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Without a Net

Daring Starts From Within

The Master

The Master

To my joy this morning, I encountered a new interpretation of Without a Net card number 17, titled “And That Fresh Blood.” The painting’s original inspiration is featured in another blog post. To sum up, I wanted to capture my relationship to anger. My take on it today was totally different.

The clean and dignified presentation of the badger reminded me of a poem by the Taoist poet of 2500 years ago, Chuang Tzu. I own a translation of his poems by 20thcentury monk Thomas Merton, but hadn’t read it in years. 

In it, a meat cutter is presented as a sort of spiritual master in his approach to his craft. It may look a bit long here, but it reads quickly, I promise.

Cutting Up an Ox

Prince Wen Hui’s cook
Was cutting up an ox.
Out went a hand, 
Down went a shoulder,
He planted a foot,
He pressed with a knee,
The ox fell apart
With a whisper,
The bright cleaver murmured
Like a gentle wind.
Rhythm! Timing!
Like a sacred dance, Like “The Mulberry Grove,”
Like ancient harmonies!

“Good work!” the Prince exclaimed,
“Your method is faultless!”
“Method?” said the cook
Laying aside his cleaver,
“What I follow is Tao
Beyond all methods!


“When I first began
To cut up oxen
I would see before me
The whole ox
All in one mass.
“After three years
I no longer saw this mass.
I saw the distinctions.


“But now, I see nothing
With the eye. My whole being
Apprehends.
My senses are idle. The spirit
Free to work without plan
Follows its own instinct
Guided by natural line,
By the secret opening, the hidden space,
My cleaver finds its own way.
I cut through no joint, chop no bone.


“A good cook needs a new chopper
Once a year—he cuts.
A poor cook needs a new one
Every month—he hacks!


“I have used this same cleaver 
Nineteen years.
It has cut up 
A thousand oxen.
Its clean edge is as keen
As if newly sharpened. 


“There are spaces in the joints;
The blade is thin and keen:
When this thinness
Finds that space
There is all the room you need!
It goes like a breeze!
Hence I have this cleaver nineteen years
As if newly sharpened!


“True, there are sometimes
Tough joints. I feel them coming,
I slow down, I watch closely,
Hold back, barely move the blade,
And whump! The part falls away
Landing like a clod of earth.


“The I withdraw the blade,
I stand still
And let the joy of the work 
Sink in.
I clean the blade
And put it away.”


Prince Wan Hui said,
“This is it! My cook has shown me 
How I ought to live 
My own life!”

The badger in the card seems to emanate the qualities of the prince’s cook. He is a master at the craft of enlightened living, as represented through one of the least likely symbols of lofty human activities. 

The fact that he’s a meat cutter communicates that our connection to the divine (or the universe, whatever is comfortable) can be found in our daily chores or a butcher shop as easily as the church or the yoga mat. 

The cook’s description of unskilled work tells us that forcing our will or mind on a problem will only dull our abilities and wear us out. His reliance on total awareness in the moment guides him by intuition and trust. I see this lesson in my classes.

I am constantly telling my painting students to stop thinking and figuring. Even total beginners can work somewhat effortlessly when they let go of trying to understand or control outcomes. Many want to rely on the usual means of grasping how it will work, as opposed to succumbing to the fact that it just will. They may not know it but they’re being asked to hand over control of the brush to the capable hands of the Master painter.

The overall theme of the poem and card reminded me of the psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (say that name three times fast, or even once ever.) He wrote an exhaustive book about his concept of flow. In my words, flow is a blissful state of freedom encountered when one is participating in an activity that strikes a balance between effort and ease, is challenging in a way that stretches the capacities, and is leading toward a purposeful goal. It is Grace in action. The prince’s cook has got it going on, and so does the badger butcher, if interpreted that way.

Notice how the poem includes the reminders that his attainments didn’t happen overnight. It took him time to learn and sense his way to effortless effort. It also mentions that challenges present themselves. I do well to keep in mind that gifted and proficient practitioners don’t get that way by snapping their fingers. 

Describing what it’s like to be in the state of flow may not be easy, but Chuang Tzu’s comparison to music and dancing are appropriately exuberant and poetic, and the exclamation points help!

