Still Life with Teapot

As Iris Murdoch noted, ‘One of the secrets of a happy life is a series of continuous small treats’. When I read that quote yesterday I immediately made a list of my own small treats:

A mug (no handles) with hot tea, milk and a little sugar; the warmth seeping through my hands into my body; Azaleas in bloom in the garden (right now); more Azaleas in bloom; Azaleas in bloom all day; seeing the moon in the sky; having left-overs to heat up for lunch; walking on beaches; choosing which beach to walk on today; able to stay in bed when a little sick (as now); personal emails from family and friends; books from the library; reserving library books for $2 each; picking said book up and settling in for a treat, an adventure, a mind-opening ride to anywhere; finding life’s movements aligned with my wishes (finding that more of the time); receiving and accepting invitations; moments when life opens as an invitation (not a battle to the top or a falling through the bottom); bird calls; first Jasmine flowers and scent in spring; a touch of sadness here and there; sitting in the dark with only candle light; other’s happiness; moon bathing; buying the deepest red Geraniums in a pot (when I find them); walking to my studio; entering and starting work (fiddling); seeing photos of my grandson; the freshness after a house clean/tidy; the smell of baking; a little cake with lots of cream; the bitter taste of dandelion tea; toast with butter, honey and tahini; words like ‘wild mushrooms’ (any foods that have the word wild in it); the words wilderness and heath; fresh sheets on my bed (high cotton count); any views of distant hills or mountains, wooded, or unwooded (preferably with snow on them); Nasturtiums everywhere; all flowers that appear out of the ground when the season comes upon them; walking through meadows in the village I come from (for real or imagined); wearing pj’s at 6.00 pm (unplugged completely); the sound of crickets on summer nights; the view of the moon through my bedroom window; sitting in bed writing this…… and best of all treats— friends and friendships.

The Iris Murdoch quote came from a book called ‘Still Life with Teapot – on Zen, writing and creativity’ by Brigid Lowry. She was inspired by the ‘Pillow Book’ which is a collection of essays, lists, anecdotes, poems and descriptive passages by Sei Shōnagan in Heian Japan in 990-1000AD. She was one of the court ladies to the Empress. Her now famous book of observations and musings have little connection to one another other than what the author was thinking in any given moment in her daily life.

Brigid has created a Pillow Book of these times about a woman my age. Hers is intimate, surprising and wherever her mind wanders or rests, I easily went along. It was like a pleasant amble through all sorts of terrains and filled with yummy, sweet, sour and bitter-sweet observations.

A friend gifted me this book, just like that (it wasn’t my birthday). Come to think of it, that is another delicious, small treat — being given gifts out of the blue.

I did enjoy the book very much or let’s say, it grew on me. My first reaction was, ‘too sweet’. Be aware of first impressions. I could start a list with ‘Be aware of…’.

Maybe next time.

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Process is Bliss

Blossoming
Since my exhibition in October last year I haven’t made any new work. I have had a break, been writing, travelling and working in the garden.

Recently I gave a short presentation about my art-practice at an informal artist’s meeting. Here is what I said:

“In order to prepare myself for this talk I looked through one of my journals and there I read, ‘Process is bliss—my manifesto is bliss.’ I had written that eight months ago. That must have been a good morning, a good session.

Process, for me includes journalling, reflecting, reading, writing, visual explorations and meeting friends to talk art and life.

It hasn’t always been that way. My focus used to be much narrower—to make desirable objects and sell them. During those times I had been driving myself. My body and mind paid for that excess. I ended up with a frozen shoulder, inflammation down one arm and repetitive strain injury in my elbows. Some of the symptoms stayed and others return if I overwork. It was necessary for me to find better and more sustainable ways of doing things.

Over time, and with some soul-searching, I changed from this goal focused drive to one that lives for process—for the inner exploration of conditions, connections and resonances.

In this way of working materials are secondary—whatever is readily available and turns up is welcomed. I don’t plan much but follow ‘prompts’, even if they seem silly and frilly. I find that they will be useful in surprising ways. It feels like playtime and I am happy.

The subject matter that I get drawn to might not be obviously blissful. I have been drawn to memoir, reflections on death, impermanence and loss.  I seem to start with some mental and emotional preoccupations and these get lighter and more flexible as I go. That is thanks to the making process which is physical, and in the present moment.

The doing and applying has its own logic. Going to the studio is both playful and a place of hard knocks, of doubt and feeling lost. I soften these difficult places by working on many things at the same time and working for shorter periods. When the old goal focussed driver tries to get back in the seat I tell him (it is a him) that I value my time in the workshop as constructive and enjoyable in itself—independent of outcomes.

