"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, November 1, 2011


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.

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.

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.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Back Home

Things don’t always go the way we wish they would. I drove three days from upstate New York; eager to return to my beloved Texas landscape. The morning I crossed the state line it was 110 degrees in Austin. Parched earth and an occasional mini dust cyclone bore witness to the reality that Nature sometimes has a plan for us we wouldn’t choose ourselves. This entire part of the United States was bereft in the 1930’s; a Dust Bowl literally and figuratively. Lack of water dried up the verdant land, and every creative act of commerce attached to it. Hopes and dreams lay in ruins alongside abandoned possessions and property.

It was a sobering drive, since we’ve been in a serious drought here, and there is no sign of rain.

The drive provided plenty of thinking time. A close friend wrote, “Solitary long-distance driving provides respite, and time to process. That sort of aloneness away from our everyday tasks and responsibilities can feel like spending time with a long lost friend.” I whole-heartedly agreed, and added to the mix of my own thoughts, hours of other people’s thoughts. I listened to favorites – Caroline Myss, Krista Tippett interviews, and an assortment of other podcasts and lectures. Modern technology may not be able to solve a drought, but it effectively distracts by rolling rich ideas from a car radio.

Staying the course.

This phrase wove in and out of the landscape of my thoughts. No one will pick up and leave Texas just because we need water. We have to stay the course. While we wait for rain, we take measures to preserve the water we’ve got. When you’re stuck in a situation and you can’t get away from it, you stay the course and maintain. Do what it takes to keep moving forward, even if the forward motion is only baby steps. What other choice do you have? It never feels good to cut and run.

Unless it’s the right time to cut and run.

Because that’s the undeniable other side; the yang to the yin. It’s the small voice of intuition, niggling at first, but gradually growing – suggesting that the time has come to let go.

Dust Bowl settlers stayed as long as they could, but eventually the reality of the drought forced their hand. Leaving was the only choice left.

Dust Bowl. Drought. What did any of that have to do with me?

It’s because I’ve been trying to buy a new studio building. My current space has developed limitations, and I’d rather be proactive than find myself without a classroom space. Forty-five days into the first contract funding fell through, the down payment went up, and the building owner began to behave downright squirrelly - admitting to questionable business practices, and even lying about it.

Stay the course or cut and run?

It took one sleepless night in San Antonio to convince me that the nerve-fraying wasn’t worth it and would probably get worse. By the light of day I faxed my retreat from the contract to the title company. An imperceptible shift had occurred during the night. I recognized that the smartest thing I could do was cut and run.

And stay the course.

Then several amazing events transpired. Is it the proverbial closing of a door so a window can open? Caroline Myss calls it grace. You can’t force it. You may not deserve it. But when grace enters your life you know it. You are humbled by it.

The day after I cancelled my deal, a realtor friend emailed a listing with promise. A foreclosure. Space for an addition. A church parking lot two doors away. Did I want to make an offer? She’d taken the liberty of qualifying me for the mortgage amount.

The next day my offer was accepted. The money that was to be spent on the first property’s down payment can now go to the remodel. As long as I stay the course.

And what’s any of this got to do with you?
You have to stay the course, too. Or cut and run.

In the studio, it’s a delicate balance. Staying the course keeps you working. Keeps the experimentation going until you get that elusive dye bath color perfected. Until you learn how to hold the brush – or even which brush to choose – to make the perfect stroke. Staying the course confirms the intention of your conviction. You will master your materials. You will merge imagination with making. Heart and hands will work as one.

And when it’s time to cut and run, you’ll get it and you’ll do it. No more guilt over unfinished work that went AWOL. No more guilt when you open up studio space by taking a load of stuff to Goodwill. Cut and run at its best is an acknowledgment of growth, of change, and of the power of Intuition.

Wouldn’t this be a good lesson for our Congressmen and women?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Pinning and Unpinning

The wind blew vigorously in Syracuse this week. Rain poured. Of course this is why I schedule workshops with an outdoor laundry component. It is a surefire way to attract rain. Let me know if you would like to hire me to provide this service in your area.

When I checked on the samples line-drying outdoors, the gusts whipping the clothesline high into the air were thrilling. The clothesline had become a giant, noisy kite. Cloth squares - whipping with little firecracker-like pops - threatened to sail off, borne by the wind. I set about pinning the pieces more securely to the line. I pinned and unpinned. Some of the pieces, pinned with a single peg, twisted into balls around the line. Longer lengths of silk enveloped me as I pinned and unpinned; gradually sorting out the line.

I was reminded of a folk tale I’ve heard. An old woman is weaving the fabric of Life from porcupine quills. She softens them by chewing on them and her teeth are brown and small, worn from endlessly chewing the quills. She must also stir the cauldron of Life and when she stops weaving to stir the pot, a black dog goes to her weaving and undoes every strand, so that the old woman’s tasks endlessly repeat.

Some people believe that if the black dog would just stop unweaving the fabric, Life would be perfect and trouble free. But it is actually the problems the black dog causes that keep the cycle of Life cycling. Without the problems, existence would be static. The re-weaving, the stirring, and the endless pinning to the line seem immutable. But the potential to stimulate creative thinking is the unspoken part of the equation. Whether affecting the cycle is possible or not, it’s the thinking about it - the envisioning spurred by the challenge - that keeps the cycle going.

Kahlil Gibran, the mystic poet, said this many ways in his classic, The Prophet. The line I am remembering this morning is “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.”

Your problems are your opportunity for fresh ideas.
I’ll think about that while I am joyfully pinning and unpinning today.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Creative Problem Solving

A friend wrote today and noted wryly the distraction her studio work had become. She initiated her post by stating that she intends to make art the rest of her life, but qualified her intent by recognizing a perceived need for balance. Can you relate?

I laughed out loud when she described her garden - overrun by Queen Anne’s Lace (one of my personal favorites, so I saw this as positive) and thistle gone to seed. “There I was,” she wrote, “standing in a thistle patch with the shop vac, trying to suck up the seeds from the vegetation and ground. It looked like a cottonwood grove down there. But how whacko is that - an aging (well, probably little old) lady vacuuming her YARD? Yikes.”

Oh, I don’t know. Sounds like creative problem solving to me. I once used a shop vac to remove a dead rat (or what was left of it) from my hot tub. That was memorable.

