Art is the only lie I have ever enjoyed getting away with.
Over the last four years I have been teaching at the university level. This hardly makes me a seasoned individual in academia. I have, in various ways, lived in academia for years, either from a distance with a spouse who was a teacher, to having taught in graduate school, and teaching in my studio practice as well as at the university level. But here is the thing. I knew about SOL’s and how there had been a bru-ha-ha over them. It is clear now what the problem is with this type of testing as it relates to art…(at least TO ME). There are a number of challenges that impact teachers and the students that they teach as it relates to the SOL’s. But there is one issue that doesn’t seem to be addressed much, if at all…and I am going to bring it up here for the simple reason that it impacts me as a teacher.
For people who are used to linear processing and solving problems using rational predictive schemes, it may be difficult to see how something like art could be of benefit in and of itself without hanging a purpose or job or expected outcome on it. It turns out that art has been very hard to quantify. And I suspect I know why; like the right brain, seeking to stick a quantity on an experience with the creative or artistic is extremely slippery. You can measure gravity, space, a rock, and how much rocks can be ground in a day at the gravel plant, or how many cars you can build in an hour in Detroit, or how many essays a student can write about the rise of the consumer culture in the U.S. But there is an aspect to the creative that escapes this. And I say that it should for the very reason that this aspect of the creative that is so slippery is also the very aspect that allows us to conceive of things that were a moment before, incomprehensible to us. What I am saying is, how do you measure something that you do not yet know, but WILL be able to know in a moment’s time…..and yet, the thing that you know is merely a product of something larger…we can measure cars as they travel through a tunnel, but we are unable for some reason to measure the tunnel. The tunnel, if you haven’t caught on yet, is creativity. But unlike a tunnel, I don’t think you can measure creativity….only what it creates. You know? How do you measure something that has so many dimensions and is changing so fast and much? How do you define it when everyone says “I know it when I see it.” The very fact that we know it when we see it means that it cannot really be measured very well.
So those who would insert themselves into the creativity game by coming up with SOL’S wind up creating art experiences based on a rational understanding for how problems are solved. As if creativity itself is something that can be parsed and kneaded in order that it give up an expected result. Now don’t get me wrong, having a project where students learn about color theory or methods for composing a painting or drawing are all important. In fact, I am actually all for artists copying the work of other artists not to try and pretend that the artists work is their own, but in order to try and learn what that artist was seeking to do. This is why some artists can be seen copying the works of Vermeer, or Monet, or Degas. They are not innovating, but learning something. At the end of the day, though, once you have learned all of this stuff, you are going to have to DO something with it. And what you do with it is greater than the sum of its parts. What results is not always necessarily a formula. At all. Paint by numbers if you must, but all that will ever do is to help you to comprehend why certain ways of painting will yield a given result. It is a fact-finding mission. This is a far cry from the rarefied air one finds oneself in when you discover the big “Ah-ha!” of the inspired moment.
The result of the SOL generation is that we have students who want to know the rules for creating. They want to know HOW they are supposed to arrive at their creative moment when what I am asking them to do is to arrive at that place themselves. So I wind up explaining WHY my assignments are as vague as they are; I am asking them to follow certain very specific requirements all in the hopes that they learn the material I am asking them to work with but to also have enough room for their own innovation to shine. My teacher Tom Walsh used to say that the best beginner projects were the ones that had very specific requirements with the broadest range of interpretation. That means that I might say “Create a wire-frame sculpture using wood dowels and some form of epoxy that is a minimum of 2 feet in one dimension and at least six inches in another dimension, with the third dimension being up to you. At what point does a line begin to create a sense of volume when it crosses other lines in space? How do you create the illusion of volume while using these lines in space? Choose two of the following Principles of Design to base your work on: movement, tension, harmony”
The challenge is that many students are used to much more specific projects and actually get anxious when given greater freedom. Really? I explain to them what I want them to learn and that beyond those few simple things, the rest really could be up to them. “Just make it cool, guy and gals! You know what I mean, right? I am talking about being creative, innovative!” I am asking them to take responsibility for their educational experience. And because I value freedom so much, I give them as much as I can because someday they will be faced with having to come up with ideas all on their own without the benefit of a project to push them forward. I am aware that in the beginning students need the structure of an assignment in order to learn a given media or technique. Sure, absolutely, but this can be done while giving the student the freedom that they will one day need to work within if they are ever to be self directed artists. Out of this will flow discipline that is unlike the kind of discipline they know that is meted out by their teachers. This is actually about what happens when you mature as an artist. I actually believe that this is important to begin doing as soon as possible. I believe that our children, even at age 18 to 22 have the means to begin to experience this freedom in their work. The more they are able to experience it, the better off they will be.
There is a place for learning technique. There is also a place for being inspired to create in such a way that we each grasp that creating is itself sometimes a mysterious process, an irrational one, but beautiful and rewarding. The FEELING that comes moving through you in such moments is actually something that is sustaining in and of itself and will, if we let it, change a life. It can break up the rigidity of the belief-constrained self in order to break out into new ways of thinking and seeing. It is what the journey has been about in art except that this process has been something experienced by only the bravest of our kind. it is something native to us all and the sooner we can experience it for its OWN sake, the better. Our creative spirit is less a thing that can be bounded by any one discipline, but encompasses our whole lives because it is what we are deeper down. Impoverished is the life that does not know this the way one might know breath or ones heartbeat. These ought not be special occasions, but ubiquitous ones. Living a creative life is one of the most rewarding things a person can experience. It fulfills, unifies, and even heals. It does not require a belief or dogma and cuts across all borderlands of belief, liberating and enlarging ones own self in selfless ways.
The problem is that you cannot measure joy, and so much of what art does is to bring joy. You can’t measure it. The problem, you see, is that when we are so busy wanting to measure everything, you miss those things that fall outside of the bias, which suggests that only what we can measure is worth anything to us. But you see, the joy of creation is where it is at when it comes to art. It is what we each lose as we grow up and is what we have to each rediscover as we make our ways back into art as artists. Sometimes as artists we try to be the best we can on a technical level in order to make up for our lack of childlike wonder and joy that made us such natural artists as children. You see, this is what is missing, and if we are to grow a better generation, it will mean that we did it with the arts as much as we did with math and science and all the rest.
