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 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.
There are many forms of meditation:
Formal and structured
Open eye, walking around in the world types
Closed eye or soft eye meditation seated
Mystical and direct path practices
Loving kindness practice
and many different flavors, cultures and styles to how these are presented:
Zen from Korea, Japan and elsewhere
Vipassana from Burma and Thailand
on so many more
You may yourself already have a practice, have favorite books, a community and a personal philosophy. You may be sampling and learning.
Whatever your situation, I recommend that you do whichever one feels literally the easiest and the most relaxed. We don't need to tie ourselves into knots over something else in our lives. We have plenty of ways of doing so already. So do whatever feels effective and easy for you.
I love the simple exercise Ajahn Chah had listeners try in a talk he gave once. He asked: Do you notice that you are seeing right now? Just check.
Then he asked, how much effort does that seeing take?
That's the effort that is needed for meditation - just that little bit of noticing. No efforting, no big doing, or trying.
I love this. I agree.
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.
Last night I started organizing my closet, and before I knew it, I was trying on everything, and having a fashion show for one. Partly, this was inspired by the tiktok meme which had been running through my head for a couple of days: Love it, couldn't wear it.
And partly, by discovering that the pair of pants I'd thought I'd lost were carefully tucked away in an opaque drycleaner bag in the basement! This wide, high waisted pair of pants that i've had for over 20 years, both fit me like a glove and Lo, have come back into fashion!!
So, understandably, for the first time since I moved here, I began reevaluating the whole pants inventory, and the shirts, and the sweaters...in light of well, not even needing to get dressed at all for the amount of people I see.
But it was fun for the aesthete that I must admit to being, the one that loves a clean line and just the right color shades and contrasts. It's a lot like cooking, and it's a basic fun - the grown up version of dressing dolls, or, heck, even playing with army men. It's fun to try on these expressions, to swagger about, and to find a spot for the things that may eventually one day, have a role in my life again.
It reminded me that just caring for what's right here is the best I can be doing right now. That in the words of my friend Kristen, things are in the midst of change but not the kind we can really make plans around, and this may be a time for simply waiting and trusting.
If I get that much energy going again, in this case fueled by a two and a half hour nap earlier in the day, I may just start photographing the ensembles, but that seems like a lot of work! so for now, instead of the usual brazen planning and visioning for the new year, I am going to count the blessings, and the matching pairs of socks and pretty scarves, and care for what's here already.
We want a change of scenery, we are mostly not getting it. We'd like to eat in a restaurant or go to a movie, or sit with a good friend, seeing their whole face, carry on with traditions like any other year. We'd like to uncomplicatedly hug our parents or grandparents, or get away from them for just a little while. We'd like to have a "nice" christmas, holiday or break. We'd like to be with people who are sick when we can't be. Instead we're in these silos, acclimatized to this strange strange time to varying degrees on varying days, baking, zooming, miffing transitions, watching shows. Shopping and wondering if packages will arrive.
Things are weird.
There are two sides - at least - to every moment. The side our brains create, of feelings, events, time passing, things happening to us and our responses to those things.
And then there's the essence underneath that, in the way that the light hits something, the hum of the fridge, the sensations in your hands.
My neighbor has a big inflated snowman on his lawn. Sometimes the snowman is face down or beached on his side. Or in an S kind of contortion, like he's in the middle of the electric slide.
When the daytime comes, the snowman is sometimes flat, laying quietly on the lawn.
It's been such a shit year and so specifically a year of stuff coming to the surface - our fears, blindspots, addictions, interconnectedness, grief, and a bare simplicity too. I hope the next couple of weeks can be a zone of gentleness and allowing for you - allowing it all to be just the way it happens to be.
The wonky or sublime, or lopsided or dialed-in in way that the next few weeks unfold, can you allow for it, for the snowman to be on its side, or completely flat sometimes? For a broad margin? For a wide swathe of OK - this too, with a heart toward the even greater unknown of 2021?
I want to say helpful things - I'm not sure how. I'm planning on rolling with it all, the unexpected, the disappointing, the letting drop of any kind of force. Let's be gentle at the fulcrum of the year - enjoy its novelty and shed what isn't serving - not in a new year's resolution kind of *me* way, but like a sloughing of a skin you didn't even know was hanging off of you, or the opening of a hand. Let it drop. Let the sparkly underlayer come forward, just for you.
