Heron on the beach at Small Point, Maine

_____
Note to my readers: As I head back up to Small Point, I reread this post from two years ago. That beach, that heron, that quiet—they are all still there, waiting to encompass any and all. I’ll be back Slow Musing at the end of next week.
_____

Sam McNerney posted a piece on Big Think called Why You Shouldn’t Focus Too Much in which he highlights the results of several recent studies on focus and creativity.

We’re obsessed with relentless focus. We assume that if we encounter a difficult problem the best strategy is to chug red bull or drink coffee. Drugs including Adderall and Ritalin are prescribed to millions to improve focus. Taking a break is a faux pas, mind wandering even worse. Yet, recent studies paint a different picture: distractions and mind wandering might be a key part in the creative process.

The research McNerney describes helps explain why “prodigiously creative” people have a proclivity for generating solutions to complex problems spontaneously. As one researcher puts it, “This spontaneity is not the result of an innate talent or a gift from the muses but actually the result of the prodigiously creative person working on outstanding problems consistently at a level below consciousness awareness.”

McNerney’s conclusion:

Whatever the reasons, the research outlined here suggests that daydreaming and distractions might contribute to the creative process by giving our unconscious minds a chance to mull over and “incubate” the problems our conscious mind can’t seem to crack…let’s remember that daydreams and distractions per se never helped anyone—there’s a fine line between taking a break and being lazy (or maybe not). The more reasonable conclusion is that when you’re stuck don’t fear distraction and despite what your boss might think, let the mind wander. This, it turns out, is something creative people do really well. Thoreau might summarize it best: “We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.”

Walking only part way. Success being a thing that is dark and requires a leap. Henry David Thoreau, I’m on it.

Tags: , , ,


Reflections of Commonwealth Avenue on a Boston University poster with a life of its own

Discovering the selfless nature doesn’t have a monumental “Eureka!” quality. It is more like being continually perplexed, the way we feel when we’re looking for the car keys we’re so sure are in our pocket, or when the supermarket’s being renovated and what we need has moved to a different aisle each time we go shopping. That experience of being somewhat dumbfounded is the beginning of wisdom. We’re beginning to see through our ignorance—the everyday vigil we sustain to confirm that we exist in some permanent way. We look at our mind and see that it is a fluid situation, and we look at the world and see that it is a fluid situation. Our expectation of permanence is confounded.

–Sakyong Mipham

This passage is from Sakyong Mipham‘s book, Ruling Your World: Ancient Strategies For Modern Life. While this articulation of life as a “fluid situation” speaks to all aspects of consciousness, it is an approach that has been of particular value to me in the realm of creativity and the act of making.

Mipham’s concept of perpetual fluidity is similar to Pema Chödrön‘s use of the word groundlessness. She has written about its importance in her classic, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.

A few wise words from Chödrön:

***
To seek for some lasting security is futile. Suffering begins to dissolve when we question the belief or hope that there’s anywhere to hide.

***
For those who want something to hold onto, life is even more inconvenient. From this point of view, seeking security can become an addiction. We’re all addicted to hope—hope that the doubt and uncertainty will go away. This addiction has a painful effect on society: a society based on lots of people addicted to getting ground under their feet is not a very compassionate place.

***
To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.

***
When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality.

Tags: , ,

Nigrassa
Nigrassa, one of the pieces included in the show at Chautauqua Institution this summer, “On the Surface: Outward Appearances,” that has been sold and taken up residence elsewhere.

Ann Lauterbach, poet and educator, is the author of The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience. As is usually the case, her insights about poetry and poetry writing apply to other forms of expression as well. (I regularly rely on poets to articulate what I find so hard to verbalize.)

