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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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.”

 

 

Being On Time

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Working on my painting “Further and Further Away from Nowhere”

I couldn’t find my grandfather’s grave. I thought I would remember from the funeral. But when I finally reached the cemetery, I was at a loss. It was bigger than I remembered. I should have realized that in grief, I would not note which pathways led where and which stone would mark where my grandparents remained.

I asked Stan to drive up and down the lanes that criss-crossed the graveyard. Maybe we’d see it from the car — or suddenly I would remember. Stan pointed out large markers that read “Peyton.” No, we’re looking for something smaller, I said. There’s something about reading your name on a headstone . . .

I finally gave in and stopped by the small office in the back of the cemetery. A man walked up and said he might be able to help me. How long ago did he pass? he asked me. I said, about a year ago actually. I hadn’t realized that much time had gone by. About a year, actually.

Lately, I have been fixated on how quickly the years pass. The holidays do this to me — I think about where I was last Halloween, last Thanksgiving, last Christmas, last New Year, last birthday. It scares me that all of those days simultaneously feel like yesterday and like a gulf of change separates them from me.

When I was at the Art Farm, the days lingered. I felt like I accomplished so much in 24 hours. I wrote my morning journal, I worked on the farm for four hours a day, I wrote an article for the newspaper, I painted until evening. We had communal meals, every meal. We had happy hours. We had evenings candlelit and full of laughter. We had time to make it to the lake for a swim, and I had time to fit in my run as well.

Now, back in reality, I feel like I’m lucky to fit in two or three things a day. Like a run and work feels good — and I’m fortunate if I still have time to paint. Why did time speed up so much? Why are my hours so fleeting now? How do I slow them down?

“We swim in time; it is the medium of our living,” Peter London writes in “No More Secondhand Art.” “Duration alone creates heroes and cowards, victory and defeat.”

Having more time to do what I actually want to do seems like the ultimate luxury — and it is, also, in fact my immediate goal. Instead of feeling like I don’t have time to draw, or that I can only squeeze in an hour to paint, I want to live a life around art.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard said.

 

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.