Plein Air

_DSC8185Lately I’ve been trying out plein air painting–French for painting outdoors.  I crave the immediacy, openness and energy after the more controlled setting of my studio.  I am part of the landscape while I paint; there’s an awareness of my surroundings that’s different than when I’m working from photographs.  I set up my easel near a picnic table at Sunset Pond in Bellingham, WA and got to work.  Dark clouds threatened to dump rain on me and put an end to my painting session but I forged ahead, enjoying the cool overcast morning.  A muskrat swam to the surface of the pond, then ducked under the water when it saw me.  Crunch, crunch.  I heard shoes approach over the dry yellow grass.  An older man took a peek at my painting in progress and said, “You are very talented.”  He was wearing a name tag and I assumed he was Mormon especially when he told me he was Elder________ and had relocated from Utah.  I kept expecting him to give me a tract because he was so friendly.  But he didn’t.

After he walked away, a flock of Canadian geese strutted up the bank of the pond and began preening themselves nearby.  They bent their necks and used their round heads to roller their necks and chests.  Their preening done, they settled down for a nap.  Suddenly a little boy with red socks approached hugging a huge tub of popcorn.

He peered up at my painting and said, “I sure wish I could paint like that.”

“I thought you were painting the geese,” the boy said.  “I’m glad you aren’t because I’m here to feed them my popcorn.”

“Is it fresh?” I asked the boy, eye-ing his buttery popcorn with longing.

“Yes,” said his mom who had finally caught up to her excited son.  “Give the lady come popcorn,” she said to her son and he let me take a large handful.


He started throwing fistfuls of the corn at the geese but they weren’t hungry so he left after a few more attempts.

I painted some more, reflecting on how connected I felt to reality when I painted outside. I didn’t feel alone with the geese, a boy with popcorn, a muskrat, and others for company.  That said, I had to deal with the special challenges of plein air painting–the reflections on the pond kept changing, and the clouds morphed shape, and the sun came out and started drying my acrylic paints on my palette before I could use them.

I heard the crunching of the grass again and the elderly man reappeared.

“It’s you again,” I said, expecting the tract for sure this time.

“Painting is your expression of beauty.  This is mine,” he said, placing a round natural wood vase in my hand.  “I want you to keep it.  I love bringing out the natural wood grain” he said.

I started to tell him how much this meant to me because my deceased grandpa had turned wooden pots on a lathe but he was already walking away.  It felt like my grandpa had sent him to me as a sign that that I’m on the right track.  I imagined my grandpa smiling down at me as he witnessed my simple joy in painting the pond, the yellow green trees and the dusky blue mountain.

I stopped to eat a bite of pasta for lunch and then went back to work.  The longer I painted, the quieter my mind grew. The whole thing from start to finish had taken four hours.  As I packed up I felt tired but refreshed in spirit like one newly baptized.  The experience had been far more important than the painting that I made.

P.S. I have to admit that I have hesitated to do plein air painting–I mean, it conjures  images of bourgeois Impressionist painters, almost all men.  But I believe it’s time for contemporary artists to consider working plein air as a strategy.  As smart phones and other screens become ever more distracting and eat up more and more of people’s time and attention, our ability  to connect to the earth and each other grows ever more tenuous.  Working on site–whatever the medium employed–creates new possibilities for engagement and transformed perception. At the very least, it is a way of calling attention to what is visible but often overlooked. I recently met Vancouver artist Jenny Hawkinson who works primarily in video and installation but has begun a new series of plein air drawings of homeless encampments.  It’s curious that we have both chosen the inconvenience and unpredictability of working from life–at least for now.




