Now, Let’s Sit & Talk about This for a Moment

Photo: Long Road 1After the flood of mindless vitriol in our American political scene—yes, an outpouring from all sides and hardly touched by facts and logic or by mere civility as everyone descends to defensive and angry namecalling—I am reminded that this is an age-old problem.

“Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.” – Carl Sagan, astronomer and author (1934-1996).Photo: Long Road 2

More importantly, I recognize that we would not now exist, certainly not as a federation of states we call a nation, but possibly not even as the chaotic, argumentative, and colorful mass of humanity we are, if there weren’t some among us who occasionally do sit down at the same table and work to reason out the complexities that try us all. Only then can anyone come to an agreement that, while it may be deeply imperfect at best, is still genuinely aimed at the longer-term ideal of growing gradually, of improving until it offers a possibility for better health, education, safety, opportunity, and well-being for all, not just for the privileged or noisy few. I hope that the antagonistic tenor of recent times can be put behind us in favor of work and conversation dedicated to nobler causes than self-interest and fear. I hope that we can let go of redefining hot-button words to suit our mood-of-the-moment and that we can reflect on how our own attitudes and imperfections, ignorance of the larger picture or of other people’s experiences, and our own prejudices and deeply held convictions can stand in the way of simply living together. It doesn’t have to mean giving up principles or changing hard-won beliefs if we will honestly examine our shared needs and our commonalities with equal fervor and attempt to find the best ways to uphold and accommodate all of them.

I’m tired of living in a place that could be one of the few on earth these days that’s not an actual war zone, yet feels as though we are all embattled on a daily basis. If even a modest number of us spent the energy we currently waste on perpetual shadowboxing with real-or-imagined enemies and evils instead on reasoning out positive change and growth in ourselves and our communities, what a different atmosphere we’d have. I, for one, am ready to commit to turning down the volume of my critiques, and persevering in sharing what I have that can give others respite, or hope, or a moment of beauty, no matter how small it may be, instead of wallowing in anyone’s bitterness and despair any longer.Photo: Long Road 3

Waste not those feet

I am still lurking about in my book-writing space, having now pressed Publish on my fifth Blurb book and working on a number of those yet in progress. But it’s happy work. On that note, I commend to you my dear friend Celi’s superbly crisp take on happiness from her own blog:

thekitchensgarden

How to change Big attitudes with tiny turns.
sheila

You know that feeling when you are half way to somewhere and you realise you have forgotton something that you need. Or you cannot carry everything you need down the back in one wheelbarrow and must make two or three trips. And you think – Dammit now I have to walk all the way back. Lately when I have these realisations I am pleased.
cat

All this has come down to a little plastic gadget my daughter has me wearing that counts my footsteps. There are a number of such bracelets, I don’t want to advertise mine as I am not in the business of advertising, and that is not the aim of this discussion, you may even have one on your phone but counting my footsteps has turned my attitude on its head. Now instead of being frugal with movement, efficient with my feet…

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Let’s Talk about Truth in Advertising

As she so often does, my amazing friend Celi brought up once again the question of what we photograph, and how, and why, and what it can mean when we do so. As an avid, inveterate and truly—in the old sense—amateur photographer myself, this topic remains of great and constant interest. In the present climate of world politics, especially our wildly messy and weird American version of them, we certainly become obsessed with the idea of which of us has a complete grip on The Truth (absolutely nobody, in my opinion) and how we wield it (selfishly and manipulatively, IMO), and whether we’re arguing about what is real in visual or verbal images it pretty much plays out the same. We’re all generally trying to express how we understand the world, and to convince ourselves and others that our understanding is the smartest or best one.Photos: My HDR 1

Me, I edit a high proportion of my photos, many of them very heavily—but rarely do I do so to many for outright imaginative purposes. Aside from the (at least) 2/3 to 9/10 percentage I cull before using, what I do keep is for illustrative purposes at least as much as for documentary ones, but my intent with my photos is always to show others how I see the world, not necessarily how the world exists in an empirical sense.Photos: My HDR 2

In my opinion, that was always the purpose of photography: even the most rigorous of news and docu- photographers have always only shown us what they choose, and are able, to shoot, and from their perspective. Heck, people were manipulating photographs (early “ghost story” and “fairy” photos, anyone?!) as soon as they could shoot them. Photos are no more concrete proof of Truth than are written or spoken words. Current politics and social interactions merely continue to confirm all of the above.Photos: My HDR 3

So last night I was doing my own version of HDR, wherein I meticulously hand-alter (albeit with digital tools) the light/dark contrast in various parts of shots to replicate what my eyes and brain do as I’m seeing the images live, and my live-in art critic commented on my play with the pictures. And then I showed him how, for example, the pictures I took while he was driving here through west-Texas and New Mexico storms this summer are ‘readable’ only after such an edit, and that if his eyes weren’t already making such adjustments on the fly he’d not have been able to see, headlights or not, to drive in such varied light as the storms make.Photos: My HDR 4Photos: My HDR 5Photos: My HDR 6

I know that when I photograph my own environment, I do so with constant awareness of my version of Clutter Blindness, too, which makes me not see or notice things that are constantly in my environment—until I’m recording that environment with my camera. What an amazing tool is the camera! But it’s only a tool, and the images we take with it only the things we’ve chosen to note or share in our own ways. I love seeing the world through others’ photos, artworks, and eyes; my reality is frequently shifted and enhanced by this interchange of ideas and experiences. But I’ll always think it’s best, whether in attempts at documentation and recording real-life happenings and visions or in entirely handmade and invented artworks, to look with my critical thinking and logical skepticism engaged, and know that what I see and what I perceive to be real are all as ephemeral and dodgy as the brain and heart can possibly make them.

