Two Artists Tuesday

brave.poster jpeg copy 2

Jim told me that he was suspicious of this culture that seems to need to plaster messages on the wall, on shopping bags, or indelibly tattooed on body parts. Begin Anywhere. Live Loud. This life is not a dress rehearsal. Peace. Home.  “It’s too simplistic,” he says.

So. Brave.

Are we branding our lives, marketing our selves to ourselves? Are these ubiquitous expressions reminders? Encouragement? Aspirations? Desires? Statements of intent? Flags planted in the metaphoric sand? Are these flags too simplistic?

Joseph Campbell once said that  to find more-than-ample evidence of the collapse of our unifying culture/story (our mythology) one need look no further than the daily news. Violence and division dominate our day. It is the seedy sensational story we tell to ourselves. It seems we’ve traded the commons for higher ratings. The common good falls apart in the face of the lobbyist’s payout. Can there be a center when another set of ubiquitous expressions dominate our dialogue: tribalism, polarization, fake news. Us. Them. Again, more flags planted in the metaphoric sand and are they also too simplistic?

On the stage, when actors have no direction and lose sight of the common story they might otherwise tell, they default to a condition lovingly (yet accurately) known as “Save-your-ass-theatre.” It is every man/woman for him/her self. It a group of artists on stage feeling isolated and all alone but pretending to be together. It is fear with a thin smile pasted on its face. It is awful to watch. And, it is easily remedied: save-someone-else’s-ass. Instead of pushing your drowning mate down so you can reach air, lift them up so they might breathe. They will immediately return the favor. Restore the commons. Step back into the common story.

The opposite of fear is not courage. It is community. Bravery is nothing more than the choice to stand in fear and reach. Cowardice is the choice to stand in fear and pummel. Fear that flourishes in isolation dissolves in the common story. From the studio melange on this Tuesday we offer the only flag worth planting in the sand: be brave enough to turn to the center. Reach. Help someone find air. Is it too simplistic?

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brave ©️ 2017 kerri sherwood & david robinson

 

Reach Out Of Inner Space

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #68

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #68

Several days ago on a muddy trek through the state park, the dials in my brain spun ever so slightly and I had an epiphany. It was an epiphany that I’ve had before which, to some, might disqualify it as an epiphany but for me the important stuff seems to occur repeatedly, a new layer falls off, and I see a bit more each time. Clarity is movement to a core, a simplicity emerging from what used to seem complex. So, I had a repeating epiphany.

Last year I attended The Chicago Art Expo. To my shock and surprise, rather than being challenged and energized, I ran screaming from the building. It was disconcerting. It was disorienting. Rather than having direct experiences with art that opened my eyes or challenged my world, I had experiences with curators who were compelled to tell me why the work had merit. They felt the need to locate the meaning and value for me. There was, in each booth, an art-high- priest standing between me and the experience. In fairness, I often felt that, without the interpreter, there was no experience to be had. It was a mental exercise.

In the grand scheme of things, Art serves a purpose. It carries the common story, the cultural identity. It is necessary, not luxury. In that sense, for it to serve its purpose, it requires no interpreter. When it no longer serves its intrinsic purpose – or there no longer exists a common center – an interpreter (marketer) is inevitable.

As Quinn once told me, “If someone has to tell you that they are good, they probably aren’t.”

Joseph Campbell wrote a book called The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. Art (theatre, visual, dance, music), for me, has deep value when it serves the outer reaches of inner space. It is immediately accessible, touching a universal nerve. It has to reach. Standing in the mud and muck of the park, we took a break by the shore of a lake and listened. The wind moved the trees, the limbs clacked and groaned. Crows chased an owl. The sun warmed my face. A layer fell off and a core came closer to focus.

This is not a diatribe against abstraction. We recently saw a Sam Francis exhibit at The Milwaukee Art Museum that left me in tears. I’ve spent hours in front of a Diebenkorn, one of his Ocean Park series, and I can’t get enough of it. I visit it often, like a pilgrim on a pilgrimage. It moves something deep within me. It speaks to something bigger than me and makes me want to be better and better. Standing before it I feel a part of a conversation of hearts and imaginations and deep space calls. I feel a part of a bigger story.

Be We.

a detail of And Now.

a detail of And Now.

“We need to create this together,” I said. We were discussing a project, a collaboration. 20 whipped out his phone and began searching frantically for something.

“What are you doing?” I laughed.

“Ah,” he said, “Here it is.” He smiled and read to me a definition of the word, ‘we.’ “You and I,” he read, “I and another.” He chuckled, adding, “Oh, I’m not sure I like that word.”

We. It’s a little big word.

At dinner the other night, Brad asked, “Now that you are married does your relationship feel any different?” Kerri and I both smiled. Yes. There is something bigger than ‘you and me.’ It’s hard to explain the change except to say that there is now a ‘we,’ a relationship that takes precedence over any single individual concern.