Thinking about this led to a few other creative problem solving efforts I’ve witnessed lately. For instance, I took a tamale pot to my fabricator guy last week, and asked him to make a stainless steel chimney for it. I wanted a taller, bigger chimney than my current version, so we could steam longer, wider lengths of cloth in my next workshop. The next day he produced a new and improved stainless steel model with a flared edge. Now the stack sits on the pot, instead of inside it. His innovation added height to the steamer and expanded my steaming horizons exponentially. He grinned from ear to ear. Then he suggested we go into business together.

Even the cats I know have been problem solving this summer. Dexter, a yellow tabby with a mischievous personality and a heart a mile wide, went to live with a friend last April, when it was obvious he needed people. I was on the road more than either of us liked. His new hostess, Leila, wrote to me recently. She’d gotten Dexter a harness, because he longed to be outdoors, but the coyotes unnerved her.

Dexter proceeded to escape from the harness every time she put him in the yard. Mystified, Leila determined to disarm his trick. Prepared with a magazine and a cool drink, she stretched out in a lounge on the deck, ignoring Dexter, who lolled in the harness a few feet away.

Leila peered over the top of The New Yorker magazine. Dexter had forgotten about her, and was busily licking the fur on his right shoulder. When it was sufficiently damp, he switched to his left shoulder. In no time at all his fur gleamed with cat spit, allowing him to wriggle free of the harness. He sprang to the deck, and then to her lap, where he purred with yellow cat pride.

A brilliant cat move on his part. Creative problem solving at its best.

I take heart in stories that underscore one tenet of my life as an artist.
It isn’t always about creativity in the studio.

I guess I could be a monastic and make art alone - without friends or animals to distract. Carole could allow her garden to wither. We could sell our possessions and forsake the assorted pleasantries of life. But maybe seeking balance is part of the creative repertoire. Solving any problem creatively, no matter how small or insignificant, carries a reward that makes it worth it. It all adds up. I had a boyfriend once, who said his real goal was to be a hermit and play the trumpet up on the mountain all by himself while he meditated on the world and wished it peace. All I can say is that I think it's more admirable to stay in the trenches, spreading the good news of creative problem solving around right here, where we can use it. If it's good enough for the Dalai Lama and Jesus Christ, it's good enough for me.

And worthy food for thought when you’re on the road and the studio is a thousand miles away. It’s one of those circles of Life. Days unfold and then bingo - it will be back to the studio for me. And I'll have as much alone time as I can muster.

In the meantime, all I need to do is figure out how to teach twenty people to screen print on low tables where the wash-out is limited to three sinks and inadequate hot water.

No problem. We’re glad we came. And twenty-one heads are always better than one.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Donating to a Cause

Summertime in the northern hemisphere, and it’s darn hot in the studio. I only go up there to feed the cats. Pretty Girl and Marshall lounge around on the printing tables. Stretching out in the pool of morning sunlight is a winter activity. Right now they prefer a table near the open window, where there is at least some semblance of a breeze.

Teaching occupies my days. I am away for weeks at a time. Never are May, June or July productive studio months. I laughed recently when a student asked how much time I spend in the studio and was visibly surprised when I reported that months go by without a single day of making. Summer is about money in the bank. Without resources, studio days couldn’t exist at all.

A book proposal is occupying any time that isn’t spent preparing for classes. I think I’ve finally got a handle on ideas I’ve cultivated for ten years. Maybe I just had to grow up; or at least get a little older. Perspective isn’t automatic. You have to live long enough to establish distance before perspective is relevant.

Mixed in with thoughts about writing and making are a few thoughts about sharing, because I’ve been asked to contribute work to two events this month.

Giving art to an auction or other good cause is dicey. A long time ago I donated a hand painted shirt to the local public TV fundraiser. I went to the station the evening the shirt was going to be auctioned and when it was time to offer it for bidding, the hosts made fun of it. A ha ha, wink, wink sort of fun, but it felt demeaning. I never donated anything to the station again. I took it personally.

What I realized once I got perspective was that the hosts didn’t understand fiber/textile work. To them it was just a weird shirt. This was proven out at another event, where my darling darling bought the piece I’d donated, rather than risk the embarrassment of not getting a single bid the entire evening.

By then it didn’t feel personal. It was just that no one got it.

Fast forward and here’s my theory and a piece of advice. I do support good causes – not all of them; that would be impossible. But I like to get work out there. It’s a good feeling. I don’t think much name recognition actually comes from it. You should never donate your art to a cause because you think it’s going to get you something. That’s a deal breaker. Donate because you believe in the cause and it’s the right thing to do.

And be selective about what you donate. It has to be good work. You don’t want something crappy out there with your name on it. You should be proud of what you’ve given. It’s helped me to think about my audience. If I am fairly certain the audience won’t relate to my serious work, then I do one of two things. I pass up the request to give art, and instead I give money. If the piece only brings in 25.00 or worse, doesn’t get any bid at all, then a check is a pragmatic alternative.

If I want to donate a piece of work, I choose something that I believe will be salable. This is practical, but it also gives me a chance to play with some materials or processes I might not use all the time. So I expand my range and abilities, which keeps things interesting. Photographs are a good choice, for instance. And one of my favorite organizations always provides the artists with a wooden box. It’s good – the exhibit is integrated by the similarity of the materials, and the artists work with limitations that challenge and inspire them. The photos included today are of my piece for that event. It’s titled Hail, Hail….and the day of studio time it took to make it was a gift I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten.

San Francisco artist Jane Baker demonstrates the ultimate expression of generosity through making donations of art. Granted, Baker doesn’t need the income generated by sales of her work. Remember, we each have a singular path and hers isn’t mine, or probably yours. But hers is a good path. Baker donates every penny of her sales to charity, and allows the buyer to participate in deciding where the money will go. This is just another example of how we can move past institutional structuring and do good creative, generous things because we see the need and choose to meet it.

And have some fun at the same time. When I teach at Quilting by the Lake next week, I’ll get to be part of the annual apron auction. Each instructor embellishes a QBL apron and those are auctioned to support the scholarship fund. (By the way, there is still room in one of my classes there.) Two years ago Laura Wasilowski and Katie Pasquini vamped it up while I sang Honey Bun from South Pacific. This year I can’t divulge the whole plan related to the bidding on my apron, but I can say it will involved a hula hoop with lights. Sometimes you just have to cut loose and have some fun while you’re raising money for a good cause.

And isn’t it great that we can? Because we can do anything we want; we’re grownups.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Preconceived Notions

This week the film, Buck, opened in theaters, and it’s worth seeing. This is a guy who was abused within an inch of his life as a child, performed rope tricks blindfolded on the rodeo circuit with his brother - at the command of his tyrant father, and spent the last half of his teenage years in a foster home, along with fifteen other boys – in what must have been a summer camp atmosphere.

