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Paper dolls, flow and the art of … whatever!

7 Nov

I first penned this essay back in 2008, but never published it myself. This is a slightly edited version to bring it up to the current date. Pottery by Cindi Cusick; digital painting by Kathleen Farago May.

UnknownIn his best-selling 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-high-ee”) defined and explored the concept of “flow” as our experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement. Flow, whether in creative arts, athletic competition, engaging work or spiritual practice, is a deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed, and triumph over limitation.

Csikszentmihalyi gives me a form of self-confidence through his concept of “flow” that I confess I never gained from the term “art.” As a society, we tend to think of “art” as primarily the creative arts – music, visual art forms and creative writing being the three that most readily come to mind. But those of us not blessed with talent in one of these areas are often left feeling like the ugly duckling or the Cinderella in a world full of artistically graced swans and stepsisters.

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From childhood, I recall the many lessons (piano, ballet, tap, violin and voice) my mother was enterprising enough to involve me in – all of which gave me my true appreciation for music, but none of which “stuck” in the sense that I ever felt from them “optimal fulfillment and engagement.” Instead, I felt sick on the curvy roads to and from the lessons, mortal fear at recitals, self-consciousness about my too-thin body at dance reviews, and basically overwhelmed by what I call the perfectionist’s script for self-defeat: with so many things to do, how could I ever do any one thing well?

simplicity-8153To escape from the pressure, I’d retreat to my bedroom where hundreds of paper dolls waited to come to life under my direction. Silly as it sounds, for an only child with a vivid imagination, the world of girls and boys cut out from Simplicity magazine – evenly matched in size and each with his or her own intricately developed emotional and psychological makeup, set of academic skills, and personal history – was the key to power. This game cast me as the director, organizer and creator. I set up detailed schedules for each person and then watched with glee as my random schedule-making schemes placed Janice in a science class with Tom, a boy she had a crush on, or Jeff in choir with Candy, a girl he had broken up with and no longer wished to see.

il_340x270.661762228_od2hAside from the social element, students gained skills that helped them determine their future careers; they made friends who would be with them for life, and siblings supported each other through difficult family issues. So empowering was this “flow” that I played with these dolls long past the “appropriate” age, and can vividly recall nervously throwing the covers down to hide all my dolls in their classrooms (individual squares on a quilt, actually) when my father unexpectedly knocked on my door when I stayed home from school with a cold as a high school freshman.

That very year, another form of flow superseded that of the dolls. My English teacher, Debby Douglas, was handing me back my umpteenth paper marked with an A++ and she must have seen something in my face that betrayed a certain disappointment and realized that I needed encouragement that defied expectation; I was used to getting these A’s no matter what I did. “Other students get A’s,” she said, “but you need to understand that what you do is in a whole other category: this is something you do like no one else. You should really pursue it.” From that moment on, I had my flow. I knew where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do – the world revolved around words, writing, communication: that was my music, my “art.”

And yet, still that word “art” did it’s best to make me feel left out. Because, save for bad lyrics written during some romantic squabble, I was never a creative writer. In college, I won contests for critical/analytical essays dissecting the language of Spencer and Shakespeare poems, short stories by Hemingway – even the lyrics of songs by Joni Mitchell. I was a nerdy writer, while those around me were poets, painters and potters, violinists, vocalists and artistic visionaries.

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And then one day, years later, when I had my own business as a freelance writer, I decided to face the challenge. I knew I’d envied my friends who were musicians and artists too long. But why? Was it because I had not yet found that “deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed and triumph over limitation”? “What is my art?” I asked myself. What is it that truly puts me into the world of “flow”? My writing did it, yes. But often, in order to make a buck, I was forced to write about topics for which I held no real passion. So what was my passion? How could I make a difference?

It was then that I remembered the paper dolls. And through a good, hard look at the nature of that experience, I realized that I had not just been playing a game; I’d been grooming myself, teaching myself, preparing myself for my future contributions to the world. My true gift was bringing people together, connecting and directing them to do great things, allowing them to support one another, and providing them a means to learn their true callings.

This realization took a shape that rapidly sprung to life in the form of a non-profit organization, Greater Opportunities for Women, to help low-income women in Kentucky learn about their talents and develop better job skills while supporting one another in a group, attending classes together for ten weeks. While developing and implementing this complex program, I felt like “an artist” in the truest sense, staying up all night in a rush of inspiration to finish creating an aspect of this intricately detailed work. I was like the conductor of a symphony, directing a team of volunteers to work together to pull off complex pieces of the “music” that I could not perform alone. It was near the end of my four-year endeavor that my dear friend Paul Ramey pointed out that unlike that of a writer, musician or visual artist, my social form of art was four-dimensional because it touched the realm of possibility and actualized people to realize their dreams.

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Once when one of the 60 women who attended the program decided to drop out, my mother remarked, “Unlike the paper dolls, GO Women don’t always stay where you put them.” Always perceptive, my mother hit the nail on the head with this statement. And ultimately, control freak that I was, perhaps that’s why I eventually handed the executive director role off to someone else. Perhaps I just couldn’t maintain that level of artistic intensity for longer than four years; after all, artists have their “periods.” But I probably learned more from the adventure than anyone else; I learned that art, for me, is whatever gets me “in the flow,” whatever challenges me to go beyond my limits, and to excel and triumph in new ways.

