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.

IMG_0016

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.

Eclipse

Advertisements

Poetry and the Spiritual Path

“Honey in the Heart” by Christen Mattix. paper, wax, LED lights, acrylic paint

What a long, strange trip it’s been!  This weekend has left me feeling baffled, angry and deeply grateful all at the same time.  Friday I got hired at my dream job, an art framing gig that is walking distance from my apartment in downtown Bellingham.  After the interview, I felt both relief and exhaustion from the past couple of weeks spent applying to various businesses including a flower shop, a shoe store, and a soap making company.  I had a hot soak in my bath tub, ate dinner around 5 pm and was ready to read a bit before turning into bed early when my mom called and invited me over to spend time with my brother before he heads back to Oregon.  I overcame my exhaustion, changed out of my p.j.’s and into my street clothes and walked to my car which I had parked about seven minutes away in the free parking zone.  I felt especially motivated to see my brother again because the last time we’d hung out he’d been in a deep, unspoken funk and I wanted to give him some big sister love and attention, and hopefully draw the poison out of him.

I had dinner with my brother and was relieved that he seemed to be doing better and could articulate his funk this time around.  I drove home exhausted and bleary eyed, parking across the street from my apartment.  It felt like a miracle that a spot was available on a Friday night because my street consists of a brewery, a dance club, and a bunch of restaurants open all hours of the night.

That night I slept fitfully and in the early hours before dawn my elderly cat Iris decided to let loose her most mournful, operatic meows.  I lay in bed hating my beloved cat.  However, I could have taken her meows as a warning.  Afterall she is my spiritual weather vane.  Whenever I am going through a hard time or about to go through a rough patch, she cries.  When my life is on the uptick, she throws her glitter ball, cuddles and purrs.

I got up and put the rough night behind me, reminding myself about the exciting workshop I was going to take called Poetry and the Spiritual Path.  My friend texted to say she couldn’t give me a ride after all.  I thought, No problem, I’ll drive.  Suddenly, my heart sank as I realized I’d parked in the area reserved for the Saturday Farmer’s Market.  I went out to look for my car and it was gone so I called the towing company listed on the sign.  Sure enough, they had impounded my car but I got the address, caught the bus, and hoped I could retrieve my car in time to arrive near the start of the workshop.

I rode the bus with a Vietnam Veteran whose blue eyes stared in opposite directions, a bit disconcerting.  He said he was a “fighting Irish” and would go back to serve in a war at a moment’s notice if need be.  He’d fallen on his head once and gotten up and walked away unscathed.  I thought to myself, I’m part Irish.  Maybe this mess with my car is happening to test my grit.  I determined to take it as gracefully as possible.

I got off the bus and walked the half mile to the towing company only to discover they were closed weekends.  I called the dispatcher and asked if I could get my car so I could make it to class on time.  She said I would have to pay an extra $85 to get my car out on the weekend.  The cost of getting my impounded car was already over $300 so I said I would wait until Monday.

I decided to walk the 3.5 miles to the Poetry and the Spiritual Path workshop since it was outside the area covered by the bus system and I really, really wanted to attend the workshop.  Chuckling ruefully to myself at the irony, I set out to walk to the workshop thinking about today’s experiences as a mirror of my spiritual path–lonely, beautiful and incomprehensible.  I wanted to be as present as possible to the landscape around me in the hopes that I would get a great poem for my pains…especially if I was going to be late and miss most of the class.

I walked past fields of sparkling grass.  An ancient red barn with broken windows.  Electric power lines that crackled and snapped.  I stopped to eat a sour blackberry and shake a piece of gravel out of my shoe.  I passed a house with plastic flamingo windmills spinning their legs idly in the breeze.  As I walked, I held my thumb out hoping a passing driver would take pity on me and give me a lift.  Since they continued to speed past, I decided to try facing the next approaching driver.  I waved then put my hands together in prayer posture.  The truck slowed down and pulled over in front of me.

“I just want you to know I never stop for hitchhikers,” the bearded driver told me as he rolled down his window, “but you look harmless.  Climb on in.  Where are you headed?”

I told him I was going to a workshop just a couple of miles down Noon Road on Huntley Drive.  He said he had plenty of time and would take me the whole way.

I arrived just half an hour late for the workshop, my heart swelling with gratitude as I joined the poetry circle.