I find tremendous inspiration in those who perform their job or sport or art with extraordinary grace. You see the gratitude they have for their work, the grounded assuredness that comes from deeply knowing and loving their path. Even difficulties are considered a predictable and welcome part of the pursuit, for they lead to more expansion. These virtuosos are why I keep to the path.

Although I did relate to the card’s implication that the badger is a master of something particular, I was much more interested in what that points to: a mastery of connecting to consciousness, to the bliss and freedom potentially available in anything we do.

Card number 17 made me appreciative that I get to experience flow regularly, and that there are plenty of Masters out there—in many shapes and forms—to help me keep learning. It also reminded me to keep in touch as often as possible with the Source of sharpness. And flow. And music.

Behind the Scenes

Without a Net Card Deck production has been merry but slow at times. Here are some of the steps in the process:

Paintings

I started with paintings. Here they are on the walls of Red Dot Gallery. (See also my lovely daughter Annabelle and the ceramic work of my husband, Scott Bennett.)

Card Back

I painted a backside image for the cards. It’s displayed here with other art to show scale, the same size as the other paintings. I’ll write a blog post about its meaning sometime soon.

First Try

This is the first incarnation of the deck. I liked the back design, but not the computer numbers below the image. I decided to paint my own:

New Numbers

I painted the 55 numbers to match the cards they went with. I didn’t have to be too detailed because they would be reduced to a tiny size. This took a while!

Right This Time

The new numbers are more fitting for the cards’ personalities. The cards are large at 4″ x 6″ so you can see the images well, and are high quality, the same as Bicycle playing cards.

Card Directions

To direct users to the accompanying Ebook, I wrote and designed this card for each deck.

Box

Until a mainstream publisher decides to produce them (if I ever go that route) I found a sturdy plastic box that fits perfectly. Then I designed the sticker and had it produced.

I always forget that creative babies can’t be birthed into the world without boring things like: Choosing a printing company for the cards and sticker. Figuring out shipping (what to send them in, what to charge, what carrier to use.) How and if to charge sales tax (so complicated I felt like I’d break out in hives.) Pricing and selling the cards. Setting up for sale in an online store. The selling part is a world in itself, and that will be my next adventure. More behind the scenes on that subject later.

The cards include an online Ebook that tells you how to use them. I wrote this User Guide over the last year, and had to choose which Ebook format to go with, a difficult decision. For now it is available as a PDF file.

Ebook

The Ebook is 88 pages long and contains activities, reminders, and help with interpretations. I interviewed others about their takes on the cards to make it easier for future readers to get the hang of using them. There will be more to add as I get feedback from new card users. That’s why an Ebook was a good choice for now.

Online Presence

I created pages on this website and on reddotgallery.com to announce the cards and offer them for sale.

The cards and Ebook are available to order now. I’ll make an announcement in a few weeks with more of a send-off. (Or launch as they say in the biz, but maybe more of a soft-launch.) Your deck will take a few weeks to be delivered but you can peruse the Ebook if you’re curious.

Go to the Cards page to get info, buy cards, or check out the Ebook. Thank you for your interest!

Bounteous Largess

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16″ x 20″        Oil on Board        2014

I paint and write go about many of the tasks of daily life with a conscious creative spirit. Since I’ve not had the luxury of a trust fund or wealthy spouse, I’ve come to accept that I’m required to sell myself and my work if I want to make a living from my artistic endeavors. This part I do not love. I would like to run from it.

This is not to say that I don’t like receiving money for my work. It’s the part between finishing a painting or book and seeing it into the homes of collectors that makes me cringe.

I don’t run into many artists who love the selling part of their career, so I know I’m not alone. I’ve had a thousand conversations with artist friends about the awful drudgery of figuring out how to sell our work. But we also concede that it is necessary, and the most dogged of us make a go of it the best we can.

Having to work at getting noticed feels like I’m forcing myself to come off like a big shot when I don’t care about being a big shot. My moose represents this idea, with his headshot pose, his business suit, and his fancy surroundings. I chose St. Basil’s Cathedral in Russia because it is a recognizable famous building with oodles of fanfare. I also liked the way the onion domes point to the sky, like his upsweeping antlers.

