"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.

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?