I don’t know if this is a technique that works for you, but the right book somehow rises to the top of my stack or falls off the shelf at an opportune moment. Open it up, and there is something that speaks to life at that particular moment. My erudite and book loving niece Rebecca Ricks recommended Night Sky to me several years ago, so I read the collection and left my markings on its pages before putting it on the shelf. This morning I was thinking about the show at Chautauqua that came down this week and about the paintings that have found new homes, and there was Lauterbach’s book sitting there ready to be re-engaged. A few phrases immediately jumped out at me, like the difference between seeing from the periphery rather than the center, and how the whole fragment (what a great term!) can be embraced.

These were the passages that spoke to me this morning which I hope find resonance with you too.

***
To write poetry in America is in itself a subversive act, a refutation of, and resistance to, certain assumptions about what constitutes “the public” and its interests.

Poetry protects language from serving any master.

One can see better from the periphery than from the center.

***
My fear is that my fragments of knowledge are just bits and pieces with too many unbridgeable gaps between them.

And so, in defense, I have come to celebrate the whole fragment.

***
Linear argument, where one thing leads ineluctably to another, is of profound practical and rhetorical value, but necessarily it discourages vicissitude and ephemera, ambivalence and dead ends, ruminations that suggest a different mental economy, one that could affect conclusions beyond the restraint of reasoning logic.

***
The crucial job of artists is to find a way to release materials into the animated middle ground between subjects, and so to initiate the difficult but joyful process of human connection.

***
Art serves no practical purpose, but to engage with it fully is to acknowledge the (pleasurable, if often difficult) consequences of choice at the crux of human agency.
***

Tags: , , ,

Doing Neverland

1379295654-0
J. M. Barrie

How does it happen, that a something—an image, a story, a meme—secures a spot in the cultural collective, that shared image/idea database full of entities everyone in our cultural milieu recognizes? Some are ancient, like the stories from the Greeks (Aphrodite, Apollo, Zeus) and the Bible (Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham), and some are contemporary, often cinematically sourced (The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Star Wars.) Once apotheotized, those entities take on a quality of ambience, accessible to all of us without having to be languaged or explained.

The story of Peter Pan took up residence in our Western collective unconscious soon after it was written by the Scottish writer J. M. Barrie in the early years of the 20th century. It emerged from his books and plays, and immediately it was embraced, adored and immortalized. The world of children. A charismatic boy who refuses to grow up and what’s more, can fly. Fairies. Adventures without adults. The enchanted world of Neverland. The boundarylessness of imagination.

This storyline so full of playfulness and hope has its own tragic sourcing. The youngest of ten children, Barrie lost his brother David from a skating accident. To comfort his devastated mother, young James dressed up like his brother and even mimicked his speech. This charade born of grief became a pattern, and when James turned 13—the age that David was when he died—James literally stopped growing. For the rest of his life he remained five feet tall, had a high pitched voice and felt more at home with children than he did with his peers. When Barrie met the Llewelyn Davies family of boys in Kensington Park, the bond was immediate and deep. (After the boys’ parents both died, Barrie became their guardian.)

1379298571-0
The Llewelyn Davies boys

Finding Neverland is the latest musical theater production by Diane Paulus at American Rep Theater in Cambridge. There is however no flying Peter Pan or a crocodile with a ticking clock below the plank in this production. The story of Peter Pan is the given that we all already know, and Finding Neverland steps out beyond that shared storyline to expand the context. This is a production about Barrie himself and his beloved Llewelyn Davies boys, brought to life in song, dance and theatrical magic.

And these days no one is doing the “brought to life in song, dance and theatrical magic” better than Diane Paulus. (Her four recent Tony awards are now ensconced in the Loeb Theater lobby.) The professionalism of this production is breathtaking. Paulus has repeatedly demonstrated her genius at assembling All Star rosters for these Broadway-bound productions, and in this one she has brought together a world class team of playwright James Graham, musicians/lyricists Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, choreographer Mia Michaels, and performers who are, to the person, spectacular. What’s more, this time she has the added imprimatur of celebrity producer Harvey Weinstein of Miramax.