The instructor led us in an extended meditation on a poem by Antonio Machado, a poem that moved me to create a sculpture a few years ago in response to this stanza:

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Marvelous error!  I couldn’t get the phrase out of my mind.  Could the Divine make honey out of this day’s particularly abject failure?  A stupid, totally avoidable parking misadventure that was draining precious resources out of my already shrinking bank account?  It’s hard enough to spend money on my needs–a new clutch for my car, the studio rent.  Paying for my car to be impounded because I-was-too-tired-to-think-straight-last-night-but-wanted-to-show-love to-my-brother was a little hard to take.

But what if the whole Universe is a marvelous error, an aberration from No-thing?  What if my mistakes and failures exist to give the Queen Bee something to do?  The great triumph of turning my abject, helpless existence into something sweet?  What if my life is both poetic text and spiritual path?

The instructor pointed out that writing poetry and cultivating one’s spiritual path are useless activities from a pragmatic standpoint.  You don’t make money from either.  That said, I don’t think the Divine calculated the gross national product or made a business plan before creating the cosmos.  We humans have it all wrong.  Utility can’t measure the value of human existence.  Humans and human artifacts like poems and paintings don’t exist to be necessary, they exist to be loved, treasured and enjoyed along with this immense and extravagantly unnecessary universe.

While at the workshop, I did not create a masterpiece of a poem from my failures; I wrote a gloomy pantoum.

Sunday I attended Sacred Heart Church.  After mass I prayed in front of the icon of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  I gazed at the thorns encircling his blazing heart and begged him to remove the thorns that were constricting mine, thorns of worry about money and the future.  Suddenly a friend tapped me on the shoulder and asked how I was doing.

“You’re stressed out, aren’t you?” she said.

I told her about my car getting impounded and burst into tears.  “How much was it?”  She asked.

“$300,” I said.  She started crying with me.

“How about if I pay it?” she said.  Later she dropped off a card with $300 in it and a note that said, “Trust, trust, trust in the mercy of God.

I tried to give her a painting that she liked worth at least $300 to express my gratitude, and quite frankly, repay my debt.

It’s not apples and apples, darling,” she told me. “You keep your painting.”

 

The Stories We Live By

 

Beyonce

Beyonce, Lemonade music video still

Last night, I was in the checkout line at the grocery store, when I decided to ask the cute young guy at the cashier, “What do the initials E.J. on your name tag stand for?”  He looked a bit flustered by my question that veered off script, but replied, “My parents are Catholic, and my dad’s name is Emmanuel.  When I was born, Dad insisted on calling me Emmanuel Jr.  It’s quite a mouthful.”

The woman standing in line behind me nodded and said, “A beautiful name…God with us.”

I said, “My dad was a prisoner of war, and he tore pieces of wax paper into letters to spell Emmanuel and stuck them to the wall of his cell with toothpaste to remind himself that he was not alone.”  At this point, the checker looked stunned by the depth of the conversation, so different from the usual upbeat chitchat at the till.

The woman behind me said, “That reminds me of a Victor Frankl quote–he said ‘people can take almost everything away from you, but they can’t take away how you see.'”*

I’m an artist, and I’m fascinated by how we see, and the stories or narratives we tell ourselves about reality.  One of the reasons these narratives are so powerful is that they are largely subconscious.  Narratives show up in pictures, in slips of the tongue, and most especially in what we avoid talking about and addressing in our society.

We don’t see our eyes, we look through them.  A narrative is like a lens or a window, invisible and therefore really dangerous because we don’t question it.  The narratives we believe are powerful because they lead to action or inaction and this is a life-or-death issue, because what we don’t see or perceive, we can’t act upon.

I want to share the powerful shift in my perception that I received this past weekend at a workshop called Kids and Race led by Jasen Frelot.  Many of the examples of racial narratives and counter narratives in this post are ones that he presented.  Perhaps the most potent tool that he gave me as an artist and writer is the idea of a counter narrative.  Every time a dominant narrative gets challenged whether in word, image or example, KAZAAM, you have a counter narrative. Counter narratives shake up societal assumptions.

