Notice The World

my latest painting. another addition to The Beach Series.

It’s a constant source of the giggles for me now. So many things that used to seem so complex and unknowable, so serious and weighty, have morphed into utter simplicities. And, I’ve unwittingly accumulated or created shorthand phrases, adages, that encapsulate the simplicities.

Stephen used to ask me, “Why don’t people see how important art is? Why don’t people value the arts?” He is a prolific and gifted painter and, like most artists, was struggling financially. I used to sit around with other artists and actors asking the same type of questions. Why don’t they value us. Our conversations made us into a frustration-club, so certain were we that we carried in our art pouch the cure for the worlds’ ills. But the world, they, were not noticing us. No matter how great our play or heartfelt our paintings or how loudly we proclaimed and marketed our work or trumpeted our capacity to help people to think or feel more deeply – to change the world! – the community (they) seemed mostly inattentive (to us).

Art as castor oil. Non-profit non-prophet.

Wearing my corporate consulting hat, I taught this core principle for years: you can never determine what other people think or feel or see. And, it took years for this simple adage to penetrated my life – especially my artist life (we do, in fact, teach what we most need to learn…).

I still believe in the importance and great power of the arts but not in the same way I did all those many years ago. I actually believe in it more than I once did only now it seems so simple: ‘Do what you love…,’ so the saying goes. Do what you love because you love to do it. That’s all. The world (how’s that for a sweeping generality!) does not need to be saved or changed. Mostly, it needs less frustrated artists waving to be noticed while perpetuating the narrative that they are undervalued. The world could do with a wee bit less of ‘us and them.’

The simplicity: I would much rather root my energies, my focus, my creative powers in the love of it all. Frustration makes the well run dry. There is no us and them when standing solidly in the love of creating. The real power of the arts – the only real power of the arts – is to open access to the commons, the shared space beyond separations (real or imagined). At best, artists reach across boundaries, not create them. In the end, artists (I believe) are mirrors, not medics.

Kerri gave me this new adage for my collection (and I giggled): It’s not about the world noticing you. It’s about you noticing the world.

Ask Why

photo

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.

photo

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.

Save

Save

Save

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.

Make Art So.

at one time even this was considered a new technology

at one time even this was considered new technology. numbers, too!

Chet said, “But where’s the human in all of it?” His question took me by surprise. It is a question that often puzzles me. I was telling him about my recent inner earthquake, the moment that the train of technology jumped the tracks and collided with my art engine. Both exploded.

For weeks I’d been looking forward to a full day of exploration at the Chicago Art Expo. Hundreds of contemporary galleries from around the world assembled in one place, each showing their premiere work. As an artist these events have always fed my soul. This time, with the exception of a few older masters (a Chagall, a Picasso), a Hockney that made me smile, and few pieces from The San Francisco Figurative painters, I was unmoved. Worse, I was uninterested. As I wandered through the exhibits I listened to curators over and over again working hard to give context to the art. The viewers had no immediate access to it. They (like me) needed an explanation to access its relevance. I felt as if I was watching art-priests interpreting god for parishioners who had no expectation of direct access to the divine. The art needed a middleman. It required an explanation.

Just before going to the Expo, Skip shared a link with me. It was a video of animator Glen Keane drawing in virtual space. He was literally drawing from within the image. It took my breath away. Glen Keane called the technology a new tool but, like many new tools – so many new technologies, this one has the capacity to change our relationship with life and, therefore, with art because it could change our relationship with time and space. At one point in time, electric light was a new technology. The automobile, the airplane, the telephone, the camera and the phonograph were once new technologies. Each changed our relationship with sound, light, distance, the planet…each other. They changed how we see and experience possibilities. And, at the time of their invention, the community, at first, did not understand the power being introduced into their lives. They, like we, were stepping into the future with their eyes in the rearview mirror. What we know as art changed with the introduction of each of these technologies.