I have a regular meditation practice and one of the instructions is to hold the three qualities of kindness, permission and interest. They have been good company on the cushion, in my art-practice and in daily life.“

Writing about process has made me determined to start my studio practice again. It has inspired me to make a date with myself in the studio—to show up— and see what can happen in that space.

From Down Under

Winter Solstice

I saw your hazy moon
through half shut eyes
the morning clear, high
clouds, light breeze
you are here

Solstice, shortest day of
the year, temple of light
I worship thee
escape from the inner
and outer darkness

Rest here!
Someone whispers
But how?

Lie down on the dark
pelts of your desires, fears,
uncertainties, terrors even
Rest. They are your
solicitous friends

Stroke their care-worn faces
their tired hands
soothe them as best as you can
in that kind wintry light

Rest here.

Our Common Ground

When I started painting ten years ago my subject matter arose from childhood memories, feelings and moods. Painting seemed to be another mode in my search for connection. This personal access route felt authentic and the felt sense of recognising core themes was soothing and healing.

The process of bringing these works to completion was often slow and involved many changes. My feelings would change along the way… and as the painting resolved, parts of me resolved as well. As the images got richer and more balanced— on board and canvas— so did I.

On one of my visits back to my mother in my childhood home I photographed the image above of a gnarly branch on a very old apple tree in bloom. I had borrowed my brother’s SLR camera and had bought a black and white film. It was late March and I walked across familiar tracks and little roads with this camera. I took photos of the gentle and ordinary landscapes and landmarks that I had grown up with. I clicked away, a whole roll of images of little sandstone walls, windows, bridges, fields, apple trees, rows of poplars and other ordinary sights.

The images when developed were rather disappointing. They were not black and white but grey with little contrast.

Years later, in my workshop, I ‘treated’ them with some ink and acrylic paint. That made a mess. I tried to clean it up by rubbing it off again with a scourer. To my delight, underneath the grey surface there was colour. I loved the red that shone fiercely from underneath. It seemed to be just right in expressing my relationship to the things I had photographed on that very early and hazy spring day.

I took a photo of this new image and chose a detail to enlarge. That’s how the image on the right side was created.

I am using it in the invitation for my second exhibition in Germany. This exhibition came about because my sister is associated with the Centre where it will be held.

The opening is on Easter, together with my sister’s 60th birthday party. Our family will be there, as well as her friends—old and new connections, to celebrate our common ground — ‘our wild and precious lives’ (a line from Mary Oliver) and our shared history.

Letting go, letting flow

It was a hot summer here on the North Coast of NSW. Day after day the sun shone bright. I spent a large part of each day sitting on the couch under the fan, windows wide open— to catch every breeze. It was most tolerable.

It ended up being a perfect summer to stay indoors and complete a collection of short memoir pieces that I had started many years ago. Every morning I sat with my laptop, engrossed for hours… until I’d suddenly notice that my body was stiff and that I felt spent. That was then enough for the day.

Last night I read in ‘Upstream’ by Mary Oliver, ‘The labour of writing poems, of working with thought and emotion in the encasement (or is it wings?) of language is strange to nature, for we are first of all creatures of motion.’

Not that I am a poet or write all that much but the little I do, feels just like, ‘the encasement of language’…. and the wings. It seems to me the most restrictive and the most soaring thing to be engaged in.

I was going well for weeks, looking forward to my place on the couch… until I hit the road block of resistance and the boulder of reluctance. I got around them by sensing their size and shape. I saw that a part of me did not want to finish this writing project. The memoir writing desire had been with me for so long—for more than twenty years. At times it had been my light beam, my comfy blanket, imagined assurance of better things to come and had given me some reassurance of permanence… even a sense of existence. I had written copious notes, collected words, photos, bits of research held in various folders and boxes labelled ‘memoir’. In all things memoir I was a hoarder and very attached to my bits and pieces. Who was I going to be without my ‘stuff’. Sensing that attachment, it dissolved and the track was clear again.

My impulse and intentions for writing these stories has changed over the years. At first, my short stories were a way to assuage homesickness—to remember what had passed and to maintain connections to the place I came from. When I continued them many years later, I wrote to understand causes and conditions for painful emotions and a troubled inner life. I believed that if I could write about the past I’d understand it and maybe, just maybe, it would transform into precious matter. Like in the fairly tale, Rumpelstiltskin, where the maiden was asked to spin straw into gold—something as common as straw into something precious—the ancient desire for alchemy.

