Little by little

I’m very happy to announce that three of my Cultivate pieces will be featured in the upcoming exhibition String Theories at Field Projects Gallery in Chelsea, NYC.

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Curated by Charlotte Mouquin, director of Rush Arts Gallery, String Theories “examines the vibrational strings that connect humanness, cultural identities, relationships with nature, industrialization, and the subconscious.” The show opens this Thursday, June 29, with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m., and will run for a month, closing July 29.

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I am excited about this show for all of the usual reasons, but also because it pushed me to post to this blog again. I have been working steadily all year, but with all of the recent political developments, it felt strange and somehow wrong to be writing about something as small in scope as my thoughts and process in the studio. Not entirely consciously, I found myself waiting to think of something big enough to say. And I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that it turns out, waiting for something profound and world-changing to occur to you is a good way to write nothing at all.

So now here I am remembering that everything actually starts from these little moments, with us doing ordinary things. I remember when I started Cultivate, I felt almost overwhelmed with my sense that someone had pulled a curtain back and I could see that the world around us was actually constructed of this infinitely layered tapestry of tiny choices, one after another after another. Small. But those choices taken together have created our whole culture. Those choices made us.

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Most importantly, we are still making those choices all the time, and not just the fancy briefcase-carrying choices that loudly proclaim their importance. The humble choices you almost don’t even notice, little by little they are framing our world.

So I’ve come back to having respect for this, my little corner of the world to report to you from. I’ve remembered that one of the choices I want to make over and over is to speak up: to do my best to share honestly about who I am, what I’m experiencing, and my occasionally bumbling but determined attempts to take the things I see in my mind and feel in my heart and bring them into this reality. Little by little.

The opposition

I took a bit of a detour from all the little wooden silhouettes I’ve been working with and made some minor changes to a bunch of oil paintings this week, some pretty old and some from the past year or two.

I had pulled out some pieces for a studio visit last week and afterwards I felt compelled to adjust this one, which I had put away in annoyance over a year ago, feeling the sky was never quite right.

I adjusted both the sky and the “tower” they’re standing in.

It’s hard to tell with the very orange light, but although it’s not quite done, it’s actually much better, and I feel the sky is done at last.

While the paint was wet on that one, I found myself eyeing this piece which I originally finished in 2006. I always felt the tree was too strong compared to the girl: when you looked at it, your eye kept resting on the tree. So I got my ridiculously expensive red paint (which means lots of pigment) and touched up one side of her: face, arm, leg, and definitely foot. I want to be sure people see those toes, because there’s another side to her personality there.

And now I feel this is done and ready.

While the paint was wet on that one, I found myself pulling out basically anything that was even a little bit unresolved and working on them.

That’s an undercoat on the boat, as it is definitely not the Good Ship Lollipop. But I want the texture to go under the darker glaze of red/brown I have planned.

After all this painting, which I wasn’t used to, I discovered a hand cramp I never knew existed. It made my fingers cross. I managed to take this picture.

Crazy, right? It was not as painful as that looks, just weird to be stuck with my fingers crossed. And thankfully, with some effort and flapping around, I could get it straightened out and it didn’t come back.

It was exciting to be painting like this again, but I also felt a bit unsettled.

It is a very different type of work from my current Cultivate series (as well as Fathom and Commence) and at first I thought the styles were in opposition and I needed to choose just one, as though only one could have value at a time.

Then I realized that exactly because they are so different, each helps me see the other more clearly. And maybe at some point I’ll even get them to work together! And Congress too (as long as we’re wishing).

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I was so envious this week!

I was looking at work from a couple who are both artists (and who are friends of friends of mine) and it was making me crazy. It was the first time I had really checked out what they were doing, but if you’re in the Bay Area, you’ve probably seen their work. They are Kelly Ording and Jet Martinez.

The envy helped me identify something that I kind of knew but haven’t really been recognizing: I’m interested in doing more public art, which I’ve gotten lucky enough to kind of stumble into opportunities to do a number of times in the past with both public murals and commissions for private property.

In the meantime, I was very happy to have a studio visit today and sell some work: one of my paintings and a couple of prints.

That definitely made it easier to let the envy be my friend, instead of beating it back or shutting it up; to let it whisper in my ear this thing I didn’t know I wanted.

As a result, I submitted my application to be included in the artist registry for Alameda County, basically what city and county agencies use to find artists for art in their buildings, including murals, projects with kids, etc.

And I’m going to brainstorm about how else I might want to pursue this.

Envy isn’t the most comfortable emotion in the world, but it turns out it can be really useful.

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The simple job

The new people have arrived!

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This group of new laser cut silhouettes includes my father, my daughter, one of my nieces, Lincoln, Syrian refugees, Hitler, and orthodox Jewish boys in NY in the 1920s, etc.

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Besides wood, I also got two different types of paper, vellum, and this white panel cut into silhouettes.

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If those look a little blurry it’s just the burns on the edges, which I love.

I also got some new adhesive to attach paper to this wood panel.

