Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Color Wheels as Prayer

My color wheels are a form of prayer.  Making them takes me to a space in my head where my mind is clear and present.  I'm exploring relationships, pattern, variations.  And yet I can do so without judgement or attachment.
There is enough of a structure to frame a contemplative practice while at the same time there is room to explore and play within that practice.  
One of the first color wheels I made was a large collection of buttons.  It came at a time when two people close to me were battling cancer and waiting on next steps.  I felt sad but also frozen, unable to help directly and anxious waiting for news.  I had a bin of buttons on my desk and began just choosing colors and moving them around.  From frozen to moving was a small step and I was soon taken in by the task of sorting and arranging.  It felt like a prayer, like creating a space.  I unmade and remade a color wheel with this same collection of buttons a few times before seeing it down to preserve.  Each time the making was a routine and ritual I could return to for a comforting and contemplative quiet space.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

August Sanctuary Studio gathering...

Our August Sanctuary Studio gathering began with a reading from Frederick Buechner on how art invites us to stop, look and listen to the world around us and thereby to increase our sense of awareness of the present moment.  We worked with collage materials and metallic paint to reflect on color and light we notice at different hours of the day or different seasons of the year.  

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Inspiration for Art Camp

About a year ago, a friend sent me this blog post by Seth Godin titled, “What is your ART?”  

The following sentence has been with me and inspired my thinking as I prepare for my time as Artist in Residence at Art Camp.

“Art is a human act, a generous contribution, something that might not work, and it is intended to change the recipient for the better, often causing a connection to happen.”

As I think about what I hope and dream for my time with young artists on the mountain, I return to these elements: human, generous, risky, change and connection.

I look forward to working with our hands, to an environment that is high-touch, imperfect, natural and full of stories - stories of the moment, the material, the maker and the meaning.  My focus is on art as a practice and I look forward to the opportunity to practice in community.  

After my time with staff training, I am greatly inspired by the counselors and directors leading camps and their gifts of time, energy, spirit and love.  I can’t wait to see how this sense of abundance at Shrine Mont inspires young artists.  For me a generous environment is one with faith in abundance so there is open sharing of ideas.  I love watching artists inspire other artists and see the development of ideas and new iterations. 

This is one of my favorites.  To me there are always two risks when making art.  It might not work out.  OR, it might work out in ways that are a surprise and are different from the original intention.  The first is the risk of beginning, the second is the risk to continue. Continuing and working through challenges invites the maker into surprise, co-creation and a new story.  

This gets back to the idea of leaving room for surprise within the process.  Rather than thinking of art making as predictable steps to an outcome, it is an invitation to a journey. Journeys always bring change, even if just change in perspective. 

To create is to be vulnerable, to be real, human, a risk taker, and to be generous with something that may only come clear through the process of sharing; to create is to invite change.  
This vulnerability opens us to connection, to love.  A caring and supportive space and community allows us to make these connections.  

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Packing for Art Camp...

A few years ago we anticipated a big snow.  While others made last minute trips to the grocery store, I ran out to the art supply store and my studio to ensure I had enough projects to work on should we be snowed in for a few days.  
It’s the same for me when I travel.  There are two parts to my packing, the usual: Clothes, toiletries, bug spray, sunscreen.  Then there’s my art bag: sketchbook, pen and pencil, watercolors and maybe some scraps for collage.  How much is enough?  Will I want a crochet hook, any small unfinished projects I should bring along? I usually have to pack and unpack several times to get down to just what’s essential.  
I feel a bit the same way as I prepare for my first summer as Artist-in-Residence for Art Camp.  I’ve been collecting ideas and researching supplies since staff training in June.  I want there to be a variety of medial and choice so young artists can find something that really excites them.  I want to have just the “right” thing for each artist. 
As I reflect on my own process, I am reminded that once the journey begins, it’s as much about improvisation and preparation.  
One one family trip, I feel in love with the light on trees and fields along the road and began painting small watercolors in the front seat of the car as my husband drove.  I used my water bottle for water and put the paintings to dry on the dash board in the sun.  This ended up very different from imagining myself sitting in the woods painting but invited working quickly as I would try to capture colors just as they slipped from view in the moving car.  
On a train trip last summer, I had trouble defining shapes with watercolor as the train moved along.  I switched to collage but noted the paper I brought was lacking greens.  This was a chance to use my paints to create a palette of papers that I then tore to make the collages.  
In both of these cases, my excitement to make something and record what I saw overcame the worry of having the “right” materials.
Packing for art camp I’m reminded of this.  I want to invite improvisation and surprise and to remember that as much and I put into preparation, there real invitation to create comes with limitations and sometimes those limitations are the greatest gift.  I can’t wait to see what we will need next week that I haven’t thought of and to see how we will improvise to make it work.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Sanctuary Studio with Inspiration from Rachel Naomi Remen