It is possible to know the inspired in the moment. It is possible to feel yourself suspended in the moment in a place that you have never known or realized was even possible. It is the impulse behind all religion for it is surely a religious experience but without the dogma. And so, you see, this has been what has interested me about art….when those moments of inspiration would come, I knew there was something about it that was like…..well….I wont say it was like talking to God….no….but it was something that I knew I ressonated with. I found that when I learned how to sustain this moment of inspiration so that it entered into my life as a steady state level of energy, it began to take it apart. My life that is. But the advantage was that is made it more possible for me to do what I had always been interested in. it changed how I saw or understood some things, too, which is that while religion is what humans have created, within each of us is a channel that makes it possible for each of us to know a reality that this larger and more inclusive then the one we have been taught exists.
So artists can sometimes be incomprehensible sometimes…..sometimes by design because the truth is, some of us have mastered the cult of personality while others are interested in creating. And for me, creating is where its at. But I think that in creating we are much closer to this thing we each try to understand or explain or describe. It is, for me, a bit of a mystery, and I want it to remain as such. It isn’t that I don’t want to know it, I DO know it. I enter into communion with it when I set aside what it is that I think I know. And what I make is what I see that is beautiful in the world.
All of this has evolved into a life project. At first I thought it was so huge….but as time has moved along, I have come to see how self improvement is a way of honoring this great mystery that lies at the center of all of our impulses and desires to make up a deity. And you know, it is all fairy tales as far as I am concerned because there is nothing that can contain this presence. How we have chosen to envisage it is nothing short of a fable. For me, I am interested in moving beyond the fable to the real world experience. By creating, I am seeking to know the thoughts of God. Sound a little over the top? Not really. Contained within each moment is a marvelous sense of presence that is the Tao that the Chinese mentioned but did not seek to describe in any great detail. The Buddhists don’t even speak about a deity. Perhaps it is because this presence is so ubiquitious within our thought, within the stars and atoms and in everything happening around us….the very stuff of our universe and all energy. THAT is pretty ubiquitous, no?
So what happens when in each moment you allow this kind of inspiring moment and presence into your life. What would you create? What would you do? How would it make you? How would it undo you? Part of me wants to yell all of this at the tops of the roofs while another part of me wants to sit quietly in my backyard as I watch a hummingbird come up and touch my knee. It might be selfish, but I think we each have the capacity to find this, so while I make my work, I do pray that each person here gets to know it at some point because this is the Bohdisattva’s (बोधिसत्त्व) impulse, which is to return to help bring the rest up into the same place it has found. It might be a form of arrogance that leads us to do that. It might be But it might also be the wonder and awe that such a presence instills. This same impulse exists in every corner of the world regardless of the religion, though. The desire to make it a better place here is a strong impulse.
This is why I do art. It is why I do craft. The act of observing that artists do, the looking, is the same type of look a man gives a woman. And THAT look, when allowed to ascend to its pinnacle of expression becomes worship. For me, this looking at nature is itself worship. There is this energy that moves between seer and seen that is normally unseen and unknown that now rarefies the air and brings the moment into a point of suspension. The grace of art is that there are no rules. In not having rules, we are more free to be open to “it” being anything. And you know, it most often usually is.
Perfect words for a day like today….full of Wind and promise.
I will be the first to admit that I am not always someone who can sum things up simply and quickly for my readers. Instead of writing in broad sweeps, I often get caught in detail. Today, I am going to attempt to keep it simple. So let me know how you think it goes!
One of the things that I have observed as an educator is that we don’t teach students how to be creative. We have not done this because we do not understand it enough to be able to teach to the subject. This is beginning to change, however, and it is a good sign and bodes well for us as creative thinkers. I am going to share with you what I believe are the core issues that are related to being creative.
Create The Right Environment
This is crucial to good creativity. I firmly believe that many people need to create a safe space within which to let their creativity flow. What is so interesting is that sometimes this safe space can be in the middle of a lot of activity. It is often said that there is anonymity in numbers. Sometimes you can be around people while also being alone. Sitting in a coffee shop or in a subway station, you can sometimes feel safe and alone in the ubiquity of the herd. Sometimes, though, people may need to be alone, really alone. This can be your bedroom, or a special place in your home where you have everything you need in order to think. The truth is, the safe place for being creative is more in your head. Find the match for that and you have a big piece of the puzzle. Discover your comfort zone.
In play as in being creative, we have to give ourselves to the moment. If you have ever remember being a child slipping into the world of play, you know just what I am talking about. This is in truth one of the simplest and most basic of states of being. It is funny, too, because we are also the most self-conscious about it. A child, when watched by its parents when at play, will lose its surrender become self-conscious, and will lose, almost instantly, the creative impulse that is found in play. Remember what I said about finding your safe place? This is why. You need a way to surrender to the creative impulse, to loosen up and allow the flow to come. This is something you allow.
When inspiration comes, don’t rationalize the process. Tap that flow, I say. You can always go back and revise writing for grammar or re-work a sketch so it fits into a frame or hangs on a wall. A song can have all the main elements right out of the chute with a few remaining things to clean up or rearrange. Don’t let the craft get in the way of why you are here; play! You can always clean things up later!
The act of surrender is a suspension of expectation. This is why many artists will often say they begin to create without a firm idea of where they want to go. There is a very good reason for this that has more to do with the function of the right brain instead of the linear goal-oriented left brain, but I promised to keep this all short and to the point, didn’t I? We do not find creativity, it finds us. We allow, we surrender. We become available. We do not pursue, it pursues us. Having said this, there are all sorts of combinations possible in this basic impulse. Some create very rational and even stiff controlled work while some are more fluid. These are more related to outcomes and what you choose, later, to control. These are all a matter of choice; do you like writing jazz or do you like writing classical?
Surrender is a simple thing. Its source-point is found in being willing and able to just play. When you do, you are working with the very forces within you that are the leading edge, if not the very experience of inspiration itself. An aperture within you opens, you feel wonderful, and something just flows. The more you attend to it, and the less you seek to control it or tamp it down with fear or any form of uncertainty or feeling of propriety, the more it reveals itself to you. By learning to cultivate this in your life you can be more creative. The great thing about this is that you do not have to be an artist. You only need to be a human being!
