Sometimes, when a friend invites me to go look at art somewhere local, I feel the burden of my identification as an artist. Such a foray as 'artist' often feels wearying. Usually, the evening ends up being a better experience than I thought, about friendship and empathic joyfulness for the artists exhibiting, but the story of the whole thing that proceeds such an outing - the thought and precursive feeling - is what can feel oppressive. It's a shared, social set of norms and patterns that I have been trying to lose for some time.
Something has always felt off kilter about how normal it is to 'seek' as artists, and how often quite blatantly the commerce game in the US is very stacked against the delicate skin of many a creative. Also lopsided is how gallerists and curators are lightening rods themselves, the focus of so many people's wants, and then also seeking the sales, or the grants, or the reviews. Who wants to relate to the world from that place of lack and want?
I am reminded, of a trip to New York City I took when I was still in my twenties, with a good artist friend at the time. She had a complete reverence for each work we looked at. She took her time. She was quiet, as if watching wildlife. She was just alight with the work, all kinds, all eras. The fact of its very existence filled her heart, it seemed to me. It felt like we had taken a pilgrimage.
I was brought up looking at art and going to museums. By that trip in my twenties, I was already sort of numb to its magic. I do however remember being very small, and delighting in a color, a bold assemblage, a particular type of line or mark, or some whole crazy mess or elegant, painstaking arrangement in the white square of a museum. This younger self reminds me that my heart has always been tuned to this type of song. My friend in New York showed me without meaning to, where I had gotten overly familiar with the sacred exchange of looking. Today, the decades of past association appear at moments, to have made me jaded: perhaps because an eye roll is easier than a broken heart.
Put differently, the breathtaking first love of a color and a form, overlaid with a professional career of success! rejection, utter disregard, success! deflation, disillusionment, confusion, bitterness, loss, little success! and then in many regards just turning, three quarters of the way away, can make a little jaunt to an opening, feel complicated for me.
It's similar to how I have felt as a single woman in my forties, trying to decide if I wanted to join a dating app one last time or if I was completely done. I decided I was done. And from this came a deep layer of, eventually, freedom. I could be a happy spinster! I enjoyed my own company. I loved making an X with my limbs in a bed all my own. Doing whatever the F I felt like, whenever. Having my sister's kids over was delightful.
I regard the newish and changing art scenes around me today with weary distrust. There's the Boston ones, the Detroit ones, the Michigan ones, the Maine ones. Or is there? These are stories and thoughts, based on past experience and conclusions, high and hard moments, objectifying stories, that ultimately have no more basis than me as an object among objects in the world. Stories are so compelling, but they often don't hold up upon scrutiny to have any actual reality to them. Aren't we all just waking up, getting a cup of something, brushing our teeth?
As a small and separate personality, there is always something more to get. As aliveness itself, the thing that leaves a body so remarkably when it breathes its very last breath, there is nothing ever to want. You are all of that already: all expressions, all things, all epiphanies, high points, all tragedies.
Making art is a choice to play, a choice to discover what thrills this particular vantage point I call me. What she's curious about, what fascinates and even repels.
This kind of exploration can extend too, to everything. To every moment of apparent choice, to tuning into the inside Yeses and the inside Nos as one finds the flow and eventually returns to just being flow.
Being flow won't look a certain way. It won't associate with a certain crowd. It won't follow a script. But it is joy, wealth and perfection, the way water moves in a river is that. So my aspiration, to say it out loud, is to roll through the chances of experience where they lead, calibrated as I appear to be, toward certain things. Sometimes out of a need for practical outcomes, sometimes out of a pull or an inspiration, sometimes because something is not feeling great.
In the words of 12th century poet Jelaludin Rumi,
You are the honored guest. Do not weep like a beggar for pieces of the world.
