Does Your Work Matter?

I frequently find myself questioning the worth of my creative endeavors.  It’s like being on a tight rope and then making the mistake of looking down and then falling.  Truly am my own worst critic.

Today I received a gift via Austin Kleon’s newsletter in my inbox to help counter those doubts.  Thank you, Austin for posting these wonderful words of wisdom from Martha Graham…

A story about meeting choreographer Martha Graham for a soda, as told by Agnes de Mille in Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham:

I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be”.

Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”

“But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”

“No artist is pleased.”

Ok..let’s get on with it then!

“The Art of Noticing” a Book

Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.  Mary Oliver

I notice small things.  This probably started when I started birding and identifying plants in college.  Little brown birds become wrens, those spikey white flowers in a bog become bog orchids, rocks in a canyon tell stories.

As I slow down and notice things around me, the world becomes less chaotic.  When my cell phone is left behind and the portal to insanity shut off I can sit on the porch step and notice the honey bees probing in the flowers of autumn joy sedum and the variety of clouds in the sky.  Noticing helps me to be a more imaginative writer and artist.

A book, The Art of Noticing by Rob Walker, recently came to my attention via Austin Kleon’s blog.  I checked it out from the library recently and have been impressed by the plethora of unique activities that will get the novice and experienced noticer into prime form.  Enjoy taking a color walk, documenting odd things from a road trip like gas stations, writing a review of manhole covers or fire hydrants, start drawing, write a field guide to the dogs in your neighborhood, write a poem about the items for sale in the check out line of a store, stop talking and inventory what sounds you hear.

If you need help downshifting into observation mode this book has the tools to do so.  Who needs Facebook and Instagram for entertainment when one knows how to notice?  As a new hardback it’s around $15, or check it out from the library as I did.  Everyday life will become full of new adventures.

Mural Magic

A much younger me, mid 1990s, Four Corners Elementary School, Salem Oregon

As children, most of us have been told “Don’t color on the walls!”, but it is so satisfying to have such an expanse waiting to be graced with marks made from your small hands.

I did get my chance as an adult.  For a number of years I was an artist in residence in an assortment of schools in a three-county area.  At times there were opportunities to color on walls creating murals with a cadre of small hands.

In the beginning was a wall..

Now that I’m retired from all manner of teaching and the monetization of my artwork, I have a chance to color on my own walls.  A boarded-up window on the outside of my detached studio building has been calling to me for a makeover.  Numerous ideas swirled around my head for months.   A cheery window scene was my ultimate goal.   I sketched out many thumbnails but nothing seemed totally right.  One thing I knew for sure, I was going to paint a black crow on the right side of the piece to disguise a hole that birds had enlarged for a nesting nook.  Also I wanted my tuxedo cat, Zander in the picture along with a teapot, cup, and some flowers (I have this thing about teapots).  I nixed the sun at the top in favor of a compass, a symbol that shows up frequently in my images.

Ultimately I settled on a basic design, a color scheme, and sketched it out on the wood.  Procrastination settled in as perfectionism (fear) took over. Then I decided the worse thing that could happen is I would paint over what I didn’t like.  So I got going.

I worked on the mural bit by bit in the cool of the evenings as the heat wave here in Oregon made it unfeasible to work during the day in the hot sun.  Eventually, I finished- yesterday!  In all I only painted over one vase that was bright orange, changing the color to more of an understated coral. 

I love this mural because it is personal to me and adds a happy focal point to an otherwise  boring wall  My next goal is to doodle all the way up my stairwell.  Let’s see how that goes!

Finished mural

Writing Like a Great Horned Owl

photo by Pixabay

photo by Deb Broocks

There was this magnificent great horned owl that lived in the hayloft of the barn, part of the old farmstead that became the Nature Conservancy field station on the Zumwalt Prairie in NE Oregon. A month ago I spent a week there as a participant of the Outpost writing workshop sponsored by Fishtrap, a non-profit writing organization located in Enterprise (see my previous post, Writing the Zumwalt Prairie).

Occasionally we would see this stately bird from its perch at the hayloft’s opening scanning for prey and looking down on us sternly from above.

Owls are unique in that they can rotate their heads 180 degrees in each direction.  Their feathers are constructed in such a way to facilitate silent flight and their eyes are 35 X more sensitive than the human eye needing only 5% of the light we require.  Add to that their extremely acute hearing and you have an extremely adept hunter.