The Gift of Space


I’ve been painting and sewing in the second floor of a textile factory for about nine months, the length of a pregnancy.  On Saturday morning, I held a small gathering of friends and benefactors to bless this space in a ritual that included singing, prayer and poetry.  Of course, this space was already deeply blessed and a blessing to me; I hold it with open hands and a trembling, hopeful heart, paying my rent on a month to month lease.  The studio looks out on lush green trees that veil the nearby freeway.  Like climbing the tall rose-apple tree that grew in my childhood backyard, I go up the stairs to my studio and I’m elevated to an entirely different stratosphere than the one in which I conduct my rounds of housekeeping, driving, and business… Upon entering the studio, I suddenly feel both lost and found.  I’m lost with a purpose, in an enchanted place surrounded by beauty unfinished and unfolding in time like a great song.  

I want to dedicate myself and the space to that song, and not the one that buzzes like swarms of flies around my head in the form of doubt, self-pity, loneliness, the rehashing of gripes, and judgy thoughts.  It’s useless to indulge ideas like this but they come unbidden when I’m hard at work.  My artist friend says it’s a form of monkey mind and to stay the course and ignore the chatter as best as you can.  Sometimes I emerge from the studio feeling as if I’ve been given a good thrashing.  In short, the studio is a graced place but it is also a wilderness of sorts where I encounter shadows, the darker side of myself.  I’m sure that encounter is necessary and good but it takes courage to show up day after day, and I need every bit of moral support to keep going strong.

I asked my friend, Kimberly Grace Cockcroft, to write an artist blessing for me because she’s written a series of profound blessings on her lovely blog.  By the time I read the third paragraph of her blessing poem, I was weeping.  Somehow, between boatloads of summer guests, children and dogs, she wrote a poem that touches my deepest longings while caressing some of my essential fears.  

A Blessing for Christen and her Studio

by Kimberly Grace Cockcroft

May this space welcome you
and be a friend to your spirit, mind and body
as you offer yourself to your work.
May you find solitude and unexpected visitors.
May you open your hands
to receive the gifts that will be given to you.

May this space hold you.
May these walls bear witness to the dance of your spirit.
May the floor beneath you ground your vitality
and may you be ever more deeply rooted
to the Voice who calls you by name.

May this space challenge you
to newness, discomfort and growth.
In the time of your need
when doubt and loneliness are your companions,
when you are unable to shape word or substance or thought,
may you enter a place of compassion for yourself
and for all who are voiceless.

May this space nurture you
and may you feel the delight of creation.
May you enter into the Myth
that sculpted this world and gave you being
and may you feel strongly your place in that great work.

May this space send you
into the world in peace.
And may you bear beauty wherever you walk
and may you leave behind goodness
as you live into your vocation as one who gives body and voice
to the silent and forgotten.

May you feel the joy of the universe.

Jess: Painter of Dreams

jess if all the world

If All the World Were Paper and All the Water Sink

Recently I stumbled upon an art book called simply Jess.  The book describes the enigmatic artist who dropped his last name after a falling out with his family, and shortened his name from Burgess to simply Jess.  His visual artworks are accompanied by bewildering literary titles lifted from Jess’ eclectic collection of books.  He had worked in nuclear science but a terrible nightmare about the end of the world shook him up so much that he decided to become an artist.  Thereafter, he moved to San Francisco where he remained until he died at the age of 80.

jess almost daybreakHe made idiosyncratic, literary and surreal works that are strikingly different from the abstract or pop work of his American contemporaries.  He grouped much of his output into three categories.  There were the Paste-ups–Jess’s preferred name for his collages.  Sometimes these collages were assembled from multiple puzzles that Jess somehow pieced together to create surprising new narratives.

paste ups

On the Way to Rose Mountain

Often the Paste-Ups include homoerotic or metaphysical imagery and references.  Jess lived with the poet Robert Duncan, and the two cultivated a home centered on their mutual delight in literature, philosophy and spirituality.  Unlike most collages which tend to remain small in scale, Jess’s collages often reach four or more feet in diameter.


