New Old Friends

Art is capable of bringing into sharper relief emotions associated with the most profound experiences of human existence.
Robert Wuthnow (23)

I am an artist. I am a self-taught artist. I was brought up in a Christian faith tradition. I no longer go to church except for weddings and funerals. I have had a difficult relationship with a God that hangs out with old Anglican/Episcopalian theology. I have spent my lifetime seeking spiritual solace outside of church, turning my back on my roots by doing so.

But I was born a creative being, an artist. My earliest memories of self include performance, a love of books, poetry, writing, art, music. I did not choose to be baptised and confirmed. I did not choose to be part of the church choir. I did not choose to be Episcopalian. Those choices were made for me. When I was given a modicum of choice, I chose to attend the evening “Experimental Worship” service. My friends and I (of all ages) sat on the floor at the altar, made our own bread for communion, sang our own songs, recited our own prayers and as far as I knew, God did not mind. But when the young assistant minister who organized us left for a new church and a new more traditional assistant took his place, Experimental Worship stopped and my interest in church waned.

Still, the choice not to go to church has dogged me. There are other choices I have made in my life that took me far from my roots, and I have never regretted them. But this space that defines my worthiness in the face of God still niggles me; still fills me with questions.

If God is within us all, does that mean there is more than one God?
Is being a spiritual being enough? Enough for whom?
As an artist, is the divine gift from God our deep desire to create and question?
How are Art and God/Spirituality and Self intertwined?

It was a great delight to dive into a book recommended to me by Ruth Wallen, my Goddard advisor. The book is Creative Spirituality: The Way of the Artist by Robert Wuthnow (2001, University of California Press). Reading it over the last week has been like visiting my Self through the experience of strangers. Wuthnow interviewed over 100 artists “candidly about their work, their lives, their spiritual journeys, and their aspirations and hopes. (ix) Through Wuthnow’s thoughtful and illuminating book, I have discovered deep kinship with many of the artists; their questions are my questions, their responses my responses, their emotions my emotions and collectively their stories have offered me the opportunity to revisit my humanness or Berrisford Booth calls it “personhood”. (91)

In my own life, I have questioned my relationship with God, art and spirituality. I have grappled with feelings of inadequacy, the desire to be more, questioning the choices I have made, especially if they were against the hopes and dreams others had for me. I have dug deep down to unearth the old messages that undermine my confidence. And reading about the twists and turns that other artists have taken filled me with a great sense of community. I am not alone. If I bumped into any one of these artists on the street, we would speak the same language.

In one story after a bout of breast cancer, Sharon Thomson writes about the changes that came in her spiritual life which had been heavily weighted in the Christian tradition.

“I felt terrific, and I discovered a whole bunch of thinking about the ways in which we create reality…it is possible to reinterpret, to make a choice about the way in which we want to perceive reality… I wasn’t even concerned at that point about whether this works with Christianity or not. I was much more involved in experiencing the spiritual life, which for me is really about the essence, the point of contact with something greater than myself, the moment when I know that there’s something more going on than this moment that I can perceive with my senses.” (88)

After my own breast cancer experience, I went back to church fearing that my absence had been part of the reason I got sick. It was perhaps an irrational thing to do, but my first instinct was to return to my roots and try to make meaning of this new experience. My Sunday visits to church were no consolation. They filled me with sadness and even more questions. I hated the concept of original sin, the patriarchal voice of condemnation. My spiritual and emotional needs were being stifled there. When I stepped away again, I received a pastoral visit from the priest who wanted to know why I had been absent.  After listening to my story and my decision not to go to back to his church he asked me incredulously, “But you were sick,” he said, “and now you are well. Are you not grateful for that gift from God? Don’t you think you should come to church and show your thanks?” I felt like I was being blackmailed by God himself.

I got some therapy and retreated back into my art (photography and writing) to find solace and spiritual acceptance. Booth’s experience in his own life resonates strongly for me.

