bombed onto the piece from the top of an eight-foot ladder? Am I moving away from defiance and toward an idea that could become a gimmick? Yikes.
There’s a paradox here. The end game visual message can spring from a moment of raw artistic courage, or it can carry power invested in the piece through careful planning. Both ways of working are valid. One thing I know for sure: continuing to fling without planning has the potential to ruin what was, up to that point, a perfectly good effort.
Now I want to find a graffiti artist and ask these questions. Is it easier to tag in the beginning when it’s a defiant act? Does it get harder to do once it isn’t as random any more – like, say, when someone gives you permission to do a really big spray paint image on the side of their building?
I suspect a tagger would agree with me. Defiance and planning both have their satisfactions. Maybe all we can hope is to know when to choose one over the other.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
In 2008 I got interested in sending designs to spoonflower.com because I could preview them instantly as lengths of cloth. That was pretty darn spiffy. Ordering the fabric was even spiffier. My daily delight became checking the mailbox, where fabric started to arrive with satisfying regularity. Bank account be damned! There was Paypal. It felt like getting fabric for free. But that’s a disconnect and not this story.
As the fabric stacked up in the studio, my delight shifted to auditioning. Length after length resided on the magnetic wall, where I shuffled patterns and prints for hours and never tired of the combinations. It took that long to get to know the pieces. There were so many intricacies. Such varieties of surprising patterns and colors. So many unexpected design similarities within the assortment. I loved the fact that the animals and plants disappeared into the complex patterns, which to me was symbolic of how each is literally disappearing from the earth. My Sacred Planet series was birthing in my head.
But it never actually birthed into reality then, which is now almost a year ago. Cutting up the fabric was waaay too intimidating, and the idea of printing or dyeing over the digital prints? At that point it felt sacrilegious.
Fast forward through summer and also through fall. A busy teaching schedule kept me moving and when I am moving that’s where my creativity goes. I’ve given up moaning about not having time to make art. This is reality and pays the bills, but it’s also just another version of being a creative self. So when I am moving, I dream about art making in my mind, and channel creativity into my teaching.
November passed; with December close on its heels. My studio time. Hurray! I went there. I got ready to make art. I looked at my fabrics. My gorgeous, precious fabrics.
They weren’t so precious anymore! Time had passed, and with it my enthrallment. I still loved my fabrics but the New Boyfriend stage was over. I began cutting and then dyeing. I ordered six large map silk-screens. Being in the studio was still intimidating, but now it wasn’t about the fabrics. It was about the meaning.
On January 14, I shipped eighteen completed pieces to the Boger Gallery at the College of the Ozarks. Three weeks later I went there to teach a workshop. I walked into the gallery. It was good. The pieces were singing to me. I was pleased.
The exhibition closed and the work came back. I unpacked it and stored it away, eager to show it later in the year.
But last week something unexpected happened!
In the middle of a workshop week, after speaking passionately about meaning with my class, I counseled a beloved student to consider the positive qualities of defiance. There are hard issues artists want to address. Difficult, unpopular, ugly, hateful and absurd issues. Violence and war and the degradation of the planet, for starters.
At home that evening it struck me like a lightning bolt. My own work wasn’t defiant enough. I’d carefully crafted art in which endangered animals and plants gradually disintegrated and seemed to be disappearing before the viewers’ eyes.
But I’d had a chance to be defiant, and I'd missed the boat.
So last night I went to the studio. My class ended on Friday. Students were returning home, with visions of their own work vibrating in their heads. It was time to practice defiance. To see if I could get it right.
I chose my least favorite piece. I analyzed the colors. I mixed a blood red paint. I stood over the piece, which was positioned on the floor. I held my breath. My heart pounded. I spewed the paint across the piece.
My sacred planet was defiled. The act was required to complete the meaning I’d so carefully refined.
It took almost a year - to the date of receiving that fabric in the mail - to get the final step figured out.
Lesson learned. Again. Don’t hurry. Don’t settle. Trust the process. Keep asking questions.
It’s worth it.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
Jennifer is working with me to improve her skills as an artist, that is, we focus not on the teaching part of her career, but on the creative aspects of her artistic life. Design, color and technique are part of our work, but we spend about half of our sessions focused on making and the creative process. Because the problem is, Jennifer has a hard time allowing herself to create.
Jennifer is not alone in her struggle. NOT feeling entitled to do creative work, and by that I mean creative work just for the sake of creating, as opposed to the creativity required to plan and orchestrate a practical outworking like a class or for money – must be the most basic dilemma artists face. Jennifer has a hard time going into the studio because she doesn’t think she deserves to create just for herself. One of her siblings is a much better and more famous artist than she will ever be (in her mind, that is.) Her daughter is graduating from college. A new baby in the family needs one of the special quilts Jennifer always makes. There are plenty of reasons to channel energy everywhere but into the studio.