First, here’s an example of a counter narrative to the two extremes of the Left’s despair, and the Right’s glib denial of a problem regarding the state of our country.  Rebecca Solnit’s counter narrative of Hope is so powerful that I couldn’t watch it all the way through in one sitting.  She points out all the times in the past 100 years that ordinary people have triumphed over impossible odds–the fall of the Berlin Wall, the election of the first Black president, the end of nuclear energy expansion in the U.S., the vote for women and more.  Her list is pretty exhaustive, and if it doesn’t make you feel a glimmer of Hope, I will eat my shoe.  I don’t agree with her on everything, but she is indisputably a prophet, a bold voice in the wilderness of pessimism, cynicism and inaction.

Here’s a powerful narrative that I grew up with and NEVER once questioned:

evolution of humans

Did you catch the message embedded here that as humanity evolved, we became whiter?  Also, did you notice this is a male human, rather than a female human?  I don’t think I’ve ever seen the evolution of humanity presented as a female, come to think of it.

Okay, so a quick web search shows that there are some, but again the same narrative about white supremacy shows up:

evolution.jpg

Here’s a counter narrative where the homo sapiens actually has blacker hair and skin than the Neanderthal:

evolution2

Here’s another powerful narrative that I grew up believing, based on the Mercator Projection first presented by cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569:

map

Here’s a counter narrative, the Gall-Peters Projection, that more accurately represents the actual, comparative sizes of continents.  When I saw it I was shocked at how large Africa and South America are in comparison to North America and Europe.  Somehow, we continue using the other map in our schools and homes, even though it is wildly inaccurate and continues to perpetuate the myth of a White world when in fact more than half the world’s population is either Asian or African.  Gall-Peters

Icon.jpgBlonde-Hair-Blue-Eyed-Jesus

On the left (above), we have a Savior who might get the pat down at the airport for being a suspected terrorist.  On the right, we have an image that could have been used in a Nazi propaganda poster.  And that is why narratives matter.  I don’t care one whit for political correctness.  I’m not in favor of inventing untrue narratives to make traditionally underrepresented groups like gays, women, and people of color feel better.  I’m interested in the truth.  The problem with all of these narratives is that they reinforce lies (Jesus was Anglo Saxon, White people are more evolved than Black people, Northern Continents are bigger than Southern Continents, etc) and these untrue narratives maintain oppressive power structures while the people excluded, erased or misrepresented by these narratives bear the brunt.

And now for a few counter narratives:

banksy

Banksy Street Art that gives power to an unarmed girl over an armed man.  Peace idealized over War.  Woman in position of power.

 

our_lady_guadalupe__basilica_painting_

Our Lady of Guadalupe.  The apparition of Mary appeared to a poor peasant dressed in indigenous “Indian” garb in Mexico, leading to the conversion of the nation to the Catholic faith. Talk about the power of a counter narrative!

albino-twins-brasil-models

African Albino Twins throw Whiteness into confusion. Visit this link for the story.

the snowy day

The Snowy Day – a children’s book about a day in the life of an ordinary Black boy.

corduroy

These children’s books succeed as counter narratives to the dominant narrative of Black people as either Victims, Heroes or Violent Criminals by presenting ordinary, loving Black families leading nondramatic, beautiful lives.

 

I hope to write more about the power of the counter narratives in a future post.  Suffice it to say, after weeks of hearing a voice in my head telling me that I’m alone and forgotten, I woke up today with a counter narrative spoken by me in a dream, “I have plenty of love.”  And I started seeing all sorts of evidence that it was true–from the messages left me by my friends to the joy I felt in spending the day sewing a giant coat of many colors.  That, my friends, is the power of the stories we tell to define and align ourselves with the Real.  So, let’s take the world by storm and overwhelm it with truth, joy, compassion and hope.

*The quote actually goes, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

This post is dedicated with gratitude to Jasen Frelot.

Social Practice Art

the-bubble-brigade

The Bubble Brigade

Dear Students,

We have a huge range of freedom but we unconsciously choose to limit ourselves to what’s socially acceptable.  So it starts with a sense of possibility and wonder—you have to start experiencing the world like a child and ask “what if” questions.  And don’t be too quick to judge the idea or throw it out.  Some of my best ideas have been the ones I thought were silly, corny or embarrassing at the time.  Sometimes I start with a place—what does this place need to come alive, to really sing, to put a smile on people’s faces?  Or a moment or a season.  For example, what is May Day?  Sometimes a word leaps out at me in a conversation like boneknit and I make a visual pun.  I look for spaces that have been vandalized or abandoned and I see the possibility for transformation.  (benches, phone booths)  I think walking is one of the most important practices, ways to get ideas.  Oxygenate the brain.  Soothe the nervous system with repetitive action.  Experience a bouquet of sensations—sound, sight, touch, smell—and the element of chance and serendipity.  