Digital illo: Editing Digital Art [Rumpy]

Editing my own digital art is simply a more complicated version of what I do with photos in order to make them more like I “see” them in my mind’s eye. I’m pretty sure Rumpy would agree that no matter how well-meaning we may be, we are all bound to see things from our own perspective.

Heroics without the Whiz-Bang

Photo: Wild & SweetDuring my long unplanned sabbatical just now, I had the privilege of going on a true Spring Break expedition with my spouse and one of my sisters. It was as close to a perfect holiday as any I’ve enjoyed, but there were enough imperfections lurking on the periphery of my consciousness to keep me grounded. Food for thought is everywhere, if I’m willing and able to partake of it. The road trip south from our north-Texas home to Texas hill country provided plenty of highway time to remind me with its proliferation of roadside signs and billboards that everybody has an opinion they would be happy to make me—or dare me not to—share. This, in turn, renewed my awareness of the current Presidential candidates’ campaigning, and in further turns, of how the American penchant for debate and individual thinking has moved further and further toward the hinterlands of sheeple-think, demagoguery, and hate speech. I wanted to think of nothing more serious than wildflower peeping, lounging about, and enjoying the quiet of being a slight distance from the cacophony of daily life at home, but the signs sprouting like weeds threatened at times to choke even the hardiest of wildflowers.

Maybe I was just tired at the beginning of the trip, unwilling to do the work of steering my own thoughts elsewhere.

About the time when I’d determined to put that depressing junk aside, I was reminded by some truly spectacular scenery we happened to find that troubles are everywhere. The three of us are masters at getting fruitfully lost, going off with little plan or direction, only to pass through and end up in really magical spots time and again. A side road that caught my partner’s eye landed us unexpectedly on the banks of the Blanco river in Wimberley, where last year’s flood had smashed through and chewed the valley to kindling, taking homes and lives with it. I was admiring the once-again clear and sweet waters and only diffidently wondering at the odd toothpick-scape on their flanks when it finally dawned on me just where we were.

Photomontage: The Blanco in Wimberley

Nothing stands in the way of bluster and violence. Except patience, renewal, and hope. These have tenacity and power, too, only exercising them in more beautiful ways.

This is our life on earth, this constant juxtaposition of impression and reality, of the beautiful and the ugly and the beautiful yet again. I thought again of the bullying, anger-fueled tone of the signage and the politics it represented from all sides, and remembered that the present is not really so much worse or better than the past, one point of view not so patently more or less perfect than another, as it is our willingness to look more clearly and carefully and patiently at what is around us and even, if we are truly courageous, to learn from it all and admit to our imperfections both before and after.

Anu Garg, master of that delightful etymological publication empire Wordsmith, has an email-subscription publication called A.Word.A.Day, where I get to learn, along with the multitude of other subscribers and visitors, the origins and meanings of marvelous words and how shape, and are shaped by, our existence. Every AWAD post ends with a Thought for Today, and these are as scintillating and demanding and fulfilling as the rich tillage of the language in each individual word explicated in the posts.

Today, as is often the case, I found the closing quote cause for both self-examination and rumination on the current polarized state of my country. So few on either side of the vast divide defining nearly any aspect of life here can evidently allow that anyone else could possibly have an iota of access to intelligence, let alone truth. And perish the thought that we ourselves could conceivably be wrong! Some days it seems to me that there are no tenable middle points of anything at all anymore, only I’m Good and You’re Evil. It frightens and saddens me more than I can say. But Thomas Szasz seems to have spotted one of the pivotal causes:

Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.

Thomas Szasz, author, professor of psychiatry (15 Apr 1920-2012)

This is why my heroes tend to be among the perpetually curious, the skeptical, and those who are fearless about questioning anyone’s tastes, hopes, beliefs, and even hard-won knowledge—most especially their own. Those who never hesitate to admit when they are or even might be wrong, to negotiate the murky waters of faith, fear, and certitude to see what is further in the depths regardless of the potential for personal revolution, and who will always challenge any who make fixed claims to examine those under the light of reason, debate, logic, and yes, compassion. Because some things that nearly every living person would agree to be absolutely true are neither fair nor desirable, but ought to be brought into the cold light of day precisely for this purpose: to drive the challenger, and anyone around who dares to agree, toward positive change.Digital illo from a photo: Choose to Grow

For the highest purpose of all knowledge is not merely self-congratulation, though it may admittedly keep one warm inside; it’s growth that can be shared by any others who will listen and learn as well.

When such central concerns of the communal life as politics, social policy, religion, law, science, health care, ethics, and education have become mere arenas for every hateful phobia or ism to express itself through opinionated pettiness, self-indulgent hissy fits, screeds and screaming matches, name calling and mud-slinging and other misbehavior that would shame anyone under two years of age, I begin to despair of our future. All I can think to do is start the revolution at home, and by doing my own homework. I must try to emulate my heroes better: fearlessly ask questions, practice due diligence to support my claims, and listen calmly to all points of view with the same healthy blend of openness and skepticism. And I’ll leave the mantle of noisy self-righteousness and impossible claims and promises stashed deep in the archives of disproved history where it belongs.

