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Sunday Quotation: Art as Suffering and Peace

“Art is like Christianity in this way: at its greatest, it can give you access to the deepest suffering you imagine–not necessarily dramatic suffering, not necessarily physical suffering, but the suffering that is in your nature, the suffering of which you must be conscious to fulfill your nature–and at the same time provide a peace that is equal to that suffering. The peace is not in place of the horror; the sorrow does not go away. But there is a moment of counterbalance between them that is both absolute tension and absolute stillness. The tension is time. The stillness is eternity. With art, this peace is passing and always inadequate. But there are times when the very splendid insufficiency of art…can point a person toward the peace that passeth understanding…” –Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet

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the artist within

Over the past two weeks, my children have only had three days of school, which means we’ve had A LOT of downtime at home. My son wanted nothing to do with the snow, and the girls lasted about five minutes before they were whimpering to come back inside.

Art has always been a resting place for me, and now, as a mother of three, I am also benefitting from its ability to occupy my children! I am quite certain we would not have survived the past two weeks without new watercolors and crayons at our disposal.

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As a parent, it’s exciting to see your kids gravitate to the things you are passionate about. I love watching my children embrace their creativity. It fascinates me that at such a young age their artwork already reflects their unique personalities.

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By the end of the week, I had massive stacks of kid-art crowding my desk, so I decided to spread them all out on the floor. Here’s an aerial view. That’s not even all of it!

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My oldest daughter is energetic, determined, and detail-oriented. She is a girly-girl who loves fashion and pretty things. She says she wants to be an artist when she grows up. She drew a few self-portaits this past week…all lashes, lips, and earrings.

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Perhaps this sounds a bit dramatic, but I feel humbled when I look at my children’s artwork. There is no pride, no inhibition, no self-consciousness. They follow their impulses and don’t second-guess themselves. They aren’t bound by perfectionism.

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As adults, I think that self-consciousness can make us or break us. It can drive us to improve our craft as we become aware of what works, what doesn’t, and why, but it can also paralyze us with fear. There is a certain beauty that comes from a child’s innocence. Their art is bold, raw, and unhindered.

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My second-born daughter is more of an abstract artist. She is also not a rule-follower by nature. She is our free spirit who marches to the beat of her own drum, a quiet soul with an active (and unpredictable) inner life. I love how this quality shows up in her art work as well!

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At the age of four, she is already exploring the relationship between shape and color and letting these things stand for themselves on the page. If you ask her “What are you painting?” she looks at you in disgust…as if to say, “If you don’t know, then I’m not going to waste my time telling you.” I love her sass and confidence.

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And…my boy…is all boy, with big strokes of brown and black, perhaps some green or blue mixed in, big blobs of color side by side. He is three and is still learning to rinse his brush between colors. He has meticulous hands, an eye for detail, and I look forward to see how this translates to his art work as he grows.

The poet Dean Young writes that “Everyone is a good poet up until the third grade. I saw it when I taught as a poet in the schools. The sublime coincides with the ridiculous, babble with referent, the witnessed phenomena with the combustion of name in song of dazzling appeal, of play. The alphabet presents itself as an unsolvable mystery to be frolicked it.” (The Art of Recklessness p13)

Young’s words also remind me of one of my favorite quotes by Picasso:

every child an artist

I suppose, as adults, we are always trying to get back to who we were as children, before self-awareness and insecurity came into play. A few weeks ago, my daughter, Tess, told me,

“I am just me. I am just Tess.”

The simplicity of a child, the way they exist in the world, without pretense or assumptions, is one of the greatest blessings of parenthood.

Little do they know how much they inspire me to keep writing and painting…

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…to not be so critical of myself…
and to have the courage to share with others…

creativity takes courage

How have you “stayed an artist” as an adult?
What, or who, inspires you in your creative work?

reaching

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For me, life has been a process of elimination, a process of trying on different identities that didn’t fit before finally returning to one that did. Like a piece of art, you don’t always know who you are until you figure out who you are not.

Perhaps some of us must embark on long detours before we finally return to ourselves. The beautiful thing is that we often return changed, wiser and more mature than before, more confident in who we are meant to be.

I found a few of my old sketchbooks this week. They’ve been hidden in a dark hallway closet since our last move. I dusted them off and sharpened my old charcoal pencils, which still work well after ten years of dormancy. I also came across the sketch above, which I must have drawn sometime in college.

I suppose that the truest things about ourselves have been true along.

Life is a process of reaching out and returning to ourselves, over and over again.

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snow and mystery

It snowed again. This is a freakish occurrence in our particular pocket of the world. The snow has accumulated to almost a foot in some places. As I look out the window, I feel like I’m dwelling in some dreamy Scandinavian room with white walls, white floors, a few accents of natural wood, and sparse decor. Pristine and clean.

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So, we are home again. As much as I struggle with the lack of light in winter, or the cold temperatures that get into your bones, I am thankful for the creative space that winter provides. It’s always suitable weather to retreat to your favorite corner of the couch with some coffee and just think.

