April 2013

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Jakara 5
Jakara 5, part of the exhibit, “Material Ephemera,” currently on view at UC Santa Cruz

I will be away for a week for my show, “Material Ephemera,” on view through May 13 at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Porter College. I am speaking at the artist reception on Saturday, April 27.

I am back to Slow Muse on May 1.

For more information about the show:

Material Ephemera

ME

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sanddollar
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and to follow a spark on the wind with your eyes;
and to keep on not knowing
something important.

–Wislawa Szymborska

The idea of fragments and incompleteness was the topic of a blog post I wrote two weeks ago (Pieced Cloth) but it became the predominant leitmotif for life this past week. Tiny fragments found on the streets and rooftops of Back Bay, thousands of photos taken by spectators, eye witness snippets were all assembled by experts to piece together a comprehensible picture of what happened at the Marathon last Monday. Bit by bit a profile emerged of two unlikely protagonists who lived right across the river. And as the net closed in on Friday, millions of us were asked to shelter in place as this week long, “this is a bad movie I can’t stop watching” came to a close.

But a close is not a conclusion. Many of us who have been unable to talk about much else for these five days are still unsettled by a sense of something that is missing. We all live every day “not knowing something important,” but sometimes that sits more easily than it does now.

The Korean Zen master Ko Bong taught, “If you attain don’t-know, that is your original master.” In the “don’t know mind,” ignorance is the seed bed for curiosity and discovery, a willingness for that not knowing to be OK. Not that I’m good at getting there, but that quiet invitation is more appealing than more talk and more conjecture.

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Projections on BAM this week (Photo: Laughing Squid)

My previous post, Paying Attention, was written just one day before the Boston Marathon Bombings. Paying attention? Indeed.

Since the events on Monday I have been left feeling the deep sorrow that hung palpably over this city. That’s all any of us have been talking about. But at the same time, I have been left feeling…wordless. Thousands of condolences have appeared on Facebook, on Twitter, and in my email inbox as well. But a response beyond “thank you for this” would feel forced and redundant. Words have felt inadequate.

This morning author Dennis Lehane wrote an op ed piece in the New York Times, Messing With The Wrong City.

Here’s a passage:

But I do love this city. I love its atrocious accent, its inferiority complex in terms of New York, its nut-job drivers, the insane logic of its street system. I get a perverse pleasure every time I take the T in the winter and the air-conditioning is on in the subway car, or when I take it in the summer and the heat is blasting. Bostonians don’t love easy things, they love hard things — blizzards, the bleachers in Fenway Park, a good brawl over a contested parking space. Two different friends texted me the identical message yesterday: They messed with the wrong city. This wasn’t a macho sentiment. It wasn’t “Bring it on” or a similarly insipid bit of posturing. The point wasn’t how we were going to mass in the coffee shops of the South End to figure out how to retaliate. Law enforcement will take care of that, thank you. No, what a Bostonian means when he or she says “They messed with the wrong city” is “You don’t think this changes anything, do you?”

Trust me, we won’t be giving up any civil liberties to keep ourselves safe because of this. We won’t cancel next year’s marathon. We won’t drive to New Hampshire and stockpile weapons. When the authorities find the weak and terminally maladjusted culprit or culprits, we’ll roll our eyes at whatever backward ideology they embrace and move on with our lives.

Reading this short piece was like a quickening, bringing me back into the arena of life. Lehane is so direct, so expressive, and his tone captures that peculiar toughness that attracted me to this city in the first place. Boston is full of people who are notoriously outspoken, brusk, opinionated, fierce, ready to battle anyone or anything. It was that feistiness that made me feel like I belonged here over 30 years ago when I made this town my home. I’m ready to reclaim it.

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ice
Ice patterns in winter: enchantment for free

Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.

–Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag’s words are inspriring for anyone, not just artists. In Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, Rick Hanson makes the claim that attention actually shapes the brain. What we pay attention to is what gets built into our brain tissue, and our neurons are wired in respond to what we focus on.

But what is this paying attention that Sontag talks of? I don’t usually equate paying attention with vitality, with connecting me with others, with making me feel eager. I work alone in a studio and much of my time is spent just looking at work in progress. At the end of the day, exhausted, I often think of that great line captured in an interview with a nearly 90 year old Agnes Martin as she was exiting her studio: “Painting is hard work.” Don’t I know.

But according to Alison Bonds Shapiro in her article, “Paying Attention,” there is something more than just focusing the mind:

We may think we understand the art of paying attention but many times, unfortunately, we mistake attention for judgment. We think about attention as a “critical” function. Attention is not critical. Judgment is. Attention is neutral. We begin to pay attention to something and then we start to judge it, evaluate it, categorize it and, yes, generally “criticize” it. But judging, while certainly useful, is not attention. Judging involves an underlying assumption that our purpose is ultimately to categorize and take action. We judge something to be done with it. The rush to being done with something does not increase our capacity to pay attention to it.

When we judge something we generally assess whether or not we need to “fix” it, reject it or enhance it, and move on. In other words, we are motivated to change it in some way. Whatever it is right now is generally not OK or not enough and has to be altered. If our intention is to fix or change or reject something our capacity to pay attention to it is actually minimized. We will see only as much as we think we need to see to take action. What if there is more to learn?

Attention is noticing and being with something without trying to change it. Attention takes the time to fully explore, to discover whatever there is to know about something, to watch as things change by themselves without our trying to ‘fix” anything. Attention is patient and attention is kind. No rush. No burden. No criticism.

