I know for most of us, it is not currently cold. If you are reading this on a particularly hot day, may this post be like standing in front of the open refrigerator - and a reflection on how much can change in just a few months. This was written last winter.
Today, I consider the cold to be a form of mess. It's a pristine and gorgeous form of cold outside. There are big, slow, lazy flakes floating down, and a fresh, powdery coat of white snow on every available surface. The studio is all snow light, and on both peripheries, the gentle sifting motion animates the windows. It is ten degrees farenhiet outside.
I have built a champion fire in my wood stove. There are five logs ablaze in front of me, and the glass door is closed, so that the fire blazes to its highest. I am doing everything in my power to bring the small thermometer on the stove surface into the 'burn zone', the deep orange part of the thermometer between yellow and hazardous red, between 300 and 600 degrees. Currently, we are at 250 degrees, and having taken off my mittens to write, I have discovered that it's not warm enough. My fingers are quickly cold, hard, frozen nuggets. When I have managed to crest into the burn zone on other days, I have done a little dance and sung a little song. Because once there, you can generally coast there, and actually feel the space heat up. As it stands now, I'm close, but at popsicle finger level still. And I can see my breath very clearly.
Not being in the burn zone means that there is not enough heat in here to step further from the stove, to sit a the table, and get absorbed in artwork. Even two feet from the stove here, is not warm enough for the ten degree day outside bright, no sun. I have thought about crowding all relevant furniture within two feet of the stove. This would be unmanageable on many levels, so it's just a chair.
Is this a problem? Perhaps not, only maybe if I sit and consider this one thing as needing to happen, to be warm in the studio and working when in fact it is too cold to work in here. It may take five years to figure this depth of winter temp management shit out. Is a mess the same thing as a problem? I suppose this whole series is an exploration of that. It is a way of normalizing and sharing the mess as part of what is natural and normal about life. About the activity of being alive.
In the mind frame of a stoic, I could deeply appreciate that I can just go inside, into the warmth, even climb in the bath, and be overly hot in 30 minutes. I'll go back to the fire with a few more stoking moves, and then we shall see.
This title makes it sound like this random white bookshelf has a title, but until this post it has gone nameless. I made the simple discovery that Ikea folding white vertical file holders fit perfectly in it, and ever since it has become a moment of visual calm and apparent order in a room that truly is usually just a huge mess.
This object containing objects fits with the very cheapskate theme of most of my objects, found in the trash or in junk shops, in that I believe I acquired this object from my mother's home, back when I was about 19, and these folding file holders are like three bucks a three pack or cheaper. Because I work with found paper a lot, several of these bins are filled with just that, or with materials test information, older labels, process docs, my own reviews and old postcards, others show postcards that I want to remember or project materials that are too bulky for regular filing but to papery for box storage.
In any case, this bookshelf of bins makes me feel mildly like a professional. I worked for a while at the Montserrat College Gallery, and there I encountered a similar storage system of their exhibition document history. I realized then that just like a gallery, I have a history of events, of reviews, of print materials, as well as paper materials that come in handy for different projects, and they all go here.
It's taken all day to get into the studio. There are days like this when I feel fiercely protective of my time in here. The funniest thing is that what I do in here looks like so little outwardly. I read a little, I write a little, I drink coffee if I have it, I listen to music. Sometimes I nap. And sometimes it's all activity and insight and inspiration and stepping back and looking or marking and cutting and placing, digging around for stuff. My favorite is when I'm on a roll with something, when I know what I'm doing and how and I love what I'm making, when I'm literally delighted, or internally lit up, or you could say joyous, about what I'm doing.
I got a book by Anne Truitt off the free pile from my good friend's studio's common area. I'm feeling it.
I read these lines just now:
...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
Yes, it's like tracking yourself. Where was I? What was I caring about the last time I was in here? What did I learn? What did I know I was to do next?
I also read these lines: At first tentatively and then with more confidence, I began to find delight in the acquiescence [to the natural flow of events], and finally even a kind of joy in acceptance.
Also Anne Truitt.
I enjoy reading what artists write - some of them, and how they talk about what they care about, because it's generally 180 degrees opposite how the rest of the world is marching along, and it feels like a tall glass of water when I'm thirsty. Those are my feelings and my words.
Anne Truitt had a very up front professional career. I am tired by the thought of trying at that anymore, but I have confidence that what I do and make is no less important or inspired, when the inspiration is here. So that's a kind of acceptance and freedom. Freedom in knowing that it isn't up to some art scene mafia to decide what is of value to this one in the middle of her life, and what's of value is letting this natural flow occur. I had a lovely early career in Boston. A sweet little CV of shows and associations. I am pleased to have that memory. There may be more in the future, and they may not be. And that is not for me to decide. But it is, right now, clear that my job is to show up here and make work, and share about it, and the process of making it. There's no question to me that I am an artist making strong work. I don't doubt that. I may and often do doubt pieces, if they're resolved, if the presentation is strong and clear, etc. But not if the activity and the viewpoint is of value. No one will prioritize this more than me. And the same time, it's all ordinary art-making.
Someone just stopped in to invite me to join them for digging up some free plants across town. It's nice, and it requires me telling the truth, that No. There is nothing in me that wants to leave my studio to go dig up some plants. No and no. thanks. Maybe another day. Not now.
"In making my work, I make what comforts me, and what is home for me."
Are you comforted by making your work?
[I notice this question might be for the creatives reading, but consider that if you are reading here, my guess is that you are a creative whether you like it, know it, or not! In other words, this applies to anyone reading. So...]
Are you comforted by making your work?
I don't think comfort is a motivating factor in art-making for me. Perhaps the whole process of showing up to make, the routine of it, is a comfort, but the work is brightening and enlivening to me, sometimes disturbing to me, so I wouldn't say comforting. I don't make what comforts me, do I?
Sometimes making certain marks on certain surfaces, and finding the composition that is a YES to me, feels like putting things in order, or like straightening up the world. Putting it right. Perhaps that is a comfort to me.
There is also a discovery process, where for a long time there can be the same pile of materials, or the same kind of shape or process, and suddenly, by mistake or a loosening of something, or just paying closer attention to it and engaging it, the same 'stuff', in some new way or combination, has a new kind of pop or magic to it. That discovery is delightful to me. And then watching what happens to this discovery, or a new process, if it is sustained, or if it sort of fizzles out quickly. Exploring the questions of what sustains it, is in itself, quite motivating and engaging.
It's always felt really clear to me when something I make in the studio is valuable, though not always right away. Sometimes however, doubt gets ahold, some cloudy afternoon when it's cold, and the whole project seems lifeless or a complete lark with no value at all. I have also dreamed of some gorgeous things, while sleeping, and woken up besotted with interest, but not actually brought these things forward. Those are great dreams. Was I supposed to make that stuff? I don't know. Can you relate to this?
There was a period too where some of the marks that really satisfied me, didn't seem to hold up to scrutiny and I couldn't figure out what was going on. I think the intimate scale of making wasn't holding up to the more distant act of viewing a work from further away. In other words, my lines were falling apart from a distance, and I wasn't in enough conversation with others to realize it. This is where relationship, scrutiny, conversation, is so useful.
There are people like Henry Darger who hole up and just do their thing, and later someone realizes it was brilliant, in his own little world, so complete and unapologetic. And I think in a way, that innocence is the thing of letting your inner kid have free reign and knowing that this is where the brilliance is. But there's also the reality that for every discovered Henry Darger there's a rotting pile of papers on a landfill of someone else's world. And it will likely be mine!
There's a freedom in seeing how none of this ultimately matters. Even when a small mark or line also counts. That's a fine line I seem to walk, where there's a need for freedom to break a rule I had laid down, or to make a mess of something, and then there's the self curation, the conversation, the response of others, the asking of questions, and then choosing again. Nothing matters and everything counts.
In the end, it sometimes just comes down to color therapy. When I am surrounded by the colors, as well as the relationships of texture and forms, I feel fulfilled. Happy. Pleased in the most basic sense.
