A Softer Place to Land

A Softer Place to Land

I was looking through an old journal recently, skimming it for inspiration. What kind of inspiration I was looking for, I’m not sure, but even though I’m not a very consistent journal keeper, I always know I can go back and find some insight you can only get by combining something from the past with something from the present. Hindsight is not 20/20, but it’s definitely helpful. 

I stumbled across an invocation I’d written:

So come here, imperfection, and sit with me this morning. I’ve still got two sips of coffee left and I’ll try not to drown you in my own suffering. Pull up a seat. I’ll make room on the couch. Let’s not fight today. 

When I wrote it, I was struggling with molehole-turned-mountain type of stuff. To invite imperfection was to accept reality– and neither some the-world-has-ended reality or a there’s-always-a-silver-lining platitude, just a these-are-the-raw-materials reality. Here they are; no more, no less.

In Art and Fear, the book we will be discussing at the gallery on Sunday, July 24, Bayles and Orland write: 

“To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done.” 

In this spirit, I’ve been getting comfortable with imperfection, trying to give my flawed and tangled thoughts a softer place to land. So often I’ve tried to lecture my inner voice into being a certain way which usually sounds something like “don’t think that!” Now I try to just give her space to say whatever it is, profound, flawed, nuanced, trite, distorted, biased, or kind. And by doing so, she usually finds a way through the more tangled and distorted parts. She gets curious about them because she can finally see them clearly just by letting them out. 

I’ve seen my work changing, too. What started off as thick, heavy, abstract strokes piled on a subject’s head has transformed into leaves and vines, messy but soft, a place where things might bloom, die, and bloom again. A softer place to land. In fact, little birds and bees have cropped up in these new environments. It seems to me that I went from thinking about thoughts themselves to thinking about the environments in which they might live and die, thrive and wilt. 

I’m curious to see how these images keep evolving, how I’ll think or rethink what it means to have a vibrant, imperfect interior world. 

What do you think? If you could paint not what’s going on in your mind, but the place where what’s going on resides, what would it look like?

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My favorite art book: let’s discuss!

My favorite art book: let’s discuss!


Art and Fear was published in 1993. I was twelve years old, and very busy decorating my latest journal with collages of teen heart throbs I’d cut out from drugstore magazines. I wanted to be a talk show host when I grew up. I knew two artists– my mom’s brother and her aunt (who much later would become my mentor), but I didn’t think much of either art or artists. I had no idea that I would become one, and, even now, when someone calls me that or I have to answer what “I do,” I have to fight the part of me that feels silly applying that title to myself. 

I encountered the book in 2002 when it was assigned to me in college by my painting professor. I don’t remember having any big feelings about it then, but somehow the paperback made it through every move, every apartment, every house, every decluttering where boxes upon boxes of other books ended up at Goodwill. 

I reopened it a few years ago, and to my absolute delight and astonishment, it spoke with a forceful precision into my newfound life as an artist. It named and then validated my fears. It took what felt ineffable and put it into direct and beautiful sentences that made me wonder what I thought was so complicated after all. As I scribbled notes in the margin and avoided the temptation to highlight every sentence, it both comforted and challenged me. 

Now, I carry it with me in my purse. I pull it out in waiting rooms, and in lines. I open it when I am stuck and frustrated, ready not only to throw in the towel, but to shred it into tiny pieces with which to wipe my many tears, then scatter those ashes onto the tombstone of my easel. I open it when I am happy that I get to do the thing I once thought impossible to do. I open it all the time. I keep it at the ready. 

Does this super cool photo I made my husband take prove how much I like this book?

 

And now, I really want to discuss it. With you. 

It’s been brewing for quite some time– if you are an artist (of any kind) I would love to invite you to an artist book club at the gallery in which Art and Fear will be the first book. I would love to sit around with our favorite beverages, maybe a shared snack or two, and chat about the “perils (and rewards) of artmaking.” If this interests you at all, but you are not local to the Mississippi coast, I’m also considering an additional zoom version of the book club as well.

You can click below to let me know you’re interested in joining (either in-person or virtual) so I can work with you to figure out the best days/times to meet. I think people are at their bests when they are connected with others and able to learn from them. I’m jazzed.

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Draw the line.

Draw the line.

What’s something you like that a lot of other people don’t?

I was asked this question in an interview recently. It took me a minute, but I landed on cutting the grass. There’s so much I like about it– the smell, the exercise, the heat, the music pouring into my ears from my headphones, the discoveries– a grasshopper or frog moving quickly out of the way, a weed/flower I’d never noticed before. But what I think I like most is the lines. Those glorious rows the lawnmower makes and the way they slowly start to take over an entire lawn. It is so satisfying. 

Let’s talk lines.

I think I’ve liked lines, particularly making them, for as long as I can remember.  I used to live within walking distance to the Tchefuncte River, and when life felt most beyond my control, I’d walk over to it and stare into the place where the water met the sky. In that space, the trees, usually dripping with Spanish moss, reached upward, but their reflections shone clear on the surface of the brown, still water. They were between two great and expansive mysteries. There was so much above and below them.

I wouldn’t have been able to tell you then why that sight was reassuring to me and why I started painting large abstracts with lines through the center shortly thereafter (even though most of my work was and still is representational), but I think now I can. 