I was married many years ago and now know why things didn’t work out. We’d established our relationship on the sandy foundation of a bargain: I’ll help you if you help me. Bargains like that do not sound so bad until trouble comes. Bargains are predicated on what you get from the relationship. Marriages, I’ve learned, are built upon what you bring to the relationship. In a bargain there is no ‘we.’

Yesterday Skip and I talked about art (among many other things). It’s been my experience that art happens in the ‘WE’ space. Actors have to bring their gifts in service to the play. In fact, they cannot fulfill their gifts unless they are in service to something bigger than themselves. A self-serving actor essentially locks the audience out of the play; WE is not possible when an actor is oriented to what he or she can get from the experience. Magic happens when an actor is oriented according to what they bring to the experience. It’s the tragic misconception of art in these United States: art is not about self-expression; art, when properly understood, is the creation of WE.

another detail of And Now

another detail of And Now

A few weeks ago we watched a movie, Always, and this line (not a direct quote) jumped out and smacked me on the head: to gain your freedom you first must give it away. Gifts are not fulfilled unless they are given. People are not fulfilled until they give themselves to WE.

[to be continued]

Answer The Question With A Question

carrying on the tradition (and my heroes): mike and sabrina bartram

carrying on the tradition (and my heroes): mike and sabrina bartram at Changing Faces Theatre Company

Many years ago at the start of my career I bumbled into running a summer theatre company. It would become one of the great gifts of my life. At the time I decided that it would be my laboratory. I’d be able to experiment with directing processes and actor training techniques. What I didn’t realize until much later was that I would also be running an experiment in business and, more importantly, how to create a community mindset of support and empowerment (and, therefore, achievement). I was free to succeed because I gave myself permission to focus on the quality of the process instead of worrying about hard and abstract words like ‘achievement.’ My bottom line was the inner growth of everyone in the company, the inner growth of the community that we served.

When the company was up and running, when it was mature, company members swept the parking lot because they knew it would make the play better (improving the audience experience always impacts the performance). The people running the box office prided themselves on their kind service and efficiency because they knew that it would make the play better. The actors understood that they were in service to the play and not themselves. In fact, everyone in the company was in service to something bigger than themselves. That was the culture of the company. When pushed to articulate the success of what we created together, I’d say, “We’re focusing on the important stuff.”

Yesterday with great intention I sent that phrase (focus on the important stuff) out into the e-stratosphere. I lobbed it in association with the company that Kerri and I are in the process of creating to see what would come back at me. Like the summer theatre company, this new venture is our laboratory. What came back was the question, “What’s the important stuff?”

Sometimes the only way to answer a question is with another question. Take a look around your world. Take a moment to look at the difference between what you say and what you do. What do you see? What do you want to see? Big power comes to people when, like my company members (students) of so long ago, they realize that their “seeing” isn’t passive. The greatest single power any human being has is to choose where they place their focus. The greatest single revelation any human being has is to recognize that what they see impacts everyone around them. No one does this walk alone.

the very first painting in the Yoga series. It was an experiment, a walk of discovery. It's also about being alone

the very first painting in the Yoga series. It was an experiment, a walk of discovery. It’s also about being alone.

It’s easy to place a focus on an obstacle. It’s very easy to fix a gaze on the problems. It’s easy because, left alone, believing we are alone, that’s where most people default. Place yourself in a community that knows there is something bigger, something more important to see and serve, and the field of possibilities becomes easy. My company members of so long ago didn’t know what they couldn’t do so they did everything they imagined. That was only possible because they imagined it together. So, answering a question with a question, to you, what’s the important stuff?

 

Walk With Your Ally

another painting in the Yoga series

the latest painting in the Yoga series

David is among my chief muses. He was the first person I met in my spontaneous-no-plan-move-to-Seattle over 15 years ago. We sat next to each other at a conference and he asked me if I wanted to be in a play. When I said yes he said, “Great. Can you be at rehearsal tonight?” Like me, he is a painter as well as a theatre artist. He steps through life with his eyes firmly focused on the possibilities. He reminds me that obstacles are nothing more than interesting process steps. When I wander through museums or galleries David goes with me whether he is there or not. When I see a play that inspires me, I wish that he might see it, too, so we might talk about it.

Recently, he sent this quote: “My intention has been, often, to say what I had to say in a way that would exemplify it; that would, conceivably, permit the listener to experience what I had to say rather than just hear about it.” – John Cage, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists.

When I was in college studying acting I had a professor who would say, “You will always know a good play from a bad play because a bad play wants to tell you what happens. A good play wants to include you in what happens.” He also used this rule to define good acting from bad acting. His shorthand phrase was, “Show me, don’t tell me.” It is the artistic equivalent of, “Give a man a fish and he will have a meal; teach a man to fish and he will eat forever.” Art, regardless of the form it takes, is meant to teach people to fish.