Well, some alchemy has taken place because the writing process itself is different now. It is not a means to an end but rather an activity that I am discovering in myself. Words arise, they flow this way and that, making all sorts of connections. They like exploring new combinations and little byways. They seem like a heart making new arteries. In this process my material is being shaped and re-shaped all the time. Sometimes too much and the mess gets to me. Sometimes I would like it if the words and ideas behaved like soldiers that I could command to the finish line.

I am not quite there yet. Patience. Soon though. I have emptied most of my folders into the recycle bin. Ready to be with the living in this present day—until the old urge to remember and tell my story tugs at me again.

Blue Harvest

blue-harvest1

My ‘blue period’ has come to an end. It culminated in Blue Harvest, an exhibition in mixed media — a collection of large and small paintings and some 3d work.

The exhibition and party was a very satisfying event, one shared with many friends. It was  a highlight of my year. Although in the weeks leading up to it I sometimes felt like a bundle of raw nerves. Stage fright arose about the exposure and appraisal of my work. In my daily meditation I was thinking endlessly and obsessively how these pieces, that were largely stored away, would work together. In what order did they belong? Would they flow and create a whole?

When everything was hung, arranged and re-arranged a sense of peace and spaciousness pervaded the exhibition space. The pieces exuded depth and lightness. It seemed to me as if there was an ebb and flow between the images— between vast and impersonal, narrative and personal. One was birthing the other.

In my artist statement I wrote:

A couple of years ago I decided to immerse myself in one colour at a time and see what would happen. It was the briefest flicker of an idea and for a short moment a shimmering vision.

First was to be red, than blue, then yellow—the three primary colours. I’d start with water and dye and take it from there. During the process red turned into pink and flowed into a warm pink tide which resulted in the ‘Lunar Tide’ show in early 2015.

Blue in contrast was cool and stayed in the background, a very different companion. Stern Father time, perhaps. I felt hemmed in by the colour and these self imposed limitations. I read somewhere that, ‘when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom’ and so I persisted.

My workshop became a bower where I surrounded myself with blue things and in that space a slow and temperate love affair began.

Blue became a metaphor for ‘duende’ (a Spanish word loosely meaning ‘having soul’) about which the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca said, ‘sadness and duende needs space to breathe, melancholy hates haste and floats in silence’.

In this gradual and slow moving process, my relationship to blue and what it evoked in me, changed. Now blue reminds me of the deep sea, where barely anything moves, where time is of little consequence.

In staying with such a restricted palette and letting this peculiar and subjective process unfold, I have harvested some patience, sadness and loss, sombre joy, vast space and ocean deep, a measure of freedom and some blue works to share….and a deeper appreciation of friends and their support.

Link to Blue Harvest page

Intimacy

Intimacy
We were so fortunate to go on a ten day trip to the Northern Territory in August. We flew to Darwin and then toured by car to National parks, lagoons, waterfalls, through flat country dotted with termite castles and through a landscape of canyons which glowed red and orange in the early morning sun. It is expansive savannah country up there. Everything that grows has to be hardy to withstand long periods of dry and then deluges of rain and humidity—and heat all year round.

We saw rock art underneath stone ledges that was thousands of years old. I visited a cultural centre in Kakadu and read about the indigenous way of life in that area. We also had an indigenous guide on one tour, who told us of the traditional uses of some of the plants, trees and ways of the local people. What struck me was how intimate they were, and had been, with the land—and everything in it. They survived and flourished for at least 30,000 years. What seemed to me a harsh place on first sight was full of riches—food, lore and connection.

I am reading ‘Dying, a memoir’ by Cory Taylor. She writes with great clarity and intimacy about her dying. The memoir is her testament to her life and her loved ones. Every word is poignant and the writing is very graceful. She says, ‘You do reflect on your past when you’re dying. You look for patterns and turning points and wonder if any of it is significant.’

This is slender book with nothing extraneous in it, no unnecessary ballast. It has an indigo blue cover. The same dark blue hue that I’ve focused on for a year or more. The colour that became a vehicle for me to be more intimate with feelings of melancholy, sadness, grief and loss. I am now more at ease with these darker emotions, even treasure their softness and respite from the ever greedy lust for life, movement and colour. Blue also reminds me of resting and slowing— bywords for being intimate—it can’t be done in a hurry.

I don’t really know what reflections would arise in my time of dying. Cory writes about her slow decline, ’And so it goes the endless list of pleasures I can no longer enjoy. Pointless to miss them of course, as that won’t bring them back, but so much sweetness is bound to leave a terrible void when it’s gone. I’m only grateful I tasted so much of it when I had the chance. I have had a blessed life in that way, full of countless delights. When you’re dying, even your unhappiest memories can induce a sort of fondness, as if delight is not confined to the good times, but is woven through your days like a skein of gold thread.’

