How an Artist Marks Time

“Your job is to learn to work on your work.” – David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art & Fear 

Sometime in the last year — I can’t say exactly when — I realized that I had forgotten how to make art. I kept making it, regardless (which is never a good idea, by the way), but I felt something missing: namely, a cognizance of what I was actually making, how I was making it, and perhaps mostly importantly: why.

And so, exactly four months ago today, I set out to reflect on those very questions in the only place that seemed suitable for such a mammoth introspective task: a run-down farm and former meditation retreat center in rural Wisconsin.

**

July 17, 2015: I awake on this morning to the beginning of a 3-day stay at Swarm Artist Residency. Artists gather – so the idea goes — free from the distractions of life in the big city, with finally enough time and space to freely create all the things they have intended to create. Nothing stands in their way. Except for time.

Coming from the daily routine of train tracker apps and 30-minute lunch meetings, the idea of having even a full day, let alone three, to create anything quickly becomes overwhelming. It’s a case of too much possibility. The boundary of time feels insurmountable.

Groggy and sipping my morning coffee I watched the other artists get right to work: doodling on notepads, stringing ukuleles, flipping through the pages of worn books. With each passing hour, I felt like I was failing more and more thoroughly in my mandate to create freely. All I’ve made this morning is scrambled eggs!, I would think to myself. I must be a terrible artist.

**

I decided to begin the day with my morning yoga sequence. Although it was nearly noon, I had yet to settle into any particular activity and so this seemed as good a place to start as any. Besides, maybe the familiarity of the routine would jolt my body back into its usual productivity and creative vigor.

I searched for a quiet spot in the field — not too visible as to look like I was showing off, but close enough that I still felt a part of the soft buzzing of artists-at-work. As I pushed back into my first, achey downward-facing dog, I thought about the woman I had met the previous afternoon, just before I left the city. I remembered our brief conversation, and wondered — for a silly moment — if she knew that I was going to be entering this alternative artist-time-zone the next day.

“Excuse me, is it Thursday?” I remembered her asking.

She was an older woman, with a slight Slavic accent. Her husband had looked up at us as he climbed his way out of the passenger side of the car. She was standing about a foot from my face, poised with a quarter in her hand.

I thought for a moment. “Yes,” I told her, “today is Thursday.”

“There’s no reason to keep track anymore,” she replied, “when you’re retired. Unless you have a doctor’s appointment or something.” She sighed, “well. We all mark time in different ways I guess.”

I nodded quietly, wishing her a pleasant afternoon, and continued down the street, her words turning over in my head.

**

My yoga mat tucked away, I strode briskly out onto the porch of the farmhouse and plopped myself down in a rickety plastic beach chair. My first day at Swarm was moving far too slowly. It was only about 2 o’clock, just a few hours after our “working lunch” check-in meeting, and I felt like I was wasting the vast openness of the afternoon.

I felt restless. My skin itched. My arms were twitchy. My entire body felt like a moth trapped in a jar. Maybe I’m too addicted to the city, I thought. Maybe I’m just not cut out for this whole relax-into-your-art thing.

These thoughts ran on and on, as I gazed out over the open field. Pure, midday sunlight gave the barn a mystical glow. My companions meandered leisurely about, out of sync with my own hurried pace, pausing to leisurely eat apples with peanut butter, or lie out on the grass, or give a quick pat to a passing dog. They seemed so undisturbed by the abundance of it all.

I had an idea. I snatched my camera from the table next to my bed, and set out to explore. After all, if I couldn’t create something myself, I could at least investigate how others were using their newfound creative space, right? And – spoiler alert – I ended up creating something. Funny how that happens.

**

I returned to the barn that evening just in time to feel the quietude of nightfall. The coolness. This is my time, I thought. The day had calmed, and my hyperactive mind had, too. I sat down in an old wooden chair, feeling like I just stepped off a rollercoaster. I flipped open my laptop and began to pull up the images from my afternoon excursion. I scanned through them one-by-one, tracking each step of my restless exploration. I thought about the awkward unfolding of my first day in this unusual community.

Swarm, I began to realize, is a place of tremendous contradiction: of unmitigated extremes of experience. One moment I would be listening to the soft hum of insects in the middle of a dense forest and the next finding myself surrounded by the endless clamor of bodies, plates, and slamming doors as fifteen people try to all simultaneously assemble tacos. It is a place of tremendous solitude and incredible overstimulation, of endless opportunity and of ungraspable time.

