There's a real mix in the holidays of light, joy, sad and dark. Have you noticed? Generations of regular people lose loved ones who immigrate, go off to war, simply leave, are taken somehow, or pass away. It makes sense that most if not all family systems are marked by some form of absence or loss in this season. Memories of holiday times past may, by default, carry a major imprint of sad.
Have you also noticed how the more cranberry sauce is piled on and the louder the carolling, the more that heavy imprint may be running the show? Sometimes it's me turning up the cheer. Some cope with a complete bah humbug attitude, others by just going off grid for several weeks, and others by going full boar into the traditions. It's maybe a little bit of all of this, mashed together - like one of my christmas cookies here - that makes us our human-suited holiday selves.
In my own life I can recount so many wonky holidays - when I couldn't show up though everyone around me seemed able to - when I was the only one getting her act together while everyone else was in revolt - break ups, break downs, silent treatments, arguments in front of the guests, hitting the sugar wall, the overlit box store, the disproportionate gift exchange.
While this may come across as a very wet blanket contemplation, perhaps its a way for to preemptively make room for the small grief cloud that curls in under the door, usually unnoticed and unwelcome. It visits kids without knowing what they're picking up from around them, and all of us who may carry the football of inherited grief in the form of pressure and tradition without knowing what is driving us to do so.
I am asking myself, why am I writing such a downer of a post. Reflecting like this may be a way to see the whole thing at work, and thereby to see the wider field of possibility, and the love it expresses. The missing of the ones we love, of simpler times, the things that were but aren't now, or aren't yet. Perhaps its just a tender hearted time of year: a big tender heart in a period of waiting, twinkly lights and humanness.
Holidays are nigh.
Generally the holidays are a clusterfuck of pressure and shrill ho hoing, or the kind of peace and freedom that comes from having abandoned all or of some of that. We still do presents in my extended family, though every year there's less of an understanding of why, except for shear momentum of tradition.
I like to make stuff and so that's my solace.
One thing I can offer you is 15% off everything in my shop for the next week. Happy holidays! This is for those among you who do buy gifts, or do like the inspiration of getting yourself a gift. Use THANKSALL at checkout through Dec 1 for being such a great reader of this blog!
My credo this year is going to be, do it if it sounds fun, but otherwise, don't. Let the chips fall where they may. If it isn't a hell yes to do, then don't or, if the pressure bearing down is so great that you have to say OK Fine, take a lot of bathroom breaks and short walks around the block, and swap ironic texts to your good friends that include the asteroid emoji and the poop emoji.
I also really liked hearing that instead of judging that family member who is doing something really unsavory, to be impressed by how incredibly well they play the role of themselves doing that really unsavory thing right on cue. Like you're in a movie with them and it's remarkable how well they know they're lines.
And if, as is sometimes inevitable on the seasonal table, there is a lot of grief, or depression or sad, see if you can take a little time to breath into that. Like a sad, half inflated rudolph lawn ornament, let it be there, but leave the specific story where it lies. Let it be a raw sensation moving through - in the bathroom, on the walk, or under some covers for a little while.
I recently was asked to say a few words on ‘art as meditation’ and meditation as art by my friend in the Pioneer Valley Abbie Wanamaker. Abbie was having a two person show and there was a forum that she asked me to speak at. I’ll share a few of the thoughts that came to mind as I considered her work and process, and the idea of art as meditation and meditation as art.
First, the word meditation in US culture has felt loaded with a sense of personal shortcoming and obligation for many, to the point that it may not be a useful word to use anymore. In a similar way, the idea of art practice has with it for many a sense of should, haven’t yet….maybe someday, soon.
Instead of meditation let’s talk about presence. That thing you were when you were born and still are, without any effort, prior to any self idea. That thing that sparks between you and a small woodland creature when you stumble upon one another and hold the other’s gaze. Presence is what we make room for in a process of deep play, prior to the part of our minds that narrate or decide the merit of what we are doing or what we might be making.