Dissecting owl pellets

Since owls typically swallow their prey whole, they have a daily ritual of regurgitating a tidy package of fur, bones, feathers, and the like into one tidy package known as an owl pellet.  When one dissects an owl pellet you can piece together the skeletons of the small rodents, and birds they consumed.

During our writing circles with our teacher /poet Kim Stafford, he encouraged us to always be paying attention with all our senses as we experienced the prairie around us, being mindful not to disregard the other visitors to our psyche as well.  He stressed to capture those thoughts and inspirations on paper or voice memo before they escaped us- much like the owl and its prey.  These morsels of observation are what feed us as writers.  Kim is never without a small notebook and pen.  I often saw him jotting things down as he went about his day.

To be any kind of creative it is important to pay attention from wherever our perch may be.  Writing, (or sketching)  like an owl is the essence of personal expression.

Writing on the Buckhorn fire lookout

Owl Pellets

 by Alanna Pass

I am learning to write like a great horned owl

I sit on a high perch

so that I may swivel my head in all directions

observing, listening, smelling

for inspirational prey

I leave my perch at a moment’s notice

a presence detected

with a silent swoop I spread my wings

extend my outstretched talons

and snatch my prey before possible escape

I bend head to toes

open my hooked beak, extract this morsel

and swallow it whole

repeating this routine until I feel a blissful sense satisfaction

Then I rest

to coalesce all my inspirational prey into one tidy parcel

until complete

I project my written pellet into the cosmos

to land at the feet of others

with the intention that they may also

experience the wonders, the truths, the inspirations

that I have lovingly collected, digested, and presented

from my perch with a view

art by the author

Writing the Zumwalt Prairie

In the NE corner of Oregon in Wallowa County lies a little visited wonder known as the Zumwalt Prairie. I recently returned from a five day writing workshop in this remote place and still memories swirl in my mind like the prairie wind.

This 330,000 acre bunchgrass prairie remains largely intact as the high elevation averaging 4,000 feet, poor soils, and harsh weather conditions made it unsuitable for the plow. This was a summering ground for the Nez Perce tribe before white settlers and broken treaties ultimately exiled them from their lands. This land is still home to a plethora of wildflowers, elk, deer, badgers, bird, and insect species, many of them threatened.

The Nature Conservancy owns and operates 36,000 acres of this land.  It’s a nature preserve but part of its mission is to work with the local ranchers integrating them with their mission of conservation work which includes biological inventories, ecological monitoring and preserving biodiversity.  It’s a partnership with conservation and private interests.  Careful grazing management is part of the picture.  The Nature Conservancy field station was a farmstead abandoned years ago as the harsh conditions of hot summers, frigid winters, poor soil, and remoteness made it too difficult to farm.

Continue reading “Writing the Zumwalt Prairie”

Standing at the Crossroads of Should and Must

What is the metric of decision-making in our lives?  What bearing do we follow?  How do we hear our inner guidance among the cacophony of others? How does one approach risk?  Navigating one’s life is tricky business.

Artist/author Elle Luna addresses this very topic in her recent book “The Crossroad of Should and Must, Find & Follow Your Passion.”  I was listening to her interview on the Beyond podcast and perked up my ears.  I don’t think I have ever heard anyone address this issue in such a concise way. Rather than head vs heart or gut vs brain she defines the quandry as what you SHOULD do VS what you MUST do.  This could be as huge as choosing a profession to choosing to take a break and read for 30 minutes, or should I finish this blog post or go out and work in the garden? (I chose the former.)

I purchased the book and have been very pleased with both the content and its presentation, a mixture of type, Luna’s illustrations, handwritten text, and memorable quotes in a recycled tag board binding.  It’s a quick reference to navigating the yearnings of one’s soul.

Age has made that process easier for me to distinguish between the voices of head and heart as I have the luxury of looking back over decades.  Still, it is always nice to have a guidebook when you have lost your way.  I’ve added it to my bookshelf alongside The Artist’s Way and Austin Kleon’s books.  It’s worth a read- especially if you’re a creative type.

Check it out!