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Thou Gild’st The Even

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16″ x 20″     Oil on Board     2017

The elements of this painting emerged from my childhood idea of luxuriousness, one I yearned for then and thought about often. I wanted to wear a fox stole and a satin gown with a string of pearls, and live in a mansion that overlooked a lake with swans. My desires were probably impressed upon me through movies from the 1940s and my high-minded grandmother who liked the finer things in life.

For younger readers, wearing a dead animal around one’s neck may seem like the height of cruelty and disgustingness, but in my day our grandmothers saw these furry ornaments as a symbol of distinction and refinement. When no one was home I’d sneak the coveted carcass out for dress-up, and with lipstick and rouge I’d pretend I was on my way to being the next Hollywood starlet or glamorous socialite.

The stole wasn’t just fun to wear because it was sophisticated. It was also a real taxidermied animal, complete with little teeth. You could feel the bones in its arms and tail. At the same time I got to look like Zsa Zsa Gabor, I was able to snuggle and stroke a real creature that seemed the next best thing to a live pet. That smelly stole kept me company, stoked my highfalutin dreams, and delivered an hour or two of quasi-happiness.

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The Night Bird

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A part of my Notes from the Inside post series, this interpretation of my Without a Net card is by prisoner Curtis Henderson. His take on my piece isn’t far from my original intention. Thank you to Kerry Madden-Lunsford, who brought my cards to Donaldson, a maximum security prison in Alabama. I added some comas.

The Night Bird by Curtis Henderson

The Night Bird of Egypt is very universal and protective of all the young children. Night or day, any religion, the motherly love is tough against any trespasser, and has the touch to calm any child. Iron or steel, you cannot defeat her will. So, always chill.

Notes from Inside

Possum

Recently my good friend Kerry Madden-Lunsford, took a deck of my Without a Net cards to a maximum security prison in Alabama where she taught a creative writing course to prisoners. At Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, she offered my cards for interpretation and story prompts.

My next several posts will feature some of the writings of the prisoners. Most of the participants included their prisoner identification numbers, but I’ll leave those out. I edited very little.

Playing ‘Possum by Alan Nettles

It was gettin’ dark and Mother O’Possum was doing her everyday count when she discover I was missing. So she rounded up all of the little ones on her wherever they could fit. Opposumville was only one street, so she knew that her little one could not be far, so she went trunk to trunk searchin’ for her child. At the end of the street she seen her little one playing ‘possum so she smile while the others laugh.

 

Welcome Everything

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In our third Without a Net Creativity Class, our topic was “Welcome Everything,” a call to embrace not only beauty and happiness, but even the aspects of life we’d rather skirt around.

To get class going I read out loud the poem, The Guest House, by Rumi, which I’ve posted before. It speaks for itself.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi

I chose our topic for this particular time of year because the class fell on January 24, according to some psychologists and other thinkers, the worst day of the year. Here are some of the reasons:

Most of us have just received our credit card bills from the holidays. The weather (as in lack of sun) promotes depression, and most of us have broken our New Year’s resolutions. Many of us still have extra weight from the holidays. We’re now totally back to the old grind, and there are no big holidays in sight. We’re being pressured to have new hopes and inspiration for the new year, but we’re in primal hibernation mode. So, we’re collectively depressed.

There’s no strict science behind the worst day of the year, but from the first time I heard it, I decided that at Red Dot Gallery, we’d acknowledge it and celebrate it. Knowing that we’re all down at the same time seems to help. We acknowledge that it’s OK not to be OK.

My Without a Net paintings are about welcoming everything. Instead of hiding from my shadow side, I decided to become familiar with it. I never liked my shortcomings and difficulties, but I wanted to be real about them and accept them, knowing that self-honesty leads to transformation. My experience with facing shadows has shown me these three options will be outcomes: I’ll find myself being healed and changed from a source other than my own willpower. OR I’ll find myself able to take transformational actions on my own behalf that I wasn’t able to before. OR I’ll just learn to put up with myself, which gives me lots of compassion for others.

If I don’t get more acquainted with my shadow side, I’ll never be comfortable, really. Much about me will remain hidden and unexamined, including all the wondrous qualities that are wrapped up among the darker ones. I want to see all of my parts as fascinating and natural under the circumstances.