Whatever the particulars of your strange moment may look like, find a crisp edge or a brightness to something, in a sound or a shape, in what you've been so intimate with or wanted to avoid. Look into it, turn towards it, let it take you where you're headed - where you always are, into uncertain new light, basic aliveness, and the company of presence itself.
Lately, my lovely morning coffee has been tasting to me like an ashtray. It's funny in the peculiar sense, that I have this idea of 'loving' coffee, that it's so great, and I'm so pleased about my morning coffee. But the idea is not lately lining up with the experience. The idea has gone stale, and so has this coffee habit.
Years ago I stopped having caffeine. That was a good move for me, a highly sensitive individual with an enjoyment of extremes, and another and another cup of something caffeinated. I have been able to have just the one cup of coffee, decaffeinated, but nice and rich, americanos when I go out to a cafe, and it's been working.
But the experience and the story are not lining up these days. The experience involves a kind of a yucky after taste, a slight dull ache in the front of my head, and yes, a bit of an ashtray type of experience. Also a coated tongue. Like my tongue has a thin cashmere sweater on. Coffee breath. Even the nice hot temperature feels a little much, like it makes my eyes bulge a bit. Why do I think of this as good?
There's some fear of trusting my experience over the idea. What if I let go of a good thing and I'm wrong? Well there's not far to fall here, as I can always begin again, this coffee habit, and there is this kind of FOMO - what if I feel deprived of my treat? Initially there's a hurdle to letting something go when there's this kind of attachment - a little bit of withdrawal and perhaps a feeling of missing out - but then, I'm guessing, freedom. I can have a great day even if I am not slugging the brown stuff, and a lightness or freedom in knowing that I don't *have* to do a damn thing.
So, you're the first to know, I may be quitting even my decaf for a bit. Imagine! We shall see how it goes.
Is there a place where you have an idea of something being a 'good thing' or 'treat' where in fact it's kind of shitty feeling when you engage it? Just becoming aware of this, as this post has helped me do, creates a tiny opening to try or choose again, just to see what it's like.
Instead of the 'I have to XY or else' story, perhaps it's 'I can, but actually, I'm good, even without it.'
Look back, take stock, and celebrate.
While the first way: Stay in the Body is concrete and personal, the next two have a more contemplative and cerebral quality to them.
The question is then, how to do these things. There are a million ways. Right now what’s springing to mind is to suggest with a friend, or to set a date or two with yourself, to do these things intentionally. You might put on your calendar for a day of this weekend, or the one right before or after the bigger holiday events coming up, a two hour window at your favorite coffee shop or nook, to meet or factetime a copascetic friend or on your own, to come together write and share on the following.
A few guidelines:
Don’t force anyone to do this. Including yourself. No 14 year old kid is likely going to want to answer these questions. That’s ok.
If doing this in a group or with friends, let everyone be and respond as they want to. It’s not a time for advice giving or opining. This was everyone feels safe.
When I do this kind of thing with a friend, I find it helpful to share the questions and write on them, and then each person has time to share out loud what they wrote.
1. Stay in the body.
When manic holiday shopping or intensive socializing and activities are on constant offer, there is a tendency for my energy to go up and out. In the aisles of a store, the energy goes out through the eyes and the senses, or bores deeply into a list, and I can completely forget I have a body at all. At a holiday party or a tea with a friend in from out of town, I can feel a pull to match the bubbliness and superficiality that may be all anyone is capable of mustering as the weeks wear on. Another scenario that looks a little more like hibernation but also is a kind of disembodiment is binge-watching shows. Sometimes if holidays are lonelier, or there’s grief and loss as a part of this time of year, I can find myself wanting to manufacture good feelings by not one but a whole season of something, until I dream about the plot lines and characters, and my own life becomes of mash up of fiction and reality.
This is for most of us a norm at this time of year.
To stay in the body, here are some suggestions.
Happy belated Thanksgiving.
As the days get shorter and colder, I am now slowing down into this season of reflection, rest, and to the best of my ability, going inward. Someone recently pointed out to me that doing so poses a real challenge at this time of year because economic forces do not want us to do this, though for centuries it’s been a time for rest and falling fallow. At a grocery store three days before Thanksgiving, I felt and heard that constant jingle jingle jingle that spurs one to throw that extra holiday oddity into the cart, and just one more little gift. It’s fun sometimes, until it becomes a kind of manic autopilot. So, today, on the day after Thanksgiving, I’m going to start putting out some alternative points of focus to accompany all of that, or to do instead. I will do this in three parts.
