Monday, June 29, 2015

Go to the Gunas!

Photo courtesy of YATNA/Yoga as Therapy North America
Barely had I returned from Ithaca when I had to leave for Nashville and module #3 of my yoga therapy training.  This time around, we spent most of the nine days learning about Ayurveda, a sister science/art to yoga.  The teaching was led by Elizabeth Cunningham-Bossart, who managed to make this highly complex topic accessible to us - offering us just the right amount of information so that we can use some Ayurvedic tools to help us in our yoga therapy practice.

Some aspects of the Ayurvedic model seem to be counter-intuitive and go against commonly held beliefs about health.  For example, in Ayurveda, most people should not ever do a juice cleanse and many of us should not be eating salads, raw veggies or fish everyday.  But when you look closely, as we did, statements like that make a lot more sense.  We have two doctors and two other Western medically-trained people in our course.  They repeatedly confirmed that the Western model of medicine was just beginning to notice and confirm many of the things that have been known and studied by Ayurvedic doctors for millennia.

It felt a little disjointed to go from intensive art making to intensive yoga therapy training but I have faith that everything will fall into place as it should.  Meanwhile, it was wonderful to spend all that time with such a lovely group of caring people.  My love and gratitude to them all!

Friday, June 19, 2015

We Have to Own It

It is not unusual for me to spend these long road trips in total silence.  If the kids are with me, we usually listen to books on tape for part of the time but, if it is just me, then I prefer silence.  I enjoy my thoughts and occasionally try to do "driving zazen".  Somehow, the time passes swiftly by.  Yesterday, however, I decided to see what was on the radio in Virginia.  Finding the local public radio station, which I was shocked even existed in rural Virginia (biased Yankee that I am), I heard the horrible news about the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.  And I listened to the story as it unfolded the rest of the day.

On one call-in show, I heard with my own ears this thing that I had only read about - white people (who would identify themselves as such) calling to say that this young man was a lone-wolf, mentally ill person who should not be held up as representing all white people.  One guy even said, "I have a lot of black friends!"  This response is part of the problem.  I don't care if your best friend is black.  You, me, we**, have to own this thing - 100%.

My relatives were living, dirt poor, in Ireland and in Newfoundland at the time of slavery in the United States, so there is part of me that wants to say, "But it's not me or my people!"  Or "But I have black friends!"  The question remains - is there blood on my hands?  Sorry my fellow lily-white people, the answer is yes.

Having spent some time looking deep inside (and not just on long, silent road trips), I have felt -viscerally - the pain of being female in this patriarchal culture.  Not just my personal story with the large and small, gross and subtle, ways that I have been silenced, put down, objectified and negated, but the experiences of every, single woman on the face of this Earth throughout history.  Believe me or don't believe me, but I know that I have touched this pain.  And when I remember that feeling, which is not so hard to do because it is not so far beneath the surface, I think about how there must be a very similar pain experienced by every black and brown person on the face of this Earth.  I don't know this particular pain but I am guessing that the accompanying feeling of sadness at the foolish waste of human potential, the senseless waste of beautiful human life, and the anger that we do this to each other, is similar.

When men say things like, "not all men…" in response to sexism, it is very similar to a white person saying, "but I have black friends!".  Men - yes ALL men - have to own their privilege and their responsibility for the history of oppression of women.  Nothing will change until every single man admits his role.  Likewise, every single white person - myself included - has to own this terrible history of racism that the United States was built upon, even if their relatives were dirt poor and living in Ireland at the time of slavery.  And if men who do take responsibly often fall into the trap of then mansplaining how to make things better, I think, likewise, white people need to take responsibility and then shut up and listen.  The way to make things better is not to whitesplain what to do.   It is time to listen with humility and a desire to atone for this violent, grotesque history that we continue to benefit from everyday of our lives.

What can well-intentioned white people with black friends do in the aftermath of this horrible hate crime?  Step #1: Take responsibility. Then, be quiet and just listen, even when it is hard to hear what is being said, even if it feels unfair (it's not), even when it hurts.  This is part of atonement - taking responsibility and really hearing the pain of those who you have injured (yes, YOU).   My suggestion for how to do that is to begin by just saying it to yourself - say some words out loud to yourself that make sense to you but are real, honest and do not sugarcoat things.  And maybe apologize while you are at it.  Say these words one time each day.  Very simple, very do-able and, I suspect, very powerful.   No need to shout it from the rooftops.  Saying it to yourself is enough - for now.   I have faith that what to do next will make itself clear if we can just get to Step #1.

And I suggest we get right on it.

