Seeking balance

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“Tell me where you’ve been, and I’ll tell you where I’ve been” one of my paintings inspired by Art Farm Nebraska

The title for my last show at the Jung Center in Houston, “Unconscious Conscious,” was pulled from Jung’s quote: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Jung essentially made a battle cry of the importance of realizing your “unconscious.” It can seem like murky territory, but I think of it as understanding your soul, your gut, your dreams and desires, your fears. It’s your real underlying essence — that sometimes gets placed on hold in the name of work, relationships or trying to be whatever you or someone else thinks you should be.

Yesterday, I was talking to my friend Chance, a talented musician who is doing important work at an important nonprofit. Still, despite having the job and skill set, he has this drive to run away, live in an RV in the mountains, take long road trips, explore.

We spoke about finding balance. Knowing that we have to work jobs, trying to find ones that don’t suffocate us, continuing to find opportunities to expand, be creatively stimulated and better ourselves. It can be difficult.

I recently started reading Jung’s “Man and his Symbols.” He writes about how “primitive” cultures often believed in several types of souls — one might be linked to an animal or even a tree.

“This means that the individual’s psyche is far from being safely synthesized,” Jung states.”On the contrary, it threatens to fragment only too easily under the onslaught of unchecked emotions.”

We have vulnerable souls, in other words.

And we live in uncertain times, where things are changing so quickly that it’s easy to get out of breath. It’s easy to feel unsure of our footing. At the same time, we are bombarded with images, stories, social media, ads that can make us question our self worth, that can disrupt our priorities and can command our total attention, distracting us from other important aspects that make us whole.

I’m making some changes in the near future with the hope that they will lead to a more balanced life. I know I’m not alone in this, that a lot of people are searching for more meaning and more authenticity.

“Human consciousness has not yet achieved a reasonable degree of continuity. It is still vulnerable and liable to fragmentation,” Jung writes.

All the more reason for us to take time to fortify it, to do our part to promote understanding and togetherness in our world and in ourselves.

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A little more magic, please

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Work in progress, a painting of my friend Ben Viscon’s wine bar

Sometime during my Life, Examined exhibit a woman came up to me and said, “I don’t understand what you’re doing here at all.”

I tried to explain about installation art — but she stopped me. “No, I mean, you can’t sell any of this,” she said.

The comment shocked me. “Art’s not about selling,” I told her. “It’s about connecting with someone visually and emotionally, communicating an idea or a feeling in a different way than words.”

But I knew what I was saying wouldn’t click for her. And ever since then, I’ve been thinking about how we’ve gotten to this place culturally, where the role of art has changed so drastically.

Art was probably our first way to communicate. And sometimes with a painting or an image, I believe we can still speak more directly, straight to the heart, straight to the gut. You can be moved to tears, or nausea, by a powerful black and white photo for example — without even thinking or putting into words why. You just feel something immediately; you can describe what it was later.

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, painting was used as a way to connect people with the feeling of the divine — and even now those frescoes in cathedrals retain the power to take your breath away.

How cheap it would be to make art all about money, about what sells and how to market it. Of course, much of the “art world” and many “artists” are doing just that.

When I invite people to my art shows, it’s not with the hope that they will buy my paintings. I want to share my experiences, thoughts and emotions. I want to see if anyone connects. I hope to put some beauty out into the world.

We all have an opportunity to learn from art, to discover what moves us visually, to connect with communities even. Think about how molded your identity can be by music,  politics, philosophies, religion. When you learn to be an artist, you do the same thing. You discover what symbols speak to you, what visions you have, what visual memories shaped who you are, what pictures hit you. Then, you form your own visual voice.

Everyone can do this — artist or not — and I believe everyone will benefit from this exploration.

Françoise Gilot, one of Picasso’s ex-wives who was an amazing painter and writer, quoted him as saying, “Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation. It’s a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires.”

And can’t we all use a little more magic in our strange, hostile lives?

