"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. 
In effect, the people who change our lives the most begin to 
sing to us while we are still in darkness. If we listen to 
their song, we will see the dawning of a new part of ourselves."

Rabindranth Tagore

Existential Intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to engage questions about human existence – how we got here, whether we have a purpose, and whether there is meaning in Life. Existential intelligence embraces the exploration of aesthetics, philosophy, religion and values like beauty, truth, and goodness. A strong existential intelligence allows human beings to see their place in the big picture, be it in the classroom, community, world, or universe.

First proposed by Howard Gardner, existential intelligence is one of nine theorized intelligences and is considered to be amoral – that is, it and the other eight categories of human intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.

Friday, December 17, 2010

More on the Power of Limits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 13, 2010

Limitations: Clearing Out Stuff

This is a season focused on giving and receiving. In an effort to continue the discussion on the power of limitations, I invite you to think about what you could give away.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve already got too much stuff. I don’t want any gifts this December. If anything, I want a gift I can give myself – of inventorying my stuff and divesting of as much of it as I can.

Recently I noticed a property for sale in my neighborhood - perfect for a retreat center/teaching studio. Never mind that it’s on the market for way more than I can afford. I had to have a look. The formerly grand 1920’s house stands on a promontory with a view of downtown San Antonio. Situated on over an acre, there is plenty of space for a new studio building – and maybe even a guesthouse. (Let me know if you have some funds to invest!)

While I practiced active imagination envisioning what I could do with the house I noticed something else about the property. It was clear the owner had issues when it came to parting with stuff. Two cars, carrying plates that hadn’t been current since 1999, were parked in the large driveway. The inside of the house confirmed its occupation by a seasoned stuffologist. Every room was stacked with boxes. The spare bedroom had been turned into makeshift closet for hundreds of pieces of clothing – more than any person could wear in one lifetime. I felt sad for the owner, and also slightly claustrophobic.

To break free from that level of acquisitive behavior probably requires help. We all know people who can’t give anything away. I encounter them in workshops all the time. One student I adore had five bags of denim in her studio, just waiting for the right project to present itself. That alone might not have been a problem, but the garage was full of stuff too. And neither you nor I can pass judgment on this. Last April I helped my mother clear out a basement’s worth of stuff, in preparation for a move to a new home. Our time together in the basement produced touching memories and several belly laughs. It’s hard to get rid of things that remind us of the past. The electrically heated melamine baby dish with the shiny moon and stars on it (my youngest sister is in her mid-forties) tugged at both our heartstrings, but it had to go. And what about the dozens of cereal box fronts, carefully trimmed into 9” x 12” pieces? “You never know when you might need a good piece of cardboard,” my mother explained sheepishly. We both laughed. The cereal boxes went into the paper-recycling bag, although I can’t help but wonder whether some of it was vintage, and worth something.

And that’s the hook. We’re easily duped into keeping far more of the stuff we own than we will ever need or use, because we are sentimentally attached, or motivated by a belief that somehow the stuff will bring us money. If we got busy and listed everything on Ebay, or tagged it all and filled up tables in the driveway, it would. But there’s one niggling detail. Actually doing it.

My point is that the more stuff you have, the more stuff you have to take care of. Sooner or later there’s a tipping point. You’re serving the stuff instead of allowing the stuff to serve you.

So give yourself the gift of dumping some stuff this season. Face the facts. Will you ever get a garage sale organized? Will you ever learn how to use Ebay? For that matter, will you ever use those five bags of fabric scraps you’re currently hoarding? Or all of the old copies of Quilting Arts you have stacked in the corner of the bedroom? Do yourself a favor and clear some stuff out. And don’t focus on how much it cost originally, or whether it’s worth money now. Pay it forward, and give everything away. Use freecycle.com or send a note out to fellow artists. I know one group in San Antonio that hosts a clothes swap twice a year.

How about an artists’ swap? Or the good, old-fashioned Salvation Army? It’s been proven that those who give without worrying about getting anything back have actually healed physical maladies. Check out Cami Walker at 29gifts.org. Suffering from multiple sclerosis, she determined to give 29 gifts in twenty-nine days. Amazingly enough, during the course of the giving her symptoms actually abated.

I know when I cleared out my closets and studio in September it was as though a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Is it a coincidence that the pain I had in my back also went away? I don’t know. I do know the coats that went to the homeless shelter are needed this morning. And that all the textile paints I’d accumulated but was never going to use found a good home with a young student living on tips as a waitress. And it makes me smile – and feel considerably lighter on my feet – to imagine what someone must have thought when they encountered the original artwork (old and no longer viably salable) that I donated to Goodwill. I just hope it didn’t go into a bedroom stacked with so much stuff it won’t ever be truly enjoyed.

But that can’t be my concern. All I can do is keep clearing out – creating plenty of healthy psychic space for new ideas and new work. Which is just another version of working within limitations and staying in present time.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Why "Art Cloth?" - A Guest Opinion

Marie-Therese Wisniowski is an artist, lecturer and writer from Lake Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia. She recently wrote this essay in response to a review published in the Winter Edition of the Surface Design Journal. I felt it was worth printing in order to share her ideas with an audience beyond the SDA membership.

Art Cloth was a term coined by Jane Dunnewold at the dawn of this century. Since then it has been widely used to embrace a myriad of “Art” that utilizes cloth as its medium. Jessica Hemmings in reviewing – ArtCloth: Engaging New Visions (an exhibition in which I was the curator) questioned whether the term Art Cloth was necessary, since she thought that “...textiles provide a rich medium for sophisticated communication of conceptual ideas. But I don’t think that textile needs yet another name” [1]. My answer to her assertions is that as much as I respect Jessica’s opinion, I disagree with her viewpoint on this matter.
The history of art is one of continual change. Art is dynamic and so serious philosophical questions have been raised as to whether or not it can be logically defined, identified or even classified [2]. There are numerous philosophical treaties exploring these ideas [2].

There are three basic ingredients (as opposed to definitions) that all artworks possess. When “engaged” they are non-functional, and aesthetic. “Engaging” is an important ingredient, since an unknown buried work is not art. These three conditions are “necessary” conditions and not the “sufficient and necessary” conditions that all logicians are searching for [2]. Note: I use the word “engaged” in a generic sense and so for example, that if all human species were blind we could perhaps “engage” sculpture artworks, although I doubt if water colour paintings would be in our art lexicon.

Historically what is now considered art - by individuals, cognoscenti, populous at large and by art institutions - has dramatically expanded. Furthermore, once a form of art has been accepted, like a biological cell when taken root in a particular form, it can divide and sub-divide itself into smaller sub-units.

Most areas of art are defined by doing nouns (i.e. nouns that evoke images of action): painting, sculpture, and performance art (just to mention a few). Once an area or cell of art has been loosely defined a number of sub-divisions miraculously occur. For example, let us consider the art making area of painting. It sub-divides on process (e.g. oil paintings, water colour paintings, and fresco etc.), on subject (e.g. landscapes, portraits, and seascapes etc.), on art movements (e.g. Impressionists, Post- Impressionist, and Cubists etc.) Those interested are not confused nor fear such sub- divisions or overlapping labeling. Rather their mere existence indicates a growing conscious interest, articulation and sophisticated appreciation of this form of art.

Let us define what is a textile. Basically it is defined as “any material that is woven” [3]. Clearly canvas is a textile and so technically speaking paintings on canvas, linen, velvet and silk are all textile art. Alan Sisley (Gallery Director, Orange Regional Art Gallery, NSW, Australia) is bemused that textile artists exclude canvas from their definition of their area of artistic engagement. “There is a lot of harmonious colour and thoughtful composition in this show [Engaging New Visions] . . . the same things we would praise were it an exhibition of paintings. When you think about it, canvas is also a fabric, so really what is the difference between printed or painted silk, painted canvas or paper?” [4].