The show is nearly sold out and a big hit with audiences. It is already slated to open on Broadway in March of next year. And even for musical theater curmudgeons like me who are more partial to serious drama, the spell cast by such flawless execution made the evening a memorable one. My daughter Kellin did not inherit my musical theater disaffection, and she was utterly enchanted by this production. Neither of us will ever forget the breathtaking artistry of Sylvia’s exit. (I won’t say more in case you are planning to see the play.)

Finding Neverland runs through September 28 at the Loeb Theater. Ticket information here.

1701TheaterB
The American Rep Theater production of “Finding Neverland” (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Tags: , , ,


Who needs a peacock’s tail when you can build this for your lady love? The bower created by a male bowerbird.

David Rothenberg is a jazz musician and a professor of philosophy. He has written a number of books, several of them focused on the interface between natural sounds (like the songs of birds and whales) with jazz and other musical forms. In his most recent and thought provoking book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and Evolution, Rothenberg moves into the visual realm, exploring how beauty fits into the current concept of Darwinian evolution. Is beauty part of natural selection? Can its abundance in nature truly be explained by sexual selection?

Rothenberg makes a strong case for aesthetic selection. Beauty as a determiner. This is a delicious thought.

One of Rothenberg’s prime examples is the bowerbird. Each species creates a very particular style of bower, an undertaking that is extremely arduous. Amazingly, these structural—and very sculptural—creations are not nests nor are they used for anything “practical.” They are extravagant expressions designed to please the eye of the female bowerbird.

In many ways they seem to defy evolution since their sole purpose is to look good. But Rothenberg suggests that birds have their own aesthetic, similar to human “schools” of art, like abstract expressionism or cubism. And looking at the photographs of bowers below, how can anyone not think of our own human bowerbird, Andy Goldsworthy?

From the book:

The female satin bowerbirds do choose their mate after what they see in the bower and what they take in from the song and dance. But are they really evaluating the quality of their mate? Modern sexual selection theory says what they are looking for is good genes, while Darwin’s original sexual selection theory focused only on what the females like. Look what he has created—an artwork with style and substance, something no animal besides humans is known to do. Are we to brush all this effort off as a sign or a code for something more mundane and hidden? What if bowerbirds attract, mate and procreate for the propagation of bowers, not offspring? Look at the process as an example of aesthetic selection…

[These are] not structures to live in, but for the females to admire. They are built to be one thing—beautiful.

Rothenberg goes to to say that he does not believe evolution as we know it can explain art, but “a deeper consideration of art can enhance our understanding of evolution.”

He also writes this memorable line:

I believe our understanding of nature increases if we spend more time wondering about all this useless beauty.

Below, a sampling of different bowerbird offerings:

Note: This post is from the Slow Muse archives, first published in August 2012.

view-from-the-artist-s-studio-le-cannet-1945

In his essay on Pierre Bonnard, The Art of Making a World (included in his book, Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa), Michael Kimmelman relates a conversation he once had with the photographer Cartier-Bresson. While viewing a self-portrait by Bonnard, Cartier-Bresson said, “You know, Picasso didn’t like Bonnard and I can imagine why, because Picasso had no tenderness. It is only a very flat explanation to say that Bonnard is looking in a mirror in this painting. He’s looking far, far beyond. To me he is the greatest painter of the century. Picasso was a genius, but that is something quite different.”

Kimmelman goes on to quote Picasso on the topic of Bonnard: “Don’t talk to me about Bonnard. That’s not painting, what he does…Painting isn’t a question of sensibility: it’s a question of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice.”

In many ways Picasso and Bonnard inhabited two extremes of the painting spectrum. During the era when both of them were working, Bonnard was the one who was out of step, painting works that were too soft compared to the structured detachment of cubism. Many saw Bonnard as an impressionist working after impressionism was past, an anachronism caught up in his search for the elusive beauty of paradise.

