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"

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Art of Seeing/Being

The Art of Seeing
At the Aquarium, ©Adriana Díaz, 2001
Soon I begin to teach a painting class to senior citizens. Some have painted for years, so it will be a very collaborative process. As I’ve been advised that some have problems with their vision, I’ve been thinking a lot about seeing. I have a whole collection of books on seeing: Some are about drawing, some are commentary on the way our seeing is trained by mass media. There are also excellent reflections about seeing in books about writing. Here, for example, is advice from the Japanese haiku master, Matsu Basho: “ . . .when you see an object, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself, otherwise you impose yourself on the object, and do not learn.”
This philosophy is at the core of learning to draw. There is a wonderful set of books written (by hand) by the late Frederick Frank, who taught drawing through that Eastern philosophy of Basho. One of my favorite teachings from Frank is that if you cannot draw a thing, you are not seeing it. Drawing is a practice of coordinating the eye and the hand. So the drawing is a record of your seeing.
Of course we use our sight on a daily basis to maneuver through the world, and we don’t have time to stop and let go of our ego in order to commune with the objects around us. In fact, John Berger, in his seminal series, Ways of Seeing, pointed out that “We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.” So, the challenge in creating art, or in perceiving anything in a new way, is dependent on stopping the eye, and focusing the self. Basho might say, let “the thing” teach you. “The thing” may be an object or a person, a philosophy, an invention, or an idea.
Seeing can be an unconscious ability we take for granted, or it can be a practice: a way of being fully present in the world. How we see is far more dependent on our behavior than it is on the technical ability of the eye to see. You will be amazed at how much the eye can show you once you stop and focus.
In the Introduction to Freeing the Creative Spirit, I recount an experience I had in college, when I was learning to draw. Actually I was learning to see, but the class was called Drawing 101. The intense seeing during drawing class opened my heart and mind to how much of the world I’d never seen. It was difficult and demanding, but amazing. Usually my sight reverted to utilitarian seeing as soon as class was over. Except, one day it didn’t.
“One morning . .my eyes didn’t go back to their old pattern. Instead, the sight I was cultivating stayed with me, and as I left the art building and crossed the patio . . .I was literally stopped in my tracks. Every boulder, every leaf, every wooden bench seemed to be speaking to me.
I can only say that I felt as if each thing were revealing itself and calling out to me. . .The air, the light, the objects, even my own body, seemed porous and exposed. A window to another dimension of life had opened to me. I felt stunned at first, then privileged, as if I’d been allowed into another realm of the universe.”
I stayed in that state for two days, then “the window” closed. Nothing in my religious practice had given me such an experience, though I’d been a devout Catholic throughout childhood. So drawing took on the dimension of a sacred practice to me. Even after “the window” closed, I felt that I’d been let in on a secret, a parallel energy life of the planet. Seeing, the kind of seeing that Basho taught to haiku poets, is also a powerful way of being a conscious and grateful presence in the world.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Profitable Process for Winning, Advancement, and Success