Art is not a “thing,” it is a relationship. It is a dynamic orientation to life. It is an experience (not a possession). My interpretation of my professor’s rule goes something like this: a good play/performance/painting includes; a bad play/performance/painting excludes. Vital art reaches for others. Empty art rejects or attempts to elevate itself above others.

The best artists I know have learned to get out of their own way. They have essentially, let go of all investment in self-importance. They serve the art and, so, are not terribly invested in whether a critic or a friend likes or dislikes their work. They have grown beyond attempting to control the perceptions of others (control is an act of exclusion); they are attempting to reach the soul of the matter, touch the soul of the other.

finally finished: May You Be

finally finished: May You Be

It is also true that great artists are constantly learning. And, since growth is always in the direction of the unknown, it is terribly important to have allies to walk with you. Stepping into the unknown is best done in the company of others, those special few wanderers who you can turn to and say, “Whoa! Did you just see that?” David, who is always there with me, laughs in response to my awe, and says, “Tell me! What did you see?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Delight In The Question

a new canvas, stretched and ready for gesso.

a new canvas, stretched and ready for gesso.

So what is next?

There is a sweet void that follows in the wake of every project and this particular void is vaster than most (don’t you love the phrase, “particular void?”). This project, The Lost Boy, was and continues to be more layered than any other. It pulls on emotional and spiritual roots that have not been available in other performances and so the post-show disorientation is mighty.

I’ve come to appreciate my time in the void. It is the time of reflection. It is the time of rest. It is the time of long walks. It is the time of questions finally answered that invite bigger questions. I’ve learned that disorientation is necessary for reorientation and reorientation never comes as an answer but always comes in the form of a question: so, what’s next?

Yesterday I tacked a large canvas to the wall. It is now covered with layers of Gesso and is ready for paint. I delight in this phase of preparation. It is akin to the anticipation of meeting with an old friend; the conversation will be rich and far reaching. I also bought a new sketchbook and have set myself the task of filling it within the month. Many years ago, while sitting in another void, I was staying with my pals Duncan and Liz while directing a play. Liz, familiar with voids, insisted that, after rehearsals, I do a hundred paintings before I sleep. Each night, tired from a long day of rehearsal, Liz sat with me as I did one hundred paintings, quick gestures with brush and ink, paper fluttering to the floor. We laughed and I felt renewed. After ten paintings en route to a hundred, the notion of judgment and too-much-thinking goes out the window. The joy of the action takes precedence over the illusion of a finished product.

I’ve written often of the lessons Saul-the-tai-chi master taught me. Focus on the field of possibility and not on the opponent. In other words, offer no resistance to those things that appear as obstacles. Sit with gratitude in the void. Paint a hundred paintings before you sleep. Delight in the question.

Step Into The Field

photo-5[continued from “Jump!]

I wrote this phrase: “The one facilitates the journey for the many.” And, today, I would add: the one facilitates the journey for the many so that the many can experience the one. This little phrase is the point and the purpose of the theatre.

I’ve come to believe, at this stage in my artist life, that all processes of art-making are actually exercises in presence. And, presence, for me, has come to mean transcending any experience of separation. For instance, when I am fully engaged with painting a painting, “I” am nowhere to be found. Time disappears. There is only rolling creation. To use a cliché: something comes through me. Language is incapable of grasping what really happens and all we are left with is “something comes through” – a statement of separation.

A week ago today we were preparing to perform the closing of The Lost Boy. This play is unique in my experience for many reasons (it would require a book or two to explain the many layers of this cake), one of which was that we only had two performances: an opening and a closing. We hit our stride on the closing – and by that I mean we let go of thinking, preparing, adjusting…, and entered presence. We stepped onto the stage with no thought of “what’s first” and “what’s next.” The play happened with no effort. The Chili Boys played like never before. We were, to use another cliché, in the flow. I have never felt more alive, more connected, more present. It was fun!

50 minutes before stepping onto the stage

50 minutes before stepping onto the stage

Years ago, I had the opportunity to assist Jim Edmondson in a series of plays and I riddled him with questions. He introduced me to the notion that the art of acting was the art of presence (though he used a different language). He taught me that words like “focus” and “intention” are merely tools for cultivating the capacity to be present. Presence is the portal and the actors’ (artists’) job is to step into presence so the audience can join them. Literally, join with them in the field of the present, the place of common story. To be. Together, in a single story. And, although he did not say it this way, he taught me that “to be” is infinitely more powerful than “to become.” “To be” is not an arrival platform; it is an experience of the many recognizing itself as the one [could you ask for a better definition of art!].

Mike, our stage manager extraordinaire, came down from the booth and told us that our performances were different than the first night. We were more potent; we found nuance and greater depth. He was right. We were finally able to surrender to the work, get out of our own way, and step into the field of shared story.