Here’s a quote about just that.

“What if, as poets and mystics have log intuited, the reservoir of human darkness is         not so much a disease as the raw material of our transformation? [Our best self] comes into being as a kind of sacred alchemy, through the conscious acceptance and integration of our shadow side. It’s not so much the curing of a pathology as a birthing of something that never would have existed apart from struggle.”          –Cynthia Bourgeault

Our first project used the Without a Net Cards. I spread out the whole deck around the room and everyone picked a card that reminded them of a trait they weren’t proud of. Then, using the card as inspiration, we wrote about how that trait played out in our lives, specifically how it affected our self-talk, our actions, our emotions, and our view of ourselves. It sounds complicated, but with the pretty maps we drew everyone was able to come up with revelatory insights quite easily. Our sharing afterwards revealed that no matter what shortcomings we have, underneath we have the same human frailties. We learned more about each other, and lightened our load of personal secrets, both cornerstones of growth.

The courageous project left us all ready for some lighter play.

First we had a paper airplane contest to see whose could fly the farthest. No one knew how to make paper airplanes, so our competition may have been eligible for the World Record for the Shortest Distances Ever Achieved by Paper Airplanes. Serious failure can make for the most laughter, so our endeavor was successful.

Our next activity was to take piles of objects and sort them into categories. The goal was to come up with creative reasons for our groupings. Each person had a different pile, including colored pencils, plastic fruit, old boxes, junk, and some ceramic figurines. Some creative categories were: things with tongues, things that cling to other things, things from other countries.

Our day allowed us to be brave with our tough stuff and jubilant with the easy stuff. We marveled at our very different viewpoints and our striking similarities. We dug deep into ourselves and stretched out to connect with the bigger group. I’d say we had a victorious day of welcoming everything.

 

(There’s an excellent book by Father Richard Rohr called “Everything Belongs” which expresses similar ideas in a way only the author can, with eloquence and deep wisdom.)

Curiouser and Curiouser

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For those who think my grammar has gone sour, the post title here is a quote by the Cheshire Cat character in the book, “Alice in Wonderland.” (The topic in this week’s Without a Net creativity class was Curiosity.) The pheasant above seems to be gazing into a looking glass, so we seem to be headed down a Lewis Carroll rabbit hole.

I found the following quote in Scientific American, adapted from Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, from studies at Harvard.

“Openness to experience is absolutely essential to creativity. Those who are high in openness tend to be imaginative, curious, perceptive, creative, artistic, thoughtful and intellectual. They are driven to explore their own inner worlds of ideas, emotions, sensations, and fantasies and, outwardly, to constantly seek out and attempt to make meaning of new information in their environment… Findings suggest the drive for exploration, in its many forms, may be the single most important personal factorpredicting creative achievement.”

This is a pretty significant statement, and not surprising to those who’ve worked in creative fields or who surround themselves with creative people (though I think everyone is a creative, whether dormant or in bloom.)

Centering exercise

We did a breathing exercise in which we paused at the end of the exhale. We listened to the silence and calm, and then were asked to be curious about where the inhale came from. It takes a bit of concentration.  A few people pinpointed a physical place in the body as the origin of breath, and others noticed a feeling of need that propelled the inhalation. We noticed how being curious helped concentrate our focus and thus turn inward quicker.

Topic

My talk about curiosity was simple; I listed all the qualities I could think of that go along with being curious.

  1. It requires open-mindedness, a willingness to see things differently.
  2. Humility goes with curiosity. We have to suspend the idea that we have all the answers, and have to be willing to wrong.
  3. Curiosity about others requires and expands empathy. If I want to know more I have to change my small idea of how life is supposed to be lived.
  4. I’d have to have curiosity to have equanimity. I’d be weighed down by strong judgment if I stopped questioning.
  5. Curiosity brings me to the present moment. That’s where the answers are. I can’t be satisfied with past assumptions or patterns.
  6. Introspection and outer exploration is risky. I have to find courage to embrace the unpredictable.

All of this courageous inquisitiveness calls for a detachment from knowledge. It demands that I be more in touch with a receptive response to the moment. Curiosity is a great word for being “without a net.”

