courage

I’m in the thick of working on the aesthetic statement for my thesis. It feels like an overwhelming task–to put to words what I find valuable and meaningful in poetry, how my own work reflects that, and how it fits in with the larger conversation of art and artists. I’ve been looking back through the books that have inspired me over the years and picking out the pieces that I’ve held onto. A few quotes have stood out to me–ones I thought were worth sharing.

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“…the courage to be an amateur.”

We hear a lot about courage in the new year. We want to be brave, or to do big things, or to try new things. We perhaps want our story to look a bit differently, to get out of old patterns that might not be healthy. The thing that stands out to me though, is that this change doesn’t happen overnight. It occurs over time, over the accrual of many mistakes. It’s a long process and progress is slow. And perhaps, mistakes are not the enemy.

This is a passage from the book The Art of Recklessness by Dean Young. Dean Young adds on to Wallace Stevens’ statement, saying,

“I always tell my students not to worry about originality; just try to copy the manners and musics of the various, the more various the better, poetries you love: your originality will come from your inability to copy well: YOUR GENIUS IS YOUR ERROR.”

Young also writes,

“I don’t believe in writer’s block, writing well is very easy; it’s writing horribly, the horrible work necessary to do to get to writing well, that is so difficult one may just not be willing to do it.”

I’m seeing a theme here…it requires courage to be an amateur, to make mistakes, to do crappy work. We can’t get to where we want to be as people or artists without it. This requires vulnerability, taking chances, trying new things, and being ourselves. “Our genius is our error.”

When we speak of courage, we tend to think of doing big things for big causes. But sometimes, courage is simply putting something out there, again and again. Just keeping at it, whatever it is, growing in the process. Most of the time, the growth is so slow, it is only detectable after you’ve put years of work in.

Here are a few more gems, written by Richard Hugo, another poet:

“When you have done your best, it doesn’t matter how good it is. That is for others to say.”

“An act of imagination is an act of self-acceptance.”

“What a silly thing we do. We sweat through poem after poem to realize what dumb animals know by instinct and reveal in their behavior: my life is all I’ve got. We are well off to know it ourselves, even if our method of learning it is painfully convoluted. When you write you are momentarily telling the world and yourself that neither of you need any reason to be but the one you had all along.”

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Ok, back to work. I hope these tidbits encourage you today!

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Solitude

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Solitude
6×8; Gouache on paper

I took a little departure from acrylics and fruit and decided to get a bit outside of my comfort zone for the new year. I’ve been captivated by winter skies over the past few weeks. Though light in the winter feels scarce, when it does shine, it shines with vivid angles and casts breathtaking colors through the trees and clouds. The blackbirds in our area are especially active, moving in dark swarms from yard to yard, collecting on telephone poles before scattering again. I captured the above scene at a stoplight on my way home from dropping the littles off at school yesterday. This little bird originally had company on this stretch of wire, but the rest of his crew flew off while it lingered behind, not seeming to mind a bit of solitude.

Solitude.

In the aftermath of the holidays, I feel like I am starting to reclaim little pockets of it. Our normal routine has finally resumed and I’ve realized that I perhaps rely more on our routine than the children do. Without it, I fizzle out quite quickly. I feel like the little artist inside of me dies a rapid death when there is not space and silence to think and breathe.

I had a pocket of time this afternoon to do some painting. It was a quiet day, rainy but warm for this time of year, which was a welcomed break from the cold front that hit us last week. My old friend and extremely talented painter, Whitney Knapp, recommended that I try gouache paint a while ago. It is like watercolor, except more vibrant and opaque, like acrylic. I am still trying to get a feel for them, exploring how far they can be stretched. Today, I used them more like I would an acrylic, with less water and more paint. It was good practice.

As far as the sky: I think one could dedicate the rest of one’s life studying and painting the sky. Fruit, for me, is a safer bet! As I attempted to paint this winter sky-scape, I was struck by the dramatic shifts in color that we don’t always notice, at least, not in detail. What a glorious work of art hangs above our heads each day! God, the Artist of all artists, always Inspiring!

Here is the photo I took that inspired the painting:

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When I showed my gouache exercise to my husband, he said the first thing he thought of was the album cover from Greg Laswell’s album, “Three Flights from Alto Nido,” which just happens to be one of my favorite albums. (I’m sensing a theme here!) If you haven’t listened to it, I highly recommend it.