A Cryogenic Consideration: Or, Sounding One Horn Of The Dilemma [Winter]
1980, collage, 48 x 72 inches

These collages required a laser-like focus, and years if not decades to complete so Jess fashioned a pair of blinders to wear while he was at work so he wouldn’t get distracted. He kept his photographic imagery in carefully labelled drawers.  Life magazine and vintage black and white scientific illustrations with clean lines were his preferred sources.

jess pumpkin.jpg

A Field of Pumpkins Grown for Seed: Translation #11

He also made “Translations” which were colored paintings that carefully reproduced a black and white image.  He endeavored to reproduce the value or shade of the photo perfectly while letting his imagination run wild with the colors.  He sought to avoid a “facile beauty” by building up the oil paint so thickly that it bulges like warts or burls on a tree.  For several years, I was under the impression that he’d sculpted them out of old bubble gum.  His translation of the Beatles photo is especially striking for it turns a lighthearted image into what looks like a revival meeting or baptism.


Far and Few…:Translation #15

“Salvages” were another attempt to avoid slickness and preconceived imagery by using old paintings salvaged from the thrift store.  Jess enjoyed allowing parts of the original painting to show through his painting, thereby informing the narrative.  He fuses the layers together so expertly that I can’t determine what was the found painting and what Jess added on top.salvages

One of the reasons I admire Jess is for his willingness to paint the romantic–fairy tale like images of children, flowers and animals which somehow feel genuine.  He doesn’t need to prove himself, and seems to celebrate innocence and even joy.  It’s as if he sees the child as a saner person than the man he almost became.  He often shows children at play together, perhaps contrasting their ability to be at one with the world with the adult’s alienation.  The rose shows up repeatedly in his paintings as a symbol of beauty, and the unfolding of time.  His work embodies Nathaniel Hawthorne’s claim that “the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.”

He describes his early painterly works as “mythic landscapes, in the sense that a certain abstract chaos is slowly coming to order.  All the creation myths depict some kind of chaos transforming into order or image.  I sometimes thought of these early landscapes as vaguely analogous to a creation myth.  So if you were to walk into a landscape in the process of creation, you might feel something like this.”

I don’t think it’s gotten any easier to make work that’s this personal.  I’m grateful to Jess for being unapologetically himself and for doing the hard work to realize his vision.


jess c 1956

Bibliographic References:

Jess: A Grand Collage 1951 – 1993, published by The Buffalo Fine Arts Academy



Solidarity: Jean Vanier’s Way

Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier with a painting by Malissa Perry (the woman I have worked with since 2013)

Jean Vanier’s writings touched me profoundly when I was a teenager, and have continued to shape the contours of my heart.  His ability to articulate his felt sense of vulnerability and struggle to keep his heart open to loving the “other” despite his fears felt incredibly brave and honest.  I toyed with the idea of joining a L’Arche community at several junctures in my life but my desire to join wasn’t pure–I was more interested in using L’Arche as a way to get to exotic places like Ireland and France.

In my mid 30’s, I entered a monastery for six months.  Upon leaving the monastery, I was unemployed and walking aimlessly up and down the aisles of our local grocery store when a tall woman with silver hair tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I wanted to work with her disabled daughter.  (This woman had remembered me from a Centering Prayer group that she led several years previously.)    I said yes to the job offer, not knowing the school of transformation that I had just enrolled myself in.

My client’s mom had been formed by Vanier’s teachings.  She often repeated Vanier’s quote about being present with a person with disabilities rather than merely doing things for them.  This generated a subtle but profound shift in my awareness.  Looking back at earlier periods in my life, I realize that I’d viewed myself as the hero who swept into various situations (the Soup Kitchen, AIDS visitation etc) and gave sacrificially of myself to various needy and destitute recipients.  I was the agent, they were the grateful recipients.  Vanier’s approach emphasized solidarity and empathy, over generosity and service.    Service is important, of course, as is advocating for justice for the marginalized and oppressed.  But for humanity to flourish, we must embrace reciprocity embodied in solidarity.  Almost every human relationship has the potential to be reciprocal even if only eye contact or a smile is exchanged.  (I’m thinking of my client who is unable to speak yet checks in with me throughout our time together to make deep eye contact.)

