Dance With Parallax

My favorite word of the week is ‘parallax.’ Horatio pulled it out of the word bin during our latest conversation about art and artistry. We were discussing the difference between what an artist sees in their work and what others see – and how artistic “sight” changes over time. I scribbled the word along with the phrase, “the difference in what you see and what others see. Perspective over time.” After our call I looked up the word in my dictionary:

paral-lax (noun) 1. Apparent change of position. 2. Angle measuring star’s distance from Earth.

Many years ago in a fit of vulnerability I showed my mentor, a great theatre and visual artist, my paintings. I lined them all up for him to see. I followed him around the room as he quietly studied each piece. Finally, after taking in all of my work, he asked, “What’s the meaning of the spheres?” I was dumbfounded and had no idea what he was asking. “Spheres? What spheres?” So he led me back around the room, revisiting each painting, showing me the three spheres that appeared in EVERY single painting.

“What’s with the spheres?” he repeated, knowing that there wasn’t an answer but there was certainly a vast new question. My universe spun a bit that day so astounded was I at my inability to see the unifying principle in my own paintings.

I needed his eyes to see my work. Isn’t that the point?

When I think back on that day, on that younger version of my self, I revisit the fear, the raging vulnerability I felt in sharing my paintings. I feel again the deep doubt I held against myself. I recall the nausea of inviting someone I admired into my house of doubt. I somehow believed that, to be an artist, I had “to know” what I was doing – yet knew with certainty that I had no idea what I was doing. I knew with certainty that he would see through me to my lack of knowing.

And, he did. Thank goodness. “What’s with the spheres?” Such a simple question yet it spun my universe and pitched me through the portal of a new perspective.

I learned that day that artistry has nothing to do with knowing. Life has nothing to do with knowing. Knowing is an illusion, temporary at best. Knowing has everything to do with hiding.

Making a life, as Master Marsh just reminded me, is an engagement with the unknown. It is to have experiences. It is to make meaning of the experiences. If you are lucky, you learn to have the experiences first, and make the meaning second. It is to understand that, in this dance of knowing and not-knowing, sight and blindness, chaos and order, consciousness and unconsciousness, there are no fixed points. There is dance:

dance (noun) 1. An act of stepping or moving through a series of movements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

fine art prints available at society6.com

my original work on zatista.com

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Change Nothing

a detail from In Peace I Pray.

Thoughts from the mountain.

I grew up with these mountains so it should come as no surprise that I get quiet the moment I step into them. Like a too-tight coat the chaos I wear in my day-to-day life simply drops off; stepping into the mountain is to step out of the noise. Literally and figuratively.

Tom once told me that people change when they are ready. Rich once told me that people change when the pain of staying the same grows greater than the pain of making the change. Change when you are ready, change when you are in pain. Skip taught me that a business intending to change people was destined to fail. It is a fool’s errand. Business is about business not change. I loved this bit of advice from Skip because he is a natural-born change agent, a mentor of mentors (and, poetically, entrepreneurs). In a moment of frustration Kerri told me that people don’t change, they simply become more of who they really are. The masks drop off and we unwittingly reveal ourselves. Change as revelation.

As I hike through the snow toward the summit I wonder if change, at least the human notion of change, is as made-up as the rest of the stories we tell. It is in the forest, which is a festival of the cycles of life, that ideas of different ways of Being seem…superficial. Disconnected. Within seasons there are plenty of changes that roll around and around and around again. Perhaps this thing we call ‘change’ is nothing more than a recognition of the cycle, a readiness to release our dedicated resistance to life? A readiness to release our stories of limitation and division.

Kerri caught me staring at the mountain

Toward the end of his life, Joseph Campbell said that he suspected that all life (energy) was consciousness. There is 1) energy and 2) the forms that energy takes. Although seemingly disparate, seemingly separate, all forms fall back into energy. He said, “The universe throws forms up, then takes them down again.”He might have said that change is nothing more than the cyclical movement between energy and the forms it expresses.