The resiliency of the human spirit is astonishing. As an adult, Buck runs horse training seminars, taught Robert Redford how to ride for The Horse Whisperer, and has raised strong, equally resilient daughters, one of whom accompanies him on summer road trips and ropes and rides almost as well as he does.

The horses in the film are magnificent and endearing. The scenery is breath-taking. The loneliness of being on the road nine months of the year is palpable. But the insights Buck shares about horses and human nature, and the gentle humor he infuses into those insights, is priceless. Never in the movie was Buck described as a wounded healer, that is, someone whose ability to heal others stems from also having been damaged. But his willingness to recount the past, and the thoughtful processing of the links between then and now, speak for themselves. This is a man who took all of the pain heaped on him in early life, transcended it, and turned it into a deeply sensitive understanding of what happens inside a horse’s brain when it is confronted by human idiosyncrasy. Buck is a modern mystic, someone able to empathize beyond ordinary understanding, in his interactions with both horses and humans.

Watching Buck changed my preconceived notion of horses (and even animals in a very broad sense), and gifted me with an appreciation I don’t think I could have gotten any other way.

I’ve also been to the gym this week. I love ITunes and my Ipod. There are only three choices for television in the middle of the day. Vapid (soap operas and talk shows), mean-spirited bordering on evil (Jerry Springer and all the judge shows) or confrontational (news and sports channels). I try to score a treadmill at the back of the gym so I can’t see any of the screens. I focus on music, pump it up and get going.

Unless the Ipod dies mid-workout. Which it did. Don’t be a crab. A little television never hurt anyone. I chose The Talk, a women’s show featuring Sharon Osbourne (wife of Ozzy), Holly Robinson Peete (I’ve always liked her) and Sara Gilbert (the daughter on Roseann), along with two other female actresses.

They were talking about the differences between sons and daughters. Oh my God. It was shocking. I know there are differences between boys and girls. But these women were in agreement that having a daughter was harder, a lot harder and almost a handicap. One of the actresses had just had Ultrasound and is expecting a girl. She asked their advice. “Good luck.” one of them offered, but there wasn’t any joy in it. It was all resignation.

“Girls are so full of drama. They wear you out emotionally.” Everyone nodded. “And it goes on forever. Boys move out.”

Fifty-four percent of Americans under the age of 30 would prefer to have a boy.

Never was there any discussion related to whether the drama results because of pre-conceived ideas of what girl children are like. Did it occur to anyone that children (boys and girls) become who they are partly because of what is modeled for them?

I know lots of young women. I have a daughter and four nieces. I haven’t ever felt any real difficulty or drama in our lives because of them. I know it’s out there. It isn’t as though I haven’t witnessed it. When I do, it’s often clear that the seeds of the drama were watered, instead of being weeded out, at home. Where is the mental health of mature parenting? Of mature mothering?

Right now, this is about a man who overcame the preconceived notion of what his life could be like as an adult, and the real time reality of children being raised in an atmosphere of restrictive preconceived notions.

But it’s also about this aspect of human thinking in a broader sense. Read But Is It Art? Cynthia Friedland’s readable guide to art theory and criticism, and it turns out nothing, including art and making, is immune to preconceived notions. Maybe that’s what theory is.

More on Friedland’s book next week.

In the meantime, if you get a chance to go see Buck, grab it. He doesn’t have any pre-conceived notions about what his daughter can do. And you’ll enjoy watching them together.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Alone Time

It was supposed to be a well-deserved retreat after ten days of teaching and lecturing at the Surface Design Association conference. My youngest sister and brother-in-law procured the cabin on the St. Croix River well in advance of our June dates, and we rallied – not the entire family, but seven of us, including a young niece and her husband. The three hour drive north of the Twin Cities was easy enough, fueled by Starbucks and a stop to acquire a major stash of micro-brews and hard cider.

Minnesota is gloriously green in June, especially when compared to my drought stricken back yard in San Antonio. We reveled in the cool temperatures and upon arriving, stocked the fridge and set off on a hike, spirits high; all bouncy conversation and good humor.

About a mile from the cabin, mist settled over the woods. Half a mile more and intermittent sprinkling couldn’t be denied. At the two mile mark we agreed unanimously to turn back, and just as we did so, the rain began in earnest. Fast walking was good. Running was better. The sky opened. We got soaked.

We skidded up to the cabin’s front door and began peeling off wet layers. And then, oddly in unison, we looked down. We were covered with ticks. Hundreds of ticks. It was as though we’d stepped into a huge pit of creepy, skittering deer ticks. At this point I think I went into shock because I don’t remember what we did to get them off. I just remember eventually getting my turn in the bathroom, where I stripped, and picked two dozen ticks off my legs, flicking each one into the toilet. Then I ran the hottest shower I could stand, and scrubbed myself from head to toe. I wrapped my clothing in a plastic bag, and tied it shut. I still felt creepy.

Everybody still felt creepy. We discussed the virtues of a hotel in Duluth and cracked open a few microbrews. Ann and Mary talked about getting dinner started. We ate and played cards and argued about politics for a while. My niece cried. I was reminded that sometimes families repeat scenarios from the past without even realizing it. Her tears jumpstarted instant memories of a long past vacation, during which I argued fiercely with my own father in a cabin in the woods, shattering the quiet of our family outing.

But this would all be ok. We were creeped-out and disappointed and tired, but morning would make it all right. I knew everyone would bounce back as soon as the sun came out and breakfast was served.

But it was time for me to go home.

So on Sunday morning I repacked the car and set out on the twenty-two hour drive to San Antonio. The morning was transparent and fresh. When I stopped for coffee I realized I was exhausted. Not bodily tired. Not too tired to drive. But mentally whipped. It was time to be alone.

I think it’s hard to admit you need time to be alone. Down time gets lip service, but there’s always that internal/external sideways glance - what’s wrong with you? We’re all in this together aren’t we? You must be awfully weak. Some people are affronted and consider it a rebuff. It’s hard to keep it from getting personal. They think you don’t want to be around them.

But it’s not usually about them.

And it doesn’t change the reality of needing alone time.

The drive was long, but it wasn’t hard. Fourteen hours later, in Oklahoma City, I parked in front of a Hampton Inn, got a room, and went to bed. Easy. The up side of living in a country plastered with hotel chains. I always know what to expect from a Hampton Inn.