Photomontage: Bluebonnets for the Win

Turns out, the wildflowers grow and proliferate, whether the area has been punctuated with political pickets, paved over with freeways, flooded, neglected, or subjected to any number of indignities natural or otherwise.

I Never Talk about It…

…at least, I generally avoid talking about politics as thoroughly and avidly as possible. But of course, the presidential election coming this fall means we lucky Americans have already been inundated for months with campaign wackiness as candidates pile into and out of their respective parties’—and non-affiliated, independent organizations’, whose candidates are not necessarily immune to the disease either—clown cars.

Photo: Just Nuts

Honestly, we’re all just nuts when it comes to politics, anyway.

Apparently when there’s nothing left to say, that’s when I can’t help saying something.

Pronouncement Announcement
If the prevailing attitude
should still allow me latitude,
I will ignore the platitudes
that beg to disagree,
Since all but mine is foolishness,
the opposition, ghoulishness,
and though it might sound mulish, this
is clearly about Me.
Say what you will, I’ll stay the course,
and only change my route or horse
if made to, for unless perforce,
no reason can I see:
Demand no ideology
of logic, for phrenology,
leavened with some astrology,
is good enough for me.
The running of our nation
is based more on desperation
—and a plague of perturbation—
than on brains;
Elective coronation
of our leadership’s a ration
of reminders a vacation
is required, or what remains
Of sane deliberation
and of civil conversation
will go, sans meditation,
down the
ever-loving drains.
And on that note, pretentiously,
appallingly sententiously,
and would-be president-iously
as anyone can be,
I remonstrate with all you twits,
vulgarians and feeble-wits,
that, politics or other, it’s
forever about Me.Digital illo: My Candidacy

Repeat after Me: I Like You. I Love You.

Digital illo from a graphite drawing: Love Letter #14Maybe it’s the approach of the fourteenth of February that does it, but I seem to hear relationship talk everywhere I go these days. Maybe it’s because the university (where my husband teaches, conducts, and works alongside singers and musicians of every level both as students and fellow College of Music employees) is in the midst of vetting and hiring a wave of new musicians and administrators to fill in the blanks as faculty and staff move to other positions or retire. Maybe it’s simply because I’m always attuned to what works and what doesn’t, as a person whose relationships shape my life in every way. Very nearly all of them for the better, thankfully!

In any event, whether St. Valentine is listening in or not, it strikes me that there are a huge number of three-little-word combinations that make relationships tick. Some, sadly, tick like bombs about to detonate. Those that tick along like a well-oiled machine tend to avoid the trios of words that begin and end with “I” and “you” but have negatives in the middle, even if that’s what the parties are feeling is most realistic at the moment. “I hate you” or any variant thereof has little hope of communicating anything other than that the speaker is not equipped to reason out of a problem, and whether that arises from sheer, stubborn, stupid self-centeredness or from lack of experience and skills, it would be wise for any of us to attempt to learn and use the necessary tools for genuine two-way communication. The risk of not doing so is far higher than the implosion of that one relationship, though surely that alone should be reason enough to try. Every being with whom we share oxygen in our finite little lives has the power to bring richness and beauty to our existence, or to crush our very ability to see and experience such things.

I know that’s a mighty far-reaching claim, but think about it: every successful interaction or failure on your part colors not only your mood of the moment or day but your ability to rise up on the next ready for joy or expecting disaster. You, in turn, reflect this attitude on those others around you, and while that poison or elixir-of-happiness is rippling away from you in concentric, if eccentric, rings, it is passed along in ever-increasing circles that will always find their way back in one sense or another. Some name this Karma, some Luck, some Destiny, and some, The Golden Rule. But if you can’t pull up your socks and look trouble in the eye and take pity on it with a rational yet heartfelt conversation or ten, you’ve not earned your right to complain about it.

Rational yet heartfelt, I say.

It does no one any good to have a weepy, foot-shuffling, embarrassed, or even joyfully conciliatory moment of rapprochement, no matter how deeply felt, if it isn’t given clear thought and the foundation for future prevention of recurrence. It certainly won’t fix any damage to plan it all out and chart the full course of the détente if it’s insincere or only marginally acceptable to one or more parties to the agreement. If your heart’s not in it, take the time to figure out why—preferably together—and fix the underlying problems before settling the current dustup.

An old but tried-and-true way of saying what one can’t seem to convey coherently in the heat of an argument or when just overwhelmed with emotions is to write everything you’re thinking and feeling down, set it aside for a short period (preferably overnight), and come back to review it. Clarify, edit, and make it say as honestly and fully as possible how you’re feeling and why you think that’s so. Consider whether your partner—at work, home, or play—would be able to understand your view of things better if that essay or letter were in front of him or her. Have you presented your thoughts as calmly and factually as possible, no matter how emotional the content? Did you state things with fair ownership, making sure that it’s transparent to anyone that these are your feelings and interpretations of the situation and that you take responsibility for them? Can you speak without assuming that all of the blame lies either outside or inside yourself, but realizing that perhaps both parties might need to concede a little in order to have a meeting of the minds? Do you admit that you might not even meet in the middle all of the time, sometimes needing to be the one who concedes more ground and others, being met more than halfway? Are you obsessed with being right or 100% satisfied, or can you allow that someone else with a wholly different feeling or goal might be equally entitled to those different emotions, tastes, or wishes? If you can add those recognitions to the ‘document’ before you, why not do it.

