I recently came across a bizarre show on netflix called 'Old Enough.' It's a Japanese reality TV show where a toddler is given an errand to run, usually with one or two stops picking something up or dropping something off at a shop or with a family friend. It's an interesting look at rural Japan and working class Japan and just how different Japanese and American culture are in many respects. It's in moments very sweet and also disturbing. The other night in the middle of the night it occurred to me why it was compelling to me: All of us are toddlers on an errand.
Doesn't it just make sense?
When we're up at night trying to get sleep but finding that the mind won't turn off, it really does strike me that we're toddler sized in a big world, in the middle of a crowded fish market trying to remember which stall mom gets the sea bream at. Or trying to understand how to pull a cabbage out of the ground that is connected by this incredibly thick root system and it's getting dark and we have to walk home in the dark. Isn't that really just what life is like?
When worry is happening, when stress and anxiety are there in the middle of the night, usually somebody or some situation looms incredibly big in our thinking. In this way too we are like toddlers on an errand because as a little three-year-old tries to negotiate a grocery store counter or shop stall or people's big bodies while moving through a crowded space, it's overwhelming, and so can life be. In the morning when we wake up, what worries us is often right-sized again.
I don't know that I have more to say here but as you're going through your day, think of it: Toddlers on an errand. Everyone around you and you yourself. In the middle of the night, think of it: We are toddlers on an errand.
PS. In about the fourth episode, I decided the show itself is kind of dark. The kids, these two and three year olds, somehow know this isn't normal and that there's something off about the whole situation. This speaks to their purity and the way things just often are twisted around and you see innocence being lost in some episodes which feels sad. But yet, perhaps it's riveting because that is how it is for every one of us, in some way, and we have at our core that same clarity, that same innocence.
I want to share about a long ago dream turned actual: a functional, bondafide studio closet. In my nomadic years, between 2007 and 2010 when I moved my studio four times, I had a lot of opportunities to think about what did and didn’t work in a studio situation. **
One of them was tripping over my chop saw which lived on the floor, and covered everything with sawdust when I used it, and storing all my boxes, finished materials and supplies in plain sight. It worked well eough, and I loved the place I worked more than anywhere in the world, but dared I to dream, the first thing was a closet: a discreet place with a modicum of order, good shelving that I couldn’t see and didn’t have to drape sheets over when I opened my studio.
My friend Tracey Easthope here in Ann Arbor, with her husband John DeHoog, came over and advised on the design. They helped us figure out exactly how this might work in the raw space we turned into my studio in the summer and fall of 2020. Their idea was a partial wall, blocking off one window with no formal door.
At first it looked like this.
And then like this.
And then like this when my friend Patrick and I put in the flooring.
Here's the cieling. PS Guy wired the whole place for electricity. The closet has its own electric and light.
Finally, and momentarily, it was this gorgeous potential space. I made some shelf brackets with our friend Thom’s borrowed jig, and then put up wood we’d brought with us that was sitting out in the weather in the yard of our last rental, for the shelves.
And here’s what it looks like full! Actually, its way messier than this, but this was what it first looked like, all organized and full, a year ago. Now of course, I can barely step into it, but at least I can't see it without rounding a corner!
Yes. All things tend toward entropy, especially if a) I am involved, b) it’s an art studio and you make stuff in more than one medium and more than two dimensions.
There’s another critical few features to this closet.
**Some examples of bad studio situations include:
-finding a bag of meth on the side of the shared bathroom sink...hmmm
-a stairwell that was blocked off and blacked out sucking energy into the black hole that it created around the corner from where I was working
-a leaking roof
-nowhere to park
For you today, I have a brief talk I gave back in the fall of 2018 called 'Art Among the Elements.' at a local night club as a part of Nerd Nite - a story corp style gathering hosted by the illustrious Ann Arbor District Library. I talked for 22 minutes about the third book which was in process at the time: The Elements: a love letter to all things everywhere.
I share in this talk about why I make books, how I came to make this one on such a different subject than the two prior books (on prayer), and the distilled learnings and takeaways from the process to date.
I am sharing it with you here. It’s not the live talk, so you can’t hear the wild and untameable audience participation, but the sound quality is pretty good and there are some pretty slides. A note too that I have a few scientific facts *almost* right in this talk, corrected when I actually did complete and publish the book in 2019.* Please enjoy and thank you for helping make this book a reality!