Too, the splitting of people into categories, elevating some as the have’s and others as the have not’s breeds alienation and misery.  It isn’t intolerable only for the people who are excluded.  It is also miserable for those who do the excluding, because you and I cannot cut ourselves off from another human being without simultaneously cutting ourselves off from a part of our very self.  It takes incredible energy to erect and maintain these walls within our psyches.  Each of us contains an “other” that may be painful for us to face whether it is our weakness or fear or failure in an area of our lives, or a painful experience of being excluded or forsaken by other people.  And when we encounter someone who is weak or poor, the tendency is to avoid them for fear of facing their loss and the echo of our own losses.  But, the other and the self are inextricably linked, and this is why the Golden Rule really is golden.  As we do the hard work of being present to our imperfect selves, we are also able, more and more, to become present to the other.  We can enter into a new communion with all people; we can move about our neighborhoods freely, without fear.

I’m making baby steps in that direction.  In my town, there is a drop-in center for homeless people and about half a neighborhood block is occupied by them.  They sit and stand and sleep on the sidewalk, smoking and chatting with each other to pass the time.  Two honey buckets on the sidewalk provide a sanitary means of relieving themselves while a plastic tarp provides a little shelter from the elements.  In days past, I dreaded this part of my commute.  I either drove or biked past on the other side of the road.  Last week, I decided to walk through them, on their stretch of sidewalk, as a declaration of solidarity.  I was greeted with warm, open smiles.  One tubby man showed me his belly and asked if I thought it was sexy?  I said yes–to his great amazement!

* * * *

A few weeks ago, I dreamt I was at a conference with Jean Vanier.  (In truth, he no longer gives conferences, since his heart attack last year.)  In my dream, we were all waiting eagerly like baby birds, beaks outstretched for a worm from daddy bird.  The room was full of excited Vanier fans.  One Canadian pilgrim told us to hush because she hadn’t come all this way to hear us speak.  When Jean came, he smiled.  He looked intently into the eyes of each person with a steady gaze of love.  And he said with an ecstatic expression on his face, “I’m here!  I’m really here!”

I suppose, when it really comes down to it, that’s what life is about.  Showing up, undisguised and unarmed, to the people around you.  It’s the great gift of Jean Vanier and L’Arche communities to show us the way.

P.S. This Thursday at 6:30 pm, our small independent cinema is screening Summer in the Forest, a 90 minute film about Jean Vanier and L’Arche community where people with disabilities and their helpers live together as a family.  I’ve been asked to introduce the film because I had the privilege of a private meeting to share an art project with Jean Vanier earlier this year.







Turning 40


“Lovestruck” stitched coffee filters, wooden stool, dimensions variable

Hello again dear reader!

I am happy to report that Iris and I are still together… my move fell through, so I have decided to be as happy as possible in my noisy and hot apartment in downtown Bellingham.  I bought a red begonia and a yellow aster and they are now cheerfully perched on my windowsill.