The definition of “cloth” is similarly as broad, namely, “ a fabric formed by weaving, felting etc. from fibre used for garments, upholstery and for many other purposes” [3]. The same arguments could be applied against the use of “Art Cloth” as a generic identifier for artworks on fibre - other than canvas - as those that were used against “Textile Art”. There are nuances that tip me in favour of the use of “ArtCloth” in place of “Textile Art”, “Fibre Art” and “Surface Design” etc. For example, the use of “cloth” to define clothing or garments is now obsolete [3]. However, the use of “textile” or “fibre” always evokes textile or fibre design, so important for the Bauhaus school-of-thought that it was plundered by commercial needs to sell fabrics to a large and discerning market for functional use [5] (in defiance of one of the necessary conditions of artwork – its lack of functionality). Whilst its practitioners have spawned future art movements on canvas (especially in the USA) it lost its way as the poppet head of future art movements on fabrics. “Art Cloth” unlike “Textile Art” or “Fibre Art” therefore evokes the three necessary conditions (see above) that all artworks possess.

The word “Art” in general, may be considered by some (but not me!) as too broad a descriptor to attach to “Cloth” since it evokes a non-doing noun. If I had been there at the beginning of Jane’s thought bubble I would have suggested that she should consider the descriptor “Fine Art Cloth” since “fine art” now evokes - “an art form categorized as one of the fine arts, namely, those arts which seek expression through beautiful or significant modes” [3]. “Art Cloth” naturally assumes this role, even though “Fine Art Cloth” technically nails it!

The medium of cloth engages more of our physical and unconscious senses than most media used in art. In theory you can touch it, smell it and see it. The hue it offers is impossible to recreate on canvas. It is no wonder then that Leslie Rice used black velvet to paint his self-portrait to win the 2007 Australian Moran National Portrait Prize [6]. Cloth is like having available to you a Steinway rather than a harpsichord.

I am not at all fussed that Art Cloth is sub-dividing itself. I have often stated that Art Cloth works are exploring a new continent in art [6]. To take this analogy further - like any continent there will be different flora and fauna, landscapes and climates in different regions of the continent – all happening at the same time. The more mature these explorations become, the more sub-divisions appear.

Like the mature art of painting, Art Cloth can also be sub-divided on process (e.g. shibori, batik, and digital etc.), on subject (e.g. landscapes, post-graffiti, and social comment etc.), and on movement (e.g. post-modernism, abstract expressionism, and De Stijl etc.) [6]. Those interested in Art Cloth will one day identify new art movements in cloth being born, developed, appreciated and then perhaps discarded. These statements are not predictions, but rather are the artistic cycles witnessed with the exploration of any art medium.

We do not want to lose focus on what is important to us – definitions may come and go and undoubtedly, will keep art theorists and publishing houses very busy producing a vast array of tomes [2]. However, what motivates the practitioner is simply to do and to “engage” Art Cloth! Enjoy, and let those less fortunate and gifted than you argue about such nuances.

Marie-Therese Wisniowski (BFA) is a full-time artist, researcher, author and casual lecturer at the University of Newcastle (Australia). She maintains the Art Quill Studio at Arcadia Vale, NSW, Australia. She has written articles on the Art Cloth movement for scholarly journals as well as for art and craft magazines and e-zines. She gives lectures and workshops on the concept and techniques in Art Cloth. She is the curator of the - Art Cloth: Engaging New Visions – exhibition that toured Australia. She specializes in the area of Art Cloth and limited edition prints. She has created a number of silk screening techniques (e.g. “Matrix Formatting” and “Multiplexing”), which she employs in her works. Her current work explores contemporary issues and she employs dyeing, discharge, stenciling, hand painting, digital imaging and silkscreen printing to explore issues via her large format works. For more information – see http://www.artquill.blogspot.com.

[1] J. Hemmings, Surface Design Journal, Fall 2010, pages 56-57. [2] N. Carrrol, Philosophy of Art, Routledge, London (1999). [3] The Macquarie Dictionary, Third Edition, Macquarie University, NSW (1997). [4] A. Sisley, ‘Audience Cottons onto Exhibition’ Gallery Pages, Central Western Daily, Orange, 15.5.10 [5] Editor M. Kemp, The Oxford History of Western Art, Oxford University Press, Oxford (2000). [6] M-T. Wisniowski, ‘Exploring A New Continent in Art’, Crafts Arts International, Issue 73 (2008) pages 67-72.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Thoughts on Focusing

The question of how to focus comes up in almost every discussion I lead on the creative process. I think when people talk about focusing what they’re really wondering is whether their work would improve – be stronger, better or more satisfying – if it wasn’t going so many directions. The wealth of available materials and processes is seductive! I’ve been writing about the power of limits in my personal work, so it’s not surprising that I get letters from readers who want to know what they should do to bring some focus to their work, too.

Which led me to this evaluation of the various styles Artists employ when they are making. Where do you fit? If you can’t decide, ask a friend. She’ll be able to tell you!

The Six Approaches to Making

Spontaneous: Throw anything at it and see what happens.

Tentative: Tries something out but can’t decide. Lives with it awhile and one of two things happens: Likes it so far; and continues, Or can’t decide; so it collects dust.

The Planner: Regularly diagrams, journals and plans. Thinks about color, makes lists. The planning is more fun than the execution, so no piece ever gets made. But some great journals come out of the process…

The Pragmatist: Uses what she has, right or wrong. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but at least she finishes things and stays within her budget.

The Collector: Constantly shopping and/or acquiring. Sees Big Ideas when she’s in the middle of a purchase, but nothing ever resolves. Loads of stuff in closets and under the bed.

The Worker Bee: Never didn’t finish anything. What starts as a sample must become a vest or a pillow. Everyone is in awe of how she gets it all done. The downfall? She never moves beyond samples into deeper work.

I bet you’ll see a bit of yourself in at least one of these descriptions. I’ve got bits and pieces of each of them in me, depending on my mood.

But no matter where you fall out on the above list, sooner or later, it begins to wear on you. You tire of the collections, or wish you could do differently, or better. Maybe you begin to realize it could feel great to buckle down and make something you’d be really proud of.

Which leads back to focusing.

I think focusing loses its appeal because we make the mistake of believing that if we decide to focus our efforts, we’ll leave something else wonderful behind. That somehow we’re choosing forever.

Not true! Focusing doesn’t mean you can’t do everything you find appealing. It just means that for some pre-determined period of time you are going to choose INTENTIONALLY to work with some limits. Picture the old mother in the shoe, who had so many children she didn’t know what to do. Every mother knows that each child requires at least a few minutes of individual attention every day in order to blossom into a human being with healthy self-esteem.

So this is your approach – and the first assignment (of which the next blog entries will suggest several…)

Don’t be the old woman in the shoe – with so many projects you don’t know what to do.
Think about each project, technique or how-to book that interests you. DO make some notes about what appeals and then do a little mental ranking. What do you want to do MOST right now – in this space of time? Think about concentrating your efforts on one interest – either for a specific period of time, or until you complete a certain number of works employing the technique, OR until you feel you have mastered it.

When you feel really good about the project or process from one of those angles, you’ll feel equally good about moving on to something new. OR perhaps, about sticking with it even longer – because you have discovered how much more there is to explore.

It’s a win – win proposition.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday in the Studio

Funny how it goes in the studio. This week was Week 8 of my Daily Practice Series. Although I have always been good at getting to the studio for regular work time (since it’s so much cheaper than therapy) this series requires my attendance as part of the design of the whole project. It’s based on the premise that I will go to the studio, day in and day out, if only for a short time. Inspired by the talented musicians I know, many of whom still practice scales every single day, my visual etudes are in part about what I can discover if I renew my commitment to being present. Whether I feel like it or not.