We’ve got just over a month before the holidays are behind us. For myself, and for you if you choose, here are some ways to go slow and go in peace and stay healthier. I’ll outline these, and then go into more detail in the posts to follow.
1. Stay in the body.
3. Look forward.
Bring the insights of these practices to the more outward facing facets of this holiday time, and see how much richer an experience it can be!
Walt Whitman's writing arises itself from a very unified understanding of being, objects and the world.
On the eve of sharing my third book with all of you this September, I share this part of his epic poem Song of Myself.
17. Song of the Broad-Axe
The shapes arise!
Shapes of factories, arsenals, foundries, markets,
Shapes of two-threaded tracks of railroads,
Shapes of the sleepers of bridges, vast frameworks, girders, arches,
Shapes of the fleets of barges, tows, lake and canal craft, river craft,
Ship-yards and dry-rocks along the Eastern and Western seas, and in many a bay and by-place,
The live-oak kelsons, the pine planks, the spars, the hackmatack-roots for knees,
The ships themselves on their ways, the tiers of scaffolds, the workmen busy outside and inside,
The tools lying around, the great auger and little auger, the adze, bolt, line, square, gouge, and bead-plane...
I love about it that it's a list of things, that it's about the mundane, observing what's here, and just letting it awe one. The full title of the upcoming book is Elements: a love letter to all things everywhere. As you can see here, this poem is clearly a love letter to all things everywhere. And it is a song of Walt Whitman's Self. In this new book you will find lists of objects, arranged around each of the 118 known chemical elements that make all the stuff, all the shapes arising.
This part of Whitman's poem is not in the upcoming book, but there are other words of his included:
Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I was intrigued by Whitman's use of the word 'atom' because the atom as we understand it today in scientific terms, was not actually discovered during Whitman's time. It turns out that the word 'atom' is an ancient greek word meaning 'indivisible.' The smallest unit possible. Now for us, an atom is made up of smaller parts: protons, neutrons and electrons, and smaller particles including quarks. And we keep discovering that an 'indivisible' thing is made of other things, defying/expanding our understanding again and again. The concept and word 'atom' is ancient, and used by Whitman in his writing and poems, in sum.
An element, by the way, is a uniquely structured atom, with a set number of protons, and electrons, and its own atomic weight (based on these). There are 118 known such elements, or unique atoms, that bind and react (steam, smoke, fire, farts, fireworks, rust, yogurt and so on) and make all the things we are, eat, have, and see. The lightest one has one proton and electron and the atomic weight of 1 (Hydrogen H). The heaviest has 118 protons and electrons, and the atomic weight of 118 (Oganesson Og -recently discovered and named if you haven't heard of it).
Here are a couple of other Walt Whitman snippets that I considered including in the book because they hit upon these themes of awe, union, and inseparability that inspired my book:
15. To be in any form, what is that?…
I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.
14. My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same…
18. Songs of the Open Road
The earth never tires,
The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first,
Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d,
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.
I can't wait to share this book with you. Thanks for tuning in.
UPDATE! The Elements book is now for sale here.
[Originally posted in Spring of 2013]
A few weeks ago I was driving home at night through Brookline. In one of the town's many rotaries was a simple mound with many, many daffodils in bloom. It was raining and I noticed them on my left.
Normally, I'd cluck over their beauty with a heightened sense of goodwill. But in this instance, I was surprised by what I saw there instead. I had a similar sensation once while looking at stars in Maine. I saw depth in the night sky, where before I'd seen more of a blanket or curved plane of stars like in the planetarium. Seeing the flowers in the rotary gave me a similar feeling of vastness, or vertigo.
I saw while passing the flowers that the whole mess of them, the entire mound of hundreds, was actually one conscious presence or force, like a collective brain. Something far less diminutive or poetic than what I'd previously percieved. The green shoots, threading roots filtering the dirt, meet as a single mind under there.
Our lives are lived at times with the leaden feeling of no-one-gives-a-shit/sees me/understands. As a woman living alone turning 40 in a month, the daffodil revelation is important. The cars circling the rotary, people on a train platform, a group listening to a concert is the same. We get so caught in the mire of being individuals. The tangle of speculation, obligation, association, doubt and doom - Doing and aiming for a high perch on the hill, or we fear mediocrity and failure. I want to be a success, don't you?
