Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Prolific artists

Two years ago, I visited The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts.  Built for and designed by writer Edith Wharton, using the principles she articulated in The Decoration of Houses (1897), I experienced The Mount as an environment ideally conducive to Wharton's intense productivity.  (She produced 40 books in 40 years, winning a Pulitzer prize in fiction for The Age of Innocence in 1921, plus magazine articles, poems and short stories!)

She accomplished much of this work without leaving her bed.  That is to say, she wrote before she began her day.

The docent described her work habits.  First thing in the morning and without speaking, Wharton's maid would awaken her with breakfast.  Wharton's dogs would pile into bed.  Though she may occasionally have paused to enjoy the view of her gardens from the window, she would write for two hours, long-hand, dropping each sheet onto the floor as she went.

View through the antique windows of Edith Wharton's bedchamber.
The maid would slip quietly into the room, collect the sheets from the floor, and stack them neatly on the desk in the office situated adjacent to Wharton's bedroom.

When Wharton finished writing for the day, she would dress and change locations, and edit while sitting at her desk.

Her chambers were designed to support this method of work.  Her home was organized around her needs as a writer first, then hostess, designer, and gardener.

Her routine did not vary. Even though as a woman in her day she was not supposed to be a writer, even after her marriage, she remained committed to her identity as a writer, and identity she forged as a young girl and supported by her mentor -- none other than Henry James!

I intended to write a long blog article dissecting how her physical organization and functional dedication might have produced the climate that led to such an outpouring of work.

Then I discovered an excellent article on the same topic.  Rather than rehashing it, I'll simply point you to it.  Written by Clay Collins (of The Growing Life) as a guest blog for Leo Babauta (of zenhabits), I encourage you to read it, then come back and share with me how you've structured your life to support your own creative production: Living the Prolific Life: A How-To Guide

My own productivity has been slammed lately with motherhood, a nearly-fatal illness, one home for sale, another under construction, closing my studio and opening a new business.  I came back to this blog, and looked at some work I'd started but never finished, and found the seeds of this concept.  Funny how the key to my own quandary sat here, unfinished and ignored.

Stifled by my lack of stability and my inability to carve time out for myself, I had not made time to write, until I'd encountered Jeff Goins.  His suggestions work because they work inside chaos. 
No mansion. No maid. No excuses. No crafting a perfect existence so that I could write from my persona.

Just get up early, clear my clutter, and write from my heart. 

Check. Check. Check.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Lollipop Trees

"At the age of four, a child I knew drew extraordinarily vibrant, imaginative trees. Crayon, chalk, colored pens, and silly putty were all useful. These trees were remarkable in how clearly they showed the bulbous lobes and branchy veins of individual leaves in a kind of cubist, all-the-way-around view that would have delighted Picasso. Meticulous observation of real trees, and a certain daring that is characteristic of four-year-olds, combined to produce these striking artworks. 
By the age of six, this child had gone through a year of first grade and had begun drawing lollipop trees just like the other kids. Lollipop trees consist of a single blob of green, representing the general mass of leaves with details obliterated, stuck up on top of a brown stick, representing the tree trunk. Not the sort of place real frogs would live. " —Stephen Nachmanovitch

I worked hours drawing a tree, in many-colored pencil, on an oaktag scrap I had hoarded from a class election, and presented my final drawing to an older boy who lived up the street from me.  Steve looked at it with derision, and dubbed it a lollipop tree.

"Trees don't look like that."

"My tree doesn't have lollipops on it. It has leaves."

"Show me a tree that has leaves like that, " and with that, he won the argument.

I did not attempt another tree for nearly thirty years when, as a student of landscape design, it became unavoidable.  And what I learned to draw were adult versions of lollipop trees.  Oh sure, they were anatomically accurate, properly leafed out, and shaded to look three-dimensional.  But our trees all looked similar!

