Learn to Look [on KS Friday]

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“At the heart of beauty must be a huge care and affection for creation, for nowhere is beauty an accidental presence.” John O’Dononue, Beauty, The Invisible Embrace

I read yesterday in my Brain Pickings that Georgia O’Keeffe believed her close-up paintings were “a magnifying lens for paying attention.” I read and appreciated this phrase: Painting these close-ups was a way of learning to look, a way of removing the blinders with which we gallop through the world, slowing down, shedding our notions and concepts of things, and taking things in as they really are.

It is the astonishing miracle of a human being: we can choose to see or choose to not see. Also, we can choose what we see or we can choose to deny what is right in front of us. In any case, seeing is predicated on slowing down, on taking the time to “shed our notions and concepts of things.”

Seeing is an intentional act or perhaps it is a creation-in-the-moment – which implies it is an intentional relationship. In this way, as I understand it, seeing the beauty of this life is a decision, it is a lens. It is a dance.

I’ve never been in a hot-air balloon. Kerri had the experience once, it is the source of this composition. Hovering in a basket above the earth, moving with the wind, very few controls. It was, I imagine, an exercise of giving over, of letting go. I think seeing is like the experience she describes of hanging in the basket of a hot-air balloon. All concepts of hurry-up or getting-things-done drop away. Hard time dissolves. There is nowhere else to be. And, in that space, beauty makes known her presence. She opens your eyes.

 

PART OF THE WIND is on the album BLUEPRINT FOR MY SOUL

 

 

read Kerri’s blog post about PART OF THE WIND

 

 

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part of the wind/blueprint for my soul ©️ 1996 kerri sherwood

  blanket of blue sky ©️ 2004 david robinson

Search [on Flawed Wednesday]

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I’m a broken record: words matter. They are rarely accidental. For instance, the division between “black” and “white” was created. Our racial legacy is not happenstance. It is by design.

Power does not like to be challenged or threatened and strategies of division are great mechanisms of control. Taking pride-in-ignorance is another – it is a terrific support strategy if discord is the goal. An ignorant people are easily misled.

We enact and reenact Bacon’s rebellion again and again. It is a vicious cycle, a whirlpool that is hard to escape without a clear view of the full story. History, like language, is never passive, it comes with a dedicated point of view – and so we are witness once again to the great narrative tug-of-war.  We could drop the rope if we decided to look at our history, ask a few questions, and perhaps see the narrative slop that the fox and friends are force feeding to white fear as just the latest iteration of an old, old scare tactic.

Misinformation is nothing new. Propaganda is as old as human history. It is the downfall of a critter unique in its need for an identifying narrative to believe almost anything if it provides a sense of belonging. People who refuse to take a step back and ask, “Is this true?” will buy almost any line. Fear is a narrative with an agenda so what-on-earth prevents otherwise thinking people from considering that the daily dose of fear they are being fed might be cooked up intentionally? Trading brains for belonging never works out well in the end.

Black and white. Red and blue. We have a pattern, not a problem.

A people united are an unstoppable force and the worst nightmare of identity politicians.  People unite when their ideals – things like freedom and truth and justice and equality – transcend their small identity bubbles.  Ideals are unattainable – that is what gives them their special uniting capacity. We strive. It’s an active verb with an inclusive pronoun.

Hate and fear – all things divisive – are easily attained. That’s what makes them so useful to despots and control-mongers. Keep the thinking small and encapsulated within the tiny bubble. It will keep the people warring among themselves with no questions asked.

How do we move beyond this pattern and rise above the incessant division that plagues us? Well, we must first desire to see the pattern. We must choose to see. Then, we might be capable of revisiting the words we placed as central to our national ideal and choose to live them. Our words matter. That might require a few challenging questions.

It will definitely require a good deal of soul searching and that’s not such a bad thing. Nations, like people, grow and become better when they grow weary of their dysfunction and go looking for their soul.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about Explicitly Divisive

 

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surrender now ©️ 2016 david robinson

Sing [on KS Friday]

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The story is famous in these parts. It goes like this: when I met Kerri I told her that she needed to know two things about me: 1) I don’t sing. 2) I don’t pray. She gave me a sideways knowing look and said, “Oh, that’s too bad.”

