Monday, October 1, 2012

Group Intention: A New Way to Work Together

This is the first in a series of posts exploring new developments in the Open Studio Process. The power of intention as a personal practice to guide art making and as a means of navigating our reality is well known to those of us who have made the practice a part of our lives. The OSP holds that intention is the way we connect to the Creative Source. What does this mean? Beyond our individual rational mind is what I call the "place of all possibility," the quantum space where all the possible choices in any given moment reside. In every moment we call forth a particular reality and collapse the infinite possibilities into one. This goes on below the threshold of awareness most of the time. We are rarely aware that choices are being made; we simply think we see "reality." The Open Studio Process challenges us to look at our closely held views and ask "What else can this be? Is there another way to understand this?" Recognizing that our consciousness is by definition limited, working with intention challenges us to carefully examine our thoughts in order to bring into being the reality which meets our highest ideals.
Groups working together are often unaware that as individuals they may hold differing and even contradictory intentions for their work together.  I have been experimenting with group intention, which is simply working toward a shared language about what is to be called into being, making art to access that place of possibility and then receiving through witness new information and clarity of purpose.
I'd like to share an example of an experience of shared intention and some observations about how this works.
I recently attended a strategic planning meeting of the Open Studio Project, the community space in Evanston, IL that provides the Open Studio Process and facilitator training programs along with a host of special community groups. Those present included past and present staff, board members, and me.  I am a co-founder of the Open Studio Project, but I do not have a formal role in the structure presently.  I often help teach in the facilitator training program and go there to make art when I am in town. I am a compassionately interested outsider.
Soul of the Open Studio Project
After a discussion of issues and challenges facing the studio we were left with about 30 minutes of meeting time. Some present had stated initially the wish to have art making as part of the meeting but here we were with a practical need to identify next steps for the strategic process of running the business of the studio and not much time. I think it is fair to say that even in this group of folks experienced with the Open Studio Process it felt at that moment like an "either-or" situation. Either we do the hard work of articulating work steps or the pleasurable activity of making art.
 I suggested we use identifying next steps as a group intention, make art, witness and see what happens, essentially employing the Open Studio Process to access answers from the Creative Source. This suggestion was embraced. Because of my particular role, I stated my intention thusly : "I receive clarity about next steps for the OSP and how I am involved in that." My image came quickly. An excerpt from the witness said: "..the plant is a reminder that all growth is organic and the white is the spirit that remains alive." The spirit identified itself as the soul of the OSP "Just show up together and I show up too" the image said. All well and good but what about the nitty gritty of specific steps? I wanted to know. The image then suggested we reverse the order of the meeting next time and make art before engaging in the discussion. "Let yourselves feel me and dissolve a bit in me; then the nitty gritty isn't so tedious."
Someone mentioned they had tried making art first at a meeting but everyone got off on their own tangents. The key here is the joint intention. We all enter any group endeavor with varying degrees of focus and energy on any given day. The art process can contain us as individuals or as a group entity depending on what we are trying to accomplish. Having a shared group intention to serve the needs of the studio allows each person to show up at the level they can that day in service to something larger than themselves. By contrast,  making an individual intention about whatever is most urgent in one's own life means we are very likely to be pulled more deeply into our own process which will not  shed light on ways to serve the larger goal of the running of the studio.
What was also striking to me was that I did not receive an answer about next steps. That answer came to others present who are more central to the day to day working of the studio. It is not my place to guide the strategic plan but rather to offer the perspective of an engaged outsider, a useful perspective but different from that of a key staff member or board member. This was a great lesson to me.
I would love to hear from anyone who tries this out. Are you part of a group that might benefit from forming a group intention to guide their process? Please let me know your experience and share in honing this new edge of the Open Studio Process.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

