Monday #36: A Light Heart

Mural Pinot Picasso

This past weekend we attended the annual “Pinot to Picasso” benefit gala. It’s the big fundraiser for the Arts Council of Princeton where I am an instructor. It is also one of the few events for which I will donate art. In fact, everything at this event is donated to the council which features food by local restaurants and wine provided by one of Princeton’s area purveyors. Even the space is donated and, as usual, it was an empty office space in a corporate complex. The artistic staff at the arts council always turns this kind of space into an eclectic mix of the magical, quirky and industrial and I always look forward to being at this party.  This year, they did something they’ve never done–they set up one of the unfinished walls as a space for attendees to paint. A table on the side held plastic gloves and aprons so that no one would muss their cocktail attire and the floor in front had jars and spray cans of acrylic paint.

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You can bet that I did not wait long to join in.

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Even my left-brained, techy boyfriend grabbed a brush.

When I talked with O’Sheila, the staff member who was in charge of this little painting station, we marveled at how these big, collaborative projects morph rapidly with exuberant energy. In my work in schools and other public spaces, I have watched this happen with wonder each and every time. One person’s mark becomes the inspiration for another person’s mark. Colors and lines change. Spaces fill in. New images take shape from scribbly bits. When I am witness to these kinds of things, I always wish I had a time-lapse camera going.

Of course, in the beginning, it was just a big, blank, white wall waiting for the first person to put something down. Who wants to be that person? What will they put there? It’s a little bit of pressure, isn’t it? O’Sheila said the first mark of the evening was… a little heart.

I like that.

I like that because hearts are happy images that bring a notion of love, of joy. The heart-shape is a safe and easy one that always connotes something positive.

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Hearts are a common motif in my own work and, at least I believe, they instantly render something lighter and more friendly. Even the quick and abrupt email or text with a “<3″ at the bottom sends a lighter vibe.

But hearts, in reality, can be anything but light. Emotions of the heart are often sad, longing, regretful, unforgiving and heavy. In a recent conversation with my bestie, we talked of this heavy heartedness and, specifically, the unforgiving heart. This is, perhaps, one of the heaviest hearts. It is the heart that holds what it does not really want to and this load is often a burden to carry but we do it anyway, don’t we? Forgiveness. It is tricky business.

I’ve heard many metaphors to describe the unforgiving heart but the two that come to mind are the carrying of a large stone or the holding of a hot coal. When our hearts cannot let go, we are the sole bearers of the weight or the heat. As our muscles tire or our hands burns, the world goes on around us as we stand there with our baggage. In my own life, I see how this effort to carry these things takes creative energy away from our most important goals and relationships and puts it into things that are often unchangeable but that gladly suck that energy up like a hungry, black hole.

Letting go will lighten our hearts. It can happen, and beginning is as simple as imagining this for a moment: What would it feel like to have a lighter heart?

Because, if we lighten our hearts, one thought will become the inspiration for another thought. Colors and lines will change. Spaces will fill in. New images will take shape from scribbly bits. We can choose to believe this is all true.

And, I’ve seen it happen.

TRY THIS WEEK: Lighten up.

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Monday #35: What Would You Say?

Dar in CeeCees Basement 1980

My childhood bestie posted this on Facebook yesterday… and it wasn’t even Throwback Thursday! I don’t have any recollection of this photograph but she remembers it down to what I did that day… “It was so fun seeing these pics again…(they were) taken in the basement of my dad’s on Aldeha. You had just come from having Dinner at Red Lobster with your mom and sister. Remember that night?” No, actually, I don’t. How does she remember that?!

It’s interesting to look back at old pictures, especially when they belong to someone else and you don’t exactly remember them being taken. Check out me, striking that pose, pretending to be sultry, as if I had any clue what sultry was. I think I am all of 12 or 13 in this shot, but there I am trying to work the camera. I wonder how long I spent on my hair that day. Looking at the girl in this old picture feels a little bit like looking at another person who isn’t me.

A couple of weeks ago I was away in Atlantic City doing a couple of school programs. After the day was finished, I went back to my hotel (inside the brand new, very big and very flashy casino, Revel) and had dinner at the bar of an Italian restaurant downstairs. I don’t know about you but I love having dinner at the bar, especially when I am alone. I like the noise and the casualness, I like the conversations you can strike up with the person next to you, I like little scenes that take place at the service bar with the waiters, I like the wine and I like bartenders. Once upon a time I was the girl behind the bar and the memories of this time remain among my all-time favorites.

