"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.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Loving the Artist You Are

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

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

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

“What do you see?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 2, 2011

Settling a Score

Verse 31
Tao te Ching

Stephen Mitchell translation

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

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

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

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

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

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