In Praise of Journaling

Monoprints based on recent journal ideas. Not long ago, I rediscovered my journal. I can't say that I ever really left it, but I was definitely peripatetic. What a great word! Peripatetic means traveling from place to place, especially working in various places for relatively short periods of time. Well, I travel all right, but for a number of years, my journal stayed home.

In a recent art class, the teacher emphasized the value of writing in order to process ideas about artwork. "I know, I know," I thought to myself. I say the same thing to the art therapy groups I facilitate; "journaling is an excellent way to process grief."

Upon hearing this truth again, I felt resistance. "I process what I'm working on in the studio as I walk back and forth along the corridors of the hospital. It's a great place to sort out ideas," I thought.

The thing is, whenever I feel resistance, I know there might be something good and juicy hiding behind my resistance.

I began journaling at age 16 in a poetry class, and I took to it as a tool of comfort during the storms of late adolescence--then the trials of graduate school--then the late nights of early motherhood. Later, as the kids got older, the kind of non-stop thinking it took to keep them on track and still do my artwork didn't leave a lot of time for writing.

Do you remember Dr Seuss' "Oh the Places You'll Go?" Here's my moleskine mini, ready for travel.

But the yearning to journal never left. I needed to find my way past, through, around my resistance. Recently, on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, I saw my opportunity.

In her excellent blog, Rabbi Yael Levi says of Shavuot: "The journey began with Passover and the acknowledgment of our narrow places—the habits of mind, body and spirit that kept us bound and unable to move forward into our lives.  Passover implored us to imagine a leap into the unknown, to find the willingness to leave behind what had enslaved us.

This journey continued into the Counting of the Omer. For 49 days we counted each day calling forth the healing and discovery that comes through awareness...How do we live from the experiences of this time?

As Shavuot ends... we are urged to take on practices that will keep the fire burning. So we listen and wonder: What is a commitment to practice I can make?"

Journal in situ

I leapt and decided to write in my journal each day. And I noticed when I did that, things began to fall into place in unexpected ways. For me, thinking by itself cannot produce the multiplicity of solutions needed when I try to solve a problem of imagination, creativity or technique. It is the physical act of writing that enables my brain to connect from one thought to another and from there, to a whole cluster of ideas.

I haven't kept my resolution perfectly--but I've kept it enough. Enough that I now recognize my worn black Moleskine as a friend and confidant. Enough that I now invite my worn, black Moleskine over a cup of tea and a talk.

6 Degrees of Progress

For the past several days, I've been working on a plan for my upcoming workshop: Still Point in a Changing World. My original idea for the workshop was to offer participants an opportunity to spend time in their studios, (whatever their definition of studio might be) on a daily basis for the period of 21 days.

A common notion states that a habit requires 21 days to set. (In actuality, some habits can take longer, but I thought that this time period would be  workable range in people's lives.)

I wanted the studio practice to be akin to a meditation practice; something that they could return to day after day from whatever flurry they found themselves in and locate a point of stillness.

It was inspired too, by my own practice of  watercolor, which I'd conceived in a time of hospital fatigue.

I'd wanted to do something simple, daily and beautiful, with which I could find refreshment, nourishment and tranquility. I found it in the watercolors..

However, I realized that I couldn't just say to workshop participants : "Ok, get yourself a box of watercolors, find something to paint and just keep it up for the next 21 days." Instead, I decided to read about mindfulness and creativity and found myself covered in reference books.

At the same time, the Jewish practice of the Counting the Omer began. (This ancient practice takes place between the holiday of Passover and the later harvest festival of Shavuot).

An artist friend of mine, Laura Hegfield, introduced me to a Facebook page entitled, "A Way In," where Counting the Omer has been re-imagined as an invitation to mindfulness practice: paying attention not only to each day as it passes but also to the individual spiritual qualities which were assigned to it by the 16th century Jewish mystics.

I became fascinated with the simple words and phrases which were offered up each day like a carefully crafted ceramic bowl.

I decided to weave some of the meditations (along with others from a variety of sources) together with prompts for each of the 21 days. Each day of the 21 day workshop will offer a meditation and studio practice for artists to explore.