I enjoyed looking at Abbie’s paintings, their unapologetic, straightforward and vivid qualities. I think too about resonance, and I know that Abbie has resonated with my work and ideas for a while. I can see why: in the directness of her process, her statement and how she figures out what’s happening after the fact, letting the doing, the activity itself and the textures and qualities of the materials lead. This practice is presence too and similar to what happens in my studio when things roll naturally. I see in her work that Abbie values the doing over the thing that’s made, turning art practice into a form of attention.
Consider the difference between the governed idea of creative action and cultivating presence, and the direct experience of these things: what you already are: the situation, what’s happening inside and outside of this skin envelope we call a body: the temperature, the textures, sounds, tastes, motion, exchanges with people, animals, elements like sunlight and wind and sounds, intersection of elements that will never intersect quite the same way again. To me that’s deep play, creativity at its best, and contemplation all rolled up into one. It’s a sense of belonging, or inherent value, or naturalness, the way a dry leaf becomes the forest floor or a child is held in arms.
Back when I lived in the North East, I used to visit New York, and in New York, my friend David X Levine, in his mid town tiny studio, where I would flip through his lovely collection of black books containing his drawings. We did several trades, and I have a lovely collection of his drawings as a result.
I liked his system, and I learned a lot from his system of barter as well. Bartering is one of the true abundances of being an artist. If someone likes my work, which is certainly not a given but has often been the case, we can often trade services for artwork and it's a win win all around. If there's a mutual fan club going on with a fellow artist, we are often abundant in works to trade. Sometimes, people do not want to barter, and this is always important to fully accept before you even propose it.
When it is a Yes for you both, how to barter is not always clear. And for any kind of studio event, how to share your work on paper with people where it is unframed and keep it in good condition is a real concern.
From David I learned that the black books with plastic sleeves allows someone to really go through your work, and select their favorites, while keeping the works safe from oils and spills. I have grouped work by year or by series in these books. I love to know what work people love because I learn about them, about the work, and it gives me some good information for a time when they might get a gift from me. The worst thing is receiving a gift of artwork that you don't like! What a waste for everybody. So I like to be able to mark pages with sticky notes to help me remember who likes what (this sounds so organized, but then I throw out the notes and it all goes to shit, but I try).
Barter is also a delicate matter because you don't want to trade just anything, and if someone can just pick anything, it would be a disaster if you weren't ready to part with that particular piece, or it was of greater value to you than what you were getting in return. David's system was to have the person pick their five favorites out of whatever selection you were open to bartering for. Then you remove two that you'd rather keep from their selection of five. They then remove one of the three remaining as their least favorite of those three. Which leaves two. Usually, by this point, one of the pieces is crying out as the one: Pick me!! The one that is meant for this person. At this point, in other words, the work selects itself, or one of you makes the move. This way, we've learned a lot, played a little selection game, and gradually, come up with the win win barter choice. Everyone goes away smiling.
So the black books is a way to facilitate this exchange while keeping your work nice and clean. You can also use cellophane protection sleeves, or just a good pair of clean gloves.
One word of caution about the black books: if you buy them used, or reuse them, be sure that they didn't have charcoal or pastel works in them prior, because then you get that crap on your pristine works.
Recently, I decided to reconsider everything by emptying these books, the work in them has gotten a little mixed up and some of it needs to be considered afresh, and inventoried. So now the work is organized and these books stand ready to refill.
What's your system, barter story, question or thought? Please share in the comments, it's much more fun with your contributions.
Sometimes, when a friend invites me to go look at art somewhere local, I feel the burden of my identification as an artist. Such a foray as 'artist' often feels wearying. Usually, the evening ends up being a better experience than I thought, about friendship and empathic joyfulness for the artists exhibiting, but the story of the whole thing that proceeds such an outing - the thought and precursive feeling - is what can feel oppressive. It's a shared, social set of norms and patterns that I have been trying to lose for some time.