We have been working together for two years. During this time I have set assignments for Jennifer to complete but she usually finishes only half of what I assign. She never comes to our sessions with everything ready to go. She bemoans the fact that she gets distracted – everything she begins leads to something else. She enjoys the experimentation and has, in the past, refused to see any value in changing how she works. It’s just who she is.
Last time we met, I decided to try some new strategies. I talked about honoring our work. The group talked about what honoring means and I invited everyone to write an honor statement to share with the other members. Jennifer’s honor statement brought tears to her eyes as she read it. The main point in her statement was that she wanted to work on protecting her time in the studio, as hard as it was to do. She listed not answering the phone, and not getting into a playing around mode as two specific things she could change if she wanted to accomplish specific tasks while in her studio.
I was surprised that talking about honor affected her so much. A large portion of her session became intently focused on five pieces she has been planning for several months. Two of them were already completed, but three were only pictures in her head, and as usual, she didn’t know what to do next. After our discussion about honor, and subsequent conversations about how to go back to the idea of honor to get focused again, Jennifer had a breakthrough. There was a purposefulness in her work that I haven’t witnessed before. When we sat for our final discussion she was centered and met my gaze with real deliberation. Her evaluation of herself for the session was this: she was beginning to understand that no matter how she felt about her work and her right to do it, she wouldn’t feel GOOD, only sad and guilty, if she didn’t protect her time and commitment to make the art she was envisioning.
What was confirmed for me, through working with Jennifer in this session, is the belief that self esteem is directly related to whether we follow thorough with what we say we are going to do or not – and this is as true of saying you will go into your studio and make art as it is keeping your word in any other situation. When we tell ourselves we are going to create, whether it is painting or writing or some other art form, our self-esteem takes a hit if we don’t follow through
Friday, April 9, 2010
“See you at noon!” I called, as she disappeared onto the diamond, and into a sea of other small girls wielding baseball bats.
I turned to her four-year-old sister, Charlotte, belted up in the back seat. “Let’s go over to my house and water the garden.” She smiled and nodded expectantly, remembering the fun of playing with the hose.
Charlotte and Zenna are half-sisters. Charlotte’s mother, Erin, was my ex-husband’s second wife. I know it gets complicated; these co-mingled families with multiple spouses and children. Suffice it to say that I felt it was important to reach out to Erin (since I was familiar with her husband), and inviting Charlotte to spend regular time with us gave our daughters a chance to feel like real sisters.
The drive from the ballpark to my house winds through a gorge and across a dam. The trees were in full flower. The green was greener than green. What a glorious morning. Perfect for playing around with the hose in the backyard with a four year old.
Halfway up the last hill, the car sputtered to a stop. Holy cow. Out of gas. One of my specialties. My artist brain gets going on a creative track in my head and before you know it the car is coasting to the berm. I once ran out of gas in the middle of Nebraska, thirty miles from any gas station. That’s another story.
This current story is so old it happened before everyone and their brother had cell phones. What to do? I got out of the car and opened the back passenger door. As I was unbuckling Charlotte’s seat belt, a young man in a Ford truck pulled up. “Looks like you could use some help.” he observed. I explained the gas problem and he detached a mobile phone from the dashboard of the truck. What were the chances? In no time at all, I’d reached my darling Darling, who agreed to bring the gas required for our rescue.
The nice young man drove away and I sat down on the curb, patting the spot next to me. Charlotte sat. She turned and peered under the hedge at our backs. She reached into the hedge and pulled out a slightly soggy tortilla, and examined it with interest. “Don’t touch that!” I squawked. Yikes, what would her mother think if she knew I was allowing her baby to play with street trash?
Charlotte looked at me with very serious, enormous brown eyes. Without saying a word, she went to the car and took out the rather large satchel she’d brought, which I assumed contained her swimsuit and nightgown. Reaching into the satchel she retrieved a large pair of yellow rubber gloves. Pulling them securely over her small hands, she returned to the curb. With a look I can only describe as triumphant, she picked up the tortilla and turned it over several times, studying it before she tossed it back into the hedge. I burst out laughing.
I think of this story often because it is a great model for our artist selves. Do you carry your satchel of assorted tools and supplies with you on your daily rounds? What do you need to pack, in order to freely examine the surprising, sweet, dirty, and random objects that cross your path?
Sometimes lessons come in simple packages, like the logic of a four year old.
When I regaled Erin with Charlotte’s story later in the day, I asked her what she thought inspired the addition of the rubber gloves to Charlotte’s repertoire. The answer was easy for her. Harriet the Spy. Now there’s a model for artists. If you’ve never read it, pick up a copy soon. And start packing your satchel.