But the interior life of the day was rich and still lingers. I listened to Bobby McFerrin twice, once in Iowa and once In Oklahoma. (The benefits of Public Radio) Interviewed by Krista Tippett, he was inspiring and delightful from start to finish; but what resonated was his description of rising in the morning and pacing, literally pacing, in his living room, alone. This is the precursor to his busy days. Alone time. Thought time. Pacing. Movement.

Which threaded back to a wonderful talk India Flint gave at the SDA conference. She described her practice of wandering and singing, simultaneously; no matter where she finds herself in the world. She admitted that she feels quite safe in this activity, since even muggers don’t want to deal with crazy ladies. At the end of a phrase or a verse, she stoops down and picks up whatever leaf or flower or weed that happens to be in her path. These become the dye stuffs used to color her magnificent cloth.

I was struck by how grounding such an activity must be. And now I see the connection. Pacing, driving, walking and singing – these are physical acts. I mentioned these similarities to my friend George and he told me that when his five children were small, the only alone time he had was at 3 a.m. He walked around his Austin neighborhood, composing poems in his head, and then went home and wrote them down.

So I am reconsidering movement in solitude. I can sit meditation. I can stay in the pew and pray. I can stitch or dye alone in my studio, but these activities are stationery. How to work in movement as part of my solitary time? Maybe that’s what my bike rides do. But I am contemplating slow, quiet walks. And singing.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

What Matters?

This is the text of the lecture I gave last week at the Surface Design Association conference in Minneapolis. Several readers requested that I post it on line. It's long - longer than a typical post, since the talk was about an hour. Maybe print it out to read the entire text.
In the fall it should be available as a free podcast on the SDA site. I hope it will provide food for thought:

We are here to investigate this question:
What makes someone creative?

I. All of human culture is one massive creative act. If a system or activity isn’t driven by genes, it is driven by human creativity. Our evolution as a species is all about the gradual invention and creation of domains - specialized areas of the information.
Examples of domains are Science. Art.The Written Word. Music. Government. Each of these exists because of a series of cumulative creative acts.

Within every domains there are fields.
These are even more specialized areas of interest. Sculpture. Painting. Collage. Photography. and that’s just ART.
Think of science and you’ll see immediately that the specialized fields include Physics. Botany, Biology - and, since evolution is occurring even when we don’t acknowledge it because we are right in the middle of it, the specialties are becoming more specialized.

Think about it: Religion. Even religion is evolving....because if a field or a domain isn’t continuously welcoming new information and incorporating discoveries, it is a dead field. And since every aspect of human existence (every living bit of existence) is governed by the same set of fundamental and universal principles (like gravity) Religion must evolve just like Science must evolve. Otherwise it would be dead. IS that what they meant when they used to say God is Dead? We humans couldn’t accept that God could evolve along with the rest of us? (Or at least the systems that honor God....)

Domains are alive as long as they are organic and open to innovation and change. Change and innovation happen because within the subset of Fields, creative people are investigating, seeing, thinking, guessing and discovering. Those discoveries can’t happen in a vacuum, others have to be able to hear about them and embrace them:
SO: When an idea reaches a critical mass of acceptance, then the field, and the domain, change.

And it all begins with Memes.
Let’s talk about Memes.
The funny version is the ham story. The young woman, following her mother’s lead, cuts the end off the ham every time she bakes it. Finally she asks why - was it to make it more flavorful? Juicier?
No, says her mother. I cut off the end to make it fit in the pan.

Or consider the lyrics from the musical, South Pacific:
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear.
You’ve got to be carefully taught

White people were afraid of everyone else when that lyric was written in the early 1950’s. Now it is references an attitude - a meme - we have been working to dismantle for several hundred years, and there is still work to do around it.

So memes are the units of information. Memes build each domain and by extension, build the culture. Within the culture there are certain memes we believe about being creative:
Here are a few examples:

Only some people are creative
Being an artist is a huge gift given only to a select few
You aren’t a successful artist unless you win awards
OR get into a good gallery
Or make a bunch of money

II. In fact, there are some observations on record about creative people.
Mlhalyi Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book called Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. In it he shares these observations:

If creative people are anything, they are complex personalities. This means being able to live with paradox. To be willing to embrace the shadow side as well as the light.

Carl Jung called this a mature personality. Every one of a person’s strong points has a repressed shadow side that most of us refuse to acknowledge. An orderly person longs to be spontaneous, and vice versa. Not good or bad - rather archetypal qualities that are neutral aspects of the Self. It is how we, as individuals, act on the qualities of shadow or light that can throw things out of balance in our personal and artistic lives.

Csikszentmihalyi theorizes that complex personalities move back and forth between extremes as the occasion demands. He describes sets of personality traits as:

1. A high level of physical energy, but also a need to be quiet and at rest.

2. Being smart but naive at the same time. This intelligence is a Core intelligence - not special brilliance, but a curiosity and willingness to seek intellectual stimulation.

3. A combination of playfulness and discipline. Lightness, irreverence, detachment combined with a willingness to work hard.

4. An ability to move between imagination and reality. Being able to see the future while keeping a sense of past.

5. The ability to harbor both introverted and extroverted tendencies simultaneously. Physicist John Wheeler said: “If you don’t kick things around with people, you’re out of it. Nobody, I always say, can be anybody without somebody around.”

6. Creative people are humble and proud at the same time. They know upon whose backs they stand and willingly acknowledge this, but are also rightfully proud of their own achievements.

7. Psychologically androgynous. Able to embrace male and female “qualities” and live with these within one mind and body.

8. Creative people are thought of as both rebellious and independent. This is a paradox because in order to be good in a field it is important to internalize the “rules” of the domain. Not to do so would mean working in obscurity or a sort of vacuum. So a willingness to become traditional is usually evidenced. Creative people are both traditional and independent. Being only traditional leaves a domain unchanged; constantly taking chances or being rebellious for its own sake rarely leads to ideas or creations that have the potential to change the domain.

9. Passion + Objectivity = Energy. Tension exists between being attached to, and in love with what you are doing/making, versus being rigorous and honest with yourself about the outcome/product/process. No passion? You lose interest. No objectivity, and what you do isn’t very good.

10. Creative people express an openness and sensitivity that leads to both great happiness and the potential for hurt feelings, suffering, unhappiness. This is a vulnerability that can go either way.

Remember: All of these traits and pairs of traits are present in varying amounts in all human beings, but in different quantities.
Creative people may have pairs of paradoxical traits. Not every creative person has every set of traits. Plenty of creative people have a little of this, and none of that and loads of something else, and pairs that are out of whack.