What appears to be true is that both sides of the coin, the little me with her wants and history and aspirations and hurts and prides is held in the aliveness, the situation itself, the one that hears the prayer. Sometimes there's a moment where a skin gets sloughed off, an old tight story, and for a while I have been molting on this artist one. this artist skin. This form in a sea of forms, stories and associations.
How is it for you, as an artist or in your profession? Do you sometimes feel the expanded way, and then contract into the local story of comparison and ambition? Do you see it an entirely other way? Have you found ways to stay open and tender even where there may appear be sharks (or at least sharp rocks) in the water? I would love to learn from you, how to surrender this little striver to the great open water of color, light and infinite form.
My dear friend Ron passed away in early May of this year. He had a form of cancer. We had been walking weekly, getting coffee, and when I moved, talking every few weeks. He read a poem at my wedding. He came to my art events. He taught me how to ground myself in my legs, to listen with my whole body, and to lower my expectations about human marriages, how they roll and how they feel, especially the first few years. In other words Ron was a good friend.
When he died, I realized I only had his cell phone number, and it took a bit to get his wife Patty's contact information. I called her to check in, see how she was. I know Patty less, but have spent a number of new year's days at their house, and she too, drove three hours to be at my wedding in 2017. I care about Patty. She was doing OK. I asked her about Ron's papers. She was happy to part with some of them, because she was in a cleaning and clearing mode. She sent me a box which I opened two days ago, with a few books and some of Ron's papers, so that I could make a book with them, one of the series I've made starting 20 years ago with my earliest handmade books. In this series 'Death Books,' someone's papers, after they die, get folded every which way and bound, so that you can see their thinking, their marking and their reading and writing, but it's now sideways, folded, upside down, only partly legible. It is a relic of a life that is now over. It is the data and the trace of the life of that singular mind.
Opening that box was something. Tender. An honor. First there was a little fat, laughing buddha on top of all the bubble wrap. Then Ron's inflatable zafu, meditation pillow, on which he did many a three month and one month retreat. Inside were his many notes, and his paper's from the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. His letters of recommendation to join the retreat and have interviews with Joshu Suzuki Roshi, the stories about which I have heard many times. It's Ron in papers.
These books and the death of people, animals, chapters of life, or relationship, remind me that this art practice is just for fun, whether or not anybody else care's about it. It's just for a while. It's for while I'm breathing, inclined, and able to engage it. Doing something is more important, I feel, than doing it right, or looking good, or towing a line. I can turn a studio practice into those things for sure and I have, but engaging an art practice and making art, to me, is more important than most 'normal activities' in the following way.
Everything, every object in your world is a kind of icon. It's for doing something with. It prompts a certain kind of engagement. Like a file folder on your computer desktop is an icon. A bowl is to eat soup from. A file folder is to open to see files. A chair is to sit on. A book is to read. A dog is to pet. Icons.
An artwork is to...well what is it there for? What is it for? This line of reasoning kind of halts the automatic engagement, if one is really looking, and can loosen the automatic pilot of doing, responding, engaging. In fact anything. a chair, a book, or a dog, can similarly open things up, if one is really there with it. If one forgets it's name, or what it is associated with, or what you think about it. Somehow art is such a personal rendering with no obvious point, that it can be at times more ambiguous, and open things up. Other times, it's another symbol: of status, of fashion, of historic importance, or the kind I don't like. Art is to look at. Art is to buy. Art is to make. But as Anne Truitt said earlier:
...this process is mysterious. It's like not knowing where you're going but knowing how to get there. The fifteen years that David Smith thought it took to become an artist are spent partly in learning how to move ahead sure-footedly as if you did actually know where you are going. -Anne Truitt
Death Books is now also a service, which is described more fully on my art website: hannahburr.com/deathbooks. I will make one for you, from the papers of your beloved departed, if you like.