Today I have the privilege to work in publishing, bringing my writing, editing and organizational skills to bear on a variety of publications, both in print and online. I feel that familiar sense of optimal fulfillment and engagement when I am organizing materials for a story, writing e-mails to sources explaining the kind of quote I need from them, helping another editor create a framework for their publication, or proofreading a magazine to ensure it is as error-free as possible. I love working with words, I always have, and this is what gets me in Csikszentmihalyi’s flow. This is my art.

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Watching my fiancé, John, build our new house, and hearing his thought processes as he develops his plans, reminds me precisely of the mental steps I go through to create an essay or an article. I can tell he is entering into his flow when he is planning to build, and fully immersed in it while carrying out those plans. It’s a joy to experience.

I will never cease to be inspired by friends who deliver truly creative writing, stirring pieces of music and awesome visual arts that communicate a unique personality and artistic sensitivity. I know carvers, dancers, quilt makers, film directors, photographers, potters and pianists, gourd painters and guitarists, sculptors, singers and songwriters – who all make me feel awe and amazement. But I am just as inspired by those who express their art in non-traditional ways. One friend creates art through yoga, another through massage. I know beekeepers, camp directors, financial analysts, hair dressers and hikers, mentors and mothers, pastors and pharmacists, who all make an art of what they create when in their flow. Some even make an art out of helping others to die gracefully and with dignity.

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“Come, my friends. ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” These words from Tennyson’s Ulysses, some of the few that stick in memory from my studies in English Literature, continue to send chills up my spine each time I hear them. Just as Ulysses rallied around him his old sailing buddies to go upon a new, and perhaps final, quest, we are never too old to set out on a new voyage, and see the world in a different way than we ever could before.

We all have to challenge ourselves to go beyond our limits – limits we have largely, though often unwittingly, set for ourselves. Whatever challenges you, whatever you wish that you could do, but fear you can’t – I encourage you to give it a try. You might just become a new kind of artist – with a whole new sense of flow.

Watch a neat video about flow.

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Coming UpArt

26 Oct

This new communique about artists and their art is dedicated to my mother, Ruthe Ballard Figart Sphar, who taught me at a very early age to surrender to the call of creativity. Without Mom, I would not be the creative communicator that I am — and this first installment would have been finished a month ago.

For the past 30 days I have been beside my mother day and night, 24/7, intuitively taking care of her as her body tries to find a way to coexist with a deteriorated heart, and her mind struggles to let go of the physical limitations she cannot change. I have perhaps learned more from her this past month than in all my 47 years with her, because I have listened more attentively, cared more affectionately and loved more fully than ever before.

During this trying time, the few hours I’ve been able to devote here and there to this project have brought me release and inspiration. The goal is to promote artists that I admire, spreading the word about their work. Artists are the least compensated members of the work force proportionate to the amount of joy they bring to human beings. Even in the face of difficulty, the inspiration of art, music, film, theatre or literary composition can make us feel that everything’s coming up roses. Coming UpArt is a new e-mail blast and blog update of fresh art you can enjoy, buy for holiday gifts, and learn more about through online links. Get in touch with me via e-mail if you would like to provide feedback or have your projects featured in Coming UpArt.

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Nate Miller, Photographer ~ Asheville, North Carolina

Nate Miller hails from Parma, Ohio, where he started focusing on macro nature photography about a decade ago while being a caregiver to his father. Now working in the artsy Asheville, North Carolina, he still uses a fairly rudimentary camera and takes a bold approach to his subjects, mostly flowers. His collections include thousands of nature portraits, about which fellow artist Cynthia Cusick has written, “He pours you into the middle of the flower’s petals or the connection between blooms. His framing immerses us in the richness and luminescence of color, cropping out any distractions.” Landscape photographer John Snell says, “Nate has a great eye for nature’s graphics and simplicity.” But Nate stakes no claim to the title of artist. “I’m rather an interpreter,” he says, “seeking to reveal that which transpires behind that which appears.” He is currently booking guest appearances at open houses in both homes and businesses from North Carolina to Ohio to show and sell his prints during November. See more of Nate’s work and purchase prints on his web site; follow his work on Facebook; purchase his art on various household items, including laptop skins, phone cases, organic t-shirts and more on his CafePress site; read Cynthia Cusick’s blog about him and check out mine as well.

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Joe Lamirand, Filmmaker/Musician/Songwriter ~ Indianapolis, Indiana

Film director, writer and producer Joe Lamirand won accolades during the past year when the short film “Turning Japanese” swept through numerous world-class film festivals winning countless awards, including best short at the prestigious American Pavilion Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at Cannes. “It was truly a life changing experience and an opportunity to work with some very talented people,” he says, “including our star Brian Austin Green.” The feature length version of “Turning Japanese” is currently in development with Robin Gurland, notable casting director for Star Wars Episodes I and II. Joe’s earlier films include the off-beat feature-length comedy “Talent,” and the short “Hollow.” In addition to being a producer, Joe co-wrote three original songs for “Turning Japanese,” two of which he produced with vocalist and collaborator Mia Joseph. After the film’s success, the two teamed up to form an alternative rock band, Blue Spark, which has been making waves in Indianapolis during 2011. The band is going into the studio in early November to record their first CD. Helping to grow the band’s cult following, Joe directed a whimsical music video featuring Blue Spark performing one of their most popular originals from their demo, “Punk Cowboy.” Watch “Punk Cowboy” on YouTube; listen to other Blue Spark songs on ReverbNation; follow Blue Spark and Turning Japanese on Facebook.