SO: the reality of our individual strengths and weaknesses indicates that we should handle the information, the abilities, the same way.

III. By sharing them.

Paradox: We’ve been learning, evolving, inventing, expanding - information, ideas, scientific thinking, approaches to music, art and making, But we’ve also been buying into a consumer culture that has gradually hijacked community in favor of commodities.

Consumer “demand” - for better food, and cheaper prices, and better availability of everything from shoes to computers = using human inventing and creating to get and market more stuff for everybody...

Marketing removes us from the source of where and how our “stuff” is produced.
Children don’t know where milk or vegetables come from.
Adults are even more likely to enjoy STUFF without thinking about origins...

Becoming a consumer culture has affected our thinking/beliefs about other parts of life too. We’ve turned over lots of tasks we used to do ourselves, or asked friends to help us with, to professionals. For example:
Financial advisors
day care
dog walkers
personal chefs

NOW. Don’t get me wrong. Progress is GOOD. This is a democracy (my father always said.) Consumer culture is mainly a problem when paying for services rather than doing it ourselves impacts our sense of connection to other people - or our sense of community, or our own sense of self esteem.

IV. SO: Let’s talk about community.
In The Abundant Community, (written by John McKnight and Peter Block) the authors suggest that there are three properties of competent community that are worth making an effort to cultivate:
sharing gifts
being hospitable and welcoming strangers in
nurturing associational life

(btw - associational life is any group that shares a love of the same thing - boats, beets, or fiber art processes...)

If we don’t act intentionally to cultivate these gifts:
sharing gifts
welcoming strangers
acting associationally

then we lose them by default to consumer culture.

When we DO choose to intentionally cultivate the properties, we are acting in the best possible way to encourage innovation, discovery and new ways of looking at things.

In a scientific community, if the community is healthy, individuals work on projects, theories - using their individual gifts - and when a discovery is made, it is shared with others on the project or in the field - associationally. Strangers (new scientists) are welcomed into this community because of the contribution they may be able to make to the furthering of the group’s goal.

Key to this is the word intentionally. We would be naive to ignore the reality of human frailty when it comes to jealousies, pettiness, envy, and the lot. Those feelings exist in scientists and artists, and in quilt guilds and prayer circles. But acknowledging them openly is the first step to neutralizing them. One evil thing consumer culture has done, is to insinuate into the culture a fear of scarcity. There won’t be enough. I won’t get mine. That some THING is so important I’d better get up at five in the morning and stand in line at Best Buy, or I won’t get what I want. There won’t be enough.

We can and must choose to believe there is enough.
There is abundance. If I don’t get into an exhibition this time, I’ll get in next time. This is only one moment. There are millions of moments ahead of me that will be better; different.

So back to community. If we see the good in cultivating community, sharing our gifts, being with people who love what we love, then there are qualities we can foster that will make the experience richer:
These properties create a fertile environment where certain capacities can grow -
Generosity, which is making an offer for its own sake, not for its exchange value
Cooperation - For me to win, you must win.
Statesmanship - setting aside person preferences for the group good.
Forgiveness, which signals a new beginning, and choosing to stay in present time.
An acceptance of imperfection - recognizing that our gifts are intertwined with our limitations and being willing to deal with it, without passing judgment.
Mystery - which creates space for what is unknowable in life, and honors it.

When we work intentionally to foster the above properties and capacities in the community we are part of, we open the way to a life of satisfaction and creativity.

V. In order to be in community you have to know yourself. We each have to decide what to keep, what to dump, in the effort to make more time for what matters.

So far this lecture might not seem to be about making, but it is. Your whole life is one long and connected creative act. YOU are the only person who can be the unique being who will never be repeated again on the face of the earth. You are uniquely qualified for the job. And yes, life is going to unfold, whether you direct it to or not.

PARADOX: Life is going to happen no matter what you do. So why not take control of what happens? Ha! You can be intentional about your choices, you can be thoughtful. This is all good. However, the most basic lesson is recognizing that after having become intentional, you will allow life to unfold as it is going to unfold, and there is nothing your intentions can do to change that reality.

Life happens. Your best intention is to allow it to do so, without getting in the way, and by being constantly present.

We might ask:
What works against cultivating a creative life?
Being exhausted by too many demands.
Not knowing how to protect the energy we have. getting easily distracted.
Laziness. lack of discipline.
Not knowing what to do with what you’ve got.


Cultivate Curiosity.
Try to be surprised by something every day.
Life is a stream of experiences. Swim in it.
Try to surprise someone every day.
Write down these two events.
When something sparks interest - follow it.

None of the above will sustain on its own. PRACTICE. is needed.
Your thoughts are your life. This is about habits. NEW HABITS.
In the film What the Bleep Do We Know one theorist suggested waking up and visioning the day - just at that moment between wakefulness and sleep. While the veil between conscious and unconscious mind is still translucent.

In addition to fostering that unique timing, consider:

Learning to do something well. Working toward mastery.
Increase levels of complexity to keep things engaged.
Evaluate what you know how to do or what to do better.
Be rigorous with yourself. Let go of guilt, criticism and mean self talk.


and through that honoring, GET your life back.

How To Be a Poet
(to remind myself)
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have — inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your work,
doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places.
~ Wendell Berry
There are so many things we do to fit an external perceived requirement, rather than choosing for ourselves. Albert Einstein wore the same clothing for weeks. When criticized, he said he just wanted to put his energies in more important places.
How could you realign your preferences?

The slow food movement is an example of consumers taking food culture into their own hands. My friend Elaine Lipson did the same thing when she proposed the slow cloth movement. Sewing by hand. dyeing with natural dyes. This is worth considering.


SO: What could you toss out that would leave room for something more significant?
Because we’re working toward the SACRED here. Why would you squander any time at all on anything you haven’t chosen for yourself?

Now of course we don’t live in a vacuum. We CHOOSE to take care of children, to be in relationship. We choose community. But what about all the things we don’t intentionally choose. What if we stripped those back and started over?

The point is that the clearer you are about what you prefer, and the more intentional you are about your choices, the more you have to offer others when you choose to engage with them. Make Time for yourself and then your time spent with others will be quality time.

Get control of your SPACE -

What do you LIKE and what do you HATE? It is astonishing how few people are conscious as far as this is concerned. Figure it out and do more LIKE and less HATE.

“The only way to stay creative is to oppose the wear and tear of existence with strategies that organize time, space and activity to your your advantage.”

It’s one thing to recognize what matters to you. It’s another to have the courage to act on it.