At the Crossroads                                                                          

I choose

having tasted the straight, well-traveled road of should

and the starvation that came with it

the unmapped one calls to me

a winding path fraught with obstacles

marked with warnings

I have only my compass

traverse unknown terrain

and stumble often as

scars collect on my body

brought to skinned knees

by vista after vista

but I am satisfied with my choice

and despite injuries

I revel in the challenge

my curiosity sated with memories

feeling fully alive

on this road I’ve taken

and that has made all the difference

Check out my other blog, onesweetearth on sustainable living

Photos by author- most from the book At The Crossroads of Should and Must

Crafting a Personal Credo

CREDO

“a statement of the beliefs or aims which guide someone’s actions”.

Over the years I have collected some words of wisdom that have guided me through this adventure we called life.  I decided to finally write them down in a format that was easily accessible.  At first, I considered a small booklet but then I settled on a poster format.  This would serve as a mini “Graffiti Wall” that I could access in an instant

This was a project I did not want to fuss over (avoid perfection, just get ‘er done).  I grabbed a 14” x 11” piece of cardboard, painted a coat of yellow paint over it with a little embellishment, put my cartoon self in the center, and then started writing my words and phrases on the board in different colors and sizes.  There is plenty of room for more guiding principles as this is an ongoing project.  You can never have enough words of wisdom.

I keep this posted in my studio and glance at it now and again.  It keeps me grounded as with my personal mission statement- but that’s a whole different post…

Live by this credo: have a little laugh at life and look around you for happiness instead of sadness. Layughter has always brought me out of unhappy situations.

RedSkelton

The Art of the List

“It’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive” 

John Lennon

There’s a grey zone between creative projects, that high of completing something big and the low of “Now what?” 

To ease out of the “what now “ doldrums I find great solace in making lists.  I find them grounding from to-do lists, not-to-do lists, to grocery lists.  I feel better with a rock-solid list.

This go around I decided to make a list of my symbols that I use or would like to use in my imagery and my writing as metaphors or prompts.  Here is my latest list.  Feel free to use any of it you like…

*all visuals in this post are from my daily planner or sketchbook

Have a Happy Day (Planner)

Last year I was looking for a daily creative practice that I could stick to.  I was not much of a sketcher or morning pager.  I needed something kind of short and sweet.  Then I noticed the 2’ blank square in my 2020 day planner.  Not much going on there but a few spillovers from my to-do list.  I committed to filling up those square every day with a doodle or something creative.  The ground rules are to use pen and have no judgement on what I come up with.  Spontaneity is key.

Fast forward over a year later- my day planner practice is my creative kick start to the day.  Not only does it get my pen to the paper in a nonthreatening way, I have created an artifact of my life to look back on though this crazy time of Covid and political craziness.  Mostly I create a daily doodle, a weather report, a cartoon, quote, poem or something about my life with words and/or pictures.  It’s been an evolving practice.  Some have become finished pieces, most I don’t appreciate until I look back at them.

This year, 2021 I couldn’t find the same day planner so I made my own.  I purchased a simple blank spiral sketchbook and glued some decorative paper.  I customized it for words of the year and monthly goals and then grid out each week as they come along.  At first I measured but now I just eyeball it letting the lines be as wonky as they want to be for interest.

My planner is now less about what I need to do but how I need to be…creative and fully alive, paying attention to the inspiration each day has to offer.  I highly recommend trying out this daily practice.

Life is more than a to do list

Please visit my other blog about sustainable living at onesweetearth.art.blog

Notes on Tossing Out My Old Artwork

In the doldrums of this pandemic my creative image energies are ebbing more than flowing. It’s times like this at times all I can muster is to tidy up. Usually that involves just organizing my workspace. Then after years of procrastination I faced down the leaning pile of old cardboard portfolios full of aging class artwork and design projects that lurked in my closet. The problem is when you hang onto old work there’s really no room for new- physically or metaphorically.

 Bye-bye charcoal nudes, bye-bye watercolors, bye-bye drawings. Yep you were “A” quality, fun, but at this point, are not doing anyone any good including myself.  And woe to my son who would be stuck sorting  them out when I’m packed up to the Rock of Ages Rest Home. The recycling bin is full. I have a well stocked collage box and plenty of classy bookmarks as souvenirs. I took pictures of the T-shirts I designed and donated them to a thrift store where someone can put them to use. 

Bidding farewell to old creative work of any kind is like saying goodbye to parts of oneself- but thinking about it, all that hard work and practice is still with me deeply embedded in the work I do today. When I peruse all those past efforts I think of them as either good or bad but merely steps along the path to where I am as an artist today. 

We are but at some total of all our work and practice. The beat goes on.

I love my clean closet. 

That’s over with!