Saturday, July 8, 2017

After The Quietude

I’ve been away from blogging for a long time. I think of it as a sabbatical away from the blog. I was not uninspired. I was quiet, and in that quietude, a number of deaths befell my family. I think of my family as a tribe, the tribe that offset the state of being an only child. I had many aunts and uncles, many cousins. And best of all, I had my grandparents. They were my greatest treasure, and I haven’t yet learned all the things they taught me though they’ve been gone from me for many years.
About the quietude: I was filled with too many questions to write about things I thought I understood. Why didn’t I ever realize that the more family you have, the more people you are going to lose? That’s what happened in the last year and a half. The landscape of my family has sadly changed. Here in this blog, I try to bring creativity into alignment with life’s daily challenges. But I was simply filled with questions. I guess the biggest question I confronted was what does creativity contribute to loss? That is to say, can creativity actually help us survive loss?
I once believed that art making would help me survive anything. I believed that art was such an important path that if one turned everything into the service of art, the pains of life would have an ultimate purpose. Today I see that there are two paths to that purpose: First there is the power of the process: the act of creating relieves the emotional pressure building up physically and spiritually. In that regard the content or quality of the content has very little meaning. If it works to help the individual survive, then its purpose is served. But if I think about Van Gogh painting to ease his loss, I recognize that the second path of art mediating pain is of value to anyone who experiences one’s work and is also touched or influenced by it. In that case, someone else’s loss is valuable to all of us, though we certainly do not wish harm or pain to anyone.
Creativity is valuable to us when it allows us to let go of overwhelming emotions or images that may torture or haunt us. I am very pleased when someone connects with one of my paintings, even more pleased if they buy it in order to continue communing with it. In the sale of something I created to alleviate pain, the sale allows me a deeper level of letting go by removing the manifested image and object from my view. I may not forget the event or the loss, but a part of the energy it provoked in me is released and eventually sent away.
Amazingly, that which pain manifests may bring comfort to someone else. This is true for literary arts as well as visual arts. It is perhaps even a greater part of musical composition and performance, as well as film and theater.  Maybe that is a definition of art, something done with such skilled truthfulness as to pass along a shared dimension of the human experience, albeit beautiful or brutal.
Thanks for reading.
The image at the top is a small journal painting titled "Dolor de Corazon".

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Past is Officially Over

"The Universal Game", A. Díaz, (detail)

