Art Thoughts

The Creative Process: Part 3

©2022 Janet Maher, InterBeing #4, mixed media altered prints collage drawing

      It was a bit shocking to see how long it’s been since I’ve updated my own website. As the webmaster for Artists’ Cooperative Gallery of Westerly, apart from quite actively living and accomplishing a good deal of new work in the studio this year, the months have been significantly devoted to getting that site up to the look it currently has. It should now be a matter of routine monthly updates and less labor-intensive maintenance from here on out. Please have a look at the ACGOW site, but do return to read this last installment of my young self’s philosophizing about the Creative Process. I will attempt to adequately refresh and update my Circlegarden Studio site by the end of this year.

The Creative Process: Part Three, Janet Maher ©2022, renewed from 1994.  (Note: these are continued excerpts snipped from my original 20-page paper and lightly edited.)

     Showing the work, receiving a response from outside oneself is necessary. The response may be positive, negative or undecided, but without allowing the work out into a part of the world beyond ourselves the creative act is incomplete. When a tree falls in a forest, perhaps the other trees hear, but if an artwork is only seen by the other artworks stored alongside it, the effort to produce the work was about something else besides making Art. It is then a private personal involvement…done, like beginners’ work, beyond outside judgement.

When the work is received by an audience apart from the maker a dialogue beyond the self may begin. Any and every member of the public is a potential audience, and the maker must be ready for any and every response. The material object must hold its own in a seesaw of objective/subjective experiences on the part of every person who sees it. The quality of the response is relative to the level of quality that the work embodies, but the viewer’s aesthetic experience and predisposed opinions are also important factors.

In my view, we ingest an artwork through our objective sensors almost instantaneously. The physical object-ness of the work catches our attention. We look at its size, manner of presentation, surface, color, overall composition and wonder about its content. The work, on its own, must get us this far. If the object cannot draw us away from our own previous reveries or from our attention to something else near it, it has already failed as art. Once a work has attracted our consideration, it is impossible not to switch immediately into subjectivity. We cannot enter into the work on a deeper level if we are not subjectively interested in it unless we do so as a purely intellectual exercise.

The first subjective part of the test begins – how interesting is this? We flip back into objectivity. How is it made? Where does this part connect to some other part? What will happen if I move to the left and look up at that part? How was that effect created? Subjectivity asks that a new layer of objective-technical information be revealed and the conversation between work and viewer continues: objective reality—subjective interest—objective matter—subjective association—deeper layers of objective understanding, visually peeling back the layers. Through this incremental series of checks and balances we are either led to an increasingly richer appreciation of the work or to a waning or dismissing of interest.

When an artwork is good, it becomes a multi-faceted gift. It is a testament to the gift of talent that its maker has been given, who in turn has passed this gift to the outside world. The acceptance of the work through appreciation by its audience returns the gift to the maker through the validation of an energizing “yes”. Sustained by this vote of confidence, combined with the personal satisfaction in one’s correct assessment of the work, the maker continues. The gift within her/him is enlarged, expanded and made ever more personal and complex as it goes out and returns, like breath.

Sometimes the gift is inadequate or is refused. The artwork is beyond our knowledge and experience and we cannot rise to meet it, or the work falls short of the expectations we have set for it, or we simply relegate it to a category that we do not value. Sometimes the artwork cannot find the right audience. Sometimes the artist has over-assessed her/his talent or readiness to show and needs to work at improving before venturing out again.

…Showing one’s work can be a very delicate activity, and part of the creative process includes knowing when not to do so. Showing something prematurely may serve more harm than good to oneself and to the work…Without having clear ideas about the work, yet asking for others’ input, criticisms or suggestions can muddy the waters. A work may be yanked prematurely from its incubation process. Especially when one is trying out new techniques or manners of working, it might be necessary to sit with them for a while, honor the process of the work on oneself that is also occurring as one learns through interaction with the artwork.

…Privacy and a completed dialogue between the maker and the work is crucial. Often an additional time in the studio is helpful, where a work can rest, seemingly finished, while the maker may catch it unaware at various disconnected moments in time, able to check and recheck to be sure it’s really “done”.

…In the beginning of any pursuit it is necessary to be experimentally non-judgmental and to maneuver through the foreign lands of anything that comes to mind. From pure beginning through the first sense of communication with others through the art, it is not long before one wants to become better at what s/he is trying to do. We learn a new language and want to converse, realizing quickly that we need more verbs and nouns in order to make headway. Some will be content to be capable of simple conversations, others may wish to write poetry and some may seek to become fully and beautifully bilingual.

If one wishes to evolve as an artist it is necessary to see the creative process through to its deepest areas, which may be at least uncomfortable and possibly downright treacherous. It becomes necessary to become critical of one’s work in as objective a manner as possible and to develop a thick enough skin to allow one’s work to be seen by an audience beyond one’s friends, family and locale. At every stage of growth the same decisions need to be made, but the risks and sacrifices become greater as ever more of one’s life has been invested in the endeavor. As the work ventures out into more and farther reaches, the critical voices may be less unconditionally accepting and less kind. The larger the audience one seeks for one’s work, the longer back into history is the pool of works by other artists against which one’s own is assessed and among which it attempts to coexist.

