Sunday, March 28, 2010

Letting Go

"Change wears my sister's moccasins. He stays up late and wakes up early. He likes to come up quietly and kiss me on the back of my neck when I am at my drawing table. He wants to amuse people, and it hurts him when they yell at him. Change is very musical, but sometimes you must listen for a long time before you hear the pattern in his music."

J. Ruth Gendler, The Book of Qualities

Change is a tricky thing. Sometimes we long for it, but most times, we fear it, and whether we like it or not, it is inevitable. Nothing stays the same forever. Seasons come and go, people are born and die, relationships end, jobs transition, bodies age and morph.

There are two categories for change, as I see it. There is the change that we actively seek and work toward, like when people rise-up to veer the political course of our country, to battle racism and sexism, or to fight for voting rights. This is a calculated and desired need for change and a goal is set. People move forward aggressively and welcome it.

Then, there is the change, or just the thought of change, that turns our stomachs inside out, makes us throw our fists at the wall, resist, and well-up with fear. We feel like we are walking the path alone in the dark and have no control whatsoever of the outcome.

As enlightened as we like to think we are, when this kind of change makes its presence in our lives, it is instinct to want to run from it, to fight it with all your might so that everything stays "status quo." Even I, when presented with the possibility of a major life change two weeks ago, did not accept gracefully.

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to do in a new and scary situation is to actually listen to the advice we have so many times given to others. I found myself, for the first twenty-four hours of the news, stunned, sad, frightened, and imagining the worse possible outcomes. If a friend had come to me in a similar situation, would I tell her "Yep, you're going down. Life sucks, accept it, you'll be devastated and never recover. Throw in the towel now and accept a life of doom and gloom."

No! Of course I wouldn't! I would instead conjure up the wisdom that change has taught me over the years.

Without change, we don't move forward. It is the impetus that allows us to reach our highest potential. I look back at different situations in my life and remember how devastated I felt at the time when a relationship ended, someone I loved died, or I moved from a home that was my comfort and my feel-good place.

Sometimes when we get too comfortable in our surroundings though, complacency sets-in, the kind that keeps us from growing and experiencing life to its fullest.

That's when the universe (fate, God, Goddess, Buddha, etc.) gets a little bored too, and decides to shake things up. Along comes a curve ball and we need to know when and how to swing to make that home run.

So, the universe has presented me with a new path. I can choose to wallow in fear or I can choose to say "thank you" for not allowing me to accept status quo and for helping to push me forward to the next phase of my life so that I may continue to learn and grow as a human being.

I remember about five years ago feeling completely overwhelmed and unhappy with my work and living situation. In one key moment, I made the realization that it was my attitude that might be holding me back. I wanted change so desperately, to move away and start new. Then it dawned on me, if I was meant to walk a different path at that moment in my life, then it would have been easier for me to leave. Instead, I changed my thinking to "there must be a purpose to this." And now, five years later, that purpose has been quite clear, and I am grateful for the struggle that I endured because it was instrumental in forming who I am as a human being today, and, I like to think, helped others along their path as well.

Lessons are learned in every experience, sometimes it just takes a while for us to figure out what those lessons are.

Another key moment in my life, that my mind keeps going back to, was about ten years ago driving north through Hartford, Connecticut. Alone, traveling in 60+ MPH three-lane traffic to to visit family in Maine, I found my car pushed out of the lane and sandwiched between a huge eighteen-wheeler and a four-wheel drive truck, both drivers oblivious to me. My car was swerving madly out of control and the more I tried to control the car, the more I swerved. Those few seconds seemed like minutes, and the thought, clearly, came into my mind "this is the moment that I die."

Instead of panic, I released my hands from the wheel and just "let go."

What happened?

Well, I am still here writing this blog. Like a miracle, the car straightened out, traffic slowed, and an opening appeared in the lane for me to pull into. My heart was racing, but I was safe.

What I learned that day (other than traffic through Hartford is horrendously dangerous!) is that sometimes just letting go is the most graceful way to accept change.

