Day 9. Take your own advice.

“Taking the World into my Arms,” 6×6, oil on canvas

I was having some trouble in the studio, so I took the advice I recently gave another artist: paint something familiar while you wait for the next inspiration to come. It usually comes when you’re painting, afterall.

So I pulled three figures from a photograph of a second line band at one of the many weddings where I’ve painted and started playing with their shapes and colors on a 6×6 canvas.

In her poem “When Death Comes” Mary Oliver writes, 

 

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life 

I was a bride married to amazement. 

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”

 

I like to think of this particular band as commemorating the marriage Oliver describes.

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Day 31. Blessing for the Seeker

“Seeking, Striving, in it with all my Heart” 48x48in oil on canvas

“I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.”

-Vincent Van Gogh

This is the part where I stare at the blinking cursor on my screen. Because there’s a jumble of thoughts, of what I could or should or want to say to bring the whole thing full circle, to express my gratitude, my pervasive hope that creating matters– to our spirit, to our homes, to our world. What a wild thought.

Today’s painting is large. I’ve been working on it on and off all month long, and this morning I put the final touches on it, stood back to look at it, and was overcome by how hard this month was, how much joy it produced. 

My dear community of fellow 31ers, I have many times this month been awed by you, your work, your vulnerability. You’ve made me laugh and cry. You’ve made me hopeful. I’ve been impressed, jealous (not super proud of that one), moved, curious, excited. But most of all, I’ve felt supported and held by a precious community. I hope you have felt the same.

I wrote a blessing as a companion to today’s painting. It’s for the seeker, the 31er. It’s for you. 

 

For the Seeker, A Blessing

May you uncover not only what you seek

But what the soil of your search makes bloom

Not only what you are certain of

But mysteries holding together that which fades

 

May the light that is already yours

(and always has been)

Find new cracks and crevices

Into which to pour and reveal itself

 

And when petals turn brown and crisp

Clinging, absurdly to what is disappearing

May their memory guide you

To your next discovery

 

But until it beckons, 

May you stand still, awed, 

long enough to know

The joy of flight

The blessing of travel

The gift of the season that was

And will be

Again.

All 31 coming exclusively to my subscribers list tomorrow Feb. 1 at 8pm. Make sure you’re on it here.

 

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Day 31. If you want to go far…

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Day 22. You do not have to be good.


“Family of Things” 6×6, oil on canvas

Every time I do a 31 in 31 there comes a point where I hit a wall. I question work I once adored. I worry that, contrary to the stacks of paintings that have already collected and which stand firmly in evidence of my ability to create, that I will not be able to finish the 31 days. 

Yesterday was my wall. Brick, not too tall, just tall enough that scaling it would require some help. A rope maybe. Some sticky shoes like a cartoon where the character walks up the wall parallel to the ground.

And then that wall whispered to me, as it often does, the words from a Mary Oliver poem. “You don’t have to be good,” it said. “You don’t have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting…the world offers itself to your imagination.”

And I saw a photograph of geese saved in one of my pinterest folders, and even though the painting didn’t seem like it would turn out, I did it anyway, knowing I did not have to be good. Just present. Just a part of the family of things.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

–Mary Oliver

 

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“It seemed at first that bird would surely fall”

“It seemed at first that bird would surely fall”

I am currently on vacation in Florida with my family (minus one stepson away at college who is dearly missed). Instead of writing a new blog post for the week, I wanted to share something old. As I dug through my archives (which, turns out, actually takes longer than writing something new) I landed on a post from almost exactly seven years ago. It was day 100 of my 100 paintings in 100 days project, and I painted an eagle inspired by the poetry of my now dear friend, Butch.

It’s been a minute since I really looked back at the beginning, when I was just starting to paint seriously. The almost ten year old who jumped out of bed this morning, alert and ready at the words “boats’s ready, let’s go fishing,” was not quite three when I wrote that 100 day post. I was still toting him around on my hip and watching Buzz Lightyear on repeat from an actual DVD. There weren’t any other kids in my life. I was finding my way, paint stroke by paint stroke, completely unsure and unsteady and yet never more determined to see it all through. Without realizing it, I often take for granted the beginning of the story. The part where anything, especially disaster, was possible. For the first time that I can ever remember, I decided to pursue something despite what other people said or cautioned me against. I decided to listen to my own voice, quiet and timid, but persistent.