Jim taught me that the art of acting was the art of being present. I know that when I stand in front of a canvas and begin to work, all notions of time disappear. Another day on the mountain, sitting in an adirondack chair midway up the slope, basking in the sun on warm day, we watched Kirsten snowboard. She flew by us several times. When she rides, it is clear, there is no other place, there is no past or future. There is now. She is vital, alive. In that place, riding the present moment (the only place that actually exists), the noise drops off. I know, and Jim knew, when fully in this moment there is no need to pester yourself with misplaced notions of being somewhere else, being anyone else.

 

a blast from the waaay past: August Ride. I lost track of this one and if you know where this painting is, let me know.

Honor All Perspectives

my latest painting. Hope asks, “What do you see?”

Hope Hughes, Kerri’s longtime assistant and voice of reason in all-things-business, passed through my studio and flung herself in front of the painting I was working on. “Stop!” she cried. “Don’t touch it! It’s finished!”

“Finished? I just started,” I whined. She laughed at the perplexed look on my face.

“Put down your brushes,” she smiled, “and listen for a minute.”

Over time I’ve learned to listen to Hope. She makes sense of the world through her feelings which comes in handy to an over-cerebral artist like me. She has no inner-editor in the early stages of communication so I’ve learned her heroics are pure. She sees something that I do not. This is not the first time Hope has thrust herself between me and the painting I am about to destroy, so when she asks me to ‘look’ there is usually a good reason. I set down my brushes, cross my arms, and huff as if to say, “I’m listening but make it fast.”

Each time she begs me to stop work on a painting, a great debate rages in the household. This time was no exception. I sit in my chair and listen to what she sees. It is always diametrically opposed to what I see so I pretend to pout (I secretly love this process because it is EXACTLY what I adore about art in general and painting in particular). She tries to get me to tell her what I intended to paint, coaxing me to talk about what I see but I refuse. As Joseph Campbell once said, “If an artist respects you, s/he will not tell you what a painting means. ” Art is always about a relationship between the piece and the viewer and the artist needs to stay out of the way. If the artist has no respect for you (or themself), s/he will tell you what the painting means to them. I respect Hope so I stay out of the way.

In this painting, Hope sees deep humility in dual fatherhood.

My refusal drags other people into the fray. She snaps a photo of the painting and then shares it with others, asking what they see in the painting, what descriptors they would use. As is always the case, the replies sometimes align with her perception and sometimes not which further fuels the debate. 20 had the misfortune of coming over for dinner and he was subjected to the photograph test.

In this painting, 20 sees grief and loss. In this aspect he agreed with Hope: the painting is finished.

When I first started showing paintings I would follow patrons through the gallery (they did not know I was the artist) and listen to their perceptions. They rarely saw what I intended but what they saw was marvelous – almost miraculous to me. It was an advanced course in understanding the futility of trying to determine what another person perceives. Art, I learned in those days, is a living relationship. Perception is personal. No one is a blank slate. Paintings evoke. The meaning is made between the patron and the painting.

I enter into the studio to drop out of my many descriptors and over-cerebral tendencies. I go to the studio to engage in a pure relationship with…my muse(?) I am never more alive than when I am painting. I am never more quiet than when I am painting. The images that emerge from my quiet are sometimes incidental, always surprising, and are sometimes just a map of a moment in the greater relationship of my life. Only a moment. I feel that I have never finished a painting because the paintings themselves are not distinct, separate from each other. They are living things. They change over time. They are moments, marks in the sand in a greater ongoing relationship in the long-body of my life.

What do I see in this painting? It is not important to know. Is it finished? For me, never. And, and for Hope, yes.

Every artist needs a Hope Hughes. Someone they trust, someone they respect to step in front of their work and without editor, tell them what they see. Hope reminds me that the true value/purpose of art is to create a commons capable of affording multiple perspectives and the rich opportunity to discuss the differences in what we perceive.