I may have written previously, that I have also challenged myself to think of filling linear space. The gallery consists of three rooms. The total running space, as close as I can figure, is approximately 290 feet, allowing for doors and the various odd air vents, security devices and thermostat panels. In an effort to work within limits, my pieces are long, rectangular works – meant to mimic the style and presentation of scrolls - musical exercises, perhaps, or penmanship samples. So I am working not only from the inspiration of refinement – selecting each element to be included or discarded even more carefully than in the past, but also from the new angle of practical logistics. Can I produce enough panels to fill 290’ of running wall space? It’s a gamble.

But I have the Gambler archetype so it’s within my comfort zone. Especially with my Judge holding court – monitoring rigorously whether my work is up to snuff on any particular day, or not.

Darn frustrating today, though. I dyed gorgeous pearl gray silk backgrounds this week, but spent most of the time spinning my mental wheels. Too much going on, between Family and Great Big Life in general. I couldn’t focus. Nothing I did felt right. My Judge was operating full throttle. And not being very nice.

For example, yesterday it seemed like a good idea to cut out stenciled letters so I could print “and the greatest of these is Love” really big as a background on one piece. Even while I was cutting out the letters I knew it was hokey, but I couldn’t stop myself. Do you know that feeling - when you might as well be driving 90 miles an hour toward a cliff? The accelerator is stuck and Fate is driving?

Sure enough. Sprayed the paint. Tried to keep it soft like the image in my mind. Oh boy. Peeled off the mask. Totally wrong. Immediate response? Cover the whole thing up by gluing rice paper over the entire surface, obscuring the lettering. Punch the time clock in my brain and hope to have a better day tomorrow.

Tomorrow arrived. Today. Energized by the cool morning and the promise of recovery, the studio beckoned. As I worked to devore’ the paper surface - allowing just a bit of the wording to appear - I felt a surge of hope. And then I thought of Zenna’s heart screen. Drawn when she was three years old, I have kept that screen for twenty years. Partly for sentimental value but partly because she’s got a good eye and a free spirit and it shows anytime she picks up a pencil.

I resisted the idea of printing her heart on the reclaimed background. I’ve been so determined to keep this series mainly abstract. Going for reverence and connection without being figurative. Wasn’t using an image that had been in my repertoire for twenty years a sell out? Couldn’t I come up with something new?

I began to write in my journal and this is what flowed from the pen:

“ Maybe this week making is leading me to a more literal, heartfelt response to the world around me. Perhaps wanting to stick with abstraction is a defense mechanism I’ve been using to keep my heart from breaking. I’ve wanted to abandon the figurative imagery I’ve used over the years but now I see it emerging from the past and inserting itself into these pieces in new forms. This Etude series has abstracted, textural backgrounds, and a use of new materials, but the birds on a line, Zenna’s heart, and various other images have wound their way through the series connecting me inextricably to previous work in a way that is comfortingly grounding.”

“Will a viewer know whether an image is old or new? Will a colleague, smarter or more intellectual than I am, dismiss my work because it is too figurative/decorative or not up his or her alley? That’s my fear; but not necessarily reality.”

“ In the meantime, I can’t choose to use or not use an image that still exists as a tool in my repertoire. I can only pay attention when the rightness of using an older image asserts itself. And then I can choose to listen. Printing tenderly or fearlessly. I must trust that my making will also be my healing.

That’s the value of developing your visual voice. It is a unique and personal language. With it comes the profound ability to express anger, tenderness, indignation and beauty – all in forms that will touch your viewer as surely as you were yourself, changed by the making.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What is Art Cloth, Anyway?

What is art cloth, anyway?

The question took me by surprise, and since being asked more than a year ago, I’ve had some rather startling realizations.

For instance, I ran this project I called the Art Cloth Challenge. I dyed twelve lengths of fabric more or less the same way – color and pattern, that is. Then I invited anyone who read the Complex Cloth list to put his or her name in the hat. I drew twelve names and sent each person a length of cloth, along with a few simple “rules”:
The cloth had to stay intact and could not be cut.
Any surface patterning technique was ok and layering was encouraged.
The pieces had to be returned to me so that I could share the results with my readers on the list.

You can see the results for yourself at http://artclothchallenge.blogspot.com.

The whole premise of the project was that any twelve artists could take the same length of cloth, work it, and produce twelve unique pieces of art. And the premise was absolutely right! The finished lengths were unique. Some of them weren’t even the same color anymore. It was fascinating.

BUT. I couldn’t believe it when I opened some of the packages upon the cloth’s return. Artists whose work I knew and admired had approached the challenge not from the perspective of what they did best, but from the perspective of what I do best. The use of imagery and layering looked more like me than it did like them.

Then it hit me. If any approach to an art form is too narrow, eventually the form will choke, wither and die. If artists in this field define art cloth as what I make, and carry the thought through to the logical conclusion that anyone’s art cloth must mimic what I make, then we’ve got trouble. We’re choking on the definition instead of making art.

My experience with the Mastery Program groups confirmed this narrow definition. My 2008 group was the first to struggle verbally with what art cloth should be as part of considering what it could be. I shared a conversation I’d had with Marie-Therese Wisniowski – Australian artist and curator of an art cloth exhibition. Marie-Therese suggested that while art cloth could be a length of cloth cascading down a wall, it didn’t necessarily have to be a specific length, width or format. The length of cloth was just one way of organizing visual information. Maybe, she suggested, art cloth was a term capable of replacing older, parochial terms, in an effort to move toward wider audience understanding and appreciation of art that begins as cloth.

The 2008 group eventually settled into a comfort zone where each artist refined the methods of working that felt most authentic to her. By the end of the program, we had twelve artists working in twelve authentic voices. I still considered it all art cloth.

One of the ironies of this whole thing is that twenty years ago fiber artists were embroiled in an ongoing discussion of what was art and what was craft. I felt sure we were going to talk that one to death, and I could hardly wait. Once we were worn out talking about it, maybe we’d be able to go back to the studio and make. But here it is again in a new, updated version – what is art cloth and what isn’t? Can’t be digitally printed? Can’t have sand on it? Can’t be square instead of one long panel? Can’t be backed? Has to be one length and not pieced?

We’re getting awfully close to choking on our own restrictions.

I’d love to know what you think.

And thoughts another time on the need for limits! Because as with all things, there’s a paradox to explore - unless we don’t use any words at all, we keep returning to the desire - may I suggest even a thirsty need - for definitions. We’re human. We can’t resist it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Protecting Artistic Energy

Well, let’s get back to art and creativity since that’s one arena where - believe it or not – I think I have some inkling of control. Or is it the illusion of control? No matter. Let’s keep going.

Last week my Mastery Program students (2010) met for their second session. One topic of discussion was how to share what they are learning. Some folks want to post to a blog and others just want to know how to share what they are accomplishing with artist friends or family. Every group I set wants to establish a presence on line where they can share images of their work as it develops. Each group is very surprised when I say NO.

Isn’t it something what we do to ourselves if left to our own mental devices? I never used to mind the sharing of unfolding work – after all – isn’t that the sign of a group committed to each other and the assignments they have been given?

Yikes. The reality of this sort of sharing is a gradual closing off, shutting down, a big whomp to the tenderly emerging self esteem of all participants considered.

That was several years ago, but now not sharing is a rule veiled as a polite request. Please do not share your work with others while you are still working on it.

We’re not talking about my assignments or class stuff that I want to protect. That’s another story and perhaps one worth exploring another time. How much should a participant enrolled in an expensive and time consuming program share with others? When does it become a vicarious free class for the person who is asking and when is it sweet interest borne by desire for the enrollee to succeed?

But this is different. This is about honoring and protecting the Artistic Self. I request not sharing now because I know sharing not only runs the risk of intimidating shyer students so that they can no longer engage and make…but more importantly, sharing saps the energy out of what they do – no matte what the confidence level.