It's All About the Practice

As storms dissolve our roads and bridges and chaos dissolves our sense of an orderly life, the obstacles to creativity are dissolving too. This is a theme that has surfaced in conversations with a number of friends lately. This is a good thing, right? Things that have before seemed difficult or out of reach are flowing with ease. The time between stating a clear intention and having it manifest is becoming shorter and shorter. An example from my experience is a show of works I made this summer that currently hangs in the Farmer and the Cook, an Ojai, CA cafe. I decided to follow the advice I give others and go into my studio every day and just make work. For some time I had been collecting phrases from the daily newspaper that struck me. No criteria except that visceral 'hit' that a combination of words taken out of context can sometimes deliver, a sort of found poetry or enigmatic fragment. I wrote these down on index cards without a plan. In the studio it occurred to me to paint the words onto colored backgrounds just really as an exercise, something to do. I love mixing colors and painting them over old canvases or over failed watercolors on heavy Arches paper, paper too good to throw away. In a sense it was all a recycling project. Collecting bits of text, discarding the sense or meaning, covering over old tentative marks, lining up the index cards to see which ones still gave me that 'hit.' These elements constitute art making as practice. It doesn't matter exactly what the actions are, it matters that actions are performed regulary. Like warm-up stretches for dancers or scales played by musicians, art practice is done out of faith in the process of creativity. Practice is relational, it is about showing up to play with the Creative Source. Then at some point, pleasure happens, that thrilling moment when the mark is simply exquisite and what was rote reveals beauty. Beauty causes sensation to reverberate in the body, it echoes up and down the spine, it sends a tingle in the hands, the feet, the groin, sometimes even a tear to the eye. Such a moment is sublime and it is dangerous. Most of us are unschooled in how to appreciate pleasure. Pleasure rocks the boat. The mind which had been lulled into quiet by the repetitive action of the practice is suddenly roused and feels compelled to name that sensation. Oh the mind, the dear, dear mind! It doesn't matter what name the mind assigns: "success", "fluke", "breakthrough", "accident", the pleasure of the bodily sensation has fled, replaced by a feeling of disorientation that many of us quell by reaching for substances: food, drink, drugs or distractions of phone, internet, email. I told my friend Jon today when we were discussing these weighty issues that the thing to do in those moments of grace when art happens is to stop and say thank you. The Jews, as always, have a special blessing for such things called the Shehekianu, which blesses the Divine for bringing us to this particular moment of existence, but a simple, heartfelt "Thank you" can do the trick. Then, sit and breathe, in and out until the sensation, that thrill of discovery or shiver of brilliance, is fully distributed throughout your whole being. Relax into it, breathe in deeply this tonic because that is how we evolve in complexity and beauty, how we become skilled and disciplined in our art. We are building our tolerance for pleasure.
So those word paintings I made? I made enough of them that they felt like they constituted a body of work (which for me means there were enough so some were edited out of the final group). I thought, "Gee, it might be nice to actually show them." Having practiced at receiving pleasure with grace I was able to accept the offer to show them without my mind forming endless objections ("They aren't that good", "There aren't enough pieces", "What if nobody likes them"). Breath in, breath out, make the work, show the work, see the mind, quiet the mind, feel the body, hear the body. Work, play, say thank you. Enjoy. Repeat.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