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What winter scenes inspire you?
What new artistic mediums or ventures do you want to try in the new year?

I hope you had a lovely holiday season!
Here’s to more SOLITUDE…and space to CREATE…in 2014.

Pears

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Three Pears; Acrylic on paper; 8×10

I haven’t done much painting lately, but on Christmas afternoon I got the itch to pull my acrylics back out. It was a way to mentallly and emotionally regroup in the aftermath of holiday chaos. Still-life paintings call to me lately and this little line of pears became my latest subject matter. They seemed to represent the Christmas season in shape and color. They are a reflection of the three little people that fill my life, elbows touching, each with their own personality.

I’m always interested in how painting and poetry intersect. Paintings are images in color. Poems are images in words. I love to see how the two different forms of art speak to each when they are placed side by side. Many of my poems overlap in subject matter with the paintings I’ve done or the photos I’ve taken. One inspires the other, and vice versa. As I was painting these pears the other day, I found myself thinking of a Linda Pastan poem from her latest collection of poetry, Traveling Light, entitled “Pears”:

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Do you find the different forms of art overlap for you?
What inspires you to create?
What images speak to you during this time of year?

I hope you all had a lovely Christmas!

the creative process

There are many artists who argue that the key to success is just sitting down, everyday, and doing the work, regardless of whether or not you feel inspired. I think that this is a great discipline, and it’s a practice that I’m trying to instill in my own schedule. I can’t always afford to sit down daily. Raising three children and tending to the myriad of associated details makes this difficult, but I’m learning that it is realistic and fruitful to set two to three mornings aside each week to “do the work.”

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I’ve been working on my MFA for an embarrassing amount of time. I started back in 2008. To my credit, there have been a few children, an adoption, and several moves wedged into this time frame, and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to work at my own pace. I am finally finished with my coursework and I’m slowly plugging away on my thesis, so the end is in sight, but somedays it still feels like I will never finish. I fear that I’m not a great finisher, especially when it comes to things of a creative nature, so I am determined to prove my inner voices wrong and just get this thing done.

In the process, I am learning how to make my creative efforts a part of my life as reliably and unemotionally as any other task, whether it be feeding my children or taking out the trash. It’s easy to think that creative work is somehow superfluous to life, and therefore, should responsibly be dropped when life gets crazy. It’s taken me years to realize that my overall wellbeing is benefitted by regular times to let my creativity out. It doesn’t seem that our culture respects the fine arts in the way that it does, say, business or law or medicine, so I think that in-between the lines and starting at an early age, we learn that creativity is extra and elective. There is some truth to this, of course, and I realize that when one is in survival mode, creativity gets trumped by more immediate needs such as food and shelter. But when we are in a place where the needs on the bottom tiers of Maslow’s Triangle are getting met, I think it is wise to challenge the idea that creative efforts aren’t a true human need. They may not generate much monetary income, but in the economy of the human spirit, creative efforts are rich and rewarding. They speak to the soul.

I hope to start unpacking some thoughts on the creative process in future posts, and I would love to hear what helps you in your own creative endeavors. I suppose it looks different for everyone depending on their brain chemistry and life circumstances. At this season of life, I don’t have all day to spend on my creative projects, so I am realizing that it’s important for me to “get in the zone” quickly. That way, I can utilize most of my time actually producing rather than staring blankly at the blank page.

Being “in the zone” for me translates to coffee, music (something moody, melancholy, and soft), good sleep, my journal, and a stack of books. Sometimes I like to get out of the house and work at a coffee shop, but sometimes I like to work at home. As long as there are no screaming or whining children demanding attention, then I’m good to go! I usually have some sort of prompt to get my thoughts going, whether it’s a photo I’ve taken (images, in general, yield a wealth of ideas!), a quote I read, a poem, etc. Holding onto all of these sources of inspiration has been helpful–being more intentional about storing these tidbits away for my next work session helps me plan how I want to spend my time. My journal is scattered with random, one-line musings that I hope to some day explore further.