So, in a fit of exasperation, I went outside with a sketch book and a pile of pencils and drew lollipop trees  sticks (textured to look like a tree trunk) and blobs of green (with approximately the "right" color leaves.)  I drew like this for about an hour, making myself silly with laughter.

And gradually, I noticed my drawings had changed. My hands had been looking at the trees.  The tree branching structures and leaf patterns and bark textures were finding their way into my pencils, which were furiously scribbling odd little lines and layers of color.

I switched to my camera, and started photographing them.  I digitized my sketches, and overlaid my hand-drawn images onto the photographs and melded them. I worked this way for another few hours, until I finally had my own tree vocabulary, and a new set of techniques for rendering plant materials that were all my own.

In this way, I freed myself from iconic, schematic representations  by enthusiastically and consciously giving in to them.  I also silenced my inner critic with laughter.

You can, too.  Find that inner nag, and say, "yes, you are right. I'll show you." Do precisely what the little demon says you "always" do.  Lean into it.  Write a flabby sentence. Draw lollipop trees.  Sing off-key.  Do it until you laugh.  That sound is your own voice asserting itself.

Follow that one.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Attraction or Distraction?

I'm writing this while watching CNN on my PC, and CBS on the television.  Like so many in the country, I should be working.   But who can work while the country, and possibly the world, is pausing to take in this amazing moment in contemporary history, as Barack Obama is soon to be sworn into the office of the President?

What is really going on here, from a creative standpoint?  Am I procrastinating?  Getting distracted?  Goofing off? Should I turn off everything and get back to work?

Not a chance.

Those words -- procrastination, distraction, goofing off -- describe a negative, blocked energy, and are not at all descriptive of the energy that is filling my heart at the moment.  No, the correct word is "attraction".  I am attracted to this event.  I am choosing to connect to the joy, anticipation, enthusiasm, hope, and so many other profound human emotions evoked by all that I am seeing and hearing.

It is important to understand the distinction between attraction and distraction.  Distraction pulls you away from your priorities, diminishes your energies, and dilutes your efforts.  Attraction realigns your priorities, increases your energies, and informs your efforts.  

Mindfully giving yourself permission to follow your heart is like planting seeds.  If you want more red flowers in your garden, you plant more red flower seeds.  Obviously, those seeds may not grow.  And if you already have red flowers, they may reseed and multiply in that way, making it seem as if your planting efforts were redundant.  But adding the seeds (or seedlings) to your garden increases the probabilities that you will achieve your desired outcome, and decrease your dependence on luck or the benevolence of the universe.

In that way, if you want more joy in your life, whenever possible, choose actions and experiences that give you joy.   You may not get that joy in the form you expected it, but you will increase joyful experiences.  You will increase your knowledge of what joy feels like, and thereby improve your chances of recognizing it the next time it comes along.

The difference between attraction and distraction is observable in your own energy level.  Sitting by the pool and drinking a beer may bring a measure of relaxation and pleasure to your life.  But will you be able to take something from the experience and then approach your work with renewed vigor and creativity?  Sometimes, that answer is a resounding "yes!"  (but beer usually has the opposite effect on me.)

I am sure that in a few hours, in the after glow of these shared moments of suspended disbelief, we will all get back to work richer for having been attracted to this experience.  And our work will be richer, too, resonant with echoes of hope, joy, and transformation.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Juggling and Judging

I've been immersed in two projects: a memorial urn for a good friend's father; and a jewelry chest for a cancer fundraiser connected with other friends. I deemed the first a success, and the second a near disaster. But self-declared disaster, or not, I delivered the second one, anyway -- to rave reviews. "Guess I don't know my own strength." (Bullwinkle J. Moose)

I remember wandering around the benches at North Bennet Street School, and commenting on all of the beautiful work that I saw in progress. Uniformly, without exception, each craftsperson gravely thanked me and then pointed out the swarm of little flaws that had escaped my notice.