At Swarm a day can feel like a week, but each passing hour lasts only a second. By the end of my three days it felt like I had been here for three full weeks – just like the brief summer sessions at my old sleep-away camp. The vibe was right for it, too: campfires, hidden lakes, and even original songs replete with the charmingly familiar “friends-forever-even-though-we-just-met” refrain.

And just like when I left my summer camp each year, I departed Swarm with the distinct impression that I was forgetting to do something important. Like I hadn’t yet said goodbye in the right way, or spent enough time walking in the wilderness, or really dug into a juicy creative project. But art – like summer camp – is about making choices. You only have so many resources: so much money, so much energy, so much time. There really isn’t a “right” amount of any of it. And as I learned from my creative companions, we all mark time in different ways.

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Making peace with silence

“We win! We win!” The shouts of children playing in the courtyard below pierce through my windows. Laughingly they run and holler, their short, shrill voices rising above the soft hum of the air conditioner — an air conditioner which I’ve positioned as much to cool my living room as to mitigate the racket of moments like this. In fact, the whirr of the dishwasher, the buzz of the refrigerator: the whole soft chorus of my appliances seems to act as a buffer against the outside world, a cocoon of white noise.

When you live in a big city — even a city with quiet, peaceful pockets like Chicago — silence can be hard to pin down. Even the sleepiest of street corners suffers the occasional wail of an ambulance or rumble of a train-car. These sounds I don’t actually mind: they are the sounds of the world’s gears turning. They rise up out of the quietude, as if to say, “Hey, remember that the Earth is still spinning?” before fading back into the distance.

Satoshi Sakurai, flickr.com

Satoshi Sakurai, flickr.com

These sounds dance with silence. They take their solos, and then offer silence a turn in the spotlight. Other sounds are not so polite: the rowdy friends voicing faux-tearful goodbyes outside the bar; the frustrated honking of cars stalled behind a backup at a green light; the truck idling in the alley, sloppily unloading packages with a thump on the hard concrete. These sounds linger. They overstay their welcome. These sounds are like your aunt Polly, who just doesn’t seem to notice your all-too-frequently yawning and glances toward the door.

This was how I felt that day, as the cacophony of children in the courtyard brazenly and unknowingly marched its way into my living room, edging up my already-remarkable disquietude. On days like that, the inevitable howling is enough to make me wish I lived some fancy apartment with giant walls stuffed full of insulation, thoughtfully engineered to keep the inside in and the outside out. Safely tucked away from the mess of the city, I would look down on the bustle of hushed cars below.

It’s certainly an appealing thought. 

But when I honestly ask myself, that’s not really what I want. A place like that is too detached from its environment, floating like a fairy-tale castle in the clouds. There is something unsettling about being surrounded by noise and yet unable to hear it. The silence doesn’t quite feel real. You open the door to step out into the world and the full force of the city hits you right in the face.

I believe a good home should be permeable. It should blend into its environment, with authentic sounds of the city making the humblest of cameos in the living room. I like to be able to passionately throw open a window and welcome in the bustle of life below, to step out the front door and inhale the soft buzz of a bicycle whizzing past.

Accidental Scholar - Karen Hollingsworth (b.1955)

Accidental Scholar – Karen Hollingsworth (b.1955)

Places like this do exist; I’ve visited them. But they hide in sneaky pockets of the city. They blossom in odd, micro-climates of sound: the spots where you can turn a single corner, or go up a flight of stairs, and suddenly feel as if you’ve left Chicago entirely, perhaps wandered into a sleepy, enchanted forest. And then, with a few more paces, you’re back in the middle of a boisterous six-way intersection.

In this searching, I’ve learned that silence is not something you can actively seek out; it’s too elusive, like trying to grab at water coming out of the faucet. You don’t capture silence. It comes to you when it feels like it, in moments you don’t expect: an insomnial trip to the bathroom, stopping for a moment to marvel at the stillness of the trees outside the living room window; a middle-school classroom at 8:50am, the moment before 30-some 7th and 8th graders come galloping in like a herd of socially-awkward elephants. These moments come to you like gifts from a secret admirer you didn’t know you had.