I couldn’t help but see the work at the Expo through the lens of this most contemporary tool. My eyes, for a moment, were wrenched from the rearview mirror and forced to look straight ahead through the windshield. Relative to the tool, the work at the Expo seemed abstract to the point of inaccessibility. It felt academic and I felt distant from it (lots of head, little heart). The tool although incomprehensible, was exhilarating, approachable, and inspiring. It made me want to play. It made me want to create. With this tool, Jackson Pollock would have danced and splashed in 3-D space. Picasso would have explored Cubism from within the cube. And, with this tool, I could see them doing it; I could sit in the same space and get paint on my face. In the video, Glen Keane says, “When an artist makes a line, it is a seismograph to their soul.” This tool, this technology, is a 4 dimensional seismograph.

Eve Ensler wrote, “Art has the power to explode the heart and open up other energetic capacities to re-perceive it. It defies boundaries and leaps tall buildings. It transports, it translates, it transcends. Transcendence is so important right now because our lives are so mechanized, controlled, and commodified; art has the capacity to open our souls and could be our revolutionary, evolutionary salvation.”

Yes. And, yes again. I can draw in the dirt with a stick. I can draw in virtual space. The verb remains the same. The access to others – the reach of the art – changes.

To Chet I wanted to say that humans create technology. And, in turn, technology informs humans and, therefore, art. Our very short attention spans are the result of our relationship with technology –  800 word blog posts are now too long, and 140 character tweets are desirable. Much of the Expo was digital photography or digitally altered images. It was mental and cold and abstract – certainly expressions of our time – expediency allows for little depth of experience. The technology did not make it cold; the way it is wielded by human beings makes it so.

Open Your Eyes

a detail from the painting on the chopping block. It's called "The Stillness Must Be Immense."

a detail from the painting on the chopping block. It’s called “The Stillness Must Be Immense.”

There is a debate raging in my house. Yesterday I was about to wipe a painting off my canvas and begin anew when Kerri intervened. “I love it!” she declared. “I hate it,” I replied. “Truly,” she said, “I love it.” When I wrinkled my brow she restated, “I love it.”

Many years ago I was stepping toward a canvas to wipe it clean. The painting wasn’t working for me and I’d given up. I wanted to start anew. My landlady, Kathleen, came into the studio at just that moment and hurled herself in front of the canvas. “You can’t erase it!” she declared! “This is one of my favorites!” She had the look of a desperate woman begging for the life of her child. I relented. I couldn’t wipe it clean. She confessed to coming into the studio the previous evening and admiring the painting. “I spent a long time with it!” I made a deal with her. I promised to show the painting – to include it in one show – and let the public decide. If it was roundly reviled, as I KNEW it would be (as I was actively roundly reviling it), I’d paint over it without drama or interference. If it was appreciated by anyone, by a single person, Kathleen could say, “I told you so,” and I’d never paint over it.

the painting Kathleen saved

the painting Kathleen saved.

A few months later I hung the painting in my solo show at Rock/Dement studio gallery in

Seattle. At the opening a woman came into the gallery, stood before the painting, and burst into tears. She looked at me with tears rolling down her face and said, “I love it.” Kathleen waited a few days before allowing words to break through her smug smile, “Well,” she sighed, “I told you so.”

That painting is the reason I made the same deal with Kerri yesterday. I will let it remain long enough to show one time. If it is roundly reviled and ignored, then I will paint over the canvas without protest. If a single person likes it or expresses appreciation for it, she can bury me in a mountain of, “I told you so,” and the painting will live on long after I’m gone.

The Stillness Must Be Immense.

The Stillness Must Be Immense.

This morning I posted an image, a print that reads, “CROSS THE BOUNDARY OF ELEMENTS.” In the short blurb associated with the image I wrote that sometimes we have to stand in other people’s shoes. We have to see what they see. I am an artist and am convinced that artistry is all about opening new visions for others. It is about helping people see what is there, not what they think is there – and I’m certain that I fall into a thought eddy while painting. It is, perhaps impossible for me to see what others see in my paintings. What I judge to be worthless has often proven to be magnetic to others. And so, I am willing to make this bet, I delight in the moments when my understanding of life turns back on me, flings itself in front of me and screams, “Open your eyes!”

another detail of the painting.

another detail of the painting.

