Letting go of control

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I spent today island-hopping, looking for houses where my parents might enjoy living. They recently sold the farm where I lived from ages 10 to 18 — and where they have spent the past 20 years. Instead of settling into retirement in the comfort of routine and well-known places, they are ready for a new adventure and different vistas. I find their courage admirable.

A week ago, I went to Texas to pack up all the paintings that my parents have been so kindly storing in a shed on their property. I stacked these huge canvases in an 8 x 6 ft box and padlocked the door shut. Around now, all of these pieces I spent so much time creating are on the back of some Uhaul truck, hopefully safely making their way to Seattle.

When the pod arrives at my front door, I have no idea where I will store the paintings. It is among the many unknowns in my life lately. When I was packing up my childhood room and saying goodbye to my parents’ farm last week, it struck me how lost I’ve felt lately. I live in a city just because I wanted to  — with no rhyme or reason to the decision. I haven’t had a steady job since last summer’s lay-off. I don’t have a proper studio for art anymore — or the funding for one even if I could find the right space.

Part of the sorrow of saying goodbye to the childhood home is the feeling that somehow that means you are walking into adulthood. I know I am not the only adult who still does not know what she wants to be when she grows up . . . or what growing up even means . . .

But I do know that I saw a beautiful sunset from the side of the ferry as I headed home from Vashon Island, the glow from behind the mountains reflecting on the water. And I know that all we can do is take things one day at a time, just keep moving forward.

Try as we might, we’re not really in control, as we spin on this planet into the vastness of the universe. I suppose we have to learn to let go and just enjoy the ride.

As Cynthia Ritchie wrote in a story called “The Confrontation” about facing a bear in the Alaskan woods while running on a trail alone:

“So much of life is chance. There are no guarantees. But there are vast landscapes and dangers and wild moments of good luck.”

 

 

 

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Being an enigma

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A photo from the Seattle Underground

In preparation for my show at the Jung Center, I’m rereading “Undiscovered Self.”

In the chapter entitled “The Individual’s Understanding of Himself,” Jung writes “Man is an enigma to himself.” He discusses the difficulties of relying on religion, politics and psychology to probe into identity. He outlines how humans struggle to see ourselves, because we have few other animals that closely resemble us. We turn instead to our relationships with other people to try to gain insight into who we are.

I’m preparing to tear down my installation “Life, Examined” which has been up for about two months at a gallery in Issaquah, WA. The piece is a lab that serves as a stage for exploring emotion and memory. The title is from “The unexamined life is not worth living,” a quote Plato attributed to Socrates during one of his lectures.

Putting together the show required me to do some life examining as well. I read old letters, leafed through journals and searched through the boxes of memorabilia, which usually remain tucked away in a corner of the closet.

Jung says that people are afraid of diving into the unconscious. They worry perhaps they will find something buried there that they do not like. He says that often it is easier to follow the masses than to discover the basis of your individuality, to remain a child with a parent figure to tell you who you are or what to do.

He urges his readers to take another path.

“It is, unfortunately, only too clear that if the individual is not truly regenerated in spirit, society cannot be either, for society is the sum total of individuals in need of redemption,” Jung writes.

A few sentences later he adds that the “salvation of the world consists of the salvation of the individual soul.”

And when talking about salvation and redemption, Jung is addressing the need for greater understanding — of ourselves and each other. If allowed to develop our own inner strengths, and band together as authentic individuals, imagine what a world we’d live in.

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.

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.

 

 

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 . . .

Taking a chance

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Today, I’m celebrating my 10-year anniversary of making a major decision, one important step in getting me to where I am today, an act of courage in walking away from a toxic relationship.

Life is uncertain. A lot of people opt for the devil they know — but I believe that walking into not knowing is the better option, even if it is scary to take that first step.

I can’t say that I haven’t made the same mistakes or sprinted head-first into the same traps. “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other,” Benjamin Franklin wrote.

At least, we fools are learning, improving constantly and moving forward.

Freedom is a worthy pursuit — as is making an effort to surround yourself with people who believe in you instead of those actively trying to tear you down.

Sometimes all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other, close one door with faith that another will open and let go of fear of uncertainty. Because uncertainty is inevitable.

My friend, the talented pianist Chance Hunter, repeated this Winston Churchill quote to me on the phone recently, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

It’s not that you will necessarily get better, be safer or forget the painful memories — it’s just that you have to keep moving.

And by virtue of heading onward into that wild, chaotic world, you will end up in places you didn’t even know existed and you wouldn’t have even dreamt of going.

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.”

 

 

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.

 

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.