“Our first and foremost task is faithfully to care for the inward fire so that when it is really needed it can offer warmth and light to lost travelers.” – H. Nouwen
I’ve begun to wonder if it is possible to tend the inward fire in a culture that encourages us to direct our attention outward at every opportunity. The reason we engage in the outward pursuits of the twenty-first century–namely, social media–it seems to me, is because of a collective fear. We all want to be seen, we all want to matter, we want to stay relevant, we don’t want to miss anything; we believe that if we don’t contribute something to the overwhelming din of information that there will be no chance of anyone ever hearing us.
These are not new concerns. Van Gogh said,
There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passersby only see a wisp of smoke coming through the chimney, and go along their way. Look here, now what must be done? Must one tend the inner fire, have salt in oneself, wait patiently yet with how much impatience for the hour when somebody will come and sit down–maybe to stay?
I’m starting to feel that social media is akin to standing outside your house shouting at everyone who walks by Look at the smoke coming out of my chimney! Check it out! It’s super smokey! It smells great! That’s my house it’s coming from! Watch how it billows! No one else’s smoke billows quite like mine does! and the more time you spend outside shouting about the smoke the less likely there is to be a raging fire when the day arrives that someone wants to come inside to warm themselves by it.
I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. I have languishing Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts which I begrudgingly fill with content just like the rest of you. I am struggling mightily to figure out what is true for me in all of this, all the while wishing I could be spending that time taking bellows to the fire in my soul.
Every year I celebrate Fred Rogers’s birthday the way I would celebrate the birthday of a dear friend who had passed away. For years I marked the day by wearing a red zippered cardigan I got from Goodwill just for the occasion. This year I went simple. I bought Fred some flowers and put them next to the photo I keep of him in the living room. I talked to him throughout the day, and he smiled his beatific smile at me. I told him I missed him and that the world was better for having had him in it.
I’m beginning to worry that people who know me solely through this blog and website may be thinking that I am not okay, owing to the fact that for the last year and a half I have been writing and making sculptures almost exclusively about grief. The truth is that I was not okay, then I was okay, then I was deeply not okay, and now I am okay again. The reason that I’ve been writing about grief so faithfully is twofold: 1. writing helps me to heal in a way that nothing else can 2. I want to explode any taboos or discomforts our culture has with loss, grief, and depression and 3. (bonusfold) I never want to fall into the alluring social trap of curating my life by making it seem brighter or shinier than it is.
That said, there have been some bright spots and they are getting more frequent and closer between.
To wit, my recent trip to Los Angeles:
First, I went to LACMA with a friend thinking I was headed to the quaint little county museum for the afternoon and then holy cow, whaddya know, dum dee dum:
My favorite piece in LACMA. “Prayer Mat” by Mona Hatoum. Object embedded towards the top is a compass that marks the direction of Mecca. The rest of the mat is a bed of tiny nails. This, my friends, is how you make conceptual art.
A casual and artistic segue:
At the age of 43, Simon Rodia, a construction worker, felt he had something great inside of him. For 34 years, he worked every night, weekend, and holiday to build what are now known as The Watts Towers. When they were finished, he handed the deed to the property to his neighbor and left town, never to see them again.
I galavanted. I cavorted. Shit, I even I capered about.
The following photo is significant because of what I am standing above,
which is, of course, the 6th Street viaduct where the racing scene from Grease was filmed (!):
I told Aleshka to pretend to be Sandy waiting in her poodle skirt for Frenchie to come make her over except that Aleshka is way more Cool Sandy than Prissy Sandy, so I think it was a stretch.
I went to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, an experience about which, according to law, I must remain very opaque and mysterious. You can look it up online, but you won’t find any real information. The only way to crack the code is to go and see it for yourself.
I did everything you would want to do in Los Angeles, including getting caught in a downpour in Topenga Canyon, driving Mulholland at night, and having secret information passed to me while walking the Venice canals.
Observe the various and sundry wonderfulness.
I had a boyfriend who was a talented musician. He was from a loving upper-middle class family, which is to say that his life had been pretty rosy and so, as a counterweight I think, he romanticized the life of the brooding tortured artist. Kurt Cobain. Elliott Smith. Layne Staley. These were his heroes. He bought in to the idea that creativity germinates in pain and that you must steep yourself in it if you were going to make anything worthwhile. This struck me as a dangerous position to take for someone seeking to live a long creative life.
