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.

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On Time

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My friend Justin Dunford once told me that artists suffer, because they have something they want to do so badly it makes it difficult to do anything else.

I’ve been starting every morning painting in an attempt to remind myself that I have some control over my own time. But as soon as my morning session is up, the day descends into the chaos of working as a freelance reporter — non-stop phone interviews, looming deadlines and calls from stressed-out, frantic editors.

I am desperate for more time to create. And honestly just time to think clearly about things, and the space to not think, which is so essential to the artistic process.

Today I had the type of morning that made me just want to crawl back into bed and press reset. Instead, I had to keep calling sources, rearranging photo shoots, taking notes. Finally, I took a nap.

My phone kept ringing anyway, and I woke up in a haze. I couldn’t think clearly, and so just laying there, I read an excerpt from Brain Pickings — which noted that psychologist Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi felt “the poet’s responsibility to be a witness, a recorder of experience, is part of the broader responsibility we all have for keeping the universe ordered through our consciousness.”

Csiksgentmihalyi interviewed poet Mark Strand, who said, “we’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of, or that floats around in space. But we’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell other things. I think being alive is responding.”

I believe that he’s onto something. If being alive is about being a witness, taking it all in and describing the wonder of the world — then being an artist is a worthy calling. At least for me, painting is about looking at the world, feeling deeply and trying to communicate what I see and learn to others.

Recently, I went to the True/False Film Festival and among the great documentaries I saw was “The Music of Strangers” about Yo-Yo Ma and his amazing music. He said the purpose of art and music is to “give us meaning.”

“You can turn fear into joy,” he says.

 

The Company We Keep

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Yesterday, I met my friend Andrew for coffee. He’s a religious person, a former preacher who now focuses on music as ministry. He talked about “the void” and “the glory” — that vast unknown that is reality and the emotional transcendence that is on the other side.

He said that most people think of the two as opposing forces, but instead he believes people must traverse the void, live in it, face it fully — to find God.

The idea hit home to me. Andrew and I talked at length about how we have to face hardship to grow, to die to be reborn. Andrew said the void is the only thing that’s real — everything else is a creation, a distraction from reality, which in actuality, is chaos, the unknown. He said that we have to face “death” as we constantly evolve on our journeys.

Sometimes, we find ourselves feeling lost — and we long for change, renewal and growth. To get there, we might have to suffer, to pass through a rough spot, to let certain go of certain past traits, experiences and people. We have to let part of our old selves die to become who we will be in the future.

Andrew said that to get through the void, it’s essential to have faith — to believe that you are loved and that there is a purpose. For him, that comes from religion. For me, love comes from family and friends.

“When you agree to be someone’s friend, you are basically saying, ‘I allow you to shape who I am as a person,'” Andrew said. “We are giving someone permission to help shape us in our continual transformation.”

He cautioned about letting the wrong people in. He said we should be careful about the company we keep.

My friend Mac Scott said, “When you are around extraordinary people, you will learn extraordinary things. Let this be a lesson — pick your friends wisely.”

Being comfortable with not knowing

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My painting “When You Are Spinning”

I started this painting, “When You Are Spinning,” when I first settled into my apartment in Seattle. It is inspired by my friend Steven Foster, a fantastic writer and creative force, who has been facing a number of challenges lately and who always heads forward into that abyss with great energy — whether its manic enthusiasm for the future or absolute dread with the present situation. The painting is of his office, a space that he remodels constantly — and always feels in motion and full of the energy of whatever Steven’s current project happens to be.

While I was painting I was listening to an episode of This American Life that just hit me. In it, the narrator describes the thrill of being on a carnival ride, in the midst of some personal tragedy. “It reminds you that when you are close to death and intimate with it, when you are spinning fast and high in the dark night with nothing around you, it is difficult to know what is happening,” he says. “It is difficult to be afraid, far more difficult than it is on the ground.”

When you are in the swing of this wild and crazy, wondrous life, it is hard to be afraid. But when things come to a standstill, anxiety is an easy companion to acquire. The problem is that life is full of hiccups and set-backs. I think for artists, this may be even more true, because we have consigned ourselves to a journey of self-discovery and constant reinvention.

In “No More Secondhand Art,” Peter London writes that “not knowing” is an important part of the creative process. Artists face not knowing when we stare at a blank canvas — but everyone deals with this — in our day-to-day lives with partnerships, friendships and basic experiences.

“Our usual response is to shrink back from the encounter,” London writes. “As a consequence, we are likely to fall back upon tired ways, disengage from the actual circumstances we find ourselves in and rerun past scenarios. The failure to make contact with the reality we’re in causes us in turn to feel out of our element and disempowered. In this dispirited state, we certainly do not feel in a mood for creative play or adventures of the imagination.”

I’m not sure how to become more engaged in actual circumstances and face the fear of the unknown — but it definitely seems worth spending time figuring out.

Peter London reminds us that “When all is empty, all is ready” and that “it is the zero point from which new things spring.”

He writes that “fear is the symptom indicating that great things are being confronted, the boundaries of what we take to be safe, real and good.”

And in regards to dealing with the past, I love this quote from him, “We must learn to discriminate between when the wind is blowing and when our memory is howling. We must take courage to breach the walls we have built to keep out the real dangers and test whether they are still present or have gone their ways. And when it ceases to howl outside, we must have the wherewithal to let it also go from our minds and turn to the new day.”