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Art Thoughts

The Creative Process, Part I

©2022 Janet Maher, InterBeing #1, mixed media drawing

The work of opening boxes and creating out of their contents the last archive of my life continues. One of my recent finds was a paper I wrote twenty-eight years ago for a Philosophy class. I’ve decided to share some of it here only slightly edited, since I still abide by the thoughts I expressed then.

  The Creative Process ©1994 Janet Maher

       When I was a child I spent a great deal of time alone, exploring the world around me and making things. Often at dusk in the summer I would lie still on the grass and look up into the sky to watch the darkness descend. I would transport myself as far as I could imagine, beyond the stars, beyond gravity, and wander, just as I would imagine as far as possible myself walking upsidedown on the ceiling of the rooms in my house and into the outside.

       There was a feeling of transparency for me in these imagination games. I was no longer a solid physical being, but instead, a container in the form of a young girl through which my self could wander in and out. When observing things, a palpable connection woud be formed between my self and an other. I would be in silent connection with the bark of a tree, or be walking physically along with a Japanese beetle as it munched on the leaf of a fence vine. I and they would become one, the charge of energy around each of us would merge into a single presence as long as the moment of connection lasted. When my attention was fully spent and I drew back into my contained and embodied self, the moment would be over and ordinary life would resume. Ordinary life, however, would never again be the same, for I brought back to it the experience that had just worked upon my soul.

       When making things this same presence would descend, enveloping the activity and myself like a sacred circle around us. I, my hands, and raw materials were in silent dialogue. As my self communicated to and through my hands to touch, choose, form, mark, a new physical object would begin to appear. A movement would become activated, directed by me, but existing as if in its own right, outside myself as I watched while doing it. Back and forth movement would make wave upon wave toward completing itself. I would remain still at times, allowing my self to assess, awaiting a message as to the next move, the next choice, and on and on until something in me would say “stop”. Sometimes “stop” would mean, “it’s time to leave off in order to pick up again another time;” sometimes “stop” would mean, “it’s finished”.

       This is what the creative process looks like from the silent, observing recesses of my mind. This is what the heart  of the activity still is to me now. This part we celebrate, the part that keeps us involved in doing what we do. This is where it begins, and for many, the process is enough. To embrace the creative process one must be willing to allow this emptying and filling to occur, and to wish to become a channel through which something else may be given form. During the creative process one becomes two—the doer and the observer. Both parts inform and energize each other.

       In childhood we begin to use ourselves as creative beings. We become aware of our surroundings, begin to interact with the tangible objects around us, begin to speak, move our bodies, attempt to communicate with other humans and animals and imaginary playmates. We make sounds, make messes, begin to make ourselves. As time goes on many layers are added to our initial pure potential as beings. We begin to gravitate toward pursuits and disciplines that interest us. Sometimes others attempt to force interests upon us. We begin to do both what we like and don’t like, begin to learn the rules appropriate to our particular tribe and culture, and we begin to learn to make the conscious choices that will be continually necessary for us to do for the rest of our lives.

       Creativity may be with us throughout any or all of our activities in life. The ability to remain an open, non-judgmental channel, and to face choices and moments with childlike, joyful presence of mind is necessary in the creative act. One is in suspension between conscious and unconscious time, while the senses that perform whatever skill we call into play acts in synch with all of our being. The more we can tap this ancient place within ourselves the more we are truly alive and present to anything we do.

       In a perfect world every person would exist in tune with every moment, every interaction. It seems to me that most individuals do have some place of connection with creativity, though it may not manifest in the form of any of the arts. They will operate within that font of creativity to varying degrees as the occasion or activity warrants. Others live through the creative process of their being the better part of the time. Still others have forgotten the creative potential in themselves, having become buried underneath their layers of living, possibly thinking that the potential is no longer there.

       People may be creative in the way they cook, garden, parent, teach, think, communicate, make love, write, dress, make a home, fix their car, collect things, or eat a sundae. Anything that a person does, from the moment of waking to falling asleep at night, can be done creatively, artfully, with attention, with care. Doing things creatively might include a spontaneous approach to the materials at hand and the combination of things that are not usual to the activity. Thinking on one’s own, making things up as one goes along, not feeling bound by a necessity to act or produce in ways that are predetermined by others’ rules would also be part of this way of being. To have developed any aspect of oneself to the extent that manifests in such a way that the person is one with the activity, centered in the doing of it, might be another way to see the creative act.

       While creativity exists in virtually any profession or walk of life, age or location, in terms of aesthetics and art it is necessary to focus more closely upon the act of consciously creating in pursuit of an end result. To be an artist is a phrase that also needs to be clarified. It is used when one refers to someone who is particularly  skillful in an activity or any kind, say “an artist of the ice,” for one who is a fine figure skater. Someone who can peer into a refrigerator door and its drawers, look around the kitchen to find edible things and can “throw together” a delicious and beautiful arrangement of what they have found and serve it forth is a creative cook, perhaps “an artist of the hearth”. One may also be “an artist of life”, undaunted by any obstacle or misfortune, trusting to the possibilities inherent in the unwritten page of every day, and full of human spirit that spills over into every encounter. To be “an artist” may also mean to have a particular profession. Some may say that to be a “real” artist, it is necessary to also be “an artist of life”. Certainly, the more one can live as an artist of life, no matter however else he or she is identified, the more he or she fully, happily, lives.

       If we continue on this train of thought, the next step would be to say that everyone who does things mindfully, with an open, accepting approach is creative and everyone who is creative is an artist. However, if seems to me, if we were merely to say that people are born creative and everyone is capable of being an artist, I believe that we would be oversimplifying something which is as complex as life itself. Likewise, to say that people who take part in creative endeavors are artists and those who don’t are not, seems to me equally oversimplified.

       Can one be a creative person and not be an artist? Can one be an artist and not consider him/herself to be one? Can one be an artist and not be creative? Is there anything about the creative process that is common to all conscious activities? Such questions as these begin to narrow down this vast topic in order to focus it. For the purpose of this aesthetics course in which we looked upon the idea of “art” by separating a final product (objective) from our feelings about it (subjective) and considered that it was not complete as a “work of art” until it entered a public sphere (realm of the audience and critic), it seems to me necessary to view the creative process in light of the total process which surrounds some form of completed work of art.