Why do artists and others so frequently dump on their own work? Bob Franke, ( -- a national treasure and greatest songwriter on the planet), references "the existential guilt of the artist" (a phrase I think he attributes to Madeline L'Engel) when talking of this tendency among songwriters. With apologies to Bob, Madeline, and Heidegger, my gloss on the concept is that there is an essential structural limitation to one's authority -- a notion of right or skillful comportment or "being", such that one can never get a clear idea about what right or skillful comportment is. Therefore, one is eternally "wrong". For our artist, this implies that somewhere "out there" exists a grand defining notion of "Art", and the artist is unclear about how well he meets the definition; therefore, he must fall short.

We have an ideal in our heads. We struggle to achieve the ideal, and miss the mark. Therefore, our efforts are a miserable failure.

Heidigger suggests that a sort of salvation can be had if only we take responsibility for our understanding of being -- that which we embody but cannot know. For example, an artist could come to terms with what he believes Art to be, and then act in concert with that belief. In that way, the artist is at least authentic to his own ideals, and recovers some amount of autonomy.

I'll let you in on a little secret. I want to be like this guy, in every thing I do:

So, Heidigger, darling, salvation cannot be achieved in my universe, because I'm all too often trying to measure my efforts against a paradigm that can not be realized.

OK, but on my more productive days, I use a gentler standard. When I declare the first of my projects a success, what I really mean is that the piece I created exactly met my expectations and hopes. The finished piece was delivered on time, met my quality standards, and said exactly what needed saying. I held nothing back. I discovered a few things along the way. The process was healing for my client. The experience enriched my life.

The second project was haunted by expectations. It had no chance of meeting my hopes, because I wanted it to cure cancer. Truly. In my heart of hearts, I felt if I put all the right things into that project, it would somehow heal someone who is probably past healing by any mortal means. Too much for a mere box to achieve. But in the midst of the project, my fingers black with ebony dust, fighting time, and fear, and grief, and artistic angst -- I couldn't see it. When I finally recognized what I was doing, I abandoned the unrealistic hopes instead of the box, and delivered the project anyway. And no one saw that I failed to cure cancer that day. Except me. And now, you.

In "Photographing the World Around You", (a book one should read, if only to appreciate the beautiful writing), Freeman Patterson tells a story about a student who spent all day shooting images in a dead forest, returning "deeply excited, carrying three rolls of exposed film." Patterson describes checking the films in the drying closet, and carefully reviewing the images on a light box -- "ghostly images that powerfully evoked skeletons and a world of the dead -- achieved by means of overexposing the subject matter by two or more shutter speeds". Later, he runs into the student, who claimed that she'd "ruined all the rolls" she shot because she forgot to change the film speed on her camera. When he asked where the films were, she said she'd thrown them in the trash. A horrified Patterson rescued as many slides as he could, then showed them (without comment or attribution) to the rest of the class -- to rave reviews. He finishes by admonishing the reader, thusly:

Don't evaluate the pictures you thought you made; evaluate the ones you actually made.
Evaluation has at least three parts. First, we need to acknowledge the discrepencies, if any, between our intial vision and the finished work. Ok, grieve, grump or celebrate, then move on.

Time to abandon that vision, and look with fresh eyes at what we actually made. To do this, you may need to distance yourself from the work for a while so that you can see it clearly. Put it someplace safe. At this stage, it is best to give a wide berth to fireplaces, trash cans, and sledge hammers. Okay, take a breath and look at it. Can you own it? Does it fit inside what you believe quality work to be? Does it say something [else] to you? Where does it irritate you? Must you tinker with it? (Try not to. ) Where does it surprise you? If someone else made this, what would you think? Aren't you a little bit curious about what someone else might discover when they experience it?

If you can own it, release it. Something happens when we foist our work on the real world -- whether we are satisfied with that work or not. Others view it, interact with it, bring their stories and their symbols in to play with it. Time, light, color, sound will weave themselves into it. And unless you anticipated these variables in the original work (as juggler Chris Bliss must have done for his juggling to be so effective), your intended meaning will be altered, muted or amplified. Some of these alterations will surprise, peeve, vex, or amuse you. Some will resonate, and you'll find yourself thinking, "yes, that was floating around underneath my conscious intent, but it was there". And sometimes you will be right -- the thing is dreadful or, worse, inconsequential. But until you release it, you won't know.