Most of us have to rehearse the truth until we find the courage to live it.
Repetition isn’t a failure, it’s the heart’s way of learning to be in the world.

There are TWO versions of repetition.
One is unconsciously reliving scripts - replaying the past without learning anything from it - mostly not even aware we are doing it. this is a trap and we feel stuck when we are caught in these situations.
Dealing with life this way is reaction based. We’re not awake yet.

The opposite of unconscious repeating is rehearsing as a conscious choice - intentional - conscious repeating.

In this form we practice dealing with what Life has given us until we have practiced our way into honest living.
This is a very solid place to be and also humbling but freeing, because to accept this as a way to behave means you are being completely honest with yourself. If you can’t be honest with anyone else, at least don’t lie to yourself.

You may find this difficult, because it means you become very vulnerable emotionally. From an artist’s standpoint, an example would be telling someone how to do something you discovered yourself even though you know they may copy you. maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Can you share from a place that assumes there is enough for everybody?

And where do healthy boundaries fit into this? I have a right to keep a process to myself, don’t I? Why should I tell someone else how to do something?
I take my lead from Starhawk, who wrote:

I am a woman creating myself and all I can figure is
I'm on my own. This I have learned:
All of our activities should be influenced by the pleasure,
not the pain, principle. We have not come into the world to suffer,
or to inflict suffering.
Every day do something that is good only for you. Selfish?
No. Self possessed.
Balance it out by doing something equally good
for the benefit of all...
This will depend on your opportunities.
Only you will know what you can do.
If you are an artist use your power to be original-
to try to heal the wounds you see around you.
Everything we do needs passion to be done well.
Passion is precious. It indicates good mental health.
Use it as an important energy source all day.

You are probably familiar with the idea that we keep encountering the same situation over and over again until we finally get the lesson in it. So when I am half way into an experience and suddenly have a flash of deja vu, it’s time to pay attention. I’ve done this before. what am I supposed to be learning?

Portia Nelson’s poem sums it up:

I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost...
I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I am in the same place. But, it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in...it’s a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.

I walk down another street.

So breaking patterns and establishing new habits take practice and takes repeating.

And what’s it going to get you?

A different reality.
A clearer sureness about what matters.
A clearer head in the studio.

And how do you know?

You don’t know. But imagine a lemon right now. Do you salivate? Can you feel the tartness in your mouth. Is that real?

The sensation is most definitely real.
Thinking has generated a physical response.

If you acknowledge this, then perhaps you can also acknowledge that how you think may truly create your reality.

By sharing you find generosity.
By forgiving, you find forgiveness,
By being clear about yourself, you find clarity with others.

Naomi Nye wrote this poem:

The Art of Disappearing

When they say Don't I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

I love that last part. At first glance I thought this poem was about someone who is anti-social. But it isn't. Instead the poem seems to me, to end with a message which is "this is how I am intentional".

Ceramist Eva Zeisel (now 104 years old) - when interviewed by Csikszentmihalyi had another way of characterizing intentionality:

“I was thinking how to convey my accumulated wisdom to my granddaughter. And one of the things I thought to tell her is that one tries to do good and one tries to produce something. I find that my craft helped me very much to make life meaningful; because once you make a pot and it is outside you, it makes your life kind of justified and not flimsy. After all you go through,at the end you die, and it makes your life, well, more satisfying. It justifies your existence.

Then the question of doing good for society. Don’t forget that all of our contemporaries and ourselves had big ideologies to live for. And at the end it turns out that none of these ideologies was worth your sacrificing anything for. Even doing personal good is very difficult to be absolutely sure about. it’s very difficult to know exactly whether to live for an ideology or even to live for doing good. But there cannot be anything wrong in making a pot, I’ll tell you. When making a pot you can’t bring any evil into the world.

So what matters comes down to these questions:

Will you choose intentional creation?
Will you choose to share your gifts with the community?
Will you cherish yourself as artist and original being?

We, the members of SDA, are an association - by definition, a collection of people who share a love of the same thing.

I hope this week, during this conference and away into the months ahead, we will bravely engage in conversations about ALL of the things that we love - all of our challenges - all of our fears. I challenge you to turn to someone you have just met, to seek out those who know you well - and talk frankly with one another. Decide between you what matters, and then go out into the world and pursue it with joyful abandon.

Thank you.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Owl Quest

I’ve been on an owl quest for most of my adult life. Why the sense of connection? Why a belief in the creature as a totem or familiar? I don’t really know. But as much as I want to see one, I never seem to be in the right place at the right time.

Ten years ago, I stayed with hosts in northern California. We drove out to the hills, to a spot where they regularly called owls via a pre-taped recording. They assured me they were rarely disappointed. But that night we shivered expectantly in the frigid air for two hours; finally giving up because I had to teach the next morning. The owls were no where to be found.

And what about my friend Niki? She spent several summers hiking in a local park with Katie, her Texas Brown Dog, relishing the cool mornings; rebuking the oppressive heat of midday. More than once they encountered an owl dissecting a small rabbit or a mouse in the dry creek bed. She always called me on the spot; eager to share the gory details and the magnificence of the bird. I was always green with envy. But no owl for me.

And just last month?
My friend Diana visited the San Antonio Museum of Art at dusk on a Tuesday evening. The next morning she beamed as she produced the photo on her phone - an owl gazing directly at her, framed by one of the museum windows. I couldn’t believe it. How had she noticed it - on that branch opposite a third floor window?

“I just looked out the window and there he was!” she laughed delightedly.


So. Summer 2011. My morning bike ride lasts about an hour. I tour miles of manicured lawn before turning into a surprising stretch of urban wildness, which serves as a buffer between the stately neighborhood and a sprawling north/south highway. I adore the contrast of smooth green lawns with the tangled vines that threaten to choke the Live Oak trees towering above the bank to my right. Every morning of this ride - every summer for several years - I’ve scanned the woods, anticipating the flourish of wings that would reward me if I startled an owl.

To no avail.

Bursts of Cardinal red. The silhouette of a Red Tail Hawk, hunkered over an arroyo gone dry in the drought. But never the coveted owl.

Last week I rode and I pondered. Rode and pondered. That’s the routine by which the hour long ride is paced. I pedal and consider my Year of Letting Go. The elusive safety net of health that once held my beloved family and friends. Gone. The solid form of relationship that wasn’t so solid after all. Gone. The crisp, precious reality of this single moment. All we have. All I have.

The owl quest popped into my head. OK. It’d been a lot of years. Maybe time to let it go. I could be ok with that.