Many years ago I was briefly staying at the studio of an older artist friend of a friend in New York. I showed him slides of recent work, had just had a successful solo show and was generally feeling hopeful and optimistic about continuing to be involved in artmaking. He challenged me to think about why I wanted to be an artist. He said, “There are already too many artists in the world as it is who can’t “make it” and are struggling to support themselves and trying to believe in what they do. If you are just doing this in order to try to make your life more interesting, or because you might get to hang out with interesting people, forget it. You have to commit to it. And, if you’re really serious, what are you doing in New Mexico? You should be out here, really doing it.”

I was crushed, of course, and thought he was being overly opinionated and somewhat insulting, but after many years I am starting to understand what he meant and actually agree with him, as impossible moving to New York would have been for me at any point in time. Now, after having paid a great deal of dues, and being more committed than ever, I am still holding my own feet close to the proverbial fire. I realize how much more complex everything about art has become for me as my own level of awareness and experience has matured,  informed by its dialogue with my life–even if I continue to choose to live off the beaten path.

…(addressing my large project The Anatomy of Solitude) … just having recovered from completing this long, complex and physically and emotionally draining endeavor, my feeling was one of celebration of the group work and the contributions of the many people who became involved with it.  …It would require another paper to write about the project, the amount and level of creativity, courage and discipline that it required, and the manner in which it drew upon every skill and lesson learned from every previous work I have ever done. It would be necessary to distinguish between the work I do for myself in my studio, alone, and the work I do as a channel for other purposes…Having been working at my craft, having accepted my vocation many years ago, I am involved in all the concerns I have discussed so far. Projects such as The Anatomy of Solitude or Drawing Shelter, (an artist’s book and exhibition project with the homeless), are examples of a personal content complications I have included in my endeavors.

Now, not only am I concerned with producing, with the quality of what I do and mindfulness with which I do it, I am also concerned that my spiritual beliefs and societal concerns factor into the mix. As an artist-person, how can I earn my right to exist on this planet? How can I balance the sublime-time in the studio with a contribution to greater causes overall? As an artist-person, what can I do to help generate and move positive karma in some way in the world, however small? How can what I do bypass the consumer-oriented system of the art world and speak to larger concepts than home and museum decoration? 

These questions are added to my version of the big picture, held in tandem with the necessity to make a living by other means than artmaking. I have succeeded at levels that are no longer important to me, so now it is necessary to begin again—and again, probably for the rest of my life. One is always either on the path or not. Since the act of creation requires starting from where the artist last left off, there will always be improving, delving deeper, committing more, enlarging the vision—that, or turning away entirely to delve whole-heartedly into full attention to the Art of Life instead.

…These are the questions I ask myself as I continue to observe my involvement:

* Why make (what you determine to be) art?

* Who do you make it for?

* Who responds to it?

* Where do you fit in the history of contemporary art?

* In that place, what is the relative value and quality of what you do?

* Is it worth the life investment required to continue?

* Will it still be as or more important to you 10 years from now? 50?

* Will it be important to anyone next year? 10 years from now? 50? 100?

* Do any of these questions really matter?

©2022 All Rights Reserved. Janet Maher, Trusting the Process: Getting There From Here, located on the website: Copies of this may be shared as long as there is no charge for them or changes made, the author is fully credited and this full copyright is included. 

Art Thoughts

The Creative Process, Part 2

©2022 Janet Maher, InterBeing #2, mixed media altered prints collage drawing

[Note: Some sections have been cut from my 1994 essay and I have done some new editing in this section.]

Many people are content with life as a day-to-day process with rules to follow and a regular pattern, largely determined by factors outside themselves. Employment is often a way that lives are structured, with the addition of time that may be taken up with entertainment, relaxation or pursuit of a hobby. For many, art may or may not be a factor in their lives.

Some may be the audience or the patrons, others are happily unaware of its existence. If they are aware, it is then necessary to consider what kind of art interests them. Here complexity begins, for although people all over the world may be active in producing or not-producing-but-possibly-purchasing art as part of their entertainment, as a means of relaxing, for pleasure, for gift-making, for decorating their or others’ homes, all art is not the same and all does not contain the same inherent life commitment and relative value.

There are critics, curators and historians who weigh and separate artworks. There are different places to show, to purchase or house different kinds of art, and art is produced for different reasons, different functions, and by people with different levels of talent and commitment. If we as a culture had not changed from a time when art was a natural part of life and people’s roles in relation to it were neatly and socially defined, we would probably not be discussing art and creativity as a topic at all.

I think it is safe to say that there are as many variations in the creative process and means of tapping into it as there are people involved with it. Many studies have been done and much has been written about the creative process. The results are often a pooling of quotes by sampled creators, an overview which might serve to give the reader a sense of relief. It’s certainly OK to need to stand on your head in the middle of the street in the rain when you don’t know what to do or to require a half hour of picking your nose before attempting to work. Perhaps this is one of the commonalities of the creative act, that everyone has their own idiosyncratic method of getting there. “There” may involve a particular place, a refuge for the soul, which one enters physically and/or psychically, willing to work and wait, and where one can be an open channel for something to come through and manifest in physical form, in a manner very much like what one might have experienced as a child when discovering everything in the world for the first time. 