When I can feel the ground underneath, or the weather as it mixes with the tiny hairs on my arm, use my senses to reconnect to the situation I find myself in at any given moment, just as it is and just as I am, recollected.
Those flowers don't have long. They get a few weeks if they're lucky to kappow in yellow. That depth and connection is also available to me and you, as is the profound beauty of our vulnerable, short lives.
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.
With the normalized practice of awareness - not the zen-stylized kind with rice paper and bells, but simply: Oh, here I am seeing something. Here’s driving. Here’s noticing. Here’s irritation. Here’s tiredness. or, What do the hands feel like right now? or noticing, warm water, clinking dishes, bubbles.
The more that : awareness - becomes normal in my world and life, something entertaining starts to take place.
When say, at a family holiday gathering someone does or says some outrageous but predictable thing, flossing with a plucked hair or trying earnestly to set you up with your second cousin, or something less interesting like a stony silence from your child when you thought all was well…
When this type of ‘thing’ happens, for some reason the phrase that springs to mind recently is: And now This is happening!
This phrase has a surprisingly humorous and helpful effect: It has within it a sense of engagement, interest and also a kind of acceptance built into it.
Try it right now: And now This is happening!
Look around and see what ‘this’ is.
An empty room with a reasonably quiet refrigerator running within earshot.
And now This is happening.
The urge to pee or an ache somewhere.
This occasionally thought phrase is so easy, and it’d be easy to read about and consider but not try. Try it! Try it for 5 minutes and see if your life doesn’t take on even a quality of simple interest, dare I suggest even a playful, creative engagement.
It's also fun to do while working on a creative project: the paint spilled or the colors ran into each other. It dried funny, or something went not according to plan... And now This is happening...
Last night, I hauled and dragged a christmas tree four blocks to my house. When I got there, I kicked the halloween pumpkin, which had been disemboweled by a single-minded, grapefruit-shaped squirrel, off the stoop into a bush. Time for new seasonal holiday flora.
The tree is now up, wrapped in lights and covered in the sparkly sentiment of ornaments. I keep looking at it surprised, like: How did that get there, all decorated? I do remember one-pointedly deciding to go for it, get a tree and decorate it last night, and being in motion for a couple of hours, but somehow it still surprises me that at some times, a thing is not there, then it is. And even more surprising, I’m the one that brought it there and set it up.
Everything is kind of like this: a fluid action of things arising and passing away. Last summer, after leaving the 2017 tree to dry out back, I limbed and fast-burned its crackly remains in our fire pit. Now its ash beneath ash 10 inches or so down, currently being covered with snow - freed gases long gone. All the summer fires: where are they now? .....
The way things change form, burning in fire, dissolving in water, being eaten, decomposing, ending, beginning, growing is relentless and unstoppable. The way we charge about on energetic days, doing things, moving ourselves and our stuff, preparing and presenting, exploring and changing, all of this - where *is* it? Perhaps it’s in our records: memories, photographs, websites, objects, other people’s memories. Is that the semi-satisfying gesture of social media, sharing and looking, witnessing this relentless stream of event, view, moment? On this particularly quiet snowy day, I just feel like asking.
In your life, what’s now here that a day or so was not? Make a list. I’ll do it too.
the food in our fridge
the tree, decorated!
an interesting email from a local artist I hadn’t heard about til today
the sounds coming from the other room
the particular arrangement of objects on my couch
a current list of things to do
memories of the weekend
What’s gone that was here a week ago?
a mostly in-tact pumpkin
a mild fall climate
herbs in the garden
all the food we’ve eaten
everything that has gone down a drain
concern over last week’s upcoming events
anticipation and preparation for thanksgiving
an open space in the livingroom where the tree now is
After making these lists, what do you notice?
1. My third book about the Elements of the Periodic Table, similarly explores the constant in and out flow of states and forms. Check it out here. and Purchase the book here.
2. A related art project is called You Are Legend, and you can see it here.
The other day Guy brought home water balloons. He sometimes does this: gets something plasticky and colorful at the dollar store that brings him an inordinate amount of delight. He wanted to play catch with them after filling them up with hose water, as one does.
As we stood there, barefoot on the lawn, I had a visceral memory of being 8 or 7 or 10 with my cousins up in Maine, standing around absorbed in a mission, out in the grass and heat.