God the Mother

During a discussion about preparing for the High Holidays at my synagogue recently I made the vow to experience the season in relationship to the feminine, and especially mother, aspect of God. We had been discussing the nature of the holidays and I shared that I found the services performative in the extreme and frankly resented the idea that someone else, a religious professional, needed to do my praying for me. Our new rabbi, Max Weiss, in response to my comment said that the holidays are really ABOUT the religious professionals. The form harkens back to temple days when the priest did engage in the rituals on behalf of the community and these days of awe offered the priest an opportunity to demonstrate his humility to the community as well as to God, to petition that the community not be punished for his lapses, and to ask for forgiveness for any ways in which he failed the community. Put into this context I was able to feel more kindly to what I experience as a dissonant yearly charade of obeisance to God in the aspect I have spent a great deal of my life deconstructing: the harsh judge, the capricious, angry, jealous patriarch. Because I believe our words and actions create our reality I feel strongly about not wanting to add to the strength of an image of God that I find deforming of human potential to do good, be happy and love one another. I make every effort to operate from compassion and not from fear, which is the underlying message of the High Holiday God sealing in his big book who will live and who will die.
As we were wrapping up our discussion of “Hineni,” which in our synagogue is recited dramatically by the cantor as she makes her way from the back of the hall to the bima, I asked the question, “What would this prayer mean if we experienced God as mother?” One of my fellow discussants said emphatically, “It would be completely unnecessary!” Her remark, like the rabbi’s, helped me see why my negative reaction to the services is so strong. The aspect of the Divine with whom I cultivate a relationship is speaking the words on the first page of the prayer book from Exodus Rabbah 19.4 “The Holy One does not reject a single creature. Rather, all are acceptable to God. The gates are open at all times, and all who wish may enter.” I grew up in the Roman Catholic faith and my mother died when I was quite young so I believe I took in the harshness of the patriarchal God who, I was told, ‘took those to himself who he most loved.” My character was formed by my loss and the deviant sentiment offered as comfort to a child whose mother suffers horribly and then dies. My conversion to Judaism was sparked by the need to argue with God, to object, to protest. I had no doubt of the existence of the Creative Source from which all things flow, that was obvious to me as a child. What I gained in Judaism is the understanding of the covenantal relationship in which God manifests through the words and acts of humans, not from some cloudy place in the sky.
My practice as a child was to leave my body whenever possible, theoretically because it was both the near occasion of sin and something that needed to be cast off before one can join the Divine. Really it was because it is in the body that we experience pain, both physical and emotional. The pain of my loss overwhelmed me and revealed the flaws in the God I had been taught. I lived deeply in my imagination and while I benefited from learning to dwell there, something also was lost. Without being fully embodied I lost the capacity for empathy, the capacity for relationship.
Judaism doesn’t perfectly teach its adherents to live fully embodied lives but the emphasis on our actions, on tzedakah as well as prayer, that avodah means both work and worship, and, especially the making of space for dissent as a practice of faith, all these allow the body to be present. My choice, because it is a choice, is to embody the ethic of care that calls for truth but with compassion, justice informed by generosity and worship that is alive, joyful and embodied. If this is the God we live, this is the God who manifests. This is God, the Mother, with whom life can be messy, imperfect, where food is prayer and touch is prayer and sitting under a tree and watching the light on the leaves is prayer where praise for Her every manifestation is the prayer that enlivens Her and us. My teshuvah is then a return to conscious awareness of deep gratitude for all that is, especially the body through which I experience all that is.
I will join my community tonight for kol nidre with more understanding and empathy for our religious professionals. Tomorrow, I will fast from food in order to come closer to appreciating the miracle of nourishment when I resume eating at sundown with friends. But I will spend the day with my feet on the earth, my eyes to the sky watching the sun filter through the leaves. I will spend time with my Mother and pray to learn how to manifest Her in the coming year in joy, for the highest good, embodied. For God, the Mother, not only are the gates open but so are Her arms, ready to enfold us in joy for our simply being.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Joy of Movement