Something has always felt off kilter about how normal it is to 'seek' as artists, and how often quite blatantly the commerce game in the US is very stacked against the delicate skin of many a creative. Also lopsided is how gallerists and curators are lightening rods themselves, the focus of so many people's wants, and then also seeking the sales, or the grants, or the reviews. Who wants to relate to the world from that place of lack and want?
I am reminded, of a trip to New York City I took when I was still in my twenties, with a good artist friend at the time. She had a complete reverence for each work we looked at. She took her time. She was quiet, as if watching wildlife. She was just alight with the work, all kinds, all eras. The fact of its very existence filled her heart, it seemed to me. It felt like we had taken a pilgrimage.
I was brought up looking at art and going to museums. By that trip in my twenties, I was already sort of numb to its magic. I do however remember being very small, and delighting in a color, a bold assemblage, a particular type of line or mark, or some whole crazy mess or elegant, painstaking arrangement in the white square of a museum. This younger self reminds me that my heart has always been tuned to this type of song. My friend in New York showed me without meaning to, where I had gotten overly familiar with the sacred exchange of looking. Today, the decades of past association appear at moments, to have made me jaded: perhaps because an eye roll is easier than a broken heart.
Put differently, the breathtaking first love of a color and a form, overlaid with a professional career of success! rejection, utter disregard, success! deflation, disillusionment, confusion, bitterness, loss, little success! and then in many regards just turning, three quarters of the way away, can make a little jaunt to an opening, feel complicated for me.
It's similar to how I have felt as a single woman in my forties, trying to decide if I wanted to join a dating app one last time or if I was completely done. I decided I was done. And from this came a deep layer of, eventually, freedom. I could be a happy spinster! I enjoyed my own company. I loved making an X with my limbs in a bed all my own. Doing whatever the F I felt like, whenever. Having my sister's kids over was delightful.
I regard the newish and changing art scenes around me today with weary distrust. There's the Boston ones, the Detroit ones, the Michigan ones, the Maine ones. Or is there? These are stories and thoughts, based on past experience and conclusions, high and hard moments, objectifying stories, that ultimately have no more basis than me as an object among objects in the world. Stories are so compelling, but they often don't hold up upon scrutiny to have any actual reality to them. Aren't we all just waking up, getting a cup of something, brushing our teeth?
As a small and separate personality, there is always something more to get. As aliveness itself, the thing that leaves a body so remarkably when it breathes its very last breath, there is nothing ever to want. You are all of that already: all expressions, all things, all epiphanies, high points, all tragedies.
Making art is a choice to play, a choice to discover what thrills this particular vantage point I call me. What she's curious about, what fascinates and even repels.
This kind of exploration can extend too, to everything. To every moment of apparent choice, to tuning into the inside Yeses and the inside Nos as one finds the flow and eventually returns to just being flow.
Being flow won't look a certain way. It won't associate with a certain crowd. It won't follow a script. But it is joy, wealth and perfection, the way water moves in a river is that. So my aspiration, to say it out loud, is to roll through the chances of experience where they lead, calibrated as I appear to be, toward certain things. Sometimes out of a need for practical outcomes, sometimes out of a pull or an inspiration, sometimes because something is not feeling great.
In the words of 12th century poet Jelaludin Rumi,
You are the honored guest. Do not weep like a beggar for pieces of the world.
What appears to be true is that both sides of the coin, the little me with her wants and history and aspirations and hurts and prides is held in the aliveness, the situation itself, the one that hears the prayer. Sometimes there's a moment where a skin gets sloughed off, an old tight story, and for a while I have been molting on this artist one. this artist skin. This form in a sea of forms, stories and associations.
How is it for you, as an artist or in your profession? Do you sometimes feel the expanded way, and then contract into the local story of comparison and ambition? Do you see it an entirely other way? Have you found ways to stay open and tender even where there may appear be sharks (or at least sharp rocks) in the water? I would love to learn from you, how to surrender this little striver to the great open water of color, light and infinite form.
