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Without a Net

Daring Starts From Within

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.

Home From Hambidge

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I spent a two week residency in the breathtaking mountains of north Georgia, writing, painting, hiking, playing guitar, and interacting with other writers and visual artists. This was my first residency. In my long career of making and selling and teaching art, I’d never indulged in this most luxurious of retreats. I will be feeling its effects for a long time.

(The photo above is my studio table.) See my other blog for more images from hikes and such.

A residency is applied for and awarded. I was humbled to be among the other talented artists who enjoyed this time at Hambidge Residency for Arts and Sciences. There were nine artists total, and each of us had our own house and studio, all tucked away in the woods with enough distance from each other to have total privacy. Four evenings a week we’d gather for dinner, where a chef had prepared us a meal. After dinner we would talk about art and writing and sometimes animal horror stories.

I got an enormous amount of painting done. Not that output was my goal. I would have been satisfied with any amount of work, as long as I felt like I was following my creative impulses. But as it happened, I felt compelled to spend up to 12 hours a day at the easel, absolutely ecstatic to have weeks to paint without distraction. I finished a first coat on ten paintings.

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Hambidge Residency

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I leave Tuesday for an artist residency at Hambidge Creative Residency Program in North Georgia. A residency is applied for and awarded. For two weeks I will write and paint without distraction due to lack of internet or cell service. I’ll write about my paintings/cards and work on my new body of paintings (to be revealed after my trip.)

I will have my own house and studio, and will join up in the evenings for supper with the 9 other residents from different artistic disciplines. I’ve heard from other artists that the place looks like paradise. I’ll be sure and take lots of photos.

The following information is copied from their website:

The Center was created in 1934 by Mary Hambidge, who established the artist enclave and sustainable farm in memory of her artist partner, Jay Hambidge (1867–1924). After a brief career as a performer on vaudeville stages (Mary was a world-class whistler who appeared with her pet mockingbird Jimmy), she discovered weaving and eventually found her home among Appalachian weavers in the North Georgia mountains.

In the early days of Hambidge, she employed local women to create exceptional weavings that would one day be featured in many exhibits including the Smithsonian and MOMA. Later she broadened the scope of the Center by inviting artists for extended stays. After her death in 1973, the Center evolved into a formal and competitive residency program open to creative individuals from all walks of life.

Hambidge encourages applications from creative minds representing the widest possible range of perspectives and demographics. Visual artists, writers, poets, scientists, ceramicists, musicians, choreographers, chefs and beyond.

Nestled on 600 pristine acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia, the Hambidge Center is a natural sanctuary for reflection and creativity. The property includes 7 miles of hiking trails among an incredible biodiversity of meadows, streams, waterfalls, native plants and wildflowers, and a cove forest. Its salamander population includes rare species that survive in only few parts of the world.

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