Spiritual masters had the right idea when they cautioned against what I describe as the blurt – the uncontained, gushing verbal mode that wants everyone to know what’s going on. Find yourself in the middle of a blurt and you’ll find that the sharing diminishes the power of your creative act – power which isn’t easily restored.

Do you feel some responsibility to share what’s happening in your creative life? The events behind your closed studio doors? Think twice and conserve that store of powerful resource. No one should demand to know what’s going on with you. Let them wait. Savor your alone time with your art and your process. Report back when you feel good and ready.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Seeking Forgiveness

This week I was embarrassed and dismayed to discover that the post I wrote on election night and the responses that followed, upset one of my most beloved friends.

I have searched my soul to determine where I might have gone off track by sounding too critical of the other side. Because that was not my intent. My intent was to voice a concern that both sides of the political debate have resorted to tactics that aren’t civil. That we must categorically reject reactionary behavior.

I still don’t have an answer to how I could have written my post differently. Perhaps I could not have done so. But as the Pollyanna I am, I have sought a silver lining to the dark cloud hovering over me since that post.

The silver lining is the unifying, transcendent power of art, and specifically, of art cloth.

Those of use who love cloth don’t come from similar backgrounds. Some of us have had high-powered careers; some of us have never worked outside the house. Some of us are degreed, but many of us are not. Some have big aspirations, but many of us just love the work for the work, and are content to allow it to be so.

Our love of cloth overcomes varied family backgrounds, personal experience and education, and yes, political points of view. Which is a Hurray Moment.

I was on line this morning looking up the phone number for Spoonflower – that on-demand fabric printing site I’ve mentioned before. Stephen Fraser, one of the founders of the company, was featured in a UTube video, sponsored by the State of North Carolina. The overview of the company’s development was terrific, but what I loved most was Stephen’s statement that the company flourishes because of word of mouth – because of, in his words, ”community.” Community building.

I worry about how We will work through the current state of affairs in our government. I worry about our trashing of the planet and I worry about big business and the banking industry. These huge companies were not founded by a desire to do right in the community. They were founded to make a profit. Companies and banks don’t have a conscience. They aren’t socialized creatures. They are sociopathic entities and we, the real community, are paying the price for encouraging and indulging these practices in our culture.

How to translate our cloth community aesthetic into the at-large culture?

Rebuke? Revision? Restructure?

I am still asking myself these questions and I don’t have any answers. But I/we must engage and not falter. I am sorry I offended my friend. I hope we can continue to talk it out. Without the continued conversation among loving peers, resolution is doomed to failure. Please don’t be afraid to talk to those around you. Or share in away that could benefit others. All of us.

This is our charge.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Creative Governing?

I’ve been in a funk all day and it isn’t just worrying about my sister’s chemotherapy tomorrow. It’s the political climate in this country.

While I am horrified by the gridlock that has occurred because a bunch of extremist (mainly) men (on both sides) refuse to give an inch in the power struggle for our survival as a country (and also as human beings), today I am dismayed by our inability to recognize the absolute necessity of patience in this attempt to rebuild our circumstances. And not only dismayed but Furious when I witness the arrogance pervading EVERYTHING - that if we only had the right person, we would have been further along in this recovery. Jesus! Or maybe Mohammed! Or maybe the Budhha… but in any event, holy shit that we can’t find the patience required to allow the team we elected in 2008 to do the task we set them to do. And that we are so eager to cast them out now, and seek someone new.

No President, Democrat or Republican, could be expected to turn the tide of several generations of abuse, mismanagement and may I add, denial. Yes, I voted for Obama and I still think he’s the right man for the job. But it is discouraging to watch my Democratic colleagues abandon the cause because he couldn’t solve problems fast enough, or to their liking. I thought we were the party of generosity, high ideals and compromise. We’ve made progress. But unfortunately, it is going to take MORE time, and we do need to tighten up our belts a bit. As a self-employed artist with limited health insurance, I am ok with that. I am willing to do my part. But what about big business and government? Where are the cuts that don’t have to affect the average family? Who’s working on that? That's where the gridlock begins.

And I am also willing to take care of those around me. As long as I am talking about dismay, I need to address the insertion of various rightwing Christian dynamics into the national conversation. I don’t really get it. Aren’t we the most prosperous, highly idealistic country in HISTORY? Even if we approve of the separation between church and state, weren’t we founded in agreement with basic Christian teachings? I want to take care of those around me who are less fortunate. It is my PRIVILEGE. As they go, so go I.

Why shouldn’t those of us who have made good lives for ourselves PAY IT FORWARD by supporting our schools, streets, parks and communities through the payment of our taxes?

And on one other note, what about Moderation? We’re a bunch of greedy, self-absorbed, spoiled children, and if no one else is able to rein us in, you can be sure Mother Nature will do so.

Which is even more sobering.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Skepticism and Defiance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Getting Started Again

I am working on a new series; to be exhibited in January 2011 at the University of Louisville. My original plan was to mount the digitally produced Sacred Planet series, but surprisingly enough, when that series was completed (a year ago) I found myself longing for a return to the primitive hands-on practices upon which I have built not only a career, but most of my strongest efforts.

I am talking about simple processes. Dyeing fabric, and then adding layers of printing, which if I am lucky, will alchemically combine to produce what I can only describe as a visually poetic surface. No small feat. The traps are poor technique (the processes are deceptively simple) and/or trite or tired content, or both. I don’t have the luxury of being a newbie anymore. I can’t revel in the glow of a serendipitously printed dye surface, or the fun of printing with bubble wrap. Every beginning artist is entitled to the fresh excitement of those experiences, but sooner or later, as much as you hate it, you’ve got to ramp it up. I’ve discovered that the discipline leading to success is just as much fun as beginner’s fun, but it took me years to figure it out.

So discipline, what’s that about? I’ve written at length about discipline before. The writing done to prepare for the new series focused on three threads, which I share with you as a sort of November-December challenge.

What, I thought, would happen if I did what I always preach to students, and limited the variables that are an intrinsic part of creative making? And so I have.

Silk, cotton and polyester overlays (driven by choice of process) with the addition of hand made papers.

Flour paste resist - because I love the texture generated by the paste, and it’s a good way to add contrast to cloth. Mostly abstracted design elements based on my twenty-year accumulation of symbolic images. (That’s my own unique visual language.) Devore (burnout) because I like how it looks, there is a symbolic side to the process, and Thank God we are out of the devore everywhere phase of surface design, so I can return to it without being in the middle of the pack. Screen printing, with some pigment and some sand – because it’s something new I’ve figured out and I like it. Paper lamination – because contrasting texture is good. That ought to be enough of a variety to give me some breathing space when I am fearful of being bored or trite.

Screens - some of which are very old. They represent my personal development and also a certain sort of collective unconscious. But looser marks too – the mark of the flour paste, and the hand drawn mark. And the patterns on the paper used for lamination.

The working title is Etudes: A Daily Practice. A musician practices etudes, the French word for study, in order to learn the repertoire and improve or refine playing. This body of work is my study. It is research into what happens when an artist’s methodology and content move forward within the parameters of limitation.

I look forward to sharing the unfolding with you. If anyone else thinks this sounds interesting, be challenged to set the same course! It would be thought-provoking to compare notes now and then. I’m hazarding a guess that a lot of what I’ll learn is going to manifest at the end of the process, after the pieces are mounted for exhibition…and not while I’m in the middle of the making.

It’s just one more leap of faith.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Creativity in the Face of Distress

I haven’t written an essay in a long time. While I was in Europe, one of my sisters was diagnosed with breast cancer and subsequently underwent a bilateral mastectomy. There are four of us, and her diagnosis rocked our world. I completed my trip, returned to San Antonio, and started a long spell of just sitting on the couch.