Begin

my studio and all of my current messes-in-progress

“Where I create I am true, and I want to find the strength to build my life wholly upon this truth, this infinite simplicity and joy that is sometimes given me… But how shall I begin…?” Rainier Maria Rilke

But how shall I begin? It is a great and ubiquitous question. I have, in my life, worked with many, many people who passionately and at last created beautiful studios for themselves and then, in horror, sat frozen in their dream creative space blankly staring at a canvas. Or a blank sheet of paper. Or an incessant cursor on an all-white screen. Or an instrument. Their first question for me (for themselves): but how shall I begin?

A friend once told me that artists’ studios can sometimes be terrifying places. “You have to show up,” he said. “And what if, when I show up, I find I have nothing of value in me? What if I have nothing to say?” Ah. There’s the rub. Inner judges delight in confusing creative spaces with torture chambers. No one, in their right mind, will willingly step into a torture chamber. Even the hardiest creative impulse goes into hiding when judgment is on the menu.

In the category of things you can say to friends but not to clients: What if you have lots to say but are simply too afraid to say it? What if within you lives an entire universe of unique perspectives and you have created a monster at the door to ensure your silence? Who’s this judge that you fear?

Rilke wrote, “Where I create I am true….” Truth is not a frozen, fixed thing. It is alive and dynamic. Artistry is an exploration into truth (personal truth), not an answer. It is a living dynamic process, not a finished product. This same sentiment applies to all of life.

my favorite recent spontaneous art installation by 20

Tom had a mantra: a writer writes and a painter paints. He might have answered the question this way: begin. Simply show up. Begin. Make messes. Make offers. Make strong offers. See what happens. Learn. Choose. Make mistakes. Make big mistakes. Decide. Fall down. Go too far. Rip it up. Stop too soon. Use the torn pages. Learn. Play. Surprise yourself. Bore yourself. Learn. Play. Choose. No judge, inner or outer, can survive in such a vibrant creative truth-space.

An actual studio is nothing more than an expression of an artist’s internal life. How do you begin? Value your truth. Allow it to live. Knowing how to begin requires an understanding of why you stopped in the first place.

And then, as someone wise once said to me: make all the world your studio.

 

Stand At The Intersection

2mayyoubepeace-jpegI find myself once again standing at an intersection of seemingly unrelated conversations and experiences and am in awe of the common thread.

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. The imposition of the ashes is a reminder of mortality: we came from dust and to dust we will return. Last night I watched the ritual from the choir loft. It is new to me and beautiful – a lifelong fascination of mine – to witness the power of people gathering to participate in their rites of transformation. Life made vibrant through the realization of its limits.

After a long hiatus, this week I picked up my art discussions with Horatio. He is wise and I have sorely missed my conversations with him. During my Seattle years we often met downtown for coffee and talked about all things artistic. We’d compare notes, challenge assumptions, share inspirations, complain about obstacles, wax poetic, and laugh at the fears and foibles of life on an artist’s path. A few days ago we scheduled a call and picked up our chat as if no time had elapsed. He is an accomplished visual artist and filmmaker and told me that finishing a drawing (or film) always feels insignificant, anti-climactic. “There is no such thing as completion,” he said. “The product always feels empty. Doing the work is vibrant and alive. The life is in the process!” Horatio told me that he disappears when he goes into the studio. I know that feeling well. It is not an experience of losing your self, it is the experience of transcending your self. It is a ritual of transformation

This morning I read in our local newspaper that the University of Wisconsin, Parkside (the campus in our town) launched an initiative to inspire peace through the arts called “PeaceWorks.” They were inspired by this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And, it isn’t enough to believe in it, one must work at it.” I read that there will be over 20 artistic events from all disciplines that deal in one way or another with peace – or the absence of peace. Peace is likely to be found when a community gathers to participate (not just witness) in the transcendence of self. There are few things like the arts that can facilitate that.

