"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.

Friday, December 17, 2010

More on the Power of Limits

Anyone familiar with traditional quilting knows it originated, at least in part, from the need to use worn out clothing and scrap fabric. Sewing bits together was a functional act of making driven by the goal to produce a bed cover that would keep someone warm on a cold winter night. Who knows when the tedium of hand stitching ignited the veritable inner light bulb – the maker’s realization that the scraps could actually be sewn together to produce a pleasing pattern? A single thought possessed the power to turn an endlessly tedious chore into an exciting task charged with potential.

Welcome to another conversation about the power of limits. This week I’ve been with my sister, logging a week of chemotherapy. Sitting and thinking, or trying not to think, is part of the game. I brought along twelve pieces of a current series, each of which required hand stitching in order to be complete.

I thought I brought all the thread I needed, but in one of those last minute packing flails of omission, I never packed four of the perle cotton colors I intended to bring along. Drat. A small town. Twenty four inches of snow. What to do?

The second morning I walked to a spiffy store called Dig. In addition to the fresh home furnishings, indy craft books, and objects Dig features, there was a rack of sewing thread. Not the richly saturated perle cotton colors I prefer, but a solid selection of cotton sewing threads. I switched mental gears and selected the colors I needed, and then a few more.

As is often the case, the lighter weight thread was a better match to my art work than the perle cotton I’d brought, which was all wrong in terms of scale. Making blows my mind on a regular basis. The thing I think will be the perfect resolution is too big (and overwhelms) too small (and disappears) the wrong color (I didn’t take the colors around it seriously enough) or just plain wrong. (Get out the critique sheet and figure out what went screwy.)

But the thin, sewing thread was just right. And there were enough color choices in the stash I’d purchased to make every combination of background and thread perfect. No settling. This Goldilocks was a happy camper.

Once the immediate design decisions are made, there is plenty of sweet time to think. I thought of an exercise, which is a variation on others I’ve taught in the past:

Pick a color, or a stitch, or a thread. Or a pencil. The first part of this has to be tailored to whatever it is you do and hopefully love.

Painter? Pick painting. Poet. Pick haiku. Stitcher? Pick the Wrapped Back Stitch.

What can you do with what you’ve chosen? How will limiting what you use to one primary action or format actually free you?

This sort of experiment is perfect once a day for a few minutes. You may sit and stare at the color, or the pencil or the needle at first, but try to get past the fear and begin. When your hand is moving your brain can engage. It’s a bit like learning to drive a car with a standard transmission. You can sit and stare at the clutch for an hour, but the car won’t move until you put it in gear and hit the gas.

Practice turning off the Judgment Function in your mind. Tell yourself you are just seeing what will happen. You are curious where this could go. If it really doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, lighten up. Make it a meditation. Draw or stitch straight lines for the whole session. Cut the paper you painted up into strips or squares. Keep your hands moving. Really stuck? Switch to a material you’d never think of taking seriously. Glue black bean designs on 5” squares of cardboard. Really.

Don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Observe the ideas that flow once self-conscious awareness disappears into the activity at hand. Write those ideas down before you forget what they were. Present time thinking is fodder for future projects. Sit in the moment of making and relish the simplicity of working within limitations. Anticipate where it will lead.

And then get up and do some laundry. Or the dishes.


  1. This idea of limitations is a strong one that has fueled many great artworks. I find that in my own work, economy of means in using what is to hand is very powerful. Simple materials like sewing thread or embroidery floss and simple stitches allow for a freedom by their sheer versatility. They give you lots of room for exploration. Thank you for yet another thought provoking post, and the inspiration to take a few mintues away from the seasonal crazy to sit with needle and thread.

  2. I love it. I do this occasionally but not enough. Thanks for the kick in the butt!

  3. I ran into a bump like this once also while traveling and made do with six strands of machine rayon, in varying shades together, as a substitute for floss. After a little getting used to a different handling it was such a pleasure to use these hand blended threads in my work. Manipulating the colors and the weight of the line by adding or subtracting a strand or two gave me an added dimension for design that I would have missed out on if I had remembered to pack all that cotton floss.

  4. Every day, I sit at my art table with a small (ATC-size) blank card in front of me and reach for whatever catches my eye first - a turquoise marker, a box of googly eyes, a pink puff paint tube, a spiral rubber stamp ... and then I DO SOMETHING with it on the blank card. This leads to the occasional ugly mess sometimes, but more often leads to an inspired little piece I am proud to call mine. One color or embellishment sparks the next choice and pretty soon another, but only those items that are on my table at the moment. Time stands still for awhile, and as this 20-30 minute process unfolds I discover a bit about the medium, myself, or a thought I didn't even know I had. And since it is only a small white card and a bit of time, it is no real loss if it ends up in the circular file. And even if it does, I still have had a few precious minutes out of real time and have learned a small lesson about working within limitations.

  5. Jane, you never cease to amaze me with your insights and openess...I am inspired once again. Keeping going may be my theme for the next year...I marvel at how you keep going through the ups and downs of life and along the way find ways to grow and learn. Thanks for sharing and have a lovely holiday.