On Wednesday evening, we began our art and quiet time with a story from the Kaballah as told by Rachel Naomi Remen in an interview with Krista Tippet.  You can hear the conversation entitled “Listening Generously” at this link:
The story is rich in imagery and connects to themes from Celtic Christianity about finding the light and inherent goodness in all of creation.  

These themes emerged in our discussion and sharing as well.  One participants shared Quaker ideas around prayer as a way of holding someone in the light along with the idea that there is dark and light in all of us.  

Another participant heard the part of the story about the breaking up of the light of the world and connected to the way a prism breaks light into colors of the rainbow.  

We shared images of spirals, stars, and the new light of day as well as other images from the natural world.  

In discussing the process of creating with collage we noticed the way some creations began with a specific intention and then found pieces to fit the plan while others began without a set idea and let the work evolve as they found different elements to add.  

Saturday, June 18, 2016


More lovely time for walking and enjoying nature here at Shrine Mont.
Also a full day continuing to get to know staff for camp.  
In our rest time I had time for a short nap and making a few mini collages...

Friday, April 8, 2016

Art Making as Meditation and Pilgrimage

I've been reading The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within by Christine Valters Paintner.  Her words about an inner process during art making speak to my own experience.   

Consider your art making time as a meditation practice where the only "goal" is to be aware of the voices inside you, especially the critical ones.  Notice what they have to say and then gently return to your practice.  Over time you will discover that these voices of judgement and insecurity are the same ones that rise up and undermine you in everyday life.  Art becomes a place where we can grow familiar with them and dive into our inner life despite their distraction.  It also becomes a place to welcome in the voices of joy and ease and recognize things that make our hearts delight.  

I am glad she mentions not just the critical voices, but also joy and ease.  I often find that it is only by moving through the voices of doubt and criticism that I can get to the voices of joy and discovery. For me, materials help with this as they pull me in to the present and into a way of being where shape and color and seeing take over so there are fewer words, fewer voices in my head and the possibility of new ways of seeing.  

Paintner writes about how practice can serve as an inner journey into the unknown, one that helps us to be open to discovery and to newness around us.  

Art-making as pilgrimage helps us to understand the arts as a process of discovery about ourselves and about God.  When we enter the creative process with the intention of listening for the movements of the Spirit, we discover new insights about ourselves and God.  

We will add a monthly gathering for exploring art and meditation in April and May, on the second Wednesday of the month, April 13 and May 11 at 7 pm at St Aidan's.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Different Kinds of Conversations

I read an article this week about my first drawing professor, Richard Crozier.  The article originally appeared on the UVA Today website and can be accessed here.

The part that interested me the most was Crozier's response to being asked "What do you want to communicate to your students?"
"I want them to realize that art is something they can do.  I want them to keep their mind open, to look at art. For the rest of their lives, no matter if they become doctors or businessmen or anything really, if they continue to look at art then we will have accomplished something.  They will think that is something I did.  One looks at art in a very personal way when one has drawn and painted.  There is a real conversation taking place."
This idea of conversation has been on my mind a lot lately and feels central to what I hope that creative practice offers.  I love the idea that having drawn and painted gives one the capacity to interact with work by another.  To look differently, maybe even to empathize with the maker in the experience of viewing the piece.