Eventually the real world intervened. Deadlines to meet, contracts to sign, classes to teach. A daughter with a lead foot and a string of minor car accidents. Cancelled auto insurance. Screw ups at the bank that would have curdled my day a year ago. None of it seemed to matter very much. A shift in perspective, I guess.

But I couldn’t write. I didn’t know what to say. Where does creativity fall on the scale of important life stuff, anyway? It felt rather pointless. Plus my spiritual beliefs were crashing and burning. I know bad things happen to good people, and that disease is never a punishment handed out by a vindictive God. I know love, compassion and forgiveness are the only real keys to a meaningful life. But somehow I couldn’t hold on to my convictions. I couldn’t make this better. I couldn’t fix it. I didn’t know what to do. I felt doubly bad.

I am still sitting with these realities. I want to get a handle on how to be creative when it comes to facing down the crummy stuff you never think will happen to you. Because some of it will. And if not to you personally, for sure to someone you know and love.

Two thoughts guiding me as this unfolds. First, it isn’t doing my sister any good for me to feel helpless, scared and disconnected. If anything, this is the time to be selfless, find the good and funny and beautiful in Life and share it with her. Be happy just because it might help. Stay connected.

And keep creating. It would be easy to sequester myself in the studio in an escapist fashion that would keep me from being available. That’s not the answer. But a centered Jane is a more useful Jane, and spending time in the studio is both solace and therapy. Some of my strength comes from being there. The studio has been calling me and maybe that’s why.

So creating is important after all. Sometimes it’s the glue that holds things together, and sometimes it’s the release valve that blows off steam. Either way, it’s one way to seek balance. I bet I’m not alone in this experience. Your thoughts?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Creativity of Street Performers I

I encountered amazing street performance during my five week teaching trip. Here are just two of my favorites. The young man in the second post was juggling crystal balls about five inches in diameter. Sorry the video isn't crisper.

I can't say enough about seeking out these artists when traveling. I've watched them in cities all over the world. Often living on what they make from the hat, they are a gorgeous witness to the power of doing what you love creatively.

The Creativity of the Street Performer II

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Power of Limits: Part 2

Recognizing the power of limits.

Five weeks staying in hotels where breakfast is either served at a certain hour or not served at all. Where each morning the clothing choice is between the black T-shirt again or the sleeveless tank. Where the souvenir choices are many, but basically boil down to what will fit in the suitcase, or on the shelf above my seat on the train.

Those are the practical limits, and working within them brings order and harmony to the day. But limitations have also manifested in surprising ways – ones that will affect how I think about making in the future.

Last Spring I was delighted to be offered an exhibition space at the Festival of Quilts – which was one reason I decided to make this five-week trek across Europe. The space was modest – approximately eight feet deep and nineteen feet wide. I paced it out in my studio at home and realized immediately that the large works I envisioned hanging would never be appropriate unless I wanted to give solo exhibition a whole new meaning.

About that time I realized whatever I decided to include, I had two choices – to ship or to hand carry. I’ve shipped work to England before and the prospect was daunting. Another limitation. Hand carrying was definitely the more palatable choice.

I imagine I’m not much different from any artist when it comes to thinking through variables before I make a decision to get started. I trust my intuition, which often involves waiting. Maybe that’s the hardest part. Waiting for the answers to manifest. Believing inspiration will come.

But it usually does and this time it did. I began on a new series - envisioning linear panels that would measure 18” vertically and wrap around the small display space. I wanted to showcase my range of surface design tools, so I decided I would return to my roots – dyeing the fabrics first and then working into the surfaces with screen printing, fused elements and metal leaf.

While some artists begin working and rely on serendipity to lead the entire creative process, I prefer to work with a theme. A theme may be one I have researched, after which I deliberately prepare the tools. This time I wanted to approach the printing and surface development more spontaneously, but I couldn’t help wishing for a theme to guide me.

The theme revealed itself through the inspiration of a colleague. She arrived in the studio with an armful of clothing from Goodwill, intending to transform her finds through dyeing and printing. These would be additions to her wardrobe.

But I saw collage. Two days later, my own batch of used clothing was cut into segments, and included in the dye baths I prepared for my new body of work.

A series unfolds over a period of weeks. Sometimes a panel completes itself, and sometimes I struggle and lose. At the end of six weeks I had eight panels ready for the UK show. Each measured 18” tall, and extended between 40” and 58”. Each featured my dyeing and printing. Each included dyed clothing parts fused to the panel surface and integrated into the surface through further additions of printing, devore, and sand.

The finished panels rolled neatly around two swimming pool noodles, and fit easily into my largest suitcase. Each was finished with a Lutradur backing, with grommets in all four corners, to ensure easy mounting on unknown walls. A small case included black nails – which looked like beads when nailed through the grommets.

My Intimate Conversations series was complete.

The recap:
My pieces traveled perfectly, unrolling without a crease. The nails proved ideal for hanging, since the walls were painted wood. The eight pieces fit the space and even allowed the presentation of one piece outside the entrance – where the colors could attract viewers and draw them inside for a closer look.

The viewer reactions were gratifying and positive. Four days of explaining process and also inspiration flew by in a blur of engaging conversation.

We dismantled the show on Sunday afternoon. It only took a few minutes. I’ve been thinking ever since about limits. If I hadn’t thought about the limits and allowed them to guide me, I might have encountered any number of problems. I worked with what I had, and it worked out.

There’s a model in this that’s worth noting. What limitations can we set for ourselves as artists – in an effort to discover more about the process of our work? When I return to the studio next month I am going to limit my choices again. In the meantime, you can see some of the work and hear me talking about it at www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=156054037742093

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Power of Limits

Last week I spent several hours studying the Impressionist paintings in the collection of the Musee d’Orsay, in Paris. It was thrilling.

Manet’s pastels were especially thought provoking. The subject matter included his requisite dancers and nude studies. Being so close to the surface allowed me to see how each painting evolved. Which strokes were first, and which strokes came later. Where the addition of soft pink enlivened the curve of the back. How a few dashes of white brought light to a tutu and set the music playing in my imagination.

It was curious to realize that Manet frequently added paper strips to a composition in order to expand the composition in one direction or another. Was he drawing spontaneously – and realizing once the piece was underway that he hadn’t judged the space accurately, so that he needed to add more paper? Or was the paper enlarged before he ever got started – an act based on limited resources? More than one pastel was worked on simple brown craft paper. Whim or limitation? Is that something you can Google?

I realized these works of Manet’s required only three things. A sheet of paper, a box of pastels, and the ability of the artist to put the two together. Which of course he did, magnificently.

When was the last time I worked so simply? Just cloth and dye, for example. Those materials get a piece underway, but I have an embarrassment of techniques and tools at my disposal. I love layers. I love complexity. I pondered the possibility of achieving these goals by using only two components. I am sure it can be done, just as Manet first sketched with pastels, and then worked to add the details.

This is a reminder of the power of limits; a topic I am going to keep pondering.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

It's All in the Details

I’ve been on the road for three weeks, and one of the things I miss about home is the quiet time for writing. Right or wrong, it’s hard to choose writing alone in a hotel room over seeing the Alps or strolling the streets of Paris, especially on a first visit. Maybe one answer to the no writing time arrived in the form of Quicktime Pro – a download that will allow me to post short film clips of the amazing street actors I’ve witnessed everywhere. I’ll work on those posts next week.

In the meantime, a quiet afternoon to myself on a sunny balcony in Bad Sackingen, Germany, just a few miles from Basel, Switzerland. What am I learning? What observations are carrying me into the last weeks of my itinerary and beyond?

One is the importance of looking small. At details. You can walk into a cathedral in any town in Europe and be blown away by the width and breadth and gloriousness of the space. And by the heavy weight of history. But it’s the play of light on the wall above the altar I’ll remember. And the worn center of each step leading up the hill to the Basilica of Sacre Coeur – smoothed by an endless stream of pilgrim feet.

