Take It, It's Your's

Yesterday I visited Dia Beacon.  If you have not been there, then I highly recommend it.  There is much to see in terms of the work in the galleries but also the manner in which the work is installed is very beautiful and well considered.  It is kind of perfect.  Also, they have very good coffee and pastries in the cafe, if you find yourself a bit peckish after all that art absorption.  

The point of this blog post, however, isn't to be a commercial for Dia Beacon but to talk about space and taking up space.  In the two largest galleries as one enters, there is a piece by Walter De Maria based on the I Ching.  As I walked past it for the second time, I thought to myself how remarkable it was that he made this piece, which is so large and takes up so much space but is so incredibly mediocre.  

It called to mind a conversation that I had had a few days prior with a friend about men and how they occupy space easily and without apology.  Call it male privilege or even manspreading but there it was in art form courtesy of Mr. De Maria.  The thing is, I have dreams of occupying this much space.  I even have an ongoing game with myself where I think about what I would do if MassMOCA called and asked me to make something for one of their huge galleries.  I can feel it and I can almost see it - whatever it would be.  I want to occupy that much space.  I crave it.  Almost.

The conversation reminded me of having a studio visit with an artist when I did a residency at the Vermont Studio Center way back in 1995.  Sadly, I forget the artist's name but she pointed out that all of the women artists had organized their studio spaces based on how they found them - in other words, they (we) had adjusted our needs to the space even when it meant working was more difficult and inconvenient.  All the of male artists had shifted the space to suit their needs - moved tables and otherwise changed their environment so that it best suited their working habits.  As I looked around, I realized she was completely correct and I thought of all the times that I played a game of Twister to accommodate my materials and my working surface...as if that was normal or even necessary.  It was heartbreaking.

In a way, all my site specific work was about that notion of adjusting or accommodating to a space as I found it.  Now I am not so keen to accommodate - in my art or elsewhere in my life.  When I told my friend who was visiting Dia Beacon with me about my thoughts about De Maria's artwork, he encouraged me to think more about that reaction and what it said about my own work and working process.   When I look closer, I feel something akin to a young girl's yearning for the elusive something larger than herself.  It is Dorothea in Middlemarch.   Is it really that old in me - this longing?  And do I dare to finally answer its call?


While I was in residence at Zen Mountain Monastery, we had twice weekly "art practice" time.  An hour set aside to work on some kind of art making - could be visual art or writing or movement or sound - centered around an idea, or ideas, drawn from Eihei Dogen's Genjokoan.  After a few lame attempts at drawing for my art practice several years ago, I have mostly written poetry and made a couple of videos, including this one.  The writing, in particular, has been quite fruitful and given me confidence to keep working on it.  I even have a small book project cooking in the back of my mind that would combine my text embroideries with my poems.  Now that I have said it out loud, maybe it will really happen.  

This time around, I decided to try drawing again.  The instruction was to be spontaneous and make no edits or corrections.  I kept four sketchbooks around me, along with ink, water, pencils and watercolors.  Perhaps most importantly, I had with me a sense that there were no mistakes: no good drawings nor any bad ones.  There is always time for those kinds of determinations later.  I haven't looked at the results of those sessions since getting home but, in a way, the results aren't important.  The process of making the drawings was what stood out.  It was lively and fun and, mostly, I wished that I had eight sketchbooks handy so I could have kept going instead of having to wait for ink to dry now and then.

Later, as I sat in my studio during one of our days off, I thought about how I have made a choice to let this spiritual practice be one of the largest driving forces in my artwork.  I have had a rash of rejections to various applications in the past year as my work has changed and it has been hard not to feel like my art career has permanently stalled (and to feel bummed out about that).  As I sat in my studio, it suddenly became to clear to me.  When I started to put my spiritual path at the fore of my art making, I made a choice that some of the aspects of pushing my art career are no longer possible.  In simple, concrete terms, I have less time to work because a spiritual practice takes a lot of time.  Also, the aggressive self-promotion and the kind of ambition for projects and exhibitions and other goals just aren't so compelling.  Do I wish that some museum or gallery would give their space and a nice budget to make something fabulous (because I know I could!)?  YES!  Bring it!  But here's the rub, all the networking and politicking and promotion to get to that place simply isn't interesting and isn't going to happen.  It's kind of funny because the other result is that I feel such a deep connection and compulsion to make my work now - and I think my abilities and power to create something fresh and amazing have never been stronger.

Nothing stays stalled forever.  So, let's see what happens!

Turning the Light Around

Today, I will head northward to Zen Mountain Monastery to begin about five weeks of residency there.  The first week - starting tonight - will be sesshin (a silent meditation intensive).  Then I will enter the normal monastic schedule, which includes a good bit of sitting still but also includes working and playing.  The motivation behind this residency (if there needs to be one beyond simply being there) is to help get a dye studio up and running.  This year, the Monastery garden has been growing indigo and other dye plants with an eye to dyeing yarn and fabric that will be used to make things for the Monastery store.  All of this is in effort to move away from their online store, which is no longer competitive in the age of Amazon, and to offer residents and weekend retreat participants a chance to experience something other than sitting at a computer.  The trick is finding things that are doable for people with little to no skills.  I figure that, if you can chop a carrot, you can dye some fabric.  It is no harder than reading a recipe.  We'll see!

Art practice is a big part of the training at ZMM so there will be time each week for each of us to take it up.  I rarely have chosen to do visual expression as my art practice.  Instead I usually write.  Drawing and painting are so laden with ideas and training leftover from art school for me.  It has been a big battle to get beyond them.  So, at one point, I just let that go and took up writing since I have no notion of being "good" at it.  It is delightfully freeing!  Who knows, maybe I will work with movement this time around.