I shared this quote this week with a group of parents and teachers gathered to reflect on creativity with children and one parent, Robin Wilson, wrote this to me in response.
This helps me flesh out some thoughts I've recently had about music.  I studied music for 7+ years with mixed feelings in the end.  Since then I haven't needed any of those skills (reading music, keys, transposing from a clarinet or harp to the piano, etc.) & it has crossed my mind if I "wasted" that time.
But my daughter's been very interested in singing & music, & I finally found a songbook with more than just lyrics- it had the music as well.  It dawned on me those skills I learned are doing more for me now in that I can make music accessible for her.  Maybe we don't always need to learn something for ourselves, but to give that to someone else.
We were at a park one afternoon and there were some sticks on the picnic table where we were sitting.  I started tapping rhythms and then my daughter joined in and we both led and followed (which is now a dearer afternoon to me after our discussion yesterday) and then other kids came over.  It was all simple rhythms I remember from very early on in my music education, but it was fascinating to see the kids respond!
So for about 15 years these skills lay dormant & now they are finding their place again.  My conversation with music needed a period of quiet, & now it's time to resume speaking.
I wrote my last post about an activity with materials that seemed to be a conversation without words. There was a back and forth and opportunities for leading and following.  Robin's story and connection to music now make me curious about what other ways we offer chances to practice intentional listening and sharing.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Practicing Conversation....Without Words...

I have an activity I often use to begin talking about observational drawing.  It involves working with a partner with a set of blocks.  Each person has the same blocks.  They take turns as leader and follower; one person makes something and the other person recreates the creation.  The only rule is there is no talking.

I introduce this activity to focus on observing.  Before we add any mark making materials we do this activity to spend some time observing.  

Over the last few months I have done this activity more often with adults. What I notice is that it is as much about interaction as it is about observation.  When we talk about how it feels at the end, people comment on the peace of really just focusing on one thing with another person.  As the outside observer, I notice a gentle back and forth as participants check in with each other with eye contact, a nod, a smile.  

The photos above are from a parent education night focused on drawing with children at home.  It was the comments from this thoughtful group of parents that first brought my awareness to how much more was happening than just an exercise in observation.  There is observation but also mirroring and responding - and - a very focused sense of presence to another person.

A week or so after this I tried this activity as an opening for a group that focuses on lay pastoral care. It led us into conversations about attention to another person, pacing, and non-verbal communication.

This week we began our book discussion of Children's Imagination: creativity under our noses with a similar opening activity.  This offered participants a chance to get to know each other first through a conversation with materials before we moved on to more traditional introductions and discussion of the book.  

In this group, we also had fascinating discussions about how it felt to lead or to follow - some felt leading was harder while others felt following was more challenging.  Leading felt to some like pressure to perform while others worried about getting it right as the follower copying another's design.  I noticed the slowness and care people took in their building and also in checking in non-verbally with partners.

I'm curious if others can think of instances that feel like conversation but with action or interaction rather than words?

Monday, January 18, 2016

Practice and Peer Relationships

I've been thinking lately about how space to practice holds space for relationships among practitioners even at very different developmental levels.  If it's about how you perform or the product you make, it quickly becomes hierarchical - some are better than others.  We connect when we relate as practitioners.  I think of a beautiful moment at a music concert when a world class cellist signed her CD to my son, a beginner.  She wrote, "to a fellow cellist."  They both practice the same art and she chose to relate to him around practice.
It seems to me we need spaces to relate around practice rather than responsibility or position.
I have spent a lot of time facilitating groups for adults and kids together in the studio.  It is the uniqueness of the relationships with the adults I remember the most.  I got to know adults through their relationships with kids and with materials.  There was an intimacy in the way we shared the vulnerability of exploring in a child-like manner while creating.  
In the studio the focus was on the here and now and often work time was marked by quiet concentration.  It could be several months of working together before I would learn about the occupations of the adults in the class.  The one I remember most vividly was a high school principal. If I'd learned that when I first met him I might have been intimidated or made assumptions about him. I got to know him first just as a dad making stuff with his daughter - no authority - just there as a peer.  I think it may have been a gift to him in some way too.  If I'd begun the first class with everyone introducing themselves and saying where they are from and what they do, he would have had to carry his position with him into the space.  
Another time, a mother and her 10 year old daughter registered for a family class and I called her to tell her the other children in the parent/child pairs were all much younger.  I offered the daughter could join a class for just kids with more participants closer to her age.  She appreciated my concern but let me know that she and her daughter really wanted to spend the time together.  And they worked together beautifully in the studio, with each other and with the other families who joined them each Saturday morning.  It was only at the last class when this mom asked about a reflective material and said it would be great for her science class that I learned she was a teacher.  Again, I was honored she had taken the time to be my student and my peer and that she had been humble enough to enter a learning space just as a participant with her daughter.  She clearly had lots of experience being the leader in a learning space but in this case she chose to focus on her role as a peer.  
I've written on the Art at the Center blog about the wonderful opportunities for peer teaching I see in studio learning with kids.  I will be writing more in coming posts about ways to nurture peer relationships through a focus on sharing practice.  