In reaction, and because my life had been pretty rosy too, I went the other way. I decided that happiness would be my creative fuel. Nothing worthwhile, to my mind, was going to come from misery–or at least nothing I was interested in cultivating. My writing practice became so dependent on my good humor that I couldn’t write if I was having a bad day. This suited me just fine; I simply didn’t work during my blue moods, which were always unremarkable and transient.
Last year, I had a mood so blue it turned black. And I couldn’t wait it out because it wouldn’t go away. I assumed that my creativity, as it had always done at such times, would abandon me. But in what turned out to be the greatest surprise of my creative life, it stuck around.
I was down to about 85 or 90 pounds then, having not slept or eaten much, and my health was beginning to give me trouble, my anxiety and grief literally consuming me. My doctor ordered blood work and we joked grimly about what to expect. When I went in for the follow up, I said, “So, how bad is it?” She looked at me and said, “These are the best results I have ever seen.”
That same week, I went in for a craniosacral/acupuncture appointment. I was lying prone on the table while my acupuncturist performed energy work on me. I remember feeling as fragile as glass. She said, “your core energy is really strong.” I told her I didn’t understand how that was possible since I felt like I might dissolve into particles at any moment. “It’s your creativity,” she replied. “It’s keeping you vital. You’re lucky you have it.”
I’ve realized something in all of this mess: when your creativity is assigned to you, it becomes an inalienable part of who you are. Your creativity is given to you and you alone; your life is the only food it requires. It doesn’t care if you are having a good day or a bad day. It just wants to flow through you like a river through a dry ravine.
Your creativity can feed on anything–pain, pleasure, mirth, sorrow, defeat, rage, awe–it doesn’t matter. Just give it whatever’s inside of you and it will give you back to yourself.
I am in a constant battle with myself about technology. I fantasize about taking a hammer to my computer daily and yet I feel bereft when I’m without it. I appreciate the ability to send electronic missives to people half a world away, to read The New York Times online, to be able to find a list, in five seconds, of all the movies Wim Wenders has directed. But I miss the satisfying crinkle of airmail paper on which I once wrote long letters to far-flung friends, I miss having to wash the black ink off my fingertips every Sunday after reading the paper, I miss the thrill of going to the library to search for hard-won pearls of information.
Technology’s promise to us was a false one. We were told that it would make us more connected, would make our lives simpler, would save us time. In fact, we lead more isolated, distracted, and busier lives than ever before.
I heard a quote this week from my hero Fred Rogers, and it shed a light on my internal struggle about technology: “I feel so strongly,” he said, “that deep and simple is more important than shallow and complex.” Technology promised the former but delivered the latter.
When you compose an email, or read the electronic version of the NYT, or check IMDB, there are always things calling you away: 43 unread messages in your inbox, pop up ads, curated slideshows, videos, links to other pages that promise information or mystery or solace.What begins as a simple task introduces you to a maze of distraction that you must contend with in order to complete it, as you wade through the shallow pool of your own fractured attention. This gives us the illusion of completing more tasks more quickly but it is as the expense of time and depth and care for each one.
When we write a letter by hand, turn the pages of our favorite newspaper, go through the stacks of our local libraries, a degree of deliberateness is built into these actions, there is an unhurried quality to them. And wherever there is slowness and deliberateness, there is the potential to be returned to oneself. Technology does not return us to ourselves, it delivers us somewhere else entirely. And then somewhere else. And somewhere else. All day every day.
I have started an experiment. It is a small protest, but it is something: I have turned off all notifications on my computer and my phone, which is to say that when I’m ready to check text messages and emails and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and OH MY GOD, they will be waiting for me, but they will not be inserting themselves into my day. I am spending the first couple hours of each day in silence: reading, writing, meditating, or–how telling that this sounds so quaintly archaic–in quiet contemplation. I am trying, with all my might, to do only one thing at a time. This is a terribly difficult one for me. No more writing while listening to a podcast in the background and searching the internet on the side. I am, as best I can, walking away from the shallow and complex toward the deep and simple.
