Friday, November 2, 2007

All the Rules are Changing

Last year I discovered this wounded soldier in myself. I was surprised to meet him because I was writing about how the term ‘spiritual warrior’ was incorrect. I never expected to see a soldier of any kind show up in my own work. Yet there he was. My intention was to understand what is happening in the world and what is the right response, the right attitude, the right action? Are we on a sinking ship? Is it hopeless? I had just returned from a leadership training with the Network of Spiritual Progressives. I created this piece in the class I teach on the Creative Process at the School of the Art Institute.
I wrote in my witness: “The lone individual defending himself yet scarily, tentatively extending his heart out into the world? The black sequined and netted material felt to me like the Shadow, dark, mysterious with beauty encoded in the sequins but it also needed red because pain and passion are so tangled up in the Shadow and our Shadow flows out into the world and affects how we are in the world. But the beautiful dark rose also flows from the Shadow stream within us.

I revisited the image this week, a year later. Everything calls me to pay attention to light yet these dark images come up. I try a method that Galit, one of my students is using. She is taking words and giving them definitions based on her felt sense, her intuition. I write, “discover”- reaching into the dark with faith. Then “teaching”- collapsing my telescope and seeing what others have in their hands. I feel like an anthropologist of wound technology. I can tell with my eyes closed how the wound occurred and if I can conjure light I can heal it. Are we supposed to be wandering like this? Is this the work?

I added the mask and ‘red badge of courage’ to the soldier piece. All of it feels old and incorrect, not what’s called for. I wrote in my witness: “My shadow is the heroic guy against the world, even as I have taught others to follow their pleasure through the creative process and trust where they are led…why is this wounded place of red and black asserting itself so strongly? I’ve done the dark; I’m done with the dark. I know it’s time for light, to follow bliss. The piece answers me: “Don’t pretend you are ready.” But I am, I protest. “No, you still prize your dark credentials, you all do who earned them. It’s hard to give them up. The world no longer needs your dark roses, it needs light and you resist that and it is mostly unconscious be cause you say YES, but your body knows you lie.” So I say, “I make a new intention: I see the light, I be the light, I am the light, I love the light.” The piece says: “Let those who have genuine darkness that hasn’t reached its expiration date come to you and give them light. Your darkness is over; funny thing to mourn, but its so.” What does it mean to mourn the dark? I don’t exactly know yet but it has something to do with giving up all the well-earned credentials and meeting the world with an empty bowl. More on that later.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Happy Birthday to the Fool


So today is my birthday, number 55. Of all the experiences I've had this year, I am most pleased with having made the film The Fool.
Completing The Fool is an accomplishment for a number of reasons which I will now list as a birthday gift to myself to offset the weird sort of shaky feeling I've had since I woke up this morning.
1. The film represents a successful collaboration of a very close kind, working with another person to create and express my own vision without knowing exactly how it would turn out.
2. I collaborated with my husband, John. We have very different styles and even though we screamed at each other from time to time, I am completely sure the film would not have been finished without him and is better for his involvement. He is a "Point A to Point B" kind of guy and I am a "I need a shot of those white birds even though I don't know how it fits in the film yet"kind of gal.


3. Technology was involved. Although even a slightly dyslexic chimp could probably successfully make a film using a Mac with IMovie, the fact that we both(John and me, not the chimp) feel competent and comfortable using the editing program is an achievement.
4. I feel like this isn't a one-time thing, I think I could be endlessly fascinated making films with John about all sorts of things indefinitely and that sort of takes my breath away. Talk about a birthday gift!
Last but not least, the film has enabled me embrace being The Fool, which if you aren't familiar with the Fool's symbolic meaning: "The Fool represents the essence of what we are: whole, healthy and without fear...that spirit so often expressed and experienced in those states of wonder, awe, curiosity and anticipation." (from The Tarot handbook, by Angeles Arriens)
Now to push my personal envelope with technology, I am going to add a clip from the film, which premiered September 22, 2007 at the Third Annual Oak Park International Film Festival. video
ENJOY!

