Archive for October, 2007

What St. Francis Tells the Artist

There is a 14th century manuscript included in Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (The Classics of Western Spirituality), which describe what St. Francis considers “perfect joy”. I can’t tell you how much this story has helped me. I’ve paraphrased it here:

Brother Leo asks St. Francis, “What is perfect joy?” St. Francis replies listing the things that would logically bring him great happiness: If all the masters in Paris join my order, it would not be perfect joy. Or if all the masters in Europe, and the King of France joined the order, that would not be perfect joy. And if all the non-believers in the world were converted and I had the grace from God to heal all sickness, that would not be true joy.

(Okay, so what would it be? Get ready!)

“I return from Perugia and arrive here in the dead of the night and it is winter time, muddy and so cold that icicles have formed on the edges of my habit and keep striking my legs, and blood flows from the wounds. And all covered with mud and cold, I come to the gate and after I have knocked and called for some time, a brother comes and asks: “Who are you?” I answer: “Brother Francis.” And he says: “Go away; this is not a proper hour for going about; you may not come in.” And when I insist, he answers: “Go away, you are a simple and a stupid person; we are so many and we have no need of you. You are certainly not coming to us at this hour!” And I stand again at the door and say: “For the love of God, take me in tonight!” And he answers: “I will not. Go to the Croisers’ place and ask there.” I tell you this: If I had patience and did not become upset, there would be true joy in this…” (p.165-6)

It is this passage that inspired me to make an altar of St Francis’ feet. How can seeming misery be joy? Illness and wounds, whether physical or metaphorical, can bring enormous suffering. Our experiences of pain are mirrored for us by St. Francis’ stigmata. On my altar I planted the aloe vera plants in his stigmata to show that our wounds can bring healing to our lives. But this, St. Francis counsels us, is only possible through acceptance not struggle. It is struggle that produces suffering, and acceptance which produces joy. There are, in fact, things that happen in each life that can not be changed and which seem completely unacceptable, things like severe illness, disfiguration or scars, & the death of a loved one to name a few. St. Francis shows us that there can be happiness, even joy in the face of these terrible events and from that healing. Pain & joy are not mutually exclusive emotions and healing depends on the coexistence of the two.

I mention this only because it is so easy to be thrown by the events of life and to forgo making art. But art is life blood to an artist and we must learn not to be crippled in the face of great obstacles rather we must create.

The Healing Properties of French Clay

It turns out certain clays are effective in killing drug-resistant super bugs. Check out the story in today’s Independent.

Chalk one up for the ceramicists of the world!

Emanation & Return: Remembering Lex Hixon

When I was studying at the School of Sacred Arts in the early 1990s, I had the great fortune to meet Lex Hixon. He was an amazing man and my first real encounter with a true living mystic. Although he was deeply connected to many spiritual traditions, I met him in his capacity as sufi Sheikh Nur al Jerrahi. I will never forget our first meeting. The School of Sacred Arts was in the basement of a church off of Washington Square Park. We used the chapel itself for large lectures. I was sitting reading my Bonaventura (The Soul’s Journey Into God) and all of a sudden I felt a wave of love rush over me, into me. It was like someone woke me up, only I hadn’t been sleeping. I turned around and there he was. There was something shiny about him- clean & new but not in a Windex sort of way. I can’t explain it really.

Later, he took me deeply into the Heart. I prayed with him many times, and each time was like a jewel, a dive deep into the pool of ecstatic love. Great mystics often have the power to take others with them on their journeys. My connection to him was brief in time, but effects me still. When I heard he had died, I was so sad. I said a prayer for him. Immediately I heard him laughing, such a joyous resonant laugh I knew he was deep in that Divine pool, just as he had been in life. That moment has erased any fear I had of death.

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From time to time I return to his writings. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Divine creation and its relationship to the artist. I’ve forgotten one of the key components of this in my recent posts. This is a cycle of going and return, being fed and feeding. In his book Atom from the Sun of all Knowledge, the loving spirit of Lex Hixon, writes:

O Divine Beauty, nothing other than You manifests within or beyond creation. Divine Creativity is the One returning to itself. This is the Neoplatonic circle of emanation and elevation. This return is not a regression to the original Unity but an advance to perfect humanity…(pg.373)

Now that I think of it, the dream I posted earlier this week was telling me just this. Could it be any clearer how important the work of artists is on this earth?

Tagore, St. John & the Artist

In my last post I talked about St. John of the Cross’ poem and it’s relationship to the artist. This Rabindranath Tagore poem says the same thing, but in a different way without all the Christian overtones. (God I wish I could read this in the original Bengali!)