For years I have been interested in the nature of creativity. Being an artist, I felt it was important to understand as much about it as possible so that I could be as effective in my creative life as I could be, to learn how to harness this facet of our being most effectively. It was this curiosity that led me to observe my own state of mind while being creative. This led me to observe how each hemisphere in the brain worked in tandem to help bring about the elusive state of inspiration. I observed what states seemed to aid the most in being creative. I found out about all kinds of tricks for getting your whole brain in on the act. All of this was useful, but there seemed to be something still deeper, more fundamental in all of this. After all, most artists I knew tended to treat inspiration as though it was some elusive force, not unlike sighting a Yeti. We never were sure when we would see or encounter it, but we were always glad when we did! While I know that such a comparison seems a little silly, it has a real kernel of truth. We just don’t have a firm grasp on what this state of being is about. If we did, we would live inside a constant state of inspiration. But most of us don’t. Most of the time, we are in this constant state of seeking the elusive Yeti. I know because I am an artist. I am also an educator, and the truly great opportunity I have been afforded in my teaching has been that of being able to observe my own students in their own process of seeking this elusive state. There are a lot of ways that we can help make it more possible for us to find this state of mind and artists know a lot of them because we are all on the same hunt. But what is so interesting is that when you look deeper into this you can see how some of us don’t have a problem with being inspired. When you read the words of many famous artists they often speak of how the most natural artists are children. Why is that? It is simple. It is the lack of fear. Children have no reason to feel fear or apprehension in using this most natural state of being. They are not full of the things that trip them up or hang them up in various ways as regards the creative state. Both love and the creative require the suspension of fear in order for both to flow freely in our experience.
The one thing about fear is that it is the antithesis of love. Love cannot exist very well within the bounds of the fearful. It just can’t. When we are afraid, our most natural of states get tangled, tied up. Our brains shut down, our physiology also reflects this in subtle and overt ways. But when we start talking about love, most people feel a little lost how it has anything to do with creativity. It shows. We have in our lives chosen to cordon love off into very limited ranges of expression and experience. Love, though, is more than just what we experience. Admit it; when I mentioned love, you thought probably about how you feel about someone. I know that I often do this same thing. Love is how we feel FOR something. But what if love is more than that, what if love itself is a far more expansive a thing that enters into every single corner of our experience in myriad ways? Don’t we have a love of a hobby? Don’t we have a love for the things that we value, even a ring or a piece of jewelry? We say we love the bracelet we are wearing. And yet, we stand back and admit to ourselves that that isn’t really love. That is more like an intense like. Right? But I ask you, why cant it be love? Why can’t the intensity of our like spill over into being love? Why cant our own feelings, our own natural state of being, be allowed to feel and express this very powerful of states? Maybe we think that by saying we love the bracelet we are wearing somehow makes us shallow, that we should reserve love for the more important things? I take you back to our child of four who is sitting at the table, painting wildly, unafraid of creating bold and colorful marks. She is caught up in her act of creating because it makes her feel great. Is it possible that the mere act of creating is a form of love? That we feel love when we do the things that connect us to ourselves? And what does love do with others to whom we care the most about? Doesn’t it do much the same thing? Sure, making a mark on the page is not the same love that we feel when we are making a mark on someone’s heart. That much is certain. But what if our experience of love has been so limited that it keeps us from following our instincts and keeps us from feeling free enough to open to this experience within ourselves? Isn’t creating an act of self love? Is it that we feel so unworthy of this most important part of love that we hesitate to show it to ourselves?
I have discovered that the act of being inspired carries with it all of the same characteristics that go with falling in love. When we fall in love and when we fall into being inspired, the effects are the same. I have observed that becoming inspired is itself a very intimate act. As a result, we often tend to want to be alone. Sometimes, sitting in a coffee shop, we are surrounded by people as we madly scribble away, but in that moment, we have most often blocked out the din of voices and the movement of people so that we feel alone, solitary. This is an intimate place. We do not like people invading our space with their attention. We need a special focus that involves letting ourselves go. We fall into inspiration the same way that we fall into love. In the same way we are seduced by our feelings of love, so too do we allow ourselves to fall into a seductive space of the senses when we create art of any kind. A child who is at play does not like it when he or she is being watched by adults. How many of us have observed how a child’s play will come to a stop when they are aware that others are watching them? This is because the act of play, which engages the imagination, is the same as the creative state. The creative state is itself much like love, if not a broader expression of what love is in us. In all of the same situations, we need to be alone, we need to engage our imaginations, we allow ourselves to fall into it, and to do this we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. In both cases, it is the same. We also need to feel unafraid in both cases, which most often means being alone, but also being in a place where we feel comfortable. For some of my students (and myself), the best ideas come most often when they are doing something that makes them feel comfortable and safe enough to come out of their shells. One student did her best creative work in the shower. Another would take off to be alone, completely alone, without even paper or pencil. She had to go for a walk, clear her head. Another found that his ideas came when he was in the car driving for long periods. Others like to be in a public place, but with their music playing in their earphones. A number of them simply needed to be alone. I have noticed that when I give a new assignment in Sculpture class a number of students ask me if they can leave so they can go find inspiration. In the beginning I resisted this until I learned that many of them were getting better ideas when they were able to just follow their most natural inclinations. One student would explain, “I just can’t force it, Mr. Stafford, I just have to go let it find me!” The same is so with love. Both are incredibly intimate acts sometimes. Having said this, there are plenty of people who are not self conscious and who can create at the drop of a hat. Some people actually feed off of the presence of people as though the extra attention is like more energy being brought into the arena. It is true we are all different, but there remains in my observation that on balance, most people approach inspiration in similar ways.
The act of creating is itself a freeing act. We feel more expansive, and we feel that all is right with the world. We have a special lilt to our step. We are in grace. All is well in the world, right? Falling in love has all the same characteristics of this same state. We have a lilt in our step, a glimmer in our eye. Everything is golden. But take that away, take the experience of the creative away, or the person whom we love, and everything becomes dark and shadowed. Creativity, like love, frees us, allows us to move and become something….more.