One of the latest paintings from The Yoga Series

One of the latest paintings from my Yoga Series

The ride is limited. The achievements of this life are of little importance if the process (the moment) is missed. Peace, inner or outer, like all high ideals, begins with an intention and is usually possible when, looping back to the beginning, we realize that this ride of life is finite and precious.

 

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Live According To Your Necessity

a detail of a painting I did in honor of Dawson's arrival on earth

a detail of a painting I did in honor of Dawson’s arrival on earth

“Depending upon the lens you look through, I have been a miserable failure at everything I’ve ever done,” I said. Arnie protested but we both knew it was, to a certain extent, true. And, since our conversation I have been gazing through that certain lens and feeling my failure acutely.

This lens is not new to me. I visit it each year as my birthday rolls around. It is a lens that most artists visit from time to time. To their peril. Recently, Chris, one of the most talented and hardworking actors I know, told me that now that he is far down the road of his career, no longer a beginner, he has surrendered the idea, imperative or illusion of economic success. “I work because I have to,” he said. It makes no sense and is impossible to explain to someone who does not have “that” impossible intrinsic driver. The incentives are internal. The rewards are internal. The achievements are mastery landmarks and not monetary rewards. It looks like insanity through the lens of a profit/loss, money=morality society.

When I look through the failure lens I’ve learned I need to visit Rainier Maria Rilke. I need to seek the advice of a master. “Nobody can counsel you or help you. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would die if it were denied you to write. This above all – ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And, if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity;….”

...closer in

…closer in

My life is built upon this necessity. No amount of comparing it to others is useful. No other lens is healthy. Since moving to Kenosha from Seattle, I am fond of telling people that in my move I committed economic suicide. That is a statement made looking through the wrong lens. Here is the truth: Since my move I have published my book, The Seer. I produced and performed in what I thought was the greatest heart-project of my life, The Lost Boy. It played to sold out houses and fulfilled a decade long journey and commitment to Tom. Two months later I did what I now think was the the greatest heart-project of my life when I illustrated and Kerri and I published Beaky’s books, The Shayne Trilogy. Beaky had an author’s reading a mere two weeks before her passing. Last year I authored drew and submitted with Kerri over 25 cartoon proposals to syndicates. We are completing work on our next play, The Road Trip. And, in the middle of it all, I’ve done arguably the best paintings of my life. I am meeting my question with a simple and strong “I must.”

What is failure? What is success? They are lenses and they matter not.

I am living and building my life “according to this necessity.”

The whole painting.

The whole painting.

 

Learn To Question

My best place for asking questions

My best place for asking questions

20 (aka John) tells me that his coworker, Amy, aged 22, will have answered all of life’s questions within the next three years. He assures me that she will share her answers when she has them. “We just need to hang on for another three years,” he quips, “…and it’ll all make sense!”

The admitting nurse at the surgery center feels like a threshold guardian. She said, “People who pass through here learn just how little they actually control in life. Surgery is humbling. I’m here when their illusion of control bursts. That moment is hard.” She was quiet for a moment and added, “What gets me is all these people in the world who think they have all the answers – and they think their answer has to be the answer for everybody. All these rules made up by all these people who think they have the right answer for everybody! That’s why people are killing people everywhere.”

“It sounds like more people ought to have surgery!” I tease.

“You got that right,” she said, handing me my gown, hairnet and blue booties. “Put one of these on and you realize how little control you actually have; in this place none of your answers matter and none of your rules apply!”

It should be a mantra for educators and the only argument necessary to dismantle a test-driven system: Life is always found in the direction of the question. At best, answers are relative – and the best answers, if understood, are simply doors to more questions. Learn to question.

The best art follows the same mantra. It steps into big questions, wanders into unknowns and complexities. It tests and tries, explores and experiments. It leads us to explode our answers and like a good trickster does not allow us to hold our gods too tightly. It begs us to question.

“Shall we tell Amy that there are no answers?” I ask 20.

“Nah. Why spoil the surprise.”

From the archives. This one often calls to me

From the archives. This one often calls to me

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