My details range from the ridiculous to the sublime. The young trickster in Georges de La Tour’s painting – which I teach from, but had never seen! The perfection of a single white braid. A life-sized rhinoceros statue with the horn duct taped in place. Every detail catalogued into the internal filing cabinet otherwise known as my brain.

How will this load of disparate visual stuff mix and eventually manifest? Hard to know, but my presence will be known by the details, because that’s what makes each of us unique. Maybe we all have eyes and hands and feet, but it’s the blueness or brownness, the curve of the toes, or the strength of the grip, that sets us apart. Maybe artists share dye recipes and paintbrushes, fabrics and format. But it’s the details that make an artist’s work unmistakably her own.

I think that’s why eventually we have to get away from other people and focus on working alone. How can you discover your voice if you are always singing with a choir? Your timing, the phrasing, that lilt at the end of a line – you need the courage to go solo in order to unfold.

So enjoy my details and then go find some of your own. Details are one place where it’s healthy to make the exploration all about you.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bring Out Your Eight Year Old

The other evening I visited with friends after a long day working my stand at the Festival of Quilts, held every August in Birmingham, England. We were enjoying a little relaxation on the patio of our inn.

I’ve brought my snap together hula hoop along on this trip. I’m going to spend five weeks on the road and knew I’d need something to supplement my yoga practice. Got to keep that blood going or the body rebels. Hooping is great fun – you can dance by yourself any time you want to. The snap together hoop is an invention rivaling sliced bread! Easy to put together, lightweight and portable. Crank up the music and you’re good to go.

Sharing the hoop seemed like a great idea. The evening breeze was perfect; the sun was dipping low on the horizon and the folks enjoying their drinks laughed easily and often.

So I was surprised at the response the hula hoop provoked. Only two friends jumped at the opportunity to try it out. The rest held back as though I’d tried to pass them a loaded pistol. Hmmm.

Eventually almost everyone hooped for at least a couple of minutes, laughing and game about the new experience. Few of us are good at something the first time we try it out. It’s taken me five months to hoop consistently and I’m still not that great at it.

How is hooping related to creativity? It’s the realization I had after the evening ended. If we’d been a bunch of eight year olds, we would have clamored for our chance at the hoop! It’s the bugaboo maturity thing. Are we afraid we’ll look foolish? Do we doubt our abilities now - when once upon a time we believed we could do anything? Christine Northrup observed that seven year-old girls rule the world – at least in their own minds. But then adolescence begins, and self-confidence takes a tumble.

So now I am observing my own reactions to the new experiences of being in unfamiliar surroundings. Nothing like a five-week road trip to challenge your perceived sense of self.

I am determined to bring out my eight year old as often as I can on this trip – confidently embracing any opportunity to learn something new or imagine an approach to my art work I hadn’t thought of before. It’s a good creative strategy. Probably a good Life strategy too.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Creative Impulse

Life is LIFE - new, exciting, precious and cautious - all rolled into one.

Life is COLOR and BALANCE.

Living is all those qualities. Color, balance, caution, preciousness, excitement. Today I witness to ENTHUSIASM. It's what gets us here, right or wrong. AND what drives our choices, right or wrong.

YES, he IS hula hooping with two hoops while also balancing one guitar and playing the second. His prelude to this assortment of talents: "Two hoops, two guitars and two screws loose." If you are ever at Pike Place Market in Seattle, look for him. Or maybe he'll turn up on Leno.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Protect Your Energy

Creative ideas require incubation. Talking about an idea too early can sap the energy right out of it.

Observation: Most of us feel obligated to talk about our creative ideas on demand.

This week I was teaching another group of favorite students on Whidbey Island at the Northwest Pacific Art School. The third class day usually includes a critique of pieces in progress.

Here’s the setting: students work with white fabrics the first workshop day, tearing the fabric into swatches and immersing it in dye. The second day we dye the fabrics again and learn to make printing tools. By Wednesday we’re printing our pants off – adding flour paste resist, and using lots of luscious textile paint. Participants are propelled by visions of metallic leaf dancing on the fabric. It’s the final sublime addition to the gorgeous and complex cloth.

I’m the guide, so it’s up to me to call the printing to a halt in order to spend an hour evaluating design and color. We hang up the works in progress and talk about getting stuck and unstuck. I suggest hanging pieces on a design wall in order to get a better perspective from across the room. I suggest that sometimes another opinion can help. I suggest that a significant other is usually not the right person to ask. Everyone nods knowingly and laughs.

It doesn’t matter whether comments come from a spouse, a good friend or a colleague in a critique group. It doesn’t matter whether they’re well intentioned – meant to be helpful or a show of support, or slightly mean-spirited – a comment driven by envy or by the fear of being left out. When comments come, it’s a sign you aren’t taking care of yourself. Recognizing this gives you something to work on.

Good ideas need time to manifest. A Buddhist master once observed that sharing a newly acquired devotion to spirit or faith isn’t appropriate. Creative, spirit-filled activity requires private space. Otherwise the idea may dissolve back into the unconscious. The opportunity to sustain it will be lost.

A few ground rules help. Establish these in your own mind by inventorying your needs and creative style. Ground rules could include:

- An agreement within your household that a closed door signals an artist in early exploration mode; one who prefers not to be disturbed.

- An agreement within your household, that comments, while eventually welcomed, are to be invited rather than freely offered. If I leave a new piece on the wall in the living room so I can see it when I walk in the front door, my daughter just pretends it doesn’t exist until I am ready to ask for her opinion.

- One of the biggest joys of friendship is respect – part of the opportunity friends share to nurture each other. I want my good friend Niki to see my work. I want to know what she thinks. But she doesn’t volunteer an opinion until I invite one and I extend that courtesy to her in return.

- Critique groups are different beasts, but there are rules of thumb for them, too. The main thing is to decide why you are there and what you want from the group. If you practice articulating your needs to the group, and you are also clear about what you don’t want from them, you’ll probably get better advice. It will be the advice you really needed, uncluttered by personal preference or comments concerning parts of the piece that can’t be changed or undone.

All of this requires attention to detail, and sharing in a friendly, thankful and open way. We’re grateful when our loved ones are interested in our projects. We don’t want to offend anyone, or create an atmosphere where we can’t share the joys of the process. And it isn’t as if we don’t ever want advice. But it’s up to you to protect your fragile ideas through the hardening off stage – like protecting young plants until they are strong enough to be transferred outside into the cold spring soil. Eventually you’ll want to share the flowers and fruits of your labors with everyone around you. But during the initial thrust of new growth, you need to be protective.

Take a shot at discussing this with the people who love you, and offer to do the same thing for them. And feel free to use this essay as the starting point. Let’s see if we can deepen not only our attachment to our process, but also to those who inspire, delight, frustrate and embolden us. A little creative communication goes a long way. Wouldn’t it be terrific if it gave you the privacy you crave?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Visiting Barbara Lee Smith

I’ve been on a week’s vacation prior to teaching at the Pacific Northwest Art School next week. I am lecturing on Tuesday night so if you are in the area, come by and visit with us. It’s free!

Barbara Lee Smith is one of the most influential artists in my field. (There’s a hard one to define – Surface Design? Textiles? Mixed Media? Gosh, when are we going to get past the need to Name?) The author of the groundbreaking Celebrating the Stitch, she was instrumental in guiding textile processes into new and uncharted territories. I had the great luck of collaborating with Barbara in 1997. Our exchanges – literally, as in real time mail - and figuratively, as artists, colleagues and friends – profoundly influenced my own development as an artist.

Barbara’s studio in Gig Harbor is a place of shadow and light, which is appropriate, since her work is all about shadow and light; color and nuance. She was working on new pieces for a one-person exhibition at the Gregg Museum in the fall, and she graciously invited me into her space while she was working. The photos tell it all. The importance of organization, the impact of being surrounded by the things we love, the exchanges that consume us as artists when we are engaged by both material and subject matter.