I have found that most people like art but do not themselves feel creative. They say that all they can do is draw stick figures. And this is the crux of both love and the creative. We shut down when we feel we are not good enough. If we feel like we are not beautiful enough to another person, it shuts us down. When we feel we are not talented enough, we do the same thing when trying to be creative. In each case, walls are built of one sort or another. This is not good, you see, because it stops the flow of this vital force that runs through our lives and makes it all the more richer. I have taken this observation and applied it to my teaching. I have found that the more I remove the hurdles to the creative and make people feel more safe, they become much more creative. They become more enthusiastic. They feel supported, more free, less hindered by the “what if’s” in the world. The people who have the hardest time with the creative are the ones who insist on worrying about something, such as how their work is going to turn out. The difference between them and our child painting madly at the table is that the child does not worry about how it will turn out. It is the suspension of outcomes that allows us to be fully present in the moment. Love, like the creative, cannot be experienced through the past or the future, but only in the present. While we may look back wistfully at a past love or a past creative experience, it is never like what we experience in the moment. You cannot create something in the past, only in the present. But like creativity, love can strike terror in our hearts if we are afraid to allow ourselves to become vulnerable. It is the same in both.
We have to learn to be fearless, we have to open to love the same way we open to the creative. Both require the same state of being vulnerable and suspension of expectation in order for the experience to bloom in the most natural of ways. This is why, so often, as an artist is painting or creating, they don’t always know exactly what is going to come next. It isn’t that they don’t know how they want it turn turn out, or that they are being aimless in their work, it is that in order to do this certain parts of the mind really do have to be shut off. Love, like the creative, is not a rational process. It is nonlinear, irrational, and this is where we tap both sides of our brains and awareness. Art like love cannot come about through a sheer force of will. It is more like a flower that must open in the presence of the sun. We do not pry its petals open. We let it open. We allow. Without this quality, everything is forced. 80% of the ideas that my students come up with that are forced, they tend to abandon in the end for the simple fact that they have not truly plumbed their likes or desires. The work, when forced, is never as enjoyable as the work that is allowed to flow. When we flow, we are allowed deeper access into ourselves. Love, like creating, is not entirely rational because we are not ourselves just rational beings. Many artists, like those who fall into love, often revel in mystery. It is the mystery that pulls them forward. This is not rational, you see.
In my work in glass I have taken this idea and used glass as a vehicle for allowing people to tap the joy of being able to create something beautiful that they themselves believe they are incapable of doing. Glass is a perfect material for this because it is….well…..beautiful. I tell people who come into the studio feeling apprehensive about whether they will be able to make something beautiful that the nature of glass is such that you could dribble it on the floor and it would look amazing. And it does. I once told this to a group who came in this past winter and one of the kids wound up dribbling hot glass on the floor. At the time, she felt like she had failed, as though she was somehow doing something wrong. I had, though, just moments before explained that you could do just what she had done and it would look great. When she got done, she wound up picking up the pieces of glass, now hardened, off the floor and was amazed by how interesting it looked. She took her “mistake” home with her, she liked it so much! My experience with making things with a material that is so hard to get “wrong” has done something for people, which is that it opens the portals of enthusiasm and excitement. They loosen up and are amazed at what it is they are creating. THIS is where it all begins. What might take a person years to achieve by learning how to go from stick figure to perfect portrait in chalk I can achieve in minutes. That is because the act of being creative is not about perfect portraits, but about loving what it is that you do. When you do this, when you allow yourself the freedom to be this way, you naturally open up the cognitive portals in your own being so that inspiration flows.
The other side to all of this is that love naturally has a healing effect on us. When we open up and allow ourselves to be loved, we feel different. We unwind, we become more relaxed, happy, and at peace. We do the exact same thing when we are in a state of inspiration. This state encourages us to try the seeming impossible. Suddenly the world resolves into radiant possibility. We are enthused, we work harder, we lose track of time, we enter “the zone” in the same way that we enter a timeless zone when we are with people that we love. How many of us have observed how quickly time seems to pass when we are with that someone whom we love? Always, there is never enough time. And the same is true for being creative. Time quite literally changes. Some people even tell of how a moment seems to expand outward into a kind of eternity. And yet, once we exit it, we feel as though time has suddenly accelerated and we wish we could enter that timeless space again. This is just what artists seek in inspiration. More than having an idea in mind what they will make, they tend to be far more interested in how the state makes them feel. They know that when they can just feel into it, they are golden. It does not matter what they make because the moment allows for endless possibilities. They know that anything is possible. They are not worried what they will make because fear is no longer present. They simply give themselves over to the moment.
The creative shares so much in common with love. When we love, we create. When we create, we are also in love. It is the same. Both frees us, both heals us. This is perhaps why we use art as a form of therapy. Just as love helps us to plumb our deepest feelings, so too does art help us plumb our feelings as well. I think that our experience with the creative has simply become too limited sometimes and so doing, it tends to cordon off those parts of ourselves that we feel funny about expressing. But all of this is a form of love, and love is something that is a pretty vast thing when it comes to human experience. Love is more than something that we feel for something and it is something that we are.
Supporting Good Creative Habits
So how can you boost your creative love quotient? There are a great number of brain tricks that you can employ that will help to kick start your right brain into motion. One of these is using your left hand with a simple exercise, such as rolling a coin through all of your fingers without dropping it. It is believed that by using the motor cortex in your right brain, which is used to control the left side of your body, that you are stimulating the right brain, which is most often seen as being involved in holistic reasoning, seeing, and most often artistic experience.
Find Your Zone
Find your comfort zone. Does being alone help you to discover your inspired moment, or does being with people, but slightly aloof help? Knowing what works best for you is a big first step towards how to boost your creativity. Then once you have realized this, follow it. For some, listening to music and just drawing and playing with ideas without any aim helps to get into a more creative state.
Sometimes just looking at art of all kinds can help you get ideas. The goal is not to copy artists work, but to find pieces that serve to inspire you. Sometimes sites that have a lot of different art can be good ways to view a broad buffet of ideas. For as crazy as it seems, Ebay can actually help a lot because instead of just one kind of art, you have a broad array. Some sites you might find helpful are listed below
Design Observer mostly graphic arts, but it has a broad range of objects dealing with good design that might just get your juices flowing.
ArtBabble is a cloud-based site for video and is called the youtube of the arts.
ArtNet is a site of over 450 artists, writers, sculptors, painters, animators, and hacker artists from around the world.
deviantart is a site where artists display and sell their works. This is a broad range of two-dimensional work
thisiscollosal this is one of my personal favorites for the interesting and creative takes on the visual that it provides. It is fun and engaging and well managed.