Whether we are sitting zazen or working or making art, the whole point is to turn the light around.  To see our own mind  and take responsibility for the whole catastrophe, as my teacher's teacher used to be fond of saying.  

Let's see just how big the catastrophe really is, shall we?

If Arjuna Did Windows

At the start of the new year, I was hired to make eight pairs of curtains for a family that I know who had moved into a new house.  Wait!  First, you need to know two things: one is that I briefly but significantly made very high-end, designer curtains and other textile housewares in the early 1990s.  It is significant because I loved that job.  I learned so much about sewing and fabric and making.  Second, the people who hired me in this story are blameless and all future suffering was for me to avoid.  

And that is point of this story.

You see, from almost the moment I cashed their check for the downpayment for the work, I did the wrong thing.  Looking back, nine months later, I can clearly see where I went wrong but in the moment, it simply felt like confusion and discomfort.  

Let's begin at the beginning.  

My first mistake was around money.  From the get-go, I was trying to save them money.  From their conversation about the curtains and just a general vibe I picked up, it was pretty clear that they didn't want to break the bank.  This is a perfectly reasonable point of view but it isn't not really possible when hiring someone to make eight pairs of custom-made curtains, including two that will cover french doors.  Oh - and all of them are doubled lined (meaning a flannel lining and a white cotton lining).  With the genius of hindsight, my reaction should not have been to try to minimize the amount of fabric needed and cut corners on my own fees but to sit them down and explain that custom-made curtains are expensive.  Period.  Inexpensive curtains can be purchased at IKEA for a shockingly low cost and will look lovely.  Eight pairs of double-lined, custom made curtain will cost thousands of dollars.  But I didn't do that.  Not only did I underpay myself for my time but it led me to skimp on the design.  As a result of skimping, they were unhappy with the two of the eight pairs and I had to re-make them, thus losing even more money.  The pool of unhappiness was deep!

The second big mistake I made was to confuse my role - was I a designer or a craftsperson?  Indeed, the whole experience came about as a result of my confusing my role.  My yoga mentor, Chase Bossart, has a most wonderful way of discussing the Bhagavad Gita in which the main takeaway is that Arjuna's suffering comes about all because he is confused about his role.  Once Krishna walks him through the correct way to look at his life, he becomes clear about what to do and he is no longer suffering.  

As I sat in my studio, re-making the last pair of curtains for the third (yes, that is three (3) times!), I suddenly thought, "Why, I am just like Arjuna, if Arjuna did windows!"  If I had been clear about my role in this project, I would have better explained about the cost.  I would have gratefully but clearly said no to offers of help for the installation and I would have presented them with a design - a complete package of how the whole thing would look and that's what they would have bought.  Instead, it was some half-way thing that was just confusing all around - was I just the craftsperson making what they wanted? (Except that they didn't know what they wanted until they saw what they didn't want.)  Or was I offering them a whole, new look as a designer would?

Nine months later, I have finally completed the job.  It was humbling, if not downright humiliating at times.  But seeing the connection to Arjuna helped.  It wasn't that I was a bumbling idiot or even bad at making curtains (I'm not).  This very simple notion - that when we are clear about our role then the work can flow harmoniously - is worth remembering that when things get dark and confused so we can check in with ourselves and see what needs to change.  Even if things aren't going smoothly, if we know that we are doing our job as intended, it makes it so much easier.  All jobs have bumps in the road so the bumps aren't the problem.  It knowing that we are doing the correct job - OUR job - that is the lynchpin.  

Chase is leading an online class about the Bhagavad Gita and I wholeheartedly recommend it to you, even if you think you are not interested in that kind of stuff.  He has a genius for making these ancient texts relevant to your very own life.  And he will make you laugh about it too.

At a certain point in the whole curtain debacle, I thought that I would never, ever do this again.  But as I finished up that last, most persistent, pair, I realized that I do actually love this work and I would do it again.  In the end, all the curtains I made were gorgeous.  The issue was being clear about my role.  Should I have another chance to take up such a job, I feel confident that it will go quite differently.

_L_I_N_E_ at the Inverness County Centre for the Arts

Very pleased to be included in the current exhibition in Inverness, Nova Scotia, curated by Robin Hill, titled _L_I_N_E_.  It features work by visual artists and writers.  From the curator's statement:

The exhibition explores the structural underpinnings of line in visual art and creative writing. The work in the exhibition explores the use of line in many dimensions, such as its use as an organizing principle, a technique, a concept, a phenomenon, a residue, a situation, a notation, an accumulation, a trajectory, a map, or a political or geographic threshold among others, in multiple disciplines such as the written word, painting, sculpture, drawing photography, video and combinations thereof. The opening reception is a great opportunity to meet the artists and discuss their work.

The artists’ works span the languages of abstraction and representation and embodies as its motivation both the imagined and the real.

The material and conceptual strategies include fishing lines, outlines, on lines, in lines, across lines, linings, hard lines, soft lines, invisible lines, deadlines, line ups, clotheslines, crossing lines, drawing the line, line by line, lines of verse, tracing the line, second line.

Visual Artists: Caroline Cox, Alex Livingston, Robyn Love, Tony MacKinnon, Barb Hunt, Sadie Bills, Elizabeth Whalley, Katie Kehoe, Robin Hill, Paul Ballard, Ann Richardson, Heather Nichol, Irena Schön, and Brooklyn Stewart.

Creative Writers: Anne Lévesque, Susan Paddon, Sarah Faber, Rebecca Silver Slayter, Leslie Schwerin, Kjeld Haraldsen (a.k.a. Richard Harvor), Oana Avasilichioaei, and Iris Cushing.