Billy Collins captures the intangibility of silence in his so-named poem:

Silence

There is the sudden silence of the crowd
above a player not moving on the field,
and the silence of the orchid.
The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the floor,
the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.
The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.
The silence when I hold you to my chest,
the silence of the window above us,
and the silence when you rise and turn away.
And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
a silence that had piled up all night
like snow falling in the darkness of the house—
the silence before I wrote a word
and the poorer silence now.

For me, Collins’ poem elevates silence from an aural phenomenon to an entire mode of being. That is how I feel silence. It is awareness, acuteness, absolute tuned-in-ness to the Earth. It’s the reason I love seeing my friends at parties almost as much as I love coming home to my own bed; the reason I’ll sit in my car, or on the train, lingering a bit longer than I have to — just to soak up a few more minutes of aloneness before diving headfirst into the world.

A recent Brainpickings article called “How to Be Alone” invokes British author Sara Maitland on the value of silence:

I got fascinated by silence; by what happens to the human spirit, to identity and personality when the talking stops, when you press the off button, when you venture out into that enormous emptiness. I was interested in silence as a lost cultural phenomenon, as a thing of beauty and as a space that had been explored and used over and over again by different individuals, for different reasons and with wildly differing results. I began to use my own life as a sort of laboratory to test some ideas and to find out what it felt like. Almost to my surprise, I found I loved silence. It suited me. I got greedy for more. 

Of course. This is something I have slowly come to understand, and to hold dear. Meditation, yoga, “purposeful pauses” — silence is not just about the lack of sound, or the ability to “concentrate;” it’s a chance to re-boot our brains, to start again. Somebody told me once that the phrase “sleep on it” is like a human equivalent of the I.T. dictum “have you tried turning it off and on again?” Humans have a battery life, just like our machines do. We need “on” and we need “off.”

Mark Robinson, flickr.com

Mark Robinson, flickr.com

As I finished getting dressed that afternoon and stepped out the door of my apartment, I happened past the same children whose shouts had addled my slightly woozy Sunday-morning brain, as I’d tried (unsuccessfully) to recharge with a catnap on my couch. And yet, I couldn’t help but smile as I watched a boy of about 8 years run the entire length of the courtyard and pose like a professional football player, ready to receive an extremely difficult and important play. He was still squealing, jumping about in the same familiar racket, but something about it was different. Or rather, something about me was different. I felt my preoccupation with silence begin to dissolve, as I stood in awe of the full life-ness of the moment.

Because connection, in that moment, came at the cost of relinquishing silence. The alternative to living with uncontrollable, districting sounds is — well, not really living. It’s detaching from others, and from things that, with frustration, also bring joy.  So while Thoreau writes that he has “never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” there’s that catchy little E.M. Forster bit that urges us to “only connect.”

I like reading what famous poets and novelists have written on this subject because it feels so essentially linked to how we forge connection or isolation through our art. So I did a bit more digging and found an excerpt from a piece by Wendell Berry. In his view, these two yearnings are not in conflict; in fact they depend on one another. He writes:

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.

And so it occurs to me that silence itself may be the wrong target. That the more important thing is the way we allow silence to play between moments of joy and despair, the way we let it bring us back to our selves, to our insecurities, and to a deeper understanding of our experiences. Because making peace with silence means accepting it as-is, like a lover who you know will never be, and never expect you to be, free of flaws and imperfections. It means understanding that quiet reflection moves us through life and toward the universe — not away from it. And because sometimes the loud, disruptive cries that yank silence from our hands are actually just a wakeup call, a missive to return to life — just as it is.

Listen. Salmon burgers.

With holiday celebrations abounding, it’s easy to get caught up in the red-meat-and-mashed-potatoes regimen. So, this time around I decided to try something a bit different.  Starting with these versatile Salmon patties from Trader Joe’s (grill, bake, or pan fry!??), I set out to create a  somewhat healthier burger alternative.

96766-premium-salmon-burgers

To start out with, I sauteed the burgers in a spicy Chipotle-infused olive oil. This was easier and faster than baking or grilling, and the olive oil locked in some flavor from the start, without the need for added calories from a chipotle mayo, or other spicy sauce.