There’s been this poem in my head over the past few days–a poem I remember reading years ago–but couldn’t remember exactly where I’d first read it. After some digging, I was delighted to find it again. It’s by one of my favorite poets, Robert Hass. The poem, “The World as Will and Representation,” is featured on one of my favorite poetry blogs, How a Poem Happens. In this post, Hass shares the poem and discusses the process he went through to write it, as well as the process he goes through to write many of his poems.

I enjoy getting to see a bit of the “behind the scenes” in any creative work, because in my own experience, “behind the scenes” is not a composed, refined, or finished space. It is not a pristine Scandinavian room.

This particular poem that Hass shares is a narrative poem about his childhood. I suppose it suddenly came to me because I’ve been working through a few narrative poems this week and I feel that I tend to get stuck inside of them, obsessing over the details and order of how things happened, which tidbits are important to include, which things should be left out for the sake of the story and the rhythm, and what, in the end, the meaning of the story is, what the heart is. Hmmm…sounds a bit like life.

I like that Hass says he can come back to a draft after months or years before it is finally finished, and that certain poems, no matter how much struggle has gone into them, don’t ever come together, but how these poems are often precursors to the ones that just flow onto the page with ease.

The creative process is a mysterious one–mysterious like the snow we keep receiving in this coastal town–like the way our past experiences form the people we are today–like the way our minds suddenly remember something after years of forgetting.

…We get our first moral idea
About the world–about justice and power,
Gender and the order of things–from somewhere.”
–Robert Hass

That’s all for today…but one more fun tidbit…and a bit mysterious to me…I just realized yesterday that three of my favorite songs by different artists (Coldplay, Gregory Alan Isakov, and Imagine Dragons) are all called “Amsterdam.” There’s something to that city…and I suppose there’s a poem in that.

Any little mysteries in your life recently?

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.

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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photo credit

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?

momentary, ordinary

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Fragmented thoughts on a Wednesday morning, the week after Thanksgiving…

I look out the window at such an ordinary scene. Gray skies and a wet gray parking lot. Early December and the trees are nearly done shedding. The holiday bustle has begun. This morning I write in my journal–fragments of sentences, fragments of thoughts, trying to psyche myself up:

“Trying to stay grounded in the holiday season. Live in the moment! Just do the next thing! Don’t think too much!”

Gosh.

What I find today is a mind jumbled by a series of broken to-do lists. Return this. Register for that. Buy that. Throw it away. Get to this appointment. Paint that wall. Pay this bill. Finish the laundry. ALWAYS, finish the laundry. (It is never finished.)

I sit here at this bench at Starbucks, the first glimpse of stillness in about a week, the children back to school after Thanksgiving, and I am giving thanks.

There are so many roadblocks to creativity, I think. So many things that make us feel caught on a crazy-making hamster wheel. It takes a good hour of just sitting and staring blankly out the window before I can even begin to hear some semblance of truth, to skim the edges of the creative space inside.

Like I said–I struggle with the demands of this time of year. Stress. To do lists. The million details involved in raising a family. Tantrums. Messes. (I currently have two 3-yr-olds.) Doctors appointments and flu shots and antibiotics and missed dentist appointments. The appointment I’m running late for. This…on top of the extra celebrating and joy to make room for! Writing mumbo jumbo posts like this at least help me feel like I’m keeping my head above the water!

The season of Advent calls us to set time apart from the stress of the season. It’s ironic, isn’t it? In attempt to celebrate the birth of Christ, I feel that I can travel so far from the heart of Christmas and inadvertently create things that can lead me away from the core of it all. The simplicity and reality of a baby in a stack of hay, God incarnate. Huh? What is that?

I even feel pressure within the Christian culture–pressure to rise up and get my heart in proper emotional state to celebrate the birth of Christ, to viscerally FEEL the significance of the occasion, to do an Advent calendar, to light the candles and read the proper verses, to dress my kids up in coordinating Christmas outfits and get a professional photograph taken and then have Christmas cards printed and mailed out to everyone on our contacts list (can’t even begin to attempt this one!), to create and implement holiday traditions into my family and then post pictures of it, gingerbread houses, sprinkles all over the floor, cookies, lights, decorations, gifts, Santa’s lap, HOLIDAY CHEER!!! Do you feel this pressure, too?

For me: the pressure of being a “good mom” during Christmas = PARALYSIS.

This is what I’m thinking about, though. This one sentence:

“Let every heart prepare Him room.”

It’s a verse from “Joy to the World” that I saw posted by a friend on Instagram the other day. It resonates.

How does a heart prepare room for God to dwell…not just as a one-time deal, but on a daily basis, and especially during this time of year? I suppose it’s different for everyone. The preparation, for me, today, means an hour at a coffee shop, sipping regular coffee, sans kids, watching regular scenes of ordinary life unfold outside the window. He shows up in mundane moments, to-do lists aside. I prepare Him room today in the monotony, in the moment, in the relative silence. No agenda. No duty. Just sip and listen.

These are the un-fancy thoughts floating through my mind in this brief moment today. How about you?

What practices help your heart prepare Him room? (and stay afloat during the holidays?)

What things block your creativity?

How do you stay grounded, especially during this time of year?

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]