I had some very-traumatic-early-in-my-life-singing-experiences. Lots of shame and humiliation led me to an adamant preemptive proclamation with my musician-soon-to-be wife: I do not sing. No way. Don’t even ask. I’ll watch from the sidelines.

Of course, within a few months, she had me in a ukulele band, a choir, and a band. It turns out I like to sing. The problem, she taught me, was not in my capacity to sing, it was in how I hear sound. I hear an octave up. She taught me how to hear. I am now a confident parasitic singer (i.e. I sing just fine with others, just don’t ask me to sing alone).

I’ve spent my life teaching people to see. How beautifully ironic (or perfect) that I needed to learn to hear.

Early in the saga of Beowulf, he is caught in a swarm and blinded by bees. Because he was blinded, he had to develop other senses; his heightened senses were critical in combating and defeating the monster Grendel. Late in his life, he retired as a beekeeper. He not only made peace with bees, they become his allies. At the very end, his bees are his greatest strength. They defeat a dragon plaguing his kingdom.

The great stories are with us for a reason. They can help us navigate and craft our own life stories. For instance, the greatest wounds can be limits or they can lead to new and vital gifts. I’ve learned from Beowulf that the path you take – limit or liberation –  depends on the story you argue for, the focus you choose. When I met Kerri I was arguing for my limitation. I do not sing. Period.

Another recurring theme in the great stories goes like this: when you are ready, the right teacher appears.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about SING

 

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shaman ©️ 1993 david robinson

Expect Nothing [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

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The man was about to begin hiking the Appalachian Trail. The interviewer asked, “What do you expect it will be like? What do you expect will happen?” The man replied, “I try not to have any expectations. I want to be open to what comes along, whatever that might be.”

It’s a spiritual practice. Make no assumptions. Release all preconceived notions. Open to what is and not what you think should be. Have the experience first, make meaning second. All good advice for attempting presence: that place we fully occupy but rarely visit.

Making meaning. It’s what people do. Wrap an experience in a story. Wrap it in a blanket of belief. Often we muffle the experience in a heavy cloak  before we’ve had it.”It’s going to be hard.” “I don’t think they will like me.” Or, “This will be the best!” “I’m going to crush it!”

Joe used to call this high-dream/low-dream. Imagine the best. Imagine the worst. Like a magical invocation. Either way, an expectation is set. The story has begun and imposes a slick layer over the happenings. The story bleaches the experience-space, that full range of color available between the high and low.

It’s no wonder we can’t find compromise in our current nation-story.

I watch DogDog in the morning. He can’t wait to race outside. He barks for no other reason than it feels good. He sits in the sun. He chases birds with no hope or expectation that he will catch one [he wouldn’t have the vaguest idea what to do if he actually caught one]. DogDog does not know there is a pandemic. He does not care about people politicizing mask wearing. He holds no expectation for the direction of the day. His to-do list is blank. He is happy going on errands. He is happy sleeping on the cool tiles.  He holds no grudges. He makes no judgments. He holds his story lightly. He is happy both before and after he eats. Sometimes he even tastes his food. Above all, he is happiest when we are happy.

Open to experience, DogDog has much to teach me. He has much to teach the world.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about HAPPY DOING

 

 

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The quote “happy doing something, happy doing nothing” comes from an article about Augie the dog.

Treat The Origin [on KS Friday]

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Yaki called. He wants to dust off our Prometheus project and give it another whirl. The Creatures Of Prometheus is one of Beethoven’s early works, a ballet that is nigh-on impossible for a contemporary ballet company to afford. Besides a symphony, it requires  scores of dancers. Twelve years ago, Yaki asked if I would write and perform a narrative – a storytelling- that would weave together the movements. It lives among my all-time favorite collaborations. Yesterday he asked, “Can we update it? Can we make it relevant with what’s happening in the world today?’

My first thought: it’s already relevant! It is a creation story. Prometheus is given the task of creating human beings, a man and a woman. Although he is instructed to make them dull and crude, he creates them to be beautiful, to see and appreciate their connection to the earth from which they were made. Angered by his disobedience, Zeus punishes Prometheus by corrupting the new creatures; he fills them with fear and division. He twists their fear into a lust for war. He makes them dull and crude. Now, Prometheus waits for them to remember and recover their original sight, to remember their capacity for pure seeing, fearless living. To drop their madness and return to their senses.