The Universal Game © Adriana Díaz 2005

            As a life coach, a writer, and a visual artist, I crossover many professional and intellectual borders. So, as I sit down to write a post in my blog, ThisCreativeLife, I ask myself: What is the difference between writing for my blog, or writing a post for LinkedIn? My conclusion: language. I recognize that I make an assumption (right or wrong) that LinkedIn readers are looking for nouns like success and advancement, and adjectives such as profitable and winning. Readers for my blog, I reason, are looking for nouns such as creativity and imagination, adjectives like expansive and self-emancipating. I see business energy pushing forward and upward; I see creativity emanating outward and inward.
            Well, it seems the first paragraph provides a psychological profile about my baggage regarding the aims of business, and the goals of creativity. There’s an interesting story beneath that profile, it is painfully self-revealing, but I am choosing to recount it. It begins with a confession: I started my college life as a Business Major. (The people who know me best are probably shocked.) I imagined myself going into advertising, marketing, customer service, or public relations. Without giving my age too directly, the story requires the awareness of the times: women, in nearly every field started as a typist or receptionist and fought her way into more challenging and accomplished positions. (Think Mad Men.) Being an optimist, I harbored my fantasies of PR and advertising until my first encounter with a professor from the Business Department. It was supposed to be an initial guidance meeting. Picture me: I was 18 years old, only months after my high school graduation. I was so excited by the whole prospect of entering the world of academia that I began college courses immediately that summer (Sociology I and Art History). I was an enthusiastic and diligent student because I loved learning. But in fifteen minutes that Business professor stripped the excitement right out of me, and with it, he took as much dignity as he could grab. Whether it was my race, my gender, or my low entrance exam score that heated his bitterness, I do not know. I only know that he made me feel lucky to have been allowed entrance into his office, and I had even been so bold as to sit in a chair. “You know,” I remember him saying, “we’re not going to let you people in here any more.”
            I should probably explain that my family had not allowed me to take normal college prep courses in high school because classes like Shorthand, Business Machines, and General Business were obviously more useful for a girl than Trigonometry (what was that, anyway?), Chemistry, and Anatomy and Physiology. The practical thinking of my parents told them that a girl didn’t need those subjects for anything. And, they were certain that I did not need to go to college, either. What would I do with that? Their expectation was that I’d get a “nice little job” like a bank clerk, secretary, or receptionist before I found the right fellow, quit work, and have children. (We were well past the 1950’s, but I think Latino families will drag their old world opinions about women into outer space one day.)
            What does any of this have to do with A Profitable Process for Winning, Advancement, and Success? Well, the story is about a pivotal moment in a young person’s life when one bad teacher pulled the lever that shifted her direction for a lifetime. Want to know what the pivotal question was? “How much math have you had?”
            Did my lack of trigonometry mean that I could never become a creative advertising executive? Did it mean that I couldn’t have written award-winning copy, or bring in great profits as a result of my imaginative designs? This professor would have needed some of that imagination to even ponder such possibilities, and I doubt he used that noun very often. What qualities had earned him the position as head of the department, I wonder? His limited personal character and biases certainly played a part in the job he did that day. How would an evaluation have looked like, if I’d been able to submit one? The man failed, the professor failed, and the system failed. F, F, and F. Unfortunately, the professor had all the power, and the only witness was a deep internal part of the student, a part that would speak out decades later after a long career as a teacher.
That professor stood at the door of the business world like a bouncer at a Hollywood club. He looked down his bigoted, sexist nose, didn’t even have to check the list, he knew that little brown-skinned girls were not allowed in his club. They were just husband hunting, as far as he was concerned. He failed to see academic potential because his intention had nothing to do with education or with business, his intention was to burn me, to barbecue my spirit until I would withdraw not just from the Business Department of Cal State Hayward, but from the entire college. How did I ever get in there, anyway? I was certain the word wetback was tucked inside him, carefully sequestered from his venomous tongue.

            At the core of this story is that question of language: What attracts a reader in LinkedIn and what attracts a reader to This Creative Life? Language has the power to draw us together, and it has the power to alienate and separate us.
            A reader looking for the experience of creative freedom, may turn away from an article about Profitability and Career Advancement. While someone who sees him or herself climbing the proverbial ladder of success, doesn’t have time for an article titled Expanding Visual and Spiritual Perspectives. Words are directional indicators, just like signs steering us along highways and city streets. We read them, and comply quickly to some (No Smoking, One Way Street, Do Not Enter) but others are not for the common good, rather they further agendas of power: Whites Only. No Women Allowed. 