I have never understood the fashion of people walking around in paint covered clothes as artists. I understand the occasional sleeve edge or mark. House painters or dry-wallers, I get it, but the crazy covered sweatshirt seems very intentional when I consider my own working style. If you saw me working in my studio, you would barely see me move, much of the time, and my clothes are generally paint free.* However, there are times when I am moving, when I am doing a pour or working with lots of containers and tubes, on every available surface; then, things become a serious mess.
What I regret is trusting myself to be neat and careful, when if I stop and think, I will remember that I exhibit neither of these qualities, especially when actively experimenting with something on a painting surface. I only remember when I have neglected to put my old jeans on instead, or remove a brand new pristene pair of shoes. The worst is acrylic paint that I only notice when it's fully dried and permanently damaging some lovely pair of wool slacks with an edge line right at the crotch. I am wearing such a pair now free of blemishes, and at low risk because I am typing on a computer today.
* Now that I've taken up oil painting again, I am going to qualify that statement. In fact, I do get paint lots of places when I work in oil paints. It just stays oily and wet and smudges everywhere. I also made myself an apron that covers nearly all of me, and that is hugely helpful.
Chop saw is an object that for me factors into a story of success and change over time. In 2009, I wanted a chop saw. The one I wanted was $500. I didn't have this money available for the saw. Wherever possible, I avoid owing banks money, and so I began to put away $5 a week in an envelope labeled "Chop Saw". This became routine, and $5 a week was easy. I didn't think about it until 100 weeks later, the money was there, all saved up in Chop Saw, the envelope. At which point I bought it.
So that's chapter one, in which I didn't go into debt but I saved up patiently and got the dream saw. I get compliments on it from carpenter types often. Up until last summer, this saw sat on the floor of my studio and got tripped over, occasionally being set up outside in the kitchenette area of Humphrey's studios or in the backyard for use, or the floor of my studio. This led to complications of saw dust and noise. That's chapter two. I have the tool, but the space is not ideal.
Chapter three is that now I have an actual space for this saw, which technically is the unheated wood shop adjacent to my studio, the front part of the garage that is my studio, and it has its own metal table and it's own dedicated spot.
For the first time, there is a true home for this saw. It has been used to build a bed, dining room table, thousands of wooden blocks for the Attendant Series, to cut studs for at least six walls in three studios, all the trim and moulding and two ceiling frames, a diminutive shelf, and recently lots of PVC pipes and too long pieces of firewood. When I run it today, there is the joy of knowing that it isn't causing a dust problem, because it's in a bonafide wood shop! Now, we just need to get all the other stuff like bikes and lawnmowers out of there, and all will be happy ever after.
In June, Guy and I went to a place called Cherry Hill, near Ypsilanti Michigan, where the cicadas have climbed out of the ground, up trees, grasses and shrubs, shed their exoskeletons, unfolded beautiful wings to fly, find a mate, and then deposit their larvae into the ground again, and die.
They are seventeen. This happens over a two week period. This emergence, transformation, mating, birthing, and death happens every seventeen years, in the very same spot: a complete life cycle right there.
We are on the geographic edge of this phenomena. One cicada landed on our porch column, and faintly, their sounds were audible in the trees around us. Cherry Hill is closer to critical mass of cicadas, and as soon as we left our parked car there, we found fifty or sixty in adjacent shrubs, and their exoskeletons, and in flight around us.
What they are doing has nothing to do with us. It's happening in a way that is as systematic as a fleet of soldiers storming a beach on a life and death mission, intent on only one thing. They won't destroy crops or bite. The birds we saw were uncharacteristically slow, full after feasting.
I'm not sure what to say about this, except that there's something so direct and tender about this process. I wouldn't likely feel so forgiving if I lived right in the middle of the action where their sounds can get louder than 120 decibels - loud enough that you can't talk over their din. Seeing this literal evolution from gestating, to breaking through yourself, to unfolding new wings, to collaboratively making another life, and then to dying in all of its stages, nakedly, right there on the side of a honeysuckle bush, was pure and tender. And definitely a little sci-fi too.