My second thought: people are notoriously incapable of grasping metaphor. It’s the Zeus thing in practice. The update has to be a direct statement. It must leave no doubt and puncture the commitment to dullness. “Gear down!” as Kerri constantly reminds me.

“How can Prometheus speak to Black Lives Matter?” he asked. We are both artists in the later stage of our career.  Yaki added, “I want my work – my art to really speak to what’s happening today. I want it to help.”

I’ve been sitting in his questions since we talked yesterday. We are standing again at a moment in time when change is possible. We are also standing at the moment when the system, a living thing, a wizard of recreation, will fight to maintain itself. Consider: we had this moment with the abolition of slavery and the system responded with Jim Crow. Segregation. Institutional racism. We had the moment again with the civil rights movement in the 1960’s and the system responded with a draconian judicial/policing/incarceration apparatus, disproportionate tax structures…segregation by legislation (again and again and again).

In our current moment, in this latest moment, how can we make the necessary changes that are not merely the existing system putting a new face on a 400 year old mechanism? Real change requires steps in unknown directions [the rule: if you know where you are going you are merely re-creating what already exists]. How can Prometheus speak to that?

We focus on behavior when we need to stare at the underlying structures. Behavior, as Robert Fritz reminds us, always follows the path of least resistance – the sub-structure determines the path of behavior.

In the story, Prometheus is in it for the long haul. He knows his creatures are made for beauty and will inevitably see beyond their made-up fear and return to their source. They will one day stop listening to the fear mongers and race baiters. They will wake up and recognize that they are not made to be dull and crude and divisive. In fact, quite the opposite. They were made to appreciate and participate in the creation of beauty and betterment. Nature.

Prometheus is in no hurry. He waits for his creatures to remember. He plays the long story. What will that look like?

 

 

IT’S A LONG STORY is on the album THIS PART OF THE JOURNEY

 

 

read Kerri’s blog post about IT’S A LONG STORY

 

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it’s a long story/this part of the journey ©️ 1997/2000 kerri sherwood

joy ©️ 2014 david robinson

Read Marc’s Notes [on DR Thursday]

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One of my most prized possessions is a handmade notebook, stitched together by a young DeMarcus Brown, mentor of my mentor, in a time before corner drugstores and readily available school supplies. It is filled with the fading pencil notes Marc made when he was a student learning about color, probably in 1918 or 1919. It occurred to me as I wrote that guesstimate of time that he was scribbling notes about color during a pandemic.

It reads like an enthusiastic discovery of miracles. On page one the word COLOR is triple underlined. “Light is a form of radiant energy transmitted by wave movement through SPACE and is perceived VISUALLY. Opposite is DARKNESS. Qualities of Light: 1) Physically – Life giving. 2) Mentally – Intelligence. 3) Spiritually – Divine Wisdom.”

From Marc, on page one, on day one of his study of artistry, I learned that color is life giving, intelligent, and a source of divine wisdom.

“Objects reveal light.  All forms and substances REFLECT or ABSORB LIGHT. THINK OF COLOR AS LIGHT REFLECTED.”

There are other words and phrases: vibration, proportion, visual sensation, light is individualized by its contact with substances into color. COLOR is Light PROPORTION.

All of this awe is written in block letters on the first two pages. His enthusiasm is palpable. As you move through Marc’s notebook of discoveries, his writing shifts to cursive, he matures in color and intention. His passion intensifies. He is beginning to see.

Toward the end of his notebook, in his growing sophistication, you’ll read these phrases:  “Train our eyes to DEGREES of Neutrality. Establish relationships of Intensity. Hue. Value”…and a reminder “vibrating surface!”

The stitching that holds the notebook together is impeccable. Beautiful. Careful. Considered. It took him time to make his notebook. It mattered.

I can’t help my metaphor mind from finding a universe of guidance in Marc’s notebook for a nation that perpetually struggles with color – or, ironically, the negation of color. The fear of color relations. A commitment to a narrative of dominance, this or that but never both. A palette of loss. We’ve limited our color study to a polarity and eliminated the infinite shades of possibility in the picture we might paint. Insistent chiaroscuro.