The rest of the art process: the part about jockeying for notice and applying and all of that makes me feel tired before I even begin. And so, I tend to not do that, and pursue other avenues. In part, this is because, when I do have a "show" where I put on a blouse and some boots and eat some sweaty cheese with friends, it often doesn't hold much magic afterall. It is however, truly a delight to meet people through the sharing of the work. To feel like my spirit and someone else's spirit meet through the resonance with my work, or their work, or the conversation that artwork ultimately can be is quite a thing. That is deeply valuable to me, and motivates me to write, to put things in print, to find other avenues to sharing that don't involve as much of a dog & pony show. Life is too short to be a pony or a dog.
Is what you make a comfort for you? I guess in some ways, it turns out to be for me.
This small cylinder is a recent addition. I have had one in the bathroom at home for years, and I enjoy its shape, size and the texture of all of the small Q tip tips making a nubbly top surface. In the bathroom it is for the usual things, but in the studio it is a very specific tool for painting.
When painting in any medium, there is often a need to wipe away, either too wet pigments, or to pull away a lighter line, or a specific spot. I don't generally use it to daub pigment on, mainly because there's too much fuzz and it would likely absorb too much of the paint. But it is a great tool, the Q tip, or cotton swab if you prefer, for removing specific small areas of paint or overly wet paint from an artwork in any paint medium.
I also really do love having such a good use for such a cylindrical cup. I found a couple of these at a junk shop, and used them to drink coffee out of until I noticed a very strong soap smell emanating from my coffee. After repeated washings, there was no hope, but there is use always, for a small container of Q tips, and this is when it became a team player in the studio.
Your I spent a lot of time considering whether to even use the word prayer in my books at all. It's one of those hot button type of words, for many, and could be a turnoff. So I considered others.
Other words I considered using instead of prayer included:
Have I forgotten any that come to mind for you?
Writing all of these down makes me a) want to find an anneagram just because that sounds like fun (SPARPIAA? APRIAPSA!) and b) helps shed light perhaps, into what prayer is.
This is a post for the word lovers and the wordsmiths, and those interested in contemplative prayer as a concept, through the exploration of similar terms.
I always find this - that just translating, rewording, re-expressing something a different way, gets in between the labels and the lines a little more, into the experience of a thing itself. I know for me the word prayer is a label. It’s something that THUNK has a symbolic shape and feeling and form. For some, this symbol or label has a positive tone or feeling about it, or a mixed tone, or something aversive, irrelevant or negative about it.
When sharing about this book with say, museum shops, I avoided using the word in email post titles because so many people would just say NEOPE and delete it. Anyway, here’s what I learned from the consideration of and use of other terms.
Petition was not as religious of a word, and so might have been more descriptive or inclusive, and yet for me there is a pairing with politics, PTA meetings, civic dialogue. This kind of petition, meaning the kind you find in three of my books, is intimate, sometimes wordless, sometimes even embodied in gesture.
Supplication, to supplicate, is the ‘act of begging for something earnestly or humbly.’ Someone pointed out to me that that is one type of prayer you might find in my books, but it isn’t what all of them are. Some of them are more like ‘Hey thanks!’ or ‘I’m not cool with this’ and those are points of contact, but not supplications.
Affirmations do apply to many of these prayers. This is language more of Buddhism, freed up from religiosity in the traditional western sense. An affirmation by one definition is a form of emotional support and encouragement, and so when directed from me to me, or from me to someone else, may be like: ‘You’re doing great!’ or ‘You’re beautiful, don’t ever change.’ Some of the prayers in my books have this kind of tone, but instead they would be phrased like ‘Remind me’ or ‘show me that I am beautiful…’ which combines supplication or affirmation.
Requests would work, for sure. or even the word Bid. I like the word bid, popularized by the phrase ‘Bids for connection’ in the work of John Gottman, because a bid can take many forms, and I think prayer can be the way one lives a life, receives a gift, receives an unwelcome piece of news or a loss, or essentially, does anything. So I do like Bid. I’ll keep that one in mind. But on the cover of a book, it might relate more to the association with an auction and the Highest Bidder.
It has been pointed out to me that this series of books of prayers are essentially poems. Yes. However if I thought of them a poems, I would be twisting myself into knots, trying to wordsmith the crap out of them, and nary a one would have been published. So I’m glad that thought didn’t occur to me. But for many, I have learned, they look at these as books of poetry, and this opens things up even more.
Intention. Intention is a word I use a lot. It’s a word that gives shape to the nebulous. It’s a word from which things materialize. I find that prayer is a form of intention. It is an intention perhaps to connect. To widen, open, release, remember, rest, through a bid for connection, or a prayer. It has a great relevance to these books. These books as I see them at this moment, are a way to frame an experience, a way to shape or re-see and turn to a new view of what had previously been understood, thought of, or determined. It’s like a pulling back and opening up. And these are all a form of reshaping, intending. There is a collaborative aspect to both the prayers and to intentions. Intentions perhaps connote a more self oriented activity, but perhaps these prayers are similarly that as well.
Ask is just a term that I rarely use, but a fun alternate to throw in there: Contemporary Asks to Whatever Works? sure, but the grammar gets confusing!
Aspiration - a hope or ambition of achieving something. Yes, this does fit. An aspiration to whatever works, is like a bid or an ask, a form of reaching. And prayer is in a sense an act of reaching.
So, that’s my meander through a process of vetting terms for the title of my books. Incidentally, the third prayer book is called the same thing as the first. Originally it was going to be called Volume 2, with the same name, but the sales team decided that for new readers that would be confusing and so left it off. So I refer to it as the All New 2021 Edition for the purposes of clarity, because it is all new art and all new prayers.
Your thoughts? Other book title ideas for the future? Please comment below!
Find Hannah's other books for sale here.
I am noticing a theme of thrift in my studio object register. Here is another thrifty item, originally a simple pack of wooden clothes pins. These first arrived as part of a project in Gloucester, in which I was 'installing' powder, rubber, plastic, twine, wood and rock in color coded arrangements throughout the park. It was one of the first such interventions I had done, and to my mind, it was one of the least successful. I had no sense of scale, and my plan was very under developed, so that when it came time to execute, a visitor could not see the work from any distance, and it could be confused with a mess left behind by a child. I suppose that could be said about several of my projects in fact! But this was an early example of such work. Anyway, I used yellow, green, white, pink and blue paint to dip the tips of these wooden pins in, and then used them to affix similar colored materials to various park furniture. You can see more of this project here.
When the project was over, these pins just became part of the mix in the studio. Some are in a bag of deinstalled projects, available for remakes and new projects. Several have been ready for use on my tool caddy, along with the ubiquitous black clips. And recently, they are seen on the working wall, holding new works on paper in place to be studied, glanced at, pulled down and worked into. I recently stapled a small box to the wall, for unused clips and another for nails and pins. While that's a separate tool, the boxes, they now house the clips, some dipped, some just wooden. The plain wood ones likely also came from inside the house, where they find occasional uses, but many more here in the studio.
I also use them to clip up things I dip in paint and hang to dry. This can be heavy papers, pieces of wood, and even the clips themselves. It's fun to dip stuff in paint, for me.
I love this essay by painter Agnes Martin, and I love a particular passage in it for artists:
“You must especially know the response that you make to your own work. It is in this way that you discover your direction and the truth about yourself. If you do not discover your response to your own work, you miss the reward. You must look at the work and know how it makes you feel.”
from Beauty is the Mystery of Life, an essay by Agnes Martin.
Being in the studio alone can have many flavors to it. One can be relief, another freedom and delight, another is pressure to use this space your paying for, or have claimed, to do something “important” and unique and great and special. And, upon not feeling like that’s happening, there can be a feeling of existential dread. Do you know whereof I speak?
I investigated this feeling the other day. Meaning that I started with a funny twinge of discomfort, kind of like when you see a little sprout of a weed in the garden, and pull at it, and then discover this runner root zigzagging and netting all over the place, under and around all of the healthy plants. So, the little innocent weed was like a twinge. As I looked it took on more shape. It became stories like “I thought it was something and it’s nothing” underneath that was “I thought I was something and it turns out I’m nothing” or “I thought I was an artist but it turns out I’m a fraud” is another version people get. Underneath that was like a lizard brain ancestral kind of “Game Over” feeling, like the feeling you might have when lost in a desert, having run out of water, having been optimistic until this momentary shift to - Game Over - I thought I might just make it but it turns out I’m toast.