I recently read a powerful blog post by my friend Kim Cockcroft about vocation and turning 40.  I too have turned 40, and it does do a number on you.  I’ve done some downright impulsive things like quitting my job with Visiting Angels and flying to Paris for a week, just because.  I planted a vegetable garden (I hear that’s a common symptom of turning 40).  And, I’ve gotten really, really serious about my art.  I think it’s both a good thing and a bad thing.  The positive side of getting serious about my art is that I no longer am frittering away time via the usual suspects–checking email and social media throughout the day, trying to please people any number of ways (one church lady asked me to paint toys for her that she was donating to kids in the Philippines, another person wanted me to frame three drawings for him–none of this was paid work.)  I’m also no longer cluttering my mental space by pursuing numerous show opportunities, grants, etc. that were making me feel dizzy and off-kilter.  I set up a routine for my studio practice.  I’m trying to set boundaries around my time so that it’s not a big soup but more like one of those cafeteria plates that has little hollowed out spaces for your dessert, main course and salad.  That way, I’m telling myself to make time for everything important: rest, friends and family, exercise, cleaning and grocery shopping, studio work, research, teaching/class prep, meditation & practice.  I’m staying the course and creating a thematic body of work that includes *only* paintings and fiber art.  No more madness of trying to do and be everything all at the same time although that was really fun.  (Although, in my defense, I did pursue knitting a halfmile rope for 3.5 years and then wrote a book.  That took some dedication.)  The thing about turning 40 is that you start thinking about wanting to leave a mark.  And that requires some serious focus and discipline.  As they say, amateurs make stuff when it’s “fun,” while professionals show up no matter what.

You know what happens when you set boundaries around your time and clear away the clutter?  You suddenly have all this time and clarity, and that can actually be unnerving.  Who am I?  What do I really want?  How do I get there?  My mind has a way of turning on itself which is probably why I enjoy being frizzy and dizzy and way too busy.  With all this time on my hands, it is easy for me to get obsessive, or worse yet, to start doubting my art, my direction, and myself.  Does anyone know I’m here?  I’m doing all this new work–is it any good?  Is it worth the sacrifice of time, energy and money that I’m pouring into art supplies?  Piles and piles of canvases, paints, coffee filters, taffeta trim, velvet ribbon… I start second-guessing my decision to make the work first, and then put it out in the world.  Maybe I should be blasting it all over social media and making a splash.  Maybe I’m self-sabotaging.  Maybe I need an art coach.  Maybe I should get a boyfriend.  Blah, blah, blah.

I have a hard time relaxing.  I feel restless sitting around my apartment today even though I got off of a 16 hour shift at 8 a.m. this morning.  In the summer, the creative energy is in full force.  Easing into neutral and coasting for a while feels almost impossible.  I’d like to lie on my couch and disappear into a good book, for example, but I can’t today.  And that brings me to the other down side to taking my work seriously and having a routine.  Making art starts to feel like heavy slogging, and the romance and intensity drains out of it.  Rather than doubting my direction and starting afresh, it’s a signal to take a break and play.  Get out the pencil crayons and the oil pastels.  Do some landscape painting outside.  Take an hour at the local used bookstore, combing through artist monographs.  Now that I’m 40, it’s time to marry my inner amateur and professional, and engage in some serious play before getting back to work.  Amateur, afterall, comes from the word lover.

Iris the Cat

_DSC6078In the last week, I’ve found myself in the grip of a dilemma.  It began innocently with a text from a friend that she was moving out of her $450 room in a quiet in a charming old house in a beautiful neighborhood called Sunnyland.  Perfect, I thought to myself, I’ll talk to the owner and get first dibs.  (I have lived in the heart of Bellingham for five years now and I’m officially over it.  I can’t wait to move out of the urban core into a lush and quiet neighborhood.  My apartment is in the epicenter of Bellingham.  Whether I want it or not, I’m caught up in a constant whirlwind of activity–parades, markets, demonstrations, drunks spilling out of bars at 2 a.m., delivery trucks and leaf blowers in the wee hours of the morning.  What’s more, my rent is steadily climbing and shows no chance of abating which makes the thought of moving into a room for $450 with all utilities included in a lovely house extremely hard to pass up.

I had a wonderful conversation with the owner who was selling her handmade filigree jewelry at the market.  I could tell she was enchanted by my persona as a fiber artist.  I knew she was a cat person so I told her about my old cat, Iris.  But she emailed me a polite rejection note saying she couldn’t handle an additional elderly cat in her home–even a cleanish one like Iris.  (She has an asthmatic cat with a perpetual runny nose and wheeze.)