Today I cried in my car in the parking lot of my grocery store listening to this:
This is some of the most effecting radio I’ve heard in a long time. It manages so elegantly to do what we want all art to do. It reminds us of all the contours of being human.
Listen. You won’t be sorry.
When you go somewhere to try to run away from your life, it’s called a fool’s vacation because you end up taking yourself with you.
I’ve been on two this year. The first was to Spain where I was certain that the blue of the Mediterranean would wash away the grey of my life. It turned out that the grey and I were inseparable.
I am currently on the second. I have come to L.A. to reconnect with old friends, some of whom I haven’t seen in over a decade, and to visit as many museums as is humanly possible in a ten day period. I am here to steep myself in art and love. And I have come prepared this time. I have come without expectation that I can escape my problems. I have brought my worries and my anxieties along as traveling companions. I talk to them all day long. Mostly they try to convince me that my life is over and I tell them to kindly keep their opinions to themselves. Rinse. Repeat.
In times of difficult transition, at least for me, fear and uncertainty prevail. I cannot think of a single morning in the last year and a half that I was not awakened by terror. My poor body thinks I am under siege. The tricky part about fear is that it narrows your vision until you are looking at the world through a straw. And the more you rail against it, the smaller the straw becomes.
So this is new for me, this acceptance of the fear and uncertainty. For the first time, I’m not trying to make them go away. I’m taking notice of other things around them, like the fact that there is a ten block stretch near where I’m staying where you can convert to Hare Krishna, hold a boa constrictor, listen to someone playing the didgeridoo and buy reasonably priced sunglasses. Like the fact that there are plants on earth that look like this:
The more I bring these things into the foreground of my perception, the more the fear and uncertainty are pushed to the periphery. They’re still there, but I’m no longer looking at the world through a straw. I am able to see that there is an entire universe of possibility outside of the heartbreaking logistical tangle waiting for me at home. There is more to life beyond dividing bank accounts and taking things apart and phone calls with the Separation & Divorce department of my auto insurance company. (Yes, my auto insurance company has a Separation & Divorce division. Maybe yours does too. You’d never find out unless you were separated or divorced.)
I am still frightened about the future. But I am beginning to see that the future is much more vast than I can imagine.
New additions to The Mean Something Project:
New additions to The Rescue Series:
My grandfather was an artist and an art restorer. My first job was in his studio making cotton balls out of huge sheets of cotton batting. It paid 25 cents an hour. He would paint at his easel nearby and we would work together in silence. He would come over every once in a while to make sure the cotton balls were of a consistent size, but I think it was just an excuse to talk to me and to cultivate in me a certain attention to detail.
When he died I wasn’t a visual artist yet, so most of his tools were sold off or given away. Over the past few years, though, a few things have found their way to me, passed down by my grandmother, my mother, my aunt, and my cousin. Each time I get something of his I am overwhelmed by the connection to him, by the idea that I’m carrying out his legacy in some way. He has always felt very present in my life, but when I am working with his tools it is as though he is still sitting nearby at his easel, checking in on me every so often.
I have some of his clamps, his polaroid camera, his calligraphy set, his colored pencils, and some of his sketch pads. A month or so ago, my mom visited me in my studio and put an old beat-up Thom McAn shoebox on one of my shelves. “I thought you’d like to have this,” she said. It was a crazy time for me and I didn’t pay it any mind. Then I forgot about it all together.
Yesterday, while cleaning out my studio, I found the box. I opened it and inside were all my grandpa’s gold leafing supplies including hand-written instructions for how to prepare a surface to receive the leaf and how to treat it after the leaf had been applied. Seeing his handwriting surrounded by gold flakes, I broke down. His gold leafing brush was inside, the one that I have clear memories of him holding and working with, the one that I was now holding in my hand.
For two years I have had an idea for a project that involves gold leaf, but I have put it off because the materials were prohibitively expensive. And now everything I need has literally fallen into my lap.
In adoring memory of Bernard Rabin (1916-2003).
Read more here.
Even though I make conceptual art, I have always had a hard time with the fact that it doesn’t try very hard to be understood. Historically, it has placed the burden of understanding on the viewer, which leaves a lot of people feeling like they don’t get it or that it doesn’t apply to them.
