"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.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Skepticism and Defiance

The older I get the more I want to encourage artists to cultivate two attitudes. One is skepticism and the other is defiance.

When I am in the studio alone I do one of two things. I listen to music or Caroline Myss, (her talks on Defying Gravity are fantastic) or I just think. I love thinking. There are so many things to figure out. Long hours in the studio this week gave me plenty of time to think about my past. Healthy skepticism and intentional defiance are character traits I’ve won the hard way. Through experience.

I think skepticism comes first. Being skeptical is an important component of self-esteem. When you are skeptical, you decide what you think is true or right or possible. You don’t just take someone else’s word for it.

Early in my career I heard someone important say the kimono had been done. Did it matter to him that loads of artists (most of them women) were exploring the kimono at that time, not only as a contemporary garment but also as a form? His words intimidated me when they should have instead, roused my skepticism. Has anything ever been done completely? Maybe a technique or a form gets too much play and goes through a period of being trite, but somewhere out there some artist is on the verge of seeing a new way through – of breathing fresh life into that stale worn out thing.

And consider design elements. Sure, you see a lot of circles, crosses, spirals and X’s in beginning work. You see them in mature work too. You can even see a commercial foam stamp set at Michaels that forbids you to sell anything you print with the circle, cross, spiral and X stamps included in the package. Hello? Since when does a company own elements that are not only universal but also part of the human collective consciousness? Be skeptical.

And then add a healthy dose of defiance. Don’t buy that set of universal symbol stamps with the limitation on how and when use will be permitted. Make your own. Every artist – budding or mature – is entitled to use a cross, a circle, a spiral, an X – and any other image that rises up out of your subconscious mind. Yes, you can.

Products? Be safe, and be skeptical. Keep in mind that when products are developed the inventor usually has one idea in mind and that’s the goal driving the creation. But it doesn’t mean that’s all the product can do. Think you’ve got a new approach? Don’t be intimidated. Try out your idea and see for yourself. But don’t be risky. Check out the safety angle before you get going.

Ten years ago I talked to the owner of a major textile paint company on the phone. We were talking product and he informed me (rather pompously) that it was not possible to screen print with Jacquard Metallic Textile Paints. I begged to disagree.
“I do it all the time.” I said.
“You can’t.” he said.
“But I do.” I said.

And the fact is, those Jacquard paints were some of the best metallic paints of all time and I still miss them. But that’s another story.

Our conversation ended. I went back to screen printing with my sweet Jacquard paints and he went back to running his company, which went bust a couple of years later. Too bad he didn’t inquire as to how I was able to screen print Jacquard metallic paints. Because it wasn’t about the paint. It was all about the technique. And it still is.

Defiance comes in all kinds of packages. Maybe it’s not putting a sleeve on your quilt because you don’t want some exhibition person to be able to use a round hanging rod that will make it pooch out and hang funny. Using another hanging strategy takes away someone else’s ability to make your work look less than it is.

Maybe it’s not stretching a canvas around a frame and pinning work to the wall instead.

Maybe it’s choosing to work figuratively because you like to work figuratively, even if the world around you thinks abstract stuff walks on water.

Maybe it’s liking a simple aesthetic – one that eschews loading up a piece with extraneous beads and found object junk. Or maybe it’s loving beads and found object junk and not caring who disagrees with you over it.

There’s something to be said for the example set unwittingly by outsider artists. These folks, off the beaten path, sometimes untrained and often mentally ill or socially inept, make art for all the right reasons. Because they like it and they need to. Hard to be skeptical about that, but definitely easy to be defiantly inspired by it.


  1. I love to think also. And I love the hard work of thinking well. I especially love it while I listen to all our livestock going about their day. My studio is in the stable and makes a wonderful thinking place. I was not trained as an artist so it makes it even more enjoyable to simply "use" the fiber from our farm. It cracks me up when it is recognized as ART.....

  2. Thanks. This is very timely for me today. I think you are right on these two components are the necessary qualities for being a good human.
    Skepticism & defiance about any set idea, definition, label...What is it to be an artist? To do a certain kind of art? To be a man, woman, human, political, apolitical...all of it.
    And from skepticism & defiance arise equanimity.

  3. Thank you. I have felt invisible much of my life and yet, I'm not anymore. What were the qualities that led me forward? I need to puzzle them out! I'm doing well with my art now--that's one thing I did!--especially in my studio. But what I do doesn't have painting or printing or writing or glitz. Just like I don't. Alas, I don't have a single 'artsy' outfit. I feel centered and stable and I think that's why my brain can ponder and imagine and create. But I also doubt myself. I fear that I will become invisible again when I venture beyond my studio and my community of friends and fans. That niggling, belittling voice is troublesome. All the same, I'm much stronger than I have ever been and I'm working and creating! Thank you for feeding the thinking artist here.