Last week we talked about Risk. If my curiosity is strong enough, I’ll be willing to take risks.

Card Game

Our Without a Net Card exercise for the week involved asking questions about a particular painting. We chose the pheasant in the fancy frame. Here are some of the creative and curious questions that the group came up with.

Is the bird showing off?

What’s he looking at?

Is the bird looking at the past or the future?

Is the bird so close to the picture he sees in gray instead of the real colors?

What kind of road is the bird traveling?

Why is the frame ornate?

Is the bird going home to the black and white scene?

Why doesn’t the bird go fly around?

What is the bird’s name?

What time period is this?

Is the bird desperate?

I’ve offered this exercise before in my workshops, a practice that concentrates and deepens observation of an object. The part people seem to enjoy the most is when they hear the interesting questions of others. Very few people ask the same questions. Hearing what others wonder about enlarges our sense of possibility. Curiosity builds on itself.

Project

We played with watercolor, only with the intention of exploring the capabilities of the medium. There were no skills taught or images to replicate—just an instruction to discover what watercolors do. I’m a proponent of letting water flow and drip and do its thing rather than trying to control it, like you’re filling in an image in a coloring book. In addition to the paint, we used salt, plastic wrap, rubbing alcohol, crayons, sponges, to achieve different affects. It’s always fascinating to see that with the same assignment each person has a wildly different way of going about the task. We saw again how we’re all curious in a different way. The consensus was that goofing around is fun, and we all became more interested in how good watercolor artists make it work well. I posted examples of our investigations on my personal blog.

 

 

First Class

 

Thy Self Thy Foe

This past Friday I held my first Creativity Class at Red Dot Gallery. It was well-attended by a fun and insightful group, inspiring me to share some of the things we covered and what I took from our interactions.

Highlights of this week’s class

We used the Without a Net Deck to practice analyzing images and sharing our personal take on particular cards. As usual, I was surprised and delighted by the various readings, all different than I’d intended when painting the images. One purpose of the exercise was to observe the change in our mindsets as our focus shifted from out-in-the-world mode to introspective. Analyzing a work of art is an excellent way to make that shift quickly.

I mentioned that Yale medical students are required to go to the local art museums to improve their observational skills by looking at paintings. I’ll be posting about that wonderful subject later. The practice of “reading” a painting will be a regular part of my creativity class, as it helps the viewer develop intuitive skills and stretch their imagination, and generally builds skills at looking closer instead of jumping to immediate conclusions about what is seen. As Yale Medicine Magazine puts it, their art workshops for med students are “valuable in developing essential skills that doctors need, like critical thinking and observational and communication skills, as well as bias awareness and empathy.”

The various readings of the Without a Net cards were touching and informative. It seemed that everyone saw their own tendencies in the images, each revealing the kind of hopes, fears, and questions that open one up to more insight and guidance. I know for myself that when I admit or share something of this nature, I tend to see new realizations in the days after. I related to the readings of each person in the room: about insecurities, mysteries, triumphs, bad habits, and daily life struggles.

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Creativity Class at Red Dot

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To make sure your 2019 gets off to an inspiring start (and keeps momentum) I’m happy to say I’m now offering a regular Without a Net class, much In the spirit of my Without a Net Workshops.  Expand your creative voice and access a deeper connection with yourself and others in this weekly drop-in class. This hour and a half class will awaken curiosity, stretch the imagination, and make self-honesty a lot easier. Each week will offer a different creative project. Click here for a complete description.

Details

Cost:  $15 drop-in (covers supplies) or $130 for 10 classes

When:  Fridays, 10:00 – 11:30 Next class is January 11. (For future classes, check website to make sure class is being held.)

Where:  Red Dot Gallery

Who:  Adults 19 and over

Supplies: All supplies are provided

In the spirit of Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” and Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic,” Without a Net Creativity and Awareness Class will offer participants creative exercises in various artistic media that explore personal mind states and perspectives in a judgment-free setting.

Weekly exercises will include explorations in visual arts, written word, sound or music, drama, story telling, photography, and other mediums. We will also use the Without a Net Card Deck for games in self-study. No experience, talent, or skill necessary. This is not a crafts project class.

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