I had had a crappy day working on some new business strategies and feeling a little bit like a fish out of water. What I excel at is coloring, drawing, zoning out and looking out at the leaves fluttering in a tree; less so the roll-up-your-sleeves and get-in-there and fall-down-and-get-up-again attitude of much of the business world. And yet I am a business owner, and lately have taken seriously the notion that it’s up to me to care for and run the business as professionally as I can.
The game was to toss the water balloon back and forth, and to take a step away from each other with each turn, like a colorful and wet version of Russian Roulette. At first I noticed that my teeth clenched every time I went to catch the balloon, as if in anticipation of something bad. Not only does that make my neck veins pop out and my face look like a scary, cornered, feral animal, the clenching is unpleasant and a waste of valuable life energy. The body automatically reacted this way, but it's the mind's faulty logic that imagines this kind of contraction to be in any way helpful. It's saying to the body: Brace yourself, this could be bad...
So I began to play around with consciously doing something else with this face and body of mine. With the full threat of balloon breakage upon me, and the body on edge, I tried bouncing a little side to side, lowering the shoulders and softening the face a little bit, and even putting a something between a smile and a slack jaw expression on my face instead to see how that felt.
As a kid I was always the sensitive one: running away and crying, easily hurt, even though I was pretty tom boyish. Of my cousins I was probably the least rugged, as well as the youngest. I found myself often sniffling in a corner, feeling lonely, after an outburst.
Consciously softening and lightening my face muscles while reaching up to receive this water balloon that might instantly explode was a great metaphor for how to ‘be’ with all these scary new things I’m trying professionally.
I’m not sure if it’s true but right now I seem to be getting the message that I need to move out of my comfort zone if I want things to change. That includes the real possibility of visibly falling on my face, skinning knees, bee stings, and having the next water balloon explode all over me. And even the possibility of having bystanders point and laugh.
Giggles, camaraderie, and expanded sense of possibility may accompany that next bursting balloon.
Today I found something unexpected while I was gardening. While flailing a hand scythe into clumps of grass and clearing out dead leaves in a neglected box garden, I discovered a baby bunny the size of an avocado sheltering under a head of lettuce. He was very still. His eyes were open. He did not move and didn’t appear to tremble. I was moved with cuteness and excitement. I went inside and got my husband; together, we quietly observed him, made supressed squealy noises, then went about our business doing other things. I moved to clear out the other side of the garden box, and there I found this bunny’s baby brother, even smaller (the size of an apple) nestled with his nose in the chives. As I stood there, I recognized a few feet away, a little warren that had been crafted with care out of our thyme bush: a circular tunnel, dusted on the edges with soft bunny fur. Just like that we had a nursery in the middle of our front yard. The whole experience lent a tenderness and a kind of sacredness to what would have otherwise been a glorious afternoon in the sun. It turned into summer just about three days ago.
Later this evening I went out to an art opening with my friend Kirsten. When she picked me up, I ceremoniously shared with her the bunny situation. When she got a peak at them, she also got verklempt with delight and excitement and tenderness. We were very careful not to remove a large dry leaf that I had placed over the first one for shade. There was a hole in the leaf through which we could see the bunny’s eye, still unmoving but very much alive. I went to the art opening and enjoyed it. I spent some time catching up with Kirsten, looking at the art, supporting our friend who had work in the show. It turned into a very social evening. I met a several really nice people. She dropped me off at home at about 8:45 pm, it was still light out here in Michigan. I checked on the bunnies, amazingly they were still right where we left them.
That these little bunnies had not moved in the time where I was networking, looking at art, handing out business cards, trading thoughts and ideas with Kirsten - in all of this human doing, that creature stayed still. I imagine in the bunny world, the mom must have said You stay, you stay right put, don’t make a sound, don’t make a rustle. And I’ll come feed you tonight after dark. It looked almost as if the bunnies were hibernating or in stand-by mode. Their eyes were open, there was an alertness, but there was no trembling, and no darting about going on.
When I came home, there they were. Presence itself. Just there. Like the face or the form of eternity in which all comings and goings are held. All over this neighborhood and town, bunnies are nestled, still, hidden - animals alert and unmoving, a wider presence than the mind can hold.
I’ve been in a temporary home for about a month here in Michigan. It’s a good serviceable place: it’s quiet and has a workspace for me and a nice kitchen. I’ve found that without a working art studio, which is waiting to be unpacked in a more permanent spot later in the fall, I’m not able to fuss about or work much with my hands, and I have meanwhile been working on two laptop-based, excel-based projects. The laptop screen is also where I see my Boston people during video conference visits, do my research, and connect with other virtual communities.