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Cynthia Cusick, Ceramicist ~ Irvine, Kentucky

Growing up just north of New York City and spending much of her young adult life immersing herself in what she calls “the energy and grittiness of the City,” Cindi moved to an old farm house in rural Eastern Kentucky in the late ‘90s. This shift to a more natural environment, she says, “added a dimension to my self-expression. I rediscovered my sense of awe and fulfilled childhood dreams long thought abandoned.” One of these dreams was to be an artist, so in her 40s she finally took time off from her graphic design business and got a BFA from Eastern Kentucky University with concentrations in ceramics and metalsmithing. Much of her work references organic objects as metaphors for life experiences, focusing on women’s issues, sexuality, nature and intimacy. Shown above: Porcelain Juice Cup with Slit and Red Eruptions. A continuation of other “eruption” works, this whimsical piece sits on small, unobtrusive feet placed inside the bottom edge and is brushed with pink and mauve underglazes. Read more about this item on Esty; follow Cynthia Cusick, Teahorse Studio on Facebook; see more of Cindi’s work on her web site; read Cindi’s marvelous blog about her process and check out my blog interview with her.

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Paul Ramey, Author/Musician ~ Jacksonville, Florida

Artist, writer and musician Paul Ramey lost his best friend Salvador earlier this year. Salvador was Paul’s dog. Within two months, Paul had published “Zen Salvador,” a tribute to “Sal” in the form of a bound series of minimalist ink-brush illustrations depicting man and dog, along with original observations about life’s path. All proceeds from the sale of this book are earmarked for the Jacksonville Humane Society. “Salvador and I had an amazing 16-year journey, and he taught me many things along the way,” Paul says. “After his death, I wanted to do something that honored that journey, and would send some positive energy forward. Helping other animals in Sal’s memory was a natural direction.” Paul hopes that people will consider this 24-page publication as a collectible piece of art more than simply a book. Each page is intended as a meditation, allowing the reader to stop, absorb the thought, and have a quiet moment to contemplate. The book ends with the touching story of how Paul and Salvador first met each other back in 1995. Visit the “Zen Salvador” web site; follow “Zen Salvador” on Facebook; learn more about Paul; and check out the 2-CD goth/rock opera Veil & Subdue that Paul composed and recorded.

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Patrick McNeese, Musician/Painter/Director ~ Lexington, Kentucky

Patrick McNeese is a Kentucky-based visual artist, singer-songwriter and documentary filmmaker. Perhaps best known for his highly expressionist artwork, Patrick has been creating distinctive oil and mixed media paintings for nearly three decades in his downtown Lexington studio. His paintings are included in numerous public and private collections throughout the U.S. Patrick writes and performs his original songs on piano and guitar. “My recent work has been described as ‘Appalachian Jazz’ because it embodies the energy and freedom of certain jazz ideas (i.e. syncopation and improvisation), as it also borrows from the rich traditions of music-making and song craft from the Appalachian region,” he says. Patrick has written, performed and produced three independent albums: “The Singing Bridge” 1989; “Me, Mywolf and I” 1993; and “Any Day Now” 2005, and has also composed original music for several film and video projects. Patrick wrote, produced and directed five independent documentaries, most dealing with the lives and work of both historical and contemporary artists and musicians. In 2006, he received a Director’s Citation at the Black Maria Film Festival for his film about a Vietnam veteran who is also a gifted artist. See more of Patrick’s art, check out his music on iTunes, CDBaby and ReverbNation, follow Patrick on Facebook and read my blog interview with him.

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Hans Peter Jorgensen, Sculptor ~ Decorah, Iowa

Like many artists, Hans Peter (HP) Jorgensen has worn many professional hats to support himself throughout his career, and has returned to a more concentrated focus on art in his retirement. Earning a BFA from Michigan State in 1965, HP soon discovered that making a living as a sculptor in the Midwest was problematic. So instead he earned his living through design and construction of architectural elements, historic restoration and, more recently, non-profit program design. “I’ve always thought of myself as an artist, whatever I was designing,” he says. Over the years, HP has produced thousands of objects—sculptures, furniture, clothing accessories, photographs, books, architectural restorations and programs for various non-profits. Since retirement he has focused on producing sculptures featuring the human figure with an emphasis on faces. He works in clay and casts in either plaster or bronze. Shown here: Homo Technologicus II (detail) is painted plaster, 18″ x 32″, 2011, the second in a series exploring the interface between humans and the technology that is an increasing part of our society. This piece is one in a series currently on display through the end of October at Perfect Edge Gallery in Decorah, Iowa. Click here to follow Hans Peter Jorgensen, Sculptor, on Facebook.

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Kathleen Farago May, Fine Artist ~ Ottawa, Ontario

The evolution of her art from drawing to painting, to printing (etchings and silk screens) and finally to digital painting has been part of Kathleen Farago May’s life adventure. “Each medium has allowed me to more clearly express the spiritual impulses that have driven my creative work,” she says. She perceives her creative process to be a collaboration, to which she contributes her experience, technical skill and aesthetics in order to express the ideas and feelings she is inspired to bring to life. While her early paintings often expressed a rejection of traditional religious forms, today’s images are about “embracing the sense of the numinous that we feel when we acknowledge Oneness.” Kathleen’s themes reflect the fact that she adheres to no single spiritual tradition, but rather remains open to guidance from her higher self. The imagery is symbolic – a sphere, a face, wings, water, the sun – alluding to elements of philosophical and spiritual significance. When the images are not figurative, there is simply a feeling in the abstracted color-scapes and mandalas – a sense of awe, wonder and transported gratitude. Shown here: Time Lapse Self Portrait 1978-2011. You can view Kathleen’s collections on Facebook by clicking these four links: EmergenceAffinitySpringWall.

