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Posts Tagged ‘Art’

Peace No Parts (2)

Proof that I did not make this place up.

Some time back we went to lunch in Edenton, NC with my Uncle Jimmy. He suggested that we eat at a place called the Nothing Fancy Café. It was an excellent choice, because not only was the food good, but it was also right next door to the Shalom International Church. The awning of its storefront location read: “The Place of Peace, Contentment, Fulfillment, and No Parts Missing.” So much peace, contentment, and fulfillment are available there that it has run over into the Nothing Fancy Café. We had a wonderful time there, and left both content and fulfilled—in fact, stuffed. Uncle Jimmy entertained us with stories about being stationed in Japan during the Korean War. He was 24 years old and on the strength of his college education received a top-secret clearance. He then spent most of his time in Japan locked in a cage with a revolver, acting as a librarian in charge of receiving and giving out classified documents.

But I am here to talk not about war, but peace—and the inspiring nature of stillness.

There was once a book about artist Joan Miró called Miró: I Work Like a Gardener, which is no longer in print but may be available in your local library (it’s not in mine). I only know about this book through the amazing website Brainpickings. Blogger Maria Popova chose some passages from the book to highlight. This is one quote from Miró:

[Stillness] strikes me. This bottle, this glass, a big stone on a deserted beach — these are motionless things, but they set loose great movements in my mind… People who go bathing on a beach and who move about, touch me much less than the [stillness] of a pebble.

I know what he means. Last spring we arrived in Pine Knoll Shores, NC in late afternoon, happy to have a long weekend ahead of us. We went straight out to the beach for a walk, and right away I found some pretty, smooth beach pebbles. At first I picked up a few, thrilled to find them glistening in the sun on the wet sand. Pretty soon I realized that pebbles were scattered along the high-tide mark for nearly the entire length of the beach, though some areas were more fruitful than others. Finding them less rare made them no less valuable to me, and Ernesto helped me collect them for three days. It was pure joy. Most were white or a sort of milky translucent material, probably quartz. Others were shades of tranquil gray. They made me intensely happy.

At one point, as I walked along with my head down, I nearly collided with a woman coming from the opposite direction, with her head down, too.

“I’m collecting pebbles,” I said, showing her a few in my palm. I was anxious that we might be in competition, fearful she would think I was taking more than my share.

She opened her hand and showed me a scattering of tiny angel-wing shells. “I collected pebbles yesterday,” she said, “so now I’m collecting angel-wings.” What a relief.

I now have two full jars of pebbles in the house. They are as peaceful to contemplate as a still pool of water, but they are also, curiously, alive. They still make me happy. Miró considered objects to be alive, in the way that they “set loose great movements” in his mind. All that liveliness, translated into his art, required careful husbandry:

I consider my studio as a kitchen garden. Here, there are artichokes. There, potatoes. Leaves must be cut so that the fruit can grow. At the right moment, I must prune.

I work like a gardener… Things come slowly… Things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. I must graft. I must water… Ripening goes on in my mind.

Yes. When I’m trying to write, a great deal of ripening is necessary in my mind, too. In fact, sometimes I require entire seasons of ripening and pruning and grafting and watering and mulching and uprooting before anything at all happens—punctuated by long spells of stillness (okay, staring into space). This process does not usually fill me with peace, but with an anxious casting about—where are the pebbles on the beach? Why are my plants not growing? When will the right word, a better simile, a more interesting plot come to fruition? Is that alarming woman snatching up my pebbles and putting them into her pocket? Are all the most wonderful ideas locked inside a cage and guarded by a young soldier with a revolver?

On the other hand, if I could walk into a storefront and purchase a measure of peace, contentment, and fulfillment to replace the angst, it probably wouldn’t be very helpful. Maybe there have to be a few parts missing, a little bit of something lacking, to force myself to think differently, weave a connection, bridge the divide, and write something fresh.

 

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Yves Klein: October 1960

Yves Klein: October 1960

That’s the artist Yves Klein jumping off a building in the photograph above. Taken on October 19, 1960, the photograph is titled The Leap into the Void.  The first time Klein leapt, he broke an ankle. It’s my understanding that he considered that first jump—taken months before the October leap—the one that really counted. He jumped again to document the performance, and the second time there were people below holding a tarpaulin in which to catch him. He later created (or his photographers created) a photo montage that made him appear to fly.