       For the purposes of this paper, I will consider the term “artist” to mean “a person who has been chosen by and is consciously involved in the vocation of making art”, and for “creativity” to be a necessary element in his or her process. By “to be chosen by art” I mean that one cannot will oneself or decide one day to become an artist. One either is an artist or is not and must either choose to pursue or not to pursue the path of his or her perceived gift. By “vocation” I mean that one must devote oneself to the choice of this pursuit and support it, sacrifice for it, and be driven from within to trust and honor and be guided by its direction.

(End of Part I, sixteen more pages…)

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Uncategorized

Unpacking My Library

A portion of my pandemic shelf.

Walter Benjamin famously wrote about his deeply felt and avid book collecting as he opened boxes to organize his books to place on shelves (a chapter in Illuminations, Schocken Books, 1969). Although he spoke lovingly of particular details about his collection that included memories of acquisition, his approach to collecting books seems to me to be more akin to that of a museum curator’s than to my own relationship with books. My acquisitions came about for reasons beyond my love of reading for its own sake, but unlike Benjamin, I did not buy books (or art or anything else I have acquired) conventionally for their caché, rarity or value in any publicly sanctioned sense. Although my books were not hunted down at auctions or purchased in specialized shops around the world, I do share a feeling similar to Benjamin’s regarding owning particular ones and recalling in many instances where I found them. 

A “bookworm” since childhood (when I did not actually own very many at all), I have amassed and purged untold numbers of books over my life about all kinds of subjects. Those that became part of my physical surroundings are due to the effect they had through my direct experience of them. They may have been intellectually transformative, inspiring or thrilling in their mastery of the written word. I have purchased some books (used) in multiple copies to give away, knowing that a loan is hardly ever returned. I like being able to go to my own shelves and find an answer to a question. I add postcards and other related chotchkes (also sentimental but not actually valuable) near them, as if to keep them company, or vice versa. Collectively, whether dog-eared or yellowed with age, the physical presences of my books are a treasure to me, like favorite photographs from long ago or works of art that have likewise made the cut over and over again. (My one aversion in acquiring used books is finding another’s ink notations in a book I would otherwise choose to own, and I make a point these days to only mark lightly with pencil as I read.)

With every relocation of home, what to do about my books has been a dilemma. Having lived relatively lightly by choice for most of my years, embracing the concepts of Voluntary Simplicity (Duane Elgin, 1981), money for me was always first to be spent on food, after which were choices between art supplies or books. After that, making something by hand was preferable to venturing out to a retail store of any kind. Repurposing, purchasing used, reusing, using up or recycling (if there was still life left in something), was and still is my preferred way of spending resources. As books hold a remarkably important place amid that which surrounds me, so do certain plates with chips (that I paint with gold, as in Japanese kintsugi) or fabrics that have been repaired, beautiful things acquired at flea markets long ago that I finally have the opportunity to use, or particular containers that were never of monetary value but have been holding particular art supplies in my studio for many decades and still work just fine. I find comfort in the old and the used, particularly something that brings a positive memory to mind every time I see it. Objects of all kinds are touchstones to extended time that remains present even in the forward motion of evolution and change. This kind of “holding onto” that by default becomes collecting is, for me, part of making a life in which things are chosen for the quality of their interior resonance, like friends.

As my husband and I relocated to much smaller quarters over the past year I have had to come to grips with collections I acquired without realizing how much space they had previously occupied. Since the need to sell so many of my books decades ago had been a painful experience, I had over time repurchased many of them. With higher paying employment while wearing the mantle of academia I became better able and more willing to purchase more and more books, justifying that they also enhanced my teaching (which many did). Our recent last-in-a-lifetime move to a new state made reassessment about books and my dream of one day having a room that served as an actual library finally, peacefully drift away.

Retirement, then COVID-19, allowed me to put all and everything into perspective. During the pandemic I began to re-read books from my own library, particularly those having to do with concepts of Eastern thought I have studied since undergraduate years. It was astonishing to realize how much more I understand now than when I initially came upon and wrestled with the ideas. Rather than thinking I could let go of such books I’ve had for so long, I ended up wanting even more to keep them—especially with their additional pencil marginalia from my most recent rereads. Each book, whether at home or in the studio, will continue to be assessed and may end up being among all that I leave behind when no longer physically here. Although my hope is that someone else will value what I do, I am well aware that as Benjamin noted, “the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner” and “objects get their due only…[in private collections].” The “intimate relationship” to the objects are, he wrote “Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” (Illuminations, pg. 67)

In this spirit I address every object that I vetted to come with me to Rhode Island, including things that might have seemed like garbage to anyone other than me (and my understanding husband). Many boxes of books, however, have only been boxed to bring up here to give away. Once I learned where the places were that welcomed what I had, the giving was not only painless, it became a joy. The emotions seemed to hinge upon someone else’s valuing something that I have also valued, even when the things in question are relatively humble. What someone else has loved cannot be thrown away, it must be given to someone else who will also value it, or it must be destroyed, like a bowl in an ancient tomb has a hole forced into it to release the user’s spirit. Something disparaged needs a ceremony, a burial, a flame lit to it, I feel. Whereas things that cause negative memories to arise are good to tear or discard. A balance is somehow struck between opposites.

As a collage artist, this is also how I’m dealing with my own work and materials that have accompanied me here. This is the last studio in which I will try to “use everything up”. Now the world, circumstances, everything has changed. The ways, means and purposes for creating have new chapters. Every book I read, many of which now come from our beautiful local library, and every object and scrap that I touch is being vetted for the last time. Having gotten to the other side of letting go, the movement continues easily now and life flows as it did many decades ago, in freedom. Unpacking my books has led to the unpacking of so much else. 

©2021 Janet Maher, Circlegarden Studio 

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Art Thoughts

Downsizing

Circlegarden Studio
Circlegarden Studio has a new home!

Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit the former homestead and studio buildings of one of my seminal undergraduate teachers. Once there I experienced the déjà vu memory of a field trip during a semester with him. Having become familiar with his work in the 70s, seeing it again in the 2000s cast me back to this other time. I recalled having been a young tabula rasa, feeling that I knew nothing about anything, as I came upon canvas after canvas of works already created by my professor. I was at the beginning of my art life, while he had already produced so much that he needed to keep adding out-buildings in which to store his works around his ultra modern home in the woods.

As an adult, a professor myself, it was somewhat horrifying to me to see this archive frozen in time after his death. Now his artwork and library were a burden for others to care and try to find homes for. I bought a drawing, matted, framed and hung it in our home near works by other important teachers of mine from that era. This image, however, makes me sad. Instead of bringing back fond memories of a person I care/d about or eliciting an aesthetic joy on its own merits, as most of my art collection does, the drawing reminds me of his piles of work, stacked upon themselves almost as carelessly as he had left them in place while alive, in non climate controlled sheds. I know the situation of having only room to move through such spaces one body width at a time. This also became the story of my own art life.

With each move to some other location I jettison entire aspects of myself. Early on I would simply leave a place/person, taking only what would fit in my car, letting someone else reduce my traces, parse the residue out in whatever way they chose. Others long ago ended up with my fancy figure skates, for example, my kiln, my flat files, the 200 yards of satiny fabric that once covered the walls of a gallery for a solo show, artworks, my own and others’ I had bought or for which I had traded. More Zen-like then, I readily let go of things, keeping my forward journey light. Once settled into academic employment, quickly there was more to archive, however, while imagining that one day others would value the production, its quality, quantity and range.

Some artists save the best piece of each series for themselves. Some sell their work readily and handily, not also needing other employment to pay their bills. Many have trust funds or live with someone who financially supports them, thus being able to focus solely on making work and potentially becoming recognized. Others of us give our work away, do ritual burnings, or periodically take a deep breath, then rip and stuff it in bags to toss like clothes we have deemed no longer wearable by anyone, including, finally, us. Someone who continually recycles and repurposes on principal and includes collage and assemblage as veins of her work, may have a particularly difficult time executing that ultimate “toss”. I find that invariably some intriguing bits move into new “save” piles, suggesting other potential projects. [Note: this is a practice of an entirely different sort than “hoarding”, though non- or traditional-media artists typically may not understand it.]

It is a privilege to be able to begin again by choice, retaining only the most essential components of a lifetime of multiplicity and attracting or inventing new challenges and techniques. What, when push comes to shove, are the essential components? Aren’t they, like starter for sourdough bread or yogurt, bits of remnants from past works to feed future ones? Isn’t it important to have touchstones to accompany one to the next stage? Or is that merely a crutch? Must there be nothing but blank walls and surfaces to allow for more purity in new moments? How strictly must one’s inner best case scenario philosophy align with one’s actual art practice?

How does one overly concerned with the end of the world as we know it due to climate change caused by generations of humans’ mistreatment of the environment “downsize” appropriately and still continue working? How does one who aspires to Buddhist principles carry forward only the essentials from another art studio that has evolved the way it has due to a lifetime of making and decades of teaching? Perhaps by imagining that by 2030 life as we know it will be no longer. What physical elements, in that case, should accompany one into a future of only ten years? Not to mention, who needs an archive?

Perhaps this time I will move in reverse. My first real studio—not a spot of my mother’s basement by the washing machine or in my tiny apartment—was a small room provided as an incoming graduate student. Initially I had brought across country with me unframed starts and some materials into a space with no furniture. The size of a small walk-in closet, this grew two more times as I moved onward and upward before completing my MA. degree, returning twelve years later to complete my M.F.A.  Since then, studio furniture, cast-offs, repurposed and repaired has accumulated. Framed works, art in all stages of progress, materials and many layers of history have also accumulated, along with books—my lifeline to all and everything.

In the throes of a pandemic the Universe has provided a new space in a new location. I am ever-grateful for the gift of being able to pass through a seeming portal into this other, better, reality and future. As wonderful as this all is, the studio is significantly smaller than what my current physical history can accommodate. For perhaps the last time in this life I have the privilege of choosing to let go and move on. This time I think I’ll start with the furniture. Creativity will transplant within the parameter of limitations provided by the flat surfaces and storage systems that fit in this space.

Among the great gifts of this pandemic is permission for artists to let go of rules we used to live by. What was ongoing in the great “before” no longer matters unless we decide it does. Time and purpose is entirely new. I must consider my existing works simply as those that were doable during the juggling acts of the previous decades that formed my Now. The words of my yoga teacher regarding personal energy ring ever more true: “Let it go, then make more.” At last perhaps my art and Buddhist practices will come to neatly inform each other. Less will become not only more, but enough.

Stay safe and well. 

©2020 Janet Maher, Circlegarden Studio

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Black Lives Matter Pandemic Thoughts

Bumbling Into Awareness

 

©2020 Janet Maher, Soul Work (detail); mixed media collage print
©2020 Janet Maher, Soul Work (detail); mixed media collage print

(Updated 6.14.20 at 11:56 a.m.)†

(Updated 6.14.20 at 4:12 p.m.)††

While masses of individuals across the globe have been still enough to notice, much evil has been revealed. The virus that caused the shutdown of life as we knew it exposed the virus of systemic racism that has been running through American history since the colonists arrived into the land of the Native tribes. After the three seemingly back-to-back murders of Ahmaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd that occurred for no cause, and Christian Cooper’s being reported as a threat for simply observing birds a massive multiracial rising in solidarity occurred. It eclipsed any that I have experienced to date. In the silence of a physical pandemic a 2020 Consciousness Raising manifested. Various intertwined movements had gained traction and expanded into Black Lives Matter. Urgent issues brought into larger cultural awareness over the past decade were heard this time as never before. The revolution was not only live, it was televised.

In this morning’s email feed I listened to a wonderful interview between Krista Tippett and Eula Biss, Talking About Whiteness, which prompted this post. Tippett’s The Pause is part of her On Being Project. As a white woman who has been striving to become educated over the years around the issues of racism and white supremacy, like them, I will always have much to learn. I’m embarrassed to admit that I intimidated myself in 2012 against listing Noel Ignatiev’s book, How The Irish Became White, in the bibliography for my first book and in my blog about Irish history and genealogy topics. I feared potentially offending some unknown someone. Irish musician Imelda May, however, thankfully called out publicly last week anyone of Irish ancestry who had bigotry in their psyche with her spoken word work You Don’t Get to Be Racist and Irish.

