Unify

a watercolor from 2003, House On Fire

a watercolor from 2003, House On Fire

Stay with me. I actually have a point.

If ever I teach actors again, or coach people in any endeavor, or communities/businesses seeking betterment, I will only have two things to teach: 1) Grounded-ness and 2) Focus placement on the unifiers. These two concepts are really  one looping concept but for ease and the sake of being understood, I will offer them independent of one another.

As focus placement goes, an actor on the stage has two options and depending on the focus placement they choose, they will either create the play or destroy it. A focus on how they look or sound or feel destroys the play. It is a self-focus in an art form of relationship (all art forms are made vital in relationship). A self-focus breaks the relationships and effectively locks the audience out of participating in the story. It makes the actor giddy with fear, easily distracted, alone. Conversely, the actor can focus outside of themselves, on the other actors on the stage, on the energy between, on their pursuit. An outer-focus creates relationships and serves as a magnet that pulls audiences into the story. It facilitates participation, creates relationship, and shared experiences. It unifies. Literally.

The actor who listens to him/herself pulls up their root. They unground themselves. The actor whose focus is outward, who is actively pursuing relationship, creates grounding. In fact, they must be grounded to create vital relationships. It is a first principle. Grounded-ness begets grounded-ness; it unifies. It strengthens. It invites. It clarifies truth.

The same principles apply off the stage or out of the studio. It is, however, more complex off the stage. It is much, much, more sticky.

And here’s the point: It has been said that nothing is better at uniting a community than having an enemy. It’s true. A common enemy provides an outer focus. It provides another team to defeat. It works so well that leaders across the ages, leaders who would otherwise look insipid, leaders who, like a bad actor, have a self-focus, a control need, have concocted all manner of enemies. It is a deflection. It works for a short while but what starts as false unity strips a community of its true binder. It separates and splits. It diminishes. It destroys.

Here’s the sticky part. One of the oldest tricks in the book for controlling a community is to split them, to locate the enemy within the community. And then, for good measure, magnify the split. In the early colonies – that ultimately became The United States of America – it was a strategy known as The Giddy Masses (see Ronald Takaki’s excellent book A Different Mirror). Make the people giddy with a false enemy. Uproot them. Deflect them so they cannot join in relationship and be strong as a community. Self-focused leaders cannot survive a unified, healthy populace. It is a strategy: separate the people so they cannot see the movement of power.

Today I started to read the news but stopped after only a minute. Building walls. Expelling Muslims. Enemy creation everywhere! Fox news and MSNBC are great giddy creators. It’s a bad story poorly told. It weakens all players. The primary actors do harm to their audience. Grounded-ness, a first principle, can only come to all when the actors choose to focus on the relationships, see the unifiers, to create rather than destroy. Groundedness comes when the audience engages, questions what they are being told and open (rather than close) their minds.

Grounded-ness. Focus placement on the unity. The principles that make great art also make great society. Fear, the province of the bad actor, the lot of a passive audience, although temporarily effective, can only destroy the play.

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Ask Why

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a detail of my painting, Know That You Are Waiting.

Marilyn told me that she spent the day with her 3 year-old granddaughter. The little girl, like most children her age, peppered Marilyn with the question, “Why?” In her reenactment, after trying to answer the multitude of “Why?” questions, she laughed and said, “I don’t know! That’s the way it’s always been done!” It’s a perfect loop! Sometimes there is no answer to the question, “Why?”

Many years ago Peter Block wrote a great little book called The Answer To How Is Yes. A lifetime of corporate consulting left him perplexed by the pervasive leading question, “How should we do it?” None of his clients ever asked, “Why should we do it?” “Why” was nowhere in the equation.

Asking “Why?” takes time. It slows things down and often requires some soul searching. It lives on the vertical axis of experience, the axis that reaches into the depths and knows no black and white answer. Also, asking “Why?” sometimes leads to the scary profit-challenging twin question, “Why shouldn’t we do it?” The question, “Why?” moves a business and the people that populate it out of reactionary practices and into intentionality. With intentionality comes ownership of action, responsibility. The legal department is dedicated to keeping the conversation away from “Why?” Responsibility can be costly.

People are no different than the organizations they create. We avoid the same questions for much the same reason.

In my life I’ve sat through countless meetings while boards-of-directors asking, “How do we get more people to buy/attend/support our art/business/cause?” I finally made it a practice to stop asking the troubling questions, “Why should people buy/attend/support you?” and “Why are you doing what you are doing?” Usually those questions invoked embarrassed silence or worse, a regurgitation of the company’s value statement. We are valuable because we say we are.

Skip used to tell me that a company isn’t valuable until it serves the customer’s customer. I liked that sentiment a lot: value is service as expressed through two degrees of separation. It is also an orientation according to what is given, not what is received. Serve. It’s a loop with a natural answer to the question, “Why?”

Artists of all stripes, churches, politicians, etc. might find a different understanding of value if they (we) applied Skip’s rule to their (our) plays/symphonies/paintings/dances/businesses. Why? To Serve.