I once tried to learn how to fake-levitate. I studied the Balducci method, which involves balancing on the toes of one foot, while the other foot, the one closest to your small, carefully positioned audience, is raised two or so inches off the floor. What the audience sees is a person who is no longer standing on the ground, and you must come down quickly so that they don’t have a chance to look too closely. I had understood that levitation was an illusion, but I was still disappointed, because I was the audience I wanted to convince. I couldn’t quite master the technique, anyway—I don’t have solid control over my toes.

I believe that a little low-level flying or floating would make up for a lot, and Yves Klein did, too. He was obsessed with levitation and floating. In fact, Rebecca Solnit writes about this in her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She says that Klein was obsessed with “flight, levitation, and immateriality as well as the sky and the color blue….”

Solnit adds, “[H]e seems never to have stopped being a child in some ways, spoiled, petulant, impatient with restrictions, but also festive, generous, playful, and imaginative.” I think it’s nice of her to include some of the positive characteristics of being a brat.

On his obsession with the color blue, Solnit writes: “In 1957, Yves Klein painted a globe his deep electric blue, and with this gesture it became a world without divisions between countries, between land and water, as though the earth itself had become sky….”

My favorite books feature characters who spend a lot of time alone (or nearly so) with the sea and sky: The Old Man and the Sea, The Life of Pi, Diary of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Ahab’s Wife. Again, it’s about floating.

Ernesto and I spent a lot of time floating in the Gulf of Mexico during our August vacation, even after his mother sent us a message warning of the possible presence of a deadly bacteria in the Gulf. The water was equal parts blue and gray, sometimes rough. We tried very hard to recreate the sound of the waves, but we always ended up sounding like windstorms or shushing librarians or static.

We were working on our surf-noises when the most amazing thing happened. At the same time, we both spotted a reddish, gold-tipped cylinder bobbing in the waves, heading toward us. “What’s that?” Ernesto asked, and I knew at once what it was, because I had been waiting for it my whole life. “It’s a cork in a bottle!” I said, and I raised my arms and danced toward it through the water as fast as I could, hoping that the message inside the bottle would still be legible.

It was not a cork in a bottle. It wasn’t even a cork without a bottle. It was an empty shotgun shell.

Klein died two years after The Leap into the Void, at the age of 34. “Though he was tragically young,” Solnit writes, “His life looks like a meteor, a shooting star, a complete trajectory across the sky, a finished work of art.”

I will never be compared to a streak of light across the sky; I have always been more moon than star. The proof is in my own Leap into the Void­-style photograph from the very same month and year as Klein’s: October 1960. Face, belly, matching knees: it’s as if milk-white moons aligned to create a child.

Daddy and me, October 1960.

Daddy and me:  October 1960.

Still, I believe that even at age one I was contemplating my own possible leap into the void. Certainly I was already floating—rather too close to the power lines, but still. And like the bottle I have always wanted to find in a deep blue sea, I carried a message that I am still trying to figure out how to deliver. Maybe all I need to do is gather my courage, bunch up my shirt, and fly.

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Trees at dusk

A story from Chuang Tzu.

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits. The prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”

Khing replied: “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set my heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain or success.
After five days, I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days I had forgotten my body with all its limbs.

“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.

“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
And begin.

“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.

“What happened?
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits.”

When educator Parker Palmer shares this story in his book A Hidden WholenessThe Journey Toward an Undivided Life, he points out the “sheer chutzpah of the woodcarver’s words to the Prince,” adding:

It is as if your boss asked how you managed to do so well with the assignment she gave you, and you replied, ‘Well, frankly, I had to forget that you and this organization even exist!”

Which is, of course, true. When we are attuned to the expectation of the boss or the corporate culture rather than to the soul’s imperatives, we cannot cocreate anything of truth and beauty.

Palmer goes even further and says that, when Khing declares that there would be no bell stand without the particular tree that he had found, he is pointing out that the idea that we can simply take raw materials and force them into something of value is false.

Like every good gardener, potter, teacher, and parent, [Khing] understands that the ‘other’ with which we work is never mere raw material to be formed into any shape we choose. Every ‘other’ we work with has its own nature, its own limits and potentials, with which we must learn to cocreate if we hope to get real results. Good work is relational, and its outcomes depend on what we are able to evoke from each other.