This is really unfortunate, because the conceptual art of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is, to my mind, some of the most powerful work ever done. Sadly, much of it is lost on people (including me) who walk into galleries or museums, see completely decontextualized objects, and leave scratching their heads.
This has to do with the belief that good art should always speak for itself and shouldn’t have to be explained–a notion that I reject completely. In fact, it is the artist’s responsibility to make a work accessible and knowable. If someone goes into a gallery, sees an exhibition, and comes out feeling stupid or disconnected, it is the artist’s failing not the viewer’s.
Let me give you an example of why it is so important for conceptual art to be put into context. One of my favorite pieces is Untitled (Perfect Lovers) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (see photo above). The first time I saw it, it got a very loud eye roll from me. Some guy hangs a couple clocks on a wall and MOMA calls it Art. I find this type of thing insulting.
But then I read about the piece and about the artist and here’s what I learned: Gonzalez-Torres was a gay Cuban-American artist who came to prominence in the 80s at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Gonzalez-Torres created this piece shortly after his lover was diagnosed with the disease. The artist synchronized two identical battery-powered clocks and hung them side-by-side, a visual representation of the eternalness of love and partnership. Slowly, as his lover’s health would begin to deteriorate, the two clocks would fall out of sync, one inevitably losing time more quickly than the other.
That small amount of information, that little bit of context was enough to turn the piece from something I would’ve walked right past in a museum, into an affecting, poetic, and elegant meditation on love, mortality, and loss.
This is why it is important for artists and galleries and museums and institutions to share the stories behind the work. We don’t need much, just a tiny crack to let us in.
My husband went grey very quickly during a stressful period, as presidents sometimes do in their first term. He grew self conscious and started referring to them, only half jokingly, as beige hairs. I kissed his temples, the beige epicenter, my lips always finding a home in the soft indentation that smelled of him. He was growing older, as I hoped he would continue to do for many more decades in my company, and what a blessing it is to watch time moving across your favorite person on earth.
At the time, I was interested in art as an act of devotion, and that’s where this piece came from: I will take what you dislike about yourself, I will give it my loving attention, I will hold it up to the light.
Every six weeks for a year, when my husband shaved his head, he collected the trimmings for me. With a tweezer, I hand sorted out the beige hairs from the brown ones.
After ten years together, I was still deeply in love with my husband. I still coveted him. I think of an early spoken word tape I have of Henry Rollins where he describes being so taken with someone that you want to rip your hand off just so you can give it to them. That’s how I felt. I wanted to collect my husband, to put him in a jar and put him on the shelf so I could admire him all day long. I designed the glass vessel to echo the form of a canopic jar, which the Egyptians used to store the mummified organs of important people. A jar for the heart. A jar for the lungs. A jar for the stomach.
The great Andy Paiko working on the vessel.
Our marriage ended suddenly while I was in the middle of working on the piece. After a few months, during which I couldn’t bear to even think about the piece, I decided to finish it. What began as an act of devotion transformed into an act of commemoration. A jar for the last year of our marriage.
At my most beautiful
I count your eyelashes secretly.
with every one, whisper I love you.
I let you sleep.
I know your closed eye watching me,
I thought I saw a smile.
I’m working on a new project and have been looking for examples of sanctuaries, places of worship, and sacred spaces. It is both fortuitous and serendipitous that I find myself in southern Spain because, apparently, this is where the world keeps all that stuff. This region marks the geographic convergence of three cultures: the Jews, the Catholics, and the Moors. From what I understand, the history is quite fraught between them, with one group invading and stealing strongholds from another, only then to be invaded and stolen from in return. Pardon my language, but it’s just your typical That’s mine! No it’s mine! bullshit.
The upside for us is that you can’t throw a stone without hitting one of the most spectacular cathedrals, chapels, churches, forts, mosques, or basilicas you’ve ever seen. Even the tiniest villages have their own humble churches, which by American standards would be considered cathedrals.
At the time that I made this, it was my most ambitious work to date. I knew it would be the largest in scale (130″ x 13″ x 86″) as well as scope, because it was going to take four people to do the livecasting. What I didn’t realize was how transformative it would be to make it.