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
I find it helpful to talk about what matters to people when I address this subject in my workshops. In any group there are those who feel others’ ideas are “better” or matter “more” than our own. The first hurdle we face as artists is to recognize that each of us cares about very personal, different topics, and we are all on a continuum – with some people having more experience than others when it comes to thinking about meaning. I use the example of a student who wants to build a series around flower imagery. She may at first feel this is trite compared to someone who is developing imagery on implements taken from women as they went into Holocaust camps (I have had both these themes in one workshop setting), but if she digs a bit deeper, the first artist will discover that her flowers are a personal expression of awe at the limitless beauty of the natural world. That’s a big, worthy theme, too. So the message worth conveying is that no matter where we start, that’s where we start, and it’s a good place as long as we feel connected to it. If we stick with it, we’ll learn how to work easily with harder imagery, and our range will expand.
Another observation I’d like to share is that frequently we are working with topics – writing or art making – by default. That is, someone else assigned a topic, or we are working with certain art making tools because they are there, not because of an intentional choice. Writing or making in default mode only carries us so far, because sooner or later we realize the whole thing is flat. Our hearts aren’t in it. In the workshop I just referenced, I encourage people to set aside tools or ideas that aren’t resonating in favor of creating new tools, or rethinking topics for writing. One of the biggest resistances to starting all over is the investment participants have in what they’ve already done. This is a longer topic than I can address completely here, but basically once participants are willing to set aside old tools and ideas, they can begin to explore WHY they are making. WHO do they want to please? WHAT is driving the work they do? If we work ONLY because of a need or hope for outside recognition, we have to face that reality and examine it. If we are letting materials or writing become too precious, then we need to remember a line from one of Don Henley’s great songs – “You never saw a hearse with a luggage rack.”
The primary goal of these discussions is to encourage a new appreciation for process, as opposed to product. It isn’t that product isn’t valuable or worth it – everyone deserves to do work that is appreciated and capable of generating income. But tapping internal strength – passion for a topic and the fortitude to pursue it – is more likely to keep someone working, knowing that there will be inevitable rejections, minor or major waves of insecurity, and stretches of tedious, but necessary practice. What is your passion? What do you desire?
Monday, April 5, 2010
Saturday, April 3, 2010
What are your thoughts on the kindling and rekindling of desire within the context of your creative life?”
This quote from an essay I read recently, probably speaks to anyone who is attempting a creative life:
With all due respect, how many of us are actually aware of any regular experience of desire in our creative lives? By that I mean the kind of burning desire that fuels a profound creative existence? Reading the essay only reminded me of how few people I encounter – as students, colleagues or friends –who seem to have any sense of desire for/of Anything. The disconnect is palpable. Perhaps our first task as artists is the job of sifting through our unique haystack of total bullshit everyday stuff – worries, concerns, ideas, fears, distractions – in order to get down to the single needle of desire in our lives. Could it be that there are two sorts of artists – those who don’t have any connection to what desire is – and those who are not reading this because they are already ON IT, instead of spending time reading an essay by someone well meaning like me?
And obviously there are periods within a single creative life when an artist is disconnected from desire. So we’re back to the original burning question – what happens then? How do we get desire back?
Which led to thinking about competition, and this observation – desire is often rooted in some competitive impulse. To be the Best. To beat someone else. To Win – whether winning is represented by an award, or a show opportunity or financial remuneration.
I don't watch TV but you can't escape the aura of popular reality shows where the motivating desire is to beat out everyone else. To win the prize, whatever it may be. Competition propels artists forward. It’s a dressed up version of survival of the fittest, no matter what the party clothes look like. I know plenty of artists who never work from a deep-seated personal place. Instead work is driven by the latest theme of a show they want to enter. Or to colors they know a judge tends to prefer. What is desire in that context? Is there a pure desire as opposed to ego driven desire?
It would be disingenuous, but easy, to say to a student or friend - Make a list of all the people you want to impress. Who has slighted you in the past? Who's opinion do you value? You could work from that place and actually be filled with DESIRE – but is it desire or is it the competitive ego doing the work? Is it the little person inside doing the work or is it the BIG expansive person inside doing the work?
I need more thought time where this is concerned. My impulse is always to encourage someone to do the work because it is the right work to do, even when it feels unpopular or uncomfortable. Now I think maybe that’s wrong. An artist or writer won't necessarily make a killing (or even a decent sale) on a set of paintings or a series of short stories just because the work is good. Plenty of bad art is effectively marketed. Oh yeah... the marketing part. How to be both sensitive artist or writer and competent - even aggressive - marketer of work? And so begins a new creative challenge.
It’s all challenging. There isn't an easy answer to any of it.