Friday, September 14, 2007

I See Dick Cheney


I keep seeing Dick Cheney. Well, not exactly. I keep seeing balding white men with glasses, a curled lip and an expression of smoldering dissatisfaction. I saw the first one in a restaurant called Suzanne’s in Ojai, California. He was ignoring a woman I took to be his wife in the outdoor patio facing a lush garden replete with pale pink roses and a stone fountain. It was a beautiful mid-August night. Many couples seemed to be celebrating some occasion, as we were, chatting and smiling, sharing bites of their meals with one another. Dick Cheney’s wife seemed to tolerate his gradual retreat into glacial remoteness with calm resignation. Maybe he had a legitimate beef. Maybe the service was slow or the food not up to his expectations.
Why did I even notice him? We were having a lively discussion, enjoying the ambience, the unusual appetizers, the celebration of our 28th wedding anniversary. I noticed because one of the elements that make a restaurants a fun place to celebrate is the energy of others, the general good will and happiness, the sense of sharing at a little distance with others through a smile, an acknowledgement. Seeing and being with others who are in a state of pleasure and enjoyment amplifies my own. The warmth that emanates from other people in such a public setting is something we take for granted but it is important. It is a way we each can contribute to the common good in a simple and modest way. Sometimes we take it further, when eyes meet or by an appreciate glance. Sometimes a compliment or comment of recognition: “Oh, that entrĂ©e looks great, which one is it?”
So I noticed Dick Cheney because his light was out. I felt a chill. Not the feeling of annoyance that follows the ring of a cell phone and subsequent conversation. This was more a perception of absence. The look on his face convinced me that this man was in angry retreat from the human condition. His wife, abandoned, stared off into the distance.
Since that night I’ve seen Dick Cheney in a car stopped at a red light, hands clenching the wheel, eyes as flat as coins, mouth in a thin tight line. I saw him on Michigan Ave. in downtown Chicago striding along aggressively, crossing against the light as if daring someone to hit him.
I believe life is about call and response. The spark in each of us calls out to that in others to reassure us we are not alone, we are all together in the complicated mystery of life. I worry that if Dick Cheney multiplies, the world will grow too cold to sustain life. Each time I feel that chill, a sense of cold anger, I wonder if this is a trend, like the opposite of global warming, human tundra syndrome. I fear the simple glance or smile is not enough to bring Dick Cheney back. More desperate measures may be in order. Is this like the die off of the honeybees? I want to study this problem. Why is Dick Cheney multiplying? And, can anything be done?

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Creative Work is Not a Luxury


Since I closed Studio Pardes about four years ago, my last foray into a public presence, I have accepted that writing is my primary work in the world and I have accepted that everything else, no matter how worthy, must arrange itself around that center for me to function well.
Today there is a mixture of cooler air beginning to infiltrate the muggy heaviness of Oak Park in August, the promise of sweaters just hinting. I have been writing every morning for three hours for about a year now, so I am able to keep some commitments, even if I can’t get myself to blog every week. That little bit of cool air started me thinking about my relationship to my creative work and the balance with other work in the world that we all try to do, whether its volunteering at a homeless shelter, picking up trash on a daily walk, or calling our congress people on a regular basis and participating in the democracy. It can sometimes seem like creative work is somehow an indulgence and work done directly in service to others or the world more ‘serious’ or important.
Lisa Longworth, a fellow artist and writer and I have been sharing our reflections on the balance of work as ‘engaged artists’ (to borrow from the engaged Buddhists). Neither of us is content to be alone in our studios and feel no connection to the world but our efforts to be ‘activist artists’ have been less than satisfying. (I’ll speak for myself, if you want to learn more about what Lisa is thinking, visit her terrific website and blog.)
Here’s my thought of the day on the subject: without a strong anchor in my own creative work, the energy that belongs there, which is really powerful stuff, the white light-straight-from-the-Source, gets stuffed into whatever the vehicle at hand is, a committee meeting at my temple, a volunteer bake sale, or even a casual lunch with a friend.
At times when I have not been plugged into the creative work I am called to in a daily, disciplined way, the energy can also ‘leak’ into life in general and causes intensity, emotional drama, and unnecessary conflicts and struggles with those around me.
The problem with creative energy is that it requires transformation in order to be shared successfully and a little goes a long way. Creative work, in whatever form we are called to it, is not a luxury but is the basis of life. It constitutes my relationship with the Source and if that relationship is not in order, we tend to seek substitutes in people, substances, and things.
This may seem like a pretty basic insight from someone with, oh, I don’t know, about thirty-five years of experience and education in art therapy, but there you go.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Fool

So I haven't been doing very well with blogging every week, so here I go again, trying. I'm getting ready to leave Ojai and return to Oak Park after a time where I have done very little besides write and work on a little film called The Fool.
The film is a collaboration with John (my husband) and working together has been an enlightening challenge. Without him I am sure the film would not have gotten finished. As in any involved project there is always something that could be improved or changed. Since this particular project is appallingly self involved there have been endless things to get hooked on as being awful or not good enough. The premise of The Fool is that I am seeking to understand what it means to be an artist and through dreams become one of the images that I have painted. Self indulgent, you say? No kidding! Film seems a more indulgent medium for self-portraiture (even a surreal self portrait) since my actual self is on the screen. Still, it was fun to do and at least I'm getting practice with the software!
The film will be shown at the Second Annual Oak Park Film Festival to be held September 22 & 23 at the Oak Park Public Library. At least I hope it will once Stan West takes a look at it! For more info on the festival, contact Stan West at stanwest1@msn.com for more information. At some point a version will be available on my website maybe? We'll see what the response is first!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Pomegranate Exercise