One of my favorite writers, Donald Miller, says to “write where the wind is blowing.” This has also been huge for me. Whenever I feel pressure to just work on one thing, my imagination tends to start shutting down. Therefore, I love giving myself permission to have several projects going at the same time. (The challenge, then, is choosing which ones are worthy of finishing and actually finishing them!)

In the same vein, I have wondered if keeping this blog is a distraction–a form of resistance in finishing my thesis–but I am realizing that keeping this blog actually helps me unpack and unload my ideas in a way that keeps the creative juices flowing. It’s been important for me to remember that I don’t need to limit myself, and that spending time on something that I “shouldn’t” be writing or painting will somehow link back and inspire the thing I “should” be doing. Nothing is wasted. Most of my ideas for poems come out of left field and at times I least expect, so keeping my options open has been beneficial for me. I came across this graphic the other day and it concisely expresses this same thought:

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The more I engage with my creativity, the more I feel generating inside of me. The more I release it, the more it fills back up again. I am learning that the creative process is circular, not linear. There is no end. Everything is connected.

I was talking with a friend of mine a few weeks ago. She is a writer but also has a day job, so she doesn’t always have a lot of time to spend on her own projects. She writes bi-weekly for an online publication, though, and she says that this habit helps to keep her creativity going. The articles she writes aren’t always what she would choose to write, but the act of sitting down and writing fills her creative bank nonetheless.

So, all of that said, what practices facilitate your own creative process? Do you have a process or a routine? What has helped you to progress and produce as an artist?

the lost genre

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Last spring I went to Barnes and Noble to buy a few self-help books that were recommended to me. I came home with three poetry books instead.

I remember standing in the measly poetry section of the bookstore that day. It consisted of one little column of shelves–a slowly sinking island in a vast and verbose sea of prose. What has happened to this lost genre? I wondered why it had become such an outcast.

Poetry came into my life a bit haphazardly. I went into my MFA thinking I would focus on creative nonfiction. Then I took a poetry workshop to meet a requirement and I fell in love. Poetry was not what I thought it was. It was not a Hallmark card. It wasn’t flowery language. It wasn’t (exclusively) Shelley and Keats and struggling through my senior year of British Lit. It wasn’t predictable rhyme schemes and abstract language. It was so much more than all of that. It was tangible, gritty, simple, and musical. It was dense, the real heart of things.

In contemporary poetry, I found freedom. I found a place where I could let my mind wander and embrace the moment. I discovered that profound truths can be expressed concisely. I found my senses. I found that images are a language of their own. This was a place where rules could be broken and the breaking was invited.

Perhaps, for me, the allure of poetry lies in its stark contrast to the current culture. Poetry is okay with unanswered questions and gray areas. It’s fine with being open to interpretation and misunderstood. And in this place, I find rest. I find help that no self-help book can offer me. I find room to move around, to be quiet and listen and let life unfold naturally, organically. I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s words:

“In the act of writing the poem, I am obedient, and submissive. Insofar as one can, I put aside ego and vanity, and even intention. I listen. What I hear is almost a voice, almost a language. It is a second ocean, rising, singing into one’s ear, or deep inside the ears, whispering in the recesses where one is less oneself than a part of some single indivisible community.”

Obedience. Submission. Listening. Community. Are these qualities dwindling down like the poetry section of the bookstore? I find that they are essential to a meaningful life.

We experience so many deaths and rebirths throughout a lifetime. Though poetry seems like a dying art, I am aware that art is constantly being reinvented, shifting and adapting along with the rest of the world. I believe we will always have art with us. Innate to the human spirit is an unquenchable hunger to create. Despite the sparse collection of poetry at my local library and bookstore, I believe this art form will press on. It may not be the most popular genre, but somehow, that seems fitting, too.

What art form/genre are you drawn to and why?  Is it a “dying art?” How has it changed over time?

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[French Press Saturday]

Citrus and Espresso

Citrus and Espresso

Citrus and Espresso.
Acrylic on paper; 9×12

I started this still life during the doldrums of winter when the days were gray and damp. The trees were barren and life felt dismal. The light and joy of Christmas had faded and spring was still a faint fleck in the distance.

We found relief in the color and scent of citrus. We took momentary refuge in the warmth and richness of espresso.

This painting reminds me that God gives us good gifts each day, gifts that breathe beauty and hope back into our spirits even during the darkest seasons. I am grateful for that.