I was reminded that Barbara has been working with Lutradur for over twenty years. Only surprising because if popular advertising were to be believed, one might think Lutradur was just invented yesterday.

Which led me to two strands of thought and the message of this essay.

First, an acknowledgement of humility, and an encouragement to learn something about those artist folks who were working in the field long before some of us came along. I’ve been guilty of it. Witness your history. Find something out about it and be grateful. We so cavalierly assume we are the cutting edge, the new world, the Now. If you don’t know where you came from artistically, do a little Googling. We have a rich and fascinating recent past and it’s definitely worth exploring.

Second. Pick something and then stick with it. While I was in the studio I admired one of Barbara’s pieces and this is what she said. “I think I am finally getting somewhere.” That’s probably with at least five hundred completed works under her artist’s belt. Daunting yes, but anyone can do it. You just have to begin. And not swerve. I love silk Habotai and when I get home, I’m going back to it. I see there must be more to discover. I welcome the opportunity.

Thank you, Barbara.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Time Magazine and Creativity

Last week Time Magazine’s cover story was entitled Creativity in America: The Science of Innovation and How to Reignite Our Imaginations. The premise: that creative thought is on the decline in the US – especially among children.

I happen to be in my fourth week of a Reading Class (partial fulfillment of the requirements needed to complete a Creativity Coaching Certificate.) The classic books I’ve read so far haven’t grabbed me, but I’ve been at a loss as to why. I thought maybe it was just summertime, or the stress of being on the road with a heavy teaching schedule.

But the Time article included a rather shocking observation concerning my reading material: Not only does the classic creative strategy brainstorming not work, but “according to University of Oklahoma professor Michael Mumford, half of the commonly used techniques intended to spur creativity don’t work, or even have a negative impact. As for most commercially available creativity training, Mumford doesn’t mince words: it’s garbage.”

He added, “Whether for adults or kids, the worst of these programs …pander to an easy, unchallenging notion that all you have to do is let your natural creativity out of its shell.”

Ha! Just as I’ve suspected. Creativity requires intentional effort. It isn’t just going to spring bubbling from my inner well, or burst from the top of my head. Maybe that’s why the books weren’t resonating. The approach was too formulaic. Especially the chapters that proposed methods for tapping the intuitive, serendipitous Self.

It hasn’t been my experience that it’s possible to command serendipity. I may notice intuition at play and practice noticing. I may become better aware of intuitive hits when I get them. But I don’t think calling forth serendipity or intuitive resonance is a command performance.

In defense of the books, which shall remain nameless, each was written more than twenty years ago. As with all things, observations and experience of the creative process continue to evolve. Perhaps those books are losing their relevance. Wouldn’t that be good? It would indicate progress in the field.

The Time article suggested quantifiable activities that have been proven to enhance the quest for your Best Creative Self. Here’s the short list:

1. Never tell someone to be creative or to “think creatively.” Saying it out loud almost always shuts down anything good that was happening. Sort of like demanding great sex instead of letting it unfold. Some things just aren’t available on demand.

2. Quit watching so much TV. Not only does it sap time that could be used creatively, it also saps interest in being creative.

3. Get moving. Every dimension of cognition improves from 30 minutes of aerobic exercise and this is true of creativity, too. The type of exercise doesn’t matter and the boost lasts for at least two hours.

4. Take a break. I wrote about this a few weeks ago. Not happening creatively? Set the project aside for a while and don’t pursue that interest. Your back burner (the unconscious) will busily work on your behalf. Professors who set aside a writing project when they’re stuck get more papers published than those who labor over one precious document.

5. Explore something new. A new cuisine, a new culture? It doesn’t matter. The effect is the same. The curiosity around something new filters into your creative thinking sphere – and heats it up too.

6. Passion, passion, passion. Studies have proved that kids do best when they are encouraged to pursue a passion. Passion gives meaning and substance to existence. Have you got one? If not, maybe this is a good time to start looking.

As for the coursework I am pursuing? I’m going to stick with it. I know I have some strategies that work when my students need help accessing their best creative selves. And I've seen results. Maybe I’ve got a few ideas that will contribute to the field.

I’ll share my strategies next time.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

What's Trite? What's Not?

Last week a reader commented that one of my observations was “trite, but true.” Her comment didn’t bother me; instead it inspired me to wonder what the exact meaning of trite was, so I looked it up in the dictionary.

Here’s what I found:
Boring, not fresh or original.
Synonym: stereotyped, lacking the freshness that evokes attention or interest. Worn out by overuse so as to become dull and meaningless.

Life is so packed with paradox. I get what trite means in the dictionary sense. Overused phrases, tired sitcom themes, saccharin color schemes that remind me of social occasions - like holidays. Let’s not even get started on the downward spiral holiday memories are capable of evoking. Nothing about that little piece of collective unconscious is fresh or original.

But where does daily practice fit? I’ve spent ten years trying to stay in present time. Chopping wood. Carrying water. Keeping it simple. Living in the moment. Not jumping. What an interesting list of trite phrases. You might begin to think my life is boring. Not fresh or original.

And there’s the paradox. The activities that keep me centered, authentic, and real could easily be dismissed as trite. It’s all phrasing and context. How much outside influence have you bought into lately?

I propose that trite is a word so imbued with fear-based power it actually keeps us from engaging authentically with ideas, and by association, with right living. Heaven forbid something I think or write be dismissed as trite. Or that my life be judged uninteresting or boring. Not fresh or original.

What about the phrase new age? Remember how fresh and original new age used to be? On the brink of something. Open to creative thinking and an engaged approach to spirit. But somewhere along the line the meaning of new age shifted. No more fresh possibility. Only disdain for a phrase now considered the epitome of trite.

Which is why a healthy dose of skepticism is a valuable asset. When we hear words but never stop to think about them, we buy into a collective branding of our unique take on reality. When a whole set of deceptively simple ideas is dismissed as trite because advertising has the nerve to co-opt the veneer of a deep idea and drop it into a TV commercial, then we lose an important connection to the original profound thought.

It’s a challenge to stay in present time and keep analyzing the world and words around us. You have to embrace a little bit of rebel archetype - someone who is never afraid to say, “Oh yeah?”

And that’s what I’m choosing to do. Live my simple life and keep working on my authentic self – trite as it may sound. If I can live through the paradoxes of my own life then I can decide for myself what trite is. I don’t want to take thinking for granted. That’s the best trite-avoidance behavior I can engage in. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Hand/Eye Magazine

Hand/Eye is a gem of an on-line magazine and it was an honor when they decided to use an essay I've written on Art Cloth in the latest edition. Check out the essay, but also the wonderful images and other articles included in the July issue.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Summer Recipes to Spice Up Your Life

These were my inventions yesterday. The spice heats you up, so you don't notice how warm the day has gotten!

Pico de Gallo Baked Beans

1 can baked beans – your favorite brand
2 T. catsup
2 T. brown sugar
½ cup fresh pico de gallo (or make your own)

Combine all ingredients and heat over medium heat until slightly bubbly.

Pico de Gallo
Means Bite of the Rooster in Spanish
Great with chips or added to the above recipe

1 chopped tomato – very ripe
1 chopped small red onion
1 bunch of cilantro – washed and chopped (stems removed)
juice of one lime
½ - 1 whole seeded and chopped jalapeno pepper
optional: ½ c. chopped fresh pineapple or mango

Brownies Caliente

1 box of your favorite brownie mix + eggs or water if needed
1 T. cinnamon
1 t. cayenne pepper (more if you like it hot)

1 can chocolate frosting

Make the brownies according to the package directions and add the cinnamon and cayenne pepper.
Bake according to package directions. Cool.
Frost with chocolate frosting.
Optional: add 1 t. cinnamon to frosting prior to frosting the brownies.