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.
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.
In the theme of messes, I introduce the topic of the insurmountable problem.
An insurmountable problem is one for which there is no present solution, no clear way around, and nothing to do about nothing. Something that is insurmountable is something 'incapable of being overcome'.
I would call an insurmountable problem a mess, in that it is something that grinds to a halt, like, for example, a movie theatre during covid. It's a mess because one is powerless to change that fact.
A smaller example has come up for me in the past several weeks that to me has felt big. Yes it is a complete luxury problem, and still, it's in my face and has been blocking my work. I have a new wood stove in my art studio. It was going gangbusters, and then suddenly, two months in, began filling the room with smoke whenever I opened the door. And I mean even when I was lighting the fire.
I cleaned the baffle, the lower chimney pipe, I called the manufacturer, I consulted friends about the wood quality, I lit smokeless fires with no paper. I cleaned the ash pan and the firebox out completely, and even the stove glass window. Still, smoke pours into the room.
So this, right now, seems like an insurmountable problem to me, a mess!
For about five days, I avoided the studio. It had soot dust floating hither and thither, and it was cold, and it reminded me of my insurmountable problem.
When I was imagining the studio finished, when it was just a rough shell, I knew that this amazing new space would be incredible, but eventually, in the manner of Pavlov's Dog, would become either ordinary or overlooked, or worse, the source of a problem or headache, or lots.
This is how it goes. A boon is often accompanied by stress from new responsibilities and new things to attend to. And this studio was a major boon for me. So, the insurmountable problem in my tiny world is the stove.
For an insurmountable problem, my only answer, and my very very best move, is prayer.
What prayer does, is it allows me to put the insurmountable concern down. To stop the obsessive anxious brain spin. To not worry this like a bone, lose sleep, catastrophize, try and force solutions, freak out, break something while exhausted and forcing things, avoid showing up, and lose all perspective. When I surrender it, I actually can stop thinking about it and focus on other things. And I have found when I do so, things shift without my trying to shift them.
I wrote or said a prayer something like this:
[ ], I place this wood stove situation completely in your care. I hand it over, I surrender it completely to you. Thank you for taking care of it, and thank you for inspiring me and directing me toward any small action to assist you in so doing. I am deeply grateful that you are taking care of this and I thank you for this beautiful stove and studio.
Instead of avoiding the place, which was feeling like a set jaw, or like a stubborn latch I didn't want to open, I prayed or in other words, set an intention to find myself in there again, enjoying and appreciating the space, thriving creatively, engaged and happy, this week.
As prayer, this intention looks something like this:
[ ], I would love the inspiration, willingness and motivation to be in the studio again, happily at work, engaged and filled with gratitude for what a lovely space it is. Help me to be warm and at peace with things just as they are and, oh yeah, again, that stove? I leave it entirely with you.
So today is Monday, and after avoiding the studio all weekend and praying when it started to roost in my thinking, I felt inspired to step in there with my tea and journal this morning, put a blanket down on a seat so my butt wouldn't get cold, and blasted the milk house heater at my feet. There I did some writing.
The other form of prayer that I engaged in this morning was a form of gratitude, to 'want what I have' rather than only see things as a SNAFU (which stands for Situation all fucked up in case you didn't know).
I wrote a list of everything that I love about the studio:
It's location, the light, the views out the windows, the white walls, the closet, the table space, the organization, the wifi...
and everything that I've done in there since I moved back in
Inventorying, completing lots of work, starting a new series, photographing and filming, completing the space, writing a lot, having an occasional covid-safe studio visit...
Both of which helped me see things in a new light, and give me a feeling of inspiration and accomplishment and gratitude.
To be clear, this is now an automatic process, that began in times when I was super stuck for a long time, and it is a process that I use not to be 'good' or saccharin, but because it literally blasts out the shitty cobwebs that yield more shitty cobwebs when allowed to hang around for long.