We should probably begin to reconsider much of the work that is considered perfectly normal in today’s world. Too much of our work relies on the twisting of wood, water, minerals, and even human beings into unnatural shapes for questionable ends.

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Easter eggs

Photo: While unable to write anything, I did manage to create a nest from yarn (drape glue-soaked yarn over inflated balloon; pop balloon when dry) and decorate a few Easter eggs. I did the two-toed thumbprint biddy, my sister did the caterpillar. This counts as an appropriate illustration because Fabergé made both eggs and icons. So ha.

We can compare an icon to a carefully constructed poem. Indeed this is why we call it icon “writing” instead of “painting.” Every “word” or element fits very concisely and precisely to contribute to the overall meaning and integrity of the whole. – Marek Czarnecki

Photo: While unable to write anything, I did manage to create a nest from yarn (drape glue-soaked yarn over an inflated balloon and let dry, then pop the balloon) and decorate a few Easter eggs. This counts as an appropriate illustration because Fabergé made both eggs and icons. So ha.

One of the tricks of icons: paint it 50 times. Also: do not be realistic. Also: use gold that will shine out of shadows, and eyes that will follow you. Icons aren’t really windows. Because they aren’t representational, they are actually the presence of Heaven. It’s Catholic (Western Rome) tradition that features windows that open, beyond which is Heaven. In the Orthodox tradition, saints are sanctified by the belief of believers only, with no canonization process needed other than the devotion of repetitive layers of paint, which is a lot of devotion to be sure! Like making a pie. – Harold Rhenisch

I wanted so much to write an icon. It would be nice to find all of the right words, arrange them concisely and precisely, and wind up with a story that is haunting in its intensity and as tasty as pie. But I can’t seem to do that. I’ve been sitting here at the computer for days and days, completely unable to write anything in spite of having been so inspired by my new pie basket with its mandala lid.

I blame the whole idea of icons, which are beautiful but scary. Trying to make my ordinary writing fit into my mental image of what an icon should be brought me to a complete standstill. Then today I stumbled across an old piece I wrote about writing, in which I preached blithely that one must treat writing as an adventure, to be approached with joy! In fact, here’s exactly what I said, if you think you can stand it:

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public. – Winston Churchill

A writing project is an adventure, and one of the first and most important tricks to success is to approach it as one. Gear yourself up for it by anticipating how well it is going to go and how much fun it will be. Imagine launching a kayak into a river or floating in an inner tube down a mountain stream. The words, like the water, will flow easily and take you exactly where you want to go. Don’t forget to wear a helmet.

The second trick is to maintain perspective. Remind yourself that you are good at what you do. You are intelligent, and capable, and interesting. Once you leap into your writing project, all of those characteristics—and thousands more that are unique to you—will be at your disposal to get you moving.

The third trick is to focus your attention. Your project will not be as successful if you are not giving it your full attention. This does not mean straining and forcing your mind to labor over the task; it means thinking about your topic and your purpose and then applying the first two tricks by reminding yourself: This is an adventure I am well-equipped to enjoy. If after gearing up mentally you find that you still face a blank screen or page with an equally blank mind, try this: Recall a time when you were feeling particularly creative. It can be from as far back as kindergarten, when you were happily stringing colorful beads on a piece of yarn. Writing is simply a more complex type of bead-stringing, after all. Banish your fears and concerns about it, and try to regain that spirit of calm absorption you feel while doing something relaxing and enjoyable. Isn’t it wonderful that you can bring back that peaceful feeling right now? And isn’t it much nicer to look at the blank page while feeling that way than it was to slump down and bang your forehead on the desk?

Why yes, it certainly is. But lately my writing projects have skipped the toy and amusement stages and gone straight to tyranny.

bunny jars

Another thing I did while I wasn’t writing was I put some Lindt chocolate bunnies inside little jars with Wilton candy grass (left) and paper grass (right) as nesting materials. Yeah, I don’t know why I did this, either, except that I saw it in Martha Stewart’s magazine and knew it was something that even I could manage successfully.

I did find a nice set of Rules for an Icon Painter online that I thought might be helpful, like a sort of recipe to make a pie. I borrowed the first three rules and adapted them for my own use in writing:

  1. Before starting work, pray in silence & pardon your enemies.
  2. Work with care on every detail of your ikon, as if you were working in front of the Lord Himself.
  3. During work, pray in order to strengthen yourself physically and spiritually; avoid above all useless words and keep silence.