You could make these from scratch but it's easier to use a mix on a hot day!

White Sangria with Cucumber and Mint

1 seeded and peeled cucumber
1 bunch of fresh mint, stems removed and washed
2 c. sparkling apple or peach soda
3 c. Pinot Grigio

Put cucumber, mint and ½ c. wine in the blender and blend on high until smooth.
Press the solids through a sieve to separate the juice.
Combine cucumber/mint juice with wine and sparkling soda. Serve over ice with a mint sprig garnish.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Power of Memes

Today let’s talk about memes. Richard Dawkins coined the word meme (it rhymes with cream) in 1976, and chose the word deliberately because it sounded like gene. He defined a meme as a cultural idea, symbol or practice passed from one person to another through writing, conversation, ritual and/or gesture. (If you’re interested in etymology, the word springs from a Greek term meaning “something imitated.”)

Memes are like genes in the sense that they evolve by being passed from one human generation to the next. We inherit memes just as we inherit genes. But memes are not like genes where it really counts. Your genetic code isn’t easily altered. Your memetic code, on the other hand, can be rejected or accepted. Taking a look at your personal memes can reveal surprising realities about how you think and respond to the world, because as theorists point out, “The memes that replicate effectively spread the farthest and fastest, and some memes may replicate effectively even when they prove detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.”

Detrimental to the welfare of their hosts! In case anyone is wondering, that means some of the ideas you grew up with are bad for you. I have a feeling an inventory of memes related to creativity would read something like this:

I don’t have a creative bone in my body.
I was never any good at (fill in the blank) drawing, painting, singing, writing...
I’m not really an artist.
Men are better artists than women.
I just play around; I don’t really make art.
Artists can’t make a living in this society/city/world.
Quilting isn’t really art; it’s a craft.
Art is more important than craft.
Musicians never make any money.
I am not that creative; anyone could do this.

Sound familiar or do you have your own personalized versions of creativity memes?

You may not be able to change your genetic make-up. But you can recognize the negative energy embedded in the above list of cultural memes and rebuke them. Christiane Northrup calls for an open conversation and confrontation of memes – and suggests that talking about hurtful, limiting memes is the equivalent of vaccinating participants against them. Naming is power. Recognizing a meme as the psychological limitation it represents is the first step in dismantling it.

So I am calling for an open conversation and confrontation of the memes that play out in our sacred creative spaces. An inventory of your outdated, subliminal, and hurtful memes is in order! Make a list and dismiss any idea that doesn’t serve your creative growth. Just because you thought it doesn’t make it true. Get a fresh take and breathe some new creative air. Clarity is good.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Nitric Oxide

If you’ve stood over a print table in your studio, or sat on the couch stitching, you’re familiar with the flush of pleasure that accompanies a creative act. Making is good. And making is broad – encompassing all kinds of activities. Yesterday I roasted vegetables straight from the Farmers’ Market, and broiled peaches with brown sugar and cayenne. A dollop of vanilla yogurt and Yowza! It was as rewarding to be in the kitchen as it is to be in the studio.

And guess what? The creative acts firing up your hands and unleashing your imagination are actually having a positive effect on your physical body. Chemically. No kidding.

I’ve been listening, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, to Christiane Northrup, in a presentation called Inside-Out Wellness. Dr. Northrup is famous for her research into women’s body and mind issues. It’s no surprise that she’s writing about menopause now, because that’s the stage of Life she is experiencing herself. But what she has to say is relevant to any woman at any age, and what she has to say about nitric oxide is relevant to everyone, male or female.

Nitric oxide is produced in the body naturally, and released in abundance in our nervous system as well as all of our organs when we engage in sensual and sexual pleasures. Don’t confuse nitric oxide with nitrous oxide – that’s laughing gas, and while this new research might make you happy, it’s nothing to laugh at.

Doris Ogden, Ph.D. works with Dr. Northrup, and wrote, “ Her latest book offers astounding new information about nitric oxide, the Wow! molecule that continually resets our ability to connect body, mind, heart, and spirit. To activate this, we don’t need a pill or a patch, but we do need to care for ourselves. Dr. Northrup prescribes plenty of sleep, exercise, life-giving foods, letting go of resentment, and opening up to affirmation and love.”

And based on what she’s written, an hour you spend knitting or gardening, or painting or indulging yourself in making – in whatever form pleases you – is raising the level of nitric oxide in your body. It’s akin to the runner’s high we’ve heard so much about. The activity itself contributes to well being in a way that can be documented.

It’s a struggle to find balance in our lives. We take on too many projects, we care for the people around us, Life throws curveballs we haven’t anticipated. In the course of care taking and plain old living we often lose track of ourselves. Listening to Dr. Northrup’s inspiring encouragement to make and do the things that bring pleasure – for the sake of good health - reminded me of this Wiccan passage, which is relevant no matter what your spiritual path:

“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.”

Take care of yourself. Indulge in a bit of creative making today.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Facing Down Fear

Last Monday I finally got back on my bike.

Two years ago on July 3, I went for my morning bike ride. The summer air is still fresh and cool in San Antonio at 7 a.m. I counted on my ride to clear my head –setting the tone for the day.

A mile from the house I encountered a small, white dog. He was so small he didn’t worry me. I didn’t even brake when he rushed the bike.

In what seemed like an eternity – but in what was probably less than a minute – I was face down, skidding on the pavement. The dog leaped into the pedals. I was thrown over the handlebars and onto the street.

Nine stitches in my mouth, two wrists so badly bruised I couldn’t drive for a week. Knees so jazzed up from hitting the street – literally – that I couldn’t exercise for several months without feeling the pain.

And no way could I bike.

I kept thinking about it though. I loved to ride. The gym didn’t do it. Running wasn’t a fit for me. I needed movement. Flow. Air.

It was a thought spurred by Dr. Christiane Northrup that got me back in the saddle. Dr. Northrup is a noted women’s health advocate. I’ve been listening to a great recording featuring her. Being reminded of the power and resilience of the female body is empowering, but what really struck me was the reality of what LIFE does to us if we allow it. Gradually, because of fear-based experience, we shut down. We take good things out of our lives. We lose our enthusiasm.

Sometimes we are just plain overwhelmed. I used to go to the post office and frequently noticed a woman come out of her large, weed-entangled house next door. Dressed in a bathrobe and slippers, she puttered in the yard and sometimes came across the street, presumably to check her mail. I went to that post office a lot over several years. The house grew noticeably shabbier and more infirm, as did its owner. One day I pulled into the parking lot and the house across the street had collapsed. “That could be me,” I thought to myself. “Too much house to take care of. It gets harder and harder…”

Eventually all human projects disintegrate and disappear. Only Nature perseveres.

I thought about selling my house, but decided it was a little early to go that route.
But after my accident I stopped biking.

We humans are fragile creatures and we would be foolish not to take care of ourselves. But every time we make a choice to leave something out or eliminate an activity we enjoy because we no longer have the courage or enthusiasm or heart to do it - our world narrows slightly. And then the inner house gets shabby. The lights dim.

I don’t want to live in the dark. Screwing up courage to get back on the bike took planning – and a fair amount of positive self talk. Consider cultivating this positive self talk, and pepper it with a nice dash of defiant self-esteem. I bought a better helmet, but also decided to focus on each block of my ride more carefully. If I see a dog, there isn’t any guarantee we can share the street amiably, but I deserve to be there too, and I am going to take my chances. Feeling the air is worth it. I choose each morning not to be afraid. Or to feel the fear and do it anyway.

And isn’t that what every tough, self-empowering choice is about – every single day? You may be afraid of what won’t happen if you go into the studio, but go there anyway. You might be intimidated about speaking up when it isn’t socially or politically correct, but how will you feel about yourself if you remain silent?

Don’t allow your world to narrow. Claim some small part of your joy back today. And relish the experience of it.