When the list was done, I found myself trying one more fire - NOPE! no change, just a smokey, shitty mess. I then found myself sweeping, dusting, organizing, rearranging, making a list of what I'm doing with what project, and then came three actions, a minor plan of sorts, for further troubleshooting the stove. By showing some love to the space, I also got out the soot and cobwebs, and cleaned up the flow and possibility in there as well.
As I write this, I've asked for help, spoken with my husband's friend Lenny, troubleshooted with him, and asked our good friend Al to borrow his chimney cleaning brush.
The next step is a little unclear, but I am likely to be shown what it is when it's time. The goal is to inspect the upper section of the chimney as creosote has likely blocked the opening as I've only gotten to the lower half.
So the tools at work here for insurmountable problem situations are - (not necessarily in any order, or looking or feeling good in the process)
This metal box is a bit not the right container for the teas and tea paraphernalia that I use in the studio because it is a) too small b) meant for more serious things, and c) ugly. However, it is *the* tea box, and has been for years. It usually and currently contains some dish towels, boxes and individual packets of tea bags, and a few tea cups and mugs. It sits atop a bookshelf, and carries with it the friendly anticipation of a studio visit where one might serve tea. If I have snacks, the fact that the tea box is metal with a latch means that a mouse would be less drawn to the box. Happily there are no mice as of yet in this studio!
When it is just me, which is most of the time, the tea cups are stacked in a jumble and most of them have the dried dregs of my own tea or coffee drinkings. Which means that when someone is coming for a bonafide studio visit, I will wash these, or swap them out for other mugs from my kitchen that are dishwasher clean. Sometimes it's a bit like camping in the studio when it's just me.
I currently have mostly tisanes: or herbal teas, in the manner of ginger, ginger turmeric and mint. A few green teas lurk, and if one requests black tea, I can dig some up in the house.
The studio for many years has been the receptacle for things I have discarded from my home, but can be handy anyway. The Q tip jar for example, which was a failed coffee cup, extra fancy china that no one else in my home likes to use, and the beer steins that I once started compulsively collected but stopped after I had 5 of them. I have two left, and they are actually part of a Stand In sculpture, though at times have been used for tea during a visit. Other objects from home that have a rag tag second life in the studio include favorite cashmere sweaters with too many moth holes, corduroy jean shorts and heavy messed up pants for dirty paint projects, plastic molded clogs, and lots of yogurt containers at one point, though not currently.
In a sense, the studio can certainly be an excuse to never let anything go, in the tradition of the New Englander who can find a use for anything, and as a mixed media artist I mean anything.
But these days, though there is certainly a lot of serious stuff in the studio, it has been pared down to only the more essential junk, and whisked away into what I hope will stay an orderly closet.
Finally, here is an image from an art project from 2007 called Tangle, in which contents of my Tea Box were wrapped on my head. To see more of this project visit hannahburr.com/tangle.
Another kind of mess is not knowing. This feels very messy, though it is a very common experience on this planet. How will it turn out? Any project is full of such unknowns, and add to that a team of people you don't know very well, and multiply the unknowns by 2X the number of people on the project, and you have what can feel like a very big mess. How to interpret a silence can be messy in an of itself, and this is in so many places where silence is occurring: Did we get in? Will he call back? Do they like it? Am I going to get to keep this job? Am I dying? Are we ok? What happens next?
The good news is that every religion in the world, most philosophies and many spiritual traditions, as well as the content of most magazines and books, is in response to just this kind of mess, and is filled with explanations, theories, ideas, fixit strategies, processes, hacks and stories to help ostensibly with such a mess as the unknown. Which ultimately is the mess of your life unfolding, perfectly, but without your foreknowledge or a map, no matter what kind of an expert planner and list maker you may be. I won't try to wrap this up with a pithy platitude, just that I feel it too, about every other day, and you are not alone in this messy feeling.
Here is a related page from the new book: Contemporary Prayers 2021 edition:
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.
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.
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.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.