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.
Lately, I am undergoing some studio changes. This is an internal and an external thing. I’m looking at what motivates me to do anything, and taking some prompts from my intuition to make some changes.
One of these changes is that I’m going to go from occasionally donating books to a shelter or money to an organization like Kiva microlending (also very fun and low stakes), to baking it into my way of doing business from the ground up.
So far, this has turned out to be delightful.
In the past I have always had some story get in my way of doing this:
a) I don’t make enough money and this will hurt my business.
b) I don’t make enough money and this won’t help anybody.
c) Other people should give to me, they have more than me.
It's amazing how many years of my life I've spent in such a poverty mindset.
I was also just too busy spinning my wheels about whatever I woke up thinking about to make much progress until I began learning about an organization called Effective Altruism, after listening to a podcast in which Sam Harris interview’s its founder, William MacAskill. From there, it’s been a slow slide, involving asking good friends with very different places on the spectrum of wealth, how they do their giving, and then I took a few concrete steps of my own.
While this is a process only in its early phases, as of January 2021, I have set up a system whereby every time I sell a product, a tree is planted in some part of the world where reforestation is needed through Eden Reforestation Projects. This idea came from a lovely conversation I had with friend and design crush Leila Simon Hayes, whose pattern designs and related products are most excellent (she also designed the covers of my first two books) and donates similarly to the Eden Reforestation Project. Through conversation with both Leila and my dear friend, art peer and co-conspirator Sue Murad, I decided to just do it. Additionally, I donate 10% of income that I earn through my studio to something, currently through Effective Altruism, where I know the money will be as effectively used to save or improve a life, as can be managed, based on their careful research and experience.
I wanted to share this news with you, so that every time you find yourself at my shop, or considering the purchase of an artwork, you will be benefiting many, and bringing me a spark of delight in the process!
There are other changes afoot that I will share as they happen, and I will likely focus in on how to give with more specificity as I learn the most effective ways to do so. In the meantime, I wanted to let you know both for accountability and to inspire you to think about where your money goes.
As an end note, this process has made me more aware of who has baked philanthropy into their business models, in formal and informal ways, and made me more and more likely to buy from them than from brands that may have personal profit as their primary goal. I also love this model because it does not follow the non-profit model, which seems to shun money and profitability, and require the exhaustion of always looking for funding. It isn’t always sustainable and seems to equate earning money with being dirty, leaving that to others. I think profitability and self sufficiency is extremely interesting, but all the more so when it’s to make a more powerful change in the world you see around you.
This is big talk from someone who barely knows what she’s talking about, but hopefully it inspires you to be curious and creative in how your money circulates and benefits the world around you.
Today is a special day. It is one of those days, like a graduation or a wedding, that has been emblazoned on my brain for about a year, because it is the day that the brand new 2021 edition of Contemporary Prayers to Whatever Works, is officially published!
Because this new title is not self published, the date is significant. With my self published earlier titles,* there wasn’t technically a launch date because I just received the shipment of books and then had to scratch my head about how to not ruin the suspension in my car or pull my back or ruin friendships with requests to help me move book boxes, storing them under my bed and using them as furniture in their own right, as well as how to let people know about them, and how to sell them. This is a lot for one person!
With Tiller Press, a division of Simon & Schuster however, I don’t receive the books, and I don’t sell them either. So what exactly happens today? On this the publication date, the book officially goes on sale, which also means more specifically that the book makes its way today through the distribution chain to those retailers that have ordered it.
Today is the day that my new book hits the shelves! I just held the first copy in my hands, and very relieved that the cover isn’t on upside down or something, and that everything is going as planned.
Also, because I was a one woman operation for so long, the fact that I have had a team of skilled professionals doing their sparkly magic in the background like sharing the title with a sales team, who then shares it with retailers, is all very abstract to me. But it’s darn exciting, because with my last books, there is like, no way to really get them into a distribution stream that isn’t very local and very painstaking to set up. There is a special dread to stopping into a shop to ‘let them know’ about my book.
So even though there is nothing particularly tangible going on over here right now, please celebrate with me! Better yet, please purchase a copy of the book, which you can do here. By so doing you help me be in good standing with the publisher and have the possibility of future dealings with them! All of this, truly is an amazing product of a community of people believing in an artist’s project and supporting it. My intention now is to be of service to anyone and everyone who needs some connection, direction and comfort, with a side of humor, some vibrant new imagery and no BS to tangle with.
Thanks again to all of you that have supported me getting to this moment, this is a celebration I share with you!!
much love, lots of gratitude,
*the original contemporary prayers in 2013, Help me [ ], do the thing. that followed in 2016 and the Elements: a love letter to all things everywhere, 2019
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.