So back in December I began a project that has just been completed. I found pomegranates on the ground here in Ojai that had been eaten out by birds and animals that looked just so beautiful to me that I began to collect them. Pomegranates, one of my favorite fruits, symbolize the womb and also the fruit of the tree of life. Since I am writing a novel about older women, Crones, saving the world through their creative endeavors, well one thing led to another and I decided to see if any of my friends would be inspired to meditate on a symbol of an empty womb. Twenty three women responded and each one transformed a pomegranate into an amazing work of art. You can see the results on my website patballen.com
(Once on the website, click on 'collaborative projects')
Sallie Wolf hosted a show of the work at her place, Calypso Moon, in Oak Park for a month and then using all the photos, writings and documentation, Hannah Jennings put the show up on my website.

My major creative work right now is writing, an every day endeavor that sometimes make me very lonely for the camaraderie of the studio and the touch of materials, so the Pomegranate Exercise served to connect me to other artists and friends (and friends of friends, since many women invited others). I loved all the organizational details, mailing out the poms, receiving them back transformed, and reading the wise words and reflections of other creative crones or, in some cases, crones-to-be. This project feels like a great experiment in 'virtual community' which I have been working towards since I closed Studio Pardes.

I hope you'll go and visit the exercise and let me know what you think. My deepest thanks to all the artists and to Hannah Jennings of HJ Designs who put the pages up and made them beautiful and easy to navigate. Anyone with ideas for more collaborative projects is invited to get in touch, many of the Pomegranate artists are interested in participating in more such efforts.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Homage to my Mom



Forty years ago today my mom died. I created a little altar space this morning with food, flowers and a yarzheit candle and an image of her from a piece of art I made.
Even though I have been working on the art piece, and planning the commemoration, when I awoke this morning I forgot. I just felt this sense of frenzy, like I had to 'get to work' right away! I sat down and journaled and I remembered. Forty years is a long time, much longer than the amount of time 'my mother' existed in my life. Yet for those forty years the relationship has continued to unfold through images. These images do not erase grief, sometimes they magnify it, but they hold a reality that has no other place in a culture of work and future oriented progress. The images let me participate in the incomprehensible mystery of life. Throughout the day I ate some of the beautiful tangerine and drank some of the sherry wine from the offering. The tangerine was a gift from my friend Aviva who came to paint yesterday. This little ritual is in my diningroom, not in a church or synagogue. I pass the altar as I go to put in the laundry, get up from my writing to pee, make lunch, and write a check for the guy who fixed my irrigation to water my new trees.
Above the sideboard that holds the altar is a painting called the Sabbath Bride.
It is a huge story painting about the return of the Shekinah, the feminine aspect of God. I believe these acts of making space in my everyday life for grief and honoring, for love and ritual create the path She needs to return. I think She is calling us to undo the separation of sacred and profane and weave them back together, to weave ourselves back together, mystery with the rational, self with other, with nature. I am deeply grateful to my own mother for teaching me how to intertwine the body with the spirit by honoring the soul, the simple, the true, the everyday mystery.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Starbucks for the Soul on Every Corner?

I presented the Studio Process workshop, "Energy Made Visible" this past Saturday at a conference sponsored by the Department of Arts and Consciousness at JFKU in Berkeley. The room was packed with more than fifty artists, art educators and a sprinkling of art therapists. There was a wonderful collection of people at this conference from all over, including Peter London (No More Second Hand Art and Drawing Closer to Nature) as well as Jonathan and Alice Milne from the Learnbing Connexion in New Zealand (Google their place for a wonderful model of arts education). I invited Elizabeth Benson-Udom, one of the amazing folk in attendance to post her art and witness here.