That’s what I mean about existential dread. Art making is so intimate, so ethereal, and so marginal in my culture - it’s not considered essential in the economy or the running of a civic society - and so it can be very intense sometimes, if you have planted a flag or hope to, to come up against generations, policies, and personal stories of - this and you, are a joke.
So, back to this lovely quote by Agnes Martin. In a way, what I think she’s saying here is: No one’s going to care if you don’t. This is an inside job. Strengthen your muscle of commitment to looking, responding, staying open, letting it not always work out, and be honest with what brightens and inspires and interests or even disturbs you, versus what you think others will think, or what will pass or look good, but has no juice for you.
I’m not Agnes Martin and I don’t know what she means, but I do get from this essay that you have to practice putting your own response first, because everything else is just smoke and mirrors. And in a way, you are just smoke and mirrors too, which can be terrifying to realize, but also liberating to discover that truly, none of this matters at all, but somehow too, all of it counts. How well you attend to yourself, or show up for these sprouts of fear that turn out to have a big old root system going back generations and years, is the special sauce of creative practice. It’s essentially like being on retreat with all of your demons, and all of your angels, and keeping steady, sometimes, in the midst of it all.
I marvel that in my 20s, I stumbled into an amazing situation: a great economy, an amazing loft space with artsists in downtown Boston, a good job, and time and interest to just make and make and make art, that people bought. I do also remember how acrid some of my time in the studio was, when the praise and the boons and the sales wasn’t enough. I hated myself underneath, mostly because I didn’t know myself, and I was hanging on to the idea that if you liked me, I’d be ok. But that’s a losing proposition, because everyone on this planet, as my friend Bryan likes to say, is third graders, that’s as skillful and mature as we humans get. So putting my self worth in the hands of you all on the playground is not so smart of a plan.
So eventually, as the cracks started showing: overdoing alcohol and boys and anxiety mounting, some of the root system began to get undug. Until the whole garden was just dirt and I was exhausted and apparently had lost everything. But the ground for things to grow, I realized, was purer and clearer and freer than it had been. So now a whole lifetime later, it’s a flourishing garden with other root systems needing balancing - and those little seedlings of “I’m toast” asking for my attention, which equals my love.
In the end, yes, I am toast. Inconsequential and nothing. Forgotten, maybe 50 years or sooner after I’m dead by anyone that knew me. Turned into something else by anyone who may have known of me. Nothing! Light as a feather. Lighter. Freer. Terrifying!!
Can you relate to the studio demons? Or are they keeping you from the very prospect of a studio in the first place? How do you ground and respond to yourself, your creative work, and your twinges of terror? What are you attending to? What’s growing in your garden plot? What would you like to grow there?
This object has been traveling with me for over 14 years from studio to studio. I have never actually exhibited it. I may never. It has shown up in several studio photographs because it is often out and commanding a small parcel of wall or shelf. I made it in 2007 when I had a studio in Somerville MA. I was wrapping and folding and stabbing and dipping stuff, and came up eventually with the series called Three Variables that was on view at Judy Goldman Fine Art. This little pink sculpture was a scout for those, in that it was an experiment that caught my attention but didn't feel resolved. It has, to me, a lot of personality.
What I didn't see then, but do now, is that it is a figure. This is probably obvious to everybody else, but it's taken a while to understand what it is. To me, it's the bundle of energy parts, or sensations, or just parts, that comprise a person, probably in this case, me. Wrapping chords of tension, layers of diverse textures and materials, a chunky little core, and in this case, what appears to be like a side pony in a now corroded rubber band on top. Now I see it's essentially a self portrait.
I call it a Scout because Chris Nau, an artist in the same building at the time, shared this term with me for something that you do and eventually, years later, it makes sense, in light of the future work you hadn't yet made. Like a precursor or a portent. This is a small reminder of perhaps the spirit of Hannah, my small Daemon, though it's never been for anybody else but me. I like to place it on the top edge of a shelf or painting and just balance out the room with it's vibe. Here it is in situ, meaning situated just above the mess.
I bought these out of fascination at a big box store in Watertown, just down the way from the in-mall registry of motor vehicles where I was one million and one in line to get a license renewed. I strolled in and found these shoes, so ugly that I found them beautiful. They were a gray blue, the blue of crafting projects of New Hampshire, and they were a slip on clog as you can see. They had a molded pattern as if they were a sneaker, except that they were all plastic, and a clog. Do you see why I had to have them for $10? I hope so.
As it turned out, these shoes were unbelievably comfortable and I wore them everywhere, with most all ensembles. I could walk all over the city of Boston in these shoes! And I did. When I had a studio at Humphreys Street, the summers there were unbelievably hot. I sweltered. I would arrive to have a productive day and just wilt, and swoon. My clogs did not breath, and altogether, this situation was untenable. Did I buy an air conditioner? No. Not even a thermometer to get a read on how hot it actually was. But I did take a straight razor and not so straightly cut two wide strips out of the toe area as you see here. Not very well, but it did the job.
I no longer wear the shoes about town, but I do still use them in the studio. I have never seen anything like them before or since, and so I continue to value them. They remain a valuable studio tool and they magically do not smell.
I heat my studio by wood stove, and it's wonderful. It has taken a long time to figure out how to get the space up to temperature when it's only 10 degrees outside, but I have started to get the knack. This makes me very happy because it makes me very warm.
I have a bellows, which is like a handheld pair of lungs, so that I can breath more oxygen onto a fire and get the flames up and the whole thing ablaze better. When I use it however, I find that some ash and soot billows out of the stove, and these tiny, nearly weightless bits of soot float up and all about, and then can end up coming to rest on the surface of one of my works of art.
his is not so cool. It's one thing to have a mess on the floor. It's another to have it floating weightlessly in the air, more like an invisible enemy, like the fog monster in the TV series LOST.
So I share this minor mess with you. It's minor because if I blow on a surface, it removes the soot, and nothing has been permanently marred to date. But, it is a mess for sure, and one that I will develop workarounds for. Likely, from my days on A Street in downtown Boston during the giant dust cloud of the Big Dig in the late 90s, I will cover things with plastic sheeting and all will be well.
On an upnote, I have in recent years made ash based paint, from the ash created while burning about twenty of my old journals. From this I have made some experimental ash paintings like the one below. This might be an avenue I can explore further. For now, it's just soot floating in the air. And this is just how it is sometimes.
Below I share my own background with meditation, as well as some lessons I have learned that may help you avoid some of the sillier sides to the industry they call meditation and mindfulness.
My own experience with meditation (skip this part if you don't care!):
I've always been a bit of a mystic, interested in religious rites and rituals of all kinds. I was curious and a little perplexed by those of the episcopal church I grew up attending socially with my family, tried to make sense of a child's illustrated bible my minister uncle provided upon my request when I was 8, and did a 25 page report on Haitian Voodoo ceremonies for an expository writing class in high school.
When I was in college, I ended up double-majoring in art and religion - the least practical two fields one could choose, and two that really were perfect for me. I chose the religious studies department at Brown University because it was a more 'happening' department at that time than the Anthropology department from what I could tell. I studied East Asian religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, as well as Christianity, and a tiny bit of Judaism and Islam. I wrote my senior thesis on Jonestown. I was interested in the difference between cults and religions, how they form and who decides.
I didn't actually meditate at all until I was out of college for a few years, when a good friend, visiting me in the midst of a painful breakup (mine), showed me how. I spent the next ten years trying to attain sainthood by doing lots of meditation of various forms, having a couple of 'special state' moments, and a couple of cultish sidebars that made me wary of the whole thing and fairly confused. Suffice it to say, I learned a lot about what meditation is not, and what to do if you really want to hurt yourself.
After that, I found Vipassana meditation, also called insight meditation, and I liked it because I felt there were fewer bells and whistles, and less outward forms and rituals to adhere to than my forays into Tibetan and Zen buddhism had yielded. I also did some specialized yoga, went on a pilgrimage to south India, and almost gave up my life to go live at an ashram with a couple of kooks; I am grateful that I ultimately did not!