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a detail from my painting May You

Maybe we all just need to be three-year-olds and ask “why?” more often. Maybe the best questions, the ones that make the most sense, are the ones that can’t be easily answered but require us to slow down and challenge doing what we’ve always done.

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See The Present

photo-4From the stacks we pulled out every painting and considered it. A buyer, those rare and colorful birds that occasionally fly in unannounced, interested in my work generally, wanted a piece. He wanted a selection to choose from. The studio became a hodgepodge gallery organized around possibilities for purchase. I have digital images of every piece but our enthusiasm propelled us into the studio. It had been a long time since I’d spent time looking at the full body of my work.

“This one goes upstairs!” Kerri announced.

“Why?”

“It belongs in the Held-In-Grace series,” she replied.

The Held-In-Grace paintings are my newest series, each completed within the last 5 months. The painting she held was six years old. I told her it was old (obviously) and couldn’t possibly belong in a new series.”It belongs and it’s going upstairs,” she said, giving me ‘that look,’ saying only, “I think it is called PRAY NOW.” I know when I am bested. The old painting with a new name went upstairs to join the current series.

In its former life the painting was named JOHN’S SECRET. John framed all of my paintings during the Seattle years. He was one of those rare people that had no secrets. John was industrious, generous, practical, direct, and artistic. He was a collision of contradictions. He saved my artistic bacon more than once, showing up at just the right moment with just the right tool or just the right sentiment. He was as close to pure as a human can be. No pretense. No mask. No power game or hidden agenda. Just John. He was a rare ally, a consistent angel. I lost touch with him when I moved to the shores of Lake Michigan.

I named the painting JOHN’S SECRET to tease him. To tease me. “Someone’s whispering in your ear!” I quipped. “I’ll never tell,” he replied as he helped me fit the painting into the frame.

It is oddly appropriate that, at this time of my life, JOHN’S SECRET would be renamed PRAY NOW and join the HELD IN GRACE series. It has been too long since I spent time looking at my full body of work. I saw old pieces with new eyes. Some of the paintings deserve to step back into the light, to go upstairs and be seen. I found them surprisingly beautiful, something I would not have been able to admit a few short years ago.

a detail

The buyer, it turns out, was a scam. He was not interested in my work at all. It took two days of negotiations for me to catch on; I am sometimes slow in the uptake. Buyers, those rare birds, it turns out, are truly rare. For a few moments I wanted to cry (only for the amount of time it took me to drink a scotch – “Pa told me to pour you this,” Kerri said when she saw the crush of scam-realization hit my heart and show up in my face). I took my scotch and my wound into the studio to restock the paintings and realized that the scammer had done me an enormous favor. He helped me look at the long-body of my work. He helped me see with new eyes the beauty of my previous life’s work, something that I had not before been able to see. And, he helped me recognize the great good fortune that surrounds me in my present life. He helped JOHN’S SECRET find a path back into the light of day, a new life, renamed – or perhaps, at long last, finding its true identity.

a detail from my painting, John's Secret

 

 

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Have A Conversation

my quick sketches of two of the stained glass window panels

my quick sketches of two of the stained glass window panels

Yesterday I learned that my conversation with the stained glass window was only on hiatus. Several months ago we simply stopped talking. In the silence I thought the conversation was complete. For almost two years we had a weekly chat. I took lots of notes.

I recognize that one is not supposed to have chats with windows – at least not admit to it. Master Marsh teased me saying, “There’s help for things like this.” I’ve decided that my conversation with the window is more ordinary than odd: plenty of people around the world talk to statues. Most of us have had silent reckoning with the sky. I’ve witnessed mechanics talking to their tools and bakers wooing their dough. Who hasn’t cursed the object of a home fix-it job-gone-wrong (plumbing regularly gets a tongue lashing from me!) or praised a project done well? Traffic gets a regular talking to. In this region, at this time of year, more than a few brides make deals with the weather. A soul in exchange for sunshine.

Who hasn’t, in a moment of turmoil, looked inside themselves and asked for help? Who hasn’t uttered a quiet thank you or asked for guidance or made an appeal? Call it prayer, meditation, epiphany, catharsis, intuition, gut instinct, reading the signs, hearing the call, or communing with nature, it’s a conversation.

I’m not the only artist – or scientist for that matter – that, in moments of flow, feels as if something bigger is coming through. In that sense, all of my paintings might serve as the record of a conversation with something bigger. Writers often speak about having the experience of the characters writing themselves, of following rather than creating. Following, surrendering, allowing, listening, responding, getting out of the way. Play the chords long enough and you no longer need to think about them. In the land beyond thinking about it, music becomes possible. It’s a conversation.

Sitting on the chancel, listening to Kerri play, I stared as I often do at the morning light pouring through the colored glass. I studied the symbols. Birth and death. Tree of knowledge, Tree of Everlasting Life. The Grail standing between two flames. It’s a repetition in symbol of the same idea. Born into an experience of duality and distinctions, a world fighting over its differences, we have the opportunity to walk the middle path, the unity consciousness, the “something bigger.” “Between the two, one,” I the heard the window whisper. “It’s simple, really.”

a quick sketch of all three panels: birth, death, and the middle way.

a quick sketch of all three panels: birth, death, and the middle way.

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