One of the most difficult parts of losing someone is losing the part of yourself that was defined by your relationship to that person. When you lose a parent, you are also losing the part of yourself that was a son or daughter. When you lose a job you love, you lose the part of yourself that was filled up by that role. When my marriage ended, I not only had to grieve the loss of my husband, I had to say goodbye to the part of myself that was a devoted wife, a best friend, a partner. I clung to those parts because they gave my life purpose and meaning, and I wasn’t ready to let them go. But it became clear that I would have to in order to move forward.
I decided to make a self portrait of the part of me that was dying away so that I could lay her to rest. I chose to have the mold taken off of me when I was at my most frail because I also wanted to say goodbye to the part of me that was shattered, frightened, and fragile.
Three sculptures and mold makers extraordinaire–Shelby Davis, Cat Holtz, and Crystal Schenk–and photographer Damien Genardi came over to help me. The whole process took seven hours from beginning to end, three of which were spent on the table.
They started at my feet and worked their way up, so that my face would be the last thing covered. At around the two hour mark, I went to another place.
Once they covered my face, there was only a small slit under my nose to breathe out of. I couldn’t see or hear anything. I felt them knocking all over my body to test whether the plaster was curing, but the rapping felt far away, as did the rest of the world.
They broke me out as quickly as they could. I don’t remember much because I was in a formidable amount of pain, but I do remember getting off the table feeling lighter.
Later, one of them would say to me that although they couldn’t explain it, they felt as though a part of me that had gotten on the table never came out of the mold.
Once the collaborative work was done, I had to prepare the mold.
Then I had to pour and clean up the casting.
After that, I finished the casting with resin and fiberglass to give it more structural integrity and a more beautiful surface.
The entire time I was working on the piece, I found myself talking to the sculpture, telling her she was going to be okay. I was very careful with her, always moving her gently. The process allowed me to take care of myself in a way that I hadn’t been able to for almost a year. Because the wounded part of me was embodied and outside of myself, I was able to feel love and compassion for her, and I was able to let her go.
You can see more photos of the finished piece here.
Ann Patchett says that the act of writing is like seeing a beautiful butterfly, reaching out to touch it, and then smashing it dead. What she means is that no matter how talented a writer you are, it is impossible to write the book that you have in your head. You imagine something eloquent and perfect and, despite all efforts, something gets mangled in the process.
As a writer, this is, without a doubt, the source of all creative suffering. You can’t get the beautiful thing that is inside of you out. You may very well end up with something else equally beautiful, but it will not be a direct representation of the beautiful thing that lives inside.
When I started making sculptures two years ago, my entire life got an upgrade. Visual art gives me everything that writing does not (and writing gives me everything that sculpture cannot).
Making sculptures is collaborative, outwardly oriented, physically demanding. It takes me out into the world; I have to ask questions, get advice, and rely on other people. It gets me out of my head and into my body. Writing, on the other hand, suits the introvert in me; it is insular, solitary, and autonomous. I can go days without needing anything from anyone.
These two pursuits provide the perfect balance. When I start to feel withdrawn and closed off, I work on a sculpture. When I feel too reliant on other people, too exhausted, or my thumb, say, has swelled to twice its normal size from pressing bullets into foam for a hundred hours and I can no longer bend it, I sit down in front of my computer and pick up writing again. Some people wonder how a writer can also be a visual artist. I wonder how I made it so long without being both.
The biggest surprise about making sculptures relates to Patchett’s metaphor. Instead of mauling the butterfly during the creative process, as one does while writing, visual art allows you to hold the creature in your hand, to study it, and to make an exact replica of it, down to the tiniest detail.
In the photo below, the top image is an idea I sketched in two minutes on an 8″ x 10″ piece of vellum at an artist residency. The bottom image is the finished piece, titled Rewritten, 78″ x 54″, finished four months later out of silk and shredded love letters.
In the photo below, the left image is the concept sketch I gave to Andy Paiko, the glass artist with whom I collaborated on At My Most Beautiful. The right image is his hand blown vessel. The only difference in the two is that, at the last moment, I turned the stopper upside down because I preferred the line it created in that position.
