On Not Seeing What’s Next

“writing a novel* is like driving in the dark. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”                                                     

–E.L. Doctorow (from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott)

*Insert “weaving a tapestry,” “making a painting,” “living a life.”

I find this perspective of living a creative life immensely comforting, because so much of the time it is an exercise in staying present, noticing, doing what’s next. The big picture, for most of us most of the time, is out of reach. To remind myself of this I look back a year, two years, ten years and ask myself, “is this where I imagined I’d be?”

The answer to that question is a resounding “NO.” No matter what I predict will happen, it probably won’t, at least not in the way that I think. Terrifying? Yes. Exciting, exhilarating, freeing? Yes. But did I mention terrifying?

I really don’t like driving at night. I never have. Nor have I ever been fond of driving winding mountain roads (even though I grew up driving on them). Even in the daytime. I can do it just fine, but there’s always a low-grade sense of anticipation. Sometimes when I was a teen-ager, new to driving, I’d round a tight bend in the road and there’d be deer, elk, bighorn sheep, bicyclists…one time an owl snacking on a dead squirrel in the road at dusk, rose up before me in an immense flash of surprise, temporarily blinding me to the road ahead. No, give me a vast horizon. Those places that seem like you can see the curve of the earth in the distance. I like the long view. 

Still, sometimes I’m reminded of the beauty of not knowing, or seeing, what’s around the next bend. Once, I rounded a mountain turn and saw not far from the road was a moose mama and her young calf, nursing. Not knowing what’s around the corner could mean I could come across anything from a suicidal squirrel, to clear roads ahead, and everything in between. There could just as easily be something magical and unexpected around the bend. 

The “what if…?” cycle is a painful (and unproductive) one. The sisters Procrastination and Frustration (see an earlier blog for more on their sneaky ways) love planting this paralyzing phrase in our minds at vulnerable future-fearing moments. But the truth is that NO MATTER WHAT I IMAGINE IT WILL BE, IT WON’T.  I may, if I listen carefully, have a flash of insight (or a gentle nudge) in a direction, but it will never be just what I think it will be. Collaborating with the unknown is one of the greatest joys in art-making, and in life. This means we need to remember to have the courage to relax into it, and just keep rolling, even if we can only see as far as our headlights.

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Grand Themes, Fleeting Moments

Yesterday’s post elicited a question about the nature of my blog, what it’s about, implying “how is a personal journal about art and art making?” It’s a good question, and I’ve been thinking about the relationship between those things.

"Parting," warp-painted weaving, cotton, fiber-reactive dyes

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, writes, “when it comes to the task of understanding ourselves and our world, I think we pay too much attention to those grand themes and too little to the particulars of those fleeting moments.” He’s talking about the difference between “analyzing the world from great remove” and how we make instantaneous impressions and conclusions. How we decide, he asserts is through examining those “fleeting moments” more carefully.

I think this applies to how we as artists (and writers, but I’m going to talk in terms of a visual language here) decide to create what we do, moments where we make very rapid innumerable decisions about a work of art’s appearance. Will it be in two or three dimensions? How big will it be? What will be its shape, texture, color? How will it be composed?  Artists typically don’t labor over such questions, instead we work with our materials directly to process these questions. (I am treading lightly here; it’s wise to not make sweeping generalizations about how artists work. I will say that in my experience as a teacher and artist, it seems to me that many of us visual folks work our ideas out through action…more on this in a future post.) We hope that we exist, on a good day, in what writer Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls “flow”, that space that seems to occur outside of time, the place where all of those instantaneous decisions come together in a harmonious execution of those ideas. In my case, this is usually, but not always, the labor-intensive slowness of tapestry weaving, which requires patience. For me there is a constant dance between the instantaneous and the laborious, alternating between instinct and conscious decision and action.

Picking apart the source of where those decisions come from, though, isn’t a useful exercise. That’s where meditations on the particulars of life come into play–the journaling, sketching, day-dreaming about what matters TO ME, so that when the creative spark happens, I know that what I make will have its roots in something true and meaningful. To me. I develop my understanding of myself, and of the world (and by extension, the art I make) through the “microscopic truth.” For example: I make time in my day for stillness, whether it is in meditation or simply pausing for a moment to feel the sun on my back as I walk across campus. I value silence. Not all the time, but I am aware of how silence can focus my attention, and I appreciate that. Because I pay attention and value those very small, very simple things in my life, my work will have a quiet heart to it. Not because I try to make it look “quiet” by giving it the design qualities of that particular state (though I could do this with a stable composition, monochromatic color scheme, etc.), but because I’ve connected to these qualities over time, and made a concerted effort to notice them. Sorting out how I feel about “the small stuff” helps me trust my work, that those fleeting moments will feed my work in an authentic way.