Then read again. Is this something that, if shared in humility and a genuine desire to find common ground, could become the basis for a kinder, more thoughtful and productive conversation? Maybe you’ll even want to share it with your counterpart, but unless you promise yourself never to do so as an attack on your partner’s integrity, personal sense of  worth, and human value, think first about how you’d feel on the receiving end. Isn’t that the point, anyway? To find a way to understand how your relations feel and what you’d want if you were in their shoes? If it isn’t, then I’d venture that it’s not a real relationship but the desire to make someone meet your needs and wishes. A person seen as a toy or tool for your convenience and pleasure is not a relationship, whether it’s pragmatic or romantic to you or, no, you’re actually absolutely lacking in empathy.

You probably wouldn’t even be reading this if that last were true. The only exception I can imagine is if you’re interested in developing empathy, or mimicking it, and frankly, either of those beats going without, in my estimation.

So what is the real goal in relationships? I would say that it’s mutual benefit. What are the possible benefits? Endless. In a work relationship—office, school, community, organization—it’s the ability to be more productive as a result of combining complementary skills and knowledge or merely by virtue of doubling or further increasing the work force. Yet more: it’s also the ability to grow and succeed in the business at hand because the combined companionship and efficiency of a strong, smoothly working team allows more creative and meaningful thinking as well as better energy for the moment.

In friendship and love, I tend to think the goals needn’t be all that different. If romance or lust is the only commonality, for a minuscule few that might be enough, but for most of us it’s a relatively small part of the daily equation. Temperate, even affectionate, converse is a fine place to start and end. If our words are considered for their impact on the recipients, the respect for their beliefs and feelings, needs and wishes, they will not only effect a positive response but can reinforce the alliance and mutual admiration. It doesn’t matter if the language if flowery and poetic, or if the thoughts seem original.

What matters is that you are willing to say, consistently and regularly, some positive form of “I _____ you” to your partner, with modesty, commitment, honesty, patience, and kindness. What does your partner want from you? Most likely, the same basic things you want from your partner: respect, liking, sympathy, empathy, care for one’s well-being. I like you. I admire your intelligence, your beauty inside and out, your accomplishments. I respect your ideas, your hopes and dreams. I am sorry for your sorrows, even the ones that I can’t fathom because they aren’t obviously situational. I recognize that your pain and joy are real, and that I am a part of them. I had my feelings hurt, but I forgive you, and I crave your forgiveness in return when I’ve been thoughtless or foolish, too. I want to protect you from whatever you fear. I hope that you will always be confident in my faith in our partnership and that what I do will show my desire to make your life better. I value your opinion and will ask for it when I’m contemplating a decision. It affects us both! If all of that isn’t crystal-clear, I hope that you will always feel welcome to tell me your needs and desires and to ask me about mine and respond positively to them. I love you.

And whenever you can summon the courage to do so, say it out loud. Trust me, if it’s true it never gets dull. I like you. I love you. I wish you well in all things. I am thankful that you and I are partners in this. Life is good, isn’t it.

Let’s Talk about Art!

My new friend Alyssa asked if she could get some thoughts from me on my approach to art and my life as an artist. I’ve posted about much of this before here (search practically any name, term, or phrase in this post and see for yourself!), and heaven knows she wasn’t necessarily expecting to be inundated with my input, but I tried to answer each question she had as best I could manage at the moment. Thought, after all of that, I might as well share it with the rest of you. If you’re interested. What follows is Alyssa’s series of questions and my answers. This week’s answers, anyway….

Photo: Me, 2016

Just me, hangin’ out at home with some of my early grad school art. Art that was much doctored after the fact to make it more satisfying to me, by the way. Things change. I change. My art changes. Hopefully, all for the better.

What is your story?
My story as an artist is pretty much the same as my life story in general. I never set out to do or be anything particular; it just happens to me. I think that’s possibly the way most of us experience it. But for artists, it’s maybe even more common, since the world usually tells us that being an artist isn’t exactly practical, so it’s not a real vocation.

I intended to do something more apparently practical with my life wherein I could ostensibly get a job and make a living, so even though I did finally declare my undergraduate major as Art—when I was at least a junior or maybe even a senior, mind you—I was thinking all along that I should go with an English major and plan to teach. Not that I actually took a single undergraduate Ed class! My godfather, who happened to work as head of the radio program at the uni where I did my undergrad studies, sat me down during one of my social calls to his office and chided me about not committing to an art major. His take on it was something along the lines of ‘this is not about what you think you should do, but about who you are.’ My parents had been reassuring me all along that this was what a college education was for, but c’mon, who listens to their parents?! When Judd said the same thing, suddenly it became obvious. Poor Mom and Dad.

As it turned out, it was teaching that was impractical for me. Not Art, not even English. After my master’s degree, I’d moved back to live on my old home turf near alma mater and ended up getting asked by my main undergrad mentor-teacher to take on teaching a class there when they had too many students and not enough teachers on staff. I ended up staying and getting more and more classes, without having applied there at all, until in just a couple of years I was full time, and I didn’t leave that job for nearly 17 years.