I have never understood the fashion of people walking around in paint covered clothes as artists. I understand the occasional sleeve edge or mark. House painters or dry-wallers, I get it, but the crazy covered sweatshirt seems very intentional when I consider my own working style. If you saw me working in my studio, you would barely see me move, much of the time, and my clothes are generally paint free.* However, there are times when I am moving, when I am doing a pour or working with lots of containers and tubes, on every available surface; then, things become a serious mess.
What I regret is trusting myself to be neat and careful, when if I stop and think, I will remember that I exhibit neither of these qualities, especially when actively experimenting with something on a painting surface. I only remember when I have neglected to put my old jeans on instead, or remove a brand new pristene pair of shoes. The worst is acrylic paint that I only notice when it's fully dried and permanently damaging some lovely pair of wool slacks with an edge line right at the crotch. I am wearing such a pair now free of blemishes, and at low risk because I am typing on a computer today.
* Now that I've taken up oil painting again, I am going to qualify that statement. In fact, I do get paint lots of places when I work in oil paints. It just stays oily and wet and smudges everywhere. I also made myself an apron that covers nearly all of me, and that is hugely helpful.
Chop saw is an object that for me factors into a story of success and change over time. In 2009, I wanted a chop saw. The one I wanted was $500. I didn't have this money available for the saw. Wherever possible, I avoid owing banks money, and so I began to put away $5 a week in an envelope labeled "Chop Saw". This became routine, and $5 a week was easy. I didn't think about it until 100 weeks later, the money was there, all saved up in Chop Saw, the envelope. At which point I bought it.
So that's chapter one, in which I didn't go into debt but I saved up patiently and got the dream saw. I get compliments on it from carpenter types often. Up until last summer, this saw sat on the floor of my studio and got tripped over, occasionally being set up outside in the kitchenette area of Humphrey's studios or in the backyard for use, or the floor of my studio. This led to complications of saw dust and noise. That's chapter two. I have the tool, but the space is not ideal.
Chapter three is that now I have an actual space for this saw, which technically is the unheated wood shop adjacent to my studio, the front part of the garage that is my studio, and it has its own metal table and it's own dedicated spot.
For the first time, there is a true home for this saw. It has been used to build a bed, dining room table, thousands of wooden blocks for the Attendant Series, to cut studs for at least six walls in three studios, all the trim and moulding and two ceiling frames, a diminutive shelf, and recently lots of PVC pipes and too long pieces of firewood. When I run it today, there is the joy of knowing that it isn't causing a dust problem, because it's in a bonafide wood shop! Now, we just need to get all the other stuff like bikes and lawnmowers out of there, and all will be happy ever after.
In June, Guy and I went to a place called Cherry Hill, near Ypsilanti Michigan, where the cicadas have climbed out of the ground, up trees, grasses and shrubs, shed their exoskeletons, unfolded beautiful wings to fly, find a mate, and then deposit their larvae into the ground again, and die.
They are seventeen. This happens over a two week period. This emergence, transformation, mating, birthing, and death happens every seventeen years, in the very same spot: a complete life cycle right there.
We are on the geographic edge of this phenomena. One cicada landed on our porch column, and faintly, their sounds were audible in the trees around us. Cherry Hill is closer to critical mass of cicadas, and as soon as we left our parked car there, we found fifty or sixty in adjacent shrubs, and their exoskeletons, and in flight around us.
What they are doing has nothing to do with us. It's happening in a way that is as systematic as a fleet of soldiers storming a beach on a life and death mission, intent on only one thing. They won't destroy crops or bite. The birds we saw were uncharacteristically slow, full after feasting.
I'm not sure what to say about this, except that there's something so direct and tender about this process. I wouldn't likely feel so forgiving if I lived right in the middle of the action where their sounds can get louder than 120 decibels - loud enough that you can't talk over their din. Seeing this literal evolution from gestating, to breaking through yourself, to unfolding new wings, to collaboratively making another life, and then to dying in all of its stages, nakedly, right there on the side of a honeysuckle bush, was pure and tender. And definitely a little sci-fi too.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.