In my ‘productivity’ I have inadvertently taken myself out of active circulation. At the end of the last couple of days I’ve felt gross and stuck, my leg pinned underneath my body in a way that’s downright painful when I unfold it. It’s like I’m a little coagulating mass beginning to damn up an artery.
We all know that circulation is beneficial to the well being and health of any kind of system: a room, a body, a city. When I get fooled into the idea that my worth and value is in doing, and that the doing is somehow involved in being locked in a gaze with the glowing square orb of a computer or smartphone screen for more than half of my time, I am at that time starting to sink in the mire of stagnation. Stagance or stuckness happens in a variety of dimensions at the same time, and shows up in air flow, blood flow, traffic patterns, water flow, body movement, mental loops. When I'm stuck on the laptop, the legs tucked cozily under me may be getting insufficient blood flow, my breathing dulls, and the muscles in my back get weird and stiff. The space also gets a mucky vibe- it begins to get stuffy, cluttered and dead feeling.
Stangance can appear as clutter or sediment building in the eddy of a stream, carbon monoxide rising from miles of breezeless traffic, constipation, isolation, boredom, or repeating one path to and from the fridge, or fingernail to mouth, over and over again. Stagnance starts out sometimes as a needed break, and becomes the trance of one TV show after another, or one more excel spreadsheet to finalize.
My commitment to you, as a part of the larger earth body that we belong to, is to put myself back into circulation: walks, even in circles round the same four blocks, will be one way I circulate. Drives, turning down unfamiliar roads, biking around, bringing my lunch to a park bench, and getting up from this machine hourly, for a break for the eyes, the hands, wrists and body. Also I can circulate by stopping and looking out the window, checking in with eyes closed to sound, smell, taste, touch, and breath. Getting up to pick up some socks, tidying the eddies of objects that accumulate on surfaces, jumping into water, a lake, the tub, a shower. Wiping down the counters - picking something up, and placing it intentionally down somewhere else. All of these brief engagements arrive with a basic energy and aliveness.They remind me that this is what I actually am: basic energy and aliveness. The rest is just gathering on my surfaces.
Walking also leads to connections and discoveries. On my day 1 of circulation, I ran into a woman on the street I’d been playing phone tag with, and lo I had my calendar and we finally made a tea date. All because I set foot outside.
To circulate is to light up the thru ways of the brain, to clear them out and to trust and value yourself as an essential part of the wider world, this alive whole, without fanfare or specialness to gum up the gears.
The more you circulate and welcome circulation, the more the whole parade can simply flow.
Stagnation in the world:
unreturned library books, unpaid bills, piles of clothing or dishes, papers, mail, trash, appliances that don’t get used taking up counter space, unreturned phone calls and emails, the couch nest or the bed nest, sheets that need washing, a body or hair that’s past being clean. Eating the same foods over and over, sitting in one place, always spending time with one or two people, or alone.
Circulation in the world:
Standing up. Stretching, raising the gaze, moving the muscles of the face, shakin’ that behind, music, sound, walking, swinging the arms, slowly drinking a glass of water, taking a ride, walk or drive, showing up for someone else, attending something public, making something for no reason, getting out of bed, pulling up the shade, opening the windows and door.
In a museum, everyone loves the white, spareness and purity. Perfect angles, controlled temperatures. A frame is like a small travelling museum - a tiny, somewhat controlled environment for the preservation and display of a work of art. The idea of something 'lasting forever' or accruing value is all quite silly when you consider the decay happening in and on every surface on the planet - the constant swappage of molecules.
I do however, appreciate the great preoccupation with perfection, presentation and essentially control.
Many years ago, I saw how art does this for us. I went to see a Ballanchine Ballet called Jewels, during a painful and disorienting break up of a relationship and a home.
Every act of the ballet was in reverance to the emerald, the ruby, the sapphire and the diamond. Every high pointed toe, kick and arc of a hand was absolute precision. The backdrop was a solid, shimmering, gorgeous color, reflected in the costumes, the sparkle, and the choreography, one gem/color for each act.
There we were within a dissolving partnership, looking up at the stage. I was sitting next to my roommate, love and friend, and the sad, tired mess of our valiant attempts to do better, talk it through, and make it work. Crying silently, mucus running out of my nose and a hand damp from wiping away this issuance. Up on stage was an impossible perfection, a million miles from where I sat, incomprehensible, orchestrated, perfect. It was heaven. I was earth. A primoridal ooze.