Artcylopedia a list of links to museum collections of art through the ages. A rich source for everything historically art.
Blackbird an outreach program of Virginia Commonwealth University, this resource presents literary and artistic works by a broad range of emerging artists as well as established ones.
This is just a taste of what is out there and might help you when you are feeling a need to get inspired. Sometimes just having someone elses work that maps out their own inspired moments can help get the gears turning.
Believe it or not, breathing has long played a central role in our feeling centered, balanced, and calm. When someone is upset, what do we tell them to do to calm themselves down? “Just breathe!” we say! I would take it one step further and explain that if you take a little more time with breath work, you can discover how amazingly calming it can be. for example, if you slow your breathing down and make it longer and deeper and do at least seven breaths in a row like this, counting seven seconds to breathe in, seven seconds to hold the breath and seven second to breathe out, you will develop a very nice slow rhythm to your breathing that will also signal to your mind that its time to relax. You will notice that people who fall asleep do not have fast breath, but slow, even labored breathing. If you can match your breathing to that same pace, you will find that your body is experiencing a very calm state where all the troubles you had a few minutes previously are suddenly gone! One other breathing method I will share with you is one I often give to students who are really keyed up and it tends to work very well. It is an alternating nostril form of breathing. It forces you to slow down your breath, but I swear, it really can make you feel much better! What you do is you hold one nostril closed while you make four full slow breaths in and out through one nostril only. You then alternate to the other nostril and do the same four breaths and repeat this four times. It is also helpful if you can focus on your breathing so you aren’t thinking about other things.
The kind of music you listen to, the kind of rhythms and melodies can actually help support certain brain states. Aboriginal cultures have long used certain rhythms to help induce certain states of reflection. I have found that music that is rhythmic, and repetitive helps me to zone out into the creative while remaining tethered to the now. It seems that when I can listen to music that is not telling me a story or that is engaging my verbal centers too much, it can lead me to move into the zone. Different music will have different effects. Sometimes, too, I need no music while at other times having something of the right style is just what the doctor ordered. I once created an entire body of work while listening to David Byrne’s The Catherine Wheel. For some reason, and for a set period of time, only this music “did it” for me. I once knew an artist in graduate school whose studio was directly above my own, who listened to the same song over and over in order to do his work for his thesis show. For him, it was Prince’s “I would Die For You.” This seemed to get him into an energetic state and got his juices moving. It had to, he listened to it for months for hours each session! For as much as it sometimes annoyed me to hear this song on an infinite loop, I also “got” why it was he listened to it. It was what got him into his own zone. I used to listen to Thursday Afternoon by Brian Eno, which is a piece that is hardly even music, but a supportive soundscape that is reflective and great for drawing. It is quite nearly background noise. But sometimes, no music is the ticket, you just need to feel it out.
Honestly, I am putting this here only because it has helped me. I don’t know if it will help you or not, but here is a try. I have found very specific works by Walt Whitman to be incredibly inspiring. Leaves of Grass is sheer miracle. He could turn a phrase in a timeless manner. Whitman is as alive today in my life as he was back during his own life. Oddly, I find his other work about the civil war to be dreary stuff. Whitman leaves me in a zone when I read the right stuff. And who knows, maybe Whitman is like Prince was to my painter colleague who listened to the same song over and over. But clearly, not just any writing will do it for me. I need something that will push me over into realms of mystery, wonder, and even awe.
These are just a few sources for aiding in supporting your creative state. In the end, though, you need to find what does it for you, observe how you feel when you do certain things and then make them part of a method that will work for you.
All of life is a journey. We come, we grow, And we go. In between is what we consider our life. Many feel like when you are done, you are done. This is it, there is no more. Certainly our five sense, if we rely on them alone, would seem to suggest there is nothing more. I am of a different sort because I have been fortunate in some ways to see with more than just my physical eyes. For some of you, this will seem silly, but it is only silly until you have those brushes with something larger, something inexplicable, that your understanding can change. The world was once flat, too!
Several years ago I had a family come to my studio who blew ornaments before Christmas. Husband, wife, and two darling daughters, about ten and five years old. They each blew glass. It was fun. The Dad looked like he wasn’t doing so well, like he had been sick. But the glass, he really loved. He in fact did the one thing many people do who fall in love with glass; they ask if they could come and sweep floors or help in exchange for more instruction and fun with the hot stuff. He explained he wasn’t sure when he would get a ‘good day’ again but if he did, he would like to come again. His daughters had just exclaimed in unison upon his completion of his piece, “that’s beautiful, Daddy!”
Rob never came back, though, and I wondered what happened. His wife contacted me in the early Spring to explain that Rob had succumbed to cancer. She was calling to see if I would be willing to make some pendants for her and her daughters as a way to keep him close during this hard time. She explained that her husband Rob had enjoyed the glass so much and had talked at length about the experience to people afterward that she thought it would be a fitting way for all of them to remember him; doing something he always wanted to do and got to do!
I had never worked with crematory ash and explained I would have to run some tests to make sure I could do it in a way I felt good about. In the end I made an Inscape Geode for each of them that had a river-like form running through the piece which was his ash. I thought this was a fitting way to use the ash since our journey takes many dips and bends while we are here. The pieces really looked great! I made pendants, too, which were a first for me, but being able to provide a way for this family a way through their grieving process was itself an honor.
When the day came for the pieces to be picked up, I handed the pieces to her and her daughters to look at in the gallery and we talked about Rob and his life. Being able to celebrate his life in this way felt so right. The family has pieces of glass art that helped to keep the memory of a loved one close.
More recently, I was approached by two different people I know who me asked if I could make glass beads and if I could create them, using ash. The beads were to be a way to scatter ashes all around the world for their father who had passed. I thought this was so novel that I instantly agreed. Then not long after this, I was approached by an old college friend. The order began with a pretty middle of the road series of colors and ended with a batch of some really cool works that are in the first photo on this post and are sprinkled throughout. They turned out to be some of the coolest pieces of jewelry I have made thus far….cosmic, subtle, nuanced…and beautiful! I was glad that his widow agreed to try a creative route and granted permission for me to use images of her pieces to show here.