This approach to being with whatever shows up (Shapiro references her teacher Frank Ostaseski‘s admonition to “welcome everything; push away nothing”) asks for a kind of detachment that is often counter to the intimacy that develops between artist and artifact. We are, in that role as maker, both judge and jury, creator and destroyer. But there are moments when accessing that detached acceptance of everything would feel like a useful tool to have in my quiver.

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Fragment of cloth in the Islamic galleries at the Metropolitan Museum

Breaks are always, and fatally, reinscribed in an old cloth that must continually, interminably, be undone.

–Jacques Derrida, Positions

Sometimes it isn’t just about the whole cloth.

This past weekend I thought a lot about fragments, about the shards of incompleteness that are “continually, interminably” part of life. When you really look at this world, whole fabric is a rare thing. More often than not we fashion an existence out of pieced cloth, from fragments.

As a group of us gathered in New York City to remember our friend Morris now gone five years, each story shared was just one small facet of his complex and multilayered soul. Our weekend host Andrew, now a historian, spends his days culling through snippets and journal entries hoping to capture the authentic essence of his 19th century ancestor. Meanwhile the City of New York, the landscape I chose for my life 40 years ago and loved with the zeal of a new convert, is “continually, interminably” reinventing itself, blending fragments of that long ago past with what’s new and now belongs to another generation of supplicants.

On Sunday I spent an afternoon in the Islamic wing at the Metropolitan Museum, my favorite place these days. Coupled with the pristine and perfect wholeness of luxuriously oversized rugs is a carefully chosen array of exotic fragments salvaged from a time long ago and now the proxies for lost empires and kingdoms. These fragments are incomplete and my (our?) understanding of their full meaning is as well. But these artifacts have taken on a life of their own and hold me in their mystery. Their solitude suggests how much is missing and the question of where they spent their previous incarnations before the museum became their home. While minds like my historian friend Andrew might see them as a starting place to understand the past, I am in awe of their very presence, of the power and awe that comes from their incompleteness.

Whether this is just an artist’s love for the implicit or an art maker’s tacit belief that objects do have power, it spills over into other domains. Life is, for most of us, a pieced cloth. Coming to love the irregularities, the gaps and incongruities is what getting older and wiser can be.

Some of my favorite fragments:

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met10

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Blue

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

–Excerpt from East Coker V, Four Quartets, by T. S. Eliot

In What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World, Robert Hass writes about this poem by T. S. Eliot and the difficulty in teaching students about poetry:

One of the traditional ways of teaching poetry is to discuss, to explicate, what Eliot is saying here to make sure that students (and the teacher) understand what’s being said…in teaching poetry, that is quite often what we settle for. We hope that the deeper thing that we can’t communicate has gotten communicated, passed directly from the poem to the student reader without our aid or interference. We do what we can with content, especially if, as in this case, the content is rich, psychologically or philosophically. And we do what we can, harder but still manageable, with affect. And we leave the deeper thing in the work of art, which is also famously the most ineffable, its tone or mood, which is like a sensation of echo, which we often take away quite mutely and quietly, in the same way that people do coming out of a concert hall or theater. In those deepest reaches of a work of art, the truth is what we mostly cannot teach.

Hass goes on to talk about the possibility of teaching echoes. As Eliot has said elsewhere, the past is “modified in the guts of the living” much the way a new work of art emerges from an old one. Like the lives we construct for ourselves from our experiences, our work and our relationships, the sensation of echo is ongoing and sometimes as close as we can get to our own deeper thing.

This feels particularly resonant for me this morning. This weekend is the fifth anniversary of the passing of Morris Arrari, a dear friend to many of us. A group of us are gathering in New York City to remember him. In thinking about Morris more than usual, I was reminded of these words delivered at his memorial service by Andrew Kimball:

Morris said once he would choose to return to earth — should that be our destiny — as a bird, high above hospital rooms, stomas, the gracelessness of ordinary manners — his artist’s eye quickened by the earth’s spiny geology, its interlocking clays and ores, its patterned waterways, the play of shadow across the landscape – observed this time from a distance.

The sensation of echo, the ineffable deeper thing—these are concepts that don’t translate easily into words. But remembering this wish for an ambient presence brought me closer to that unsaidness.

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hand

In Robert Hass‘s essay, “On Teaching Poetry,” he references W. H. Auden‘s book of essays, The Dyer’s Hand, named after a phrase from Shakespeare‘s Sonnet 111:

Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand:

In Shakespeare’s sonnet the dyer’s hand is stained and branded—shamefully in this case—by blood-guilt. In Auden says Hass, “it is connected to a notion of someone so immersed in their trade that they are permanently colored by it.”

The Dyer’s Hand is full of memorable Audenisms, and a feistiness is evident throughout (like the starting quote for his essay, “Reading” from C. G. Lichtenberg: “A book is a mirror: If an ass peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.”)

Here is a passage that spoke directly to me when I was reading this morning:

Though the pleasure which works of art give us must not be confused with other pleasures that we enjoy, it is related to all of them simply by being our pleasure and not someone else’s. All the judgments, aesthetic or moral, that we pass, however objective we try to make them, are in part a rationalization and in part a corrective discipline of our subjective wishes. So long as a man writes poetry or fiction, his dream of Eden is his own business, but the moment he starts writing literary criticism, honesty demands that he describe it to his readers, so that they may be in the position to judge his judgments.

Our unavoidable proclivities to subjectivity. Each of us with our own dream of Eden. Possessing a hand that, with time, reveals itself through the work we do.

That’s an interwoven nest of wisdom for my day.

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