Responsibility for quality

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My new painting, “What a planet we live on, that allows us to love”

On August 1, my friend Mac wrote an interesting post on my Facebook page:

The best day of your life is the one on which you decide your life is your own. No apologies or excuses. No one to lean on, rely on or blame. The gift is yours, it is an amazing journey and you alone are responsible for the quality of it. This is the day your life really begins.

The message was strangely right on target. Just the day before, I received a work-related phone call that drastically changed my life. Due to budget cuts and media mergers, I found out I was losing most of my income source.

At first, I was angry, then hurt. Next, I felt a sense of relief. I woke up in a panic the following few days, worried that I was way behind on my to-do list. Then, I remembered that my to-do list had been dramatically reduced.

Now, I worry about getting by. I think being a professional artist is basically a myth. The “art world” often doesn’t take painters seriously if they have a day job. But unless you have a trust fund or a wealthy partner or overly generous parents, not having a day job for an artist means not having a place to sleep or food to eat.

I have always had multiple jobs and struggled to make ends meet. I’ve painted during the hours that I didn’t have to work. While I wish that painting could be my one and only, I am also keenly aware of the reality of not having an income.

But I have been working so hard for the past few years that I have lost touch of the quality of my life. I want to take a chance to mold my days more around what I love to do. And I welcome a new beginning.

Beauty and Communion

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A work in progress inspired by Aimee Herman

I have been hard at work building an homage to memory and a physical space to examine emotion. It’s been perhaps more challenging and more of a heavy experience than I expected. Although, of course, I should have expected exactly that.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about life,” I tell my mom with a sigh. She says, “Of course you have. Your exhibit is called, ‘Life, Examined.’ What else would you be doing?”

I find a note from an ex-boyfriend. He wrote to me, “I wish I felt the same kind of attractions you feel. They seem overwhelming, like you have no control. I don’t think as strong as you feel things. You are a pretty powerful being. So be careful.”

It’s a delicate balance — being careful, but not living in fear, wanting to have passion, but not to be out of control with emotions. Not having a choice about being emotional, I at least want to be around people who can be open and loving and go on a courageous journey with me.

My friend Stan came to town to see the show and as usual we talked about the world’s problems and our proposed solutions. We spoke about art mostly.

One reason that I stepped back from the art scene was because of all the huge egos I kept encountering along the way. (And still encounter often). I don’t think that art should be about your ego, the self, your identity.Who you are, of course, gives you a unique perspective of the world — and if you live authentically, and openly, that will allow you to produce real and effective art. But I believe that art should be bigger than just an exploration of the self.

There was a great article about Chuck Close in the Sunday New York Times by Wil S. Hylton. The painter has also become a bit of a recluse lately.

Hylton has spent a lot of time trying to understand Close. In the article, he describes the art:

What you are seeing isn’t really there. You are no longer looking at the actual surface of the painting, but some apparition hovering above it, a numinous specter that arises in part from the engagement of your own imagination. Through the painting, Close has accessed the perceptual center of your mind, exploiting the way we process human identity: the gaps of knowledge and the unknown spaces we fill with our own presumptions, the expectations and delusions we layer upon everyone we meet.

By painting these portraits, Close is tapping into something bigger. He’s not just showing us who he is — he’s helping us understand who we are and why how we perceive and presume matters.

Hilton writes:

It seems to me now, with greater reflection, that the value of experiencing another person’s art is not merely the work itself, but the opportunity it presents to connect with the interior impulse of another. The arts occupy a vanishing space in modern life: They offer one of the last lingering places to seek out empathy for its own sake, and to the extent that an artist’s work is frustrating or difficult or awful, you could say this allows greater opportunity to try to meet it. I am not saying there is no room for discriminating taste and judgment, just that there is also, I think, this other portal through which to experience creative work and to access a different kind of beauty, which might be called communion.

“Empathy for its own sake” and “a different kind of beauty, which might be called communion” are what I’m after too — exactly what I want to create.