I rounded the next corner, and peered into the woods, softly lit by the dawning light. Of course. There it was. A Barred Owl, not six feet from the road. Eye level.

I laughed out loud. It startled and flew, majestically, and only a few feet further along the road. I got off the bike and walked until I was even with the bird again. This time we took turns looking at each other and then looking away, until it tired of me, and lifted from the branch, deep into the woods.

My ride home was a mix of elation and awe. Even better, three days later on my ride, I saw the owl again. Same tree. Same branch. I was learning where to look. And to ride quietly on my path.

Somehow, seeing the owl clarified how I think about time and being. I would usually say if asked, that I’m lucky. That many of my successes have been about being in the right place at the right time. But this week, I witnessed the illusion of timing. I can’t control time. I can’t plan to be in the right spot. I can only show up and pay attention.

But it helps to pedal quietly. Then I don’t screw up something I would have missed because of my noisy, misguided meandering.

And it helps to remember where to look. If I found inspiration there before, I might find it there again.

I’ve been away, so I haven’t seen the owl again. But I have no doubt that I will. As long as I show up, keep pedaling, and don’t forget where to look.
I’ll keep you posted.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Loving the Artist You Are

Two of my recent essays discuss individual artistic style. Where it comes from. Developing a style. Refining the style you’ve already got. From the standpoint of entering juried shows and presenting work to the world, cultivating a cohesive style is a valid concept.

But as I sat with a participant in my workshop last week, I saw that we needed to further peel back the layers of what personal style is, in order to go deeper. I realized that before personal style can be cultivated, expectations about personal style have to be dropped.

Ruth pinned up eleven samples she’d produced in our workshop. We were in Day Five and winding down. What did I think she should do next? she wondered. I studied the vibrant, lively patterns she’d created on the cloth.

“What do you see?” I asked.

She launched into an evaluation of the work, saying that it wasn’t quite right color-wise, that it wasn’t sophisticated enough, that it fell short when she looked at the class samples others had taped to the wall. She liked one of her pieces ok, but really, couldn’t a child have done equally good work?

I pondered this and didn’t answer immediately, so to fill the silence, she continued, dismissing the simple shapes (which I found charming) and the colors, which disappointed her. (Even though these were samples and she’d never done anything like this until four days earlier.)

I interrupted to ask what she meant by sophisticated. Ruth struggled to put words to the term. “You know,” she said. “Smaller, neater, not so loose…” She pointed at the work of a participant a few tables away. “More like that…”

Here’s a trap we get ourselves into: We judge our own work by comparing it to other artists’ work. Or worse, we judge it using a whole pile of terminology we’ve never actually analyzed, so we don’t even know what we mean and we don’t realize we are being critical of what is essentially our innate artist self.

Now I am NOT saying that I should just accept what I make as-is, and drop being driven to improve my stitching, my brushstroke, my ability to match color – or any of the other techniques in the toolbox that allow me to experience mastery of process.

But I am suggesting that before we get to mastery of technique, maybe it’s worth investigating our beliefs where innate personal style is concerned. Because it is what it is. And what it IS is basically good.

It’s our belief about what it is that gets us into trouble.

In my mastery program I have numerous goals for my participants. I want them to get better at using color, so we do hundreds of color exercises. I want them to get better at technique so we do dye studies, discharge and resist studies, and lots of other technique-based studies. I want them to realize the art world is huge and endlessly fascinating, so we study other artists and genres and we allow these to influence what we make ourselves. But my number one goal for my students is that at the end of the program, each of them loves her own work best.

Working as an artist and succeeding is a thinly veiled exercise in building self esteem. It takes ego to stick with it; to enter shows, be rejected, enter again and persevere. It takes ego and stamina to put up with all the dumb remarks people make about work they don’t understand or honor. So ego is required. Ego is public.

Self esteem is more important than ego. Self esteem is private. Self esteem means you feel good about what you do even when you are alone in the studio. You have made friends with your innate style and you are willing to love it as you would love a small child – unconditionally. Acknowledging that maybe there are some refinements to be made, and therefore, educating yourself as you would educate a child. Encouraging the innate YOU the Artist to grow and expand into your full potential.

Think about the words you use when you describe your work. Pick those words apart until you have discarded the dismissive or demeaning words. Because self-talk counts. Respect yourself as the maturing artist you are. Use only kind, encouraging words to describe where you are in your development and what you hope to achieve.

There’s a reason we are blessed with individual style. Humans are complex beings. Balancing all of our complex parts is important. If Ruth is a woman with a detail-oriented job - one that requires exact and specific abilities - is it any surprise that her artist self is loose and big and bursting with energy? Her artist self is balancing the part that has to focus on nickels and dimes to get the day job done. It’s a release and a relief. Her after-hours assignment is to embrace the reality of her Artist Self and work with it instead of against it.

That’s the bottom line. As Katherine Hepburn said, “If you please yourself at least one person is happy.” So do some investigating. If you discover you’ve been critical of your Artist Self, resolve to change.

Balance self-esteem and ego with a healthy effort to refine style and visual voice, and your artist feet will be on solid ground. You’ll love your own work best. And no one can take that away from you.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day

(Jane and Zenna circa 1989. Taken by our friend Beth Thurber, with a pinhole camera)

This morning I went for my ritual bike ride. I try to get started before 8 a.m. if I can. It’s too hot to ride if I go any later.

In 2007 I had an altercation with a dog that pitched me onto the street. Thrown from the bike, I skidded on my face and got pretty torn up. It took a year to begin riding again, and my return was tentative. I never knew when I might encounter another dog, and I was fearful. But this old dog figured out a new trick recently, when it occurred to me that I could choose to ride in an upscale neighborhood where the animals are restrained by their owners, rather than in my own beat-up neighborhood, where we are still working out the details of neighborly behavior, and dogs frequently run loose.

A mile from my house, and riding through trimmed, gloriously green streets, I ruminated on the current drought, and the lush, well-watered growth around me. Several yards sported starter plants – set out by industrious gardeners I’d observed on earlier rides. Was planting new stuff a symbol of wealth? Pride at being able to afford the watering? Thumbing the proverbial nose at the aquifer’s water level and city restrictions?

I pedaled and fumed. Then I remembered a book I am reading. The author suggests we question our belief systems and personal stories – in an effort to investigate conclusions that we’ve drawn. I pedaled and poked around in my brain for another way to perceive the new plantings, the swishing of the sprinklers, and the broad expanses of neatly trimmed green lawn.