If thou speakest not I will fill my heart with thy silence and
endure it. I will keep still and wait like the night with starry
vigil and its head bent low with patience.

The Morning will surely come, the darkness will vanish,
and thy voice pour down in golden streams breaking through
the sky.

Then thy words will take wing in songs from every one of
my birds’ nests, and thy melodies will break forth in flowers
in all my forest groves.

He’s saying its the Divine creative source following through him that creates his art. It is his stillness and waiting that allows this. Just as St. John says that the pregnant Virgin will come, if you take her in. My favorite line is “I will fill my heart with thy silence and endure it.” Being silent and still is not always so easy.

St. John of the Cross & the Artist

Of the Divine Word
Pregnant with the holy
Word will come the Virgin
Walking down the road
If you will take her in.

(The original Spanish is so much better…)
Del Verbo divino
La Virgen prenada
viene de carmino
si le dias posado.
St. John of the Cross

This beautiful poem is a road map for what a spiritual artist must do to hook into the flow of Divine creativity. The fundamentally creative nature of the Universe is represented here as the pregnant Virgin. Her pregnancy is physical creativity in potentiality. Her virginity is the state of her mind and soul; it has nothing to do with her sexuality. The pregnant Mary instructs us on how to make ourselves ready to receive the creative spirit. We must make ourselves as virgin ground, unstamped by the traumas & desires of life. We must be open and hold ourselves empty in order to be filled. St John reminds us that this is all that is necessary for the Divine to enter into us. It is the nature of the Divine to create, or as Plotinus would say, to emanate form. If we allow the Divine in, our own creative output is assured and, more importantly, sacred. It is the moment of creation, the intimacy an artist can feel with God that is the object. It is that union, which without effort, spontaneously produces the form which will be come a physical work of art. What’s more, art that is produced in this way captures the resonance of that experience and can, on some level, transmit some of that energy to its viewer. This is the ideal that the spiritual artist must continually strive for.

This Weekend’s Art Events in New Jersey

Saturday, October 27th:

Terrry Boddi Open Studio Tour 12 noon to 6pm – 540A Freeman Street, Orange, NJ (in the ValleyArts District)

Aljira
Professional development & networking forum for visual artists, writers and performing artists, 9:30am – 5:30pm

Artist Workshops at Barat Foundation, Art of Creative Recovery, 765 Broad Street
1pm – 2pm Photography (not for beginners), Gary Barat;
2:30pm – 3:30pm Painting, Curtis Grayson
4:30pm – 5:30pm Zawadi School of African dance

Reception, On Every Wall; Stitch, Cut, and Dye
City Without Walls, 6 Crawford Street, 3pm – 6pm

Curator’s Tour: “Seen-it-Wonders”
Seton Hall University School of Law, One Newark Center, Newark, NJ, 3pm

The Modified History of Downtown Newark, curated by Matthew Gosser
New Jersey School of Architecture – NJIT Campus, 113 Summit St., 5pm – 10pm
(Followed by a Halloween After-Party at an undisclosed location, bring a costume!)

Exhibition Opening: In the Country of Last Refuge
A Mashup curated by Emma Wilcox and Evonne M. Davis
Opening Reception: Normative Behaviors
New Video by Michael Paul Britto
Gallery Aferro, 73 Market Street, 6pm – 9:30pm

Sunday, October 28th:

If you can check out the Newark Artists Studio Tour, 10am – 6pm
Artists throughout the city open their doors to visitors
Various, complimentary Shuttle Service pick up begins at 581Broad Street9pm

Capoeira Presentation – by Capoeira Legados
(Folkloric Show of Afro – Brazilian Song and Dance)
12pm The Academy Street Firehouse, 77 Academy Street
3pm Barat Foundation, Art of Creative Recovery, 765 Broad Street

Mural Unveiling and Open Works
Newark Boys Chorus School, 1016 Broad Street, 2pm

Performances by Clarina Bezzola: “Lamentation”
Rupert Ravens Contemporary, 85 Market Street, 3pm & 5pm

Opening Reception – Contemporary Alternatives, Photography of William May, 3pm – 6pm
Exhibit hours after opening: Wednesday – Sunday 2pm – 5pm. Key Club, 58 Park Place

Opening Reception 6pm – 8pm (Exhibit remains open through Dec 9)
Red Badge of Courage, curated by Omar Lopez-Chahoud(exhibit open through December 9, 2007)
An exhibition set in 13,000 square feet, based on the title of Stephen Crane’s acclaimed novel. Featuring 65+ artists from Newark, New Jersey, New York and abroad.
National Newark Building, 744 Broad, 6th floor

Maurice Chestnut & Jerry Gant present The Above Ground Project $15 suggested donation, 9pm
Featuring performance by Donnie and others; After-Party DJ – Darnell
Sugar Ray’s, 10 Park Place

The Value of Artistic Peers

Today I finished the sculpting of my first cracked woman. This picture doesn’t really capture the piece well- especially the cracks. And, of course, glazing & firing will change everything.

