"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, May 28, 2010

What Makes Art Original?

As anyone who visits the existential neighborhood knows, I like to spend time making whenever I can.

Making is process, and process is good. It enriches, informs and expands the experience of being human. Making should be defined broadly. Sometimes it’s an act where the brain participates, but the hands lead – as in following a pattern to sew an apron or a quilt, embroidering a design sold as a kit, or painting by number.

But sometimes making means the brain leads and the hands follow. Designing a pattern for an apron, printing a unique silkscreen design, or painting a one of a kind watercolor landscape engages the brain first. The brain figures out what to do and how to do it, and the hands, with a little luck, oblige.

Making is never bad. Most of us start in one place but eventually our interests evolve somewhere else. We liked completing someone else’s design but now we want to do our own designing. The desire has been ignited to create something original.

And that’s the million dollar question. What makes art original?

It’s a question we can’t ignore because it comes up in exhibition settings all the time. You’ve seen it on the entry form. All work must be original and that of the artist. But what about all those cool commercial tools?

A few of the choices available to anyone with a computer and a credit card:
- digital embroidery programs
- non-copyrighted clip art books and CD’s
- free use photographs from any number of websites
- rubbing plates and commercial rubber stamps and stencils

If I gave ten people the same set of tools gleaned from the list above, added a deadline, and left the other parameters wide open, this is what would happen: there would be a few similarities in the finished work, but there would also be huge, creative leaps of difference in how each artist chose to use the tools.

So should those tools be in or out? It’s hard to be definitive. Were I a juror, it would come down to the creative use of recognizably commercial tools or images. I’d reject almost anything that was clearly derivative – so that puts extra pressure on anyone (including me) who chooses to use tools everyone else will recognize! A big challenge is to get beyond derivative. Claim the tool. Make it yours. Use it so effectively your viewers will swoon with admiration. Win over the juror with your clever stroke of brilliance.

Good work surprises, offends, delights but most of all, makes the audience think. No one ever threw a Robert Rauschenberg collage out of an exhibition because it used familiar references. Good work references the known and adds an element of the unknown. It's the surprise that resonates.

Go into the studio. Take our your stamps or your rubbing plates, or your stock of clip art. Sit with it and ask yourself What If?

And don’t be discouraged if the answer isn’t immediately forthcoming. But start by asking the question. Play with the tools. And open your brain to the possibilities. Your hands might quite possibly follow.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Colorful Soy Wax

Last weekend, Lisa Kerpoe and I co-taught our first Colorful Soy Wax workshop. About two years ago I got the notion that biodegradable soy wax could probably be mixed with fiber reactive dyes to make crayons that would make it possible to "draw" on fabric - after which the fabric could be washed to remove dye and wax simultaneously.

It took two years to figure out the formula and while I was working on it, Lisa, one of my studio colleagues, helped me brainstorm. We started to play with stamping and stenciling a hot dye/wax mixture. At first the results were so unpredictable we never knew what to expect, but we finally limited variables and developed a working model with some reliability.

The workshop was great fun. Watching the class experiment with the crayons and also the hot wax was satisfying and exciting. Stay tuned for a workshop coming to a venue near you - including the international Surface Design Association conference in Minneapolis in 2011.

The photos show some of what happened in the workshop - the crayons, the stencils, and hot wax applications. Thanks to everyone who participated in the Beta Mode version of this class!

and by the way, you can order the proprietary wax mixture and instructions on my website. complexcloth.com

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Poetic Visual Surface II

I’ve been busy surfing the Net, seeking a definitive description of poetry as part of my quest to define the poetic visual surface. This definition is my favorite so far:

Poetry - A fundamental creative act using language.

It’s a contemporary definition but feels expansive in a way that the traditional definition, which I also found on line, does not:

Poetry. (from the Latin poeta, a poet) a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning.

Maybe the classic definition would have been more intriguing if only I'd found it first. Now it feels as dry as a pile of last year’s pecan leaves.

If poetry is a fundamental creative act using language, than a poetic surface must also be a fundamental creative act. It’s visual by nature, but what else? How could it be defined? I had a feeling it was like pornography. I was having trouble defining it, but I was going to know it when I saw it.

Stumped, I looked up lyrical, a word cycling in my head.
Lyrical. adj.
1. Expressing deep personal emotion or observations.
2. Highly enthusiastic; rhapsodic.

That was good and felt right; exciting, actually.

Then my musician Darling shared a phrase from his own reading - “Perfection, in performance, should be considered a point of departure.”

Which we translated as: Perfection, even when accomplished, runs the risk of being dry if it isn’t supported by lyricism – deep personal emotion and/or enthusiasm. Perhaps listeners actually prefer a heartfelt performance, despite the possibility of imperfection. Musical performance is another fundamental creative act, employing music as the language.

And so my elusive definition took shape:

The poetic visual surface – inspired by deeply personal emotional or enthusiastic observations, which can be lyrical and/or evocative; a fundamental creative act, and one that considers perfection a point of departure.

Is there a higher calling for any artist?

Monday, May 10, 2010

For Your Consideration: Artistic Appropriation

Recently I met an artist with no ethnic American heritage, who through the course of the conversation, indicated he was trying to change his subject matter from abstract color field painting to images of ethnic (Native) Americans. I was surprised by this radical shift, but it raised some issues that strike me as important.

When is it fair or ok to appropriate imagery from other cultures? Is it ever fair or ok to appropriate imagery from other cultures? And what about materials – especially those intended for use in a spiritual practice? Are they fair game?