Often the process of producing an artwork is like a spiritual, meditative, other-worldly experience. Long periods of time may go by unnoticed, and when the session ends the feeling may be one of calm, happiness and spiritual fullness. One can experience a state of bliss, flow, total absorption, spontaneity and freedom of spirit, and even fun. To experience this on a regular basis, who wouldn’t want to be an artist? Certainly the pleasure of making art hooks one from the beginning. The relaxation, the centering inherent in the activity, becomes augmented by the thrill of having produced something that one likes. To set out to make something is an adventure into oneself. Can I do what I am going to try? Will it surprise me?

One begins making, writing, singing, dancing, etc. for the pure spontaneous impulse and subsequent love of doing it. It is a free-flowing expression that takes its inspiration from some spark in one’s life. From a feeling, a memory, a thought, an idea, an image, a word, a seed of anything of relevance to one’s reality, something else is manifested in such a way that it can exist outside oneself as an independent entity. When one is a beginner, it is necessary to try anything and everything with abandon and to look uncritically at what lies inside oneself. To be a beginner in anything is a celebratory place to be, for every step is progress and every skill is still to be discovered. Beginners’ work is accepted as simply what it is, with encouragement to continue for whatever reason one may or may not want to continue. Importantly, at every step along the path to mastery one must retain the heart of a beginner.

The consideration of art as a gift is tied to the idea of the pursuit of art as a vocation. Once recognized, it is a matter of deciding how to make use of/honor a talent and to decide how much of a life investment and commitment is worth offering to it. One may decide to look deeper into one’s artistic gift in order to determine its worth. If one is very gifted and loves to be involved in art, would it be wise to go to law school as his or her parents wish? If one has a moderate interest and average talent would it be wise to call oneself an artist and forge ahead with visions of fame and freedom in mind?

What is the goal of making art? For some, the process is enough. It is a pleasurable activity, it fills available time or satisfies a need for self-expression and it is all that it is, nothing more or less. In this case it is a complete act. For others there is an urge to continue to strive toward further levels of development. Here is where serious questions need to be asked. Here is where it is necessary to know why one wants to be involved in art, where one wishes to grow with the gift, and for whom one is making the art/the work. For as involvement in art progresses, one must eventually seek to stretch beyond one’s perceivable limits.

We reach any plateau with great excitement and a deep sigh of satisfaction. Once at the end of our particular creative journey it may not be very long until we are raring to go again at something more challenging, shifting ever so slightly or greatly beyond the point we just reached. If we are striving to grow, in what direction will we train the vine? Once the process of art moves beyond the simple pursuit of pleasure, the rest of the creative process comes to the fore. As we are involved in creating we are continually in a dialogue with ourselves and the product we are forming. As the creation takes form we continually assess its progress, weighing it against our expectations for it and factoring in our own limitations. We may produce great numbers of things, allowing the space for all of them to come forth. After the fact we look back upon them in order to recognize the one/s which contain a particular resonance. When we feel that a work embodies all that we wish for it, we offer it out into the world. To what portion of the world is it appropriate to offer our creation? Here, too, is a personal assessment.

For those who reach beyond the joy of casual making, venturing into the rest of the world of actually choosing to embrace the calling of an artist may become ever more challenging and more of a balancing act. That a nurturing energy may enrich oneself emotionally or spiritually in the making of art contributes to the stereotyped and rude assumption commonly used to belittle the fact that what artists do is actual Work. Anyone who has ever tried to accomplish some skill, improve upon it, become good at it, then still continue to improve and grow in that skill should know that to dismiss art-making as a lesser vocation should recognize this to be a grave and short-sighted error. Perhaps they have not heard that art is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration nor believe that to actually be true. It is.

The making of art is also not necessarily a means of enriching oneself financially. In addition to the work of creating, artists without outside means of financial support for simply living day-to-day often also work several part-time jobs or entire full-time careers in order to support their true vocation. The artist’s reality of  multi-pronged juggling of simultaneous types of work is much less often recognized, acknowledged or discussed. Women artists often make the additional sacrifices of allowing their partner’s success to be treated as “more important” than their own, and choose not to have children due to the awareness of their own precarious financial instability. They instead support their artwork financially with additional outside work in lieu of financially supporting a child. [This tangential topic is due its own focus, as is the choice to travel the road of becoming an artist despite not having a trust fund, but not for this essay.] 

[To be continued…]

©2022 All Rights Reserved. Janet Maher, Trusting the Process: Getting There From Here, located on the website: Copies of this may be shared as long as there is no charge for them or changes mad, the author is fully credited and this full copyright is included. 

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…)

Art Thoughts


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

Art Thoughts Ireland

The Still Point

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

Art Thoughts

Welcome, 2016.


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

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