I had an extraordinary experience finishing it. I’ve been working for years on my own, most often in complete isolation. But to do ceramics, you must have a kiln, and I don’t. So I’m taking a class at the New Jersey Center of Visual Arts. They have really nice facilities and it feels like real artist’s studios, not just suburban moms with nothing to do which is what you find a lot of out here in NJ.

So, I was finishing up and I didn’t feel quite right about how the neck was working. I asked my classmate who had great insight into what I was doing and consulted the teacher as well. My piece is significantly better than I would have been because of these conversations. I’d forgotten the magic that happens between artists. It was a very meaningful experience for me and yet another reason for me not to hide my work away. These moments of deep connection are precious in life.

Since this blog is new, this is my first experience of writing about a piece while it is in progress. My entry of a couple days ago helped me clarify my intentions with this piece in a very different way than I’m used to. I believe writing about it was akin to cleaning debris out of a pipe. My creative flow came more quickly and with increased intensity.

Another thought on Pain & Angst

I would like to adjust what I said yesterday about pain & angst. Pain is an unavoidable side-effect of being alive. Angst & suffering are not. What I was trying to say is that artists need not suffer to create art, but they do need to feel pain because pain exists in all our lives. Being present to pain without trying to control it removes suffering and releases creativity. So my last post was slightly off-base. I should not have included pain only angst & suffering as unnecessary for artistic creation.

It wonderful to find oneself wrong and have the opportunity to correct it… (without suffering!)

Are Pain & Angst Necessary for the Artist

The following is an excerpt from artist Alex Grey’s conversation with Ken Wilbur:

K:…Conventional art is an expression of the self or world as it is now. Transcendental Art expresses something that you are not yet but that you can become…Alex, that insight belongs to both of us.

A: That’s why you feel better after producing it. Transformative art must express something beyond where you are, it demands that you grow beyond your current self. This is where an artist’s angst and the pain of transformation coincide. You reach toward the true, the good and the beautiful and become a better person through the struggle.

This is an apt description by K. Wilbur and I understand where A. Grey is headed. However, I would take his point one step further. It has been my experience that at a certain point in the artistic journey, the “artist’s angst” in creation can fade away. In the beginning, when we engage the source of creativity, we try and control it. This is the source of angst & struggle. Once we surrender to the creative flow, pain & angst are no longer necessary to the creative process. There is still work to be done, but the work becomes less about our personal struggles and more about accepting the nature of what is. If we can accept that, without judgment or control, art will be produced with a joy and ease unimaginable to most. In the same way an enlightened person can face traumas and disappointments without pain and struggle, so an artist can open the door for the Divine transformation through their work without angst. That doesn’t mean making art becomes easy, being present is probably the hardest single act a human being can undertake.

Update: http://sybilarchibald.com/blog/2007/10/26/another-thought-on-pain-angst/

Are you only as good as your last piece?

The question as asked in Gloria Dean’s Blog is interesting to think about, but I believe this is question misses the true point of making art. Art is not about our own assessments of good and bad, it’s about the work’s relationship to world and its viewers. It is next to impossible for an artist to judge the true purpose or quality of their own work.

Case in point, several years ago I painted a piece about the Binding of Isaac. It is the moment Isaac hands are bound by his father for his sacrifice. The decision to paint the rope tying around his hands as actual Hebrew words from the Bible was automatic. I went through a period of illness, the painting lay abandoned, then judged by me as not so hot. Some time later I had the painting in a gallery and a woman in a wheelchair came in. She was in an almost reclining position. She had oxygen pumped to her nose, and she seem to only have movement in her arms and head. Her wheelchair was electric and she was determined to get into the gallery by herself. She wasn’t going to be bound by her illness. I watched her struggle as she finally made it in, immediately drawn to my painting. I could see something in her body language shift as she looked at it.

