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Changes are shifting outside the world*

9 Jan

As a student of English Literature, I learned that for a narrative work of any kind to be truly engaging, the main character has to undergo a change.

imagesIn the terminology of dramatic structure, going all the way back to Aristotle, there is a climax or turning point that marks a change – for better or the worse – in the protagonist’s affairs. Consider the Shakespeare plays you recall: In the comedies, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, things had gone badly for the character up to this point, and now the tide will turn and things will get better. In the tragedies, like Hamlet or Othello, the opposite occurs, and events shift from good to bad at the climax.

Of course, by the time we learn about this literary device, we’ve already been exposed to it many times, from the earliest fairy tales and stories that were read to us as very young children on up through just about every form of entertainment that is a part of our particular age group’s contemporary culture. We can all name our favorites: I recall being enchanted by Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and Great Expectations.

images-3As adults, whether we love fiction, theater, opera or rock-n-roll, we are most inspired by those works of art in which a transformation occurs. I will find myself quite bored by films in which the main character never “gets it” and conversely reduced to tears by those in which the change the protagonist undergoes is portrayed in a startlingly realistic way. Some random examples of favorite films are The Razor’s Edge, The Darjeeling Limited, Sally Potter’s Yes, and most recently, Jack Goes Boating. Similarly the music which affects me most profoundly – penned by artists like Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, James McMurtry, Jeff Tweedy, Steve Earle and Vic Chesnutt, just to name a few – does so through its ability to portray characters realizing something transformational.

Joseph Campbell took the Greek notion of dramatic structure a step further to define the common plot element in all stories as the hero’s journey. In any narrative, things are going along routinely, and then the main character is faced with an upheaval of some kind in which all he thought was stable has now changed, requiring him to rise to the occasion and fight a dragon of some sort or another, usually representing a personal fear. It is through this battle that transformation occurs and the hero emerges a new, better, stronger person than before. Think Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Castaway, Avatar, the list goes on and on.

62463I recently watched a film called Finding Joe that expounds Campbell’s hero’s journey concept. It does this through interviews with a dozen or so articulate speakers who have achieved greatness, some well known and others who worked quietly behind-the-scenes to accomplish successful projects. “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.” This quote, which might as well be Campbell’s tagline, is one of the main ideas behind this uplifting film, from which you’ll come away feeling like an esteemed squad of cheerleaders including Deepak Chopra, Mick Fleetwood and Laird Hamilton is rooting for you personally.

But to witness another person taking on the ultimate hero’s journey leaves us empty, mystified and lost – because when the final dragon is met and fought with, the essence of what the person was here in this realm of form actually seems to leave us, nevermore to return.

In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle writes, “The weakening or dissolution of form, whether through old age, illness, disability, loss, or some kind of personal tragedy, carries great potential for spiritual awakening – the dis-identification of consciousness from form. Since there is very little spiritual truth in our contemporary culture, not many people recognize this as an opportunity, and so when it happens to them or someone close to them, they think there is something dreadfully wrong, something that should not be happening.”

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Trying to come to some terms with my mother’s death over the past five months has been like trying to wake up after being heavily sedated. One is so overwhelmed with the grieving process that it’s like being mired in physical, psychological and emotional quicksand. After many months of struggling just to get through each quagmire of a day, finally, strangely, you begin to process emotions and information like yourself again.

A few weeks ago, I was driving through the woods at sunset feeling as if I had been a victim of amnesia and was trying to remember something about who I had been before. It was like hearing snatches of a melody and parts of a lyric hovering just below the mind’s surface, almost reachable and yet, still distant.*

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After chasing my ethereal thoughts for roughly a 24-hour period, a revelation of sorts began to emerge from the clouds, like mist rising from a mountain ridge. It was slowly dawning on me that just because I can no longer see and hear and feel my mom doesn’t mean she is not still on her journey.

Separate wholly from any learned connection between death and religion, the simple truth becoming less and less dim was that, given our limits of understanding, there is no reason to believe the changes do not go on. Changes are very likely still shifting outside the world as we know it.

As Tolle explains, during illness and finally in death, “what is lost on the level of form is gained on the level of essence.”

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The night my mother died, I awoke from a deep sleep having heard some sound in our shared room. When I reached her, she was unconscious but still living. And then I experienced something I never could have anticipated. Her essence, what some would call her spirit, left her body and very rapidly spread out around me with a palpable aliveness. It is impossible to describe this because I didn’t see or hear it or even feel it. (I was actually quite devoid of emotion at the moment it occurred.) I simply experienced it. And when it was over, her body had become a shell, not unlike that of an insect. Her essence went on. It was tangibly not trapped in the shell, which had died.

From that point on, I knew that to honor my mother was no longer to look at or touch her body, for it was no longer her. And so I sat near the body for only a short time, and then left the room and did not watch when it was carried out of our house.

Mother had fought the ultimate dragon; she had faced her fear and gone through the consummate change. Or had she?

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The way we experience time in this realm of form brings a horrible finality to this type of separation from someone we love. But, we need not lose interest in the plot as we might do when watching a movie where no transformation seems to be occurring. Change can still be going on – and who are we to say that it couldn’t be? Maybe the essence that used to appear in the form of my mother finally found the doors where before there had been only walls. For all I know, Mom is now on some level of the hero’s journey that is beyond my comprehension.

My continued closeness to her essence gives me the impression that changes are indeed shifting outside this world and that she is still learning, growing and changing as she has always done.

Nature photography courtesy of Nathaniel J. Miller. Computer generated paintings by Kathleen Farago May.

*The title of this essay is an intentional misquote from the song No More I Love You’s in which the lyric actually reads, “Changes are shifting outside the words.” The Annie Lennox cover of the song written by Joseph Hughes and David Freeman provides the very personal aural backdrop against which this essay was conceived.

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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.