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Mike Coykendall, Producer/Musician/Songwriter ~ Portland, Oregon

Best known for touring with and producing M. Ward, Mike Coykendall (“Kirkendall”) fits his own songwriting and recording in between recording projects with artists like Blitzen Trapper, Richmond Fontaine, She & Him and Pancake Breakfast. Mike’s folk-rock sound features his trademark wise, raspy vocals set to country-infused psychedelia. In the early ‘90s, he and musical partner Jill Coykendall formed San Francisco’s Old Joe Clarks, an alternative country ensemble whose highly acclaimed CD “Town of Ten” shot to number 16 on the Americana charts. Rubbing elbows with musicians such as GIllian Welch, Bright Eyes, Jim James, and Victoria Williams, Mike has appeared on Austin City Limits, Late Night with David Letterman, Conan O’ Brien and Craig Ferguson. He performs around Portland regularly with The Golden Shag, has recorded two solo CDs – “Hello Hello Hello” (2005) and “The Unbearable Being of Likeness” (2009) – and is seeking the right label for his new double-CD release. Taking bookings across the U.S., Mike says, “I just want to perform as much as I can and tour as much as is possible.” Learn more on Mike’s web site; listen to his music on  iTunes; watch him perform “Lost as You Are” and the cover “I Can See Clearly Now,” and read my blog interview with him.

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Please, before you buy your holiday gifts, consider purchasing art from one of these eight or countless other artists who have their work available online or in your local community, wherever you may be. Thank you for taking time to read these profiles! Get in touch with me via e-mail if you would like to provide feedback or have your projects featured in Coming UpArt.

Eckhart Tolle, Nate Miller and the Now of Flowers

28 Sep

We receive the gifts we are ready to accept. In the past six months, two powerful entities have made their presence known in my life at the precise time when I could open to the lessons that each of them have to teach. If I could recommend only one writer and know you would read his books, that author would be Eckhart Tolle. And if I could share the work of one artist and know it would be seen, it would be the nature photography of Nate Miller.

Tolle’s seminal book The Power of Now expresses verbally the intuitions I have had from a very young age about life, death, body, spirit, joy, suffering, language, time, “God” and the nature of humanity in the greater universe. A new peace has descended upon me since reading it, not because the book taught me something altogether new, but because it articulates what I’ve somehow known all along but didn’t have the language – or the presence – to say.

I met Nate Miller six months ago today. He has become my closest friend and confidant, and possesses all the characteristics I have long sought in a partner, exemplified best in his simple statement, “If it’s important to you, then it’s important to me.” When I began to see his nature photography, and in particular his work featuring close-ups of flowers, it was as if The Power of Now had been made manifest for me in visual form.

Another of Tolle’s books, A New Earth, begins with an essay on the relationship between the flower and our awareness. “As the consciousness of human beings developed, flowers were most likely the first thing they came to value that had no utilitarian purpose for them, that is to say, was not linked in some way to survival. Jesus tells us to contemplate the flowers and learn from them how to live. The Buddha is said to have given a ‘silent sermon’ once during which he held up a flower and gazed at it. After a while, one of those present, a monk called Mahakasyapa, began to smile. He is said to have been the only one who had understood the sermon. According to legend, that smile (that is to say, realization) was handed down by 28 successive masters and much later became the origin of Zen.”

Nate Miller is a modern day Mahakasyapa. And like the legendary “sermon” to which Tolle refers, Nate is a man of few words. Nevertheless, he did answer me when I asked him what he is thinking when he guides his lens to boldly peer right into the heart of a poppy, hibiscus, lily, zinnia or morning glory: Nothing.

“When I’m photographing, I’m in the moment. I’m not thinking about anything,” he says. “I want to capture just that moment, something that’s even beyond what I’m looking at. Because the moment is beyond everything and also contains everything, it can allow each of us to see things in an extraordinary way.”

That extraordinary way of seeing is described by Tolle in A New Earth thus: “Once there is a certain degree of Presence, of still and alert attention in human beings’ perceptions, they can sense the divine life essence, the one indwelling consciousness or spirit in every creature, every life-form, recognize it as one with their own essence, and so love it as themselves.”

Just as Tolle extols the flower as “an expression in form of that which is most high, most sacred, and ultimately formless within ourselves,” Nate insists his images are merely “vehicles for the presence of the Now.” He views his photos not as art, but as a form of “visual meditation to transport you into the present moment” and hopes that “maybe that shift into a deeper appreciation of the Now through nature will inspire people to see other things in life from a deeper place.”

In The Power of Now, Tolle reminds us that, “In the Now, in the absence of time, all our problems dissolve. Suffering needs time. It cannot survive in the Now.” When I am focusing on the past or the future too strongly, Nate brings me back into the present, through his way of communicating and through his photography.

