Today after a week in San Francisco, I headed home to Davis in the early morning. As I drove over the Golden Gate bridge and into the green hills of Marin, a rainbow spread itself over the hazy blues and grays of morning. That contrast of brilliant color with gray found its way into this collage.
My husband and I took a walk several days ago in the botanical gardens of Golden Gate Park, both of us absorbed by all of the whimsical and, to my eyes, magical shapes we saw. This collage came about after our outing. It wasn't until later that I looked at it with my art therapist eyes and said "oh my!"
It's not often that I take up a challenge like this but when I heard about the 30x30 challenge from my friend Linda Johnson, I clicked and jumped. I want to try exploring collage in a tactile way with luscious mediums, creamy acrylics and pieced together botanical imagery. My studio for Day 1 is a dining room table in my friend's San Francisco flat. Compact and perfect, it's just blocks away from the SF Botanical Gardens where I'm gathering inspiration.
To imagine that I could spend six weeks drawing almost every day is unbelievable. Like a stubborn goat, I pitted my hoofs against the pull of the assignments.Read More
Recently I had an opportunity to teach a master class for the California Art Educator's Association (CAEA), convening in Sacramento for their yearly conference. I'd put together a description for the class months ago when I had some rough ideas of what I might teach. As the time grew closer however, possibilities multiplied like rabbits due to a new book I discovered; Surface Treatment Workshop: Explore 45 Mixed Media Techniques.
Explore I did, buying containers of strange substances and trying them out in the studio. I loved the sound of the different techniques; embossing, embedding, inscribing, faux encaustic.
How to narrow them all down? I did a beta workshop with willing friends to test out my ideas. They dove into the materials with the zest of people who haven't had a meal in days; paint, papers and gels filled the surface of the ground paper. Shapes were torn, embedded, lines inscribed and we discovered the power of used gift cards.
Finally, I chose 3 techniques that I thought would be easy, inexpensive, adaptable and if carried out, would end up in some pretty great compositions.
The winners? Expired plastic cards to spread paint like a palette knife, gesso washing, embedding, and inscribing as well as a nifty technique involving two layers of contrasting paint, topped with a sprinkling of water droplets. (Recipe below.)
The only missing ingredient was a volunteer. I prevailed upon my friend and artist, Linda Clark Johnson, to join me for what I promised would be a good time. She graciously accepted and we set off for our art escapade.
A retired art teacher, Linda knows the ways of the educators. She promptly arranged the room into table groups. The conference room quickly filled to the brim with art teachers and their many bags of paint, paper and tools.
I'd never taught a group of teachers before and was delighted to find that as soon as I gave instructions, they dove in with an enthusiasm that was energizing. Table groups mixed, sharing paint and special papers they'd brought, as well as appreciative glances at each others' work.
I was amazed by the magic that these artists coaxed out of their materials. Although I'd never met any of them previously, looking at the images they'd created, I felt that I knew something about them. And they had acquired some simple tools with which to engage their students artistically and therapeutically.
I like to imagine that they will take these ideas, pop them into their capacious Mary Poppin's bag of tools and share them with their students. Like tiny seeds sprouting, artists will continue to appear.
Water drop recipe courtesy of Linda Clark Johnson
Cover your ground with a brilliant layer of color, allow it to dry, then add an additional layer in a contrasting color. Stick your hand in a bowl of water and sprinkle the wet paint with the droplets, allowing it to sit for several minutes. Finally, wipe the paint with a cloth and the areas covered by water come up revealing a wonderful splash pattern.
People say that there is no fall in California. That's not true. Fall arrives slowly and takes its sweet time once here. Sometime around mid to late October, the leaves begin to turn--first the sycamores fade bronze, the gingkos go yellow and finally the pistache leaves take off like bottle rockets with scarlet, crimson, pumpkin and wine, lighting up the city parkways with their stationary fireworks.
It's a month that calls for poetry and I was lucky enough to receive one of the most exquisite autumnal poems ever.