With time, respect for Bonnard’s vision has steadily grown. He is not the marginalized artist Picasso dismissed but someone whose body of work speaks to a modern viewer with power and meaning. “These works crystallize what has always been Bonnard’s primary mood, that of elegy,” writes Sarah Whitfield in Bonnard. “He has often been described as a painter of pleasure, but he is not a painter of pleasure. He is a painter of the effervescence of pleasure and the disappearance of pleasure.” That is a sense of life that speaks to contemporary viewers.

I had a similar experience of how time shifts our view while reading Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction, by Gabrielle Selz. Gabrielle, daughter of art critic/historian Peter Selz, is a gifted writer and has captured a slice of art world life both in New York City and on the West Coast (her father was chief curator at MOMA before moving to open the Berkeley Museum in California). Her charismatic father befriended many major artists—Mark Rothko, Max Beckmann, Karel Appel, Alberto Giacometti, Christo, Carolee Schneeman, among others—but that glitterati world also had its dark side of bad parenting, bad partnering and a whole lot of that 60s self indulgence. This isn’t a name dropping, “lifestyles of the rich and famous” memoir. It is the story of a complicated life told with intelligence and evenhandedness. I never lost interest in her or her world, a significant feat for any memoirist.

Gabrielle is a few years younger than me, but our lives run along many parallels. Like me, she was bi-coastal in the 60s and 70s, observing the art world both in New York and in the Bay Area. We lived just a few blocks from each other in New York City, and we even attended the same university, UC Santa Cruz. She had a front row seat however, and her account offered a more intimate view of events I remember but observed from the periphery.

There might have been a time in my life when being an insider like Gabrielle would have seemed desirable. But not now. I have come to see that there are people who are outsiders by nature. For me, I’m more interested in the weeds that grow beyond the edge of the well manicured green. Like Bonnard, I have come to believe that you can find and create your enchantment anywhere, on any terms.

Bonnard_paysage_remorqueur

Tags: , , ,

A Week Away

banner-titian-danae
Titian’s Danaë from the Capodimonte Museum, Naples, on display at the National Museum in Washington DC

I’m in DC for the week. There is always so much to see at the National Gallery, especially when accompanied by two engaging Renaissance art historians (AKA my daughter Kellin and her husband Sean, visiting from Florence.)

I’ll be back August 11.

earth-from-space

For people who spend a lot of time alone—by design—and are avowed introverts, the concept of social activism is more of a theological commitment than a behavior. Like that person who hates going to the gym, I have an abhorrence for meetings. If a cause requires me to attend any, I’m a no. I believe in the planetary collective that encompasses all life forms, but I’m not so good with the large human gathering part. A recent post on Facebook captures that discomfort perfectly: INTROVERTS UNITE. Separately. In your own homes.

But I can read, and I do. And I can openly voice my support for what rings true.

Whether you are a brave trooper at the leading edge of societal change or a remote viewer like me, we all see a world that is in need of help. It has been a summer of difficult news, and feeling powerless is a standard response. What can one person do that really makes a difference?

My own answer to that question is actually more expansive and hopeful today than it was a week ago. I give credit fpr that shift to a “this will change the way you see the world” book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, by Charles Eisenstein.

Eisenstein is a self-styled voice—he is neither a traditional academic nor a journalist—and yet he has written a book that is fearless in its examination of the large arc concerns of life. He has a penetrating and exacting mind, and he speaks truthfully of our world’s woes. But his approach is also humble, personal, transcendent and thoughtfully hopeful. The short chapters have one world titles like Separation, Despair, Miracle, Hope, but they string together and form a compelling narrative of how we collectively transition from the old, outdated story of ourselves—separateness, scarcity, fear—to one of interconnectedness and collaboration.

There is nothing new about this idea. It is almost a refrain. Anticipating the critics who accuse him of being naive and/or too New Age-ish, Eisenstein addresses those reservations head on and bravely makes a case for how to shift out of a narrative that isn’t working into one that can. The way he has framed this conversation speaks powerfully to me.