I couldn't wait, so I decided to start experimenting myself.  I'm working on Day 10 and you can see the results above. If you're intrigued, you can register here for my workshop and discover what the rest of the days, and the other five workshops, have to offer.

The Limits of Choice

Art making continually satisfies something deep inside us and, at the same time, places us beyond ourselves. Cathy Malchiodi, The Soul's Palette

Choice of attention - to pay attention to this and ignore that - is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer.

W.H. Auden

For the last couple of weeks, I've been on a strict 1 color diet. Yes. You read that right; not a 1 calorie diet but a 1 color one.

Color is something I use lavishly in my work, a substance that I immerse myself in and then splash around like a duck.

It's also something in which I easily get lost.

While dipping my brush in color, thinking about the confluence of hues, tints and shades, I lose track of how much paint is loaded on my brush and what color is flowing where.

This came to a head one Friday morning during a watercolor class. Stacey, my instructor, put her hand firmly on the table and said, "O.K., I want you to use just one color for the time being. It doesn't matter what color it is, but you can't mix two together and you can't even mix black." (yes, that indescribably subtle blend of cobalt blue and raw umber...)

OI!, it was already Passover; a week of the matzoh mile and now this: I'm  supposed to restrict myself to one color?

It's been two weeks now and I'm getting used to this diet. Heck, at times, I even like it.

At the very least, it keeps things simple. While writing this post, my eyes lighted on a short interview with researcher, Sheena Iyengar, who wrote The Art of Choosing.  "When did you first have an inkling that choice has limits?" asked the interviewer. Sheena  answered that it happened while studying the effect that choice had on a group of 3-year-olds.

"Half the children were permitted to play with any of the toys in the room, while the other half were told what they could play with. I assumed that the kids with the most freedom to choose would have more fun, right? Wrong. I observed the exact opposite. The assigned group played happily; the free choice group was disengaged and listless."

How about that? Adapting to one color has made me anything but disengaged and listless. And there are other payoffs. The first time I get the leaf-to-bud balance just right, the flower in front of me comes alive on the paper.

Despite my kvetching, I'm proud that I am keeping my commitment to a 'year of watercolor'  and grateful for Stacey's steady hand as a teacher and artist.  I may just stay on this new diet for a while...

Going Through, Not Passing Over

I've been thinking a lot about holidays this year, particularly the Jewish holiday of Passover.

Passover is a time of spiritual renewal, of looking back in order to see ahead. A broad theme of Passover is freedom, something so vast, that I've scarcely tried to contemplate it; being someone who prefers to find the macro in the close-by mundane.

I'm also someone who seeks to understand what spiritual traditions have in common rather than how they differ.

The Friday before the holiday weekend, I met a child in the hospital where I work whose artwork contained just these confluences of large and small, distant and nearby, to which I would add, past and present. This young six year old girl had lost her father to incarceration and her mother to death by addiction.

When I first heard about her, I wasn't sure what to expect. Certainly not the vibrant being who walked into the playroom eager to engage in the activity I had chosen: creating a paper Easter basket.

I like this activity because by creating a series of folds and cuts in a square piece of paper and manipulating them, you can create a real container.

Flora sat down and pulled one of the folded pieces over to her place and began to copy the words, "Happy Easter," onto one of the squares. With great detail and many felt tip markers, she painstakingly created designs and drawings on each surface of what would become the inside and the outside of the basket.

I find it intriguing that at this stage, while the child is painting or drawing, the inside and outside are not yet determined. Enclosure can go either way, depending what she chooses to do. A metaphorical exercise about the public and private selves.

At any rate, after Flora had filled both sides of the paper, I stapled her basket together-but she wasn't done quite yet. she took squares of soft, pastel patterned fleece and glued one to each surface of what had turned into the inside of the box.

She proudly showed me her basket, asking, "but where are the eggs?" I went on my own egg hunt and found several colored plastic eggs. I handed them to her and she tucked them into the bottom of her basket.

It seemed to me that this small child exquisitely exemplifies the theme of Passover. She lost her original home and was forced to leave for a new one (she is lovingly cared for by a relative); she had created her own safe transitional home in the basket.