Involved friends and colleagues over the years have shared important resources, and my university has actively provided training and opportunities for educating oneself. Still, it was personally “easier” for me over the years to actively address the Climate Crisis than to have Black Lives Matter be my cause. There were too many issues to fit on one protest sign, and not enough hours in the teaching days and weeks to address my chosen infused topic and still address the content of the actual hands-on courses. In whatever our professions, we juggle and bumble and do the best we can as we are also growing, simultaneously trying to inspire others by our own behavior. We want to be the change we wish to see.

Through others I learned of Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. She powerfully bridged the feminist concept of male privilege to that of white privilege, including a list of 50 ways in which she recognized her own privilege. One friend is an active part of the Baltimore Cease Fire movement. She goes with a group to the neighborhood of every death due to gun violence and serves as a silent witness and open ear in an effort to help absorb the pain of those who experienced the personal losses. The amazing artist whose work I learned about at an exhibit at Julio Art Gallery, Loyola University Maryland, Tawny Chatmon, is one of the Instagram artists who are offering ways to help. From her site (@tawnychatmon) she linked ten suggested action items that people can do in honor of Breonna Taylor’s birthday, which would have been June 5. (#BirthdayForBreonna) †Last week a friend shared a beautiful prayer written by Dr. Yolanda Pierce, Dean of Howard University School of Divinity, that was read aloud at a virtual prayer service held at Loyola. A Litany For Those Not Ready For Healing is included within the JesuitResource website.

My humble offering in this post is music. Music has always been a deeply important and inspiring part of my life, and personal soundtracks have run throughout it. Despite the tragedies that occurred throughout the last several decades, I feel fortunate for having grown up in the time into which I was born and to have lived to see the day when there feels to be a ground-swelling of growth and change that I believe will take hold this time. New generations have joined the movements that began with their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who protested about injustices of all kinds and about dire concerns for the health of our one planet. For the first time in this pandemic I am beginning to feel hopeful for a future in which humans have acknowledged and acted upon the ultimate Wake Up calls.

With joy I began a soundtrack for now, scratching the surface of and selecting from songs I’ve compiled over several years on my Pinterest board Favorite Musicians – Old School.* I’ve gingerly shared a few with students who did not know much about previous eras, but freely open the floodgate now. Forewarned – interestingly, (appropriately) on You Tube some of them are now preceded with an ad for Joe Biden for President.

*I had to include Patti Smith, however, although she is certainly not Old School! I believe she turned the tide of popular music in the 1970s that opened the door to the present, influencing and thus bringing strong women into full presence within the industry.

Stay safe and well. May we listen to and amplify melanated voices and educate ourselves toward a beautiful future.

©2020 Janet Maher

 

Categories
Pandemic Thoughts

Resilience

 

2020 Iris ©2020 Janet Maher

Wednesday night a beautiful new song by Wilco was aired on Stephen Colbert’s Late Night. Seeing Jeff Tweedy and all the band members in their homes, most with partners and children, gave me an entirely new appreciation for my brother’s favorite band. Tell Your Friends is set up on Bandcamp as a fundraiser for chef José Andrés’ enormous relief efforts through his World Central Kitchen. Wilco’s song perfectly captures the feeling of appreciation for our closest personal connections during this time of physical distancing. Never before have the telephone, snail mail and virtual meant to reach certain others mattered as much to so many.

The song can be streamed from a link in this Rolling Stone article which includes additional links. Tweedy also recorded an acoustic version of Jesus, Etc. for the Colbert show. I so appreciate the power of these Zoomed and live-streamed concerts meant to reach through to us and simultaneously affect change. Leave it to Wilco to do this so well. 

We are experiencing Pandemic Time in separate realities through unique lenses. After two months I seem to have turned a corner in how it feels for me.  As I move from engagement with one thing to another, one completion or ebb to resolve or not (considering the weather or the presumption of another day), time rolls on without additional layers of external demands placed upon it. All these years later the fluidity of child and young adulthood time has returned. Sounds of cars may be whizzing past, but my own world has stilled, allowing me to reground in a continual present.

In Pandemic Time maybe it’s OK not to be frantically producing, not to be setting increasingly higher expectations and demands on a self conditioned to being judged by the outside world. It may be possible to reassess life itself when assumptions have been upended and people in every kind of situation are re-imagining their own ways forward. We are experiencing and/or observing both the best and the worst of human behaviors. The flaws within our social, financial and political systems have been exposed. How will we personally and collectively grow from this Time Out and reemerge into healthier and more sustainable states of being?

I didn’t watch much television as an  adult, nor did I have time to see Oprah Winfrey, or even read the majority of the books she recommended on her famous list. Today, however, I watched a 53 minute-long interview between Oprah and Gary Zukav (author of the Dancing Wu Li Masters and Seat of the Soul, among others), that occurred three years ago. Maybe the message of their conversation, interlaced with snippets from previous ones, may be heard and understood even better during the pandemic. Michael A. Singer and Tami Simon, of Sounds True produced another helpful interview, Resilience and Surrender in Challenging Times. Singer offers advice for those having a range of difficulties, and explains larger ways to consider what is happening.

Resilience takes many forms. My favorite Amplifier Foundation poster, Ernesto Yerena’s beautiful artwork honoring Lakota native activist Helen Red Feather, hangs framed at the entryway to my studio. It reads “We the Resilient Have Been Here Before”. I chose this image years back to remind myself of my own resilience throughout life so far, and of the work there is still to do, perhaps with a deeper appreciation. May we all  become resilient enough to help create a future based in the kind of soulful connections we value most. May the world that arises Post-Pandemic be a better place than the one so dreadfully harmed by our collective mistakes, and may that harm not be beyond repair. Let’s remember to tell our friends, “This is going to end. Oh, and I needed you. Oh, and I love you. I want to hold your hand when I see you again.”

Stay safe and well. 