I recently completed a White Belt Intensive, the first stage of training in the dance/movement technique called Nia. This seven-day experience was astonishing and continues to unfold learning that is really quite profound and made me want to dedicate myself to reflecting deeply, so I will be sharing what comes up both to chronicle it for myself and to deepen my learning as a potential teacher. Go on the Nia website to learn more about the technique, classes in your area and trainings.
So far I have been concentrating on free dance, giving myself permission to move my body and experiment with intensity, ease and most of all, the #1 Nia principle: Joy of Movement. Every time I’ve put on a CD and danced to the music I get a great workout and end up feeling balanced, relaxed and centered. Yesterday, I planned to step it up a bit, and dance along with the instructional DVD where Debbie Rosas, Nia co-founder, leads a class in the routine she choreographed to the CD Sanjana. I have danced to this routine in classes and in the training but this was my first major effort to actually learn the choreographed moves. I knew I would be sacrificing the ease and pleasure of moving freely however I wanted for the challenge of learning a routine. I stumbled through trying to watch Debbie on the screen, stay in touch with my own body and remember to breathe. As usual, the actual steps, though simple, proved daunting. When taking movement direction I can usually either move my upper body with ease with a stationery base or do a step awkwardly and flail around with my arms. During the training I found that by imprinting on the instructors (the fabulous Winalee Zeeb and Caroline Kohles) and shutting off my thinking mind I did a little better. The support of the movement of my fellow students also allowed me to take a ride on that energy which enhanced my performance a bit. I should mention that the atmosphere of love and non-judgment prevails in Nia and that is crucial to the work.
I was doing poorly with the steps but able to stay in a no-judging state, after all, this was the first time I concentrated on dancing using the DVD. Following the class on the DVD, Debbie teaches a break down of all the moves for each song in the routine, giving the reason for each move while demonstrating. I did okay following the first few songs, even getting some insight into why I trip myself on the jazz square arggh! Then she says: “The next song deals with rhythm,” and before I knew what hit me, I was in tears. I was back in Our Lady of Lourdes Grammar School in West Orange, N.J. in a gym class in maybe the 4th or 5th grade. By that time I had become adept at leaving my body for long forays into my imagination. School was pretty boring but more than that, my mom was sick with cancer and I had lost faith not only in God; but in the corporeal world as well. That left the imagination as my daily destination of choice.
While I was great at leaving the body, I wasn’t always great at returning to it, especially in situations that aroused anxiety. Gym class was never a favorite of mine but by this time, terror about sweating, becoming smelly, wearing a bra, and being looked at by others, was magnified by the gym teacher, a towering ex-marine. Now, why the hell is an ex-marine teaching phys ed in a Catholic Grammar school, you might ask? I can only guess things hadn’t worked out too well for him in his life and that, plus basic training in the post WWII era Marines didn’t exactly teach him love, tolerance, non-judgment or insight into the emotions of a girl on the verge of puberty. He bellowed and yelled, sarcastically accused me of not competing and finally made me run alone in a relay race so as not to penalize my team for such an out of it runner. My memory is that I was awkward and slow and probably seemed to be willfully so since I was tall and thin and had no visible defects to give me an excuse. I hated this guy with a passion but using my trusty imagination, I could exit the premises leaving behind my body to fend for itself, pretty much bereft of mind and spirit. I know from other experiences with more compassionate teachers that my behavior mystified them; I seemed to be physically present and seemed calm as could be but the essential part of my being, that part with feelings, the part that could be hurt, was literally in another dimension.
So yesterday, forty-six years later, I stumbled on the emotions and the tears that were never felt or shed. In the safety of my living room, with only the video witness of Debbie Rosas, I am reminded that the body holds all and for as long as necessary. In college when I began therapy for the first time I brought a drawing to my therapist that expressed my felt reality: I roughly outlined a figure and inside it were a number of corked glass bottles that held feelings like the ones from gym class. By that time, there were hundreds of bottles, carefully corked and sorted by my soul, or my guardian angel or whatever higher part of self is charged with such duties. As therapy progressed, I drew those bottles breaking and the figure unable to walk or move for fear of being cut up alive from the inside by the shards of broken glass, IF I MOVED. I spent countless therapy sessions simply sitting and crying, never able to utter a word as the waves of the past simply washed over me on their way out of body to join, finally, the ocean of all human grief. Later, as the sharp edges wore away, the fragments became like sand in an oyster and gave birth to paintings, poems and books and afforded me the dignity of transformation through art and expression.
Why was this memory triggered by hearing the words: “this next song deals with rhythm?” More on that in the next post.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Day at the Farm