On one of the two nights I pulled up to the bar for a glass of Malbec, an amazing arugula salad and the best beef carpaccio I’ve ever had. There was a cute, spunky, young, ginger-haired gal named Samantha working the bar. She was all of 21 years old, just out of the chute, so to speak, and she did something that usually irritates me as a seasoned, middle-aged Malbec drinking former bartender… she called me “hon.” Not just once, but every time she addressed me or brought me anything. “Can I get you a drink, hon?” “Are you ready to order, hon?” “Your salad will be right out, hon.” Is it just me or is there something that feels just a little wrong about a 21 year old girl calling a woman old enough to be her mother, “hon”?

After a while, I let it go and we struck up a conversation about her life–where she was from, what school she went to, what she wanted to do when she was finished. And, all of the sudden, it occurred to me that what she was there doing there was what we all do when we are younger than we want to be–we practice our future selves. We try on different personalities and see how they feel. We experiment with the camera-loving diva or the friendly bartender who calls everyone “hon.” Over time, the things that feel right stick and the others get cast aside like the old costumes of Halloweens gone by.

But, sitting on the other side of the bar being called hon and looking at a picture I don’t remember being taken got me thinking about what I would tell that girl who was me but didn’t feel like me, if I could. I took a quick inventory of my life and tried to come up with three things I would say to her in the hope that she could absorb them and use them as the prophecy I was imagining in this daydream. Here goes:

1. Slow down. Growing up needs your full attention. It’s about more than Farrah hair and great shoes. Growing up happens on the inside, too, and this is probably the most important part but it takes time… lots and lots of time. Ha! Guess what? It’s never over!

2. Stay calm. Reactions are natural but not all of them are good or necessary. Let the reaction sit there for just a moment before you decide to unleash it.

3. Believe that you are in the right place and don’t worry if it’s not where you thought you’d be. You’ll get to all of that somewhere on down the road. Or not. You’ll see.

And, of course, the thing I realize now is that the girl in the picture is still here. She still needs reminding and a good talking to now and again. I just sorta wish I still had her hair and her jean size.

TRY THIS WEEK: What three things would you say to your younger self?

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Monday #34: From The Mouths of Babes

 

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What do you think are some of the most important things about being an artist?

I recently asked this question to 80 fourth graders as part of an “application” for a book illustration project I am working on for a non-profit, urban forestry organization called Tree Pittsburgh. Out of the 80 children, I hand-picked 40 kids from Pittsburgh’s Environmental Charter School to illustrate a 40-page picture book that I wrote for Tree Pittsburgh called, If We Were To Plant A Tree, a spin-off of my 2008 title, If I Were A Tree. Next week, I will spend five days at the school working with these children as a part of the school’s Earth and Arbor Day celebrations. The book will be launched later this fall as part of Pittsburgh’s “Neighborwood” festival but its larger objective is to spread the mission of urban forestry to the country—and maybe even the world!—at large. I am so excited and honored to be directing such an amazing project.

I visited the school briefly a couple months ago during my first information-collecting trip to Pittsburgh. There was a quick introduction to the kids and a tour of the school, which sits on the edge of the city’s largest green space, Frick Park. Then, a couple weeks ago, I did a video-conference with all 80 of the kids to tell them about the two different ways they could participate during the week I’m at the school. Children who are not illustrating will be involved in a week-long, urban seedling-planting project with the educational outreach person from Tree Pittsburgh. The two parts of this project dovetail so nicely and, as a grade-level project, I think it’s pretty cool for these students at ECS to be involved in something with such local and national outreach.

Predictably, many of the initial questions I was asked were concerned with how the forty would be chosen and I was able to sense a little anxiety and angst over the perceived “fairness” of selecting some and not others. Indeed, this was the initial concern of the teachers at the school even before we secured the project with them. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I am not a big fan of the “everyone gets a medal” mentality that is so pervasive among this generation of children and that I am an enthusiastic proponent of healthy competition among people of all ages, especially children. Much of the research done by the likes of Daniel Pink and Carol Dweck supports this opinion and most adults, if they are being honest with themselves can usually acknowledge that it has been, and will always be, true that, no, not everything in life is fair.

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My criteria for picking the children who will do these illustrations was, in general, a response to obvious expressed interest in the project (they could choose between this and the outdoor tree planting project), thoughtful and often funny answers to the seven questions on the application, and then something “extra” in the quick drawing of a tree I asked them to do on the back of the form. The project is an important one and the book will be promoted nationwide so I wanted the kids who truly wanted to be a part of it, but I did want the kids to have fun with this “playsheet” as I called it, and felt that I would be able to detect sincere interest.