©2020 Janet Maher

 

 

Categories
Pandemic Thoughts

Creatives Rise to the Occasion

The past six decades in my experience of the United States included unusual, perhaps interesting, times. Seared into my memory are events that altered my future engagement with the world and the dreams I’d had when young. Each disturbing or tragic event taught me something I could not have learned as well or as deeply without having actively lived through it. Assassinations gathered my family in front of the television. Nightly news aired images of killings throughout a war that much of the nation believed was wrong. Ed Sullivan and many T.V. shows introduced me to musicians and comedians who gave me a glimpse into a much larger world beyond my neighborhood. Later, there were times of odd and even days designated for filling up one’s car with gas. AIDS appeared, a virus that made love become a potentially life-threatening decision. And more conflicts erupted, over and over, many due to the actions of my country’s leaders.

In none of such times, however, were people in the United States afraid to continue simple, basic activities like mailing parcels or purchasing groceries. Yes, there were fallout shelters and elementary school drills to avoid imagined nuclear debris (as if our desks could save us). None, however, required physical protection from an invisible threat that could weasel its way into our sinuses and try to kill us even when we actively attempted to avoid it. Pandemics in which people meant to be in charge but who didn’t understand what was going on were in historic events in previous generations and centuries, not in ours.

Individuals of every age and walk of life have been cast abruptly into a next level of consciousness as if while we were sleeping. We are challenged to imagine a new future well before many of us were ready to try. Time before this pandemic is long gone. A mere few months have passed and there is only a distant memory of a “before”. Creative works and activities of all the kinds we used to enjoy in full presence, opening receptions and performances we would attend, gatherings of all kinds that we took for granted, feel way back in that past. People recently have been clamoring for places to “open up”, to “return to normal”, as if there ever had been a “normal”, as if any kind of “normalcy” hadn’t been destroyed by design incrementally over the last four years (including during the lead-in to the election). Many of us remember the mourning that darkened our spirits in November 2016, displacing our shocks of disbelief. We worried things could go terribly wrong, but I, for one, never imagined this.

Took down my eleven pieces today from the exhibition at Maryland Hall, Annapolis, that never opened – Unnatural Causes: Art of a Critical Nature

Many life-altering memories within these decades have been shared across the nation, across the planet, but none altered life in such an all-consuming way as COVID19 has. Before, it was possible to protest, make conscious lifestyle changes and swim against the stream with a feeling that collective efforts would eventually take hold. By the Women’s March of 2017 a glimmer of hope remained for many, albeit overshadowed by the deja vu of having been around this block way too long ago. By 2017 the next waves of feminists had, thankfully, emerged; fully supported, finally. They helped create the Me Too Movement that successfully broke new ground. Too many of the same issues, and sadly, more, still needed to be addressed, while the climate was going haywire right before our eyes. To think about it all was overwhelming. Nature, with her prolonged systemic mistreatment, finally decided where the overarching focus must be, and here we are in all its complexity.

As usual, creatives of all kinds have risen to the occasion to invent new ways to engage with others, use their talents, provide moments of calm, laughter, beauty, and help us feel that we will get through this strange in-between time. In unusual times creative minds do unusual things and through them create new realities. The meaning of the words “Essential” and “Privilege” has been fully absorbed in our newly-forming reality. Who is it on the front lines? Who keeps our world actually functioning? What are the essential jobs? Are those in them paid as they deserve to be? Many who are home have found ways and made efforts to keep spirits lifted and provide myriad types of support. Every bit matters as we realize how much all things interconnect.

Following are some links to people, words, and music that I don’t want to forget or that I’ve posted somewhere but anyone reading this may not have seen:

Long Distance Virtual Performances – Tip of the Iceberg!

With hope for an awakened reality post-Pandemic. May we stay safe, well, grow larger and give as we can.

©2020 Janet Maher

Categories
Pandemic Thoughts

Settling Into A Pandemic

It has been quite a long time since I began this fledgling blog. Perhaps its time has arrived. Like everyone else immersed in the COVID19 Pandemic I am trusting the process that will allow a constantly mutating virus* to die out – if people will pay attention to science and protect themselves from becoming host to it. I am also trusting the process of going inward, simplifying my life, while engaging in ways that make sense in relation to members of my varied and widely separated communities. While all life on our planet is interconnected within rippling waves of cause and effect, each of us is experiencing this tragedy in unique ways. As Dr. Maya Angelou expressed, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” Potent words for the present.

(*Update 5.18.20, Good news, my scientist friend said that it has been determined this particular coronavirus in not the type that mutates, like the common cold. See this article from The Scientist.)

©2018 Janet Maher, Gaia: Specimen #1, mm monoprint; wintergreen oil transfer print, completed with colored pencils; image size: 9.5” diameter; paper: 13” sq.; matted and framed 16” sq.

In the weeks that the immense dangers finally became acknowledged and addressed in the United States I adapted a different blog (MaherMatters) and posted “off topic” there. I also began to make fabric face masks for a long list of individuals around the country. That list continues to grow and marks my weekly visit to the Post Office with some sense of purpose and usefulness. Among many other activities, mask-making has helped me to focus, like an aspect of Karma Yoga. See my previous posts through these links:

While so many have been seriously, catastrophically affected by loss during this time, so many others are front-line responders and essential workers and an outrageous number of people have died, it is a privilege for we who are actually able to stay and work from home. We may, nonetheless, also experience emotional upheavals as an avalanche of dire news events of the days persists while we are stricken by our new and unwelcome mask-wearing, non-touching reality. Given that not all upheavals are equal, each must still be faced as it occurs and transformed into something greater—greater than the virus, greater than those who willfully do harm.

©2018, Janet Maher, Gaia: Specimen #2, mm monoprint; wintergreen oil transfer print, completed with colored pencils; image size: 9.5” diameter; paper: 13” sq.; matted and framed 16” sq.

Artists, writers, performers, scientists and others whose vocations are inwardly-driven may have an easier time of this. Our own work and endless curiosity provides no lack of something to do, even as such vocations are financially precarious even in the best of times. Ironically, the great gift of time having been given in full while we hunker down by command allows us to work in ways that ordinarily must be fitted around the edges of juggling myriad other requirements within the world of making a living. While parents, conversely, have more than usual on their plates, many have welcomed ways to engage their children in their work-lives, and children have grown in ways that quarantine time has made possible as conventional structures are being reinvented. Creatives and scientists have continued to provide inspiration, explanations, encouragement, guidance and hope for me as the Internet has functioned in ways for which it was initially, positively, intended.