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Have I mentioned that it’s a major pain getting paper glued onto a panel in an archival way that doesn’t cause the paper to buckle or eventually yellow, etc.? If not, now you know.

So this simple image is kind of a big victory for me. I now have a functional way to do this gluing on a larger scale.

Once that was accomplished, I started playing around with all the new materials.

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It’s wonderful having all of these things ready, so now I just have to create something mind-blowingly beautiful that unites my country and ushers us all into an era of equality and peace. Ha.

While I’m waiting for that to happen, I’ll do the simpler job of showing up, doing the work in front of me step by step, and being the best self I can muster in each moment. For now, that will have to do.

The instrument

Did you feel like your connections with others were heightened this week? Amidst the chaos and concern over changes in our government and their effects, I kept having these great and powerful meetings with people. I’m not sure yet where it’s going but…it’s going.

I also feel hopeful, but not in a light way. It’s a very forceful and determined kind of hope.

Along the way, I kept plugging away at these silhouettes. I was frustrated with the process of using the pen tool in Photoshop, which looks like this.

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So I printed a couple of images and attempted to trace them by hand.

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Ugh.

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The sharpie was too big but also this was just not right. Thanks to a tip from a friend, I moved to using some much more expensive tools: an Apple pencil on an iPad in Adobe Draw.

I loved the idea of hand drawing, but in this case, it was well worth the switch. It also helped that my husband already had the pencil, so I didn’t have to buy it.

In any case, using the pencil (it’s really a fancy stylus) made it easy to get detailed, clear silhouettes. Shockingly easy. I spent the last day or two getting over 50 done. Here are those women talking:

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So much better!

Here’s one of my daughter:

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That one has a special meaning for me that is invisible: She was actually listening to me read her the Gettysburg address at the Lincoln Memorial.

Then here’s my Dad:

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And here’s a skateboarder:

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And here are refugees with a wheelbarrow:

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I’ve added a few people who are famous (mostly political) as well, and plan to mix those in with people from my personal photographs and all the rest.

And then I did some experiments like this:

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And finally felt ready to remove the tapes from some of these:

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But mostly I was focusing on getting those silhouettes done so they can get cut next week.

What an amazing feeling it is finding the right tool, or right instrument. It doesn’t just make what you were planning happen more easily, it expands your capacity and can even change your goals.

Talking with people this week had a similar effect on me. When I shared my authentic and at times vulnerable self, I found myself invariably in the presence of a person who in that moment was the right instrument for me, and not just for my reassurance but for my growth too. Perhaps that’s always happening, but I don’t always recognize it. Either way, there is that confounded bridge.

Starting now

It’s a strange world.

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As I continued to gather photos this week, I was reminded that better minds than mine have tried to understand it.

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Rabindranath Tagore

They’ve made some progress too. From Tagore (above):

To be outspoken is easy when you do not wait to speak the complete truth.

And also:

Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.

My 7-year-old cried when she heard the result of the presidential election. Having seen only a few minutes of Trump speaking, she had already identified him as a bully, and she couldn’t understand why so many grownups couldn’t see that. In comforting her, I comforted myself, saying all that I could say: This happens sometimes, but we keep going, we keep being kind and treating everyone as equals, and in the end, that always wins.

As I processed my own rage and incredulity, I ran across quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, like the classic:

Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

And on a lighter note, this from Willie Nelson:

If you forgive your enemies, it messes up their heads.

But I have to admit, as I tried to maintain my equilibrium and not get drawn into aiming my own hate at strangers, the person I kept thinking of all week was…Yoda.

I know it’s silly and there are many loftier (and less imaginary) folks to get inspiration from. But the parable of not getting drawn into the dark side felt appropriate, and imagining a little wrinkly green guy’s reaction and guidance in the face of a very real threat somehow put it in a broader perspective.

Then seeing President Obama and Hillary Clinton speak, I felt inspired by their grace and leadership.

And I realized that’s actually the best way to comfort both my daughter and myself. To recognize my own role as a leader, demonstrating the values I believe in.

And to know that those values are contagious, just as much as fear and hate can be. Actually, far more.

Remember this, from President Obama?

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.

The rising feeling I still get from it isn’t just because it’s from our President, it’s because it’s a truth that contains both courage and a call to action. It says both “we are with you” and “you are powerful.”

Well, and I believe it’s also so compelling because he was delivering it with complete conviction. Which doesn’t come cheap.

So I’ll just keep following the leaders who are instruments of that kind of truth. And I’ll keep trying my hardest to be one myself.

I bet you can

I bet you can guess who this is.

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Yup, it’s Harriet Tubman.

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I’ve been doing a lot of taking this…

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And making it this.

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Along the way, it’s been hard not to get distracted by all the photos.

Like this one of Harriet Quimby, the first licensed female pilot in the US and the first woman to fly across the English Channel. That face.

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While we’re on female pilots, here’s Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt stepping out on the town.

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Here’s a shot by Ansel Adams of young women playing volleyball in a Japanese internment camp.

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Suffragettes.

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Soldiers. Is that one 12?

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Sailors.

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And this GAR march (Union veterans).