A beautifully written review of the book by Bayo Akomolafe at Kosmos captures the unique spirit of Eisenstein’s approach:

What differentiates this book from other attempts to define a finer world lies in the path that he adopts—through the soft spots of our collective feeling. Instead of academic posturing or intellectual bravado, Charles brings us a book that unashamedly ‘feels’—a well-rounded voyage that satisfies at levels often ignored by today’s prophets of change. Don’t be fooled though: I do not at all mean to suggest that this book is puff and smoke. Charles’ intellectual perspicacity will bend your mind like dried crayfish. Through our shared grief about the failed promises of modern civilization, his words seep through the gridlocks of expertise and the trapdoors of cynicism with a strange potency that is difficult to mimic. His noble intent? To guide us into what a different world might look like, to ‘trick’ our senses into believing it is not as distant as we conveniently let it be. Charles proceeds to describe, with a refreshing sense of vulnerability and self-awareness, what living in a new mythos might look like—even while confessing his relative non-readiness and disinclination to fully occupy it…

In fact, this book is a celebration of the ordinary—ennobling what seems to be the commonplace—while pointing out how unfathomable it really is. In the marketplace of glossy ideas, I think the most profound thing that can be said about a book is that it hardly begs the question of its necessity. Paradoxically, it is that very characteristic that makes it a powerful paean to your very present breathing moment and a rapturous adventure into the next.

This is not a book full of clichéd warnings and blue sky pronouncements. In fact Eisenstein self-effacingly places himself alongside the rest of us in the fragile complexity of life. We all struggle with what to do to make things better, and our response is often to do something just to be doing. Eisenstein advocates a different approach. He suggests just siting in the silence of the not knowing and listening in the stillness about how to proceed. Of course I resonate with this technique. It is one many artists learn early on and hone with time. Increasingly the silence holds the answer about where to go next, how best to move forward.

Eisenstein describes our current time as the end of the age of the guru. A new way of seeing the world is emerging in people everywhere, simultaneously. Enlightenment, he says, will be a group activity. And yet his message is very personal, a kind of blueprint for seeing more clearly where our thoughts and attitudes are still caught in the old ways. There is room in this story for everyone including the nonjoiners, the nonconformists, the introverts.

My rhapsodic response to this book has been met with a somewhat cynical eye by several of my friends. Their response has reminded me that visionary and idealistic manifestos have been seriously overplayed in our lifetime. Just another one of those? Hope followed by disappointment has worn all of us down, and moving to skepticism quickly is self preservation at this point. But I am reminded of a line from the I Ching: “Before the beginning of great brilliance, there must be chaos. Before a brilliant person begins something great, they must look foolish in the crowd.”

Every page of my copy of this book is underlined and annotated, and I have started reading it one more time. (For a horizontalist who loves to cover a lot of territory, rereading is not common.) I can already see how it has changed the way I view myself, my world and the future.

Sharing this book with others is as collective an act as I can embrace.

jpeg

Tags: , ,

www.burchfieldpenney
Charles Burchfield writing at his desk, by William Doran (Photo: Charles E. Burchfield Archives, Gift of William Doran)

For years I had Charles Burchfield misfiled under “Depression Era Regional Artists” along with Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood. It wasn’t a file I spent much time rifling through, so my error wasn’t discovered until I saw the show of his work curated by artist Robert Gober in 2010 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Whitney in New York. (An earlier post detailing that revelatory show is Burchfield on my Mind.)