With this reentry into Trusting the Process: Getting There From Here, I intend to offer links to anchors of inspiration that have lifted my spirits or informed me during what I fear will be a long road ahead. I hope you’ll enjoy them, will share your own thoughts, and will subscribe.

  • Probably Tomfoolery has created a beautiful bedtime story, The Great Realization, that has gone viral in the best possible way.
  • Global Citizen streamed an inspiring live Earth Day celebration full of performances and sources of information. Click to stream two hours and forty-five minutes of terrific music collected from the day in the album One World: Together At Home! Stream from whatever platform you use.
  • Boston’s WBUR OnPoint, in conjunction with NPR, streamed a great interview with Brian Melican and Kimberly Dowdell, How Coronavirus Will Change City Life. Read Melican’s complete article regarding pandemics and epidemics in previous centuries, A tale of three cities: the places transformed by pandemics across history. It is disturbing how similar our current situation in the United States parallels that of Marseilles in 1720, when due to letting the safety measures slip on behalf of business 50,000 of 80,000 people died—after centuries of having bypassed the Black Plague.
  • Grateful to have learned of Emergence Magazine through a friend. I find its written and spoken articles and interviews regarding Ecology, Culture and Spirituality are so helpful in these times. In Shaking the Viral Tree, David Quammen explains how the coronavirus came to be and continues to mutate into different strains. If this awareness does not keep you to obeying safety protocols probably nothing will. (Hence, you will continue, selfishly, to put others at risk!) This site is worthy reading for every day and is a free subscription.
  • My heart was warmed by this moment between Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is one of the major voices of reason and solid leaders in this time, and Stephen Colbert, whom we watch without fail every night. Somehow I enjoy this show even more as Colbert streams casually, comfortably from home, with help from his family, and brings on terrific guests who are also open to being seen on a more real level than they might have been fully suited on a stage before a live audience.
  • The Earth Day celebration on April 18 ended with this beautiful collaboration between Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli, Lady Gaga, Lang Lang, and John Legend. Full of gratitude to all who performed on and produced this world-wide event, I also have been loving the YouTube streams of so many who continue to offer music to cheer our hearts, such as this fundraiser on behalf of Mass General Emergency by James Taylor, his wife, and son. Music touches us directly and often brings tears, which help to cleanse our souls while bringing us more in touch with a sense of our shared humanity. I’ll continue to post such links. Please share your recommendations too, as I try to use my days as much away from the computer as possible.
  • If you stream Netflix, be sure to see the wonderful Michelle Obama’s documentary – Becoming.

Stay safe and healthy, become larger in this time.

©2020 Janet Maher

 

Categories
Art Thoughts Ireland

The Still Point

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Self Portrait, Killkee, Ireland ©2016 Janet Maher

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is. But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance…*

As years go by the work of creating art, work that one does to earn a living, and life in all its permutations become less possible to separate. Each one informs and supports, but also robs from the other. There is no real possibility of balance until the parts are simplified through the shifting of time. Artists are always seeking the still point, where extended moments exist without the sense of before or after. The dance of creation is perfectly still.

In Ireland this summer I was able to experience the still point in free-floating time, unhinged from my moorings, feeling new in every day unfolding in one beautiful environment after another. Days were about absorbing and working solely from inner direction, and each contained a surprise.

Most of the time this is not possible, though we make the effort to consciously clear space for moments and notice them when they arise. We generally work in fits and starts throughout days that require many different things. In whole or in part we work hard on one aspect to the sacrifice of the others. Nothing, however, is ever wasted. The attempt is work that matters and each amount of progress counts. Long achievements require long efforts over long time. Thankfully, as we remain breathing we are repeatedly given twenty-four hours to use as productively as possible.

As if fated, over the past ten years an extensive project demanded to be done such that I could not ignore its need. I felt impelled to do it (#1)—NOW(#2)—not set it aside for some future in which I would have leisure time to devote to it. When we have time we may not have the ability or the financial possibilities. When we have the money, the desire, the physical capability, or any number of other things may have significantly changed. I think that when a creative idea takes hold with a vengeance we cannot wait to pay attention to it.

My attention was claimed by trying to figure out how to take on a project that I did not have the training for but felt that I had to do, coupled with the need to continue to be viable as an artist. In the realm of a scholar I was an amateur. In the realm of the art world I was not approaching the content conceptually enough. For some within the non-art world I was not being traditional enough. Who, then, was my intended audience? In the beginning I attempted to continue to make art that had nothing to with this growing interest, keeping the new project quietly aside. It became increasingly impossible, however, to continue to keep both endeavors functioning without overlapping. A positive side-outcome was that I learned a myriad number of skills I might never have attempted or exercised.

I ended up teaching many of the new processes, techniques and materials I was using in my own work, and my previous engagement in photography, which had always been kept to the side, came to the forefront. This, in turn, caused the need for me to master particular Photoshop skills, learn In-Design skills and become able to do my own digital printing, which led to hand-coloring images and bringing photography into my mixed media forms. (I also have taught aspects of this, and the computer as a tool has become a natural component in some of my courses.)

Since 2002 I have made four trips to Ireland, two of them specifically related to research and photographing for what became my first scholarly book and the foundation for my second. By 2010 I had accumulated so much material through scouring records in Connecticut, online, through subscriptions, the renting of microfilm, and reading towers of books and articles that it seemed necessary to publish the material in some form. Who else would have been able to or been as driven as I was to gather this foundation of a history that applied to so many people besides my own family? How could I just store it all away, like so much clutter to anyone else’s eyes? The material had to be put together and presented to others, like artwork does. The project needed to resolve and see the light of day.