Do you ever read the reviews of Internet recipes? There is always at least one that says, “Really enjoyed this recipe, which I followed to the letter except that I didn’t have ground beef so I used ham, and then I added a can of black beans to the sauce and substituted crushed pretzels for the sour cream because my family is lactose intolerant.” That’s basically how I treated the Rules for an Icon Painter, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I never did end up with a digestible pie.

But I have several Easter treats to show for my trouble, and all my enemies have been pardoned.

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Icon

It’s not just an art; it’s a practice. Icon painters must stay close to their own inner presence; there are specific prayers used to accompany the craft. It requires an attention to breathing, quietness, stillness; a disciplined meditation where the attention converges on an effort to bring the Being of the subject into the present moment. The icon is meant to open a window between the viewer and the sacred, drawing them into an intimate and personal relationship not with the object, but with veneration itself.

Lee van Laer, “A Consonance of Feeling: Art by Chantal Heinegg–Painting Icons in a Modern World.”

This quote and the icon pictured above are from an article in the Spring 2013 issue of Parabola, a quarterly journal published by the Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition. Parabola describes itself like this:

A parabola is one of the most dynamic forms in nature. It is the curve of a bowl, the path of a ball soaring upward and down to earth again. The founder of this magazine decided it was a good name for a journal devoted to the search for meaning, which often goes outward, then back home again along a different path.

I plan to approach my next writing project with the attention, stillness, and disciplined meditation necessary to create something iconic. My material will be local things:  the Saxapahaw General Store, a tin-topped pie basket. and a peculiar pillowcase. For I spent today going outward, and I came back home along a different path.  I don’t know that I gained meaning on this journey, but I certainly enjoyed it. And I did gain a really nice pie basket.

(Parabola itself is a sort of icon–a window to the sacred. If you can’t find copies in your local bookstore, try the library.)

IMG_1402

Mandala - or possibly a pie - on tin top of pie basket.

Mandala – or possibly a pie – on tin top of pie basket.

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The St. Louis Art Museum sits atop Art Hill in Forest Park. A fine statue of King Louis IX on horseback overlooks a long sweep of grass—excellent sledding turf after a good snow. It’s a welcoming place, filled with beautiful things and charming people.

A few years back I visited the museum before Christmas to buy something in the gift shop. I don’t remember what I went there for, because I got distracted when I discovered a basket filled with little three-legged clay pigs, called chanchitos.  Made in Chile, they are considered good luck. They were darling, and I decided to buy one for my brother-in-law, Mike.  He already has everything he really needs, but all of us can use a bit of extra luck.

As I paid for it at the counter, a second clerk said, “Does this chanchito have a butt?” She was probably in her 50s, with a chin-length blonde bob. She looked like the sort of museum lady who would know a great deal about setting a proper table and baking delicious tea cakes.

I looked blank.  “He has a tail,” I said uncertainly. 

“Some of them have actual butts,” she said. “Not all of them. I think they’re really cute.”

While I finished paying she went over to the chanchito basket and started rummaging through it, presumably to find one with a butt.  I joined her, with my butt-less chanchito in its little bag in my hand. 

She said, “Someone put the price stickers over the butts, so I’m having to peel them back to check.”  I started helping. 

“What are we looking for, exactly?” I asked.

“It’s just a little hole, like one of the eyes. I think it’s so cute.”

None of the other chanchitos had a butt, as it turned out, and we decided that increased demand for lucky chanchitos had probably led to the need for greater efficiency in their manufacture—thus the butts had been discontinued. 

But all of that happened later. When I first arrived at the museum, I thought I remembered that the large gift shop was on the 2nd floor, so I entered through the back door, walked across the lobby, and took the stairs on the north side of the building. They are the type of stairs that go up seven or eight steps to a landing, then the stairs turn and go up another seven or eight steps to a second landing, turn again, and finish the trip with a last set of steps to the top.  At the second landing I noticed a plaque on the wall.  There was no piece of art nearby—not even a nail on which a piece of art might have once hung—but I stopped and read it anyway. 

You can make yourself enter somewhere frightening if you believe you’ll profit from it. The natural response is to flee but people don’t act like that anymore.