I was talking with my father. We spoke about our understanding of retirement. His definition, which I love, is that all retirement means is that you have left behind a salaried job with all the fringe benefits. My father has written five books since he retired as an English professor and, in his early eighties, is wading deep into his sixth. As we ended the conversation, he told me that he wanted to share a poem and began to quote from memory, Shakespeare's sonnet Number 73. I share it with you because it says so much about the season of autumn and the turnings in our lives.
That time of year thou may'st in me behold When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. In me thou see'st the twilight of such day, As after sunset fadeth in the west, Which by-and-by black night doth take away, Death's second self, that seals up all in rest. In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, As the death-bed whereon it must expire Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by. This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong, To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Perhaps that is the benefit of retirement. If we are lucky, we burn brightly with all of the colors of our life; the complex layers of experience, relationships and gifts which come together to be set out again in any form we choose.
Nature, as people are fond of saying, abhors a vacuum. Now that I no longer have to go to a certain place at the same time every morning, when an opportunity to take a course in "art practice" with Cat Bennett arose, I jumped in. Well, jumped after some encouragement from my friend Beth Rommel.
I've had an on and off relationship with drawing--mostly off. I came to art through the medium of textiles and in art school, recognized the need to learn how to draw. I took classes in figure drawing as well as landscape, but mostly with the feeling of forced march to them. I never understand the simple desire to pick up a pencil and render the world in front of me.
Although it might seem self-evident from years of art therapy that drawing by any means is a form of self-expression, I haven't always practicing internally what I preached. Until. Until.
I've yearned to bring my loves of yoga practice and art together and with that in mind, have signed up for a yoga teacher's training course at my favorite yoga studio, Kaya Yoga.
After taking that step, I began to listen more attentively to the prompts that teachers were giving us. When Kia recently spoke about each pose as a series of patterns, my ears perked up. Hmm, how could I translate that into drawing?
What if drawing is as transitory as moving into and out of downward dog? Once you've done your series of poses for a class, and felt great or sore afterwards, or simply experienced them, you go off and encounter the rest of the day; the poses having evaporated in the moment. Could I do that with drawing? Just engage and then let go?
With trepidation and some resistance, I began my class "Making Art a Practice". Sure, I confess, I ripped out some of the studies I didn't like, but honestly, once I began to "lean in" as Sheryl Sandburg so pragmatically puts it, the practice began to be fun. I'm stretching my "tolerance for ambiguity" muscle and it definitely relates to yoga.
It is clear that around any edge my pencil turns, a drawing may collapse, just like I often do in Tree pose. (I love it when my teacher suggests we can be a shrub if we want.) So here I go. I move with my pencil, often ending up in the wrong place and needing to correct my direction. Yet at times, my pencil and I flow with ease. I look forward to the journey ahead and to wherever it takes me.
Since leaving the university, with more time on my hands, I'm better able to turn my attention to the details of completing a piece; or, as my manager used to say about charting, "complete the circle!"
Previously, finishing a piece of art required working up to, and past, deadlines. Completion, to my mind, includes signing the work on the front, signing, titling and dating it on the back, painting the edges if the work is on a panel, or framing it, and making sure it has a hanging wire. Finally, I photograph the work and enter it into a database. Whew! All the while, I figure out how to spend the least money and still get the most out of my art.
When I ran into deadlines, I rarely had time to check the edge of panels, make sure all the collage pieces were securely glued down or even take into consideration how or where I signed it. All of these were minor details, but omitting them felt like omitting a handshake when I'd just met someone.
What a difference; time and room to consider.... details! After all, many small actions come together to make a greater creation. (As Shakespeare says, "the play's the thing.")
I like this new spaciousness of mind. I wonder how it's going to change my work. As Billy Crystal says in Analyze This, "It's a process." In the meantime, I'm off to pick up my work at the framer's.
I can see clearly now the rain is gone. / I can see all the obstacles in my way. / Gone are the clouds that had me blind. / It's gonna be a bright (bright)/ bright (bright) sunshiny day. Jimmy Cliff
For someone who, as my husband says, never seemed to pay much attention to rock lyrics, they have an uncanny way of popping up at telling times. I'm a day short of retirement from my long time job as art therapist at UC Davis Children's Hospital.