Some images among the uncountable number that I have made since 2006 seemed to make the leap into existence as photographic art. Some were exhibited. Many illustrated my first book, some of the second, and my blog postings—which became another outgrowth of this activity. Some works made intentionally as art included photographs that I had made specifically for use in the first book. In some cases it felt necessary not to alter historic images except in further enhancing their visibility. In other cases I attempted to create artworks that might appeal to others who didn’t need to know or care about their actual sources, as I usually do when making collages and assemblages. The process may have been a somewhat schizophrenic way of going about the dual attempt to make art and use art in relation to an attempt to write a book. When one is driven, however, there is nothing to do but follow one’s instincts—even when others think you are on an entirely wrong path. Halfway through a project it is impossible not to see it through. Like art, the question continues to nag, when is it finished? In this case it required a second book in which I sought more contributions from others than I did in the first one, most of my own imagery did not appear, and I was not also the graphic designer.

It was with great joy that I traveled to Ireland this recent time, not as a researcher, but as an artist. This time in Ireland I also worked on books, but they were the hand-made kind (something else that I teach). I also began to draw again (which used to be my primary means of working). Still, I could not help but also make almost 4,000 photographic images. As before, there are some photographs in this collection that might conceivably be exhibited as art and others have illustrated my blog posts. The rest wait in digital folders for when their reason and time may arrive.

There are many works in play at the moment, however, life as an artist in residence focused upon the dailiness of exploration and response (somewhat akin to life in graduate school) is quite different from life in the real world. I am eternally grateful for an amazing, soul-nourishing experience and the fact that my time-juggling (and all that needs to get done) problems are those of the first-world. To have such problems is a privilege. That after all these years I have been able to remain an artist to the degree that I have is also a great privilege, as is the ability to have spent this time in Ireland as such.

Since one project, another journey and my life finally feel as if they have come together in the present, I would like to share my most recent postings from my Irish-related blog here. Following are sequential links to bits of my experience from residing for five weeks in a place that has become an indelible part of me. Ireland continued to open herself further through her people and in my own relaxed exploring of her beyond the specifics I formerly searched for like a dog with a bone. For all, everything and everyone I am eternally grateful.

  1. Ireland, 2016
  2. Ballyvaughan.1 
  3. Ireland 2016. Images
  4.  Ireland Images.2 
  5. Ireland Images.3 
  6. Ballyvaughan.2 
  7. Ireland Images.4 – The Flaggy Shore
  8. Ireland Images.5 – Corcomroe Abbey
  9. Ballyvaughan.3 – The Burren 
  10. Ireland Images.6 – The Flaggy Shore, Again
  11. Ireland Images.7 – Still Point 
  12. Ireland Images.8 – Dublin, Galway 
  13. Ballyvaughan.4 – Wrapping Up 
  14. Ireland Images.9 – Connemara, Mayo
  15. Ireland 2016, Last – Ireland Images.10 

*T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, The Four Quartets, I, II

 

 

 

 

 

©2016 Janet Maher

All Rights Reserved

Categories
Art Thoughts

Welcome, 2016.

 

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Alphabet ©2015 Janet Maher, pigment print of original collage

As we grow older

the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated

Of dead and living. Not the intense moment

Isolated, with no before and after,

But a lifetime burning in every moment

And not the lifetime of one man only

But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.   

~T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

The changing of the year has always been physically tangible to me. In the days of palm sized lockable five-year diaries I recall the thrill of the first day that I began to write, intending to visit my favorite Christmas present dutifully, adding four lines per day. I can will myself back to the image of an iced-over parking lot near my neighborhood on that cold clear day, as I looked out over all with heightened awareness and the goal to remember every sensation to record later. My diary did not get a year’s worth of faithful attention, much less did five more grade levels as the page design had allotted, and fear of my mother’s reading it kept me from ever truly baring my soul. It did, however, contain partial thoughts about my first big love and began a tradition of writing the start of journals, then letting them grow into free-for-alls, usually never completed. This diary became full of collage, perhaps my first artist’s book. I wish it still existed, like the two duffle bags that my mother would not store for me when I moved from her house. The homemade bags were full of notes that my boyfriend and girlfriends had passed to me in high school, and decorated letters from when we lived somewhere else for six months during grammar school. What is relinquished that should have been saved, I wonder? What is saved that should be released?

I don’t literally remember most January firsts, as I don’t remember most birthdays or anniversaries anymore, but I do remember eagerly anticipating and actively noticing the feeling of change. Somehow January first seemed the longest day of the year, stretching out into a far off horizon before which lay a landscape of possibilities. It was a clean day, new and hopeful. I wanted to savor it, vowed to use the next 364 well, to make the upcoming year especially matter.

It has been difficult for me to think far ahead like that for quite a long time. There have been too many losses, too many close calls, too many twists and turns in the narrative of my life to dare anymore to look too far into the future. In a mire of never seeming to be caught up with all my various projects before more “to-do’s” are added on, I live on a week-to-week basis, weekends woven into the mix of the work week and only slightly different. The turning of the year has become for me more about looking back. Whew, finally got through that one. Wow, did all that actually happen in only twelve months (or the past four)?

This year I intentionally paused. Like the adolescent I had been with her first diary I wondered if it could be possible to reclaim that state of being, even within the “unfinishedness” among the piles that surround me at home, in my studio, in my office. Rather than continue to feel that all must be organized and properly stored so as to be able to find what needs to be found again, might it be better to simply have a good, cleansing bonfire? Would that it could be so! (What is relinquished that should have been saved? What is saved that should be released, I wonder?)

In our vastly interconnected and fast-moving world we hear about global occurrences, feel everything as if it were just beyond our own doorsteps. We have the ability to take action on behalf of something outside ourselves that needs addressing. We are peripherally aware of what our friends and acquaintances are up to via social media and the deluge of events that come across our paths, possible opportunities for our participation.  How good is it to know, I wonder, about something that would be satisfying to do but cannot fit onto the list of the ongoing “must-do’s?” It seems increasingly impossible to fit all the parts of a life together. Time seems to have mercilessly sped up. Days of lingering moments, thoughtful, creative reverie and time to express what results from it have become shorter, more sporadic, then finally disappear, even as they cry out to be actively reclaimed. What does such a situation create in us over time? What happens to our psyche when the spiritual food of active life experience becomes mere memory?