All I had at the time of the talk was a prototype with a slightly different name. I was still working out layout and layering of the meaning and content of the book. Looking back, it’s amazing to see how many things needed tremendous time and patience to come into focus. I didn’t learn how to give them either until I was in the very end stages. In essence, this book taught me to slow the F down, care for my body, and to tolerate uncertainty better than I had ever been able to before.
To see the book in its finished form, you can visit its official web page, or find it for sale in digital or physical form at my shop. You will also find a grid poster, a set of prints and a set of postcards, as well as a curriculum to walk children and adults through the book scavenger-hunt and interdisciplinary-style, which is my teaching and making way.
Speaking of uncertainty, that’s a topic I am currently exploring in another decade-long book project that is underway in earnest today! I will share more about that soon.
*The primary factoid to correct is that Hydrogren formed not immediately after the big bang, but as things cooled down in the time that followed when atoms could in fact pull together at all.
Share with me your thoughts! What is sparked in the electric being that you are by this topic and this story?
These drawings are new as of spring 2021, although I have been sketching these out for about six years. I brought the materials to begin them from Boston when I moved in 2017, when I was thinking about innovative displays, and then there was so much moving around and upheaval that it didn't come back up to work with until I was back in a permanent studio and able to relax a little.
The peg drawings are occurring in tandem with the Puffies, and with the Stand In project, another sculptural variation. I was really delighted when I first discovered that the paintings and these sculptural wall pieces worked so delightfully in tandem. In other words they really talk to each other!
The peg drawing series is one kind of work that feature things with holes in them, a theme in my creative process that I recently wrote about. These Peg pieces consist of a wooden peg or pegs affixed securely to the wall, and then reinforced two dimensional-ish forms that hang from them, including materials such as card stock, book board, cardboard, painted, dipped in plaster and paint, found and sometimes folded. Some of these objects are single, beautiful fragments that I have loved and held on to for years, a patterned discarded paper scrap then dipped in a thick paint, or paper that's been dyed, dipped, scored. These are arranged in a specific compositions, and simply hang in small divots on the horizontal peg in a given order. When you purchase a peg drawing you get instructions on how and where to best install the work, the hardware and the peg. The work can be presented as this simple ephemera, or you can have the work framed in a deeper box if you have a very windy or high traffic kind of spot in mind for the piece.
Making this kind of work is all about textures, color therapy in its own right, problem solving, constant pairing, stepping back to asses, and composition.
My favorite part in problem solving was finding as many things with holes in them, and as many ways to make a hole, as I could, trying out all the processes, then refining and refining until I was clear on what I was delighted with, interested in, and what made a piece shine.
So far I have exhibited the pegs as part of the 'Incomplete' exhibition at the Scarab Club in Detroit MI, and again at the 'Art for Right Now' exhibition at B Gallery in Castine ME. An exhibition at TrustArt will also include several peg drawings later in 2022. I'll keep you posted! Here's are some more examples.
I welcome any questions, thoughts or comments and respond as soon as I see them. It adds whole new dimension to my work to share it and to hear how it bounces off others!
When I set up my studio, I put two chairs, both trash finds, and a cheap rug, right in the middle of everything. This is because I love a studio visit. I also have the kettle and cups, and a pile of books. This is so that it's easy to have someone over to visit me in the studio, to see what I'm doing and to share what they're working on, or what they are interested in in my work.
I think this is my very favorite thing - aside from being alone and making art - about art making, is that it has led to so many lovely visits, friendships, interesting insights and perspectives and collaborations. In other words, yes, relationships! So I wanted to just let you know that if you'd like to come handle a handmade End Papers book, peer around the edge of the puffy paintings, or share a cup of tea,* drop me a line! I would love to have you over and learn what drew you to connect. You are welcome.
If you came to the studio, what would you like to see, ask, or talk about?
If you used to come to my studio in Boston, what do you most remember about it? What did you most enjoy?
Please share below in the comments, both so that others can learn, and so that I can too!
* Just be clear, you could have your own cup of tea...I would provide it, but we would each get our own.