Everything changed when I saw his work in a full continuum. In just one day Burchfield catapulted from an obscure regionalist whose work I barely knew to one of my favorite artists. My passion for him has only increased with time.

autumnalfantasy
Burchfield’s Autumnal Fantasy

While I was in Chautauqua New York for the opening of my show, On the Surface: Outward Appearances (details here), I was able to see two exhibitions that featured Burchfield and his work. One was serendipitously upstairs from On the Surface at the Strohl Arts Center—The Paintings and Writings of Charles E. Burchfield. By comingling both visual and verbal Burchfieldisms, this show makes the best case yet for his true identity as a visionary, a nature mystic, and a channel. Once you get that it is so obvious, especially when reading the words he wrote.

With the exception of Robert Gober,* art historians have not embraced the deeply mystical aspects of Burchfield’s work. He is not included in the list of visionary artists along with the likes of William Blake, Gustave Moreau and Morris Graves. Burchfield doesn’t look the part, that’s for certain: his unpretentious midwestern demeanor just doesn’t suggest “mystic” to anyone. Visiting the Burchfield Penny Museum in Buffalo—which boasts the largest collection of his work—I found the curatorial commentary rather tone deaf to the rhapsodic quality of Burchfield’s connection with the natural world. The portrait of him that they seem to draw is one of a benign, hard working landscape artist who had a peculiar tendency towards extra swirls which they refer to as “heat waves”.

I get it. Burchfield’s ability to see the auric fields that exist around every tree, flower and star is not an aesthetic category that is easy to explain. I had the extraordinary advantage of viewing his work with my friend Linda who possesses a similar ability, so her immediate recognition of what Burchfield was up to reinforced my own intuitive sense of his gift of mystical seeing.

A few of Burchfield’s hand scrawled messages included in the Chautauqua show read like mystical pronouncements, as instructions channeled to him directly. One that I did not photograph captures the essence of Burchfield’s seminal assignment:

Give yourself up entirely to nature. Let nature woo you.

That line couples nicely with another Burchfield quote:

An artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there. To do so he must invent symbols, which, if properly used, make his work seem even more real than what is in front of him.

Given the increased interest in Burchfield and his work, I am certain there are several researchers working on what will become the newly updated and definitive biography of his life. I hope any future retelling will include a more robust recognition of Burchfield’s deeply mystical and visionary nature.

Handwritten notes from the Burchfield exhibit at Chautauqua:

Burchfield1

“You cannot grow unless you attempt things beyond your powers.”

Burchfield2

“It is up to you now, to carry on. Are you equal to the task?”

Burchfield3

“You are completely dead – Devoid of any emotional attitude toward nature Wake up – be bold, make bold caricatures & conventionalizations.”

______
*Robert Gober is the one voice that does acknowledge Birchfield’s otherworldliness. In his catalog for the show, Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, Gober goes so far as to describe Burchfield’s work as “immersed in what he perceived as the complicated beauty and spirituality of nature…often imbued with visionary, apocalyptic, and hallucinatory qualities.”

Tags: , , ,

Dolice1v2
Dolice 1, 12 x 12″ on wood panel

Nigrassa
Nigrassa, 40 x 40″ on canvas

Both paintings are from the upcoming show, “On the Surface: Outward Appearances”, at Chautauqua Institution, June 16 – August 19, 2014

For us, honey is a gift; for the bee, it is labor.
–Jane Hirschfield

The poet Jane Hirschfield is a constant source of wisdom about making in all its many forms, and this line speaks clearly to what every writer/painter/musician/dancer/performer knows intimately. There’s honey to be had, but it comes after hours and hours of work.

In the same essay, The Circular Path, from the collection, A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith, Hirschfield includes a few more resonant insights:

***
Writing is an act that generates and expands attention. And if I’m lucky, I may write something that helps expand the life and attention of others as well.

***
Whatever people find in my poems of radiance or grace comes out of the struggle to turn away from disappearance and toward presence.

The hope—and the quiet sense of surrender—in these words is aligned with my own thoughts as I head out to Chautauqua for the opening of my show this week: On the Surface: Outward Appearances.

I’ll be back to Slow Muse next week.

Tags: , ,

« Older entries § Newer entries »