“In my art I was trying to ordain myself instead of being ordained from the outside. That’s what I was looking for, the ability to ordain myself with the knowledge that I’m doing this not because it’s running away from anything or running toward anything…but the ability to accept my spirit, the sum total of all my experiences.” (91-92)

My personal quest led me to other forms of spiritual practice. I began to meditate and practice loving kindness and mindfulness in my day. I wrote an article Already in God’s House about my faith, lost and found. I realized I could have a spiritual practice outside the church that was just as viable for me as one inside was for others. From Wuthnow’s book:

Ann Biddle summarizes spiritual practices as “learning how to live your life creatively…It’s about reaching your fullest potential. It’s about creating artistry in any area of your life, through your practice. It’s about opening up your mind to the possibilities of who you are and to see the uniqueness of who you are. It’s about making an impact on the world in a creative, innovative, forward-thinking way.”  (111)

As a self-taught artist, I have searched for my own meaning in the books of Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, Nirmala, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama. Each has brought a spiritual message that has consoled and defined me. Through them, and my spiritual practice, I have created a strong connection with the universe. I believe in angels and saints and mystery.  But Wuthnow’s book brought me more. His almost ten years of interviews and writing brought me a community of shared experience and a renewed faith in art as a viable and important spiritual practice.

The Ritual of Friendship

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
– Anais Nin

I am a loner by nature but one of my most favourite rituals is the ritual of friendship. My life has been blessed by friends over and over again. That is an odd thing for an introvert to say. I crave long stretches of alone time to read and ponder. But I love people and their stories. And I strive to keep my heart open to the possibility of a new adventure happening with each person I meet. I am rarely disappointed.

During our first Residency at Goddard, sixteen strangers came together and bonded through our newness to the experience and our confusion. Each person arrived miraculously with the same open heart and in absolutely no time, we acted like old friends, laughing, crying, eating and sharing our stories together. In eight short days, we collectively wove together a magnificent life cloth that we each took home with us. And the cloth, a kind of symbolic comfort blanket will sustain us in our work. We maintain our friendship through Facebook and email. A few have spontaneously met in person in other locales. And for the next two and a half years, we will remain connected by our Goddard experience. After that, some of the friendships will drift and others will grow stronger – and it doesn’t matter at all which is which.

In my life I have had numerous “situational friends”. These are the people I bonded with through shared experience at work, in school, with my children or with the dog; in the neighbourhoods I have lived and places I have travelled. These friendships were deep and meaningful; I learned many new things; I shared many experiences. When the situations altered by a move, a death, a new job, the time devoted to each friendship diminished and often we just faded out of each other’s lives. But these friendships were no less important; each and every one shaped who I am today.

Each new situation also manifests lifelong friendships. You don’t really know it at the time, but there is a click, continuity to the talk, an ease in the relationship. These friendships flourish over distances and absences and each time you meet or talk again, you pick up the thread exactly where you left off and conversation flows fluidly like you never stopped at all. There is no need to explain things. These friends know instinctively when you need a call and when you are alright even though time has passed by since the last conversation. They know if they need anything, they can call you and that you will in turn call them.

I am blessed in all the friendships I have and have had. They enrich my life and days. They bring me new ideas, new ways of thinking, new hope when the days are dark, an opportunity to be kind and honest and loving in my life. They sustain me like prayer and quiet. How is your life coloured by others? What shared experiences with friends do you cherish?

An Interview and The Girl of the Limberlost

Literacy in Action (LIA) is a not-for-profit organization located in the Eastern Townships of Quebec where I live. I have had a great partnership with LIA, first  creating the organization’s First 25 Years Bulletin with Director Kathy Richan, then the first draft of a Strategic Plan; I contributed to the Clear Writing Manual and I also got to design a health literacy bookmark for them. Needless to say, it has been a lovely relationship and I was thrilled when Kathy asked me to be her first interview as part of the Life-long Learner Series. You can read our interview Here.

I have loved books since I was a little girl and remember vividly curling up on the wooden fire escape at my grandfather’s cottage lost in the glorious pages of The Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter. Elnora Comstock was my hero and sitting with her on hot summer days, as she collected moths to fill her loneliness, created a summer friendship I have not forgotten. Elnora faced her life struggles with hope and benefited from the kindness of others. She helped me navigate the lonely days of my own adolescence.

I cherish the moments when I lose myself in a book. Books are magic and transformative and you know it is a great book, if when you close the last page the characters linger in your heart. You miss them and hope that new friends will come soon to take their place.

My grandfather was a voracious reader and it was he or my grandmother that perhaps gave me The Girl of the Limberlost to read that summer. When our Grandfather had his 80th birthday, my sisters and I composed a a limerick for him. Twin Brooks was the name of his property which was bordered on the left and right by… you guessed it… babbling brooks.