Many of the questions were asked just to prime the pump on thinking about trees in preparation of the project and to see if the children would answer beyond the rote responses of knowing that trees provide us with oxygen or that they grow in city parks. Playsheets with questions that were left blank, answered with “I don’t knows,” or that provided tree drawings that portrayed the ubiquitous “lollipop” tree were quickly cast aside. Some of the answers made me chuckle out loud and those were immediately put into the group of 40 kids who would illustrate the book with me. If a kid can make me laugh, that’s a kid I want working on a big, fun project.

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My favorite question was the last one: What do you think are some of the most important things about being an artist?

I wonder if you will agree with me that the answers given by these children are pretty astute considering they are all of nine and ten years old. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of answers and the insight they offer on what our young people think is important for someone who chooses a career in the arts, however, I find that this list of responses is good advice for any profession or any relationship.

-Creativity (this answer came in more than any other).

-Being imaginative and having freedom.

-Being passionate because, if you aren’t, you won’t be able to do your best work.

-If you show your work to someone else and they say something bad about it, just let it roll off your back because you know you like it and that’s all that matters.

-Keeping an open mind and looking at things from all perspectives.

-Being in touch with your art.

-You have to make all your work very detailed and get ready for questions from fans.

-Don’t be discouraged.

-Using all your senses.

-Being happy, loving art.

-Creativity is the base of all things, from architecture to politics.

-Honesty and being yourself.

-Having pride in your work.

-Keep a notebook with you in case you have an idea.

-Knowing how to let your creativity out.

-Having thoughts.

-Never underestimate what you can do.

-The most important thing is having fun because if you don’t have fun, your art won’t look fun.

-Sometimes you don’t need amazing art skills to make a masterpiece.

-Concentration and a brain that is always expanding.

-To know that the project you are working on can help you work on your life.

-To inspire others.

-To express what you are feeling.

-Your art flows your own way.

-Having patience when you mess up.

-Dealing with artist’s block.

-Having determination.

 

And this is my personal favorite:

-Being able to keep your cool.

 

The kids sure get it right sometimes, don’t they?

TRY THIS WEEK: Think about things that matter most to you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Monday #33: Fun Shows

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I’ve been teaching adults lately. Mostly, I put out a bunch of supplies and ideas and let grownups take a break from their real lives to play for a while. This, as you might guess, is often a challenge for them.

Last week I had two adult workshops. I encouraged everyone to abandon their fears of not making something “good,” and to let go of any ideas of what things are “supposed” to look like. I talked about some of the benefits of creative play: learning to take risks, exercising our brains in new ways, being in a space that always welcomes us and never has any expectations of us. One of my workshops was an art journaling class and my students really went out for it and made some beautiful stuff…

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At the end of the session, everyone felt happy and surprised at what beauty they had made. It was cool to see people feel surprised at being able to tap into their own creative streak. But they also said they had fun and that they were surprised about that. When I look at their art, I can see the fun. Can you?

And, even though I’ve made a career out of my own creativity, I can really relate to the fears of letting go. When deadlines are piling up and people are waiting for me to finish things, when I am in the midst of producing for shows or a gallery, I can feel my playfulness being pushed out by anxiety and stress. But, I’ve been taking Lilla Roger’s “Make Art That Sells” class on art licensing for the past couple of months and, in a rather transformative way, have come to internalize her mantra, “People will buy your joy.” As a nurturing agent, and an artist in her own right, Lilla infuses all her lessons with words like “fun,” “play,” and talks about having a good time as an integral part of the constant practice of one’s craft. She says fun shows.

For our first two assignments, I had a hard time plugging into play. I was too caught up in trying to follow the prompt to the letter rather than letting my spirit put its own spin on it, too focused on the abilities of others and too afraid to make a “mistake,” whatever that is. And then I pushed all that aside and got out my collage papers. I turned on my favorite playlist, lit a nice smelling candle and got down to the business of fun. The assignment was tropical fruits and vintage pyrex. The fruits were right up my alley and, while the pyrex made me pause a bit, I was determined to stay in play mode and let it rip without fear.

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The days I worked in my studio on this went by quickly. It was fun and, personally, I feel like it shows.

We can be playful in other parts of our lives, too. With our children and our families, with our partners and our spouses, with our classmates, colleagues and our associates. We can can approach our work with the idea of being in our joy and when we do this, well, it shows.

TRY THIS WEEK: Let it show.