Johanna and I were at the end of the field as Steve started the tractor and made a second pass down the row to turn up any last potatoes. He was pleased with the size and quantity of the spuds and we had all congratulated him on the good yield, due, he said, to the cover crop of peas that had been plowed under to fertilize the soil. John, Jeff and Francisco followed close behind the green tractor intent on the task at hand with white plastic buckets to hold the harvest. As the blade bit into the soil and cleaved a furrow something shot up into the air, thrown by the force of the metal pushing through the clods of earth. The men kept on moving forward. Johanna and I, our mouths agape, watched as a squealing grey field mouse catapulted through the air. But what the hell was that? A slender pink form was trailing the back of the mouse; at first I thought it was the guts, ripped out by the tractor blade. I blinked and stared and then realized the pink mass was a live creature. The mouse was giving birth at the very moment she’d been ripped from her nest. She landed on the ground and ran off with the half-born baby hanging out of her body. At our feet another new- born mouse, pink and mewing lay near the remnants of the nest. Johanna picked it up and it rooted about in the palm of her hand seeking a teat. Perfect, hairless, pink and doomed. We yelled to the guys but they were engrossed in their work and couldn’t hear us over the tractor noise. We both realized they probably weren’t going to be so…so… what were we feeling?
I’m not sure about Johanna but in a few seconds I cycled through feeling stunned, freaked out, helpless and awed. Then words and thoughts cascaded through my mind: ‘don’t be so sentimental,’ ‘that’s nature,’ ‘it’s the way of the world’, ‘that’s how it goes,’ but there was more that I couldn’t access in the moment. An incongruous word, “Darfur” floated up and I said it out loud and then immediately apologized. But Johanna said: “Yeah, somehow to these creatures we’re like that. Who knows how much else we kill with digging, but that’s agriculture…” I felt her mirroring the multiple voices in my own head. We did that thing that women friends do, we affirmed some common emotional experience in a shorthand of words that might seem excessive to someone overhearing. Johanna is no airy-fairy California “Dharma-squito” intent on saving the life of every ant that crosses the kitchen counter and neither am I. We both felt we had witnessed something profound and complicated, something that would require more attention. As I write this I am aware of a peculiar yet familiar sensation, a heaviness and itchiness in my breasts. It’s the way I felt twenty-six years ago when I was a nursing mother and stepped out for a break from child care to do a few errands. I was in a store and heard someone else’s baby cry. My milk let down and soaked through the front of my shirt even though my own baby was safe at home with her dad.
I admit, I wept for that mouse, stunned that the common thread of motherhood stitched me to her so intensely that my body cried out against her loss. The mind can run the gamut from a Cassandra-like drama equating an unfortunate mouse with a child bayoneted by janjaweed warriors in a far off place to a stern and philosophical farmer’s voice that says creatures die every day, hour and minute by the hand of man or a thousand other ways. Just a fact, Mam deal with it, no one and nothing gets out alive. Yet I am grateful to be reminded that the body flows toward feeling, toward caring, toward empathy. We shut these capacities off at our collective peril. The body suffers and by suffering deepens our connection to life. I am deeply grateful to the mouse.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Changing the World: The Suburban