Chosen surrenders

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Yesterday evening, I decided to go sit by the ocean and write a letter to Aimee. I have been struggling to write lately — whether for work or pleasure or simple log-keeping. A couple of times, I posted up at a bar with a glass of bourbon, pledging to put pen to paper and nothing happened.

By the water, with the sun setting, I found myself writing, “I want to be open to love, open to emotion. I want to regain the energy to grow and change and not feel so worn out all the time.”

And as the words came out, I felt a queasy recognition. How long have I been saying the same thing? I think back on when I first started writing this blog, during the Art Farm days, and reread “So the reason I want to start this blog is to reconnect with my old feelings about art, to highlight the artists that I believe in and to document my life among the artists. I am the one having the identity crisis, I suppose, and I want to fix it somehow.”

Sometimes my roommate Rob and I talk about progress. We discuss what it’s like to know better — and yet still slip into the same patterns.

There was something in the air last summer that made me feel like I could make a fresh start. And here I am basically longing for the space (and the people) who could make me feel the same way.

Rebecca Solnit writes in “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” that “the things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?”

How do we grow into something that we have yet to discover? How do we become a new person, one we haven’t met yet — and what does that look and feel like?

“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark,” Solnit writes. “That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from and where you will go.”

She encourages tiptoeing across the borders of uncertainty.

“To be lost is to be fully present and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery,” she writes.

The cadence of the sentence, for some reason, reminds me of lyrics to a Stevie Wonder song, “A seed’s a star/ A seed’s a star’s a seed/ A star’s a seed/ A star’s a seed’s a star.”

And as my friend, writer Carmella Guiol Naranjo reminded me on the phone yesterday, it’s a new moon and it’s spring time — it’s a good time to plant seeds, a good time for new beginnings and reaching out to stars.

 

preplungemeandaimeeAimee and I contemplate the stars, then we consider taking a plunge in the lake . . .

Lefts instead of right

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My new painting-in-progress “I Dream At Night of Going Home Someday”

The other day, a letter that I mailed quite some time ago to my friend and great inspiration, poet Aimee Herman, arrived back in my mailbox, undeliverable due to my ever-increasingly illegible handwriting.

It’s strange to re-read something you wrote about a month ago, in a completely different mindset. I realized that I was whining quite a bit in the letter about where I live, not feeling at home and not connecting to the people around me. I thought about not sending the letter and instead placing it in the recycling bin — but instead I more carefully addressed an envelope.

My friend Stan and I were talking the other day about how some people prefer to stick with their comfort zones — but that we both like to do things that push our limits. I seek out experiences that make me slightly uncomfortable. “One of the reasons I want to go on a long sailing trip, out way into the middle of the ocean, is because it partially terrifies me,” I told him, as we sat on the beach in Lincoln Park watching the ferry load up and head out to Vachon Island.

Stan, Joanna and I took sailing lessons a couple of years ago in Galveston Bay. I loved it for so many reasons, but mainly because everything was new and challenging. In our day-to-day lives, especially as we get older, our routines are filled with things we know how to do well. We become masters at work, masters at loading the dishwasher, wonderful at planning our routine days and experts at talking to our long-time friends.

On a sailboat, I realize, I don’t know how to read the sun to know what time it is or to determine which direction we’re heading. The captain asks me, “Which way is the wind blowing?” And I don’t know. At night, he shows us how to navigate by the stars, and I wish that I had studied constellations. There are whole glossaries of words to learn, lists of knots that I don’t know how to tie, rules of navigation that no one ever told me about, charts I have no idea now to read.

Today, I was reading an article in the New York Times by Kim Tingley about sailors in the Marshall Islands that navigate without instruments. She writes about how scientists were studying these sailors: “They wondered if watching him sail, in the context of growing concerns about the neurological effects of navigation-by-smartphone, would yield hints about how our orienteering skills influence our sense of place, our sense of home, even our sense of self.”

How connected place, home and sense of self seem to be — and how easily we can be disconnected from each.