What all those years of attempting to perfect or fix myself and my troubles through meditation did, is to hone my bullshit meter pretty sharply. Here are my *fairly cynical* (you are forewarned!) takeaways or you might call it
Hannah B’s Rough Guide to meditation:
Meditation is being present for what happens. It is simply a form of attention. Attention is love.
There are many ways to be present, some of them are easier than others, some work better for one person than another.
Meditation can be used to calm and center the mind and body, and can be good for your health. It can also really F up your knees if you think it has to be done cross legged like on the magazine covers.
Meditation doesn't look a certain way. You don't have to buy special stuff or hold painful poses. You do not need to have a top knot or mala beads or a shawl. You can eat meat. You can be in therapy. You can enjoy wearing heels or vote republican. If you find yourself developing a new style or persona around your meditation practice, please notice this: it's got nothing, nothing, to do with actually being present.
Meditation doesn't mean that thinking stops. In my experience, you are not in charge of thoughts: the brain thinks like the nose smells, just doing its job. Thinking is not you but a function of the organ called the brain. The more you believe a thought to be you, and believe whatever ticker-tape thoughts come along, the deeper suffering may ensue.
Meditation is not one-size-fits-all.
If anyone tells you their way of meditating is the right way and only way, please do not believe them!
Everybody responds differently to different types of meditation, based on who they are, their genetics, personalities, learning styles and needs, and there are many options. That being said, I recommend keeping it simple and not getting too fetishy about it.
The whole thing, I’ve found, is an inside out process. How you look is just your ego trying to be perfect and liked. I spent a long time trying to 'do it right' and 'look good' because frankly I didn't like who I was, and I thought if I could be this saintly gal, I would have no flaws and I would finally be loved. What I had backward is that the only place where love is is inside, and the outer situation only reflects whatever that relationship is. If the teacher liked me, then I was ok. If I seemed sagely and selfless, then I was safe. Underneath was a really fraudulent feeling and I didn't think it was ok to have such a feeling, to be confused, to be a giant throbbing mess. But I was.
The good news is that, though you can hurt yourself with this "idea" of yourself as a meditator or somehow in a superior place, eventually your course will self correct, it can't not. It may just take longer if you are trying really really hard.
People often learn how to meditate from other people.
This is a little like the way electricity is conducted through metal. It seems helpful to be in conversation with others. In this day and age, such an interaction can be refreshingly down to earth. In my experience a good teacher makes you feel at ease with things as they are, and yourself as you are. Because in a way this is all a big mirror, if you feel like you are disappointing your teacher or getting corrected a lot, it may be because they are feeling disappointed and critical of themselves. Your boundaries are to be valued and honored, as well as your life experience.
If you feel like there's a level of fakeness in the air at a given meditation center, there probably is. A healthy community that forms around meditation is not hierarchical, does not involve prescribed dress and ways of moving, speaking or talking, or giving up all your cash. It may be you that's feeling fake. So see what it's like if you drop that. If it's not okay, perhaps you're in a cult! They are quite common. If you can't be yourself or make choices for yourself freely in that environment, there may be a problem there.
Sometimes there's this far out thing described as having an enlightenment experience, and somebody who has special status because of theirs. Also, be wary here. If what is being referred to is in the past, is romanticising a certain time or association, or a special state other than the present, including you and your experience, also this is something to avoid getting too enamoured of.
Any teacher sitting in front of you is a human being with their own conditioning, preferences, foibles and imperfections. If this is not acknowledged by the teacher, this is a flag. If they dangle something really special in front of you like waking up, and tell you that it takes a long time, decades of sitting on a meditation cushion, or lots of money and expressions of loyalty to the teacher, please run away! If there is like an inner circle, that too is weird. It is!
Some people may be fully awake and never have formally meditated, and never will. Often people who spend decades on a meditation cushion, like I did, do so because they have trouble getting along in the world, not because they've transcended it. Any claim I make, or another makes, to being superior is hiding a fear of being inferior. We certainly all, as humans, believe and sometimes outwardly make such claims, but remembering this can help you take any leader with a grain of salt. As my friend Brian likes to say, we are all - every last one of us, a bunch of third graders wandering around. No one can claim authority for another when we see this fundamental truth. So be scientific and skeptical. Ask the awkward question. Try it out, but trust your gut.
Just Sitting There
My Philosophy of Prayer
Or see the category: Contemplative Practice
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
In just under a month, the third prayer book, which is my fourth book, and is also my very first book fully published by someone else (in this case Simon+ Schuster’s Tiller Press) arrives! As if by stork. It has in fact already been printed but I have not yet seen it. This feels a little like when you’ve given birth in the nineteen fifties and you are waiting for a nurse to bring you your child. But instead your child is going to arrive one of these days via the US Mail in 2021.
It’s in a very small way like that. The hard work is done - or is it? The sweat of creating the thing has been wiped from our brows, and now the book exists, they tell me, and I am excited! It will be fully out in the world on March 23rd 2021!
But for now, the news I have is that your pre-ordered book is within reach, and is available for purchase via the retailer of your choice at this link: bit.ly/contemporaryprayers
It is funny trying to get ready for something you haven’t ever experienced. It’s challenging to know what preparation matters, and what is just spinning wheels. Self publishing is a very different beast. A lot more control, a lot clearer information, a much smaller platform, and for me, a little more of knowing what to expect. Which here I do not!
Especially in the last year, I find that I am committed to having a reasonably day, everyday, wherever I have a choice in the matter. There is so much in this year that reveals how little control we have, and with this information, it’s become clear to me that being kind to oneself and to those around one is a priority. So I will plan on sharing with you in small bites, in palatable doses for both of us, with the intention of enriching your life and moment, and showing up to be a steward for what s arriving. Here are a couple of sneak peak inside pages for you, and some prayers to get a sense of it.
Among studio objects, my current studio floor I have a very special appreciation for, I appreciate it almost as much as my very first studio floor, which was a very large swathe of high gloss, light turquoise, painted, wooden floor, painted by someone else before I arrived, in a building which was previously some kind of mill. That floor was in the Fort Point Channel in Downtown Boston, where I had my first ever own living space out of college, which had that lovely floor, lots of sun, lots of space, and is now converted to luxury office space whereas before it was artist studio space, not zoned for residential use.
I loved that floor because the color was light enough and bright enough to be cheerful, and because the space was overheated with steam pipes which made it very warm, and the color was cool. I have many photographs from that period of my life with the background of that floor, held many open studios in the space, and made lots of art upon that floor.
Today, here in my personal studio space in a town that doesn't have any affordable studio space (shame on you Ann Arbor), I have a space in our garage that doesn't leak, doesn't risk my safety to get to late at night, is not a crazy commute (30 feet), and doesn't have a printing press operating below it, or a meth dealership, ghosts, peeping toms, walled off fire exits, slumlords, or homeless squatters next door. All of these examples come from 25 years of studio space shenanigans, and I could quietly die here in this space as a satisfied elderly gal, hopefully not for a long time, and I would be grateful.
This floor is a symbol for me of how I can learn things and improve upon things. It's the second studio floor I have 'built' myself. The first was about a mile away from here, in the Walter St. garage, where I put down some plastic sheeting, some thin foam insulation, and then used half tongue and groove flooring I found, and half gray gym flooring. The gym flooring was great, but after about 2 months, the tongue and groove flooring separated, and the whole thing creaked and pitched like an old seaworthy vessel.
This time, I did not make the same mistake. I chose a space with a level concrete floor to start, carefully researched options, and then got help from my friend Patrick to install first a subfloor with little rubber feet, and then I put in (by myself which was truly crazy and not smart but it went ok) a carpenter grade plywood floor, and painted it Alpaca. I hurt my knees and shoulder a bit, and did a few unsafe moves with the circular saw, but The two things a love about this floor are that it is level, screwed in place, has air circulating properly underneath it, and has a little bounce under your step like an interior floor. These are all successes. This is the subfloor, and part of the finished floor before painting.
I chose to paint the floor because I didn't want to feel like I had to treat the wood preciously. My studio floors get very grimey and very droplet covered and covered with pencil shavings, and now bits of ash and charcoal.
I chose this warm, earthy version of an off white/gray called Alpaca because I wanted the space to feel like a light box. It does! However, it really accentuates how much of a pigpen I am, and the fact that I have never tended well to floors.