It's a graduation, a transition I'm making as I round the corner of my 60th year, while year 5776 of the Jewish calendar approaches and school all around the country begins again.
That's how I see it. As I end this chapter of living as art therapist/artist, I'm beginning again. I'm shifting the balance over to artist/art therapist. My collage box is full, my materials are all ready to go and I've got shows lined up through May. Hooray!
But I can't imagine not practicing art therapy; intending to use my skills to help others heal themselves. I'll continue working with people, older ones this time and not primarily children.
I'm thinking about palliative care. I'm considering hospice and thinking about people who are struggling with or have survived cancer. I can't imagine not witnessing the profound delight in someone's eyes or hearing the enthusiasm in their voice as they discover they have the power to convey something powerful; a profound emotion with their own hands...which brings me to the lyrics of Ben Harper's gorgeous song: With My Own Two Hands. Have a listen and let me know what you think. Music starts at 1:26
I've been working closely with Lisa Call in her Artist's Master Class for the last 6 months. A combination of coaching, goal setting and support from fellow artists, the class has challenged me to examine the parts of my life that do NOT support my art/life.
I've taken classes with Lisa before and the pace, challenges and comradery are exhilarating. I had expected the same approach in the Master Class. But initially, I was frustrated-- I wanted to move full speed ahead with my artwork. Instead, I discovered all the things that got in my way.
On the short list for roadblocks were my health and my job. My health was suffering because I was burning out from the intense pace of hospital art therapy. All the self care that I could muster; yoga, therapy, exercise, massage, you name it, didn't seem to budge my exhaustion or my myriad collection of maladies.
Lisa invited me to slow down and piece together the elements that weren't working. Then, I was to imagine what might help me grow stronger. I put down my ideas: acupuncture, more time with friends and more travel, less time in the studio. A couple of the myriad maladies began to melt away as I put my ideas into action.
My favorite exercise is one that cost nothing in time or money; a values inventory. I thought about the values that circumscribe my life: intuition, stewardship, tikkun o'lam*, healing, acknowledgement, responsibility, respect and compassion.
After coming up with my list, I decided to bring each of these values, one by one, into my art work. I was amazed--because I actually began to relax.
Although I have deadlines for exhibits. I've began to be more thoughtful in my process; less let's get it done! and more what is it that I'm doing?
And slowing down is good. It's hot, it's summer, but beyond that I'm simply enjoying the ride, curious to find out how my ideas about art will change as I do.
How do your values affect the art you make?
*A Jewish principle that means to heal the world, to fit the broken pieces together, and in modern terms to talk about fixing what is broken in society.
It's the hot hazy days of summer here with temps scrolling over the 100's, grass crisped to a dull gold, trees and bushes thirsty for whatever moisture may come their way. The best places to cool off are low at the ocean or high in the Sierra. Failing that, I'll take my studio, fortified with air conditioning, glasses of ice tea and mineral water.
Recently, my friend Linda Clark Johnson* joined me there for an afternoon. Hauling her Mary Poppins bag of art supplies up the stairs, she commented on the virtue of stairs as an exercise device. We'd planned this day together for a month and neither of us stinted as we placed double lines of acrylics, brayers and paper on the tables. Linda sifted through prints with primary layers, pondering her next move for each, while I tore thick, white sheets out of my notebook.
There's something wonderful about sharing a space with another artist for a few hours...a time of no specific agenda, no attempt to forward the "serious work," simply experimenting, to see what might happen working side by side.
Walking down my back alley to gather plant materials, we discovered some bounty of the Central Valley spilling over the fence: grapes, figs, oranges, and pomegranates.
Wishing I could simply place a ripe fig on my printing plate and squish it, I experimented with dried seed heads of fennel, using color combinations of mustard, tangerine and rose.
Linda enjoyed some time with fuchsia and pink, bringing in purple shades, which reminded me of the dusky blue grapes ripening on the hot wooden fence.