Sometimes, this is what art is for.
A few weeks ago I was driving home at night through Brookline. In one of the town's many rotaries was a simple mound with tons of daffodils. I think it was raining and I noticed them on my left.
I'll cut right to it: those flowers are one brain: one consciousness in full force - complete. For some reason I saw it this was for the first time. Not a 'look at those pretty daffodils! Spring is...' kind of thought. It was something revealed.
Our lives are lived at times with the leaden feeling of no-one-gives-a-shit/sees me/understands. As a woman living alone turning 40 in a few months, the daffodil revelation is important. The cars circling the rotary, people on a train platform, a group of people listening to a story or a concert, is the same. We get so caught in the mire of being individuals. The tangle of speculation, obligation, association, doubt and doom - Doing and aiming for a high perch on the hill, fearing mediocrity or failure.
When I can feel the ground underneath. the weather as it mixes with the tiny hairs on my arm, sounds and the situation I find myself in at any given moment, just as it is and just as I am, I begin to remember my home is just about noticing and presence.
Those flowers don't have long. They get a few weeks if they're lucky to kappow in yellow. The green shoots, threading roots filtering the dirt, meet as a single mind under there. That depth and connection is also available to me and you, as is the profound beauty of our vulnerability and delicate bloom.
And a few more things about Daffodils.
They won't all bloom at once, and not to the same extent. Some get pissed on, others blown off their stems and trampled, and others never quite bloom at all. They all get papery, spring passes. One or two, to a given eye - the dark eye of a crow or mine glancing from a car, catch an incredible moment of light and are seen. Some are cut. Is this better? It's not really up to the flower and it's incidental in the short scheme of things.
Grass, stands of trees, coils of thornvine and little trees in home depot parking lots, they all too share a brain I believe. When I send love to my friend across the world or stick around when I feel like leaving myself or another who is not at their best I too tap into that collective system.
This is what Thai Forest monks meditate on at some point, in part. How gross hair skin and nails are: always growing, always getting funky, needing care.
Today, having cared for my niece and nephew overnight, I was particularly aware of the hag-like aspect of myself, dry skin, nails needing cleaning, cutting, dry scalp and unruly hair, haglike, as I said.
Funny too, how much fuss is made about them all, red nails, long and sexy, clacking at a grocery store cash register, incongruously, hair straightened, dyed, layered, razor-cut, and a million insane, crazy ways to remove it, to walk around pretending we're not daily mowing ourselves, like suburban lawns, in fear of neighborly disdain or being unattractive.
I think they nailed it, those monks, by focusing on that fertile topic for reflection on how we really aren't in charge here, stuff on our own selves just keeps growing and getting weird by it's very nature, regardless of our wishes. Smelling, needing care, however many specialists you have on the job or advanced degrees or grooming tools and apparati.
The point of such a practice, as I understand it, isn't to just gross one out, but to wake up from the spell of being enamoured with our physical forms, but seeing their contstant change, as nature playing itself out right here, not an inch from your face but on your face, your face!
A few more things about Daffodils.
[this post is second installment of the post One Brain]
They won't all bloom at once, and not to the same extent. Some get trampled, others blown off their stems, and others never quite bloom at all. They all get papery as they die, spring passes. One or two, to a given eye - a crow's or mine glancing from a car, catch an incredible moment of light and are seen. Some are cut and put in a vase. Is this better? It's not really up to the flower and it's incidental in the short scheme of things.
Grasses, manicured hedges, coils of thornvine and those spindly trees in big box store parking lots, they all too share a brain, I believe. When I send love to my friend across the world or stick around when I feel like running away from myself or another who is not at their best I'm tapping in then too. We are living out essentially one life in billions of minds refracted in infinite variation. You and I are just two of these, gathered up in recognition when I see myself in you and you see yourself in me.
The following is a practice for when you are feeling like a lonely satellite:
Sit quietly. Breathe. After a little while, bring in the image of someone that you care for (not the guy who isn't calling you back but an old friend say, or a favorite aunt). Imagine them having one of those moments of peaceful connection, the ones that just come upon one on the sly. Imagine them smiling and at ease. Even if they just had an unsuccessful brain surgery, imagine them floating on water, giggling, accepting, joyful. Then bring another person to mind in the same way. Keep going. Try some people you feel neutral toward, someone you can't deal with at all. See what shifts within you.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.