a black form torn from
wholeness
a hand outstretched with my
little piece of yes
an active bit of movement
finally
legs running-
TOWARD MY JOY!
i am she she is me coming
from my darkness
i claim her
torn joy
and
T R A N S F O R M
i raise my tentative hand
higher and higher toward
ability
toward possibility
toward peace
carved from pieces of
myself
i see her, she, *it*, and
finally me
and when i want to
i tear the stitches
from my own heart
and begin
again to
think my
yes yes yes
crowned again
with yes
i begin
this knowing
of the dark parts
of my happy self
offering chalkboard
witness
to that which
i must continue
to do
be
move through
i keep showing up
with raised hand and
extended bits of
yellow yes
i bring my valentine
into being
to try
again and again
to run
to stand
to move
to see
to allow
to continue
to be

yes-with the invitation
to dialogue i see

begin again
keep showing up
try again and again
run toward
your exalted yes

it is your royalty
your legacy
your heritage
all impulses and
synapses and
histories of
herstorys
before you
sit with
you in
this classroom
YOU
have been
given you
birthright

THIS IS THE
HOME WE'VE
BEEN CALLING
YOU TO--

keep showing up
the chalkboard
miracles are on their way

and you 2
and you 2
and you 2
and you 2
and you 2
and you 2
YES!
Still!
Yes!
Always YES
YES
YES
YES
when you want to
it's okay to
try again and
again
again
YES!

and from that thing that is your
empty center of
connection--
the vessel and
chords through
which you
have been
nourished
and passed
know--
we will meet
you there--

we will always
call you home
(for dinner)

Elizabeth wants to create little soul stations on every corner. She lives in the suburbs and she sees women carrying out transformative work on their own bodies via plastic surgery and thinks there is a better way. She aspires to be your local neighborhood shaman, your artista instead of your barrista, helping you jolt your soul with the wake up drink of Creativity. She imagines a commercially viable, local, friendly meeting spot. My only caveat is this: the neighborhood soccer moms ought to mix with the guy who collects tin cans, they have a lot to teach each other. It will take a wide open heart to make a space that will hold the mix that needs holding. You can check out more of what Elizabeth is up to at www.writressworder.com.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Archetype of the Death Mother


There are fine lines these days between doing nothing, doing anything, and proceeding mindfully along the path of compassionate disinterest doing the next right thing with intention. As I sit at my writing table and gaze out on the Los Padres foothills, I have lots of mentors for the path of compassionate disinterest. The trees keep growing, the birds keep lighting on the branches, the late afternoon sunlight falls across the hills defining them in light and dark. Soon the sun with throw up the pink glow of the end of the day and I will feel fully instructed in the art of personal smallness in the big picture.

I finished painting the mandala on my studio floor. Really, what's the point? It's an act of faith in the Creative Process, the idea for the mandala came to me and I followed through. So what does this have to do with the Death Mother? She is an archetype that whispers to us "What's the use?" Why paint the floor? There's a war in Iraq. Why write stuff in a blog? maybe I'm only talking to myself. That, I have decided, is actually enough. If I have a place to wrangle my thoughts and feelings into consciousness and don't tar others with the brush of my unresolved anxiety, yes, that is definitely worth the effort. As it turns out, there are other amazing benefits. People write to me and commiserate from all over the globe. Another wonderful lesson of the art of personal smallness.

But, the Death Mother also lives in me and made a recent appearance. Her image was my fairly constant companion at the AATA (American Art Therapy Association) conference in New Orleans in November. She had a lot to say about trauma If you'd like to read more about that, go to the 'Writings' section of the website or click on http://www.patballen.com/pages/write.html


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Finally, the Creative Source has a great sense of humor. Here is a photo of the blossoming agave plants in my backyard. This is the plant that tequila is made from.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Getting my Studio Ready for What?




So I've been in California since Dec. 21 and now the holidays are well past and I am settling down to WORK. The CHASM (Community Health Art Studio Methods) class that Janis Timm-Bottos and I were planning to do did not fill up with folks and so we are off the hook. And yes, that is exactly how it feels. We were conceiving if this as a 5-day retreat for people involved in community building through the arts to come together. I was planning on reorganizing my studio here to welcome folks or maybe that was just an excuse to make the space (a three car garage attached to our house in Ojai) more habitable. So I went ahead and had the floor painted red, moved the furniture around, set up my altar space and began to stencil a mandala on the floor. Why? The two projects I have committed myself to for this stint in Ojai are 1. finishing a novel and 2. finishing a surrealistic film. Neither of these projects require the huge space or materials that the garage holds. Nevertheless, I am following the energy I feel such as picking up a leaf from my neighbor's grapevines and making a stencil for the mandala, gathering chewed out pomegrantes and imagining furnishing the interior spaces with little scenes. The spaciousness, both literal and figurative, that I feel in this landscape encourages me to trust the Creative Source and follow the clues. If I make the space ready, the work will appear? What about community? Maybe it's just me and Bina and the neighborhood dogs? If I choose solitary art like writing a book and making a film, what does community mean?