The universe may make some decisions for me, but then it is my job to make the most of that decision. Attitude will be a key player, but more so, trust in myself, and trust in the universe.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Speaking Your Truth: The Journey Begins

One of the printing presses at Heartwood College of Art

Kathleen Buchanan, printmaker from Thomaston, led the printmaking workshop

Monotypes drying on the rack

My prints from the afternoon portion of the workshop


Heartwood's two mascots: Pencil and Timone

I had been eagerly awaiting my first weekend residency at Heartwood College of Art. It was a perfect day to hit the road with sunny blue skies and unseasonably warm temps. I shed my wool coat for the first time in many months, loaded the luggage, and cranked-up the radio for the seven hour drive. The past week had been particularly stressful and exhausting at work, and heading south was just what my soul needed.

When I arrived at Heartwood, I was warmly greeted by smiling faces, a gentle greyhound, confident cat, and delicious foods. As each of the seven "pioneer pod" arrived, we engaged in the usual "get to know you" chat and circle of "tell us a bit about yourself." Initially, we were a fairly similar group: All women, teachers in some capacity in our lives, and all thirsting for more....more knowledge, more art, more connections, more time. But by the end of the weekend, I looked around the room and thought how completely different each one of us is from the other. We each bring something unique to the mix, and each of us will act as a teacher for others. No, maybe not in a classroom sort of way, but in a real, deep, artistic and philosophical kind of way.

When we first meet in a group, we make judgments. We all like to pretend we don't. But we do. We think, from a person's clothing, or body language, or car they drive that we can pinpoint their beliefs, their lifestyles, or their interests. Sometimes we can get it a little right, but most times, we have a lot more to learn. Come Sunday, I had a completely different perspective and understanding of each of the women than I had on Friday evening, and I know that this is only the beginning of my getting to know and understand each one of them.

Friday night we set-up our work in-progress in the main gallery. This is always a bit stressful for artists I think, when putting your new (and in this case, incomplete) work up for others to view. Not knowing each others' comfort levels, we perhaps held back a bit. Each of the artists explained their process. It was a relief to hear that each of them, like me, had faced some unforeseen challenge. Yes, we had all been putting our work "out there" for several years, but we are now pushing ourselves to learn something new, and sometimes, learning something new can be a trying (and tiring!) process.

Saturday was a hands-on kind of day, which is my favorite! I love to get into a medium, get dirty, get focused, and experiment. We had a phenomenal instructor, printmaker Kathleen Buchanan from Thomaston. Thankfully, she was a patient teacher. We were encouraged to explore, have fun, and when it came time for critique, bless her soul, she was gentle! For many of us, this was a new medium and perhaps triggered some anxiety, but I think that we each ultimately had a grand time. It isn't often that we, especially women with super hectic lives, get to step out of normal routine and just "play".

Sunday offered up perhaps the most profound part of the weekend for me. We gathered around the huge, beautiful wooden circular table in the meeting room for a discussion of the Anne Lamott book "Bird by Bird." It wasn't exactly Oprah's book club with an in-depth conversation that analyzed every page of the script, but the book did offer a springboard for some relevant and meaningful conversation. Heartwood Dean Susan Wilder and President Berri Kramer spoke words of wisdom that made us think a bit deeper about our message in our art.

One thought that was discussed surrounded the idea of why do we create, and does anyone really care about our work as much as we do ourselves.

Yes. I am sure the answer is "Yes."

Artists feel compelled to create. That is why we are artists. It is akin to an addiction that monopolizes much of your waking time. We perhaps appear selfish when we feel the desire to spend more time in our studio than with other living, breathing beings. When we wake in the middle of the night, our minds won't rest because we are fixated on the current project or a new idea we want to see to fruition. We spend endless amounts of money on supplies and do insane things all in the name of art.

And, yes, it is important to others. Just think, what if Monet or Da Vinci had never shared their paintings? Think of the pleasure we feel when we walk into a museum and stare in awe at the great master works on the walls. Or the books we read, how they are enhanced with illustration. Or the movies we watch, each frame an artwork by a film-maker. I can go on and on with this list, and I think you would agree, we appreciate it when artists share!

On another level, it is about making a statement, leaving your print on this world, having your voice be heard. So, I know, you are thinking "who cares what I have to say?" Well, where would we be if Martin Luther King Jr. had said that same thing? Or the women who fought for the right to vote, or musicians who write lyrics that move us to tears?