So I try to sweep, I have a swiffer hack that allows me to mop up fairly easily, and I just hope when people pop in they look up at the walls and windows and me, and not down at the layers of floor grime. Eventually, I can repaint it. Once I run out of alpaca, I can try another hue.
Objects are all about you. They seem inert, but each has a special character, one that you may be fond of, may not ever think about, or one that inspires aversion or other negative qualities.
I am sitting in my studio right now, and all about me are many objects. There is nothing at all unusual about this situation, and yet perhaps turning attention towards objects is a little bit unusual. I would like to do this now. Similar to the cursory way that in goodnight moon, even the bowl of mush and the spoon whisper 'hush'.
There is nothing special or unusual about 99.9% of the objects in this studio, but I want to share about them with you for a couple of reasons. 1) Because noticing what is around me helps me to appreciate and see them more clearly, perhaps care for them better and to enjoy them more. 2) Because I wrote a book whose subtitle is A love letter to all things everywhere, a book about the Elements, which reveals in its pages the very direct way that we are made of the same set of 100 or so ingredients as the objects we live with. So, in a way sharing about the objects in my studio is a way of introducing you to your cousins. 3) Sometimes I notice that people are curious about the hashtag of studio life, and this is a way of sharing a little bit more intimately about what goes on in here.
I will begin with the pink tub.
The pink tub is very very bubblygum pink. It appears at one point to been a part of a child's playroom organizational system. I can't remember where it came from. I likely picked it up off some curb on a side street somewhere. I believe I have only had it since I moved to Michigan in 2017.
In October of that year, I began using a one car garage as my studio, which I insulated and drywalled and laid some rickety found flooring down on. It had no running water. At first I was bringing in my inky, painty brushes to our house on the same property, and running them under the water, but then I realized that this is bad for the watershed, because those chemicals end up in it, leeching down into the rivers and lakes that we so abuse. So, instead, for both that reason and because it was a lot easier, I began just dumping my dirty water into the pink tub.
How it works, is that when I want to paint with water soluble paints like acrylic, I pour water from gallon jugs into a little bowl, clean my brushes and water down my ink and paints with it, and when I'm done I rinse out the extra pigment from the brushes in that little bowl, dry off the brushes (or bring them inside if further cleaning is needed), and then wipe down the interior of the bowl with a paper towel.
Every time I do this, the tub water gets a new infusion of a dark, muddy, often bluish gray tone. Bluish because apparently, these days I'm using a lot of blues.
This tub is not a color I love, it feels very very much like a giant lozenge of bubble gum, and I don't love having this color popping out in the middle of the otherwise muted space. I like the artwork to be the color to which the eye is drawn. However, I have started using it, and perhaps due to inertia, it's what I'm working with for now.
While my current studio was in build out mode last summer (2020), pink tub was in the basement, empty but for a dried 'waterline' of murky gray bluish paint stain about 5 inches up the sides. For a while it held quart cans of stain. I suppose I could've gotten rid of it then, but now I'm back in the studio and have begun again to us it as described above. Eventually I may replace it with something less brazen, but there is also benefit of the bright color, in that it shouts caution at me, lest I kick it over or something, by being so very pink.
Drop the Props and Poses
There is no need to look or feel a certain way to engage meditation. You don't need an expensive pillow or to be flexible or to be able to sit on the floor. Take care of your body. Sometimes having low back support in a chair, or a little cushion to lift up you butt, helps the spine to naturally be relaxed and fairly upright, which allows a nice free flow of energy throughout your body. This helps parts of it not fall asleep and maybe helps you stay awake and be more comfortable.
Establishing a little space
By this I mean some internal space. Please don't try to get yourself to stop thinking. One way is to notice the breath, or perhaps notice sounds in the environment, that kind of a simple focus for a few minutes can help you establish a little internal ease and quiet. There are lots of ways to do this. Some people call it a concentration practice: just pick some version that feels easy and relatively natural for you, to establish this kind of quiet.
Widening the Field
After you establish a little steadiness as explained above, you can then set about to broaden your focus to include whatever happens to be coming up in your experience. This includes physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, sounds, tastes, temperature, areas of contraction, neutrality and density.
This isn't always easy, depending on what emotions might be present, but I strongly recommend looking at whatever comes up as human, natural and ultimately, just passing through, like a bird alighting on a branch outside your window. It might be a noisy flock of house sparrows or a huge coven of crows that hangs out for a while, or a buzzard looming, but it's just coming and going, and like a birdwatcher or even the welcoming backyard itself, recognize that it's not your doing, not your fault, and whatever kind of shitty bird alights, see it as just a visitor to be curious about and open to.
Drop the idea of practice or of yourself practicing
At some point, if and when things feel pretty peaceful, drop any kind of practice and just hang out. No one doing anything. Be the yard. Be the field. Without doing it.
Whatever happens, can you hang out with it? If not, can you hang out with what that's like?
When suffering, for example if the answer to the above two questions is No and Absolutely Not, see if you can sit with the one in pain, like a friend would, someone who loved you.
When, if you are sitting in formal meditation, the timer goes off or you finish the formal part, see if you can carry that same simple sense of observation with you into the day - no need again to look or feel a certain way, in fact better if you don't try to steer or manage that, just see what is happening now. And what about now? Who is here? What's present? those are a few questions you can play with to re acquaint yourself at intervals throughout the day.
Let it be a mess.
Rarely as humans are we all dialed in and buttoned up. Especially if we feel compelled to meditate, or are stopping to notice what's underneath all of the activity and motion, there are messy things to encounter. Unruly feelings, blotchy skin and stuffed up noses, runaway radio station brain activity, bodies that keep trying to get comfortable,or even songs that stick in the head and sabotage that nice mellow feeling we were after. That's to be expected. Please don't expect otherwise. Unless you are another form of life from human, there will be the smelly and the ungainly. Invite that in too.
A note about teachers
If you learn from someone else, please be sure they are not claiming perfection, please be sure to trust your own intuition if things feel off. Ultimately what you are doing when you meditate is paying attention to what is happening. Please let that be from the inside out, and not something someone else controls from outside. The best teachers give you their experience of how to unlock your own freedoms, your own insights, your own guidance. They should not at any point need you to do anything or respond any kind of way. Above all trust your own intuitive response.
Beginning a year ago in January, I declared 2020 to be the year of the body. There was no evidence in my world of a pandemic, and this theme had no virus or really health related aspect to it. For me, it was a desire to learn to hear what my body was telling me more clearly, how to do a better job of caring for it.
In January 2019, I was starting to get the loud message from eye strain headaches and weird shoulder and neck stuff that I was kind of overdoing it, and essentially ignoring the innate intelligence of my body. So I declared this past year, Year of the Body, and set about a new set of drawings, writing, and thinking about this theme.
I have for a long time understood that for me, a highly sensitive person, grounding in the body was the best way to be in balance. This is a long standing theme in my writing therefore, and there are many related posts listed below, if this sounds useful to you as well. I have found that being able to feel my legs and feet while having a social conversation or an argument was always helpful, and that a walk or a lie on the floor has always beens a fantastic way to clear the head.
Another reason for the body theme is that for years, figures have been lurking in my otherwise abstract artwork, and I've always wanted to push this away. It didn't fit my idea about the kind of art that I make, and so I didn't want to deal with that. So for 2020, I met this head on, and both went through older drawings, and then began a new series that was meant to explore the feeling of being embodied in the day to day. Here are some examples of drawings of mine over the years that clearly have some kind of a figure in them.
TANGLE PROJECT 2009
Toward the end of this year, I shared this whole project with my artist's group, and introduced it with several older projects that also have this body theme, as a connect the dots kind of presentation. So I share this again with you:
In 2009, I did Tangle - a performance and documentation which I showed in 2010 in Lancaster PA in a solo show there called Placeholders at the Ganser Gallery. I took eddies of my stuff, like the contents of a junk drawer or office closet bin, and wrapped these items around my head with twine. I photographed myself like this, and then filmed the process removing each item one at a time, and all of the leftover twine. It was a way of making visible and palpable the feeling of having tension or lots of thoughts in the head, and then clearing the head, using the objects that collect around me as metaphor.