I am now practiced at adding ash to glass. Normally glass and ash do not play well together, but there are some instances where it works very well. Using good old observation, testing, and common sense, I have developed a way to make this a good pairing. This makes scattering ashes easy since you can carry the ashes in your neck until you reach that special spot (or spots). It makes creating closure for family easier, a way to pay final respects, in a sense. The beads I have decided to call Journey Beads. It is a fitting name I think, and if you consider how the pendants turned out, perhaps also a cosmic journey for our loved ones. So perhaps Cosmic Journey for the pendants? I am mulling that one still.
I will be straight with you. I felt a little odd having Rob’s ash in the studio, at least initially. This feeling, I realized, was part of our collective fear, even loathing, of death. We feel this way because we are conditioned to think death is the end. It is, I believe, a transition that most do not get to witness…..except when they themselves make their own exit from this earthly stage. I have, however, found that each opportunity to help people in this transition had been in some way also an opportunity for me to help people through a challenging time in their lives.
When ash does come into the studio, it is carefully tracked throughout the entire process to ensure absolutely accuracy When using remains. The amount of ash needed for a piece is very small, less than a teaspoon for a pendant.
So the work continues. I am available for making glass to help memorialize your loved one. I have found this to be an unexpectedly healing process!
For those interested in having pendants made, most pendants are available starting at $85.00 piece And depends on color options and any necklaces that you may want shipped with the pendant. Please contact me for details on these options. Any ash remaining, no matter how small, is always returned to the customer.
This product is backed by a guarantee of your complete pleasure for up to thirty days from purchase. Pendants are made from high quality American made borosilicate, a glass known for its toughness and resilience to scratching, changes in temperature, and chemicals. This glass is so tough it is what lab ware is made from for chemistry laboratories!
I have spent years studying inspiration as part of being an artist. Very recently I have been hitting upon some correlations with mood, how we feel, as well as brain function, all as part of how we reach these state of inspiration. Long ago, when I was a student, I was like everyone else in my quest for inspiration. It was like an elusive thing and most often would come about as a result of a looming deadline. This epiphany moment that we call inspiration is, I believe, the result of a high functioning state of being that we can experience more often and even in a continual fashion. Most often, though, we are left with the occasional moment of inspiration and are left chasing after those elusive states. In the book I am writing (it’s mostly written—I am editing at this point), I explain how the experience of enlightenment or awakening is itself a very physiological experience that has every similarity with being inspired. In one case it comes in a burst, in another it becomes more of a steady-state presence.
For now, though, I offer you a chuckle with Sam Waterson who was the creator of Calvin and Hobbes.
We create for hosts of reasons, and creativity itself is in no way limited to the arts, but is rather I think a feature of our very being. We gain a deep sense of satisfaction from creating. It fills up every space of our lives like a living thing that seeks to involve itself in broad scales of our lives. That means building a fence, designing a walkway, a garden, a new medicine, or art. Trying to shoe-horn creativity into one discipline is like trying to do the same with spirituality.
In the same fashion, I have tended to feel that there is something about us, in us, that grasps for something familiar while seeking the new. It is an old familiar push-pull we humans have and it keeps us moving backwards and forwards between tradition and innovation. I wont say that I have not been touched by tradition, for certainly I have, but in many ways I have sought to go it alone. The sense I had was that my spirituality was not contingent upon a religion. I did my seeking, but it seemed that whatever it was I was looking for was somehow bigger or perhaps more inclusive than any one religion. I think that every time I thought about our concepts of the deity, I felt like most of our notions were like cartoon characters in a sense, a kind of bookmark in the REAL work, which was itself a mystery for the simple fact that we were creating an icon or image or bookmark instead of finding the real thing.
This gets onto touchy ground, I know, because religions becomes very personal very quick. We have fought wars over ideology plenty over the last few thousand years. When it comes to what we think is right, what is our tradition, we will fight tooth and nail for it. I think it is to be expected given what it was we put our faith into.
So most of my adult life, I felt a bit like an outsider in a sense, living in the shelter of art to find meaning. Most of what I have done in my own work has been to reflect and seek to illuminate, most often unconsciously, what I was deeper down. Just as in religion, which I think is supposed to help us to know ourselves in relationship to a deity or higher power, I felt that the answer was within. I will admit I spent years not completely sure what this answer would tell me, if anything. I would discover, though, that the answer was incredibly simple with broad applications. This was perfect, I now see, since the very best projects in art have been those with the most specific parameters but the broadest interpretation. As in art, so in the mystic.
The events that led up to what I now know to be an Awakening experience changed a lot of my wonder over what my own inner work was leading to. Awakening is also called by other cultural groups as kundalini. There isn’t a culture on the earth that doesn’t have its own explanation of the phenomenon. While I had read in my teen years on what this was, which seemed an exotic kind of spiritual experience, most of it simply went over my head. There really is not way to convey what happens when the switch is flipped inside that brings all the requisite elements into enough a unity within the psyche and body to fuel the process that the Hindus call an awakening of kundalini.
It was the Summer of 2006 and I was seeking to put to rest some old overhanging issues in my spiritual life. These were some things that kind of nagged at me and caused me some frustration and consternation. What these things had done, unknown to me at the time, was to create a massive block of energy. Emotional, mental, and spiritual. I was certainly active and engaged in creating and was running a business that was selling and showing all across the United States and abroad. I had in fact dedicated a significant part of my life in building the business and had done so while ignoring the very things that would bring a new level or form of inspiration, a kind of living flame, through my very being. Little did I know that this force would seek to tear down everything I had built in order to rebuild it anew in an entirely new way. For kundalini, I had become the art project.
What would happen to me in the wake of this unexpected resolution of old events in my life was akin to shedding a spark that would grow into something larger with unintended consequences. The results of this would lead to entirely new directions creatively for me and would cause me to question some of my most cherished notions about myself and the world. Why I was engaged in making things, my impulse to create, what I made and why. It wasn’t just limited to my creative life. This force would show no mercy and would set right what had gone wrong. I say this and realize it has always been setting things on the path that would provide me with the very best sense of fulfillment.
What was sparked what would become a kind of steady-state of inspiration. No longer as I left with the same chasing of inspiration. As I sat in my studio I began drawing with chalk on the floor idea after idea. This went deep into the night. Erasing one idea to make room for more, I would record the sketch in my book for later. Somewhere I had managed to open a valve and it results in a flood of information that has left me wondering how on earth I am every to bring all of this material to the fore. What I had come across, though, was something that I had been studying for years within myself that struck to the center of HOW our brains work when we are creative.