Nate developed his style of macro photography as “self therapy” more than a decade ago during a time when he was being a caretaker for his father, who was dying of brain cancer. As I write this, I am sitting beside my mother in her hospital bed. She has irreparable heart failure. And my place is with her, doing what I can to help, but mostly just being here… Now. Her grace, Nate’s flowers and the books by Tolle give me new strength each day. I am practicing Attention, Compassion and Gratitude, out of which this essay was born.

Learn more about Nate Miller on his web site.
Read a blog by Cynthia Cusick about Nate Miller.
Follow Nate Miller Nature Photography on Facebook.

Howe Gelb remembers Sept. 11 in “NYC of Time”

10 Sep

THIS INTERVIEW ALSO APPEARS ON THE NO DEPRESSION WEB SITE

“NYC of Time,” the second track on Giant Sand’s 2004 offering, Is All Over the Map, pays homage to the resilience of New York City and delivers a deeply felt encouraging word to all who were affected by the devastation of September 11.

Now based in Tucson, Arizona, Giant Sand’s front man Howe Gelb is no stranger to The Big Apple. I interviewed him recently about the city, the song and the events of ten years ago. Howe is both a poet and an innovator, and as such desires that the language used to represent him be rendered precisely in his own in cadence, tempo, beat and pause. This interview was conducted via e-mail, Howe typed his answers exactly the way he wants them to appear and requested that they be provided here sans capital letters. I am honored to abide by his requests.

Frances: You lived in New York City not one but three decades ago, when you were heading up your first band, Giant Sandworms. What was your experience like and what do you remember most about living and playing there?

Howe: i lived there in 1981 in the lower east side with my band for a year when living there was a daily danger. it was like a city attacking itself back then, but it always made more sense somehow than any other violent place. that time there lent itself in a way that made everywhere i’ve ever been since, easy by comparison. it was a training grounds to survive the time there then with our fledging band. adventures like being mugged and playing cbgb’s and wandering the streets all night became part of strength and fiber needed for continuance in me. i loved the time spent there then, no matter how tough it was, now only respect the place more since that day 10 years ago that dared to show what its people are made of and how to deal with horrors beyond anyone’s imagination.

Frances: One of the most compelling tunes on Is All Over the Map, “NYC of Time” makes the acronym “NYC” into the word “nick,” as in a cut, scratch, gash or dent – and as in the adage “in the nick of time.” Its climax contains the ironic yet triumphant line, “New York, there’s more to you now that something isn’t there,” which I take to be a direct reference to the city’s way of coping with the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

Howe: of course it is. the horror of that day was of biblical proportions. we as a species deal with it and continue finding ways to fall in love and live on no matter the consequences of this existence. new york being as intense as it always has been is probably the only place on earth to take it on the chin and continue to be even greater than before. it’s like what happens to martyrs; they become more powerful after their destruction.

Frances: How do you feel looking back to 10 years ago and how do you hope people who hear the song “NYC of Time” will interpret what I and many of your fans consider a bright, powerful and uplifting tribute?

Howe: i still say prayers for those that were on those planes. to envision them in that ordeal and send them the kind of thoughts and real energy from this life in hopes of some connection and embrace beyond this place. especially the mothers and children and the words they must have spoken to comfort each other in those final moments. the babies and the mothers on those planes, how they embraced each other in a way of representing the best quality of us as a species and the love that binds more than anything. then to all the countless people from such immensely varied cultures in the towers that only new york could ever accumulate, and how they then had to cope with their final moments and plunge into the next world with such conviction they never knew they had in them until that moment.

the song “nyc of time” pales by any comparison, but its thrust is there to help move it all ahead to a better time and place, and a dance to get us there.

nyc of time

new york, big city of dreams
take a bad time and make it better
there on the sidelines
you redefine, redefine, redefine.

n y c… spells nick to me
adjust in space
and just in time
you redesign, redesign, redesign.

in the nick of time
in the nyc of time

new york, it’s good to have you there
there’s more to you now
that something isn’t there
see it shine. see it shine.

in the nick of time
in the nyc of time

Listen to the song here.

Learn more about Howe Gelb and Giant Sand here.

Image credits: Howe Gelb by George Howard; Twin Towers by Cynthia Cusick.

Cynthia Cusick, artist interview

9 Dec

My friend Cynthia Cusick – a native New Yorker turned Eastern Kentucky farm girl – graduated last year from Eastern Kentucky University with a bachelor of fine arts degree. I remember visiting Cindi in her studio in late March of that year when she was preparing for her senior show. I stood amazed at the incredibly personal expression she had accomplished through metal and glaze stoneware sculptures. Looking at the scope of the work, I was reduced to tears – and then so was she. We shared one of those moments between friends where no words are really necessary, and then we proceeded to unload some of the then current hardships in both of our lives, while all around us an incredible collection of psychologically rich shapes and figures fresh from the kiln glistened and shone like the tears drying on our cheeks. Since then, Cindi, who turns 48 next week, has created a body of work that is only just beginning to be known and make an impression in the art world. I interviewed her over coffee yesterday about her life and work.

Cindi’s web site, where you can see all of her current work, is here.

Frances: When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Cindi: Lots of things. I used to have one of those Pocket Books for each grade from Kindergarten to High School where you filled in your school name, the teacher’s name, your friend’s names, your likes and dislikes, attached a picture and each grade had a pocket to keep all those stellar report cards. They had a check box section at the bottom of each page to check what you wanted to be when you grew up. It was segregated by gender. I never liked the options for the girls so I felt I had to check “nurse” or “teacher” until I started checking “other” from age 7 on up. Some of my choices were “Archeologist” and “Horse Owner.”