 

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Monday #32: Driven To Distraction

I work from home and have only ever held a “real” job for one year in 1995. In my workspace, I have a large computer screen that allows many programs and windows to be open and I have just added a second screen which will allow for even more screen viewing. I am completely and utterly addicted to Facebook, although my kids say this is passé and so I’ve just begun to dabble in Twitter and Instagram, which clearly presents another issue. I adore Pinterest. And, yes, it is porn for creative people. I have a to-do list that is, thankfully for this freelancer, always growing. I have a studio full of delicious art supplies and half-done projects that are constantly calling to me and I am always saying yes to another one. I need to run or exercise just about daily. I like to think about food and to cook stuff from scratch. I have kids who still live at home. I have a great boyfriend who is tons of fun to hang out with. Oh, and there is this thing called sleep that I like to do whenever possible.

And, did I tell you? I am Easily distracted. And, please note, that is easily with a capital “E.”  I’m pretty sure that once upon a time, had there been such a time in my youth, I would have been diagnosed with ADD and there isn’t a teacher on this planet who had me in their class that would ever tell you that I “made good use of my time.”  I’ve written about my chronic procrastination issue, which really goes hand-in-hand with distraction, but distraction, on its own, is a really big demon of mine.

Oh, wait! I think I just saw something shiny!

See, the problem with all of this is that sometimes I actually have real deadlines. REAL ones. Deadlines that involve real stuff like financial proposals and other people in their other real lives and their deadlines. Deadlines that involve my financial well-being and livelihood. Deadlines that, if they were not met, would make others very upset and would have a terrible impact on my career. When I have something like this on the line and distraction comes in, it’s important to know how to cope with it.

For me, dealing with distraction is a constant challenge but, over the years, I have learned two important things. First thing is that a big part of it, procrastination–is my percolation. This period of percolation is as necessary to me as studying, outlining and brainstorming are to other people. I have to delay the project to the eleventh hour–which, for me, isn’t actually the eleventh hour but the exact right hour to dive head in and be overwhelmed. Second, when distraction comes into play during my work period, I must have a strategy to deal with it. So, here it is:

1. Set the stage for the task. You can call this a ritual if you want but really it is just getting your space ready for the task at hand in whatever way works for you. For me, this often has a little OCD element to it which looks very much like cleaning and reorganizing and, when it comes to my studio space, can include a complete overhaul of my materials but fortunately only takes a couple hours and seems to work out some of my more compulsive tendencies. So, perhaps, set a time, clear a space, put on the kind of music you love, make a cup of coffee or tea, do your yoga… whatever it is that gets you into a space to focus on something, that is what you need to do and do it now. And, when you do it, fully do it. Be present and feel what you are doing to prepare yourself for the task.

2. Turn off the “stuff.” That’s email, Facebook, instant messenger, your phone, whatever. What is it that is keeping you from your task? Turn it off. It is pretty likely that no one will die if you aren’t available for 30-60 minutes.

3. Thirty to sixty minutes? Can you do that? No? Maybe you can’t and that’s okay. But, what can you do? Think about how much time you believe you can truly devote to your task and put that number in your head. If you think you can only be focused for ten minutes, then BE focused for ten minutes and don’t let anything else seep into your attention.

4. I know I said it already but it bears repeating: BE focused for whatever amount of time you have set for yourself. And, if ten minutes is your starting period, see if you can increase that over time to fifteen, thirty and up to an hour or more. Get into what is known as “zone” and “flow” and watch this attention period increase.

5. Reward yourself with your distractions! If you have successfully put in your time on task, well, then go for Facebook, Pinterest, video games or whatever your favorite distraction is! This is not about abolishing who we are but, instead, about being able to balance the parts of our lives that pull for our attention.

6. Reflect. How did it feel to be immersed in that task without distraction? Would you like to do that again? How would it be to be able to be in control of your tasks and distractions?  Imagine that you could eventually organize your day so that your “distractions” were not intruding on your ability to complete your tasks?

Distraction can keep us from our goals, can keep us in perpetual procrastination, can completely paralyze us. It’s true and I know it. Days can fritter away and make us into slackers. Smart people like us, however, can make plans and implement them in order to be the best versions of our selves. We can conquer these silly little shiny things. We can choose to let our selves enjoy them at another time of our choosing and get the things done that we need to get done.

 

TRY THIS WEEK: Implement your plan to combat distraction.

 

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Monday #31: Spring Haiku

spring tree

Once again we find

the flowers eager to bloom

after winter’s rest.

 

TRY THIS WEEK: Add your Spring Haiku!

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