Our Gramps, who lives at Twin Brooks,
is always giving us books.
He says we must read,
our minds we must feed,
one can never get by on good looks.

Years later, I found a copy of the book in a used bookstore and bought it. And the bookstore owner, Janice, found and sent me a book called The Moths of the Limberlost, also by Stratton-Porter. It was filled with beautiful watercolor and photographic images of all the moths Elnora had collected. I have both books on my shelf still. Both books are included in the Project Gutenberg collection as free downloads if any of you would like to read them.

Home

“…when it comes to learning something new, cluelessness turns out to be the perfect and only place to start.” – Margaret D. McGee

It is hard to believe that only four days ago I was at Goddard living the student life, waiting to have my Study Plan approved, hanging out in the dining room with new friends and anticipating my new course of study. I have come home with a cold so spent the weekend unpacking, doing laundry and nurturing my tired body and stuffy head.

One of the books I am reading over the coming weeks is Haiku – the sacred art by Margaret D. McGee. It has been a long time since I wrote any poetry in earnest and haiku is a dear poetic art that endeavours to capture a moment in three lines. These are called “‘haiku moments’ – a moment when the mind stops and the heart moves.” Most often the lines are 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables, but this form is not etched in stone, the real aim is brevity and clarity.

As a photographer, I think that haiku could be considered the photographic equivalent of poetry. Quick snapshots of a moment in time in word form. I am drawn to haiku as another way to capture a single beat of time filled with endless possibility;  a sacredness unfolding within a frame of form.

As I read McGee’s book, I am drawn to revisit the poems of my youth. I wrote a small collection between 1973 and 1974 and titled it Banana Peels & Other Assorted Trivia. For my eighteenth birthday, my parents had 50 copies printed and bound. I gave most of them away, and a few years ago, my daughter found one for sale at an online bookstore. I bought the copy back for $15 to see who was selling it. On the inside flap I had written:

November 14, 1975
Steven,
Whatever happens
I thank you.
Where ever you go
Remember this lady
as someone who has a dream.
with love, annis

As you might guess, I have no idea now who Steven was and I’m not sure what dream I speak of. What I do know is that this is not haiku! Haiku I think must capture a moment in a timeless way so when read years later, the moment is clear, the meaning not lost.

Youthful exuberance, hope and longing sprinkled the pages of my early collection and I wonder what my new efforts will yield?

4.23.74
Later on
I often question
the things I do
and
decisions I make
because
they can cause hurt
and confusion.
But because I care
and
because I worry
and
because I love you,
I take my chances
that in the end,
when we understand,
you will still
love me.

Thirty-eight years later, there are many things I could tell my young self but at the time, I captured moments that meant the world to me and it didn’t really matter whether anyone else got it. I have filled many journals and pages with writing since then but for now,  I am looking forward to getting back to poetry and brevity and capturing small miracle moments in words that will withstand the test of time.

Time flies when you are working your butt off

It is hard to believe today is our last full day of Residency. It is true that on Wednesday you think it will never end and then on Thursday you might think of a few reasons you’d like to stay a little longer. But once your Study Plans are submitted and approved, you really just want to get home to soak in a hot tub and then get your work going. And for the next 16 weeks, that is what we’ll be doing. Squeezing our creative practice and study or practicum or portfolio into the rest of our day-to-day lives. Packets are due every three weeks and in between there will reading, reflection, analysis, art making and critical writing, oh my.

Getting a handle on the hows and whats of Study Plans took some doing but the amazing Gz all bonded together to share information we picked up from our separate groups and sat side-by-side supporting each other through the process. And that is the real beauty of this progressive education. We learn so much from each other, it is staggering and it will take the long rides or flights home and a few days to digest everything. We had some delicious meals to gather round and a few bottles of wine too. We have all pretty much shared the G1 Cold – true bonding! And the weather, while odd for February, has been terrific.

So for our last day, I’d just like to say THANK YOU to the wonderful and uberly-talented friends I have met. I am going home with photographs, music, laughter, memories, loads of paper and books, Goddard swag and anticipatory thoughts of our next meeting in July! I’ll keep posting my process and any new information I get from Goddard. Safe journey home all. xoxo

See our Interdisciplinary Art Work Links to the right.