The line is a separation, a marker, a definite in the sea of infinite. Where the river touches the sky there is an explosion of finite grass and trees, leaves, and light. Above that and the sky goes on forever, beyond what we can know or see. Below, and the water holds its own depth and mystery. I have lived many of my days and many of my hours in the past or in the future and in all the things that hum around the here and now. I have wished for things never to come and pined for times long gone. 

And I’ve learned how to spend more and more time in the present– that line between what has been and what will be. When I look at horizons, I see precision surrounded by mystery, and I feel safe. 

What would Jesus do?

In the Gospel of John, when the rule-obsessed and duplicitous Pharisees are asking Jesus whether they should stone a woman (supposedly caught in an act requiring another person who is notably absent from the makeshift trial), instead of answering them right away, Jesus bends down and writes with his finger in the ground, the dirt, the earth. I have often wondered what he may have written, what kind of lines he drew with his hand, and if he just needed a second to connect to the here and now instead of all that surrounded it. I find this simple image of him one of the most interesting and compelling displays of his humanity in all of the gospel stories. I am fascinated by it and why the author chose to include it but not a description of what he wrote. The story ends without the condemnation the Pharisees are thirsty for. They can neither condemn the woman nor Jesus. Not one stone is cast. You are not above or beyond this woman, I think he somehow tells them by stooping down and making marks into the ground.

Roads Travelled

Timelines, horizon lines, the dash between our birth and death dates. The lines we draw to make words and the way they cut into the vastness of a piece of paper. Our signatures or names carved into a tree or the sand at the beach. We are here. We are now. We exist. And it still matters in all that vast mystery that surrounds it. 

Below is a gallery of my abstract line paintings from over the years. They began in 2015. I’ll admit when I went through my archives to find them, I thought I’d have four or five. Turns out I’ve been working on this more often than I’d realized. 

I’ve been making paintings about this for years now, and I don’t have any intention of stopping. I’m not switching careers into lawn care, and I won’t cut your grass (my yard gives me all the satisfaction I need) but I would love to chat with you about the lines and marks you make and see. I would love to know which ones inspire or intrigue you. I would love to draw a line between us.

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Watchless.

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

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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Painting what I once most feared.

Painting what I once most feared.

 “Flew The Nest” 18×24, oil on canvas

What do you call a cross between a daydream and a nightmare? Whatever the word is, I had a recurring one when I was a kid. I would often imagine that I had a very rare disease that unbeknownst to me made all my thoughts audible to other people. My parents, having been told about the disease from doctors and knowing it would prevent me from functioning in the world if I knew about it, conspired with the whole community to keep it a secret from me. Laws were passed that stated no one could so much as lift an eyebrow to react to whatever they heard in my thoughts no matter how crazy, funny, outrageous, or ridiculous. There was no hiding anything from anyone. I was thoroughly and perpetually exposed, and, in the world of the dream, just beginning to realize it. 

I’m not sure exactly why I let this dream play out so many times other than I felt sure that the most terrifying thing in the world would be to have my innermost thoughts exposed with no ability to filter, control, edit, or even misrepresent them. 

Lately I’ve been painting women with, for lack of a more eloquent way to say it, “stuff” on their heads. When people ask, I tell them all that “stuff” is their thoughts. It’s always just a touch chaotic even when it’s blooming or beautiful. 

It occurred to me recently that, in a way, I’ve been illustrating one of my greatest childhood fears– the thoughts are not invisible and stored internally but take on actual shapes and contours that manifest themselves outside the bodies from which they come. They have weight. In “Flew the Nest” in particular, the swirling thoughts started to form what looked like a nest to me. So I, at the very end and without having planned to, painted a hummingbird near where the heart would be. The bird has left the comfortable nest of thoughts. The invisible and abstract have taken shape, have been made visible and concrete. They were let out. Shared.

It turns out, I don’t have the audible-thoughts disease. My thoughts and ideas, like yours, are invisible until I let them out– in a conversation, a look, a gesture, and more often than not, a painting. I get to control when and how and in what context they are revealed. I get to share them when and how I choose to. I’m not a bug, pinned and wriggling on the wall (hat tip, Prufrock) and how good that is. 

I’m learning to have a healthier relationship with my thoughts. In a perfect world, I’d never bury them or let them take over entire canvases. I’d look at them and let them go. I’d share when they beckon and keep them inside when they are content to be there and I am content to host them. The ones that fly the nest would do so without fear or judgment. They would do so with sincerity and kindness.

I didn’t start “Flew the Nest” with any of these ideas about it. They grew as it grew. I very much relate to Joan Didion’s famous line, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” So often I can only understand what I’m thinking after I’ve written about it. But before even that, to understand my own interior world, I’ve got one more step before writing. I’ve got to paint about it. 

Not all my paintings make me feel particularly proud, but “Flew the Nest” does. It reminds me of how far I’ve come– from a soft-spoken and reserved child to someone who discovered her strength was located in the very thing she used to most fear– vulnerability. This painting has a gentleness to it I’ve tried to replicate and can’t quite. It went through countless changes, additions, and rounds of scraping off; there was doing and redoing. There are layers. It makes me think. 

If anything in “Flew the Nest” speaks to you, I’d love to know about it in the comments.