To make art is to marry the personal with the universal. It can be a visual personal journal, but what makes a journal entry interesting to someone other than the writer? We recognize a shared experience, nod our head in understanding that someone else in the world GETS IT, and it becomes a mirror to our own life. That’s not to say that we always need to feel the same as everybody else. There is great value in having our eyes opened up to something completely outside of our experience. I would argue, though, that it is those threads of human experience, those details, that even if expressed by someone in a different language, with different background, motivations, experiences, that there will be the thread of truth that is universally recognizable.

So I tell my students, JOURNAL! SKETCH! Write down, draw out what you love, what you hate, what you are thinking about, how you are responding to the world around you. Respond to what you read, what you hear on the radio, what is going on in your life, large and small. Perhaps you will want to say something about things occurring on the other side of the world, about events in Japan or Libya or Syria or so many other places in the world in turmoil. But perhaps you will be sparked by looking at what’s going on in your neighborhood, in your house, or in the small quiet moments of your life.

Sometimes I know what my work will be about. Other times, I simply make it and maybe it will become clear what it’s about later on. Art and life cannot be separated. What I care about becomes the colors and textures of the things I make, and the life I live. Every now and then I reconsider how I spend my time, how I can better live on purpose, and imbue my life and my art with meaning.

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I Don’t Have That Kind Of Time

Today is a grey Monday. Full of little irritations like papercuts. I feel rushed, like my mom sometimes says, “running around with one foot nailed to the floor.” I don’t have time, I say to myself, to others, to people I care about. After much running in such a manner, Blue (my sweet rescue border-collie mix) is the only one who reaches me, the only one I finally decide to have time for. I load him up in the car, drive him to our favorite walking spot, where it’s a bit chilly, a bit damp, but divinely silent.

how can I not have time for this guy?

On my way home I’m given a gift. I turn on the radio and hear one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, but I’m disappointed to hear her speaking about Easter, which I care very little about. I think about changing the station, or turning it off to prolong the sweetness of the quiet of the woods I just emerged from, but there is a tugging from some part of my gut, a resistance.

I listen. She tells the story of her best friend, how she was very ill with cancer, wearing a wig and in a wheelchair, dying. Two weeks before her death Anne takes her shopping. In a clothing store, Anne tries on a dress she considers buying to impress a new beau. It’s tighter, shorter than she would normally buy. “Does this dress make my hips look big?” she asks her friend Pammy. “Oh Annie. You don’t have that kind of time,” Pammy responds without missing a beat. I’m paraphrasing, so forgive me if you heard the story, or read it in her book Travelling Mercies.

Things I don’t have time for:

  1. Does this make my butt look big? (thank you, Anne.) I mean, really.
  2. Excessive self-pity. I will allow the indulgence until I am aware of it. Well, maybe sometimes a little bit longer. I only hope I can be aware of it before someone else helps me to be. 
  3. Someone else’s lesson. As a teacher, I do a lot of hand-holding. I like to help, be supportive, listen. I have tremendous affection for my students. But the truth is, the best I can usually do for a person is just listen quietly and let them figure it out.
  4. Answering the phone just because it rings.
  5. People who Know The Truth.
  6. The mall.
  7. Unfocused internet shopping (though it pains me to say it).
  8. Bad t.v. (okay, just because it’s on my list doesn’t mean I’m perfect here, just reminding myself…).
  9. Anticipating what someone will say next.
  10. A novel, if I don’t like it in 75 pages.
  11. Any form of entertainment that I feel I “should” see, read, listen to, but don’t really want to.
  12. Gossip. It may be a guilty pleasure, but think about it. Doesn’t it make you want to shower afterward?
  13. Door-to-door religion.
  14. Junk food. Unless of course it’s french fries.

What I DO have time for:

  1. My family. My friends. In a nutshell: Love.
  2. Pausing. Saying “let me think about that and I’ll get back to you.”
  3. Kindness.
  4. Silence.
  5. Listening to the person who is in front of me, no matter who they are (see above–I don’t have time for anticipating what they’ll say). Unless of course, after a reasonable amount of time, say ten minutes, it’s clear they only wish to enlighten me with The Truth. Then they fall into the previous category of “things I don’t have time for.”
  6. Sitting in the grass in the sun on a warm spring day.
  7. Sleep, exercise, eating well.
  8. Lingering a few more minutes with cat in lap.
  9. Listening to my body, following its instructions on what to do next. (see above–the story of almost turning the radio off but my gut knew what I really needed.)
  10. This moment.
  11. Chocolate. A kiss. Scratching dog Blue’s belly. This is a broad, and thankfully extensive, category of “good things.”
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It’s Not All About Me

Wild Bill assists with tapestry weaving. Never underestimate the power of collaboration.