Inspiration

Earlier in the week, graduating student Luke Rackers and his lovely wife gave a piano, trumpet and spoken word performance for his graduating presentation, The Art of Relationships: Composing Sound, Silence, and Inbetween. It was a beautiful and lyrical performance and at the beginning he quoted John Luther Adams, a composer whose music is inspired by nature.

This beautiful quote is from his book Winter Music: Composing the North – and I think speaks to all artists

Ultimately though, the best thing artist can do is create art: to compose, to pain, to write, to dance, to sing. Art is our first obligation to ourselves and our children, our communities and our world. Art is our work. An essential part of that work is to see new visions and to give voice to truths, both new and old.

Art is not self-indulgence. It is not an aesthetic or an
intellectual p
ursuit. Art is a spiritual aspiration and discipline. It is an act of faith. In the midst of darkness that seems to be descending all around us, art is a vital testament to the best qualities of the human spirit. As it has throughout history, art expresses our belief that there will be a future for humanity. It gives voice and substance to hope. Our courage for the present and our hope for the future lie in that place in the human spirit that finds solace and renewal in art.

Art embraces beauty. But beauty is not the subject of art, it’s merely a by-product. The object of art is truth. That which is true is that which is whole. In a time when human consciousness has become dangerously fragmented, art helps us recover wholeness. In a world devoted to material wealth, art connects us to the qualitative and the nonmaterial. In a world addicted to consumption and power, art celebrates emptiness and surrender. In a world accelerating to greater and greater speed, art reminds us of the timeless….

Politics is fast. By definition it is public. Art is slow. And it often begins in solitude. In order to give our best gifts to the world artists must sometimes leave the world behind, a least for a little while.

Adams, John L. Winter Music: Composing the North. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press, 2004. Print. (180-181)

Definitions

There is a lot of stuff going on in residency and if you are new to the campus you will hear a lot of academic speak being made. So I found some definitions online from NYU Steinhardt that might help you. Please feel free to comment and add your own definitions!

Contemporary art is the art of today, produced by artists who are living in the twenty-first century. Contemporary art provides an opportunity to reflect on contemporary society and the issues relevant to ourselves, and the world around us. Contemporary artists work in a globally influenced, culturally diverse, and technologically advancing world. Their art is a dynamic combination of materials, methods, concepts, and subjects that challenge traditional boundaries and defy easy definition. Diverse and eclectic, contemporary art as a whole is distinguished by the very lack of a uniform, organizing principle, ideology, or ‘ism.’ Contemporary art is part of a cultural dialogue that concerns larger contextual frameworks such as personal and cultural identity, family, community, and nationality.

Critical pedagogy is a term that applies to a number of educational perspectives that address the issue of power in teaching and learning. Important contributors to these perspectives include Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and Henry Giroux. Critical pedagogy is best understood not as a single theory, but as a range of possible educational responses to social structures and relations that are unequal or oppressive. The “critical” in critical pedagogy refers to the ability to analyze, expose and challenge the hidden social, cultural and political processes that are a part of knowledge production, including how one’s own views and assumptions come from a particular cultural and historical formation. Critical pedagogy encourages educators to not only be aware of injustices but to take action to transform the practices and structures that perpetuate them. Ultimately, critical pedagogy seeks to provide education that is democratic, emancipatory, and empowering to students.

Critical theory for us describes an interdisciplinary field of study. It provides a way of understanding institutions, such as the art world and education, in terms of the ideas and knowledge they produce and reproduce in our society, which is characterized by the unequal distribution of power. It involves looking at the ideas that shape cultural practices such as visual art, media, advertising and entertainment. Additionally, critical theory enables the examination of particular facets of these practices, such as the nature of representation, artistic authority and voice.

Pedagogy is the whole art of teaching. Our program looks at the ways in which pedagogy can include making decisions about curriculum, how and in whose interest knowledge is produced and passed on, and what instructional methods best serve both the educator’s teaching philosophy and the needs of diverse student populations.

Praxis is practice, or action, with the thoughtfulness of reflection. Praxis as an idea emerged from the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who described it as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.” (1990, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p.36). It embodies our belief that theory and practice are not binary opposites, but rather complements that work together to further one’s lifelong growth as an artist-educator.