We worked until we'd covered a good portion of my floor; we noted the hits, the misses and the sweet surprises. I discovered that the seeds of the fennel created little spots that remind me of using salt with watercolor. Linda tried out a new color, warm gray, and found that it worked elegantly as a top layer for the subtle underpinnings of purples, blues and greens.
Later, harvesting a bag of succulent figs for Linda to take home, I reflected on the afternoon, thinking how important it is to make things in the company of others. Perhaps the artistic variant of jamming, working together stirs up ideas, offers new perspectives and a rich exchange takes place. What kind of artist jams carry you away?
*If you'd like to see more of Linda's gorgeous prints, you can catch her at the Sacramento Open Studios Tour, the weekend of September 19th and 20th. to find out more information, click here.
When we drove up to Enso, a wood shingled yoga studio, my husband, Monty, asked what Enso* meant. I said that I didn't know, but I liked what I saw in front of me: the ocean. Located in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, Enso was sponsoring a yoga workshop.
When I saw she was teaching a workshop over 4th of July, I leapt and signed up. My goal for the weekend was to test my physical limits and to extend the limits of my patience. (I often appear calm and patient, but people who know me well will tell you that patience is NOT one of my virtues.)
I had little idea of what to expect, other than that Bhavani (who has spent a great deal of time studying Patanjali's Yoga Sutras) was going to be weaving them into the weekend.
My relationship to the practice of yoga is ambivalent. Though I've practiced and taken classes over the years, the minute I'm in a yoga class, I find myself wondering how long until it will be over. Until, that is, I reach that point where my muscles are melting into the poses and I realize how great I feel.
Enso is extremely charming and the beautiful, old building holds a wood stove in front of a wall of windows facing the beach. The thing was, someone had fired up that stove and it was blasting heat. If my goal was to test my physical limits, I had come to the right place! After a strenuous series of poses, I realized that they'd heated the studio in order to warm up our muscles, and I was dripping like a Bikram devotee!
I spent two days, focused on the poses--and making sure I was going to survive. Following each session, Monty and I took long walks on the beach and I wondered what I was doing. Was I getting any joy out of this effort? Was I only panting to keep up? I certainly felt cleansed, but what did it mean?
The wonderful power that it opened in me also reminded me of my intention to stretch my patience. On the third day, the day we were to return home, I awoke in a cloud of gratitude surrounding me.
I looked back over the stretch of years I've spent in the hospital working with children and felt profoundly grateful that UC Davis had provided a home for me the whole time. I felt an acute sense of the time remaining for me there and the preciousness of that time. I need to be awake for it.
And following on that gratitude, another intention presented itself: some part of my core took hold and vowed to become the best artist that I am able to be in whatever years remain for me to create. I'm recovering from a lifetime drawn to comparison. For someone who's spent too much time judging their work against the yardstick of others, it is profound to feel that pull losing its grip. More about that later, but for now, here I sit, drenched in meaning.
*Enso is the symbol of the empty circle of Zen
*The sutras compose a guide book of classical yoga, written some 1700 years ago by the Indian sage, Patanjali.
Just writing the word transformation is magical. I imagine a butterfly making its way out of a wrinkled brown cocoon and beginning to move its wings, fluttering them open, letting the air dry the bits of moisture clinging to those tissue thin filaments. That's me--the butterfly with the tissue thin wings. In a matter of months, I too will be making a transition out of my role as a hospital art therapist, and into that of studio artist.
In my last post "Circle Game," I was circumambulating (playing around) the topic. Until I had made my departure official with my manager, I didn't want to mention it in public. No coming out of the pupa before you're hatched! So, although I waxed eloquent about the ways in which we look forward to events, I didn't say that my return to the studio full time is what I'm looking forward to the most. I think that I will always be an art therapist because I can't separate the act of healing from making art, although, believe me, I've certainly tried. It doesn't work. I'm just very lucky to be able to reset the balance.
Making the Countdown series allows me to process this change and make it explicit. As I create rows of circles, gluing them onto the panels, each circle represents a passing of time; a month, a day, an hour, a minute. Each measures a period of letting go.