  This year I took on a big project: the redesign and rehabilitation of a room in my house. It has been an office and an enormous closet for homeless objects.  It has taken me months, and it is not yet finished, but I repainted every inch myself, and in taking out two four-drawer filing cabinets, I must have recycled 50 pounds of paper.
            The value of this project was not actually clear to me, when I started. I know I was tired of seeing the room as it was, and it was pulling down my energy.  Actually, there was a structural aspect that contributed to the situation: the room has a fireplace that has no damper. Air swooshed in and out freely in spite of a makeshift dam of my own design. It was always freezing in there, so I kept the door closed, keeping the space as my personal North Pole annex. But a heater insert installed in the fireplace, changed the whole bioregion, making it a habitable part of the house.
            I had no idea when I began that the hours of labor and the process of clearing and purging was actually an internal project. I had a helper for the first day, so it seemed like a house project. But immediately a death in her family took her from the work, and unexpectedly, I was left with an enormous job on my hands. All the books had been taken off the shelves, over 300 of them. They were in boxes and big shopping bags all over the floor along with boxes of files I’d taken from the filing cabinets. The desk that so many years ago had belonged to my father, was an island with more boxes and piles of notebooks on top of it, about four feet long and two feet wide.
There were mornings when all I could manage was to stare at the accumulation of it all.  I wondered where I would find the energy for it. At night, trying to get to sleep, I felt a terrible sense of anxiety caused, it seemed, by the disorganization of my books. The whole idea of this project seemed to have been foolhardy. How was I going to do it all by myself? It wasn’t something I could hire out because I had to personally go through every file to determine what to keep and what too throw away. Over thirty years of teaching, and much of it before computers (I know that makes me seem very old, but it was a significant factor) had accumulated lesson plans, lecture outlines, evaluation forms, handouts, and letters and cards from students and readers of Freeing the Creative Spirit. It wasn’t going to be a matter of throwing out bunches of meaningless paper, it was going to be a process of letting go, in some cases, one by one. Only as I got into it, did I realize how deeply personal and internal the process would be.
            Keeping a journal for most of my life has given me a sense of bringing life along with me. I can go back into the pages of my life at any time to resurrect or remind myself of my reality. The North Pole Annex had become a squirrel’s nest of keepers I thought of as resources for the future. I had newspaper and magazine cuttings on significant subjects like women’s studies and art history. Newspaper clippings about Latinos who had achieved significant success, and women’s firsts around the globe. Over and over I said, “I can get this stuff and more on the Internet”, and I threw it away.
            The hardest things to part with were the cards and letters from students and readers. Even if it was a card from someone I’d never met, it was a reminder that I had impacted someone’s life. It was evidence, hard evidence, that I had made a contribution to the world. Eventually I had to ask myself, why did I need this hard evidence? Why didn’t I trust the work that I had done? Why didn’t I trust my memories?
            As the room took on the smell of fresh paint and the boxes and files disappeared, sleep came more easily. Pound after pound of paper went out. Some went through the shredder, some went out in reams. The desk went to an appreciative cousin. The space became calm and the ambient air was welcoming. Then, one day, after releasing the things I’d put off until the end, I heard myself say, “Well, the past is officially over.” I felt lighter. Even though I have the record of my journals, I have let go of everything I’d been clinging to for the sake of proving that I’ve had a significant life. I’ve had “a career”. That may seem strange to people who were groomed or groomed themselves to have a career from the time of their youth, but for me, it took all those files and letters to prove that I had indeed gone beyond what was expected of me. Even though I have done many different types of jobs to support or subsidize my work, I’ve never settled for that nice little rut of a job envisioned by my parents.
            Obviously, I came to this realization the hard way. But I share it in case there is someone reading my blog who has a closet or a room, or a space in the back of your mind where you are questioning your accomplishments. Trust me, a good clean out and a fresh coat of paint can do wonders.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Training the Unconscious

After reading Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer, certain important unique points stayed with me.

       "The thing to realize is that the unconscious must be trusted to bring you aid for a higher level than that on which you ordinarily function."

       Ms. Brande was not a psychologist, yet her experience as a writer served as the foundation for her teachings. The moment I read that sentence I realized that she was revealing a part of the creative process that is seldom discussed, and to connects with something I read years ago in another book on writing, If you Really Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland. Ueland taught her students that if they wanted to be good writers, they must also be good people. We can replace "good" with "interesting", "fascinating", or "accomplished". The idea is this: the person you are comes through the pores of your work. This is as important in the arts and humanities as it is in the field of psychotherapy. A therapist obviously brings their entire personality to the client and the process, but art is seen to create a product, something for sale, so even in training a great deal of emphasis is on technique and manipulation of the materials.
      What is not taught in art classes is the deeper truth, that what comes from us actually comes through us. Kandinsky wrote about passing the world through the inner form. Our originality is at the core of our work as visual artists or writers. We choose something as our subject, yet the way in which that subject is portrayed and presented comes from that high level of the self which Brande describes as lying "behind the threshold of immediate knowledge."
       "Any art must draw on this higher content of the unconscious as well as on the memories and emotions stored away there."

         Most importantly, she connects the awareness and opening to the unconscious with the nuts and bolts of creative practice. I'm grateful to her for reframing the daily attention to creativity in a way that gives it clear purpose. In sketching, timed writings, and journalling we are training the unconscious to live the creative life. We are walking the path of the creative mind. New brain science would recognize that we are creating new neural paths in the brain. 
        These paths need to be cultivated. Time spent in meditation, time spent in reading challenging material, writing practice, sketching, dreaming these are all part of our work. I have always told my students, you are not painting just when you are painting, if you are engaged with life in your mind, heart, and soul, you are painting all the time. It is our job to be keen observers and channels of life beyond the ordinary. And it is important we realize that what we create may be a surprise to us. We don't "come up with" ideas or images, they come through us, the ego just has to stand out of the way.

* The photos is a close up from my painting titled "Rain Dance"; 18" x 24" Acrylic on Canvas


Monday, February 8, 2016

When is a blog like a website?