** By "we" I mean you, Whitey

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Time Flies

Tomorrow morning - very, very early tomorrow morning - I will head south to Nashville.  I have made this trip two times before and I will make it yet three more times.   The weather report, last time I checked, said they were having a heat wave.  The forecast is for high 90s (high 30s for Celsius lovers) for most of the time we will be there.  This is why my motto has always been:

Head North.  Things are Better There (Also The Bugs are Smaller)

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The Stain is the Perfection

A friend of mine gave me a large bin-full of vintage textiles that once belonged to her Aunt Electra, who lived in Tennessee and sold them for a living.  Until she died, that is.  Over the years, my friend has given them to me in increments, a pile at a time, knowing that I appreciate their intricacies and the skill and sheer patience that went into each one.  She usually says, "Robyn, I know you love these, maybe you can make art with them."  Sometimes I even find little price tags on them.

I brought this bin with me up to Ithaca because, truth be told, these beautiful, precious textiles have felt a bit like a stone around my neck.  What good is it to hoard them in a plastic bin?  Yet, the idea of making something with them was mostly horrifying.  A lot of the work I see made from vintage textiles (Shawn, you are an exception!) looks like, well, not what I want to make.  And the idea of cutting them up or otherwise altering them seems like sacrilege.  I know only too well what has gone into their making.

On the morning that I left for Ithaca, I stopped by my studio and, at the last minute, I grabbed the bin.  I will be brave, I thought.  I won't get intimidated by their beauty and their age and by the ghosts of the hands that made them that still hover around them.  Once I arrived, I unpacked the lot of them, which is how I found my old pillowcase which isn't quite to the standard of the other stuff but clearly sparked something.  Or maybe it just felt ok to cut up because I was the maker?  Whatever.  I divided the contents of the bin into categories:  1. Still too beautiful to use (these went back in the bin) 2. Usable to alter and manipulate i.e. cut up and 3.  Suitable for embroidery.  And then I forced myself to use them.

Some of them, I ruined.  I choked.  I let their preciousness overwhelm me and, by caring too much, I ruined them by being too stiff and too self conscious.  It's the worst feeling - knowing that every mark, every action is just compounding the awfulness.  It is a lost cause from the very beginning, and even as I know this - I see it, feel it, taste it - I keep working as if I can turn the tide.  When has that ever worked?

Every now and then, however, things did work.  The stain became the perfection.  When that happened, the lovely vintage textile became more than what it was.  How?  The textile is still the textile.  The ink is still the ink.  The embroidery thread is still the embroidery thread.  By ruining it beyond repair, it became bigger than it was.  It is process that can't be replicated.  There is no system or technique.  Each time I pull one from the pile, the questions are as fresh and new as they were for the one before.  Do I know you?  What do you want?  What do I want?  And how shall we make this happen?

Monday, June 08, 2015


The last Sunday of our Saltonstall residency was given over to a public open house event that included readings by the writers and open studios for the visual artists.  It was a glorious day and there was a healthy turn out of people hungry for art.  I would like to think we delivered.

It was a little sad to clean up my studio, knowing that the mojo developed over the course of the past three weeks would not fully return.  At the same time, it was nice to step back and give each thing some space and see it all in a newer, cleaner, context.

I set out a table of materials because it seemed like people would enjoy handling things - and they did!

This is the last piece I made from my childhood pillow case series.  Each piece became more and more elaborate and, to my mind, more painterly.  I am totally grooving on the colors and patterns, each stitch like a brush stroke (only better).  I honestly have no idea how they read to anyone else.  I am not sure where I will take it from here.  So, more questions than answers in this department.

I also had a table of natural and unnatural wonders - things I collected and made during the course of the month.  I didn't pursue this line of thinking and exploring very far but it has potential.  People seemed to react and engage with the things.  

Including Mr. Snake.

He has a long story behind him, which I won't recall except to say that he, in his ever increasing state of decomposition, has been my daily companion outside my door.  Finally, I brought him in to the studio - him and the ants that died as they tried to eat his dead body.  Poisoned?  We don't know.

Devon Moore, the poet in residence, wrote a poem about Mr. Snake, whom we found at our feet the first day she arrived.  Here she is reading that poem:

Her first book of poetry is just out and you can get it here.  As she is an incredibly talented poet, I highly recommend that you do get it.  She is the only poet I know that can elicit audible gasps from the audience when one of her lines cuts especially close to the bone.  

She also wrote a beautiful poem about sleeping in Connie Saltonstall's bedroom this month for the book that we made together.  I can't say it is an edition because they are all different.  They are almost-an-edition of six.

We decided to title it "Four Weeks with Nira" or, actually, 4WKS W/NIRA.  It is named after the most wonderful dog in the world, Stephen Kuusisto's seeing eye dog, Nira.  

Rabbits!  I smell rabbits!
There she is!  I can't imagine this month without her delightful tail wagging, crumb eating, loving gaze giving self around.  She is about to retire as Steve's seeing eye dog, being a mature lady of ten years.  I wish her many more years of well-earned leisure and much fulfilled sniffing!