What happens when the door of possibility opens? When change, that big blank canvas, sits on the easel?

In the middle of his 90’s, Marc gave me his paint brushes, his paint box. “Use them!” he said, “Don’t save them for remembrance.” He knew I was sentimental. “Reverence is off limits. These are not meant to collect dust on a shelf.” He laughed, “Use the damn things. Don’t be safe!”

Color. Vibration. Relationship. Proportion. Life Giving. Intelligent. Divinely Wise. Walk into the unknown. Learn to see.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about COLOR

 

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Face Them [on KS Friday]

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The dream was vivid. I was being chased by a pack of very large demons. Terrified, I was becoming exhausted when I saw a door into a warehouse. I quickly jumped through the door, looking for a place to hide. To my chagrin, the warehouse was empty. Swept clean. No walls. A vast, open and exposed floor. The demons came through the door behind me. There was no other door. No way out. My only option was to turn and face them. So, I did.

They rushed me. But, to my surprise, as I stood my ground, facing them, as they raced snarling toward me, they began to shrink. The closer they came, the smaller they got. By the time they reached me they were no larger than ants. They had no power over me at all.

All along, all I needed to do was stop running from them. All I ever needed to do was to turn and face them. To see what they were, not what I feared they were.

This dream – so many years ago – helped me understand hope – a word that is both a verb and a noun, a thing and an action. A wish and a want. Hope, like happiness, ensues. It is not found up front, it follows. It is meaning that becomes available when a choice is made.

This nation, running so long from its demons, is once again, standing in a vast empty warehouse. There is no place to hide. When we recognize that all we can do is turn and face our demons, our racially divided path, the inequity-demons plaguing us may grow smaller. They may lose their power over us entirely.

The choice to stop running and turn. The choice to face the demons. In that moment, hope will arise.

 

HOPE on the album THIS SEASON is available on iTunes

 

read Kerri’s blog post about HOPE

 

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hope/this season ©️ 2005 kerri sherwood

pray now ©️ 2010 david robinson

Don’t Go Home [on DR Thursday]

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House on Fire. 2004-ish. Watercolor. And, yes, I was all over copying Guernica.

“The continual retreat from the discomfort of authentic racial engagement in a culture infused with racial disparity limits the ability to form authentic connections across racial lines, and results in a perpetual cycle that works to hold racism in place.” ~ Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility

I confess to rewriting this post. What I wrote initially was pedantic and preachy. So, this is a second go-round.

We’ve been hearing this question much in these past days: why don’t things ever change? Here’s an answer I learned in school: a society is a living system and, like all living things, it will fight to the death when threatened with change. Why we can’t seem to “solve” our problem with racial disparity and the dehumanization of black people? It’s built into our system. The system, a complex and living thing, will fight to the death to keep the injustice securely in place.

That’s a heady answer and somewhat hopeless. Its abstraction makes it a safe and somewhat antiseptic response.

I lived in Los Angeles in 1992. My apartment was in the hills so I had a good vantage point to watch the rioting and the city burn. When it felt too unsafe, I fled the city. I had a safe place to go.

A few years later, working with a school district, the head of the Black Student Union asked me to come in and work with her students. MLK day was fast approaching and the students, preparing presentations for the day, were in rebellion. They were mad. They didn’t want to read speeches about peace and justice when those ideals were nowhere on their horizon. I thought it was my job to help them give voice to what they wanted to say. It was my first conscious lesson in my white-blindness. The frightened parents of the students descended. I’ll never forget the mother and father that pulled me aside, saying to me, “You don’t understand. If they say what they want to say they’ll be killed.” Their terror was real. They had to teach their children a lesson that was the opposite of what my parents taught me.

To call it a problem is to reduce it to the level of mechanics. It is to pretend (or hope) that a few changes in the law or better policing will do the trick.  To treat it like a problem guarantees that we’ll recreate it. This is not a problem, this is a pattern. It is a cycle. It is a relationship.