This morning I woke up all fired up about an idea to share. I curled up with laptop, tea, and cat, and proceeded to write. In one unidentified movement on the keyboard I accidentally erased to whole of what I’d written, and couldn’t find a way to recover it. Oh, well, I thought, I guess that was just pre-writing, getting my thoughts out. Still, I was grumpy about it. I was attached to THOSE words. Those EXACT words. Later, on the phone with my boyfriend, I recounted the story in an attempt to drum up sympathy for my lost words. What if it was on its way to being the most brilliant blog post I’d ever write? Um. Yeah, probably not, but still, I wanted SOME glimmer of recognition. I talked and talked and pretty soon I was aware of the silence on the other end. “Are you there?” I asked. Silence. He called a minute later; his phone had died.

Hm. It’s only 10:00 a.m. and I’ve already had (another) lesson on not taking myself, my words, my actions, my efforts, too seriously. I alternately love and hate such lessons.

There’s a project I have my beginning drawing students do, that delights some, irritates others, and surprises all of them. I have them begin their drawings with whatever drawing tool they want–I encourage them to try something different, perhaps, something daring, such as a sharpie pen, or even an oil cattle marker, or if they’d prefer charcoal or graphite (so they can erase) they can use those too. I have them draw for about 15 minutes, working the 18 x 24″ paper in a quick gesture to get a feel for their overall composition, and to block out large shape relationships. Before they get too detailed with it I ask them to stop, take whatever materials they’ve been using, and go to the drawing next to them, not their “own.” So now the drawing that was once their neighbor’s is now their own. They can make whatever changes they choose to. They can change the entire composition or proportions, or they can continue with what the original person started. After about 15 minutes, they go to the next drawing, and act as if this is now their drawing, and they need to work with it in a way to make it better. And so on for the rest of the class.

I have my students do this project for a variety of reasons, from seeing how varied marks can energize a drawing, to providing them with something fun and unexpected, reminding them that art is also rooted in play. I also want them to roll with the process of making–that sometimes the most interesting work is that which we detach from, allowing the process to take over. They end with their original piece, and they are able then, to reclaim their work, and do whatever they need to resolve it as a finished piece. These drawings are some of the most interesting they do all semester.

Most artists are solitary creatures. We ruminate. We are serious. We do art WORK. But what happens when the file disappears, the coffee spills on a drawing in progress, the cat makes the ball of yarn into his own masterpiece? What about the things that looked gorgeous in your head but turn out looking boring, ugly, uninspired? How do we collaborate with the unexpected, the unwanted, the uninvited? I don’t have answers today. If I pretended to, I wonder if the collaborative forces of the universe would remind me, perhaps with another blank computer screen, that answers aren’t the point anyway.

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Procrastination and her sister Frustration

If you are like me, you too want to be creative and prolific, to share something amazing, thought-provoking, life-changing, world-shaking, something brilliant and wise and beautiful. Now, tell me. Is this too much to ask?

A wise friend recently told me, “frustration is procrastination’s sister.” It took me awhile to get past imagining such a surly pair, with their wiry hair pulled back into tight buns, and their pinched faces looking at me disapprovingly over their wire-rimmed specs. Frustration says to her sister, well then, do you think she will ever finish that? She’s stalling. I’m not so sure about that color. Really, now, I’m not so sure at all about THAT, no not sure at all… Do you think she knows what she’s doing? Well, I don’t know, grumps Procrastination, but this place is a wreck. I think she should vacuum.

You might wonder how a blog, which in the past 24 hours since I posted my very first entry has been a monumental time-suck, in which I make up fake reasons to go to my office to check my computer to see if anyone has visited, commented, or given it a passing glance, how a BLOG could possibly encourage the two surly sisters to move out of my house for good. Isn’t my blog their new best friend? (I’m pretty sure Frustration is the originator of all computer problems ever, throughout history. And Procrastination’s favorite button on the computer? “Refresh.”)

tapestry. hand-dyed cotton, rayon, silk. steel construction.