Apparently, several articles have been written about how our reliance on smartphone GPS technology is changing the way we see the world.

“When we use GPS, the research indicates, we remember less about the places we go, and put less work into generating our own internal picture of the world,” Leon Neyfakh writes in an article on the subject for the Boston Globe.

It really comes as no surprise to me that Aimee would send me a challenge in the mail. She is good at sensing what subject I should dive into, whether reluctantly or not. She asks me to spend time this month exploring. She tells me to get lost. “Make lefts when you usually go right,” she wrote in her letter, along with many other suggestions.

When I texted her later this morning to thank her for setting me out on this journey, she replied, “I guess I really wanted to remind you ways to fall in love or like with a place. That map is in you. You are the map.”

 

 

A Little Perspective

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View from my driveway

I can clearly remember the first time I heard Eliza Gilkyson’s song “Not Lonely.” I was at the Kerrville Folk Festival, and it blew me away. For awhile, “People say I should be lonely/ But that ain’t what’s goin down/ I’m alone but I’m not lonely,” became a bit of an anthem to me, more of an aspiration perhaps than what I really felt.

Being alone is not always a choice, I have learned from experience. So why not find a way to enjoy it while you can?

I try to stop every once and a while and breathe it all in. Last night, as I was walking the dogs, the sky was illuminated just so, that almost orange-ish-black that happens at the beginning of the darkness. The tall pines in the distance became shadows, silhouettes and the clouds formed in low lines and slowly drifted up. I felt small — just a witness to the constant wonder of the world.

I decided to go out for a drink in my old neighborhood. I have been thinking lately that perhaps I am becoming too much of a recluse. Maybe I should be out in the world. But it’s a difficult balance — being an artist requires you to spend most of your time alone with your half-finished canvases. I have tried to let go of the guilt that I once felt when I preferred to stay in the studio rather than to go out and socialize.

But then again sometimes I find myself humming one of my favorite Joni Mitchell songs, “Oh I am a lonely painter/ I live in a box of paints/ I’m frightened by the devil/
And I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid.”

I admit to myself that that’s more true to me than “alone and not lonely.” I try to be brave.

As I walk around from crowded bar to crowded bar, I resolve that I just don’t fit in to the scene that night. I don’t want to step inside anywhere. And I don’t relate to the drunken kids rambling out on the street. I feel like an observer and not a participant. It makes me kind of sad. Then, a bit of light shines on the sidewalk, and I recognize a face. This singer-songwriter I know, Dean Johnson, was standing on the curb — and luckily for me, persuadable when I asked if he wanted to grab a quick drink.

We found an open spot at a bar and talked about the writing process, past broken hearts and loneliness. We talked about facing fears and how hard it can be to walk into the time that is required to make art.

This morning, I listened by chance to a rather depressing episode of “This American Life” about a woman who dies alone and the deputy who goes through her things, trying to find a connection to someone living who can take care of emptying the left-behind residence of a lonely pack rat. “When someone keeps to herself, there’s no way to know whether she lived and died outside the reach of friends and family because she preferred it that way or because of things beyond her control,” the narrator says.

I wonder how many people I have pushed away and from how many I have run away. Sometimes it was self-preservation and sometimes it was fear. Now that I am feeling more courageous and more wild and more connected, I want to build community and want to work on lasting, loving friendships, I feel more drawn to lonely spaces of studio and empty journals than ever. I’m not sure which way is the right path to follow.

“I live in a one-room palace, On top of a hill, On the edge of a wilderness, All my dreams could never fill . . . Got two hands to guide me, Through one very long dance, Got a true heart inside me,Gonna give me one more chance, To be alone, not lonely.”

And I’m grateful for those rolling clouds up in the sky, the energy of falling night time, all those separate street scenes, even the rambling drunks who don’t even notice me like I’m a ghost out on the street — and most of all grateful for Dean who did notice me, who did share some real, genuine thoughts and for the even later calls I got from old friends — Kevin , Steven , Justin and my darling cousin Alex — who made me laugh at myself for ever thinking I was alone at all.