Reading it again, my friend’s poem still makes my eyes water. What a gift it was to me then and what a treasure it is to me now, seven years on the other side, still pulling out my paint and tools, just in case anything should decide to take flight.

Here’s the original post:

 

Day 100/100. It’s All About the Doing, July 9, 2015

 

100 days. Oh. My. God. And I don’t mean that in an in-vain kind of way. I mean it in the awe-struck, completely inadequate way. Not that I am so impressed by my own silly achievement as much as I am amazed at what a silly achievement can do for a person– take them from darkness into light. And all I had to do was paint? Are you kidding me?

I will never forget where I was almost three years ago. Wearing a baggy yellow nightgown, standing barefoot on the tile of my bathroom, hair dripping water on the ground. My marriage was ending and my newborn wouldn’t stop crying. I was looking down at the yellow cloth bunched around my middle and said these words to a friend on the phone: When I think about the rest of my life (i.e, when I picture it, envision it, “paint the scene”), I just don’t want to live it. In that moment, I was no artist. There was nothing I could do with the raw materials before me. I didn’t think I had anything to work with.

I know I’ve written about this before, but it feels different because of the ever-growing distance between me and the woman in a frumpy yellow nightgown. Okay, I still wear it, and in most respects I’m still her, but my vision is broader and my hope more profound. I’m not a victim of circumstance, but an artist who designs a future. One little painting at a time.

100 paintings in 100 days, like all of my daily painting pursuits isn’t about the paintings but about the doing. Doing is power. I’m so glad I learned that.

I spent a long time trying to decide what I was going to do, but it wasn’t until I picked up the brush, figured out some mildly tech-y stuff, and just started that the figuring out part began. And it’s still happening. New opportunities keep presenting themselves like little imperfectly wrapped gifts from God-knows-where. But they didn’t start arriving until I started doing.

I envy artists who seem to have it all figured out. They’ve got their “thing” and they do it really well, market it precisely.

But my thing is a path. It’s a commitment to keep walking the twists and turns, embracing new directions and discoveries along the way. Taking some wrong turns. Occasionally getting lost. So my thing isn’t a thing; it’s a promise: I will keep doing this because I believe it will continue leading me to diverse somewheres.

A few weeks ago, I got an email from someone I’d met in 2009. On the patio at Pat O’Brien’s, I discussed Flannery O’Connor with him and his wife who were visiting from Arkansas. I never remembered his name until the email in which he reminded me of our conversation and some things I said that I don’t quite remember saying. It’s amazing how I can be more forthcoming and honest with certain strangers than I am with people I’ve known my whole life. I detest small talk which is what talking to strangers mostly is. But every once in a while you meet someone with whom there is no preamble, with whom heartfelt conversation is not the reward for hours or even years of mild pleasantries.

I’d like to share the whole email here because I’ve been trying to summarize it and not quite doing it justice. He included a poem at the end that makes me cry when I read it. It reminds me that saying “no” to the good things I don’t really want has allowed me to witness things I do want (maybe need?), the things that are more than just good but a good fit to boot.

So here it is:

Butch’s Letter

I’ll begin with apologies for such a lengthy email, not my normal style.

You may remember that some years ago, my wife and I had the accidental good fortune to meet you with some of your friends at Pat O’Brien’s, where the rather amazing coincidence of our mutual deep regard for the work of Flannery O’Connor was discovered.  I later read your Master’s thesis, and looked at the art on your website, as you had mentioned it to me.  I remember you saying then that you were feeling some urgency to find your artistic voice, that O’Connor had done so much in her thirty-nine years, and you felt the need to get moving in some similar way.  I also remember telling my wife that I thought you were, as Cormac McCarthy says, ‘Carrying the fire’, and that I hoped you didn’t let life get its confining arms too much around you, and pull you away from your true passion.