Frances: What was your family’s attitude toward creativity?

Cindi: Actually, my family was very creative, especially Mom, but more towards the performing, song and dance, plays-on-stage type thing. They did a lot of parties with their friends and at church that had themes so they were always getting dressed in costumes and Mom was usually the one to draw up the invitations and posters. Mom has a lot of artistic talent that she never fully realized, I don’t think. I know she sent away for a “Commercial Artist’s Course” that gave instructions in this big printed book, chapter-by-chapter, about how to draw advertisements. Think Coca-cola ads from the 1950s. I still have the book. Mom and Dad grew up in the ‘40s so there was a “safe zone,” a very conservative type of creativity. Not the avant-garde type of stuff, at all.

Frances: What were your first creations as a youngster?

Cindi: Ha! My brother, Larry, and I once made an entire town out of construction paper on the window sill of our room when it rained during our entire school break. We also created our own newspaper. We both did a lot of drawing. God, I drew constantly. I was horse crazy from an early age so I was always drawing horses. My brother, Larry, is a year younger than me so we grew up like twins from a young age until about 13, 14. I do remember when we would play outside behind the apartments on Garth Road in the woods; I would dig in the dirt looking for clay. I imagined I was on some Indian trail and would try to find clay to make pots. Of course, it was mostly regular dirt, not necessarily clay but I did like playing in the mud even then.

Frances: How do you feel your family shaped your attitudes towards feminism and gender issues?

Cindi: Wow. Typical Baby Boomer family. Dad was a WWII vet, Mom was the wife and home-maker. Older siblings born in the 50s and then a gap of 8 years between my older brother, Jimmy, and me, born in 1962 so I was in an odd place. By the time I was finishing elementary school and entering puberty, it was 1972 and Gloria Steinem, Betty Freidan and the like were in full swing. Women were burning bras, feminists and feminism were on the news, Ms. Magazine was launched and the options for girls was opening up. Although Mom and Dad were what I would call very conservative and traditional in gender roles, they were also less demanding on my brother and I since we were like a second family with eight years between me and Jimmy, so there was less concern that I was playing with GI Joe’s along with Barbies. They were less uptight raising Larry and me, I think. I grew up with an attitude that whatever I wanted to achieve, I could do it although, having said that, there were still gender specific expectations at home, like I should know how to cook and I should have a natural inclination to be a mother. Which I didn’t have.

Frances: When you lived in NYC, were you conscious of the artistic community? Did you realize that you were living in a place where art was a lot of more accessible and integrated into the social structure than in many other places?

Cindi: You can’t be from the NYC area and NOT be conscious of the artistic community. That’s like asking someone from Denver, Colorado if they were conscious of the mountains. NYC=ART, end of story. I suspect the same can be said of Paris, London, Berlin and other big, culturally  important cities. In a way, I think the intensity of the artistic climate, the fact that it is part of the fabric of NYC made it incredibly intimidating to me. I had dreams, as I grew up, drawing horses and then people and things, of being an artist but I was too scared to do it because look what I had to compete with? The rest of the world. I don’t think I was ever really aware how integrated art is in NYC, and how diverse and forward-thinking art is, not fully, until I left NYC to come to Central Kentucky.

Frances: What type of art or which artists do you remember first being affected by?

Cindi: Modern art. Picasso. Mondrian. Bauhaus architecture. the Abstract Expressionists, Pop Culture. Andy Warhol. I hated all of it at first, because I think I was expected to hate it coming from a nice conservative, Catholic family. But at the same time, our family was a little bit weird so I was really, really drawn to the difference from traditional, “safe” art all the same. What really drew me in and kept me going back was the subversiveness of it all. I was ultimately attracted to the power those kinds of art had in making people think.

Frances: You worked as a graphic artist for many years. How did you eventually decide you needed to move your creativity out of that realm and into a new direction?

Cindi: Graphic design was a cop-out for me. It was a “safe,” productive, respectful way for me to “be creative,” i.e. I could make a living at it earning a steady paycheck and appear to have some creative input into the things I was making. The reality was that I was always doing the bidding of the client and creativity, as far as I defined it, was an illusion. It was immensely frustrating. “Stifling” is the word I’d use. Plus so much of graphic design is promotion and product-oriented which left a bad taste in this old punk rocker’s mouth. When you see the ins and outs of media manipulation, it takes the joy out of life. How did I decide? One word: divorce. Nothing like a divorce to make you sit down and say, “Right. What the hell am I doing and why? Time for a change!”

Frances: Moving from the sophistication of New York City to live in rural, and intensely traditional, Irvine, Kentucky, has been a challenge that you have both relished and risen to. How have you learned from the culture around you and how do you feel it has shaped your artistic philosophy?

Cindi: I think I’ve always felt I would have to leave the environment of NYC to fully express myself. I’ve always yearned for the outdoors, the woods, the dirt, the rivers, the oceans, the wild animals and weird plants, trails, hiking, National Parks – I love National Parks. New York doesn’t have a lot of that. Because of that, I had a deep desire to go back to those profound, visceral relationships with nature that I experienced in my childhood in the woods behind the apartments. Being able to come out here to Estill County and own my own acreage allows me to indulge that part of me whenever I need inspiration. Estill County is traditional in one sense, but this part of Kentucky also has some quirkiness and eccentricity that I feel comfortable with, almost like walking around Thompson Square in the East Village – but you have to drive longer distances and people have funny accents. To me. As for artistic philosophy, I think I get to be one of the eccentrics. I enjoy my role as a weirdo New Yorker, an outsider. You get a much better view, in my opinion.