I could wax poetic about Nira all day long but perhaps I should add that Steve is pretty great too.  He is here finishing the final draft of his next book, which is a memoir/history of seeing eye dogs.  As the extrovert of our group, he has been a most welcome dinnertime companion.  The small bit of the book I was honored to read left me a bit misty about the eyes.  He is a most talented writer as well.

I have left out the two other visual artists here only because I had to be in my studio while they were in theirs.  Let me correct that now!

Nydia Blas is a photographer (mostly) who makes sharp, smart work about women and girls and how they are perceived in a racial, sexualized, gendered culture.  What does that mean - go look for yourself.

Camille Laoang uses pens to create meticulous and elaborate mandalas that are partly a rendering of her personal experiences and part spiritual practice.  May I add that it was sometimes kind of intense to be working below Camille, knowing that she was above me silently working with such focus and attention.  We are, shall we say, on different ends of the scale in terms of neatness and working methods.  Who knows, maybe she was up there laying on her bed, reading Us Weekly and eating Doritos.  Whatever the case, she was a foil for my own wandering thoughts and I am very grateful for her presence, real or imagined.

Finally, I want to thank Patti, who drove all way from Rochester (!!), and Alex and Nuala, for coming yesterday.  I especially want to thank Lesley Williamson, the director of The Saltonstall Foundation, for her devoted hard work to make this whole month happen.  Herding cats does not even begin to describe it.  And, of course, The Saltonstall Foundation itself - this month has been such a gift. I am sure that I will be experiencing the results for years to come.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015


The last few days here have been cold and rainy.  As I am rather a fan of cold and rainy, this has not been a big deal.  In fact, it has been downright lovely.  This morning was full of fog but now the sunshine has returned.  

Today might be the day when I actually hike the trail behind the studio building.  When we arrived, we were told at our orientation about how many ticks there are around here.  This fact was emphasized so strongly that all of us city slickers were put off going into the woods at all.  There is even a sign in the kitchen that says "Ticks climb UP!"  Sheesh.  

Look out ticks!  I'm a-coming in!

Meanwhile, here is a detail of one of my pillow case pieces.  I am thoroughly enjoying playing with color and texture and composition.  Yes, these are the basics of art making but they are also things that have been secondary to my work for a long time.  How novel it feels to think about these simple things, to just feel  and play and enjoy.

Yes, yes.  This is me.

Monday, June 01, 2015

The Life and Hard Times of Mr. C

One of the first things I noticed when I got here was the birds.  I think I even wrote about how they never stop singing, even through the night.  As I have had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in Studio B aka the patio, I have become as wrapped up in their ongoing dramas with as much interest as anyone with an addiction to "As the World Turns".

My primary involvement has been with Mr. Cardinal who, until three days ago, would fly into all the windows of my little apartment in turn beginning around 5:30 am each day.  He would bang into the windows over and over, his beak and wings making the most alarming taps and thumps.  My response has been to jump out of bed and wave my hands at him to scare him away…until he returns later.  All day, everyday, Mr. Cardinal and I would have our little neck breaking flirtation.  Finally, on Friday, Lesley, the director of the Foundation, put stickers that look like spider webs on the window panes.  Apparently birds won't fly through spider webs and these stickers fool them enough so that they won't keep thinking that the reflection of the trees in the glass are actually the best trees to sit in, if only they could just reach them.

After a frustrating week or so of Mr. Cardinal and his hopeless obsession with the reflection of the trees, I began to see that we were not so different, after all.  I mean, it was almost too obvious really - both of us insisting that we knew what we were doing, banging our heads into a solid wall, insisting that the reflection of the thing was better than the thing itself.  The main difference was that, after knocking against plate glass 20 or 30 times, Mr. Cardinal sits in a real tree and sings a lovely song.  I'm usually a little more grumpy than that.

But the fake spider webs have mostly discouraged him.  The first day, he flew around and stopped himself before banging into the windows.  Then, he sat in a tree and sang very loudly.  I think he was pissed.  This morning, he came around and banged into the windows that didn't get the stickers.  Dude, c'mon!  The metaphor has been realized!  Can we just enjoy life now?

While Mr. C and I develop and deepen our relationship, there are other bird dramas happening.  The day the Blue Jay spent trying to get at the Robin's nest in the maple tree.  The hawks and vultures who scan the fields on a regular basis.  The Red Winged Blackbirds who rule, well, just about everywhere.  It's all happening - life, death, tragedy, comedy.

That's right, you deer, run away!

I think I am grateful that the other animals mostly run away when they see me.  Frankly, I don't have time to get involved in their lives.  I have other work to do.