Social practice is a way of being in the world.  Some of the finest social practice artists I know do not consider themselves artists.  There’s Joe who walks 10 miles from one end of Bellingham to the other every day, and knows this place called Bellingham intimately.  Elli, who dresses like a fairy and gives children “dragon scales.”  The three college students who passed out cupcakes to homeless people on Valentine’s Day.  The anonymous person who pruned the ivy on the Grainery into a heart for years…creating the perfect photo opp for newly married couples.  

It’s the recognition that we have the power to make an impact on others, no matter how small.  Start with the tiniest gesture.  Crack your car window open and blow some bubbles for the people stuck in traffic with you.  They will never see you again anyway.  Do a dance move while crossing the street.  Wear a mismatched pair of socks.  Strike a yoga pose on the sidewalk.  Hold a meal and tell everyone to come wearing polka dots.  Or host a potluck where all the food has to be yellow.  Wear your ugly knit chicken sweater for a day or an hour.

We are all creating Reality and Culture together.  When we have some fun doing it, it’s like adding flavor to our cultural stew, a little spice here, salt there.  Why should we settle for a boring, depressing Reality when we don’t have to?  So it all comes back to freedom, to giving ourselves permission to be free and to be agents of positive change.  Who and what you are does matter…Each of us has a ripple effect on the people around us.

Courage,
Christen

Yarn

yarnvideo-yarn-videosixteenbynine1050I watched a powerful film yesterday called Yarn that follows the adventures of the world’s top female fiber artists.  I can’t figure out how to embed it so here’s the link:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_44B_AwU3gU  It was as if, for one hour, I was surrounded by my creative clan, these colorful, outspoken women who weren’t afraid to do amazing and ridiculous things out in the open.  One artist commented that public space as we know it has been largely shaped by a masculine consciousness–hard, grey, utilitarian.  (Sorry if any of my male readers are offended by that, but you probably won’t be because you’re all feminists.  Haha.)  Imagine a world that had more feminine energy–color, pattern, softness and warmth.  I am craving that INTENSELY right now, especially with the onset of winter’s darkness and rain.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not seeking a matriarchy or a cancellation of the masculine, but an equal representation of feminine and masculine qualities in the public square.  Attempts to put my soft, colorful, feminine heart out in the world as art has often been misunderstood, ignored or rejected.  Not fun, and makes me want to crawl into a hole and read memoirs and chew my fingernails and down cups of tea for the rest of my life.  How to tap back into the inner source of creative exuberance when I feel wrung out, heartbroken, and in exile?  I have been longing to go to Europe again where I felt the Feminine embracing me as she was embraced.  Paintings of Mary dotted every street corner, as did flowers, fountains, voluptuous statuary and circular piazzas.  All welcoming passersby to linger and waste time just because Life is sweet and beautiful and deserving to be loved.

The Tree With Lights In It

DSCN2029

Hello dear friends who I have NOT forgotten even though it may seem so.  I thought you might enjoy watching the process of a painting.  It began in late April when I brought my lightly sketched banner to a gathering of gungho volunteers at Orcas Island Community Church, including children and adults of all ages.  (photos of this fun workshop on facebook!)  They helped me stencil, stain, cut out and paint flames for the burning bush.  I brought the work-in-progress home and painted it in time to deliver for Pentecost, my favorite feast of the year, probably since I’m a bit of a pyro.  Such a joy to see the painting realized–there were many, many moments where I really thought I had ruined it for good.  The painting died many times and me with it before it finally said, here I am, complete.

DSCN2030DSCN2031DSCN2038

DSCN2068

Sometimes looking at the picture upside down helps me see it.  Everything got better once I removed the hideous purple plastic behind it…

 

DSCN2074

The Tree With Lights in It

Finished Painting!

“When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw “the tree with the lights in it.” It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker creek and thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing that like being for the first time see, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells un-flamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.” – from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

DSCN2178

In its new home at Orcas Island Community Church