Its interesting. In the Hindu tradition, they describe the twin currents that move up the spine as the Shakti and Shiva, two opposites that meet and merge, creating the bliss of the divine. In early mystic traditions of Christianity, the Gnostics, Jesus speaks of being “One with the Mother and Father” which, in later documents gets edited down to “I am one with the Father.” This was startling to me because at first I did not know what was happening to me when this force came. I could feel “it” and I sensed that there were two opposite forces which I called the masculine and feminine that created sheer bliss in their union, a bliss that I knew to be a third energy which I called “the child.” This was how vivid and clear the presence has been for me. I called it that simply because that was how it felt. But what this thing was, was without form. It was a FORCE I had somehow unlocked inside of me.
When I reflected on the ancient texts, though, I saw how others had had experiences with this and that in the Christian tradition, a lot had been hushed up, or had not been fully understood by those who followed after (it was 320 years AFTER the death of Christ that the books that detailed Jesus’s life and his disciples were gathered to be used for the institutionalizing of a new religion through the Council of Nicea on orders from Emperor Constantine). Clearly, for me at least, the triadic nature of this energy in me was the same energy that was being spoken of as the Christian triad, the kundalini of the Hindu and Chinese.
it was out of this “rising” that I discovered a new-found creative output that often left me at a loss as to how to make all that my hands had scribbled or that my mind and heart had considered. It resulted in new sculptural forms, new glass forms, books (plural) and hundreds of pages of writing (an editor and a close friend both pointed out that I had the content of three books in my 750 page manuscript). It also resulted in the dissolution of my marriage, nearly losing my business after a serious accident, and a slower but more certain return to a new kind of life that had in a sense been torn down from chimney to foundation.
These types of awakening, though, are becoming much more common. No longer do saddhus, or Hindu monks, have to sit in meditation awaiting awakening after twenty years of trials. They are now happening to people with virtually no experience with meditation or any form of formal preparation, something the Hindu tradition explains is simply just not possible. Clearly, something has changed in us.
In Carl Jung’s day, there were but a handful of people so effected at any given time. Jung lamented that there would never be enough of these people on the planet at any given time to provide the necessary push or catalyst towards greater change. Now, though, people are having these experiences in numbers that can only be described as a watershed kind of event. The old traditions are not keeping up with the reality of what is happening.
Awakening is not itself a religion or philosophy or ideology in any way. There are systems of thought that have been created that seek to give direction and some structure to it. It is not a spirit, although there are some who observe that this is so. My sense is that it is a mystery in the same way that the truth of a deity is a mystery perhaps simply due to its entirely expansive nature which renders us a dust mote in comparison to a galaxy of consciousness.
Awakening reorders the self through a process that is as much spiritual energy as it is physical. To say it is one thing or another is like casting a net to one side of a boat or the other and expecting to capture the entire essence of what lies in the ocean. This is not to say that you cannot experience what it is, it is simply that to speak of it or describe it is like seeking to describe the indescribable. A dust mote trying to provide some sense of context when it is seeking to grasp the galaxy before it. And yet, we come face to face with this as our very nervous system is reordered, rewired to take in more of this infinity of material.
Those who have awakened are different, but we do not seek to wear this on our sleeves simply because it is like how I described it back when it first struck me like lightening; I woke up one morning and found I was speaking a different language. From another planet. I was instantly rendered into a stranger on the planet, and it would take a number of years before I could ease this sense back into a feeling of belonging here. Many who have this experience describe it the same way as one who has had a stroke; your memory is slowly erased by some surge of energy and it scatters all the data and you are left picking up the pieces that now fit the new arrangement. It is a bit like a hurricane blowing through your house, fundamentally changing the size and shape of the rooms such that only certain things from your previous life can ever fit into the same rooms again. Much winds up being weeded out. It is in many ways like a death and a rebirth into a new life. Certainly the Gnostics described this experience in much the same way and it leads me to the conclusion that the version of spiritual knowledge we have handed down called Christianity has been left wanting for some very basic fundamental principles of how we as human beings work. ALL of us. Not just a sect such as Christian or Hindu, Zoraster, Muslim, or Native American. The distortions in the code have been the things that have been used to define and differentiate some religions from another when in truth, I suspect, the answer is that they all seek the same thing in the midst of a misty and distorted landscape of understanding. Anything that was not understood may have been distorted due to lack of experience, or out of bias or prejudice. One thing is for sure though; awakening serves as a model for how a creative person can drive their inspiration to new heights by understanding how this dual current mirrors the brain’s function and the fact that just as we have this dual etheric current, we also have a dual brain current as well. When these two hemispheres unite, we have an explosion of creative output. And just as this mirrors the etheric seemingly mystical side of the experience, it also mirrors how we all are in the world, which are essentially a world culture that has lost sight of the true potential of our natures, which are yin and yang, right brain and left brained. learning how to balance these two elementals in our own lives will lead to a more balanced person. As this spreads, it will also lead, potentially, to a more balanced world.
I am a pretty observant person I think on balance. I have for years pondered the nature of creativity and have noticed what is happening when I am most creative. I also notice that my thinking is not just one way or another, but balanced between both rational AND irrational thinking. It is this balance that seems to borrow or utilize what I think of as a more balanced involvement of the two hemispheres. I suspect that the other 90% of our brain that we are said not to be using may well point to our underutilization of the right brain. I suspect that it is the right brain that mirrors the mystical and spiritual experiences in our bodies. I don’t think the brain creates the material, but it certainly manages it and gives what is without form a kind of “voice” s that we can relate to it in some way. Trying to grasp the entire ocean can be a tricky sort of thing, but it seems that the structure of the right brain is perfectly matched to the task.
I know that the left brain for me is a very concrete place. In it there is language, an ability to parse ideas in a linear fashion, which goes hand in hand with different forms of communication, including language, music, and art. It has a great capacity for picking out a single particle in a mass of particles and focus intently upon it. It has the capacity to take things one step at a time in logical order in order to get the job done. That is extremely useful. It becomes less useful when it comes to being able to see the ocean, or God, or God shimmering within your own awareness.