And yet, as I make each part, I find that I have to retrace my steps constantly. As I enlarged some of the circles, then discovered that they didn't work, I created more circles, and as I glued them down, I realized I'd forgotten to change the ground beneath them. I had to take up those circles as well and replace their backgrounds. The whole process is rife with metaphor, as it should be.
I like this challenge. Every time I come up to the studio, I tell myself there are no mistakes and each step forward is the gateway to the one after that. How else can I learn?
There are many things for which I count down--the time 'till I get to hit my studio again, a few days off or a get together with friends. My favorite: thinking about transitioning from the role of art therapist to that of artist and teacher.
I've used the circle in my work for many years and in my new series, Counting Down, I'm using the circle as a symbol to represent the act of counting. In Counting Down, the circle functions as a clock form, in which the circle is divided into four parts, each part slightly offset from the other.
The various circles function as a series of crazy clocks in which time flies both forward and backward; into the future and back into the past.
The pieced together circles are made using monoprints. This process serves a double function. I save many of the prints that don't quite turn out right. When I print over them with a solid color, you can see the shadow of images below--as if through a screen or a veil. They have an ethereal quality--as if you could almost touch them, but not quite, much like the future for which we conjure dreams, but can only guess what it will really feel like.
And I love the irony of the series title and the process. When I think of counting down, I'm looking at time passing, but I'm not in the present (how can I be?) Yet, on the other hand, the act of putting together the circles places me squarely in the present, neither reaching backwards into memory and history or ahead in the time that is yet to come.
This is what I love about art. It has the ability to transport us; as a viewer into the past or future, or, as the maker, directly in the place in which we stand.
Recently, people have been talking a lot about Mercury Retrograde. An event that takes place 3-4 times a year, the planet Mercury appears to slow down and actually move backwards. It's an optical illusion, because the planet continues to move forward, its just doesn't look like it from Earth's point of view. It's like when you're in a slow train and a much faster one speeds past. It seems like you're not moving at all.
One of my favorite commentators on astrological events, Cathy Coleman, wrote the following about Mercury Retrograde:
Mercury symbolizes communication, and its retrograde motion beckons us to pause and re-think, re-organize, and purge the Inbox and remnants of lists undone rather than start new endeavors. Communication can get snarled and confused, so be patient with mistakes and with those who make them.
My own adventures have been limited to garden variety computer glitches (how come I can't log into the electronic medical records with the same password I've used for 2 years?) the i-phone (no matter how many pics I delete, I still can't take any more??) and my favorite one, the studio.
When I made it up to the studio this past weekend, I thought that I'd successfully set up four panels with monoprint collage bases. I used 12-4" squares on a 12" x 12" panel and 24 squares on a 12" x 24" panel. Um hmm. I completely forgot that those squares I planned to turn into segmented circles were actually supposed to be 6." I didn't remember that part of the plan until I'd glued on almost all of the circles, and dammit--they looked really small!
The central question of a warrior's training is not how we avoid uncertainty and fear but how we relate to discomfort. How do we practice with difficulty, with our emotions, with the unpredictable encounters of an ordinary day?...We regard disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, jealousy, and fear as moments that show us where we're holding back, how we're shutting down. Such uncomfortable feelings are messages that tell us to perk up and lean into a situation when we'd rather cave in and back away.
Indeed. I calmly peeled away all the little quarter circles, measured and began again. And here's what I found. Rather than screwing up my plans, the confusion between my math facts lent the work in progress a kind of complexity that I could not have planned. Working with the difference between multiples of 4 and 6 was like working with music in different time signatures--fun, exciting, stimulating. So I'm going with it. Leaning in and discovering what happens when I welcome the random challenges of Mercury Retrograde.
How does an artist keep making art when the flow of life brings a series of not so fortunate events? That's what's been happening to me lately. From a fractured foot to a persistent virus, not to mention getting rear ended, was life conspiring to keep me from the studio?
With little time and less energy, it seemed that the obvious solution was to make smaller work. "But I don't want to make smaller work!" an inner voice whined. "O.K.,"-- I answered the voice, "but smaller work can add up." It occurred to me that I could use the same journal format that I'd been practicing in my recent work.