If there is a fourth step, it has to do with time and synchronicity. You may not be there when it happens, but often a finished work of art can evolve.

On one of my installations, a goldleaf flock of fat little birds spirals up a stairwell. On winter mornings, sunlight filters through the chandelier crystals, and splatters rainbows on the walls. It looks as if the birds are hopping over rainbows, or leaving rainbow skid marks everywhere. I'd like to say I knew that that would happen. The truth, though, is that prior to the completion of the installation, I had never seen the sun hit that chandelier, and I was sad that it rarely captured any light. I noticed sunlight dappling the walls directly, and I had thought about playing with these lights and shadows, but it became one of those ideas on the cutting room floor.

Anyway, I first saw the rainbows on a day when I was frazzled and down. And I laughed out loud, ran for my camera, called my husband, and just enjoyed the moment in every way I could.

Ok, so it didn't cure cancer, but it cured what ailed me. Is it art? It meets my definition of art: it moves me from position i to position x everytime I see it. That is all I ask of Art. I want it to take us from where we are, and move us -- even a little bit -- to a new view point.

Struggle to say what you mean to say. Then step back, and learn whether or not you said it. That can't happen if you keep chattering on about how awful the work is. Shut up. Listen. Let the art begin.

Monday, March 06, 2006


Here I am, doing just that.

Perhaps to you it appears that I am on task. After all, I'm writing, which is a hard thing for writers to sit down and do. However, I'm supposed to be working on a box due to be delivered on Tuesday. I blew a big hole in an important piece yesterday, and I'm, frankly, terrified to screw up my last piece of that precious wood by making the same mistake. So... I find it easier to do positively anything than take that risk at this moment. In fact, just this morning I've shopped for groceries, cleaned the studio bathroom, tossed out some old files, reorganized my kitchen cabinet and slurped two cups of coffee. Slowly.

I slogged my way to a point where I could face a small part of my true task, and Googled to find a local supplier for a new dovetail bit to replace the one I annihilated yesterday. A procrastinator's dream, Google handed me off to the David Savage's website where I got lost fantasizing about studying with him for a year, and I was gently reminded to get working.

Sharpen three pencils, make one cup of coffee then start, anything but make a start. Once you've started keep it rolling. Now you remember my little girl, you're engaged in that fundamental creative process which is called play. Enjoy it. Have some fun. Get a smile on your face. You can't make joyous furniture if you're feeling miserable. Nobody wants to see your miserable furniture. If you have a particular problem just doodle your way round it. Let the brain run sideways. Make lots and lots and lots and lots of little drawings. It really doesn't matter if what you do is a load of rhubarb. In fact the more rhubarb that you can include at this stage the better, for within that rhubarb there might be something quite exciting. Don't be too critical, don't stop yourself, don't let the fear and the anxiety stop you. David Savage
So, I decided to capture this morsel, and then I'll get back to work. Really. And I'll tell you how, so maybe you can get back to work, too.

Procrastination is not a character flaw. It is a technique -- an avoidance technique employed underhandedly by the our dear brains to dance us gently past the graveyard of our denied emotions. Stop and feel. Ask yourself: "Am I angry? afraid? hurt? confused? sad?" Because, truly, procrastination is there to help you avoid exactly that question and you won't get back to work until you find your answer.

I'm actually most of those, today.

I'm angry. I defied common sense and used a chipped router bit, when I know better. I used a machine-cut joint when I wanted to use a hand-cut joint, because I thought the machine would increase the probability that I would stay on schedule. Wrong. I'm now angry that I am likely to blow the schedule AND sacrifice my original vision with no gain.