In the meantime, I also got asked to teach English (writing) courses and critical-thinking classes, and a whole mess o’ stuff I’d never imagined teaching. And yes, it was practical in the sense that I spent, if you count the teaching I did during my graduate studies, about 2 decades of earning my wages as a teacher. But I never felt ‘born to teach’ like I sense some people are. It was really hard for me, and I was very self-critical. I found, as a former art teacher I knew had warned me, that very often after using all of my time and creative energies to see that my students got everything I could give them, I had none of it left for myself, so I didn’t make art or write very often at all unless I had a specific commission or deadline myself, and even those got fewer because of the time constraints of a 9-5+ teaching job. Teaching, it turned out, was not my calling.

Was it worth it? Yes, in many, many ways. It kept food on my table and a roof over my head and other very useful stuff. I certainly learned far more from my students (and colleagues, of course), all the time, than they could possibly have learned from me. I worked in the building next door to the one where my [now] husband and a ton of our mutual friends worked in the music department, precious connexions I suppose would’ve been unlikely had I not been teaching there. But I was overjoyed when we reached the point in our lives that we could afford what my husband suggested: I stopped teaching and became a full-time work-at-home artist. No promise of any income; no demands for it, if it didn’t occur as part of what moved me artistically. I am one incredibly lucky person! Now I make art again simply because I need to make art.

What first attracted you to art?
I never stopped loving doing the stuff that comes pretty naturally to all kids: playing imaginatively, daydreaming, and making visual or textual notes on those ideas and inspirations with whatever media came to hand. Crayons, pencils, found objects, paints, dough, dirt, whatever. So I just kept doing it. The more I made, the more people cheered me on and motivated me to keep making more. I’ve had plenty of times when I slowed down or lost a sense of direction, but I always end up coming back to making visual documents of my inner life. Still a kid at heart.

What keeps you interested in art?
Life. There’s just so much crazy, wonderful, unexpected adventure and junk and weirdness packed into any given day that merely journaling what all of it inspires in my tiny corner of the universe is endless fodder for art. And I’m always seeing others’ art, sometimes very intentional and skilled, sometimes quite accidental or done in ways that don’t speak to me at all personally, that still makes me want to respond with more of my own. I am notorious for not being able to sit through the shortest play, concert, church service, restaurant meal, sporting event, or whatever without mentally redesigning everything around me from the room I’m in to the technical systems, costumes or uniforms, menus, etc, etc, etc, not to mention the art on the walls. Fun, but admittedly a little distracting at times. There’s a reason some of us are infamous for daydreaming when others think we should be better focused on the business at hand. Which is true, to a certain extent, but of course how would anything new ever get invented if we fuzzy-headed folk didn’t dream it up? I consider my art-making first and foremost a problem-solving process, and that puzzle aspect of it never fails to intrigue me.

How do you know when a piece is finished?
Occasionally, “finished” just means I’m now bored with working on a particular piece and want to stop. But most of the time, either I’ve got or have invented for myself, via blogging or other means, a specific deadline, so I try to find meaningful closure that satisfies me for the purposes of that work. It doesn’t mean that I’m thrilled with the end product every time or all of the time, just that it’ll do for now. I dislike my shortcomings, but I’m not entirely afraid of failure either, believing that’s where growth happens. What gives me the sense of closure varies widely from piece to piece: each needs to have what strikes me as a strong composition, the right degree of finish in the technique, a storyline that’s strong enough to make it interesting to me, and/or other such characteristics, but these can be quite vague or differ in their proportions.

Sometimes, looking at an artwork some time long after I’ve pressed “Publish” or had to use it for its commissioned purpose, I see a way to improve it—technically or in terms of my pleasure in its appearance, it doesn’t matter. If I can, I’ll preserve the original state in addition to the new iteration (yay for digital media). If not, I’ll decide whether I’m willing to risk losing the piece as it stands for one more try. Usually, yes. More often than not, if it’s not on any actual deadline, I just set it aside when I feel that it does what I wanted it to do and seems complete or enough so, and then I come back and look it over once in a while. I’ve got some stuff that I’ve changed even years after I first made it, and some that I alter within days or even hours. And plenty that just stays as-is because I’m still contented with it as it stands or I’ve lost interest in messing with it—for now. Commissions, sales, and gifts are a boon in the sense that once the work is out of my hands, it’s too late to fiddle with it and I get closure that way. If I’m extra lucky, I might get either a couple of bucks or a new fan as well.

Do you believe that art requires talent?
“Talent” is a wonderfully vague and elusive term. I do think that some few rare birds do have native talent or an inborn sense of how-to-do-things in any field, and that gives them an advantageous start to gaining expertise in that practice. But that—practice—is what I think ultimately makes or breaks the stars. It’s the inborn gift that may give them the urge, the fire, the commitment to practice constantly and over long periods and with ever-increasing skill, and the practice is what makes them better able to produce anything superb or wonderful. No matter what they’re doing, a natural inclination to do a particular thing and the seemingly genetic ability to do so with facility is only the starting point, and engagement in it over the long term is the real payoff. Notice that I don’t say that the payoff is an artwork or body of art…I’ve long since found that the artworks are just the documents, the artifacts, if you will, of the real wealth of being an artist, which is the process.