            Looking back, decades removed from that defining moment, I see a world that recognizes the importance of working from both sides of the human brain in all spheres of endeavor: business, science, and the arts. We see now more interdisciplinary collaboration than ever before. And it is not by accident that this world is also more racially integrated than it was on that summer afternoon when I walked away like a young zombie wondering what could be salvaged of her life. The Civil Rights Movement, and the Women’s Movement which were making so much noise in those days, actually did change the world. (I wonder if that professor was still teaching at CSUH when they established a Chicano Studies program on campus.) To get to where we are, young women have fought their way past an entire army of academic and business world bouncers. There have been small individual battles and huge nation-wide battles.
            In the end, I seem to have written a post that is appropriate to LinkedIn and to my ThisCreativeLife blog. What I want to say is, when you see a word that has meaning to you, take ownership of it, and be responsible for what you make of it and how you use it. Winning, advancement, success, imagination, profit, expansion and self-emancipation: Shine your own light onto each one of these words and determine what they mean for you. Then, read a blog or an article in the Wall Street Journal that you think is not something you can relate to. Try on words that don’t speak to you, and find some connection. If we don’t do this, we wind up living in a divided world: all the MBAs have lunch together, all the poets speak only to each other. Study something that seems unrelated to your overall vision, and make it relate. If you have a sense of where you’re going, start walking, and chart your own course. I am reminded of a quote from the great Spanish poet, Antonio Machado:
“Travelers, there is no path, paths are made by walking.”

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Marcel DuChamp and the Art of Coaching

A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author and aviator (29 Jun 1900-1944)

Convergence, ©Adriana Díaz, 1998
10" x 10", packing tape, tea bag paper, dryer lint, and bones

            Where does art begin? What makes a thing a work of art?
            Where does success begin?  What defines success?
            These art questions may seem esoteric fodder for art historians or critics, but in the statement above, posed by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (a WWI aviation hero and author of The Little Prince),  art and life are rooted together in the moment of contemplation. It was Marcel DuChamp, the godfather of Conceptual Art who pushed against the art world when he rejected paint (which he considered an industrially produced medium) in favor of presenting existing objects in extra-ordinary ways. DuChamp preached through his art, his philosophy that the act of creation in the human mind, conceptualization, was in itself valid as art. He would have been in complete agreement with St. Exupery in his statement that a pile of rocks ceases to be a rock pile as soon as someone sees in it, its potential transformation into a cathedral.
            So determined was DuChamp to spread his creed, that he exhibited objects, what he called ready mades, in many major exhibition venues (when they were accepted by broad-minded jurors). Consequently, he famously exhibited a urinal under the title “Fountain”. (That is just one of his better-known pieces.)
It’s important to recognize that Conceptual Art grew out of two post WWI art movements: Dada and Surrealism. Dada had a particularly bitter, ironical wit that grew from young European artists raising their heads in the wake of that horrific war to find everything in ruins. It's important to remember that mustard gas had been used in WWI, so men returning from battle were commonly neurologically changed for life. Along with lost limbs and physical scars, they had trouble walking, talking, thinking, and working. Artists saw this level of annihilation and created an anti-art art movement, one that recognized destruction, chaos, and brutality. Surrealism then, turned toward the underground territory of the subconscious, away from the tattered real world into the dream world and into a life of metaphor, where even common sense had a new definition.
            The uneducated may still scoff at DuChamp from time to time, but in the intellectual world, he is seen as a great standard bearer, a colossus marking the gateway to modern and post-modern art. Today, when I saw this quote from St. Exupery I thought of DuChamp, but I also thought about the whole Human Potential Movement. I thought about Oprah Winfrey and Tony Robbins, and every self-help teacher that populates the contemporary stage of human endeavor. It is an accepted belief, that each of our future accomplishments begins in our mind. We conceptualize our future. So every success we achieve begins, just like St Exupery’s pile of rocks or DuChamp’s art, the moment we create the vision of our potential future.
Just as in art, the craft of creating the future happens in the day to day manner in which we work, by the choices we make, and the attitude we put into that work. This is where my work as a coach becomes so important. Sometimes I am needed to support the conceptualizing process, but I am always helpful in the craft of making things happen. That, to me, is the art of coaching.