Take Joss paper, for example. It’s specifically created for use in Asian ceremonies honoring deceased relatives. Heartfelt prayers are written or breathed into the paper, after which it is burned, releasing the message to the heavens. But Joss paper is also shiny, tactile and colorful, and has been co-opted by artists all over the world for purposes that are almost always secular and sometimes even irreverent. Isn’t that artistic license? Why should an artist have to respect the cultural tradition? Isn’t it ok to use materials without any thought or reference to their origin?

And what about the wildly successful line of candles based on Catholic prayer candles, but with a twist. Gone is the full color Virgen de Guadalupe decal on the side of the 8” tall glass votive. In its place is a new decal with a funny picture and the logo Our Lady of the Dysfunctional Family, or Prayer for Unbridled Fun.

The issue of speaking what we know (or making art about what we know) comes up in my workshops all the time. Artists express an interest in developing a personal visual vocabulary – and that’s great. What’s surprising is the number of artists in a class who are drawn to imagery that has absolutely no resonance with their actual lives. Maybe it’s an escapist thing. Maybe it’s naive. Maybe they aren’t sure where to start or what they care about?

In any event, I think it’s a thread of thinking we should always challenge – whether it’s coming from someone else, or whether the thoughts are our own.

Consider this – as long as an artist can convince me that the impulse is heartfelt, I’ll probably go along with her choice - at least for awhile. I’ve had students who were sure they were Asian (hence the interest in all things Japanese, for example) or ethnic American in a past life, and this was the justification for their interest in using the imagery. I am not going to argue with anyone’s belief system as long as I think sincerity is at the heart of the impulse.

I WOULD however, point out that often people whose culture is being appropriated don’t appreciate it, and may feel even hostile about it. And they have that right. An ethnic American in the El Paso airport (working behind a shop counter as a clerk) really let me have it when I asked her about the Kachina dolls displayed on the glass shelves. Kachina dolls are holy to true believers in the culture and she considered it a sacrilege that they were available for sale.

I’m convinced that most of the time, we don’t consider the ramifications of our appropriation of imagery. So if you think it through and decide to move forward, or are counseling another artist who is making that choice, be intentional when it comes to owning and honoring the imagery as your creations manifest. And try on auditioning what you’ll say if you are asked about the use of your appropriated materials or subject matter. Try on for size the feeling of defending your choices.

One final idea: consider researching – through reading and writing – topics that DO resonate from a personal standpoint. The goal is to turn those topics into subject matter that will allow you to work from an authentic place, rather than an appropriated one. Whatever it might be.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Poetic Visuals

These images fit my description as being visually poetic. A poem is described many ways, but one definition that resonated with me is the idea of a poem being a distillation of words and thought. These images are a visual distillation of thought. The artists are from the top:
Joseph Cornell
Niki Bonnett
Darcy Love
Francisco Clemente
Robert Rauschenberg
Jane Dunnewold

Monday, May 3, 2010

Visual Poetry?

It seems obvious but isn't even an idea that produces a content stream on Google. This is the topic of my next essay. Anyone have an opinion on what a visually poetic surface looks like?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Twelve Elements of Creative Practice

What does a daily creative practice look like?

Eric Maisel has described it as “the way you turn your passion into fruits with names like books, symphonies and paintings.”

His outline for a creative practice includes twelve elements: simplicity, regularity, solemnity, honesty, self-direction, intensity, presence, ceremony, joy, discipline, self-trust, and primacy. Maisel suggests that examining and defining these elements supports expanded creative self-awareness.

I think examining the twelve elements encourages us to honor the artist inside – the creative Self who is unique, willing, and eager to get going. Examining these twelve elements loads the creative reservoir with intentions capable of sustaining us when the going gets tough. Here are my thoughts. I encourage you to write your own, so your reservoir will also be ready, should the well begin to run dry.

I seek simple elegance in my writing and in my making. While there may be a host of processes involved in a single piece, my end goal is to present simple work built through a series of elegant choices. Nothing can be added. Nothing could be removed. To secure simplicity I refuse to be rushed.


My creative self writes, dyes, paints and otherwise patterns cloth. My creative self is also open to cleaning, cooking and de-cluttering – creative acts that allow thought time to channel toward writing and making. Regularity means engaging these activities in some combination every day.

I take myself seriously. I don’t dismiss my works or my process. I refuse to dumb any part of it down. I honor the time I invest in my creative self.

I don’t lie to myself. If something isn’t working, it isn’t sacred just because I have time, money and/or energy invested in it. I don’t settle. I start over.

I work because I want to work. I make what I want to make. I teach so that I don’t have to compromise my artistic sensibility in any way, shape or form. I know other people make decisions based on their own sense of self-direction. I rebuke comparing myself to anyone else, and try to stay inside my own skin.

I embrace it. A word used to describe me since childhood, I have decided intensity is good. It means I care and I am fully engaged with my life, my art and my making.

I leave my other selves at the studio door when I am writing or making. The first line of my daily mantra is Stay in present time.

Is mainly interior. While I appreciate the exterior manifestations: lighting incense or candles, getting just the right music in the studio, my ceremony is the inner voice that says Center; It’s time to work.

I try not to miss the joy that wells up inside when things are going brilliantly, or when I have a creative breakthrough. I remember to be thankful for every minute in the studio, every day at the computer and for my very life. Gratitude supports joy.

I give up some things in order to have more studio or writing time. This is a conscious choice so I refuse to whine about it. Building stamina is good.

Without self-trust I lose my center, and with it goes joy, discipline and most of the other twelve elements.

Writing and making are important and a priority, so each is high on the list of how the hours of my day will unfold.

What about you?