What is your definition of art?
I’m not convinced that it’s useful to define the word itself. Can’t imagine discovering a one-size-fits-all definition. If I’m really serious about the ‘journey being more important than the destination,’ then the definition has to arise, to some extent, from the purpose of the moment. Does the piece fulfill the definitions implied by the commission, customer- or artist-determined? Does it meet my art teacher’s requirements for the assignment? Does it give me the satisfaction of producing it that I demand? Each time, the answer may be different. I’m not hugely impressed with most definitions of the term, thinking that they are inherently too narrow, too rigid, or too vague; too polemical, or most often of all, too self-serving (“I call my work Art, so it’s Art”), so I tend not to think about it much unless for the purposes of starting a conversation that could go on eternally. Which I did do, occasionally, in the aforementioned critical-thinking courses, because it was just such a delightfully, perversely open question.

Should art be composed of meaning and technical skill in order to be considered “good”?
Again, I’d be situationally inclined in answering that. Does it meet the requirements of the moment? That’s probably a better barometer of value than trying to find a universal definition. I never hesitate to have my opinions about what I like, what I think is well-vs-poorly executed, or how I think one work compares to another, but I generally try not to share those opinions other than in polite ways and clearly as opinions, and that, only when asked directly. People take art criticism incredibly personally because how we define it internally is unique to us and our prejudices and experiences. In classes, critiques are necessary if we’re to have any common language in order to learn from each other’s experience and opinions. Having a conductor husband, I know that musicians in general, and singers in particular, have a tremendous amount of themselves invested in what they produce for pleasure, a living, or both. In the singer’s case, his or her body is literally the instrument of the performance. Visual artists’ imaginations are as much their tools and instruments as the paper and pencil, steel and welding torch, or paint and canvas are, so there’s a similar sense of being personally exposed in and to the critique that makes us very touchy about what others do and don’t like. Meanings can be equally hard to suss out, since what seems ridiculously obvious to one person may not be even detectable to another just as easily in visual works as in verbal or textual exchanges.

What inspires you?
Everything and nothing. I can happily and—dare I claim it—productively do what looks like nothing whatsoever for hours or days on end, letting ideas brew in my head and collecting the experiences and thoughts of the passing time to spice the stew; this process, yes, this research and preparation, informs the physical production of any work that follows. Good prep even speeds up production. Mise en place is valuable. But I can’t comfortably or usefully live entirely in my head. Gotta eat, drink, sleep, take bathroom breaks, read, learn, and get along with having a life, or I won’t think or do anything particularly new or inspiring. Favorite topics and storylines recur consistently, as you can see in this blog, but I hope that each time I take up the pen, whether proverbially or literally, it’s with a slightly new take somehow. Sometimes, it’s those very ordinary things I do (eat, drink, sleep, etc) that provide the extra nudge.

What do you believe have been your greatest achievements; whether it be art related, intellectual, academic, etc.?
Loving and being loved beat everything else. Period.

In terms of worldly accomplishment, I think I can safely say that all of the events, projects, and achievements that I’ve felt moved me forward most dramatically in my life—artistically, academically, in my work, in my personal relationships—were all challenges for which I was egregiously under-qualified, inexperienced, and unprepared. Generally speaking, a bit of fear, much as I tend to avoid it when I can, is highly motivational. I usually do far better than I expected, thankfully, but I’m still wonderfully risk-averse by habit. Good thing life shoves me into the path of growth from time to time.

When are you most satisfied with your art?
Generally, I’m happiest when I’m in the middle of making art. I’m delighted when I’ve finished something that I’m happy with as an end-product as well, and perhaps most of all when another person or two shows an interest in the work, because despite my having made the art just to please myself, it apparently gave someone else some interest and/or pleasure. Bonus. Double bonus, if and when, having made an interesting journey through making an artwork, I get this nice interaction as a gift, and in turn I am given the urge or inspiration to do the next artwork. Lovely.

How do you balance following your passions with responsibilities?
These days I make my practical living as Executive Support Staff for my husband and not a sou directly from my art. My household maintenance and chores and errands help keep him ready and functional for his demanding day job—his job and two-thirds, this year, as he’s covering for a retired colleague on top of his own normal job—and that’s what pays our bills. But it’s my art, as well as his, that gives me the greater richness in life. I do both of my “jobs” simultaneously, interweaving them in the fabric of the everyday: put a load of laundry in the washing machine and a batch of stuff in the slow cooker for dinner, then sit down to draw and write. Take intermittent breaks for doing whatever daily household management tasks are needed, for editing texts for the international choral journal I’ve served for a number of years, for going to a rehearsal as ‘extra ears’ for my spouse or another conductor, going out grocery shopping or having the car tuned up, and so forth. Back to art and writing.

The one thing I’m worst at keeping in balance in my life, because my work and pleasures are so intermixed, is taking a true break without feeling compelled to dash back almost immediately to producing one or the other. In the 4+ years I was blogging daily, it took such a huge majority of my waking time just to do the combined visual image production, post writing, and correspondence required by the blog that I’d often work from when I got up in the morning until bedtime (and past) without more breaks than absolutely necessary for survival, and eventually I was finding I didn’t unplug often enough to do justice to having a genuine face-to-face conversation with anyone but my spouse or a real vacation from the routine. Not entirely great for creativity or personal warmth. So I learned, first, to take time during certain periods to pre-produce posts and let them be truly plug-and-play during some weekends or holidays, and finally (this winter) to simply STOP. For. A. While. Great, refreshing stuff, that. Reminds me that there’s more to my life than any single element can give, and that I have to feed it as much as it feeds me.

