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…

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

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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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?

small talk

Our recent move to Virginia has provided numerous opportunities for one of my least favorite things: small talk. Whether it’s meeting people at church, establishing care with a new doctor, attending a gathering with other adoptive families, or chatting with a neighbor down the street, there are those obligatory conversations you get through in order to establish relationship and connection. One of the classic small-talk questions people ask me:

Do you work or are you a stay at home mom?

I typically mention that I stay at home with my kids and that I used to be an operating room nurse in the Air Force. One thing leads to another, and then it comes up that I’m also working on my MFA in Creative Writing.

This is the moment in the conversation when some people begin to look puzzled and make various comments that all communicate a similar message:

Those things don’t fit together. 

These encounters usually leave me feeling like a cluster of fragmented pieces that don’t fit together, a conundrum of opposing and conflicting ambitions and desires. One of my neighbors once responded, “Wow, nursing and creative writing? You must have really strong and opposing parts of your personality.” In between the lines, I have started to wonder if I made a mistake somewhere.

Art has always felt like home to me, whether it’s writing a poem or painting a picture. My sketch pads and journals have been a consistent place of refuge and rejuvenation. Growing up, my spirit felt at rest each time I stepped foot in an art studio, amongst the charcoal and paint chips and still life displays. In college, I toyed with the idea of majoring in studio art, but decided to take the more “practical, reliable, sensible, and noble” route. I chose nursing instead.

I don’t know if this is a generational or a cultural pressure, or perhaps a bit of both, but it seems that there is some unspoken yet pervading idea that choosing a career in the arts is indulgent, impractical, bohemian, and narcissistic. It’s okay to indulge your creative side every once in while, perhaps as a hobby, but to make it your profession is assuming and irresponsible. In the past, I have felt a sense of shame and embarrassment when I tell people that I am studying poetry. I mean, what kind of respectable human being has time to read and write poetry? Aren’t there more important things to be done in the world?

Perhaps I don’t fit into a label, and that might provoke uncomfortable interactions with other people. I am learning to accept this. I have been tempted to replay my decision to become a nurse–to wonder if I should have chosen art instead. And then there are days when I wonder if it’s audacious to think that there’s a place for me in the world of art. At the end of the day, I know it’s a huge freedom and privilege to even have a choice in the matter. Many people don’t.

There are things I desperately miss about being a nurse. I miss being a part of the surgical team, working together with others to bring about a life-changing and tangible improvement in someone’s health. It was meaningful work, and even on the bad days, the hard days, the exhausting days, I could walk away feeling good about that. On the other hand, there was always some part of my mind that nursing failed to engage, and over time, this made me feel depleted and burned out. And, so, here I am, back to pursuing art again.

I don’t know how my different “selves” will fit together in the end. I do believe that God doesn’t waste anything, and at the end of the day, the so-called “opposing” parts of my personality must be there for a reason.

I often like to end my posts with a poem, because, as I mentioned before, there’s a poem for everything. This poet that I want to share with you today has a very prized place in my heart.

Can you think of a writer or an artist that has given you permission to be yourself–someone whose work validates who you are and what you love? I can think of many writers like this, but the one I want to share today is Laura Gilpin.

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Gilpin was a registered nurse and a poet. She is proof that the credentials RN and MFA can be a compatible couple, and she is an inspiration to me. Her book, The Weight of a Soul, has been on my nightstand for months. I take it along with me on errands. I read her poems at stoplights and in waiting rooms. She started out with a BA and MFA and then went back to school to become a nurse. In 1976 she won the Walt Whitman award for her book, The Hocus Pocus of the Universe. She passed away in 2007.

Laura Gilpin reminds me of what can happen when we embrace all of who we are, even the parts that don’t seem to fit together. The next time a new acquaintance makes a remark about how odd and ill-fitting my educational pursuits are, I may just hand them a copy of Gilpin’s book.

It was so hard to choose, but the following poem is one of my favorites. It reminds me of working night shift and walking through the eery, dark, hospital halls towards the blood bank. She captures this moment so well…

The Ritual of Hanging Blood
Laura Gilpin

Two nurses, the ritual requires two nurses
as though the blood is so heavy
it can’t be carried by one
though the bag is small
no bigger than a heart
but flat and dark and viscous
not bright like urine
urine is usually clear and bright, almost sunny
deceptively filled with life’s impurities
but blood is thick and dark and dusky
as though the darkness itself
holds the secret of life
holds the breath of life, is life giving.

I wind through the darkened hallways
to the blood bank, sign my name
beside the patient’s name
as though I am signing for him
in the book of life.

Then I wait for the second nurse.
She holds the blood while I hold the patient’s wrist
read from his name band his name,
which we spell together,
his hospital ID number
which we read aloud in the darkened room.

Whose life is held in this bag?
The blood drips through the tube, drop by drop,
like the original heart still beating
the way life flows through a small cord
between a mother and child.
The blood drips, drop by drop,
like the pulse in his wrist
I reach for in the dark
as the blood merges with his own
becomes his own.
All night I walk in and out of his room,
listening to his heart,
listening to his sleep.

the beginning of everything

Yesterday was the first day of summer, the longest day of the year, the shortest night. All the days of spring, so full of birth and growth, have climaxed and transitioned into a new season–summer–the season of light and fullness. What will this new season bring?

Last night Ren and I went on a trip to Target, just the two of us. He lost his pacifier yesterday–it is the original pacifier we brought home from China. He held onto it for almost a year before it finally disappeared. We got him a brand new paci last night and he seemed unfazed by the change. He embraced his new green one wholeheartedly. He continues to settle in. He continues to surprise me.

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I also bought a brand new journal during our Target trip. I opened it up this morning as I drank my coffee. Staring at that first blank page always makes me feel as though the possibilities in life are endless. What will happen in the days to come? What will be written in its pages? What poems will be conceived, what thoughts explored, what experiences captured, what stories told?

This all reminds me of one of my favorite poems, “At The Cafe” by Patricia Kirkpatrick.

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If I choose this window, this black-and-white notebook,
I must appear to be what I am:
a woman who has chosen a table
between her sleeping child
and the beginning of everything.