Robin Dunbar, director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, by mapping the layers and levels of human engagement came to an interesting premise. Our brains can only adequately manage and we can only interact successfully with about 150 people. (He refers to significant relationships with shared history and mutual responsibility to and for one other.) I could not agree more, and actually feel the number should be less. How many directions do I feel pulled in, which ones demand to take precedence? Which ones must fall by the wayside, which ones do I miss most? Like the piles of papers and files that surround me, many of the most important relationships also seem lost in the shuffle. (What is relinquished that should have been saved? What is saved that should be released?)

The world is such a different place this year than it was even a year before. It seems to have gone a bit crazy. Killing is rampant and random as if secretly waged wars have suddenly manifested overtly everywhere, including in places we least suspected. The earth herself seems to be rebelling against our presence, erupting, drying out, alternatively washing so many of us away. Industries and regulations have worked against the health of all, and both the weak and strong among us succumb to environmentally-born carcinogens on ever-increasing levels. Having “survived” cancer once, having lost so many friends and family members already to it, knowing so many who are currently battling it, I retreat to my books. They require the least from me, nourishing and stimulating me instead. Tell me a story. Teach me about things I wish I’d learned years ago. Make me marvel. Make me cry. Turn my brain off, let me immerse into your words. Take me somewhere else.

It is another new year. I vow, somehow, to write the many letters that need to be written, send people the photographs and other things I have saved for them that have been sitting in piles for yet another year, reconnect with someone I have wanted to for decades. (I think her daughter should have her own drawing that I have treasured since we were undergraduates, one of my early trades.) I have also begun to sweep. I am sorting, giving things away (even books and art), recycling on a larger scale than that of basic weekly maintenance. I am trying to manage time such that my studio has adequate attention, which, of course, is where my most needed food is stored. Showing up, moving my hands, being in the still point of the endless present, the turning world, there is truly where my dance is.

It is difficult to dance when one’s brain is compartmentalized into too many sections. (Much more possible to write in that state, I have found.) Are 150 compartments too many? This year I will slowly reread Eliot’s Four QuartetsI will let him guide me back to the place I once knew so intimately, immediately, daily. Each changing year has been modified according to circumstances. In this one I will remember the girl and her diary. I vow to use future days well and to make 2016 matter differently than other years have. I vow to release that which no longer needs saving, creating space for something else to enter. I want to savor this January, look out from it as if it could stretch through to a horizon full of possibilities, clean, new and hopeful.

©2016 Janet Maher

All Rights Reserved

Categories
Art Thoughts Collage

Thank You to the Baltimore Print Fair

©2015 Janet Maher, As Yet Untitled Collage Series, in progress, not glued in this shot
©2015 Janet Maher, As Yet Untitled Collage Series, in progress, not glued in this shot

“Most people don’t know there are angels whose only job is to make sure you don’t get too comfortable & fall asleep & miss your life.” – Brian Andreas

When I made my first major art purchase I was able to pay for it in installments over many months. At the time I was living paycheck to paycheck and was the “breadwinner” (such as it was) in a relationship. Something in me believed that one day down the road I would live in a house where I could have this large lithograph on permanent display. I had a frame made by the local person who made some of my own frames, and I archivally matted Dan Rizzie’s print. It was one of the possessions that traveled with me across the country when I started another chapter of my life, and it has lived with me for more than twenty years.

I have a large collection of art, much of it acquired through trades since undergraduate years with other artists, but increasingly more through outright purchase. There have been some impulsive regrets that I may someday donate to something or other, but in general it is safe to say that mine is a better than average collection. Preferring to live among others’ works, my own art is mostly in my studio. This past year, however, I began to bring some recent pieces into the home mix, testing their hold on me/us. Do I like them as much as those by others that continue to claim places of honor on certain walls in certain rooms? All these choices represent enthusiasms and relationships over a lifetime of making. There is something comforting about being surrounded by my friends and memories in this way. Every work has a story and a person attached to it, beyond the fact of its existence in its own right.

This weekend I made my third most expensive art purchase. It was something that had to happen. When I saw the new series of collage monoprints that Robert Kushner produced at Wingate Studio, I lost my breath. There was barely a moment between “Oh, my God!” when I saw the first one, to “I need to buy this.” I excitedly looked at all six that were available, easily coming back to the first one I saw – and that my husband agreed was the best of the group – now temporarily protected in a foam core folder at the foot of our bed where it will eventually hang on the wall archivally matted and framed. (Ours is not depicted online.)

The event of becoming an owner of a Robert Kushner during the Friday night opening of this year’s biannual Baltimore Print Fair at the BMA, was followed by something even better. The next day in my studio I produced NINE new collages and by the day after had glued three of them in place! This included several steps similar to Kushner’s as well as running them through an etching press and setting them to dry slowly under light weight. Though inspired by him, mine look like the kind of collage and mixed media work that I do. They do not have anything printed on them (like his do), but some may end up with a touch of pencil — maybe. I’ll see if any need that when they all get up on my studio wall.

The school week has begun again, and thus my 10+ hour days at and/or for my job. The Print Fair weekend already seems like a month ago, my mind having shifted back over into another space-time continuum. In the wings I know that some part of me has the anticipation of gluing up six more pieces, the process having already safely begun. The act of finishing is doable when there is no open-ended time available for brand new creation.

Inspiration comes to me from within my own studio. All I need to do is show up. It is my desert island where I could likely exist for years. (It will take years to work my way through the piles of source material/starts I’ve generated and left percolating there.) It is rare, however, that inspiration occurs through seeing most artwork anymore. Perhaps I simply see too much student or derivative work. Or maybe I don’t get out enough or far enough away from my increasingly narrow physical radius. This year the Baltimore Print Fair seemed to have come to town particularly for me. It fed me in a way I have not been fed in a very long time, and I intend to use its memory as a touchstone for as long as it can last.

Gratitude to the BMA, Kusher, Rizzie (who also had some beautiful new prints there) and to the work of several other artists who made me stop and take notice of them, inhaling deeply and holding them in. I felt a bit like Rip Van Winkle coming out of a long sleep. Now continues the life-long process of trying to remain awake.

©2015 Janet Maher

All Rights Reserved