The pattern is currently in our faces. The pattern is not only the death of another black person. The pattern is also what white America chooses to do – or not do-  with the knowledge of it. What is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves that makes it possible to stand in the fire with people of color during the protests but walk-on once the fire subsides? It is simply this: I get to go home. I get to drive out of LA when things feel too unsafe. I have someplace to go. I get to go home when the officer is prosecuted or a law is changed or a commission empaneled, dust off my hands, and say that I did my part.

Why don’t things ever change?

I was stunned when those parents pulled me aside. At first, I couldn’t believe that they were going to silence their children when their children had something so important to say. It made my head spin. And then I went home. And then I realized that they couldn’t go home. There was no place in this “living system” where they were safe. That was what they were trying to tell me. It was what Martin Luther King was trying to tell us. It is what the protesters in the streets today are trying to get us to see/admit/realize. We are watching a living system built on racial division and inequality fight to the death because change is knocking.

What if we realized that we cannot simply go home and forget about it?

 

 

read Kerri’s blog post about HOUSE ON FIRE

 

 

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Look Again [on DR Thursday]

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Recurrence. Occurring again and again. I wrestled with an image for many weeks until I arrived at the painting I desired:

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my loves, mixed media on hardboard, 24 x 48IN

I wrestled for a long time and I took photos of all of the drafts. Skip has nudged me to document my process and, along the way, I’ve learned that taking a photograph of a work in progress helps with art-blindness. If you stare at something long enough, you no longer see it – you see parts of it or you see what is in your mind (mostly criticism and fear). A photograph often provides a fast track out of art-blindness [note: of course, I take the photograph with me everywhere I go and stare at it so much that I create new blindness…]

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I took a close up of one of the iterations. Kerri liked it but it was impossible to save. I’d have to cut the painting down and, since it is on two pieces of hardboard, cutting it was unfeasible [look close and you can see the seam]. I painted over it but promised to come back and revisit it.

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my loves II [close-up]. still in progress.

It’s a work in progress. It has a ways to go. Different but the same. I’m still wrestling but find it soothing that I can disappear into my studio and focus on light in this dark time.

Focusing on light in a dark time. Affirmation. Hope, when it is so easy to focus on the bleak and insane. Escapism? No doubt. I wish I could take a snapshot of our nation – of what we are wrestling with and have grown so blind to seeing. I’d like to hold it up so we might have even a few moments of perspective, so we might see again what we have been staring at for so long that we have grown blind to seeing. Recurrence. Patterns occurring again and again.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about CIRCLING BACK

 

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my loves/in all iterations ©️ 2020 david robinson

Face The Sun [on Two Artists Tuesday]

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Walking the river trail I couldn’t help but whirl in the contradiction: everything has changed and nothing has changed. While the world of people is awash in pattern disruption, the rest of creation is following the script exactly.

Spring. The muddy season. The world pops green just as we knew it would. Just as it did last year and the year before and the year before. I believe our backyard ferns are growing 6 inches a day. Even the daily Dog-Dog assault cannot deter their reach for the sun. Life returns from darkness. Demeter sings at Persephone’s return.

If you seek an affirmation of life come sit in our backyard. The bird song will lift your spirits, these flying shocks of color will make you giggle with delight. Vibrant yellow, a cardinal more salmon than red. My eyebrows cartoon-pop in disbelief. We sit facing the sun in our broken Adirondack chairs and drink in the warmth.  “This doesn’t suck.” I say, eyes closed, basking in appreciation of the sun as it reaches to my bones. I’m certain I said the exact same thing last year and the year before that. Rituals of renewal need not always be solemn.

Sometimes I think this game of life is really an exercise in focus placement. I can choose to see the world as the work of Hieronymous Bosch– and sometimes I do. Beautifully horrific. Or, I can swivel my lens to Georgia O’Keefe and look at the wondrous small things, the miracle of nuance and the close-up. Sometimes, when I am at my best, I turn my eyes to see as Ellsworth Kelly did, when he imagined his chapel of light. “I think people need some kind of spiritual thing,” he said.

And so, with the vibrant greens popping, the screaming yellows flying, the blue-blue of a cloudless sky, tender lettuce leaves breaking through topsoil, I find myself surrounded by a Hieronymous Bosch narrative cycle but with just a little refocus, I am stunned by the grander cycle of marvel and mystery in this Ellsworth Kelly world.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about CLOVER

 

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