Frances: You have explained your work as referencing organic objects as a metaphor for life experiences. Please explain this statement.

Cindi: I’m really interested in nature, in general. My niece, Allison, is a biologist, and I think that is the coolest thing. I’d love to do some of the things that she does. She and I observe nature. She records it differently than I do but we’re getting at the same thing. We’re both trying, I think, to make a bridge between the organic world all around us and ourselves. Particularly now, in this day and age of technology, much like the Industrial revolution, I suspect we humans have this tendency to disassociate from the rest of the natural world because we’ve conned ourselves into thinking we can live without it and in spite of it, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are nothing but an elaborate container for some sophisticated DNA whose mission is to reproduce itself with as much variety as possible to ensure biological success. We are organic. Driving a hybrid car, watching a flat panel TV, having 1,000 “friends” on Facebook is us deluding ourselves that we are removed from nature. Or above it. So I like to use seeds and other organic references as a reminder of our vulnerabilities. We can crap on the planet and ignore climate change, but we’re only hurting ourselves in the end.

Frances: What role does observation play in creativity and in producing art?

Cindi: Art is about observation. In order to produce art as opposed to replicate art, you have to really be aware and observe without judgment, initially. Then, when you take in the information around you, you can analyze and say something about what you see. Without observation, it’s all just paint-by-numbers.

Frances: Your work often centers around feminist themes and women’s issues. What is your stance on feminism and do you consider yourself a feminist?

Cindi: All women in Western culture, as far as I’m concerned, are feminists, even if they chose to adhere to more traditional roles. The very fact that you can have a choice about that means you support the feminist point of view, whether you realize it or not. Unless you want to give up the right to vote, you’re a feminist. Going back to school as an older woman, and a non-traditional student, I was always struck by these teens and 20-somethings that swore off anything feminist just because they were so far from the roots of the movement. I would just politely and directly contradict them when they would say, “Oh, I’m not a feminist!” “Bullshit,” I would say, “You’re a student here, right?” They missed the irony in their enrollment.

Frances: Why did you gravitate toward clay as a medium and why do you love working with it?

Cindi: I blame Joe Molinaro, my ceramics professor at Eastern Kentucky University. I was simply trying to get my BA in Metalsmithing and had to take a Ceramics I class. He told me I needed to be a ceramics major. I felt threatened so I caved. Okay, I’m kidding, but he did encourage me to become a ceramics major. There’s something basic, fundamental and Zen-like about working with, well, dirt. How much more basic can you get? Maybe air, but it doesn’t hold a form the way clay does. I think Joe recognized that I had a connection to the process of working in clay as well as a sense of proportion and design. He saw my relationship with the material, I think. I work in other material besides clay, mind you, but his guidance and direction helped me find my artistic voice that had been silent for a long time. Okay, maybe not silent, but my voice prior to school was directionless and lacked confidence.

Frances: Some of your work involves the use of metals, but usually juxtaposed with other materials. What does metal represent or signify for you?

Cindi: Oh, I love metal. I’ve been on a bit of hiatus from metal and I’m itching to get back in to it. I really think I have some quality metal pieces inside me that have yet to be expressed. I can sense ideas percolating but I think they’re in the future a bit. I love the strength of metal as a medium and the flexibility, if that makes sense. Metal can be illusory. It can be thick and clunky, filigree and delicate, shiny or dull, smooth and polished or textured, ominous and dark or enameled and colorful. You can set stones in it, wrap it around objects, pierce it with things, use it to pierce things, even flesh. It brings different possibilities to the table than other media. I just saw some enameled vessels that had me drooling the other day. Talk about sexual! Mmmmmm….

Frances: Themes you have explored include very personal and autobiographical experiences related to parental alienation. Talk about how that came about and how it is evolving in your work.

Cindi: My first theme or thing that I felt compelled to say in artistic form was in metal combined with gourds, organic objects that represented the human form. I was going through an intense, emotionally exhausting and draining custody issue with my husband (concerning his ex-wife) during the years I was getting my BFA from EKU. His son, who is now, seventeen, was seven and a half when I met him. He is an only child. The effect of being in the middle of two adults who were angry at each other was painfully obvious. I was appalled at the behavioral changes we saw in him as he tried to cope. Watching a child suffer when one parent willfully manipulated his natural feelings towards both parents in order to gain a legal advantage was something I never contemplated being involved with in my lifetime. Basically, parental alienation is a form of emotional abuse, as it asks the child to give up their natural love for a parent in order to make another parent happy. It’s about exploitation of power relationships of parent and child, and development of co-dependency. Eventually, you hope, depending on the kid, that they figure out what’s going on, and a lot of kids do, but it’s at the cost of a wound that can take a lifetime to heal. In our case, my stepson is on a path of awareness, now, so that’s good for him. I’m sure I’ll find some way of expressing this “turning of a corner.” Needs time to ferment.

Frances: You have said to me before that the only constant in life is change. I have noted how you, like many artists, are able to find relative calm amid a myriad of chaotic events and situations. Talk a little bit about your ideas surrounding chaos, change and constancy.

