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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Capacity for Delight

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Untitled painting in progress

“The quality of life is in proportion to the capacity for delight,” Julia Cameron writes in her guide to creativity, “The Artist’s Way.” She points out that attention to detail and awareness are powerful forces.

For me too, taking time to notice the little things has been a valuable lesson. Sometimes I feel so rushed with work, deadlines and to-do lists that I struggle to even completely read an article in the newspaper or make time to do nothing at all but breathe in an afternoon moment.

The “New York Times Magazine” ran a fascinating article called “Head in the Clouds” by Jon Mooallem in May. The subheading read, “An improbably tale of 19th century adventurers, crowdsourced meteorological discoveries and the poetic wonders in the sky.”

Near the end, the author attends a conference of the Cloud Society. He writes “Somewhere in this story about clouds and cloud lovers, I’d found a compelling argument for staying open to varieties of beauty that we can’t quite categorize and, by extension, for respecting the human capacity to feel, as much as scrutinize the sources of those feelings.”

It’s essential to look, to listen, to learn. It’s important to allow ourselves to linger in emotion, to explore desire, to daydream.

I feel like too often we want to dwell in what we already know. It’s comfortable there. But the problem is, when we stick too closely to already categorized information, we cease to notice mystery, wonder and greater beauty. Instead perhaps we should strive to be explorers, pioneers, adventurers, seeking something more.

Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote in “My Struggle Book 1” about art — and its move into abstraction.

Now, art has gone even further, he explained:

“The props of art no longer have any significance, all the emphasis is placed on what the art expresses, in other words, not what it is but what it thinks, what ideas it carries, such that the last remnants of objectivity, the final remnants of something outside the human world have been abandoned.”

He seems to believe this applies to even more of our current culture. “Art does not know a beyond, science does not know a beyond, religion does not know a beyond, not anymore.”

He continues into a discussion of reality and death.

But my mind wanders. Isn’t there something spectacular to admitting there is something more than our own self, something bigger than our little worlds, larger than the constraints of our own egos? I think pondering wonder itself — no matter how vast or small — is also part of the capacity for joy.

 

 

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.”

 

 

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 —

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

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Artists are known to suffer from occasional depression and regular mood swings. But creative types are not the only ones who may from time to time dip into fits of melancholy or instances of doldrums.

I usually like to dive into my emotions, dissect them, figure out the root cause and act accordingly. Depression may stem from a living arrangement that no longer suffices, the lack of strong friendships, missing someone — just as an episode of anxiety may reflect a need to exercise, eat, sleep or do something you love/have to do.

Sometimes, however, there’s a deeper blue. Sometimes, it all feels too overwhelming to analyze. Perhaps it stems from things that have happened to you. I admit to being the type who is more consumed by the past than I should be — and despite efforts to not act the victim, I often find it a hard habit to break. It simply hurts to have a broken heart, to have misplaced trust or to have someone cause harm to you in whatever way — and these are things we adults must face as we venture out into the world.

Meghan Austin wrote a story for the New York Time’s Style section on Modern Love, saying “I don’t regret any of it. Love often doesn’t arrive at the right time or in the right person. It makes us do ridiculous and stupid things. But without it, life is just a series of unremarkable events, one after the other.”

Even those things that haunt us — past mistakes and past pain — are markers on our journeys. They give us guideposts. They give us turning points. They give us identity as well.

We venture out even though we may feel scared. We open up even though we are scarred. Sometimes taking a risk is not a poor gamble but just a sign of a life being lived. I think it’s important to be a little wild, to try regardless. And perhaps learning to live with a bit of pain is a part of the process.