I did this with about thirty piles of my stuff from various parts of my life, exhibiting the films and photographs.
BODY JOURNAL 2010
In 2010 I embarked on a Body Journal Series that has not been exhibited, which was another in this theme of chronic pain and tracking the energy flowing in the body.
In 2007 I had created Three Variables, a series of wrapped wall sculptures that is essentially a version of Tangle but with a bit more remove from the body. This was exhibited at Judy Goldman Fine Art on Newbury Street in Boston and versions have been in group shows since.
CONGLOMERATES / GEODES 2014
In 2014, I made several sculptural projects for a solo exhibition at the 555 Gallery in South Boston. These two were about considering the body as a collection of conditions, or patterns or tendencies, and considering these in a playful physical form.
These are the precursors to the drawings I made this year. I notice a theme of wrapping, lines of tension, and playful variety of things that make up a body. In my humble and non-objective opinion, these projects continue the theme of describing energy, in interaction that's fleeting, in how a body feels from the inside out, in emotion and experience without words. A translation into matter, color line and form of all the objects, the bodies that we appear to be and interact with, their funny jumble of parts and pieces, the ways that they are hard to keep together, have densities, expressions and characters each their own. And in some ways, the way that we are somewhat arbitrary and silly, when in fact it appears we are serious, permanent and somehow fixed.
Next, I'm going to show you the new drawings, as a little series. That blog post is called, Year of the Body 2: The new works on paper.
Now that I have this gorgeous space, I notice that - just as always - perhaps even more so, it's challenging to prioritize just *being* in there, just showing up to explore like a kid.
Now that there's this beautiful cathedral like space for valuing art practice and creative engagement, my job is to do just that. But as with so many people I've worked with as a coach, and so many other instances in my own life, it is not easy to actually do that apparently simple thing.
What stands in the way is the shoulds from inside, about the outside and the others: Replying to emails, wiping down the counter, calling my mom back, folding the laundry, all of those things, plus paying bills or getting out that tax form, all loom with a seriousness and a subtle whiff of fear - what will they think of me? will they come after me? reject me? - those stories can loom so familiarly, that something as liminal and ethereal as 'studio time' gets shunted off to Later. Then there's that other should of 'you should be in the studio'.
Underneath all of this is a kind of unrelenting brain voice that is never satisfied with whatever choice is made, whatever effort is made. Underneath that voice is just what's always here, always available, when there's space to open to it.
I won't bore you with the details of my dream last night but the punchline is that I got this message: None of that outer stuff matters. None of it has any real substance: what people think, if someone noticed..., if they care. It has no real substance. Love matters. Love is attention. Love and attention, and intuition need some open space to reveal themselves, like a shy friend that can't be pressured to share efficiently. What matters is to be present for the present situation, to be in relationship to it, to be engaged with whatever and whomever is asking for attention, including parts of oneself, and that creative presence that is just waiting for the opportunity to take you on an adventure. Also that making space is not wasting time. It's living from the inside out with wide, forgiving margins.
In other words love is 'being with' not doing. Not 'knowing how' and not 'looking good' or getting it right. Somehow, in the middle of covid-19 times, there is an opportunity to explore this.
If I want something from outside, and it's not coming, how am I treating what's already here?
If you want something that's not yet here, and it feels like it should be, how are *you* treating what's already here?
In yet other words, everything is ok, even when it feels like it's all wrong or not good enough. That's what 'studio time' is a form of: studio time is no time. Out of time. You before time.
Before January is completely out, here are some highlights from Hannah Burr Studio in 2019, followed by what’s coming down the pike in 2020.
2019 was my second full year in Ann Arbor. It had a ‘getting the sea legs’ quality to it. We were snuggly situated in our Walter Drive rental home, in our second full year of marriage, and learned some great ways to share space as two adults who like their independence. The good news is that we’re honing our interdependent chops and married life is smoothing out nicely!
The petite garage studio that last winter got shut down due to freezing temps, is happily still functioning and in solid use at the end of 2019. The remedy of a heated blanket under a tented table keeps the most delicate things from freezing, and the rest I heat up as I use. It’s working!
This year my third book the Elements: a love letter to all things everywhere came out! It’s a beautiful print, and the first book where I used an editor and worked with a publishing team. Like the other two books that came before, the printing was paid for through crowdfunding. The first half of the year through June was focused on many many hours, weeks, and months of image file correction, editorial passes, alignment, style adjustments, and proofs sent from our overseas printer.
The second half of the year involved sharing the Elements book first with the beloved crowdfund backers, the Fifth Avenue Press community here in Ann Arbor, and all of my lovely Boston friends and budding Ann Arbor community. We went to the Detroit and North Hampton Art Book Fairs, and the Boston Art Book Fair as well. The book is currently for sale at the Wexner Center for the Arts shop in Ohio, the LACMA Art Shops in LA, the Ann Arbor Art Center, and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, as well as in the collection of the University of Michigan’s Library, Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts Library, and the Ann Arbor District Library. So, we’re starting to share it beyond the known realms and really fascinated to see where it gets taken on!
We created three large posters and a couple of smaller posters for all three of the books, as well as smaller prints and postcards of each book’s pages - this is a new experiment. The three large posters are now part of library art print circulation at the Ann Arbor District Library, and for sale at our big cartel shop! This involves shipping riddles and storage quandries, but we’re having fun and working it out!
The Time is Color 2 Calendar was printed as round three of this celebration of my favorite ephemeral drawings and art for everybody. This year’s calendar was I think the most fetching so far and I might have two or three kicking around in the edition of 50 if you still want one (ps. they’re on sale at Big Cartel).
I had a solo show called ‘Temporary Arrangements’ at the Ann Arbor Art Center this summer, which included new painting and drawing, and was the first time I’ve shown overt abstract landscape and pure abstraction in direct relationship to each other. The show featured 23 works altogether and has spurred new work currently in development.
In March of 2019, three conceptual projects were curated into an exhibit at the Sorenson Arts Center of Babson College called ‘Reflecting on the Sacred.’ The exhibit was a collaboration of curator Danielle Krcmar and the Interfaith Chapel of Babson. The works included were conceptual and interactive, titled You Are Legend, Salt Project and Send Love, Let Go. I was invited to run a workshop at the Chapel and it was truly a pleasure to work again with Danielle who added lovely new blocks to our collective block project installation built during the workshop. I don’t yet have all of these projects on my site but will soon enough!!
I shared two new pieces as part of group show Kindred, at TrustArt Gallery here in A2. This was a very sweet tribute to the artist’s group I am priveledged to be a part of, and I was really pleased with Barbara Hohmann’s installation of the work. It was a beautiful, spare and complimentary exhibition.
This fall I also led a meditation for curator Laura Earle’s project Unravelling Racism, based on the podcast Seeing White. This was an interesting and mind expanding process for me, and instead of making work for the show, I decided to guide participants in a prior-to-the-body meditation similar to the guided meditation I shared as part of Reflecting on the Sacred. These guided meditations are a new development in the year and one I hope will continue to expand in and outside of exhibition settings.
I got to coach some extremely talented individuals this year, as well as a fine group of public artists this year for Now + There, Boston’s incredible powerhouse initiative/public art incubator led by the incredible Kate Gilbert. These events brought extra trips to Boston to check on the beanpole growth of my niece and nephew, plus visits with sister, parents and friends.
This year also concluded with two other big boons, unexpected and quite amazing. I will wait for a couple of weeks before sharing my 2020 news, and thank you for tuning in!
A little over a month ago, after 6 years of conceptualizing, researching, starting, stopping, presenting, sharing, reworking, building, editing, building, editing, refining, freaking out and head scratching, I finally got to meet the Elements book on its own terms. As my mother used to say as I was heading off to college: the biscuits are out of the oven! In other words, it's out of my hands now!
So now, after a complicated and exhilarating month, I have handed out and distributed all of the reserved copies, shared the book at a talk in Maine, a book pick up party in Boston, one in Ann Arbor, an art book fair in North Hampton MA and another in Detroit MI, I'm stepping back to marvel and reflect. The feedback, I believe, made the book more approachable, playful and easy to delve in and out of with impunity. My favorite part happens now, as I learn what this project means for others, how it lands for you, and what it wants to be in the world.