Cindi: Well, it is true that the only constant is change, that’s what this universe does and yet when you step back and observe, all that change makes a whole picture at the same time it’s changing. In fact, some times we can see not change, itself, but the still moments and effects of time and change, and then we sense the process it took to get from one place to the next. I always like to say we’re all in a race for the pine box or however you choose your finale. In the mean time, as we race, we hit mile posts and then reflect on them afterwards. I think it’s been helpful to me to embrace change instead of fighting it. It certainly makes things a lot more enjoyable and fun. When I feel a chaotic situation, if I take the time to step back from the chaos, I can find some beauty and pattern in the illusion of randomness. It reminds me of those fractal patterns, in each part of the fractal if seems there is no pattern or direction to the graph, but when you keep the algorithm going and step back, this weird snowman-like pattern emerges. It’s a meta experience. Think of those videos where it starts in the middle of a busy, chaotic, ugly, urban street and then zooms out further and further until your view is of the planet and the swirling atmosphere. Just depends on your perspective.

Frances: An area of exploration in your work involving change is that of sexuality and the natural progression of a woman toward infertility in the form of menopause. How does your work explore this?

Cindi: I never wanted to have kids. We’re biologically programmed and built to procreate and recreate. I had all the desire to do the procreative act, but not the follow-up, which I never had to do. As a result, I’ve always had questions – either from within or more often foisted upon me from without – about defining myself as a female, as a woman. What does it mean to be woman if you do not fulfill the biological plan of bearing children? Even if I didn’t want children, just the fact that I was still technically able to have them somehow fulfilled that part of my identity as “woman.” So what happens when you go through menopause and now, you can no longer have children? What becomes of the female identity then? What about sexuality? The libido drops but there are ways around that and you can still have sex without the childbearing. But I already do that so what’s changing and will my perspective on my sexuality change much as a non-mother, as opposed to a woman who has been sexual and had children? I’m also really fascinated by issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s so fundamentally biological and yet we humans make things so complicated.

Editor’s note: Cindi has an entire series of work exploring menopause. You can see it here.

Frances: You have said that a recurring theme in your art is a trust in the intuitive. Please elaborate.

Cindi: A visiting artist to EKU once said to me, “If it comes from your hands, it’s good.” English wasn’t her first language so she may have wanted to be more elaborate, but the simplicity of what she did say had such a profound effect on my work. I went from simple gourd forms in clay to bending the form and finally, my carving exploded. I stopped planning what I was going to do and trying to get my hand work to match the expectations in my head. As a result, I was able to let go and just let my hands do their thing and then stop and look at what I had created. I began a dialogue with myself about what I was trying to say to me. I became my own best feedback. I let my intuition guide me and then tweaked and guided it to help express what I was trying to say. In effect, I let go of my artistic control freak that had been holding me back.

Frances: What is your relationship to spirituality and how does this play out, if at all, in your creative process?

Cindi: I’m an atheist from a good Catholic background! If I had to identify a spiritual philosophy that most resonated with me, it would most likely be Buddhism and Zen, although I’m not into all the ritual. But from what I know about Buddhists and Zen practitioners, they’re not so hung up on the ritual. I do have an aversion to religion and religious structures and dogma. I find all religions have some philosophy that is simply humans trying to understand their place in the universe and to a degree, they function like different languages saying the same basic message. Unfortunately, it’s the hierarchies and dogma that muck it all up, in my opinion. I’m not sure that spirituality plays out in my creative process, itself, as much as the creative process is my spirituality.

Frances: How do you define wisdom and do you think this differs for women and men?

Cindi: Wisdom! Ha! I know nothing. What is wisdom, anyway? I think wisdom comes, also, from keen observation and awareness. And some detachment from the emotional. In that sense, it probably does differ for women and men, but merely by the path it takes, I think. Ultimately, I think we’re all capable of attaining some wisdom at some point in our lives. Before we die.

Frances: How do you define balance and how do you achieve it?

Cindi: Balance, for me, is being able to come back to a place where I can begin again. It’s like yoga poses. For every pose, there is a countering pose to strengthen the whole. So if I’m very focused for a time, I need some relaxation and goof-off time to counter it. On the other hand, if all I’m doing is goofing off, I need some task, goal or chores to counter my idleness. Chop wood, carry water. When things get really out of sorts, I always try to remember to come back to the basics, food, shelter, water, chores. When in doubt, wash the dishes, sweep the floor. You can get a lot of thinking done without thinking then. And the other great thing for balance and a nice reality check are my animals. Nothing puts it all in place like my cat’s purr, my dog licking my hand or leaning on me for some head pats or the nuzzling of my horses, sinking my face into their coat and breathing in their smell.

Frances: What are your current goals with respect to your work in the next five years?

Cindi: I’m looking at the year 2010 as a year of transition for me, which makes 2011 Year One. So, we begin. In five years, I’d like this to be a comfortable process, the making, the creating, the showing, the thinking. I’d like to keep my ability to see the beautiful patterns in the chaos. I’d like to see my work evolve from media specific to more integration between clay, metal, organic and so on as it’s called for. Right now, my goals are getting the most exposure for my work as possible, as far across the region, country and globe as possible. And also to keep making work. I wouldn’t mind doing something unexpected and/or collaborative, either. All in good time. I’ve got a whole second half of my life to enjoy this.

You can follow Cynthia Cusick, artist, on Facebook, here.