I'm afraid. I put myself at some potential physical risk. (The bit slipped, and destroyed my work. It could have destroyed me.) I think I know why that happened, but I'm not certain, and I'm a little afraid to try again. I'm not hurt, but I might have been, and my adrenaline flows freely.

I'm confused. I worked through the physics of the problem yesterday, and I'm 88% sure that I know what happened and why. But, now with the schedule likely blown, do I drive two hours to buy another bit? do I cut the joint by hand? do I wait until my (previously ordered) new bits arrive on Wednesday? How do I handle the problem?

I'm sad. I loved that piece of wood. I'm emotionally invested in my now endangered deadline. I wanted to play with the lid & the marquetry today. I wanted to be relaxed about working through the final stages. I don't want to call and say I'll be late. I don't want to make more mistakes by rushing.

See -- a lot is actually going on underneath what appears to be procrastination. And, until I can let go of the anger, responsibly address my fear, and "get a smile on my face" I won't be able to continue. The rest is problemsolving.

Therein, for me, lies the key to recovering my joy. I need to find some small part of the problem that I can solve. Small. Really, really, small. So small that it moves me in the direction of the task without touching directly on the pain. Clean up the saw dust I left on the floor. Find a new bit. Work out a time schedule. Practice a few handcut dovetails in some scraps of that wood. Sample finishes for the final piece. Typically, I will soon find myself sneaking up on the task I was avoiding, and tackling it.

When even these small measures fail, I give my brain some time to "run sideways". The small brain is working on something in the background, and an answer will pop out if I'm gentle. I feed it with information, then I do something off task, joyful, or mindless. I sharpen tools, go ice skating, practice writing with my left hand (try it!), photograph something, write, or take out my sketch book. Perhaps I'll doodle out a way to artistically salvage the work I've done & save my schedule. (Oh, is that what I'm working out?!)

And here I am, doing just that.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Strange Attractors and Artistic Process

ApXos is easier to type than Applied Chaos -- which is both my company's name, and my state of being. I chose that name for my company ten years ago -- before I had a company. Reading an article about chaos theory applied to the study of electrical impulses across the heart, I put those words together and thought they perfectly described my approach to creating stuff.

In math & physics, chaos theory attempts to model the behavior of systems that appear to be random. Successful models of these systems actually prove to be deterministic (well defined, with no random parameters), and the "chaotic" behavior actually derives from sensitivity to initial conditions, that is, a small change in conditions at the start of the model may prove to have dramatic variations in the direction or outcome of the model. So, even systems we perceive to be chaotic prove to be orderly after a fashion, once we truly understand the model.

While theorists focus on modelling the weather or financial systems or population movements, I've been applying the concept to the artistic process. Truly, from the outside this appears to be a chaotic system. We know that presented with the same opportunity, no two people will draw, sculpt, paint, design, or problem-solve in exactly the same way. Is this symptomatic of a sensitivity to initial conditions? I've been exploring this possibility as an artist, and not as a mathemetician, however, and so you probably won't find many interesting mathematical models popping out of my work here.

What may emerge though, is insight into chaotic processes that surround almost any creative or entreprenurial endeavor. Some we have labelled with angry words like: procrastination, resistance, blocks, laziness, attention deficit. We observe erratic behavior among "creatives" -- engineers who leave their desks to play ping pong during a crisis, woodworkers who waste time sweeping the floor just prior to making mountains of sawdust, writers who suddenly take up ice skating two weeks before deadline, and make the deadline by pulling all-nighters.

I've found that these are actually symptoms of the creative process in action. I've observed these and other symptoms at work in the many different kinds of creative teams I've led or been a member of. The most effective teams and individuals are those who have learned to treat these symptoms as friends. The most troubled are those who internalize the negative words, and denigrate themselves, their work, or their vision and give up before they reach their goals.

It is my hope that sharing my insights (and the insights of others that have helped me) will guide us to the "strange attractors" of the art world -- the beautiful and mysterious patterns of creativity.