This is the job of the right brain. The right brain can see the entire forest and never once get confused over what it is that it is seeing. It can see across nations, across ideologies, across beliefs and see the overarching effects. It can, in effect, glimpse the greater good. It can also allow us to glimpse new ideas, new ways of being or doing things. It may not know HOW to create these things, or bring them into being, but the right rain seems to know that there is nothing that is NOT impossible. We just simply haven’t figured out the way to make whatever it is we have just glimpsed, work. This is not a concrete world. It is softer, flowing, and imaginative. If we were to ascribe sexual attributes to our hemispheres, the right brain would be feminine while the left would be masculine.
In a fully functioning brain, the left (male) would bring the discrete spark of inspiration in its own way into the field of the right hemisphere. Seeded, the right brain would take this spark and turn it into something beyond anything the right brain even has the capacity to believe or conceive of. What emerges is like a mystery in a sense and when you think about inspiration and the products of it, the process seems just as inconceivable. It simply bursts into being, often fully formed as we scribble madly to get the details down. No wonder the Hindus called this the union of Shakti and Shiva!
Later in my reading as I tried to make sense of what had happened to me on that fateful day in August of 2006 when the lights suddenly began to come on. I came across old texts that spoke of how awakening was the rising in awareness of two seeming opposites. The Hindus called this the Shakti and Shiva energies. They are seen as deities or spiritual beings. In early Christian texts, it was spoken of as the Father and Mother (although later this was shortened to Holy Ghost as the tide of paternalism sought to abbreviate the effect or power that the feminine might have in such an institutionalized religion. Even in the early Christian texts described the process perfectly as I had experienced it which was a union of two opposite energies in my awareness. The texts said things like “When you are one and become two, what will you do?” it described these things over and over in similar fashion. One current was masculine while the other was feminine. The key was in bringing these two forces into greater unity. Perhaps, I thought, this was the goal of meditation or yoga. I had managed to eliminate the junk that stood between these two currents. These two currents I saw perfectly mirrored in the brain. Perhaps we do indeed have both spiritual and biological energies that are all aligned according to something perhaps as simple as positive and negative charges of energy in the body that bring rise to a glorious feeling of bliss when that energy is allowed to grow and develop to greater levels. Perhaps it has a nourishing effect on the brain and psyche.
I recently watched a documentary on the Buddha for the first time. Up until that time, I had not read much more than a few quotes here and there that were attributed to him. It was interesting to me that Buddha achieved enlightenment in the same way that I did. We both weren’t doing anything to bring it on. I was standing in the back yard of a winery during a festival, simply looking out across the fields of grapevines. Buddha was sitting beneath a tree. We had both been seekers for many years. Awakening did not come by way of a guru or method or teacher. It came like the wind, or like the sun piercing the horizon of the sky.
For me, art has been a means to find my way without a dogma, but to go about it in a solitary way. In the end, I found that the only time we really encounter a force higher than ourselves, it is when we are focused on what is happening within. I don’t think that this is because we are imagining it but that there is a reality “beyond” our own that does not cohere as directly to our own as we might think or expect it to. It is a nonphysical reality. While it is connected to our reality here, we are simply too focused in our physical sensing to touch it in any meaningful way such that it begins to change our lives. I do think, though, that we are constantly bumping into it throughout each and ever day. Somehow it just never turns into the spark that sets the self to flame as the ancients describe it.
It does seem, however, that the experience of nonduality can be experienced without having a full-fledged awakening experience. I say this because such online sources as Nonduality Magazine (dot org) have plenty of articles about brushes with this realm of human experience. I even have an article published on their site about one aspect of the experience. Some lead to larger awakenings, but some do not. I think it is due to whether we are ready or not. We in a way have to become a little empty in order to begin to take in new stuff as revolutionary as nonduality can be. Perhaps this is achieved simply through the intent that we wish to be filled with something more, perhaps the same impetus that drives people to awakening to begin with, which is often a sense like something just isn’t quite complete, or right…..and in seeking and pondering, it is just enough of a push to start the entire process moving.
For my creative life I know that all of this has opened a new chapter for me. It has offered up entirely new challenges both in being more fulfilled creatively as well as an opportunity to look in a more clear-eyed way at all the things that have kept me from accomplishing my goals. This operates on the microscale as well in how I may not always make inspiration a moment by moment experience and find myself casting about for new ideas when in truth, I have gone through my days with ideas just flowing into me. The difference in how I choose to be. As an artist, I am still a reporter of a sort. I am using my own discipline to create objects of arresting power or grace in order to communicate or express something that I have found to be worthy in creating. This has all enriched my experience and has helped to bring entirely new opportunities into my life at this time. By erasing a sense of limit, I have become much more open to the possibilities, which is perhaps just what the gift is from the right brain. And yet, without her partner the left brain, she would remain entirely inspired, but like a car stuck in neutral. She needs the hand that identifies what first gear is. The left brain seems to supply the bare essentials to give the right brain the substance to form something out of nearly nothing.
For insight into the nature of the right brain I suggest that you take a look at the TED Talk by a woman, Jill Taylor, who experienced first hand what happened to her when her left hemisphere shut down as a result of a massive stroke. HERE.
Her story is I think an important one for understanding that these experiences which we say are spiritual do, I contend, have a basis in our neurophysiology. It isn’t an experience that is “out there” or “woo-woo” but has been something that has been poorly explained so that it all sounds like magic or incomprehensible. What Jill Taylor describes is the state of nirvana that results from opening up to her right hemisphere. In the book that I have been working on that chronicles my experience, I am seeking to place this seemingly mystical experience into a more understandable, and approachable context. Awakening only happens when the body has a way to process the substance of that experience, and the right brain plays a central role. When we can bring these aspects of ourselves into a greater unity, a greater sense of wonder and joy can prevail once the wreckage of our lives is addressed. Only then does the wonder come in uninterupted streams of experience. This, then, forms the basis of “the work” one needs to do to untangle the self from all that holds it back, blocking the flow of this stream of awareness in our lives and which has kept such potential out of our grasp.
Awakening is not a walk in the park. It has been the hardest task master of my life, and yet I know that with each release of old patterning, I am placed into calmer and more peaceful waters. This is an accelerated course in becoming, like fifteen years of therapy packed into three or four. I am hopeful that this potential exists, even for as difficult as it can be to ride its wave sometimes. For me at least, it is the answer to a very old lifelong question.