Friday, January 15, 2016

Practice as a Container for Process

In my last post I wrote about the relationship between product, process and practice in art.
Currently, I have committed to making something everyday for a year as a way to encourage myself to practice (  For a visual artist, practice is about making things.
Much of my thinking about practice comes from watching artists in other disciplines.  I especially think about musicians for whom practice and repetition seems more natural language. As part of their process of learning to play instruments, my children are required to practice. At the end of the practice session, they don't have a something but they have the benefit of having spent more time with their instrument and with a piece of music.  Sometimes they even just play around with sounds and rhythms they can make with their instruments.  We count this as practice too - it's all part of learning about music as a language and the particulars of an instrument.
For visual art, we play with materials and techniques.  And, as with music practice, there is great benefit to repetition and familiarity with materials.  Practice includes not just the doing but the planning, set up, and clean up of an art experience.  Just as my son playing the violin needs to learn to care for his instrument, beginning artists learn to care for tools and materials.  This means that artists not only enjoy the flow and mix of colors on the page but they are part of getting out tools for painting, setting up a work space, and taking brushes to be washed when a painting is complete.
As I work with organizations to share a practice oriented way of working, the routines around how materials are used and cared for are as important as the work with materials.  Recently, a preschool teacher told me how much her class is enjoying clay and how much she enjoys the time too.  She said it really helps that the kids have a role in cleaning up and setting up the experience.  They work with clay often enough that this has become routine.  With young children, work with clay is about the process.  They create with the clay but do not save their creations as products.  Clay used this way is great for young children because it allows them to just focus on the process.  The practices around adding water to store the clay and cleaning up tools, table and hands are the same ones used in a potting studio.  Having these practices in place helps kids grow up with the material and eventually transition from manipulation and exploration to making pots and sculptures.
The practices are also the key to the teacher's enjoyment of the time with clay.  When routines are in place to ground the work with materials, the children take more ownership of their making and the teacher can be more present to really witness and enjoy the process.  The work up front to put routines in place pays off in richer experiences and deeper attention to work as children grow in their practice.
Contrast this with a classroom where clay is brought out just once as a special experience.  The teacher does all the set up and then sends the children out to play so she can really clean the classroom.  The process of the kids with clay that happens in the middle is very similar in both situations.  However, the kids who head out to play without being part of clean-up miss out on the chance to build the habits of a practice.  It is also no surprise that the clay only comes out once; it's a fun process but is also messy and potentially exhausting for the teacher.
Process-oriented activities offered in this way can also run the risk of feeling like a packaged experience offered to the kids for their consumption.  It easily develops into kids asking, "So now what?" as in "what ELSE do you have to entertain me?"  I quickly learned that the best answer to "I'm DONE!" was "What is it you need to do next?"  By having a routine in place for clean-up, I encouraged kids to slow down a bit and turned the table on them for what's next with a chance to practice our habits for caring for materials.  Similarly, when they were ready to begin something new in the studio, I could ask, "What do YOU need to get to be ready for paint?"  (A jar of water, brush and towel.)  Once children had these routines in place I could then allow them freedom to choose where to work and move from one activity to another with greater freedom.  Practices set up a structure to optimize creative freedom for participants and allow for a greater attention to process.

Some of my best examples for building practices in the studio and in classrooms come from the wonderful and generous art teachers who make up the list serve group Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB).