With this in mind, I say it is the privilege AND the expectation that artists speak their truth. You never know when your visions will resonate with another and change a life or this world in a profound, maybe even historical way. We are documenting life, sometimes unknowingly, by connecting with our deeper selves and putting our own experiences into a tangible form to share with others.

This past weekend nine women artists began a journey together. Nine women artists are finding their voices....

Speaking their truth.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

On Being a Student Again: Lessons Learned

"Transformation Tapestry" in progress on the beaver-stick story loom

A component of the "Alphabet Project"

It's an interesting experience, to be a student again. I haven't stepped foot in a formal classroom (
other than my own) in over thirteen years since I was studying for teacher certification at USM.

I am now a first semester student enrolled in the MFA program at Heartwood College of Art, balancing my studies with full-time teaching, community organizing, family, and business. The part-time low residency program is perfect for me in that I am able to continue my regular teaching job while doing the bulk of my studies in my own studio space. The twelve-hour-a-week studio commitment seemed peanuts compared to the usual pace I keep. However, I soon learned that in order to meet the deadlines
I needed to devote much more than twelve hours a week.

Like my older high school students, when given the first assignment, I immediately grumbled. Whiny me, thinking, "why can't I just do what I want to do?" Eventually, I came around to a project idea that piqued my excitement. Would I have come up with this particular idea had I not been instructed to follow certain parameters? How literal do I need to be in the interpretation?

The Heartwood program is set-up as two "classes" per semester. This inaugural semester we were asked to write two project proposals. One proposal was for something called the "Alphabet Project" which involves studying and rendering an object twenty six times.

Let me repeat this number in case it didn't register. Twenty-six (26).

I wanted to study fine arts so that I could focus on one-of-a-kind unique sculptures that would draw my attention away from the production pottery I had been doing the past few years. Isn't this, sort of, production work?

Eventually, after hours of sketching, researching, and thinking, I found an object that I could create twenty-six times while making each one a smaller component of a greater whole.

I began the actual sculpting the third week of January. Again, like my students, I hit a few rough spots. I had an idea I liked, but I didn't foresee some of the technical problems that I would have. In my mind's eye, and on paper, It all looked smooth-sailing. I have been working with clay for over twenty years and what could be so difficult in sculpting this little object a few times over?

Boy was I wrong. I came up against challenges like never before. It all appeared so simple at first, and by this point, I sure was wishing I could change my project. "Ah teacher...can I throw this one out and start all over again? Please?"

Since I usually say no to my own students, this just wasn't an option for me. So, forward I progressed.

Yesterday was a critical moment in the creation of this series. I had spent many hours working my ideas out on paper and in my mind for this particular component. I was a bit anxious, not knowing if I could make it happen. It took a few hours and two solid attempts, but I got the prototype created and am pleased with the result. Finally, I feel like my mind can rest a bit and I can let my hands do the work.

This will, however, be just a short respite from the heavy cerebral stuff. My mind will be buzzing overtime soon enough as I begin to plan for the next phase of the project.

It is good for me to be a student again. It encourages me to think a bit deeper than normal about what I am sculpting, to analyze my process, and to articulate my ideas in a way that others will understand. I am gaining new empathy for my own students, and showing them that the process can be difficult for even a somewhat honed artist, but the rewards are great. My students are able to see the passion that drives me as an artist and a teacher, and it is that passion that in turn inspires my students.

I am learning lessons as I go. Some lessons are repeat lessons, lessons that I
thought I had learned but never really fully embraced. Perhaps this is sort of like a distinction between "book knowledge" and "hands-on experience". And, sometimes, you just have to brush-up once in a while, lest you forget.

Lessons Learned:

1. Artists are given a problem to solve and if left to their own, will come up with a creative solution. It may not fit the literal interpretation of the "rules" exactly, but artists like to add their own spin to things...and more importantly, are expected to.

2. Things don't always go as planned. You can plan on it!

3. Perfectionism is a myth, and if you always strive for it, you will be discouraged many-a-time.

4. Process is equal to, or greater than, the final product. It's all about the journey.

I end this week's blog with a quote from the book
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Though primarily about the experience of being a writer, I felt that this analogy related quite well to the work of visual artists. It has helped me to put my sometimes harrowing first semester MFA project experience into perspective.