Being able to take an idea and turn it into something you can touch or hold, something that can catch the light, is one of the greatest joys in my life. It makes me feel that all is right with the world. And it strengthens my resolve to get back to my computer and to capture in writing that beautiful thing inside of me that is trying to get out.
When my parents came to get me, I’d been lying on the kitchen floor for days. I kept mumbling, “I’m gonna die. I’m gonna die. I’m gonna die.”
My father, in an attempt to bring me back to reality, said, “What are you going to die from, sweetie?”
“This,” was all I could say, by which I meant the pressure over my sternum that radiated through my chest to my shoulders and throat, making it impossible to take a full breath or to speak above a whisper. Surely, it was on the order of a thousand pounds per square inch and soon my lungs would collapse or one of my vital organs would stop working. I remember reading in seventh grade about spontaneous human combustion. It was puzzling to scientists and to me at the time, but now I felt certain that it was the result of someone’s heart exploding from an insurmountable loss, like mine was about to, and that at any moment I would cease to exist.
For months, whenever a polite stranger at the grocery store or coffee shop said hello and asked me how I was doing, I thought Is this person blind? Can they not see the giant hole through the center of me? Can they not tell that this shirt I’m wearing is the only thing keeping my insides from spilling out onto the floor?
+ + +
On the other side, I have learned that if your heart is broken badly enough, it cracks you open. If you survive your grief, it increases your capacity to experience wonder. It fills you with awe. That’s what this sculpture is about. It’s made from over 1500 hollow point bullets, which are incredibly lethal, but dammit if they don’t flower into something beautiful.
The first step was having a mold taken off of me by the obscenely talented, kind, and beautiful artist Crystal Schenk.
Then I poured the casting into the two-part mold.
In the meantime, I had to borrow a gun, which made me deeply uncomfortable, and order tactical ammunition by the caseload, which no doubt landed me on some government watchlist (or even more disturbing: it didn’t). Once the bullets arrived, the challenge was to figure out how to get them to do exactly what I wanted them to do. Artist Shelby Davis helped me brainstorm this part. (I should tell you that the first iteration of our plan involved shooting a gun from the top of a tree. I should also tell you that we weren’t stupid enough to actually do that.)
First, I had to do some target practice to get comfortable with the 9mm loaner. I’m afraid there were some casualties:
The test run was a success.
I got exactly what I was (literally and metaphorically) shooting for.
When my knuckle got swollen from the recoil, my dad took over for me.
The below photo is proof of how much I am loved. These are my pinko commie lefty liberal parents loading 9mm clips for my crazy sculpture project. We had a good laugh about that, believe me.
After that was hundreds of hours of this:
And it all led to this. You can see more photos of the piece here.
If you’re reading this it means that a. you’ve successfully made it to 2015 (congratulations!) and that b. you are on my new website. It may not look all that different but, oh! it is. It’s been seven months in the making with the mad geniuses at Gambit in Portland, OR.
You can now peruse some of my essays, which I hope you enjoy. If you know any visual artists, actors, writers, or performers, please share On Artists and Criticism with them; it’s one of my favorites.
For the past year, I’ve been working on a new series of sculptures, which have brought meaning to my life during a very difficult time. They have helped me and healed me in countless ways, and I am very excited to be able to share them with you. They are part of a larger body of work, which includes a memoir I’m currently writing, all circling the same theme: the intersection of grief and wonder. You can check out the new pieces in the Visual Art portfolio here. I’ll let you know when new pieces get added.
If you’d like to receive updates about such things and are interested in what I do, you can find a signup form for my mailing list on the bottom of every page of this site.
More things to come in the next few months. In the meantime, I’m wishing you a year filled with good health, love, and art.
I’m spending the first month of 2015 with my family in Andalucia. After a terrible horrible no good very bad year, there’s something to be said for a geographic reboot. I’m working a lot, but there are lovely distractions. Late mornings, the three of us head down to the beach for a coffee by the Mediterranean. We feed stale bread, which we cart around specifically for this purpose, to the sparrows that congregate around the cafe tables. We pet the stray cats as they amble by. We explore the windy streets in a tiny car. We take naps.
The best part is the light. I pull up my pant legs, I push up my shirt sleeves, I turn my face to the sun and let it warm every part of me.