I said, “Huh.”  Then I moved on to the 2nd floor.  At the top of the stairs I stopped, turned around, and went back down to the landing. I copied the words carefully on the back of my grocery list (diced tomatoes – 2 cans, cabbage, carrots, coffee), then I went on to the 2nd floor, realized I was in the wrong place, and came out at the stairs on the south side of the building. A directory near the elevator didn’t appear to list the gift shop, but I remembered that it was near the café, which was on the lower level. I started down the south stairs, and this time I was prepared when I saw an artless plaque on the wall.  I stopped and pulled out my grocery list.  This one read:

Exercise breaks at strategic points during the day enhance productivity and provide simultaneous sensations of relief and rejuvenation.

“Isn’t that great?” A woman coming up the stairs stopped and looked at the plaque with me. She wore a museum name badge. She said, “I sometimes stop as I’m coming up and down these stairs and read that out loud.”

A year or two later, I received my own chanchito from my nephew, Ryan.  Ryan understands how much I like pigs. The chanchito sits on my desk and regards me with his deep, gimlet eyes and panting mouth. His front legs are spread apart in a pose that implies he’s only pausing temporarily and will soon make a sudden, pig-like dart to resume his energetic, rejuvenating exercise.

He is, alas, butt-less.

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If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in May time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone.

– T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

Erin Rivers photographs places. She didn’t always. She used to be an artist in paint and ceramic, studying at Webster University and the Art Institute of Chicago. But in 2005 she inherited her father’s Hasselblad camera—and that camera took her in a new direction, on a route she likely would not have taken otherwise.

After learning to use the Hasselblad—which requires a far different set of actions and a vastly different timeframe than the simple point-and-shoot digital cameras and cell phones that we all use—Erin set out to retrace her father’s steps and visit some of the small towns and byways that he had once photographed. Along the way she discovered her own rough roads and special places.

Eagle Cliff/Miles Cemetery – Monroe County, Illinois

The cemetery has quite a history. It has been heavily vandalized over the years, including broken and knocked over headstones, theft and general destruction of property.… At the top of the cliff I spotted the mausoleum that I was looking for. For the first time that day I took the Jeep off-roading and double backed to what I thought was a cleverly hidden path that led to the top of the cliff. Then up a very steep, winding road, that at times, narrowed down to just one lane. After much more back-tracking and off-roading incidents, I looked off to the side of the road and noticed a large wood plank propped up. In reflective letters, the words “Eagle Cliff/Miles Cemetery” were clearly spelled out. I don’t know why I was still unsure. Maybe the crude “No Trespassing from Dusk till Dawn,” sign. I decided to just get on with it, and after passing the “No Trespassing” sign, found another sign (handwritten) that said “Visitor Parking.”

Burfordville • Bollinger Mill  Baptists

I made my way to the Burfordville Covered Bridge, but I was on the opposite side of Bollinger Mill. Crossing the bridge is an interesting experience; it is dark of course and you can smell the passage of time and many other unidentifiable things. Light passes through the splits and holes in the wood and creates an interesting pattern along the sides and the floor. Known as a Howe Truss, the Burfordville Bridge is the oldest remaining covered bride in the state of Missouri.

The architecture of the mill itself caught my eye, the stone base combined with the brickwork and several windows located on the upper floors. I was able to peek through the windows and see a little bit of the machinery that is on display, but nothing that I could really identify.

After a few more photos of the mill, an old bus and a caravan of cars squealed into the parking lot, honking their horns. I learned later that this was a Baptist church group getting ready for the day’s Easter egg hunt. I never would have guessed this based on their entrance.

For the Mind, Body & Spirit

Toward the end of “Little Gidding,” Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Erin’s photographs help us get to know some of the small towns and hidden places scattered through Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri—Fairmount, Burfordville, Atlanta, Greentown.  Nearly deserted, they often look like temporary backdrops that could be dismantled in a few hours and trucked away.

But you never know what may be about to happen, just outside the frame. There could very well be a passel of Baptists about to tear it up at an Easter egg hunt.

I think that the best part of picking up processed film and finding out what you have created is the moment just before you open the envelope.

____________________________________

Quotations were pulled from Erin’s travel log, and are reprinted here with her kind permission. To view more of her wonderful photographs, visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/erinrivers.

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