I have the last sentence weaving in and out of my mind and it shimmers as does Cory’s writing.

‘….as if delight is not confined to the good times, but is woven through your days like a skein of gold thread’.

Winter Messenger

Winter Messenger

The birch tree is almost bare now. With the help of the wind I’ve swept up the golden leaves from the grey pavers.

I am sitting on the couch writing these words and looking out onto another winter messenger— the large azalea bush in the garden. It is flowering and the sight of it fills me with wonder and tenderness.

Hymn to the azalea bush

White azalea petals
floating in blue
what a vast world
we are in

The other night
a fine golden band hung in the sky
the rest of the moon
was softly lit above

Birth and death
so near breathing as one
intertwined
hush my child

I am here
I am here for you
and white azalea flowers
are a message for me

The white azalea flowers remind me of another time, 27 years ago, when my second child was born. I was a single mother with lots of uncertainties lying ahead. A white azalea bush flowered in the front yard of the rented house we lived in. The flowers lifted my spirit time and time again. They seemed such messengers of goodness, sweetness and beauty. I picked some and placed them next to my baby’s sleeping face. They so perfectly mirrored each other. They both came from vast space—vast life and lit up my fragile existence. They began ordering my life, making space and bringing light so that we could grow. They became the symbol, the link to an overwhelming love and commitment to another.

Life wants goodness and love, and every year the white azalea flowers are my winter messengers to remember.

Sombre Joy

Marita Blue 1

‘Melancholy is a twilight state; suffering melts into it and becomes a sombre joy. Melancholy is the pleasure of being sad’. Victor Hugo from ‘Toilers of the Sea’

What a month it has been. My partner had another health emergency— a frightening experience in the middle of the night. He is recovering and in need of calm, slow and quiet. We both need calm and slow. Maybe we could all do with more of that.

It is rather uncanny how my process with the colour blue, with its emergent themes and reflections, have prepared the ground for what is required now.

The main theme that ever so slowly emerged was melancholy and I’d like to sing its praises some more—in a low key melody. According to the ancients melancholy was associated with twilight and autumn and the planet Saturn. That distant planet who was also seen as the Lord of Time.

I’ve always resonated with autumn even as a child and young adult.  It felt like a threshold into something mysterious— with its slanting light, mists, the changing and dying leaves and the sun getting weak.

It is autumn now, here in the southern hemisphere. To enhance and heighten autumn here in the subtropics I added a few more deciduous trees to the resident liquid amber that the original owner had planted. It is a tall and glorious tree now. Each year it marks the cooler season with its yellow leaves. They drift gently and continuously to the ground, or sometimes fall in a flurry, depending on the wind. For the rest of the cooler season they cover the ground ankle deep.

At the other end of the garden grows a persimmon tree that I planted. It is struggling and never bears any fruit. But every autumn its leaves turn into orange flames. They are glowing right now. Another deciduous tree I planted, way too close to the house, is the ‘greedy’ tropical birch that sucks the moisture out of the ground and is already lifting the pavers. It is a folly really, but every year I wait for the leaves to turn golden. All this colour, this extravagance that nature brings forth before its wintery sleep. Autumn, falling leaves, bare limbs, they give me permission to feel sad and melancholy… about so many things. Just that bitter sweet feeling that soothes the tired heart and allows it to rest—in spaciousness. It is quite different to worry or feeling troubled.

My little persimmon tree reminds me of Japan, where ‘A Field to Melancholy’ by Jacky Bowring, tells me they have an expression called ‘mono no aware’ or the ‘the tears of things’ also translated as ‘an empathy toward things’. It is a term for the awareness of impermanence, the transience of things and a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness). It is related to another Japanese sensibility called Wabi Sabi, a sensibility that also amplifies the significance of time passing. It celebrates the beauty of the weathered, withered, the imperfect and well-worn. Both transmit serenity in the face of impermanence.

The Buddhist teacher Dzigar Kongtrül in his book ‘It’s up to you’ writes about melancholy, ’Some people feel a strong attraction to this unfamiliar feeling of melancholy—and others, a strong urge to run away. In either case, the important thing is to appreciate our underlying sadness. It is a hint of a deeper intelligence that is normally obscured by the distractions of daily life. In solitude, this natural faculty of our mind comes out of an almost dormant state.’

The other night I lit a fire and burned fallen twigs and branches in the back yard and stayed out with the twilight…and watched the darkening sky turning from deep blue to black. I felt a sombre joy with the darkening, the coming of winter, the shorter and more solitary days.

I called out to my partner to come and join me by the fire. He walked ever so slowly, poked the fire, both of us aware and appreciative that we have another autumn together.