** Here's a blog post about End Papers, which used to be called Death Books.
One of my favorite types of studio related errands is looking for something specific to go into a sculpture or installation, that is generally used for another purpose. It might be in a hardware store, a junk shop, a speciality store or even a drug store. What I enjoy about such an errand is that it demands a very different kind of engagement than the usual go and get some shoelaces kind of errand. Instead, it requires me to 'go wide', to stay open and to look freshly at things I see all the time.
I recently went to a junk shop with the mission to find 'things with holes in them' for a new series of sculptures I'm working on. This found me digging through napkin rings, tupperware, dishware, jewelry, small appliances, gardening stuff, kids toys, general antiques and even lengths of hose. There's a book I've never read, but that my sister has always recommended I read. I like the title, and I think it does enough for me right there, The title is 'Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees' by Lawrence Weschler.
Essentially that's what these errands are about.
At other times, this kind of searching happens online and that's not half as fun. Also, it's generally difficult to have someone in a store, especially a big box type of hardware store, help me on these errands. The conversation goes like this: Can I help you find something? Yes, I'm looking for things with holes in them. Can I ask what you're using them for? It never goes well. A new project like this gets me looking everywhere and in all situations for things with holes in them, how one can make holes of different sizes, and in what kinds of material. It's like a rabbit with her ears up and pivoting about, taking in all of the sound data around her. The ears are up and pivoting!
Other projects have found me looking for wrap-able colorful things, forms of glow in the dark material, patterns for sewing orbs, materials that float and disintegrate in water, all variants of tape and specialty adhesives, colored powders with particular properties, types of smooth absorbent cottons, modular fake plants, granular materials for flocking and other people's half finished craft projects. It's rare that I actually go into an art and craft store for anything!
Anyway, the last junk shop run yielded quite a haul, and I've been having fun digging through and altering my wares: pulling apart necklaces and using a step drill bit. I look forward to sharing the results! Here's a peek at some work in development.
What strange errands have you been on that perhaps have altered your perspective in some way?
This ongoing series of paintings began in 2005 when I put together an exhibition for Judy Goldman on Newbury Street in Boston. It was the second show I'd had with her, she represented me for as long as her gallery was open, and it was the first time I'd made this type of painting. The exhibition had painting, drawing and small sculpture, and the palette was black, deep blue, red and green. This was the second round of pour drawings, another trope that continues in my work today.
I essentially upholster the wooden supports, and then cover the surface with various types of acrylic, and in some cases, oil paint. Occasionally pencil or chalk or another type of mark. I am amazed to find that these paintings, provided they are correctly stored away from sharp corners, are incredibly durable and stable.
When I first made these paintings, I tended to work in black and white, or monotone with shades of blue. Now, I often start with a white or other color like ochre, and do not tend to make paint strokes on the surface, but work with what's happening in the pour. Occasionally, I've made a very involved and busy type of puffy painting, one that has equal parts disturbed and delighted me. This one was such a one, it was delightful and at the time so different than what I was going for that it alarmed me. I remember that a friend was coming to the studio and I hid it, because I thought it was so ugly, but then I couldn't stop thinking about it. This fear of ugly is an interesting a fertile territory for me.
I kept trying to 'finish' this one, until I felt I had ruined it. This happens sometimes and can be how my comfort zone gets stretched. So I essentially took it apart and then, over the weeks that followed, regretted doing so. It was a forerunner of sorts, and I have kept pieces of it, sort of like a pelt.
Here is me working on some of the newer ones, which are branching out in the base colors, patterns and fabrics beyond gray or white. Please share with me your impressions, thoughts and questions in the comments! I am always interested in which pieces speak to someone - or what kind of response is inspired. I learn so much from what happens in your worlds in relation to what is happening in mine.
In a specific kind of meditation practice that's anything but a practice called Unprovoked Happiness, I encountered the suggestion to play with bubbles.
Unprovoked Happiness* is pretty cooky, and it's very simple. It's a non-practice of looking closely at anything, and getting absorbed in it. It's what kids are doing all the time. When they play with water, pick paint off a fence, or sing little ditties to themselves, they are actually having a pure conscious experience, which is one in which they aren't thinking, or aware at all, of themselves. Newborns do this too, or *are* this, as they stare at a fan or a light, or peer out at you, they are not separate, they are not registering a me and a you yet.