So I decided to post an ad on craigslist entitled “Free Cat to a Loving Home” with my most adorable photos of Iris.  I’ve been flooded with inquiries–one person even offered to pay me $100 for Iris which I find hilarious given that she is 18 years old.  I didn’t put her age in the post because I wanted people to meet her and fall in love first before I broke the news.

Today two college students came in hopes of adopting her.  “I’m so excited to meet Iris!” the taller girl exclaimed.  They walked into my apartment and began stroking Iris and talking excitedly about how beautiful she was.  Early on, one of them asked how old she was.

“18!  I would have thought she was five,” the tall girl said.  She talked excitedly about introducing Iris to their other cat, Milo.  I could hardly believe it.  She patted Iris, and clouds of white fur came loose in her hand.  “That’s all right, all animals have fur,” she said, making the best of it.  Soon her all black tights were covered in white hair.  I offered my lint roller to her.

Iris, meanwhile, was paying more attention to me than she had all day.  Up until the guests arrived, she’d sat in her chair in a stiff, semi-arthritic position gazing into the middle distance.  Or she’d meowed accusingly at me for taking her to the vet where she had been given a shot in her rear.  Talk about bad timing–she has an angry open wound on her neck the size of a quarter and a bald spot on her thigh where she pulled a tuft of fur out.  I took her to the vet this morning to get her checked over before I adopted her out.  I didn’t want to adopt out a sick cat.  I couldn’t help but hope that her neck sore was a cancer and I could have her put down without feeling guilty.  The vet said it was just an inflammation.  Whoever heard of putting a cat down for a skin sore?  It’s terrible to want to put my cat down so I can move into a quiet and peaceful house with affordable rent, and it is also terrible to be stuck with an old cat in a noisy apartment that I can hardly afford and don’t enjoy living in anymore.

Despite all the attention the visitors were lavishing on Iris, she drew back from them–which is unusual because she normally will take all the attention she can get.  She planted herself at my feet as if she knew whose cat she wanted to be.  I knew how little I deserved her devotion, especially given my fantasy of having her put down.  (I’ve had the Cat Power song, metal heart, haunting me all day.)

It was clear some of the initial enthusiasm of the tall girl had diminished.

“What do you think?” the tall girl asked her friend.

Her friend’s bulging eyes screamed “Are you out of your mind?!”

“I’ll let you have some privacy.  Text me when you’re ready,” I said and left the apartment.

They trooped out of my apartment shortly afterwards promising to let me know of their decision after they had talked it over with their other roommates.  I already knew what they would decide.

There are several unethical ways out of my dilemma.  One would be to have my cat put down even though she is in mint condition for a cat her age.  The other is to lie to prospective owners about her age.  They wouldn’t know her vet and would never access her papers.  Part of me likes this idea because I think she could easily pass as a 12 year old cat, and the dilemma would be solved.  Iris would get a good home, and so would Christen.  The problem is that lies have a way of catching up with one.  And I believe lying belongs to the dark side.  What’s more, like most elderly cats, she has kidney failure–she no longer concentrates her urine–and her future vet would surely catch that.  However, Iris continues to enjoy life despite kidney failure, underscoring the dictum that attitude is everything.


I could line up more visits with all of Iris’s prospective suitors on Craigslist, especially the woman who offered $100 for her.  I’m pretty sure the outcome would be the same.  18 is over the hill in Cat World.  Iris and I are up against some serious agism.  Nevermind that she still enjoys playing with her toys, watching the seagulls through the window, and chowing down on her Mariner’s Catch pate.  Or that she has an incredible vocal range and can sing, buzz, mew, and yodel.  Or that she kept vigil over me, sitting at my head like a furry white angel, when I was having a rough night and needed comfort.