What about Hope? What about wanting to generate beauty in the world? This ride was certainly more enjoyable because of the landscaping. All private. No taxpayer expense involved. And certainly artistic sensibility is engaged in organizing foliage and blooming color. How could anyone argue with oxygen-producing, chlorophyll-generating beauty? I pedaled and appreciated the quiet morning and hopefulness – now evidenced all around me.

On this American Mother’s Day holiday, I see mothering the same way. What more creative, hopeful act is there, than bringing another living being into existence? In this world where it so often feels as though we are experiencing a drought of good sense, kindness and compassion, what more positively defiant act is there, than choosing to mother?

So I take my hat off to mothers everywhere. The mothers who are standing up to corrupt, sexist governments in the Mideast, to mothers in Africa bearing the burden of real drought and debilitating hunger, to homeless mothers on the street corners in cities across the US. And to all of us who refuse to give up hope for our children and for the world. Happy Mother’s Day.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Settling a Score

Verse 31
Tao te Ching

Stephen Mitchell translation

Weapons are the tools of violence;
All decent men detest them.

Weapons are tools of fear;
A decent man will avoid them
except in the direst necessity
and, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Wholeness is his highest value.
If the wholeness has been shattered,
How can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
But human beings like himself.
He doesn’t wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
And delight in the slaughter of men?

He enters a battle gravely,
With sorrow and with great compassion,
As if he were attending a funeral.

Osama bin Laden perpetrated despicable, heinous acts. His evil, hateful influence ended not only American lives, but lives around the world. If death at the hands of another is ever justified, his death fits that description.

But I am troubled by gleeful celebrations of his death. If we sink to the level of Al Queda, whose members reveled in the Trade Towers’ collapse and deaths from bombings around the globe, hasn’t some basic human decency been compromised? Are we any better than they are, in our revelry over bin Laden’s final demise?

The end of a hateful life is the end of a hateful life. But death taken into human hands is a grave matter, and even when it feels justified, it isn’t a time for a party. Rather we should mourn the depths to which human beings are capable of sinking, and pray without ceasing, for global redemption.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Working on Style: Part Two

A few days ago I referred to the worth of developing a unique approach to your work, and called it style. The point that day revolved around entering exhibitions or approaching galleries, where the jurist/curators might prefer to see a body of work that reads as visually cohesive. I still stand by that point and the reasoning behind it.

But as my friend Jackie pointed out in the Comments Section, Picasso did any thing he wanted. Sculpture, painting, watercolor, drawing. Did I mean to imply that somehow we are different from Picasso, and therefore we don’t have the option of working in more than one medium or style?

I did not.

Actually my reference was very narrow. I play around with all kinds of materials and techniques and so should any artist who is seeking versatility and also personal voice. But what happens in the studio is different from what happens on an entry form. I might have three different ways of working going at once and more power to me if I can keep that many balls in the air simultaneously. But when I submit an application for a show, better to choose which style I am going to present to the world, and save the other juicy stuff for another entry form. It’s all about harnessing vision and introducing it to the world selectively.

But a couple of other considerations.

Consideration #1: I still think that there’s a lot to be said for limitations within a specific body of work. I want to be really good at dye printing. I want to know it inside and out. I can flit and flutter around other techniques and maybe come up with some ideas that will eventually insert themselves into the work I am showing publicly, but in the meantime, I want mastery - at least in a few areas.

Mediocre might be fun in the present moment of creation, but getting good at something by spending intimate hours with it is much more fun long term.

Consideration #2:
It’s the playing around that leads to the unique combination of tools and materials that is recognizably Jane. It's like a buffet. The first time you go, you choose a little bit of everything. You’re stuffed; it’s fabulous. But you almost feel sick from overindulging. Next time, maybe forget the pastries. Skip the ham. Concentrate on the shrimp cocktail, and the exquisite salads. Same thing in the studio. You try out this or that, but most of what you try ends up on the cutting room floor. It’s a special combination of process and approach that adds up to You - the artist with the recognizable style.

And once you get into a groove, you discover that the techniques you live and breathe morph. I used to use textile paint for printing. Now I use sand. Same basic printing, but working with it intimately, showed me what else it could do.

The paradox of working – old techniques become new ones – rejuvenated by an unexpected brainstorm twist. And plenty of experience.

Here are two of my play day results. I’m lusting after color as a result of all that work in black, white and gray. So the color fields are new/old. New this month, but a method I know intimately. The sand printing? Old/new. Old screen image. New material.Next? I see stitching.

Just working along on style. Working on my voice.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Working on Style

One of the essays I am reading suggests that Vincent van Gogh was actually a clumsy, rather inept painter. This would certainly never have occurred to me, as seeing his paintings in person is a highlight of being on the road so often. I get to visit a lot of museums.

Another part of the essay described how hard it is for a gallery owner to defend a painter’s work if the brushstrokes in one painting vary from those in another. Since I am not trained as a painter this was a bit of a shock.

Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime. Making all his brushstrokes alike probably wouldn’t have changed his sales portfolio much. It’s doubtful, knowing what we know about him, that he would have been inclined to play by those rules, anyway.

In the long run, we’re all a mix of trying to overcome ineptitude – at least at the beginning – and desire to please. Humans like consistency and continuity. It makes us feel comfortable. Gallery owners know this, so it is in their best interest - and by extension in the best interest of their artists - to encourage them to work in a recognizable style. That’s how artists become established in the collective cultural mind.

Last week I met with one of my Mastery Program groups. A noon discussion focused on entering juried shows. I offered the observation that many jurors prefer pieces entered by an artist that evidence continuity and cohesiveness, over the work of an artist who submits three stylistically different works. You might be good at three different methods of patterning cloth or painting, but if you are entering a juried show, it’s better to offer entries that hang together. It’s an indication that you have history, and also an enthusiasm for your process. This struck most of the class members as odd. What about versatility? What about exploring new mediums and ideas?

The fact is, artists need both experimentation and a personal style. In order to develop your skills and the ability to work meaningfully, you’ve got to play around and try out lots of ideas. That’s how an individual style eventually develops. It takes time and long hours of working to distill communal process into a singular voice.

But that still doesn’t solve the problem of being considered clumsy or inept. There are always refined standards by which your work will be judged. That’s why it’s so important to love your own work. If you do, then negative comments might sting, but it won’t be for long.

And consider this: too much refinement is like eating white bread. All the texture and powerful nutrients are gone. No artist should be relegated to white bread status. It’s way more satisfying to work from the heart, even when it’s a slightly clumsy effort, because the powerful nutrients are still there. Viewers always know this. And are grateful.