What are some of your favorite styles of art?
There are fewer types, styles, and eras of art that I don’t like than those I do. But I find myself coming back fondly and often to some more than others, among them, Art Nouveau, sixties Photorealism or seventies Superrealism, Impressionism and post-Impressionism. Pre-Raphaelite stuff, even some of the really twee sentimental idealism therein. Viennese Secessionist art and design. Contemporary surrealism and magic realism. I’m a big fan of a few of the super-slick or popular artists that have periodically gotten critical disrespect for being “too” glib, facile, or pretty in their work (too popular, too commercial)—yeah, John Singer Sargent, I’m talking about you! Anders Zorn, Wayne Thiebaud, Alphonse Mucha, Norman Rockwell; yea verily, even some comic-book superhero (Frank Miller), tattoo, and pinup artists (Vargas & Vallejo). Ralph McQuarrie. Yummy stuff. But I also like grungier, more unsettling works and styles when I’m in the mood: Diane Arbus, Anselm Kiefer, Francisco Goya.

I’m not wild about LeRoy Neiman, Bob Ross, Margaret Keane, or Thomas Kinkade’s work. It’s not that there’s no value there—some genuinely top-notch technical skills underlie at least some of that work, and each of them has had real market value, something that I think is unfairly sniffed at by critics even while I am chagrined that most of the loot in any field goes to the lucky top increment. I take issue, rather, with what is a fairly universal problem: if the artist embraces what makes her/him a hot commodity to the degree of repeating the marketable sameness endlessly, the risk is for not only the art but the artist to become self-parodying.

My impression is that Mr. Kinkade was (no accident that my computer insists on ‘correcting’ his last name to Kinked, perhaps) virtually a parody of an actual human being, and despite Mr. Ross’s being a highly successful teacher and a very clever technician, he was definitely a Character, if not a caricature, in his filmic persona. But they were mortals, and made work that was intended to be art, and the fact that I couldn’t relate to either’s work even remotely doesn’t mean that it had no possible value. I found Jody Bergsma’s incredibly popular early figurine sculptures incredibly ugly and even a tad creepy, but I love that she used the financial success those brought to allow her the freedom later in her career to morph into a different sort of fantasy artist. Is her stuff now still ultra-appealing to those who love sweet and engaging, traditionally pretty if not cute imagery? Yes, it is. But I find it far more visibly sophisticated in terms of its execution and technique, and even generally attractive to me, than any of those earlier figurines of hers that made me want to fall into a diabetic coma. Personal tastes, eh.

And again, there’s so much, much more that I do find appealing than otherwise. Ancient Egyptian sculpture’s stylized elegance; the wonderful Art Deco echoes of it. For my less glamorized or cozy moods and tastes, tramp art and outsider art, R. Crumb and Goth craziness. The exquisite balancing acts of classic Japanese woodcuts, of Edith Head and Alexander MacQueen’s fabulous clothing and costume designs. Dan Piraro of Bizarro’s contemporary, humorous take on marvelously drawn social commentary and absurdity, a cheerier and more smart-alecky reflection of what Daumier and Burris Jenkins Jr. and other great journalistic and social-commentator artists have done long since. Ah, for the playful joys of Steampunk. Higher Ed: Edmond Dulac, Edward Gorey, Edgar Degas, and Eadweard Muybridge. Thomas Eakins. Leonardo da Vinci. Magnificent Moorish or Gothic architecture, Tang dynasty ceramics, Edo screens and embroideries, Yoruba masks, and Tlingit and Haida carvings.

The high and the low, the wild and the tame, the sacred and the secular, and especially, the stuff that speaks to me. Amazing stuff, art.

Is there a project that you consider highly significant to the advancement of your career?
I’ll let you know when I get a career! Only half joking. If I have a career, it’s hardly what one would consider mainstream, and decidedly NOT anything anyone would call that of a professional artist. I’m a kept woman and an expensive hobbyist, but a dedicated and pretty well trained and practiced maker of art, for all that.

I suppose in both senses of what I do, however, one work that was significant for me was the commission to design a sculpture in honor of the Queen and King of Norway. The queen was being given an honorary doctorate by the university where I taught [a school founded by Norwegian immigrants, it maintained strong ties to the Old Country, and the queen earned her degree recognition for dedicated work worldwide in furthering childhood education], and the university leaders decided it’d be a nifty thing to dedicate a new sculpture on campus in honor of the occasion and the relationship.

I was fortunate to win the commission. Didn’t hurt me that I was serving on the planning committee for the royal visit, so the other members of the committee already knew me and my work somewhat, but I dared to be a little pushy in suggesting that I be allowed to submit designs, as well as to imagine that I could do my first design-only project (I didn’t cut and assemble the corten steel piece itself, the concrete foundation, or the aluminum plaque and base decorations) for foreign royalty. Nutty, kind of, and definitely outside my normal comfort zone. Well worth it, in the end.