Here are some reactions I've gotten to Elements so far:
This is a book for poets married to scientists and engineers married to artists.
This is a book for the parents of scientists.
This is a book for families wanting a playful and awe inspiring entry point to science and to the world, objects, inner and outerspace. It's a wonderful learning tool for the whole family.
This is a book that can create access to a formerly expert, specialized subject, for more visual thinkers or people steeped in other subjects for most of their lives.
This book can be used as a meditation tool, a page a day, a random flip open, to shift perspective or go deep.
This book is for synesthetes and those loving a lateral view, a different cross section of our world.
It's been surprising and delightful to learn all of this, as people connect with it at my table at an art book fair, or emailed me after receiving it and sitting down with it for the first time. Hearing my retired uncle admit that they didn't know titanium was an element until this book. To watch my Waldorf teacher friend get super excited about it for a teaching block, my cousin Katie, an episcopal minister and teacher, send me a photo of it on her teachers desk as a dynamic entry point to mysticism. My 13 year old nephew start in from the first page, and get really into the paper legend and visual patterns hidden in the book. My favorite was a woman at the Northampton Art Book Fair, a biology major volunteering who happened to be sitting next to me. She asked to take a peek at my book, then clutched it to her chest, held it up over her head and shouted, I LOVE THIS BOOK! I need it! It's how I learn! And then too, discovering across from me at the Detroit Art Book Fair that Flower Press had made a bumper sticker that read: MORE TEXTBOOKS BY WOMEN. And I thought YES! That's also what this is!
So far I've broken down 25 boxes, as I send and hand out the books. That's 575 pounds of Elements book out in the world!
Upcoming are two more events to date: On November 10 in Ann Arbor, the book will be shared and launched along with 8 other authors publishing through 5th Avenue Press. I'll be giving a very brief presentation of the book.* And on November 9 and 10 in Boston, I'll be at the Boston Art Book Fair to share this and the brand new calendar, as well as the concept of WE AM, a collective in development.
*My presentation will be a recorded talk, and Guy will be there to share and sell the books, all of which will be signed copies.
There are three things in this post: A celebration, an outline of my ten learnings from Elements so far, and some actual dates for celebrating with me and getting your books in Ann Arbor and Boston. Read on!
This early June, the peonies are taking their luxurious time to open here in Michigan.
Yesterday, I finally communicated to the printer of the Elements book, the following phrase:
I approve this book for printing.
This is a big moment in printing a book.
It means that the book is complete: edited, proofread, spellchecked, gone through page by page probably 200 times, updated, and then sent off for proofing again. There’s the proof where you’re checking that no pages are upside-down or out of order, that no headers went mysteriously missing, and that the layout is as expected. That’s called the indigo or ozalid proof. The color looks like crap and there are weird inconsistencies in the ink, but you are supposed to ignore that.
For this project, I approved a wet proof as well. This one roll of paper, about the size of six posters, cost $800. The printer has to set the entire press up with the actual paper and actual ink and final settings, so you can see if the cover is the right tone, the text is dark enough, and how the ink sits/absorbs on the uncoated creamy paper stock I chose.
That in itself could be another round of proofing, but I decided I couldn’t front another $800 to see what a slight modification in the cyan would look like. Most projects don’t wet proof unless like this one, you’re using different paper and have a lot of color artwork in the book.
This book is 428 pages. Early in the process, I had to play about a week’s worth of tetrus to figure out how to consolidate down by about 12 pages. This process involved looking at other books, playing mental scenarios out, and drawing lots of page grids and sketches.
My last two books were 125 pages each, with a single line or two of text on most of the pages. To be honest, back in 2012 when I started working with my first overseas printer, I had no idea what I was doing, and was yes, using a lot of prayer to sleep ok at night and trust that it was all going to work out. I didn’t think much about the paper, I had no idea what exactly I was supposed to be looking at with the proofs that arrived, and I was too intimidated to ask many questions.
Comparatively and in hindsight, I now see that ignorance is bliss, and that a shorter book takes a lot less time to prepare!
On this project I had a book designer Amanda Szot from AADL offering guidance, ideas, and a lovely Periodic Table of Elements.Working with Amanda and learning some of her process made me aware of my very real learning curve with InDesign. I think back to Leila Simon Hayes working on the layout and cover design of the last two books, and how challenging it must have been that I was so fly-by-night and chaotic in my approach. Alas. But I am also fairly detail oriented and scrappy, which is how I probably got it to the printer at all. I’ve learned a lot from the people and process that become woven into the making of these books.
I asked for a lot more help on this project than I had before, and help arrived in very cool forms.
a) I met Patrick Barber, a book designer, at the Detroit Art Book Fair last fall, where he was admiring my paintings. He recommended the overseas printer I ended up working with using his recommended contact. We through books his publishing company had printed with this printer in his Detroit living room, as I scribbled notes and asked all the questions I could think of.
Later in the process, I proposed we barter: His expertise and consulting for artwork. Since then he’s been helping me decipher complex emails, strategize approaches in response, understand the focus and motivation of the printing team, and understand rich black versus straight black, the invoices and purchase orders, exports to PDF, and how to approach each round of proofing. All with enthusiasm, which makes me feel so glad I have work to barter!
Nicco Pandolfi took on an early round of editing, and was paired with me by Sara Wedell, the overseer of my publishing team at the Ann Arbor District Library. This was my frist experience with an editor or a publishing team (of which designer Amanda Szot is also a part), and it both raised the level of support, the bar for the finished product, and my awareness that my one month timeframe to get this book to press was wAAAAy unrealistic.
So, it’s been a LOT more of my life and time than I thought possible to bring this book to the point of printing (one month became five).
I have learned ten things. I have learned to
-ask for help (1)
-set up an ergonomic workstation (2)
-take care of my eyes and body with breaks and limits to my screen time (3)
-slow way down, take the time needed (4)
-consider that I may not know how to spell all words (5)
-put lots of mental emotional padding between me and emails that might otherwise raise up the hackles.(6) For example, the email where I thought the book was going to cost 2000 more than the highest quote (beyond all raised funds), because of a misunderstanding about the number of color pages.
-be curious and open where I might before have been a compact singularity of stress (7)
-tell the truth and extend a deadline which, up until this project I’d prided myself on never having done (8)
-handle things gently and with love, first and foremost myself, and everyone else from there (9)
-navigate around lots of technical stuff in Lightroom, InDesign and and way more about the business of printing in general (10)
...and maybe on the next project, make the book a tiny bit shorter!
In other words, I have changed in significant ways because of this project.
The peony next to my monitor went from deep hot pink to soft light pink like a fading curtain over the last few days. The petals have mostly dropped onto the table. And, there are more adventures ahead with this project.
One more proof, the F&Gs, are my opportunity to remedy tiny smudges or printing anomalies of the final, already printed book before binding, and then it gets delivered.
To be safe, we’re saying the delivery date is September. I plan to have a pick up party in Boston on September 7th, and another in Michigan on September 13th. I rest well in the knowledge I’ve done my best while taking good care of this project and myself, and I trust everyone who has invested their time, interest, money and expertise, as well as emotional support, to get us to these words:
I approve this book for printing.
6 Insights into Falling Back in love with your work, creative practice and life.
Every so often, I hear from an artist friend or in the pages of my studio journal, a sense that our work as artists is boring or repetitive, or not all that interesting. I’ve heard this from artists whose work delights and inspires me and many others. I’ve also seen and felt how these thoughts can feel paralyzing.
We may look at one body of work and think: I love this, but it was too easy to make, too much fun, too simple, doesn’t have consequence, doesn’t address an injustice, isn’t clever….
or similar stories.
It’s a little like how you might feel about your hair: It’s frizzy. It’s flat and lifeless! It’s oily as soon as I wash it! I don’t have any! It’s heavy, thick and weird! It’s graying, it’s thinning, it’s such a blah color.
Whatever you do with it, your hair is your hair. Even if you’re bald, it is what it is. It’s what you have. Art and Hair: not always in our control.
When a friend of mine expressed her relief at finally deciding to let her hair be: go grey, look like it does, it was uplifting and liberating to me too.