I’m not the victim here.  I adopted Iris in full knowledge of her advanced age four years ago.  Actually, Iris chose me.  The moment she saw me, she walked up to my feet and began purring nonstop.  I had come seeking a companion cat after a difficult break up.  Having not had a pet since leaving home for college, I preferred adopting an older cat who would come with all her gear, shots, etc.  I didn’t know if I would enjoy being a pet owner so her advanced age seemed like a positive trait.  I wouldn’t get saddled with a cat for the next decade.  It was a chance to try on the responsibility of a pet for a couple of years, and hopefully have a lovely lap cat to snuggle with while feeling good about providing a home to an elderly cat.

Moving forward, I’ve asked the vet to tell his cat-adopting friends about Iris.  And I’ve contacted the home owner again, going into more detail about why I think we’d be a great fit for each other.  I am becoming an expert in self-advocacy.  In the end, regardless of the outcome, I think this is what I am supposed to learn from this experience.  I trust I will be given a second wind to persevere in my noisy and hot apartment for as long as I have to live here.  And, this story is not over yet.  Why is it that good stories are rarely fun while you are living them?  (Although I must admit I couldn’t help but see the humor in my visit today with the prospective owners, and the offer of $100 for my cat on Craigslist.)

I want to believe in a happy ending for both Iris and me.  Why should she be the sacrificial lamb?  I took a vow of nonviolence this year, and I’m pretty sure that includes nonviolence to pets.  They are like small children looking to us humans for protection and nurturance.  So, I am going to try to hold out for a win-win situation for us both.  A good home for me and a good home for Iris.  That can’t be too tall of an order.



Drawing with Light

magnifying glass

Yesterday I visited an artist who lives on a neighboring island. There’s no point giving you her name because then you would look at her website and her real work looks nothing like the photographs. I stood facing the ferry’s wake, crossing the ocean under a sky that was stormy to my right and sunny to my left. Upon disembarking the ferry, I drove down country roads past farm houses and islanders who waved perfunctorily as I passed. The addresses on the mailboxes were not in any sort of logical numerical order, neither descending nor ascending evenly, so I drove up and down the road several times before I found my friend’s driveway.

As I pulled up, a black and white collie barked at me. My friend emerged wearing a blue plaid shirt and jeans, smiling and relaxed. We made green tea, then set out with mugs in hand to stroll around her huge orchard, on a path she had cut in the golden hay with a mower. As we passed green pears slowly ripening, I caught glimpses of the ocean glinting through the trees. I wanted to be silent and just take in the beauty around me but I was having too much fun talking with my friend. She has a sparkling mind and an ability to be totally present in the joyful, unselfconsciousness of a soul that will never grown old. I’ve known her for 18 years and she looks exactly the same—the only detectable changes are the length of her hair and the color of her glasses.

I was grateful for the meandering walk–our tea mugs sloshing as we hobbled over the uneven path–because it allowed me time to settle in after my drive and reconnect with my friend before seeing her work. Artists need a little warm up period before inviting you into their studio; the alternative is like inviting someone you just met into bed. Eventually the path brought us to her studio rising from the edge of a field, a simple affair made of corrugated metal with high ceilings and huge windows.

I walked into the studio thinking I knew what to expect based on my experience of photographs of her work—small sheets of paper with pinpricks in them. Instead, I beheld wallsize paper hung like rough skins pieced together. In even rows on the papers were large holes the size of dimes. My friend explained that she was trying to make a mark without making a mark, and that these holes were made using a magnifying glass in the sun.

I wanted to tell her about my rethinking of the history of art in terms of the apophatic and kataphatic way, a new thought that has illuminated art and life in a way that art historical terms like Minimalism and Baroque just don’t. Ironically, I couldn’t remember the word for the apophatic way. I explained that it is a mystical path that allows for no words, no symbols, no images, and no imagination. St. John of the Cross is the best example of the apophatic way, teaching fellow monastics to say nada or “no” to everything, even their peak spiritual experience. He warned them to cling to no-thing especially not their ideas because no idea or name is equivalent to the Real. It is all a shoddy substitute like a child clinging to a ragdoll. As St. John put it, “To reach satisfaction in all, desire its possession in nothing. To come to the knowledge of all, desire the knowledge of nothing. To come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing.” On the other hand, I am much more at home in the kataphatic, even as I struggle to embrace the apophatic way. St. Francis is the personification of the kataphatic way or via positiva, celebrating his communion with the divine through richly poetic language and a spirituality that is rooted in the Earth.