Thursday, April 1, 2010
It was September; the start of the symphony pops season and Garrison was the featured guest performer. On Thursday afternoon it occurred to us that this was a perfect opportunity for a party. Since our invitation was hastily composed and last minute, I didn’t expect it to be accepted, but Friday at noon I got the call. The morning rehearsal was ending; all the musicians were in high spirits, and yes, Mr. Keillor would accept the invitation to a party honoring the musicians, and looked forward to attending.
I spent Saturday morning at the grocery store. An international menu? Yes, that would do it. Dolmas (one of my specialties) pita bread, cheese and fruit, Tandoori chicken, a lovely Mexican picadillo, white bean dip and chips, home made fudge… so many ideas and so little time. Cooking was fully underway by two p.m., interrupted only by spurts of cleaning and strategic planning, most of which revolved around the number of chairs we owned and where they might best be positioned to encourage lively conversation.
We agreed that I would skip the performance in favor of being available when the first guests arrived at the concert’s end. John breezed out the door with a cheerful “See you at ten!” and I hopped in the shower. Plenty of time. A nap? Too excited. I fluffed pillows, adjusted porch chairs, and checked the icemaker. I opened wine. Why not let it breathe? I had a glass. Lovely.
The neighborhood children played tag in the moonlight. It was nearly nine o’clock. Maybe some guests would arrive early. I lit the candles and the fire in our backyard fire pit. I checked the icemaker. I garnished the fruit platter. I counted plates.
At ten fifteen guests began to arrive. The house filled quickly, buoyed by enthusiastic post-concert energy and alcohol. Lilting voices announced the arrival of our special guest. Here he was, accompanied by artistic director Phillip Brunelle. He offered me a bottle of wine, noting its Minnesota origins, and kindly thanked me for the invitation to join us. Symphony members crowded into the kitchen, surrounding the buffet set out on the butcher block table. I prepared to raise a toast to the evening.
Just as I lifted the glass and opened my mouth to speak, my seven year old careened into the room. High from the excitement of outdoor tag after dark, and fueled by the contagious energy in the kitchen, she slammed into me with a giant and joyful hug. Red wine from my uplifted glass exploded into the air, showering everyone standing around me. The gasps were audible. The silence was deafening. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Grab a plate. Help yourselves! I’ll be right back.”
When I returned to the kitchen, Phillip Brunelle and Garrison Keillor were standing in the doorway, in conversation with my dearly beloved trumpet player. Garrison turned to me. “John is telling us how much your father enjoys Prairie Home Companion.” he said.
“Oh YES!” I warmed to the image of my parents, fervent fans and weekly participants in the Prairie Home Companion phenomenon. What to say? How to emphasize their devotion? When I am excited my hands do the talking. They flew in both directions as I launched into my response. My hand caught Phillip Brunelle’s wine glass, just as I began to speak. For the second time that evening red wine sloshed into the air. This time it soaked Mr. Brunelle’s pristine white shirt cuffs. I blanched. John grabbed Brunelle’s elbow and propelled him toward the bathroom. Symphony members pushed past us, ready for round two at the buffet. Garrison disappeared into the dining room. I heard voices welcoming him to the table.
I stood alone in my kitchen. How could this be happening? But wait. Here was Garrison again, standing pleasantly in the doorway. He smiled at me and said, “I hear you are an artist. Why don’t you come and sit with us and tell us about the art you make?” I nodded and smiled. I filled a plate. I went to the dining room and sat at the place they had been saving for me.
“So tell us,” he continued. “What sort of art do you do?”
I paused and thought for a minute. “Oh nothing, really…” I said, faltering. “ Just a little dyeing; a little painting…” What did I do? Suddenly it seemed very hard to characterize.
The harpist jumped in. “Oh Mr. Keillor! I’ve been wondering...” she began. The rest of her sentence was lost on me. I got up from the table. Someone else slid into my chair. They were having a delightful time.
The party ended around 4 a.m. Musicians filtered out the front door, hugging us - profusely grateful for the evening. John and I stood on either side of Garrison while the symphony PR person took a photograph, which I still have. We three look exhausted, but congenial. When the door closed behind the last guest, a neighborhood friend stayed to help with dishes. We pronounced the night a success. Later, lying in bed, I laughed when John admitted he’d asked Phillip Brunelle whether the wine incidents might make their way into a monologue. Brunelle replied wryly, “Maybe not right away, but you never know.”
I’ve told this story to students a hundred times since that September night. While it has its comic moments, the important message it conveys is the elusive nature of self-esteem when we are growing into new roles as artists, musicians, writers or performers. I couldn’t claim ownership of my artist self that evening, but I could resolve to claim it fully eventually. This became an intentional effort, and one we must all make. Resolve to do this for yourself. Claim your right to be the authentic artist you deserve to be. Shy person Garrison Keillor did it. Jane Dunnewold did it. So can you.