It's been a long time since I have written. Actually, I write frequently in my head, but the realities of my obsession with editing keeps me from writing more frequently. Today, I am making what you could call a declaration. I have long lamented my inability to make my own website that I could add to whenever I wanted. Then, I realized that such a website would act be like a blog. Holy smokes! Then why can't a blog be like a website???  So here I declare this blog is now also a website.
    I will be adding images of new work with more frequency, and writing about the inspirations or lessons learned in the process of creating them. I do have a website ( which to my mind has none of the vivacity of the work, nor the continued  spontaneity of its life.
This painting which hangs above me in my current Facebook page is titled River Psalm. It was done in 2008. It's dimensions are 38" x 40". The image is actually only a portion of the experience. It has a presence enhanced by a rich surface that varies in textures and markings. Along with acrylics I've used Flexall to build up the surface, then large gage wire in the chicken wire pattern was embedded into the thick surface. Lengths of wire extends horizontally, piercing the canvas. Shreds of cheese cloths are also entangled in places. River Psalm is currently on view at Elizabeth H at 5431 College Ave., Oakland, California. It is available for purchase.

         I also want to take a moment to encourage any and all to breathe deeply into that creative spirit inside you. It isn't easy to devote time to self-expression in a society that hawks everything in the marketplace. I cannot tell you how difficult it is for me, after all these years, to commit myself to hours writing and painting. There is very little encouragement in our culture. Especially those of us who do not work in a computerized medium or neon plastic kinesthetic robots. It is important if it is important to you. Serve your creative call, be your own advocate. You should know that every time you choose to sit down to write or pick up your paint brush, your clay, or whatever is your medium, I am somewhere rooting for you. Life is a creative adventure, be your own guide, draw your own map.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Day of Greatest Darkness

It is the Winter Solstice, the longest day and longest night of the year.
Preparing for a painting class a few weeks ago, I thought about winter darkness as I think about darkness in painting, and the word chiaroscuro was my immediate association. Chiaroscuro is an Italian word meaning light and darkness. In class some weeks before we had talked about the work of a Renaissance genius whose work could be considered the mastery of chiaroscuro. That young painter was Caravaggio. If you’re familiar with Caravaggio’s paintings, you already have a reference treasury in your head. If you don’t know of Caravaggio, I give him to you as a holiday gift. The discovery of his work can be both intellectually and aesthetically exhilarating. I find them also to be spiritually unmatched in their ability to pull me into the emotions, moods, textures, and sentiments of the Christian story. Caravaggio painted the cast of Christ’s story as common, accessible people. But his ability to create darkness that stood equally as fascinating as his bright figures was, I think, the key to his genius.
So in painting class, we talked about this season of winter, with all its holidays, as the time to study the meaning of darkness in life, and therefore, in art. In my own practice, I have learned that darkening the contrast in a drawing or painting has the power to give it new meaning and impact.
It is the same in writing. A good example is the character of Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. He is darkness. Not evil, but the unknown, the imagined threat. In the film of the same name, there is a powerful night scene toward the end of the movie when an open door slowly closes revealing in its shadow, the silent figure of Boo Radley who’d been hiding in the shadow. As a reader the slightest inference of Boo’s presence awakens the fear of an unseen or unseeable threat. It is an archetype that attaches itself to characters in film and literature.
There are only a handful of painters who master chiaroscuro with such dramatic impact as Caravaggio. Goya, Rembrandt, Hopper, to name a few. But for this writing, anyway, I refer you to the work of Caravaggio and invite you to spend time in his shadows.
It’s possible that the reason he painted shadow as he did was due to the way he lived his life. He was always on the wrong side of the law. We might say he was a magnet for a fight or petty crime. Living a street life, shadows were important places. Places to hide in. Places to distrust. The darkness was alive for Caravaggio, who died from a knife wound in his thirties.
Tonight is Winter Solstice. Think about your relationship to darkness, about the contrasts in your life. How do you relate to darkness? Are you a night person? If you’re a morning person, try staying up later than usual to experience the darkness of night. How would you describe it? What are the potential qualities of darkness? Once you have explored your feelings with thought or writing, ask yourself how you can pull the power of darkness into your work. After all, the reason our holidays celebrate the light in winter is because it signifies surviving the darkness of winter.      
Happy Holidays
Painting above:  "Dark Tracing", Adriana Daz, Acrylic, Mixed Media on Canvas 36" x36"