 

Life is an experiment

DSC_0380.JPGCarmella Guiol Naranjo

Carmella and I are in the middle of the woods, huddled over a candle, on a wooden deck overlooking the trees. It’s been about seven months since we last did this –a new moon ceremony. It’s her birthday, and she is brimming with thoughts and intentions about community, love and friendship. I say that my goal is to stop spending time with people who I don’t actually like, to be more aware of how I spend my time in general, to make choices that are better when it comes to those precious free hours and minutes.

The next day, Carmella says, “I want to do more new things.” She has plans to go to Mexico this time next year. We sketch out a future trip to India. She talks about the next steps after earning her M.F.A.

My birthday is in seven days from today — and I too am full of thoughts of future. I have so much I want to accomplish. I think back on my 33rd year, and while it was full of highs and lows — and some very deep lows at that — I believe adventure outweighed dullness. And I am seeking light after all.

Last year, at this time, I didn’t even know Carmella. Or any of the amazing women I met at the Art Farm who have become dear friends. At this time last year, I was not in a good place. I haven’t quite put my finger on it — but I felt tired, exhausted, out of sorts. Today, I am hurtling through the air on a plane, day-dreaming of my next adventure.

To kill time on my voyage, I have been deleting old photos on my computer and stumbled upon a snapshot I took of an article. I don’t know who wrote this but it rings pretty true to me:

“If the historical circumstances had changed, the ancient purpose of literature, to say something about human life, never did. In every age, art is an experiment for every artist, just as, in every age, life is an experiment for every person.”

I’ve quoted this Peter London passage before in my blog but I think it’s worth repeating — “Unless a courageous stance to life is coupled with these ingredients [dexterity,knowledge, taste], tedious and shallow things will be made. Unless a capacity to dream and fantasize is there, derivative things will be made.”

I feel like facing fear has made for better art on my studio walls these days, and I look forward to seeing where the next year takes me.

“You never get nothing by being an angel child
You better change your ways and get real wild
I wanna tell you something, I wouldn’t tell you a lie
Wild women are the only kind that really get by
‘Cause wild women don’t worry, wild women don’t have their blues.”

— Ida Cox, Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues

To learn more about Carmella, who describes herself as “a girl with ants in her pants who wants to learn how to sit her butt down and write,” visit her blog www.therestlesswriter.com.

Lengths to go

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Untitled Painting in Progress

A couple of weeks ago I read an article in the New York Times entitled “Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Gloria Steinem on the Unending Fight for Women’s Rights.”

The premise was that the two friends sat down and reminisce about the past in Ginsburg’s office. The women — both now in their 80s, talk about not being able to rent apartments without a male signer, how women used to go to college to find husbands, how  women had to justify taking a spot from a man when applying to law school. Steinem talks about how Gay Talase told her once, “Every year, a pretty girl comes to New York and pretends to be a writer. This year, it’s Gloria.”

I was thinking about how recent of a past this window of an article opened up. These are realities that my grandmothers, aunts and mother faced — and I believe are still prevalent today in a number of ways.

I believe that the art world is still a boy’s club.

When I started painting, I wanted to create portraits of strong women. I wanted to paint women who looked like they were thinking and feeling — not just posing as objects, not just a body to be sexualized. I wanted my women to look courageous — like the women in my real life, the ones who inspired me every day, my grandmother, my teachers, my family, my friends.

I noticed that when I had my first shows, women reacted to the paintings and thought they were beautiful. Most men did not.

Often men would say to me, “How can you paint such sad pictures when you are such a happy, pretty girl?”

It infuriated me. These guys didn’t know me. They didn’t know  my emotions, my thoughts, my story. But even more importantly, I felt that if I had painted portraits of pensive men, they would not have thought twice about it. In our culture, the image of a woman thinking is so rare that we equate it with sorrow.