It's the same experience you can have at the beach or on a walk. You know those excellent vacations when time seems to go away, and a whole day goes by where no one is saying much of anything? Those are the moments in which the sense of self recedes, and no one is doing anything. This is in fancy terms zen mind: nobody there, everything functioning perfectly.
It's the very opposite of a world of becoming someone, which we all as kids in many respects have to go through, to learn to safely cross the street, communicate, be moderately clean. This kind of being is not a state of zoning out, but a state of being all there, out of the world of concepts, including time, personal identity, and self consciousness.
The recipe for a pure conscious experience is first of all, to be moderately relaxed. This can feel like a high bar at certain times. When there is a significant amount of stress, there's also a me that is stressed, a kind of basic contraction of a self under threat, and needing to do or undo something to feel safe.
Blowing a bubble is one easy avenue to invite enjoyment, a small dose of wonder, and a slowing the doer down a few notches. In the summer, it's fun to bring bubbles when I go out on a boat, watching them bounce on still water, wondering at how they do that.
You can also experience this kind of being when you do dishes or wash your hands, noticing the feel of the silky soap, the sound of the tiny relentless pops, how they all wash away just like that: a gleaming dish, wet hands, clinky sounds. Any sensory experience where there's a kind of basic delight, is this kind, and this is why it isn't a practice, because no one is there to do anything. When I say ‘ wow, I’m having a pure conscious experience’ that’s actually thought, and instead the next best thing.
The least real thing, when investigated, is thought, narrative, story, and the emotions that come with them. Thoughts and emotions will happen anyway, and only become painful when claimed as mine or my problem.
Anything you look closely at, even a pile of worms, an oil slick, a skittering empty beer can in the wind, a sock strewn just so across your floor, can be a doorway just like a bubble. Music you love, a strange sound, the taste and texture of foods, the sensory feel of motion, the way things pass by, the complexity of wood grain or water in basically any form or state, can all be regarded without the story, like a newborn sees them, before the world is chopped into labels and associations in reference to ‘me.'
Next time you're decluttering a closet and you encounter a bubble wand, stick it in your bag (tightly closed!) and bring it on a hike or to a gathering. Yes, you might look a little stupid, that is until you remember that you are much more than a self, and when you pause for a moment, it might just be delight that's there, with no one separate from it.
* check out this kooky website to get a good sense of it. I have not done exhaustiv searches, but if you're curious, this is a good starting point.
I recently was asked to say a few words on ‘art as meditation’ and meditation as art by my friend in the Pioneer Valley Abbie Wanamaker. Abbie was having a two person show and there was a forum that she asked me to speak at. I’ll share a few of the thoughts that came to mind as I considered her work and process, and the idea of art as meditation and meditation as art.
First, the word meditation in US culture has felt loaded with a sense of personal shortcoming and obligation for many, to the point that it may not be a useful word to use anymore. In a similar way, the idea of art practice has with it for many a sense of should, haven’t yet….maybe someday, soon.
Instead of meditation let’s talk about presence. That thing you were when you were born and still are, without any effort, prior to any self idea. That thing that sparks between you and a small woodland creature when you stumble upon one another and hold the other’s gaze. Presence is what we make room for in a process of deep play, prior to the part of our minds that narrate or decide the merit of what we are doing or what we might be making.
I enjoyed looking at Abbie’s paintings, their unapologetic, straightforward and vivid qualities. I think too about resonance, and I know that Abbie has resonated with my work and ideas for a while. I can see why: in the directness of her process, her statement and how she figures out what’s happening after the fact, letting the doing, the activity itself and the textures and qualities of the materials lead. This practice is presence too and similar to what happens in my studio when things roll naturally. I see in her work that Abbie values the doing over the thing that’s made, turning art practice into a form of attention.
Consider the difference between the governed idea of creative action and cultivating presence, and the direct experience of these things: what you already are: the situation, what’s happening inside and outside of this skin envelope we call a body: the temperature, the textures, sounds, tastes, motion, exchanges with people, animals, elements like sunlight and wind and sounds, intersection of elements that will never intersect quite the same way again. To me that’s deep play, creativity at its best, and contemplation all rolled up into one. It’s a sense of belonging, or inherent value, or naturalness, the way a dry leaf becomes the forest floor or a child is held in arms.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.