I retired from Entergy in early 2014, and had the very interesting task of figuring out what I wanted the next phase of my life to be about, after working for large companies for about 40 years.  I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to take that kind of look at things.  One thing that I remembered was a painting I had seen at your website showing a barefoot girl putting her toe in the water, trousers rolled, with the great T.S. Eliot poem.  I loved that painting, with its challenge and its courage.  Went to the website, and found….website gone. “Oh no,” I thought, “they got to her….the ‘numbers and normal’ people…got to her.”

Imagine my relief when I found your new, and excellent, website.  You could not imagine how deeply pained I was when I read your story, and of the suffering you had gone through.  You also cannot imagine how inspired I was by your determined course to be…and make a living being…an artist.  It has made such a difference for me as I have tried to go forward with this next phase.  I’ve always thought of myself as a person with a fair amount of courage, but you really expanded my sense of my own courage, especially relative to the artistic.

Now, I don’t fool myself that I am an artist, but over the years I’ve written a bunch of songs that I never had time to really do anything with.  I’ve started a book that I hope to complete, I don’t think it is art, but it may be a good story at that.  And at different times over the years, I’ve written some cowboy poetry that folks have found to be good and interesting.  I should probably say…I understand that cowboy poetry, at least as written by me, is to real poetry as, say, John Wayne as an actor is to Sir Lawrence Olivier.  But anyhow, it’s what I do sometimes.

So when you spoke of your 100 days of art, I was quite intrigued, and encouraged, and a little challenged.  I decided that whereas I didn’t think I could do a poem or a song a day, I would do a piece of work each week while you were in your quest.  Easy to say, not so easy to do.  Started a poem but couldn’t finish it in a week….thought okay, a poem a month during this period.  Still not so easy…elderly parents, night teaching job, family illness, wonderful (in every respect) but time demanding grandson, resistance, lack of discipline, more resistance.  So finally I said to myself, is it too much to get at least this one poem finished within these hundred days????

This stuff is hard!  But I did finish it….or at least finished it for today…still got a couple of places that want a better poet, albeit a cowboy poet.

I’ve attached it here, and I hope you enjoy it.  It is dedicated to you, for your inspiration and example.  Helping me, and I’m sure others, have the courage to transcend the ‘numbers and the normal’.  I’m going to try.

All the best!  You’re in the home stretch!

 

               When She Took Wing to Fly

             Respectfully dedicated to Louisiana artist Denise Hopkins

Every day for ninety days, without a day of rest,

She walked the trail, and climbed the cliff, to reach that eagle’s nest.

She brought her paints, and canvas boards, and set them on the ledge,

And stood there humming while she worked, not two foot from the edge.

And come the dusk, she’d climb back down, and work her way on back.

Another painting on the walls, of her old tar-paper shack.

But each one spoke its special truth, of beauty, strength and grace,

Of work, and love, and life each day unfolding in that place.

Slim was out there sometimes, fixing fence and riding herd.

He’d watched her climb that cliff each day, to paint that sacred bird.

And being the good man that he was, he thought to help her out,

He’d tell her all about the jobs, where they was hiring thereabout.

‘Mrs. Rollins down at the hardware store is needin’ someone now,

To keep the books, mind the place, and manage the accounts.

They say the pay is pretty good, as it goes here in our town,

And you won’t have to climb no cliffs, or face no eagle down.’

‘Or over at the ‘No Quit Ranch’, the place I draw my pay

We could use a person just like you, to help run that crazy place.

And they tell me that our little school is growin’ awful fast.

I hear they’re needin’ someone to teach the writing and the math.’

But she just smiled, and said, ‘Well Slim, I know you mean the best,

And I must really be a sight to see, climbing up to reach that nest.

But I’ve taught in school, I’ve kept the books, I’ve even run a store.

Now those are things that just will never work for me no more.’

‘So it’s me and the eagle, face to face, I watch her standing guard.

I love each brushstroke that I make, though I’ve never worked so hard.

And there’s a little baby eagle, in that nest there in the sky.

I intend to paint him on the day that he takes wing to fly.’

Then one day she just stood there tired…discouraged…on that shelf.

‘What on Earth am I doing here?’ she wondered to herself.

Empty canvas, brushes dry, but still ready for some play,

And she’d made that promise to herself, ‘a painting every day’.