Coming back to my friend’s work, one could call it Minimalist and wouldn’t be wrong. But I like to see it as flowing out of the aphophatic way. No subject, no paint, no color except the natural tint of the handmade paper. No texture except the bumpy paper and the burnt edges of each hole. No marks of the hand except a trace of a line made with a ruler to mark the placement of the holes in a simple grid. No composition except the grid which is so universal that it has no emotional, expressive charge.

And yet, the odd thing is that while my friend had made a series of work through negation, the work itself was charged with meaning. It is difficult to make a meaningless void, maybe even impossible. Always something comes to fill the void that we create. But not necessarily a symbolic meaning, a meaning that pokes out of the work like metal springs from a broken couch as filmmaker Tarkovsky expressed it. Perhaps the meaning that I felt was a product of an overactive imagination, my kataphatic need to fill the void with language.

And yet, stripped down to almost nothing, I felt excited and drawn to contemplate this work perhaps for the very reason that there was almost nothing to hold on to. I started to notice the tiniest thing—the rumpled edge of a seam where the paper had been glued to another paper, the spaces between the rows of holes like breathing spaces in a poem. Some of the holes had gold leaf around them their singed edges. Presence/absence. Faith/Doubt. Void/Fullness. Scarred/Sacred. Thinking about it now, the work had a contained violence. But while I was in front of the work, I felt no violence only a stillness and an openness to what is. I felt as if I was gazing at an agnostic prayer book.

My artist friend recently lost her husband. Was this loss made visible? But a concentrated beam of light transmitted through a lens made these voids. Most painters attempt to capture or reveal light in their canvases. She leaves the viewer only a trace, a record of where light touched paper, burning it through to the other side. In metaphorical terms, aren’t all artists just magnifying glasses? Artist as medium and transmitter calling out to the world, “Pay attention! Look at this!” But what if what you are making burns up in the transmission? In the end, aren’t all of us burning, burning, burning towards our end? When we die, what will remain but a space where we once were?

We talked about the power of repetitive work that accumulates over time. Like all her work, this series is about time and labor. The time it takes to burn row upon row of little holes like marking time on a stick. Our lives are full of “meaningless” and repetitive actions like doing the dishes, writing emails, going to the bathroom. There is a deep satisfaction in performing the same actions over and over again and having something to show for it. Art as accumulation.


And yet, the work itself is what drives her, not any external goal, certainly not fame or money. She makes art to make art. I’m reminded of the story of the monk who lived in a cave in the wilderness. Every day he got up and wove baskets. However, he lived too far from from civilization to take his baskets to market. When his cave got full of baskets, he burnt them all and started again. The process is the prayer, the work’s value is the work. A more contemporary example of art practice is my brother who writes in his journal every day. One day he left his journal lying open on the kitchen table and I peeked at it. It was completely illegible because he had written each day’s entry on the same page! Each line is a thick palimpsest of scribbled lines, a messy cloud of blue words. It was one of the most beautiful and meaningful things I have ever seen.

It is not the subject that gives a work its power. And it is possible that a work of art could be a powerful experience one day, and hold almost no charge on another. Sometimes a work of art moves me profoundly in person, and all the emotion goes POOF when I try to take a photo of it. The photo is a souvenir of an embodied event. Art is pure enigma–ungraspable, maddening, as fleeting as breath. I don’t know what it is, I don’t know how to make it, and I most definitely don’t know how to teach it. And yet it persists. Am I even talking about art at this point? I don’t know.