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These mesmerizing girls are striking against child labor.

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And these boys are carrying Easter flowers.

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I’ve decided I want to pick out some famous people, like Harriet Tubman, because I think their silhouettes have a particular visual resonance for us, and I’d like to have maybe one well-known person in each piece.

And then I want a bunch of others of random people from different time periods and situations. But wow, it’s hard when so many are great.

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I’ll leave you with this hilarious depiction of “how woman policeman would look making an arrest.” Just in case you couldn’t picture it.

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Check out the feet. Weird, right? Clearly, you can’t let women do this because their feet might fall off.

On a more serious note, now in your mind you can picture “how woman would look winning the presidency.” Pointed toe optional.

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I bit the bullet and dove into my computer-based work this week, sourcing public domain images from the Library of Congress and starting to process them in Photoshop and Illustrator so I can use their silhouettes.

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To keep myself from falling asleep, I’m keeping Mozart in the Jungle or Hamilton’s America going in the background. “Wait for It” still stops me in my tracks every time.

I’m also giving myself chunks of time working on these backgrounds, which is wildly rejuvenating work compared to carefully tracing objects with the pen tool in Photoshop.

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Also a little of this pen and ink stuff.

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I’m actually really excited about where this next round of Cultivate is going: incorporating silhouettes from my personal photographs and history; and I’ve worked out that the backgrounds will be laser cut to function on multiple levels of wood panel. But right now it’s time for the far less transcendent work.

In Hamilton’s America Lin-Manuel Miranda jokes about having started by creating only two songs in two years. About creating the rest of Hamilton in a more reasonable timeline, he adds: “You set these deadlines and you meet them.”

It’s so simple, but it really is the secret. One foot in front of the other, and then you look up, and you’re somewhere completely new. I’m looking forward to that moment! In the meantime, I’ll keep listening to these inspiring folks while I get the work done.

No other

”An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”

That’s Howard Zinn back in 2004, in his The Optimism of Uncertainty, and it was excerpted in this month’s Sun magazine, where I ran across it.

Along the same theme this week I wound up watching a movie called Our Friend Martin with my daughter, then watching a documentary about the bugging of high-ranking German POWs by British military intelligence during WWII, and reading an interview with two men, one Israeli and one Palestinian, each of whom has lost a child to the conflict between their people, and who now work together for peace.

There is more but you get the idea. I was somewhat accidentally, and somewhat on purpose, studying how cultures navigate conflict. Conflict on a grand scale.

While letting all of this stew, I kept working on the new Cultivate pieces. I was a feeling a little blocked by some technical issues on the big ones, so I bought a pad of paper and filled it with 20 small backgrounds. Many of them are still pretty undeveloped.

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It’s not like I need more of these backgrounds, but what I desperately needed was something very unprecious where I could relax and listen to what the paper wanted, because that’s how I get the energy I need for everything else.

Thankfully it worked and, rejuvenated, I tackled some of the larger ones again, adding details and also working out the people a bit more.

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Here’s that a little closer.

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A big part of my inspiration to create Cultivate came from my sense, heightened by time and parenthood, that although we might perceive ourselves as being a single entity, performing on life’s stage, we are actually inextricably connected to a host of ancestors, who led to our existence, and also connected to all those around us, who we are constantly influencing with our choices and actions. And vice versa.

I can’t help but think that in those times Mr. Zinn was referring to, when “people behaved magnificently,” that those people were seeing the world this way, as this infinite web, with no more “other,” only us.

I have to admit, I’m not always able to see it that way, but I am always trying.

The bell

I’ve got a cold. Just as I thought I was in the clear, and had missed getting my daughter’s illness, it descended.

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So it goes.

As I was dragging myself along, getting her to school this past Wednesday, we had one of those days where there was a big Muni delay (I believe a “mysterious package” was the culprit). I gave up on getting there on time and was just focusing on getting there. And trying not to sneeze on anyone.

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Since I wasn’t in a big rush anymore and my daughter said she was hungry, when we got up to the Castro I popped into this little mom and pop shop that’s been there forever. I remember grabbing a hard boiled egg there while waiting for the bus when I was about 25.

As I paid for a granola bar, the guy behind the counter asked how I was doing, and when I mentioned that I was not great, he responded, “Ah, but it’s a beautiful day! And you have this beautiful girl!” It was not in that horrible way of people who treat your difficulty as an opportunity to take a stance of superiority by correcting you. He said it in a truly generous way, looking me in the eye and smiling. I replied, “Yes, of course, and all the rest of it will come round.”

And I actually felt better as I left the store.

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What great power we all have to influence each other. It really is that simple. And as always, words matter far less than the intention. He meant to help me, and he did so.

Hearing many people get caught up in some kind of fear and hate storm recently has left me in a relatively constant state of “What are we supposed to do about this?” kind of questioning (right after the WTF kind of questioning).

This event rang like a bell in my week, and it is a far better answer than I could have come up with myself.

P.S. The captions are from an ongoing collection that I’ve intended for some kind of print project but had never figured out what to do with.