I approach my work in an additive way anyway, creating one print or collage and building on that with the next one, and so on; day after day. At the end of a run (determined by season or plant material), I curate them into a composition that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
This time, although the size would be smaller, I could still use a sequential format. Then, the words "Tiny Desk Concerts" came to mind. I remembered that these were intimate musical events performed live at the desk of one of NPR's music hosts, Bob Boilen.
Great idea! I figured that I could work the same way. During a break at the hospital or lunch, I could stack the key board on my computer monitor and employ the resulting 13" wide open space for art making. Tiny desk art indeed. But my patch was large enough to fit a cutting board. And where would I keep my materials? I slid open my file drawer, revealing a box of jasmine tea, some almonds and chia seeds, and added a pencil box of collage materials and a folder of colorfully printed papers.
There is a sequence of 3 letters: prn, medical shorthand for the Latin phrase: pro re nata, or, "as the thing is needed."
I love that phrase "as the thing is needed," meaning not always, not every hour or even every day, but when you need it. And that, for the time being, is how I'm making art.
An online project, Creative Deed 365, got me thinking about generosity. What makes someone want to give? The project's creator, Gretchen Miller, decided that she wanted offer a project/challenge that involves "...making small pieces of art (3 x 2.5) to randomly gift to others as acts of kindness and to spread creative goodness to others in the spirit of 6 Degrees of Creativity’s 2014 Creative Deed Project. I want to dedicate 2015 to sharing this process with others and give all the art away with year long positive messages of hope, inspiration, and possibility."
As I read further, I discovered that Gretchen was leaving the cards in coffee shops, tucked in bookstore shelves, at bus stops, almost any public place you could imagine. Each of them had the following message on the back:
I was inspired by Gretchen's idea and wondered how I could adapt it for myself. I knew that I couldn't keep up with one card a day (although I tried). Instead, I began to make cards in odd moments in the hospital, using them to process an interaction, or in an art therapy session, and as a means of self-care.
I wondered what to do with them, how could I offer them to others as a means of inspiration? I wanted to provide a place where people could look through the cards, choosing one that felt right to them. But where would that place be?
The idea, when it finally arrived, was simple. As I prepared my studio for our town's open studio tour, I thought about how when I visit artists' studios, I want to to leave with something tangible, something that preserves the beauty I've seen. The problem is that most of the time, I can't afford the art work.
I decided that in my own studio, I would take that obstacle away. Although much of my work would be for sale, I would give away small "365" pieces of art.
And I did. I watched people looking over my work: the prints, the large wall pieces, the gift cards and I could see at certain points, a small moment of longing cross their face. At those moments, I offered them a card. They took the process to heart, leafing through them as if they were tarot cards, searching for just the right one.
After that, I couldn't stop making the miniature offerings--although I don't know where the next drop off will be, that's all part of the surprise element.
If you are interested in joining Gretchen's project: Make a request to join the Creative Deed 365 Group on Facebook and contribute your own art in the spirit of this effort.
One week left to the Davis Art Studio Tour! This past weekend I cleared out so much unwanted "stuff" that I'm certain I'll feel psychically lighter for the next 6 months.
I love the spacious white feeling of my studio. Now, like materials are stored with like (easy on the memory). Unlabeled boxes have large black letters stating their contents. Artwork sits stacked, ready to be hung, displayed and sold.
For all this, I owe kudos to my sister, Amelia, who helped me to carry heavy objects down the studio stairs, cast away unused collage fodder and grab pictures of my leaf collection. Her openhearted support helped me to keep a stiff upper lip as I carted numerous armloads to the recycling bins.
The act of clearing a space is of course both a physical and mental task and requires me to take a stand; I'll let go of this and hold onto that. And, when it's all done, I can focus on "closing the circle," returning to where it all began; the artwork itself.
I'm happy and excited to share the prints that have come off the Gelli plate in the last year. There are many of them and some wonderful cards that they've inspired. I'll have two of my good friends serving as wing persons so that I can show you just how how the magic happens.
If you're in the Davis area, I'd love to see you this Saturday or Sunday!