‘What would have been so bad,’ she thought, ‘to have just one day of rest?’

And right about that time she heard some noises from the nest.

The little eagle bird was hopping over to the side.

It shook its feathers, flapped its wings, then looked straight into her eyes.

And then without a speck of doubt, without a moment’s fear.

It lifted up and launched itself, straight out into the air.

She caught her breath, it seemed at first that bird would surely fall,

But it caught the wind, then soared and flew, beside that mountain wall.

She grabbed her brush, her boldest paints, wild strokes against the board.

Her heart told her she’d never really seen an eagle fly before.

She froze that moment in her mind, and throughout all her years,

She called it up each time she needed strength to calm her fears.

I guess she’s out there even now, painting on some shelf,

Selling some work every now and then, to make a living for herself.

Birds and sky and God and man, have felt her loving artist’s eye.

But that was the time….yes, that was the time….when she took wing to fly.

 

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Watchless.

 

“Today” by Mary Oliver 

Today I’m flying low and I’m

not saying a word.

I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.

 

The world goes on as it must,

the bees in the garden rumbling a little,

the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.

And so forth.

 

But I’m taking the day off.

Quiet as a feather.

I hardly move though really I’m traveling

a terrific distance.

 

Stillness. One of the doors

into the temple.

 

A door into the temple opened for me unexpectedly:

Way back in long-lost May, I was playing basketball with my oldest stepson (he will be more than happy to tell you that he beat me) when, scrambling for a loose ball, I cracked my Apple watch on the pavement. It didn’t seem like the end of the world, just a scratch, and I’m not very particular about such things. But then the watch started activating the emergency call system without being prompted. It would start beeping menacingly and counting down from five. Sometimes I could get it to stop, and a few times it went right on ahead and called 911, and I had to profusely apologize for wasting the dispatcher’s time. I quickly decided just to turn it off (which also activated the emergency call system). I think it was trying to break up with me. 

It’s been about one fully watchless week. After a long walk with my husband on a quick anniversary trip, we joked that while he had 20,000 steps, I had none. Without a means to measure them, certainly they could not exist. Without a watch, was I even a person at all? Did passerbys just see a man walking down a path chatting to some invisible force just to his right? 

As fate would have it, a business outside our hotel posted this sign on the sidewalk we passed each day of our trip, another reminder that time does not need to be incessantly watched over, managed or even observed. 

It’s been a full week of not knowing how many steps I’ve taken, miles I’ve walked or run, how many calories I’ve burned. It’s been a week of not getting texts on my wrist and then whispering a response into it. I’ve been slower to respond. I’ve missed things.

But for all I’ve missed, I’ve gained perhaps twice as much. I’m noticing the gifts this little change has offered to me–  enjoying a walk instead of the numbers it grants me at the end, working intuitively on a painting rather than setting timers for how long a certain part should take me. 

I wrote recently about how I memorized Mary Oliver’s “When I am Among the Trees” and what a joy having those words stored inside me has been and how often I access them. I have repeated to myself daily the end of that poem, even more so since breaking the watch: “And you too have come into the world to do this/to go easy/to be filled with light/ and to shine.” Instead of measuring all the things a watch can, I’m using this line as my ruler– if I am doing these three things, it does not matter the miles, the emails, the to do’s, the social media posts (or the number of likes and comments). If I, too, have come into the world to do these things (and I think we all have) they supersede all else, releasing me of the burden to constantly do more. 

The poem that begins this post is written into the background of the painting that you also see at the start. I think “Today” is up next for me to memorize. So that I can cling to it when I’m all bustle and no stillness.

I’m already shopping for a new watch, but I’m not in a rush to buy it. When I do settle in on one, I’m going to take off many of the notifications I’ve previously relied on. I’m going to have a healthier watch relationship. If before I was a stalker to time, now I want to let it do its thing as I do mine. Mindful of but not obsessed with it. 

I would love to know where you find quiet, how you slow down, and if anything has ever shown you that not measuring might be the easiest route to joy

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Think like an artist

 

Introduction to Poetry

BY BILLY COLLINS

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

 

I referenced this poem briefly in a recent post. Having taught high schoolers both art and poetry, it both makes me laugh and it speaks to me. Deeply. 