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Trader Joe’s pineapple salsa made an excellent companion for the Chipotle olive oil, adding just that little bit of sweetness and tomato that we’ve come to expect from the burger experience. Not only was the salsa lower in sugar than your usual Heinz, it clocks in at a measly 5 calories per tbsp. Take that, ketchup!

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As the burgers were cooking, I prepared the buns, adding the necessary finishings: a little something crunchy (yellow onion) and a little something green (baby spinach).

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Put it all together, and enjoy!

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In Praise of Downward-facing Dog

I’ve never quite understood organized religion. Dressing up, going to church, following a set of imposed rules and doctrines — it always seemed like such a fruitless obligation. A + B + C = what exactly?

I know, I know, it’s intangible. But that made it, well, hard to understand. School made sense to me: you went so that you could learn, go to college, and one day get a job. Even familial obligations seemed clear: these are the people that love and support you, and honoring special occasions with them is important.

But church (or temple, or what have you) always felt a bit out of reach to me. What exactly was the purpose of gathering in a room of (mostly) strangers to listen to someone else telling you what and how to feel and believe?

Well, it turns out that’s a pretty successful formula.

As kids, we’re used to having our days paced out for us. Our parents (if we’re lucky enough to have responsible parents) carefully map out a balance of familiar routines and new experiences, to provide us with opportunities to grow, explore, and discover the world around us.

Gradually, though, as we get older, that process becomes less clear. Done with formal schooling and working a series of intermittent jobs, there are days when I simply look around and think: now what? I have a career. I’m a responsible “adult” (sort of). But that doesn’t mean I always know how to keep myself on a steady path.

This is where yoga comes in. That lovely actor-training-technique-turned-exercise-regimen-turned-spirtitual guide has been an evolving part of my life for the last four years. And, surprisingly, at every turn it reminds me more of that church-going practice I never quite understood.

Criteria #1: community

Let me break it down: it’s a chilly Wednesday afternoon and I’m at home in Boston, MA, braving the winter doldrums. I pry myself off the couch long enough to make it to a far-too-intense 90-minute hot yoga session at a nearby studio. Midway through class, the instructor is encouraging us through a particularly difficult pose. “Remember,” he says, “there are 23 other very sweaty people in this with you. They got this. You ALL got this.”

That was when it hit me: there’s something powerful about a roomful of people committed to exactly the same thing as you. And all the better if you don’t know them, because there’s less social anxiety to deal with. It’s like the spiritual equivalent of writing an essay in a crowded coffee shop. You feed off the energy of your comrades, without even having to interact directly with them.

Criteria #2: sermon

But that class wasn’t just about the other people in the room. It was also about the instructor, pushing us to go deeper into a pose, or reassuring us that wherever we were in that moment was perfect.

My favorite yoga classes are the ones that begin with a small reflection or meditation on life. I like when the instructor actually takes a moment to recognize that we’ve all come together in the midst of the holiday madness, or on a rainy afternoon, or following a national tragedy.

Sound familiar?

This introductory “sermon” makes the practice feel pointed. Purposeful. We set our intentions so that we have something to work toward during our class time. As somebody with a type A personality, this always reassures me that it is time well spent. That something was accomplished.

I realized this was part of what I’ve always overlooked about religion: its potential for focusing or contextualizing the messy business of life.

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Criteria #3: ritual

Perhaps the most baffling thing to me about religion was the idea of being told what to do.  I value my own independence and free will to the extent that the very notion unnerves me.

So, why is it that I don’t mind it – and in fact crave it – when I am on my yoga mat?

The answer is something yogis call vairagya, the practice of “nonattachment,” or letting go. We spend so much time and energy as cruise director for our own lives that it can be nice to let go and allow someone else to steer the ship for a while.

And what’s more, that may be just what we need.

Yoga teachers and religious leaders alike rely on the power of ritual to help us along this path. Ritual provides a clear, familiar, comforting structure in which to release the need to control.

My favorite book on yoga, Meditations from the Mat, frames it this way: “yoga is about getting unstuck.”

Criteria #4: music

This one came as a bit of a surprise to me. The idea of yoga-as-religion had already been rolling around in my head for some time, and I figured I had picked out all the relevant similarities.

And then the “om” began. And I thought, of course. That clinches it. The part of the practice that connects us in an unspoken way, allows simultaneous, universal, egalitarian participation: music.

