"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.

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.