Find The Riches

an illustration from Beaky's book, SHAYNE.

one of my illustrations from Beaky’s book, SHAYNE.

During my call with Jim I told him that my projects this year have been the most satisfying of my life. Certainly they have been the most important. And, they have also been, as I laughingly used the term, “negatively lucrative.” He didn’t yet know of Beaky’s books, of her website, of her book signing, so I sent him a few of my favorite photos from the event. Later, he sent me this text:

It is wonderful to be able to eat and pay the bills but there are for a fact things money can never buy. That famous authors obvious joy being one.

Isn’t that the truth? What price could we possibly place on joy? What price would we pay for true love? What price do we place on personal truth? What is the price tag on fulfillment?

I suspect that the great disease of our time – something future history professors and archaeologists will investigate – is that we’ve managed to place a value on our values; morality has somehow enmeshed with money, the purpose of education has somehow become the achievement of a bigger paycheck. In this never-ending political season, count the number of times and ways our candidates tell us that we must weigh our interests against our values.

What is the price of a value? What is the purpose of a value if it has a price?

All my life I’ve been told by people who love me, that, as an artist, I need to make a distinction between the work I do for food and the work I do for love. Most artists, myself included, feel their work is a kind of call. It is an imperative, a necessity. It is food. It is love. Most artists, myself included, do their work-for-love whether they are paid for it or not. They have to. I have to. It is a call. It is nourishment. There is no way in a culture that has placed a value on its values to recognize the real value of food-for-the-soul and food-from-the soul (the purpose of artists in a culture); a market cannot make sense of soul nourishment. This line of distinction, work-for-food or work-for-love, is at best a wonky value statement. It is a line that only makes sense to a people versed and rehearsed in trading their soul-requirements for a better retirement.

what is the price of joy?

what is the price of joy?

Last night I finished reading aloud to Kerri Tuesdays With Morrie. Jim’s text and Morrie’s messages are in beautiful alignment: there are, for a fact, things that money can never buy. And, those things are where the riches of this life can be found.

Drop Beneath The Noise

my latest work in progress

a detail of my latest work in progress

“Oppressors and oppressed meet at the end, and the only thing that prevails is that life was altogether too short for both.” Carlos Castaneda, A Separate Reality

A year and a half ago, when I moved to Wisconsin, I made the very conscious decision to unplug from the daily news cycle. I stopped watching it, listening to it, and reading it. My theory was that, if there was something truly newsworthy, I would hear about it. My intention was not to stick my head in the sand but the opposite. I wanted to drop the noise level so I might hear the stories with real value that were being obscured by the hype.

I was feeling more and more assaulted at the way the news was coming at me. I felt that it was literally coming AT me. I was disturbed that friends, family, and acquaintances oriented their truth (their opinions) according to their news source of choice. Events were not being reported as much as created for attention and spun for political leaning. It was feeding us a yummy addictive soap opera as context for our lives. Danger and deception were everywhere. “Us and Them” replayed at the top of the hour. One day, riding a bus through downtown Seattle, listening to the conversations around me, I realized that we were not consuming the media, it was consuming us. Division and drama sell.

Many years ago, Neil Postman in his brilliant book, Technopoly, like a prophet warned of the coming days when everything under the sun would be “breaking news.” What would serve as the touchstone of value (and values) when the monumental and the minimal were granted equal import, when news sources waved the flag of surrender and served the gods of entertainment? How might we hold a healthy center when we’ve so thoroughly blurred the line between ratings and reality?

So, I decided to live at the metaphoric edge of the village. An amazing thing happens when you drop beneath the chatter: with quiet comes the capacity to see how much of the chaos is concocted. Beauty becomes infinitely more accessible. The divisions drop away.