We are allowed this one, brief window into each others’ souls, uniting the disparate voices in the room, as would a familiar hymn on a Sunday morning.

I still don’t understand organized religion. I don’t think I ever will, truly. But the need for connection, for community, and for coherence? Yeah, that one feels pretty universal.

Walking Headfirst into the Storm

I’m sitting here with a 101 degree fever. I’ve just gotten dressed, and I’m about to go lead a short series of callbacks for the play that I’m directing. (Don’t worry, I’m on antibiotics — not contagious, just cranky.)

When I was in college, I came down with a horrible case of mono right as I was to begin rehearsals for my thesis project. I could barely get out of bed, let alone articulate a coherent thought. But the moment I stepped into the room with a group of actors — ready, hungry, anxious actors looking for engagement — everything came back to me. There was a gust of energy that came from the sheer passion of the space. Then, of course, they left and I broke down into a useless mess on the floor.

This is how I know that I am meant to do this work. (And how I know I won’t collapse in the middle of some poor actor’s script reading.) Our art is alive. It is about human-to-human connections; it is kinetic.

So, when this is the ONLY thing I can manage to do when I can hardly eat, shower, or stand up? Yeah, I’d say that’s a pretty good sign.

When Life Gives You Lemons

Here’s the thing. I’m not big on “free time.” Mostly, I find it confusing and overwhelming, and just end up filling it with senseless activities like exercise and sleep.

In all seriousness, though, I always need to have a project. Doesn’t have to be huge. But just something creative to keep my brain working — to remind myself, “hey, you can make things.” And so, this summer the project has been cooking. Since I’m not in rehearsal I have my evenings free, and what better thing to make than something you can eat?

And though life did not exactly give me lemons, Jewel did (I paid for them, don’t worry). Then, I used them to make pasta:

While I don’t claim to have invented any of these recipes, I have added my own customizations to each. This makes me feel like I’m contributing (somehow) to the greater creative universe. That, and my new habit for food photography. It’s a fine line between delicious and slimy, my friends. Among other creations, tacos:

A baked mac ‘n’ cheese with bacon and barbecue sauce (my additions):

And a white chicken chili, which was a step outside my cooking comfort zone of “meat + noodle”

Had to include this one, too. Sage comes from my new herb garden!

I’m sure soon enough I’ll be back to eating Chipotle twice a week, but in the meantime…anyone got any recipes you want to try??

“Does this have anything to do with freemasons?”

Well, reader, I’ll stop you right there. Unfortunately, it does not. However, this IS a post about masonry.

Masonry (not to be confused with freemasonry — which, by the way, if stared at long enough ceases to be recognizable as a word) can be neatly defined as “the building of structures from individual units.” It was only a matter of time before web designers and developers (“ah,” I hear you sigh, “now I know where this is going”) borrowed the phrase to describe their own construction process.

From what I can tell, the use of the term “masonry” in web design comes from a fellow named David DeSandro, who aptly stated, “Masonry arranges elements vertically then horizontally according to a grid. The result minimizes vertical gaps between elements of varying height, just like a mason fitting stones in a wall.”

Still wondering what the heck I’m talking about? Check out some examples here and here. Or, you know, just log into your Pinterest account.

The thing about masonry is that it eliminates the problem of displaying differently-sized images within a single grid. This is important both aesthetically (your page looks cleaner!) and practically (there’s more stuff on it!). But what’s even more exciting about masonry is the potential for image-based design layouts. In other words, rather than users having to click on BORING LAME OLD TEXT to get around your website, they can interact almost exclusively with varying arrays of image and text blocks. The idea isn’t particularly new, but the economy of space is what really sells it. What’s more, the JQuery script arranges the images automatically. That means you can continue to add images and — no matter what size the user’s screen is — they will always be aligned as closely as possible.

Besides, I’ll support any design trend that encourages minimalism.

So, I decided to give it a whirl and see what I could come up with. I took the existing images and CSS from my online portfolio and reformatted it using masonry. The result:

(The original page, if you’re curious, is here.)

It does clean up the page nicely, although clarity in navigation and organization takes a hit. While I’m not totally sold on the staying power of this trend, I do think it holds enormous potential — especially for artists who want visitors to see their work first and their website second.