Recently I visited The Suburban:
“…an independently run artist exhibition space” located at 125 N. Harvey in Oak Park, IL. run by artists Michelle Grabner and Brad Killan. On their website they say: “We give complete control to the artists in regards to what they choose to produce and exhibit. Thus it's a pro artist and anti curator site. The Suburban is not driven by commercial interests. It is funded within the economy of our household. Its success is not grounded in sales, press or the conventional measures set forth by the international art apparatus, but by the individual criteria set forth by the artists and their exhibitions. In this, The Suburban is more closely aligned with the idea of studio practice than that of the site of distribution.”
The Suburban has existed in Oak Park, where I live, for ten years. I have driven, walked and biked past the modest and anonymous building that houses this endeavor countless times. There is no signage indicating an art venue. I have vaguely known that ‘some artists run a gallery in their garage’ and for years had it on my mental list to find out exactly what this meant.
Ironically, in the last two days I have also witnessed the new objects announcing the “Arts District” in Oak Park, four large metal objects that look like ice scrapers that have been erected at the Harrison Ave. and Austin Blvd. and at Harrison St. and Ridgeland. I owned and operated Studio Pardes at the corner of Harrison and Ridgeland for five years in the euphemistic arts district. One of the factors that drove me from this enterprise was the weight of expectation of being in a public space in what was essentially a retail district masquerading as something to do with art. (Disclaimer: There are some actual artists surviving on Harrison, visit Sally Wolf’s Calypso Moon for example). There was a sense of obligation to be “open” and available to a public and offering a product that was counter to the necessary solitude and self-regulation of art practice. Maybe I’m just too sensitive or easily pressured.
Both Michelle and Brad of the Suburban are art professors, Michelle at the School of the Art Institute and Brad at College of Dupage. They have consciously and deliberately created The Suburban as a site of resistance to the commercial art world while also participating in that world as gallery artists and art critics on their own terms. Milwaukee Museum of Art and the Chicago MCA have collected Michelle’s work and she is a contributing editor to X-TRA, a contemporary art journal published in Los Angeles. She is also currently completing a book about The Suburban. This is no outsider endeavor but instead a living counterpoint to global commercial art locating meaning in the site and the economy of everyday life. (See their website for an engaging reflection by the couple’s son on what it means to have an art gallery as part of the family’s economy of everyday life.)
Michelle Grabner and her husband Brad Killam have solved the dilemma that I was defeated by: they have created a commerce-free zone for art. This is an essentially political and revolutionary or maybe evolutionary act in that the Suburban also influences the other institutions of the globalized art world since artists who participate in the Suburban also participate in the world of museums, galleries and international art fairs. Work sometimes travels from the Suburban to the MCA for example or from the Suburban to the major art fairs. Art journals recognize the space and the artists who show there. By stepping outside of the circle drawn by others: art as commodity, art as investment, art as another manifestation of celebrity culture, they reduce the crushing sense of monoculture that pervades our globalized world.
I realize how powerful self-definition is. Where will the next free public art making space arise for creating culture and consciousness in community? I learned that the implicit expectation of a “storefront” had weightier implications than I realized when I signed my lease at Harrison and Ridgeland. I’ll be on the lookout for where the next opening presents itself for a meeting and mixing space where a little mess can be made and we can experiment together in making art and making life.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Nuanced Language of Image

This time last year I was engaged in a project I called the Pomegranate Exercise. I had begun finding hollowed out pomegranates on my walks in Ojai and the image of the empty fruit spoke to my imagination. I was (and am) working on a novel about an underground group of older women. The pomegranate, its lush innards gone, skin dried dark and leathery put me in mind of the Crone. After meditating on the fruits and on all the friends who were in various sorts of life transitions, I invited women I know to engage in a meditation on the topic of age, creativity, the pomegranate itself, whatever came up. I mailed the pomegranate shells to about twenty women friends and friends of friends who responded and asked them to create art about or with fruit. The resulting art and witness writing can be viewed on my website (click on collaborative projects).
Last year the pomegranate shells were few and far between, the scarcity contributed to my sense of their preciousness. My own intention was to feel less isolated as I engaged in my fiction writing as my primary form of expression during the winter months. I also sought to experiment with collaboration, a skill I would like to learn more about. Sallie Wolf, one of the artists, agreed to host a show of the actual objects in her studio and I committed to create an exhibit on my website. All of this transpired and was very fulfilling.

This season, the pomegranates appear very differently, many remain on the trees, eaten, but not as thoroughly eviscerated as last year. I suspect weather conditions made the fruit more abundant so the birds and animals didn’t have to do such a thorough job of cleaning them out. My association this year is that the fruits look like exploded grenades. (In Hebrew, the word ‘rimon’ is both pomegranate and grenade). I am offered an opportunity to consider that destruction is aspect of creation. Death, endings, finishing something -- all these are necessary for anything new to manifest. I have some resistance to this. There is some grief scratching at my door, just outside of my consciousness and I have been staying a little too busy to answer the door. Until I greet that guest I know that something else that is waiting cannot arrive. What’s keeping me? Do I need a suicide bomber to enter my space? What would such a being look like? The storms of the winter attempt to instruct me, tear off the roof, flood the living room, burn down the storage shed. But do I?
It is something to do with just being, not doing, withstanding the winds of chaos, the explosions of things breaking down, with my eyes wide open and my heart wide open and my feet planted firmly on the earth. And this, strangely, feels like death.