She told me part of her story: she was an ultra-orthodox Jew who had left her faith. Something out the Hebrew lettering and the image spoke to her about her illness. I don’t think I’ve ever had someone understand my own work on a level so much deeper than my own understanding before. By seeing her reaction I received new meaning for the painting which helped me understand my own illness. Clearly, I had made this work for her and never known it. She said it helped to ease her. Sometimes we must surrender to our bonds to achieve freedom.

By judging our own work & keeping locked away, we not only block ourselves but block the Divine. Our paintings and works of art can be portals for the creative flow of healing energy into the world. If we are truly creating, it’s not coming from us, but through us. We are the filter through which light can pour. A filter is necessary for otherwise, the light would blind us. This is an awesome gift and responsibility- the responsibility not to judge. Even a piece, which by traditional artistic standards may not be great, may have a greater purpose. We don’t and can’t know. It’s up to use to be humble enough to allow the process to work through us.

Privacy and the Artist

Privacy has always been a big concern for me. I’ve spent my whole life trying to keep private. I’m sitting in a café (Café Meow in Maplewood) and I just told a friend of mine that my mother was a comedian when I was growing up. I spent my childhood sitting in smoky nightclubs hearing my mom joke about me and her crotchless underpants. My friend was amazed. She had no idea.

This blog is a challenge for me, because I’m not used to sharing my life or my thoughts in such a direct way. When I posted my last entry, a picture of a sculpture in progress, I had a moment of vertigo. I think, in fact, it takes a lot of energy to hide my life from view. Right now, I’d rather spend that energy living. I also think that when your goal is to surrender into the creative flow of the Divine, you by definition must give up such rigid control of your life.

New Sculpture

I’m working on a new series of sculptures: here’s a photo in process:

I’m planning to do a series of women in different poses and then crack them open like eggs. I will fill their insides with cobalt blue, mimicking in coarse material form, the Divine light of creativity. It’s going to be a lot of fun to work on.

The next sculpture is going to be a pregnant woman laying on her back….

Plotinus

I’m deep into my copy of the Essential Plotinus.

This quote from “Contemplation” says everything to me about what it means to make art:

Were one to ask Nature why it produces, it might-if willing-thus reply:”You should never have put the question. Silently, as I am silent and little given to talk, you should have tried to understand…that what comes to be is the object of my silent contemplation: mine is a contemplative nature. The contemplative in me produces the object contemplated much as geometricians draw their figures while contemplating. I do not draw. But, contemplating, I drop within me the lines constitutive of bodily forms. Within me I preserve traces of my source that brought me into being. They too were born of contemplation and without action on their own part gave birth to me.

Plotinus is a genius, obviously! He describes so perfectly how an artist can go inside to find and connect with those “traces” of our Divine Source. By contemplating (observing & being with) these traces we automatically tap into them, resonate with their fundamentally generative nature. Creativity pours forth “without action”. This means without forcing it, naturally without pain or struggle. This is probably anathema. Artists are supposed to suffer, how can you be an artist with out pain? This model of creativity opens the possibility of creation in a new way. The journey inside is not paddling up river, it’s plugging in.

More on Plotinus later…

Lauren Ari, Artist

If you’re in San Fransisco on October 26, check out the De Young Museum’s opening of The Diane and Sandy Besser Collection from 5:30 to 8:00 pm. One of my favorite artists, Lauren Ari, has work in the collection.

Lauren works on the pages of a ninety year old Funk and Wagnell’s dictionary. It’s delightful how the words peek through at critical points in the painting. She then sculpts what she has painted. To me this is an utterly fascinating concept. Her work reminds me of the process of energy forming into matter. Language (symbolized by the dictionary page) creates a channel, a form, for energy to enter into this word. Lauren’s work charts how, from this humble beginning, creative energy rushes forth into the world as a dynamic living force. First, she captures the energy, snaps it almost like a photo might be taken, in her expressive paintings. Then it comes to rest fully formed, solid and real, in her jewel-like sculptures.

Last night’s dream

If you ever wondered what artists dream about:

I dreamed I gave birth to twins but they were lost. Panicking, I searched and they were found: two sculptures of the Madonna in plaster(styled like I used to make for altars). Worried that they would die from malnutrition, I put the sculptures to my breasts and fed them with rich milk the consistency of thick plaster. Then, they were happy.

What does this dream mean? The work of artists feed the Divine presence on earth. Art is a doorway between heaven an earth. It is imperative for artists of all types (you know who you are…) to create. So, I’m off to work hoping to open that door…