As for art: the fact is, I can’t make someone else’s work, and if I try, it’s not going to go well. I can learn from them, try out a technique, but if I’m being honest in the work, genuine and deeply engaging the work, it’s going to be singular. And what it is, is independent of me and whatever I think about it.
From this meandering thought trail, I pull a few insights:
1) I am not my artwork. I am not what people think of my work. I am powerless to change or even truly know what others think of it. Some people will like it, some people won’t, it is what it is, on any level of notoriety or obscurity.
2) I am the steward of my work, it’s foster parent say, and it’s my job to honor, to care for it, and to see it. To be curious about it and learn from it, to show up for it as best I can, which’ll be human, imperfect and OK.
3) Genuineness and your relationship to work comes through, so explore, discover, and pay attention to what you enjoy doing, what you love to do. It is also sometimes the case that you may simply need to see something through, or to break through to something else.
4) It’s not always fun or pleasant, nor does the work always come together - but the messes themselves have great things to reveal.
5) Want what you have. Practice this as a discipline to enjoy your life, work and creative practice more. Wanting what you have is a discipline that helps you feel lighter, clearer and more in love with what’s actually here in your life. Do this by becoming curious and playing with this line of inquiry. Ask yourself:
What’s happening here?
I wonder where this’ll go...
Hmmm. Now this is happening!
What do I appreciate and enjoy in my life?
(Nothing is the answer that will make you feel the worst so dig a little deeper and come up with something)
6) When you see something amazing in another's artwork, life or career, see it as something your heart is waking up to in your own life, something being remembered about who you are and your inherent worth and abundance, and say YES, THAT. That’s amazing. I choose THAT! from the catalogue of life experience. I am open to experiencing that in my own life.
Prior to this practice, it might feel somewhat like an impoverished, smouldering jealousy, comparison or rejection of that other. For an easier experience, see it as a mirror. This plane we live on is dynamic and collaborative. Your part is to know what sparks joy in your life, art and in others.
And further, even if it’s scary, practice the expression of appreciation and gratitude to others. You may find as you do your heart expanding, relating, connecting and serving, instead of - as was my case for much of my twenties, contracting, retreating, judging, comparing, hiding and becoming brittle in the comfort of familiar and inaccurate stories.
When you see something amazing in another's artwork, life or career, see it as something your heart is waking up to in your own life, something being remembered about who you are and your inherent worth and abundance, and say YES, THAT. That’s amazing. I choose THAT! from the catalogue of life experience. I am open to experiencing that in my own life.
I am knee deep in this book project on the Elements. It’s the third book, it is currently being crowdfunded, and I’m going to share in a little more detail with you about what’ll be inside and where I’m at with it.
I have completed all of the artwork for the book. There are two sets of drawings, one completely monochrome, silent and abstract, and the other vibrant and descriptive of each element. The monochrome works on paper are in the Element Index section. The vibrant, colorful, descriptive drawings are in the Element Sketch section. .....
Other visual design in the book includes a comprehensive overview graphic of how the Elements are made in star and space explosions and collisions, and which elements are made how. It was satisfying to pull this together because the information is public, but shared in fragments and super inconsistent graphics and charts across the internet. It was fun to put the big picture together for my own understanding, and I’m excited to share it with you too!
The Overview Section includes this element origins spread as described, as well as two other spreads on the relative abundance of elements across five or six areas including oceans, the human body, the earth’s crust, the atmosphere, and our solar system. Also in the overview section, you will see what elements are in the objects immediately around you as you read, so you can see how not separate you are from stuff.
There will be some quotations in the book that range from scientific to mystical, and essentially say similar things from recent and ancient and moderately older sources: Einstein, Rumi, Buddha, Walt Whitman...
The Element Index section takes what’s shared playfully in the Element Sketches sectoin and presents a more comprehensive list of every single place I could find where this element *is* in our world. Originally the book was just going to be the abstract Index image paired with this list, but it turned out to be a little too a) austere and b) dense for many of my early readers to get into. Hence the new Sketch section.
There is also a Legend in the book, that pairs with each Element Sketch. This legend shares other information that the sketch paper and its treatment yields about each element. For example, if there’s a fold in the paper, the element is magnetic. If there’s an orange stripe along the bottom, it’s radioactive. If there’s an odd shaped hole-punch, it’s used in technology. I hope this is both fun and illuminating as the reader explores and discovers.
I look forward to learning your questions and sharing more as we embark on this book-making, book-realizing adventure together! Back the project here, or share it using the share buttons!
My life has been included times of extreme, big, scary, and sometimes all-at-once change.
Three times, I’ve lost a job, a relationship, and had to move within the span of a week. Can you relate? Certain things have been constants. Family nearby and an art practice I’ve always had. Last year I moved half way across the country, and now family is far away too: The world itself appears to be going through relentless unfolding processes, losses, big shifts in understanding, incredible challenges: big effin’ change.
This summer I’m taking some major action on things I’ve dreamed about for several years, chewed on, but never seen a way to make happen. In the last month I’ve begun learning how I might Scale Up by doing these 8 things:
I’m sharing this post with you because this is one on a long list of scary things I’m doing right now to get honest and stay accountable. I’m managing my time in a more specific way, working up the nerve to share things via video, re-alphabetizing a lot of index cards and solving strange problems. I’m also listening to people to whom I can’t relate very much, who share what they did to find their audience, and taking their suggestions. I’m showing up to practice what it feels like to be seen going through this, instead of only sharing the finished product as if it was seamless and delightful to pull together.
7 Reasons Why I’m Doing This
1. What I have to share is genuinely, practically useful, tested and delivered uniquely.
2. I’m here to share what I make. Why not master the sharing part?
3. I’m curious and interested to see what’s going to happen. I know what happens if I do things the way I’ve always done them. What if I go about it full boar instead of half-assedly?
4. I like learning, and man, is there a steep learning curve right now! Every day, I’ve got about 8 new major questions to answer. It’s a self imposed boot camp.
5. It says in some 12-step literature I value: I can’t transmit something I haven’t got. Anywhere I’m staying small and Eeyore-esque, is an area where I’m not able to be useful to others.
6. Freedom. Did I mention? I don’t do anyone any favors by staying small.
7. My success is your success, and your success is mine. Somehow, it really comes down to my relationship to you. I don’t understand why or how, but it’s clear to me that I’m not supposed to, and can’t do this without you. We are deeply, all of us, interconnected. I’m swashbuckling through new territory and so are you. You can steer me clear of the ditches as I share practical process, metaphor and creative work to support you right back.
By sharing this with you, I’m taking a risk, but I’m also hoping that you will keep me accountable, human, and honest throughout. Sometimes I may have to be honest about being full of shit. Or thinking something was a good idea that turned out not to be. But I won’t be alone. We’re like a field of daffodils, all opening under the same sun, interwoven and strong in a root system that is our collective.
As I do this, I’d love to hear from you, support your conversation with one another, and know what you value. I want to be responsive and in conversation with you.
What edge are you working right now? How uncomfortable is it? What/who is supporting you through this transformation? How are you caring for yourself? Why are you committed to this change?
Looking back on this ambitious list, I notice a few things. Several items on it didn't happen and several of them did. I took a lot of actions and kind of twisted myself up in knots in the process, but also, some of those things bore fruit, and some of them didn't. That's how it goes. I think growing up as an artist and a business person means risking failure, or unfinished stuff, without giving up or packing up.
This update is from March of 2021. The Elements book became a reality, and also had a publisher of sorts through the local imprint 5th Avenue Press. That wasn't my goal, but it was a great new experience, following the successful crowdfund.
I investigated sales reps, and I ended up in that invesitgation being offered a book deal from a major publisher for the 2021 Edition of Contemporary Prayers, which comes out this week!! I could not have planned that. So none of my own sales reps, but a publisher with their own fleet of them, is what turned up.
The online school was a bit of a u-turn. I spent a lot of time on it, but I also wasted some serious clams on the endeavor, and it wasn't the right time. Maybe in the future, maybe not!
And I continue to coach, and to love it. I have begun working with a new mentor of my own and this expands very much how I think of this kind of one on one work. I am happy with things as they are, never finished, always in process, and never really in any way, about me.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.