As it happens, I did get another sculpture commission from the university some years later for another project, mainly on the strength of that first one.

Once I knew which of the designs I’d submitted for the Royal Visit was favored, I wrote a poem to help fill in the blanks for myself of what I was trying to ‘say’ with the sculpture. Just for myself, really, but once the committee had approved the finished design and knew I’d done this text to inform it, they asked that I include it on the base plaque, and I did. The dedication of the completed sculpture, a graphic stand of oaks, marked a whole bunch of interesting turning points for me both personally and artistically. It was certainly the most expensive commission I ever did overall (though of course most of the money went to the various crafts-persons who manufactured and installed the thing). It was the most public and exposed of my works to that date: I was to stand with the royals and the rest of the dedicatory party during the ceremonies, and before the queen planted her own oak seedling near the sculpture, to go to the podium and read the text of my poem aloud to the gathered university dignitaries and guests. And I was invited to the luncheon honoring the queen and king.

That last was significant in a personal way that the other parts weren’t as much, the aforementioned having been more a challenge to my artistic courage. At the luncheon, I was seated at the table with the king, the queen was at the head table with the university president’s party, and my parents sat a couple of tables away from me. Dad was, at the time, both the Lutheran bishop of the synod that owns and oversees the university and still chairman of its Board of Regents. Mom and Dad had both done undergraduate studies there, as did my great-aunt, some aunts and uncles and cousins and also my three sisters and I. So it was a lovely, warm affirmation of our longtime family connections with the university to attend this party. My longtime friend [I mentioned her to you earlier!] had even flown up from Colorado and was seated with my parents. On the other side of them sat the head of the uni’s choral program, who had conducted the choir during the doctoral hooding ceremony. He’d previously met my parents, since Dad was such a longtime Board member, among other reasons. He met my dear friend at the table.

A couple of months later, he told me that occasion (including, I gather, my sculpture design that he liked and the recitation of my poem) was one of the reasons he’d really started to notice me and decided to ask me out on our first date. Now, twenty married years ago.

Talk about a lot of payoff from one project.

How do you deal with frustration that stems from stubborn artwork?
Change is the best medicine, for me. Changing anything, from simply altering my sitting or standing position, the sharpness of my pencil, or the light in the room to the actual piece I’m making at the moment can help. Nothing is an absolute cure, but as the saying goes, ‘doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of Insanity.’ What to do? Take a break. Walk out of the room and then walk right back in and look at the artwork and see if something new jumps out at you, for good or ill. Hang it upside down (or stand on your head and look at it), or look at it in a mirror. It’s amazing how one little degree of new detachment can sometimes give you a usefully different perspective on something that you were just plain too close to see. If the thing still refuses to cooperate, it might be time to do something absolutely separate, if not opposite, for a bit. Come back refreshed.

When I started my master’s degree, I’d been doing pretty exclusively graphite/black and white still life sorts of drawings for a good while, and was still kind of obsessed with them. Still am, for all that. But I had a horribly unproductive, frustrating first quarter of school and ended it with three so-so drawings to show for the whole of my drawing portfolio. Pitiful. Thankfully, when my supervising teacher suggested I change something or other to shake loose from the constraints that were making me such a stiff, I got this wonderful pang of urgency about it and decided to change everything I could think of, rather than just one little something, just to scare myself. From black and white, switch to full color. Small/moderate works? Nothing under the size of the largest one I’d just done, and everything as big as I could manage.

I went all the way up to and including about 9×30 feet. Murals! Wahoo! Slow and fussy approaches turned into How fast can I do this? If I’m gonna screw up or make mistakes, might as well do ‘em quickly and get right on to the next thing. Can I make multiple works at the same time, production-line style?? Can I draw with both hands simultaneously? Yep, turns out I could do all sorts of things I’d not dared or bothered to try before. Subject matter? The one thing I’d persistently avoided, figurative works, especially heads and faces…that turned into the whole topic for my thesis exhibition. It all would’ve been a horrendously expensive experiment, but in addition to spending most of my materials budget on bargain end-rolls from the local paper mill and rolls of photographers’ backdrop paper (the only paper big enough for my largest murals, and not exactly cheap), I got serious about scrounging and begging supplies everywhere I could, and you’d be amazed at what you can dig up for making art if you’re dedicated.

The second-quarter critique that year cheered me up immensely. I went straight from that disastrous, embarrassingly bleak first critique, with an oeuvre that had barely covered my teacher’s desk top, to the second session, where I filled the entire small gallery, floor to ceiling, with stuff she could barely recognize as mine—in a good way, mind you. I couldn’t’ve been happier. Was all of that work great? Hardly. But more of it was pretty good, even very good, than the percentages I’d been hitting in a mighty long time. All thanks to change. An extreme approach to it, perhaps, but sometimes that’s what’s required to wake up a little wussy like me.

That about sums up my questions, said Alyssa.

Me, I say: what a lot of good food for thought. Kept me from sleeping very much last night, in fact, because my mind was buzzing with answers to her inquiries, and further questions of all sorts that were sparked by them. I lay awake so long mulling it all over that I thought I might never get to sleep at all if I didn’t distract myself. What to do?

Make up new artworks and devise new art project ideas in my head, of course.

Digital illo from a photo: Art-Colored Glasses, v. 2016.1

Art-Colored Glasses, v. 2016.1