Monday, January 4, 2016

Process, Product and Practice

I've been thinking a lot lately about practice and how it relates to process and product in art making. My training as an art therapist focuses on the gifts to be found in the process.  To say it's about the process and not the product frees the maker to explore, to express and not to worry about making "Art."
I am interested in ways that practice can hold space for art making to be about the process.  This practice includes habits, routines, and even the discipline necessary to frame a space for making.
Habits and routines help participants to feel a sense of agency.  A friend of mine described it as the shift from a student asking the teacher, "can I?" to asking "how can I?"  The first question asks permission, the second question is looking for guidance in using materials to achieve a personal vision.
The focus on practice is what allows participants to own and reflect on their process.  Part of practice is just showing up and being willing to try.  It takes courage to show up and it takes consistent showing up to build a practice.
My favorite definition of discipline comes from John Cage, "...discipline conceived as a means of sobering and quieting the mind, freeing that mind from its likes and dislikes, taste and memory, making it subject to the Mind outside it."  Practice connects us to community, to other practitioners, to a sense of tapping into a source beyond the self.
When focused on practice, people may make things but the real product is in the inner life of the maker - the reflections, insights and felt states of being.  At the same time, the objects made often deepen and evolve in ways that are surprising even to the maker.  It shifts from an act of imposing will on materials to conversing with them.
Madeline L'Engle writes, "When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens." Creative practice is about building the relationship between the art maker and the materials and process so that when the work is ready to speak the artist is ready to listen. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Studio as Sanctuary

"We go to sanctuaries to remember the things we hold dear, the things we cherish and love. And then - our greatest challenge - we return home seeking to enact this wisdom as best we can in our daily lives."
- William Cronon

Art at the Center began as a community studio inspired by the model of ateliers in the schools of the city of Reggio Emilia, Italy.  In these schools, the atelier or studio is not so much an art classroom as it is a place to explore materials as languages.  The focus is on using the tools and materials of art making to represent and share experience.  These spaces deepen learning by offering children and adults opportunities to explore and share discoveries together.

The idea for Art at the Center was to offer a similar kind of space to children and families in the community.    The mix of ages and experiences enriched our gatherings and allowed children and parents from different school and neighborhood communities to connect around making and sharing materials in the studio.  We often saw families new to the area find connections to other communities through their time in the studio.  In this way, the Art at the Center studio served as a bridge and point of connection.  Another goal of the work was to begin a practice that would carry on at home and in communities.  I felt successful if children left classes ready to carry on a practice of making at home.
The best feedback from parents was when people shared how the studio provided a space to just be with their kids, to give up some of the responsibility of parenting for a bit and just enjoy time together.

For me, the studio offered a sanctuary or place apart for gathering and sharing.  The opportunities for peer relationships, shared routines and regular gathering time helped to hold this space for community to grow.

The quote at the top of this post comes from William Cronon, an environmental historian.  It was sent to me as a link to a post from Shenandoah National Park.  For me, making and spaces for making offer a similar sense of calm and quiet like what I find being in nature.

In my own practice, I increasingly find that it is less about the details of the physical location and that once I have a practice of making and sharing, the spirit of the studio travels easily with me. This past summer, I made collages aboard a small sleeping compartment on a two day train ride from Chicago to Seattle. I painted watercolors in the very back seat of a school bus traveling 6 hours into Denali National Park on a rainy hazy day.  The practice of making in both settings allowed me to create a quiet space for myself to really enjoy the beauty and natural space around me.  My creations provide traces to help me better treasure these times and to remind me to look for nature and beauty nearby now that I am home.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Studio as Centering Space

A studio is a sacred space - a space to explore and form relationships with materials, with others and with a deeper sense of self.  The act of making quiets the mind, invites us to be fully present and opens us up to connections.  Moments of connection spark curiosity, wonder, gratitude, and the urge to share what we discover. Sometimes we leave traces in images and objects we make; other times are more fleeting and leave their mark in new ways of seeing, empathy for another or a feeling of groundedness and connection to something greater. Community helps hold and tend this space - a creative and spiritual home for solitude as well shared experience.

I wrote this statement a year and a half ago as part of a process of reflecting on what was central in my practice teaching art classes to kids.  What surprised me the most was that the words flowed very freely once I stopped trying to write about art and started to write about space.  For seven years Art at the Center offered classes in a community studio setting.  In my household, the business was never referred to by name, it was always, "the studio."  Looking back, a year after leaving our location on Sherwood Hall Lane, I realize the studio was a centering space, it wasn't the art that was central, it was the people that gathered there and the practices and routines that brought them together.  

Writing this statement was a beginning of shifting from a focus on art as central to a focus on a space for making as central.  In the last year, my work has increasingly moved to working in communities.  I find myself sharing creative practices to support deeper connections in places where people already gather. 

At the same time, I have been dedicating more time to my own creative practice and finding that creating space for making in my life offers for me many of the same benefits of mediation.  It centers and calms me and provides a grounding point.  

This blog is a beginning, a place to reflect on and share ideas around creative practice.