Sunday, June 21, 2015


 "Talk of Change"       Mixed Media         36" x 36"

         Before East Bay Open Studios 2015, I posted a short essay in LinkedIn about the preparation that goes into those events. So now, I thought I should try to give another glimpse at what happens after Open Studios.
The thing is, while the aftermath has some commonalities, variations are far greater. For example, a person who sold well, might have a sense of self-esteem, and even euphoria. Putting everything away, reorganizing work and materials is an opportunity to remember the events with pleasure. However, a person who sold nothing is fraught with questions. What could I have done better? Marketing? Location? Better image in the catalog? Not enough people reached? Then there are the deeper questions about the work itself. That is a deeply personal odyssey that leads an artist to the mirror, if only symbolically speaking.
            We have to be honest about the variety of art forms available during Open Studio Events. There are decorative arts, utilitarian arts, and then that thing that is called “fine art”. Fine Art exists for itself, and may intend to stir the soul and/or intellect. That type of art is difficult to sell; harder to sell than a bar of chocolate, though the two can sometimes deliver the same experience. My work is in that bracket.
            So from my perspective, Open Studios is always a financial gamble. But it is also a mental, even a spiritual, gamble. Once a lady who’d been standing silently looking at one of my paintings with her husband, came right up to it. I wondered if she was going to ask me to explain a certain section, or comment on the emotion it had stirred. Instead, she opened her purse and pulled out a piece of fabric and held it next to the painting. “Whaddaya think?” she asked her husband. He squinted his eyes and opened his mouth (as if both gestures helped him to see better). “Gnah,” he said slowly, “I don’t think it’s gonna do.” She shrugged, put the fabric back into her purse, and joined him on his way to the next exhibitor.
            I’ve often asked myself what I’d have done if the painting had matched the sofa. Would I have sold it to them? I still don’t know the answer for sure, but I’d like to think I would not. If I were to do such a thing, I imagine myself laying awake at night like a parent who has sent their child off to military school. What was I thinking? How could I have done that? How can I get him back?
            Since the fabric-in-the-purse lady I have toughened up a lot. I’m ready for anything and nothing, and I get both. Before caring about whether or not someone is going to buy my work, honestly, I hope that there is some unspoken or ineffable transmission of humanness. I know that it may not be what I intended, if I intended something, but I do hope for communication of a meta-message, or some type of transcendent experience; something beyond thought, maybe even beyond chocolate.
            When I came home after two weekends sitting in a beautiful garage waiting to engage with strangers in front of pieces of my work for seven hours a day, feeling pretty tired. I hadn’t sold anything, so I could have felt depressed. But as I said, I’m tougher than that now, so I felt philosophical. I am certain about my work, certain that it is genuine and provocative and mysterious. I reflected on the interactions I’d had, and a number of them had been delightful and interesting. I was pleased to have younger artists ask about materials, and I was moved by adults who looked deeply at the work and walked away nodding their head. “Nice work,” is all I had to hear from them. 
            But this week the Open Studios experience continued to evolve when I got a phone call from a young woman who’d seen a photo of a piece in one of my portfolios, and expressed an interest in seeing the real thing. “Sure,” I said, “give me a call and you can come to the studio.” Honestly, I didn’t count on hearing from her again (people say a lot of things they don’t mean). So when she called, I was very impressed. And today, as I swept the studio floor in preparation for her visit, I told myself not to get my hopes up because though the presence of a piece usually delivers more than its photo, it’s possible the piece will look completely different from the image she went away with. She may not get the same feeling she got from the photo.
            So the hour came, and she walked in. The piece was on the easel, and I watched her face. Big, beautiful smile. “Oh,” she said, “it’s even better than the photo.” I took a deep breath, and allowed myself to enjoy watching a person receive that transcendent je ne sais quoi. She described a bit about the feeling it gave her, and why it was so significant at this moment in her life. It was the thing one hopes for: a meeting of the art, the artist, and the viewer at a deeply conscious oasis of being.
            Now this might surprise you: what made the sale sweeter was that she didn’t have a job, and she didn’t have the money. But the piece was so important to her that she hoped she could buy it in payments. When a person stretches financially to own your work, you know you’ve found it a good home. Fifty dollars a month may not make a big addition to my income, but I know I will sleep very well.