And not because I find myself so far removed from the students’ obsession with deeper or, worse, hidden meanings, but because I find the impulses so familiar. What is the one thing I can reduce this to and thus eliminate it all together, letting what it means be what it is.

The Power of “I See”

It was art that helped me with this inclination to reduce. Namely, a professor who at critiques where we would sit in a circle and discuss everyone’s work, made us begin each statement with “I see.” This liberated us completely from having to say anything particularly profound (every self-conscious nineteen year old’s worst fear). All we had to do was name something we were looking at, and the simpler and more objective the statement the better. For example, my professor preferred we say things like, “I see a bright red red circle in the top corner and a smaller one of a very similar but not exactly the same red in the bottom” instead of “I see a sun and I see beauty.” The first comment gets us to look at the parts of the painting in relation to each other. The second makes an obvious statement followed by a judgment. 

It was like a silly version of “Simon Says,” and we struggled, often beginning our sentences with “I like” and not “I see” which would trigger a do over. I tried this with my own students during the six years that I taught. They struggled too, but insistence on “I see” eventually led us to discover design elements we’d not noticed before. One person would inevitably see something that made us say “Aha!” 

I see a series of vertical lines

I see muted colors

I see triangles everywhere

I see big strokes in the foreground and tiny ones in the background

I see thick black lines

I see organic shapes.

It didn’t matter what you said as long as it wasn’t a value statement or a recitation of what was obvious– I see a bowl of fruit when that was overtly the subject matter– and everyone could do it.

I tried to use this same technique with the poems I taught. My students always wanted to jump ahead to what a poem meant, as though it were a math problem to be solved. If I had been able to give them an equation, many of them would have gladly and joyfully accepted as they eagerly plugged in symbols and rhymes into the variables to arrive at that blessed “deeper meaning.” 

Instead of saying things like “this poem means we should live life to the fullest,” I’d project the poem onto the smart board and ask for “I see” statements: “I see four stanzas with two lines in each” or “I see images of cold in the first and last stanza and ones of warmth in the middle” or “I see a question mark at the end and notice it is the only punctuation.” Once we observed, we saw more. We appreciated more. We had more to discuss. We saw more not of the one thing the poem “meant” but more of its beauty, more of its nuance, more of its contours. We could behold it.

I realize now that the key to appreciating or excavating any work of art is just to pay close attention to it, setting aside our expectations and assumptions as best that we can.

Now I use “I see” (or try to) for more than art and poetry. I use it for understanding my kids– I see folded arms or a sly smile. This is just information. And I’m just gathering it. I use it when I read something I don’t fully understand. I used it last night when the oldest showed me a ballet on youtube that diverged from the conventions we typically associate with ballet. Instead of immediately jumping to “I don’t get it,” I thought about what I was seeing. The contrast in the bodies, the unusual shapes they were making.

“I see” can take me from ungrounded speculation and assumption to sincere curiosity. It takes me from recklessly jumping to conclusions to being observant, open minded, and curious. 

I wonder what would happen if I always started with “I see” instead of “I know” or “I think.” I wonder what would happen if I treated difficult topics or conversations like an art or poetry critique, looking first to observe, next to make connections, and last to make any value judgments or conclusions. 

I share this because I think I am the best version of myself when I think like an artist– leaning into curiosity, openness, and discovery. I think I’m the best version of myself when I trust that my observations (when they are particularly astute and when they are simple) will lead me somewhere worth going.

Does this make sense to you? Do you ever think like an artist? I would love to know your thoughts.

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Two words I use every day (in my studio and in my life).

Two words I use every day (in my studio and in my life).

I’m not sure where I learned them, but as soon as I did, I realized how powerful they were. They work best to dispel my natural tendency to let a simple disappointment snowball into a full-scale self-directed character assassination. I can’t tell you how many of my...

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Day 28. Except the Opposite

"The Birds are Circling" 9x12 inches, oil on paper Today’s painting is a companion piece to yesterday’s. As I was painting it, I kept thinking “The vultures are circling…except maybe the opposite.” I used photographs of a white-tailed tropicbird for a reference for...

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