There have been several times that men in the art world have openly criticized my work at a show — and I would be willing to bet that they would not have been so forthright if I were a male painter. Once, my ex-boyfriend’s patron said to me that I was much like the drawings of flowers I was creating at the time — very pretty, but without substance. And fleeting.

More shocking to me, however, was the time an older woman printmaker came to one of my shows and said, “There are women who are talented — and then there are those artists who are just pretty girls who get a lot of attention,” while she gestured around at my crowded exhibit.

It took a long time for me to build a core of supportive women artists in Houston. Luckily, I eventually had regular lunches with Angela Dillon and Maria Queta Hughes, who encouraged me and showed me another way we could treat each other — not with jealousy but with respect.

In the New York Times article, the author Philip Galanes writers, “Rejection is the best thing that can happen. It pushes us forward.”

I think that the conversation between these two women is a great reminder of strides we have made, the importance of banding together, the need to continue this dialogue and the lengths we still have to go.

Here’s a link to the story — http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/fashion/ruth-bader-ginsburg-and-gloria-steinem-on-the-unending-fight-for-womens-rights.html?_r=0

And a second article about behind-the-scenes —

Looking for a little inspiration

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Laura from Aurora, Nebraska

Sometimes the best place to go for a little inspiration is simply out of town. My friend, a brilliant illustrator, Annie Brule said, “Being out of your usual context is almost always good for you.” She was telling me a story over a glass of wine in West Seattle about a weekend trip that gave her clarity.

When I boarded a flight to New York a few days later, I had no goals of seeking anything out or looking for perspective or anything like that. I just wanted to go have fun and see a few friends. Instead, I got inspiration in spades.

There were late night conversations with Aimee about love, life, our past struggles and our future daydreams. There was the instant comfort of a conversation with Selina. There was chatting at the Museum of Modern Art with Raluca about her trip home to Romania and her progress on her novel.

My friend Laura stands out the most. It was her first trip to New York and she took it all in with an unusual finesse and zest, pointing out the smallest of details and asking questions galore as we walked around the city. We all met Laura on maybe our first day at the Art Farm in Nebraska. She popped into the house, explaining that she lived in the next town over and gave us her phone number in case we needed anything. She soon became a dear friend.

Laura is a real Renaissance woman. She works with cows all day in a research project for the university. She can tell you everything about antique tractors or the Nebraska prairie. She’s also an artist, crafter and musician, who writes her own songs and plays guitar.

Over the summer, she told me stories about her Native American roots, her great grandmother who wore long skirts, kept a gun at her hip and could roll a cigarette with one-hand. In New York, she sang a song in Aimee’s living room with such courage. When we complemented her voice and her poetry, she admitted to having sung opera in the past and playing saxophone.

Laura-from-Aurora is who convinced me to take the trip east — even though I was reluctant to make a break in my routine. While we were crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, I thanked her. I said that she is that rare type who follows through on daydream plans — and that’s the type of person who I like the most. She couldn’t imagine being any other way.

On my last night of the trip, I drank spiked apple cider from a nearby orchard in Connecticut with my friend Stan and my cousin Lauren in her new house. We sat on Lauren’s screened porch, watching the sun set and bearing witness to the changing temperatures of a cool fall night. I talked about the uncertainties of my life, my struggles finding enough work to keep myself afloat and my desires to see my art go somewhere one day — whatever that means.

Stan offered to help in whatever ways possible. Lauren encouraged me to open a gallery. We all told stories and laughed as it became dark, then moved inside. I am grateful for the people who have recently become part of my life, for knowing Aimee and Trae, Selina, Raluca and Annie, and Laura. I feel like it would be so easy to have never met them, to have never gone to Nebraska and just turned my car around. I am grateful as well for the people who I already know who continue to push me forward. I feel like it is easy to want more — and perhaps more difficult to recognize that what we want, we’ve had all along — courage, love, inspiration, wild hearts, sympathetic minds and phenomenal beings all around.