My theory is that this blog will actually encourage me to kick those cranky bitches out of my house once and for all. My theory, and practice, tells me that movement, any movement, will get me going. There’s a hamster running on a wheel inside my brain, that really REALLY needs to blow off steam. But what needs to move is not that crazy wheel in my head, but my body. I need action. What I’m doing by writing about Frustration and Procrastination is bringing attention to them, which they hate. It helps me usher them out of the house, out of my life, open up the windows and let a fresh breeze blow in.

Another dear friend says, “I’m going to do something. Even if it’s wrong.” It’s a pretty wonderful phrase. I have a bit of rebel in me, so while this is reminiscent of Nike’s “Just Do It,” campaign, hearing that phrase makes me just want to say, “Um. Nope. Not gonna. Can’t make me.” But if I choose to do something EVEN IF IT’S WRONG, it frees me to make mistakes. Or be naughty. But at least I’ll be creating something. I will be engaged in movement, even if it’s just my hands on the keyboard. Movement is Frustration and Procrastination’s arch-nemesis. If I imagine her, Movement is our kick-ass rock-star-don’t-mess-with-me super-hero (she even has a cape), coming to save the day!

Okay so maybe the world won’t come to me and say, “Oh my gosh. Was that you? That shook me up so much? Wow. You’re amazing.” But at least I’ll make SOMETHING. Even if it’s wrong.

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Fumbling Toward Ecstasy

Recently I’ve been thinking about the convergence of the sacred and the mundane, where art meets life, and how we navigate this contemporary world of busy-ness to find moments of peace. I heard a story today on the radio today, as I was navigating this website for the first time and wondering what in the heck “widgitization” could possibly mean, that was about how technology is changing the way we experience the present moment. You know, smiling and nodding with the person you are having an actual conversation with while simultaneously keeping an eye and ear on your cell phone, that sort of thing. And I while I was listening to this radio story about being present, I was also trying to make my giant leap into the “present moment” of 3:30 in the afternoon on April 10, 2011, in which I started a blog for the first time. About concepts like trying to “stay present” with art, creativity, and the everyday wonders of my life. The irony was not lost on me.

I am a big fan of paradox. I am a seeker. Of beauty, of meaning, of all things funny. I’ve committed to doing a twenty-minute kundalini yoga mantra meditation every morning for 90 days. I practice mindfulness. I love to read books called “Dharma Art” and “Color and Culture.” I also love shopping online, margaritas, and laughing til I cry. I eat quinoa and sprouts I grow on my kitchen counter, and I eat chocolate. Love me some chocolate. (Though as I read this I think “who am I kidding? Like eating chocolate isn’t a transcendent experience?”) I love the peace of the natural world, and I love a bustling coffee shop. I love watching art films with subtitles and (yes, I will admit to it) Ugly Betty (okay, I occasionally watch netflix re-runs; I don’t actually have tv), Project Runway, and I even have been known to watch an episode or two, I hope you won’t hold this against me, of Grey’s Anatomy. I read voraciously, everything from Janet Evanovich to Eckhart Tolle, BUST magazine to Alice Munro. And poetry. I like to read a poem everyday. Also, I can (and like to) swear like a sailor. Given the right company. Which is everyone but my mom.

I love the color blue. Of the sky and also of my JCrew double-cloth coat. I’m wondering, hoping, that my affection for both is not a split between my love of the sacred and the mundane but rather an understanding that they are both the same thing. Beauty. One’s transparent and out of reach, the other I can touch, even wrap my body in.

I’m a weaver. I think there’s something to this paradox for weavers: we are drawn to the physical nature of cloth, how it feels against the skin, the texture, the memories that it holds of comfort. There is also the elusive joy that comes from bringing something that only existed in the mind’s eye, the internal, psychological equivalent to the sky, and making it real.

But the truth is everyone who’s alive is creative, brings something into the world that didn’t previously exist. If you’ve ever cooked something with more than a single ingredient, taught someone how to do something, put on an outfit that wasn’t a uniform, had a child, or a garden, or a pet, you’ve created something. In fact, just getting through the day sometimes requires an immense amount of creativity.

So I think that while I agree with the scholar today on the radio, who was talking about technology and the “present moment,” that our challenge now is to notice the real, the person in front of us who is ACTUALLY speaking to us, not just in a text on our phone (where we even shorten “ok” to “k”. Um. Really? Is it too hard to type the “o” also? But that’s a post for another day). I guess though, I’m also acknowledging that this present moment includes this technology that’s helping me write my very first blog post. To you. Even though you are probably just one reader. Hi Mom.

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