"Writing a novel is like driving a car at night, you can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Closet Envy

Closet in the new studio space

Closets are a selling point. Realtors list "spacious walk-in closet" and prospective buyers drool. Homeowners grumble about current homes not having "enough storage space," and artists flip through Dick Blick and other materials catalogs to price out the cost of individual flat files because they are fed-up with the crinkling of their expensive BFK Reeves or handmade rice papers due to improper storage.

Oh the dream: To have enough space for all our stuff.

When I first started drawing plans for the new studio addition, they included a "spacious walk-in closet, with flat files and plenty of storage." In fact, the "plans" actually included four closets.

Sound decadent? Perhaps. But bear in mind, Chris and I have lived in this 160 year old house for over eight years with only two closets, both of which are built-in to the eaves, small, oddly shaped, and difficult to maneuver in, much less store anything that we hope to find later on down the road. With a damp (often wet) dirt basement, storage was a no-go down below, and the barn is inhabited by critters that want nothing more than for us to store stuff that makes for cozy nesting material (i.e. expensive linen canvas. Live and learn.)

As it goes with construction, plans change constantly. Our contractor often said the words "You can't do that", or "It won't fit with the pitch of the roof." But I was determined to eek out as much closet space as possible. Though Chris' writing study ended up "sans closet", somewhat of a tragedy, and another closet was reduced to "cubby status", I did demand that a large art supply closet be built. Every inch of space was valuable as I hashed and re-hashed numbers in my mind of how large my papers were and just what items I had that I could never seem to find a good place to store: those bulky lamps for the photography lightbox, 24"x36" flip-floppy newsprint pads, over-sized mat board and foam core, bark paper, multitudes of drawing tablets for watercolor and charcoal, a big wooden box of chalk pastels, paints, paint mediums, loom components, baskets of yarn, yada yada, yada.

Artists know what I am talking about. We have this "collection" that seems to grow and grow over the years. Things that we "know" we will need and use....someday. And in the meantime, they need a place to sit collecting dust until that day arrives.

I collect. One year I made a huge score at Goodwill and got all kinds of art supply goodies. Thirteen or fourteen years later, I still have much of those items, yet to be put to good use. No, I am not a hoarder. Stop thinking that. I know that flashed through your mind, even if for only a millisecond. I like my materials easily accessible, and my home environment organized, in more of a feng-shui kind of way. I just seem to accumulate lots of stuff is all, I like to think, primarily, in the name of art.

I do cull through things. Chris knows when it is coming too. He'll wake some morning and find me pawing through a pile of stuff that has been dragged out of a closet or the barn, and he knows that I am in one of those moods where I need to get rid of things. Now, I make a good-hearted attempt to question purchases beforehand to be sure they are either 1)necessary and have a utilitarian purpose, 2) support the arts, or 3) somehow tie in to deepening my spiritual and/or artistic path (this one can be broad, from books, to workshops, to charity). Still, "stuff" makes its ways into our lives.

So, left behind is the "stuff' I can't or won't part with, stuff that most often has deep meaning for me or stuff that I am "absolutely positive that I will, no doubt.....(maybe?)....need at some point for an art project."

Which brings me to closet envy.

I have suffered from that ailment from time to time, but no longer. I now have the art supply closet to beat all bands. One side of the closet consists of 41"x38" shelves for flat-filing papers, the other side 11"x36" shelves for all those miscellaneous art materials. Open the door (which swings completely wide and out of the way) and I am able to slip in awkward stuff like small card tables, baskets of yarn, easels, foot stool, and bulky photography lamps.

It is impressive. One day during drawing group I opened the closet door to get a drawing board for someone and it was like a movie scene where you see the beautiful woman walking in slow motion, hair flowing in the breeze, all jaws dropping. The other artists at drawing group saw the glow of the fluorescent light and the stacked shelves, the space, and yes, jaws did drop. It is a beautiful (and envy-invoking) piece of carpentry.

If this closet were food, I would say it is like going to a fancy five star gourmet French restaurant after eating at McDonalds all your life.

It is creme brulee versus a hostess twinkie.