Three rules

The day that the Daily Star article on me came out, this happened to be the poem of the day on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac web site: “Whittling: The Last Class,” by John Stone. Here is an excerpt of my favorite part, which summarizes my own philosophy beautifully:

Three rules he thinks
have helped
Make small cuts

In this way

you may be able to stop before
what was to be an arm
has to be something else

Always whittle away from yourself

and toward something.
For God’s sake
and your own
know when to stop

—John Stone, “Whittling: The Last Class”

Thanks to my friend Suzanne for sharing this with me. By the way, the Writer’s Almanac site is a great one to browse.

Fun in the studio

I had fun in the studio today. I resumed turning postsurgery three weeks ago, but I have spent only a few days here and there during those weeks actually turning, including two days of open studio. Today was the first really full day I’ve had working in the studio and the first day I really felt my mojo back. I had been feeling tentative and clumsy. Today, I picked up a large chunk of spalted wild cherry that someone had brought me during the studio tour. He had had it since 1990 (!), and I found it to be cracked throughout and utterly dry and very punky. What came off the gouge was mostly dust, with a few dry shavings. (My studio now looks like it’s coated in brick dust.) I decided, what the hell! It felt like a perfect opportunity to play, with nothing at stake and always the possibility of a bowl.

I tried to cut past the cracks, but discovered that they went all the way through. The wood was so punky and funky that I decided to go for an elegant shape, leaving the walls thick for integrity, and let the texture be what it would, in contrast to the shape. I sanded with 60-grit sandpaper just to reduce the unavoidable tearout and then sandblasted the bowl inside and out. It ended up with a wonderful weathered-sandstone appearance. I applied a single but generous coating of Danish oil to bring out the rich cherry/sandstone color. I love the result, though I know it’s not for everyone. What do you think? (The photos are just snapshots, so please forgive the color variation. The second photo is most representative of the actual color—at least on my computer.)


I have quoted from Joan Chittister in my blog before. She writes evocatively about beauty and artmaking. The following is from “Thirst for Beauty, Thirst for Soul,” the essay that introduces the book Creation out of Clay: The Ceramic Art and Writings of Brother Thomas (Pucker Gallery, 1999):

Beauty . . . lifts life out of the anesthetizing effects of the pedestrian and gives us a reason for going on, for being, for ranging beyond our boundaries, for endeavoring always to be more than we are. It enables us to pause in time long enough to remember that some things are worth striving for, that some things are worth doing over and over again until they become their breathless selves, that some things are beyond our grasp yet within our reach. Beauty brings with it the realization in the midst of struggle, in the depths of darkness, in the throes of ugliness, that the best in life is, whatever the cost, really possible.

It is the artist’s task, then, to take us beyond the invisible to the height of consciousness, past the humdrum to the mystical, away from the expedient to the endlessly true. The artist shows us what we thought we could never, perhaps should never, see: the soul of a tree, the suffering of the helpless, the bowels of a color, the brilliance of a darkness that reveals the unconquerable light, a form without failing. The artist takes a piece of life and turns it inside out for us and, in the doing, turns us inside out over it, as well. We look at something for which we have no words and we ache for the voice that can make beauty tangible. We touch the beautiful and reframe our own vision of the world. We see something which we have looked at many times but never really seen before and find ourselves less alone in the universe because someone else has touched what we have touched, felt what we have felt, known what we have known. Then, we are never the same again because we have seen a rent in the fabric of eternity, gotten an insight into timelessness, come face to face with the ultimate. Then, we have seen a bit of the Beauty out of which beauty comes. . . .

From Rilke’s Book of Hours

My sister sent me this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, from his Book of Hours, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. It speaks to me deeply. “Go to the limits of your longing,” indeed:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours I, 59

Martha Graham

I have to share a profound quotation from dancer and choreographer Martha Graham that my friend and fellow artist Shirley Wagner just shared with me:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. . . . No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

Context deepens the resonance of her words for me. The quotation comes courtesy of fellow choreographer Agnes de Mille, in Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham (Random House, p. 264), who precedes the Graham quotation with: “The greatest thing she ever said to me was in 1943 after the opening of Oklahoma!, when I suddenly had unexpected, flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly . . .”

Researching this quotation led me to these other inspiring gems from Graham, the sources of which I don’t know, unfortunately:

I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes, in some area, an athlete of God. Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.

Read more of this at the web site This I Believe. Also:

All that is important is this one moment in movement. Make the moment important, vital, and worth living. Do not let it slip away unnoticed and unused.

Dancing is just discovery, discovery, discovery.

Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance. Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.

“The beauty that changes the soul of the world . . .”

Another quotation, this one from “Thirst for Beauty, Thirst for Soul” by Joan Chittister, in Creation out of Clay: the Ceramic Art and Writings of Brother Thomas:

What we do not nourish within ourselves cannot exist in the world around us because we are its microcosm. We cannot moan the loss of quality in our world and not ourselves seed the beautiful in our wake. We cannot decry the loss of the spiritual and continue to function only on the level of the expedient. We cannot hope for fullness of life without nurturing fullness of soul. We must seek beauty, study beauty, surround ourselves with beauty. To revivify the soul, the world, we must become beauty. Where we are must be more beautiful than it was before our coming.

The Artist and Monk Are One

The following quotation is from “The Monastic Spirit and the Pursuit of Everlasting Beauty,” by Joan Chittister, in The Journey and the Gift: The Ceramic Art of Brother Thomas:

If, indeed, truth is beauty and beauty truth, then the monastic and the artist are one.

Monasticism, in fact, cultivates the artistic spirit. Basic to monasticism are the very qualities art demands of the artist: silence, contemplation, discernment of spirits, community and humility.

Basic to art are the very qualities demanded of the monastic: single-mindedness, beauty, immersion, praise and creativity. The merger of one with the other makes for great art; the meaning of one for the other makes for great soul.

It is in silence that the artist hears the call to raise to the heights of human consciousness those qualities no definitions ever capture. Ecstasies, pain, fluid truth, pass us by so quickly or surround us so constantly that the eyes fail to see and the heart ceases to respond.

It is in the awful grip of ineffable form or radiant color that we see into a world that is infinitely beyond our natural grasp, yet only just beyond our artist’s soul. It is contemplation that leads an artist to preserve for us forever, the essence of a thing that takes us far beyond its accidents.

Only by seeing the unseen within can the artist dredge it out of nothingness so that we can touch it, too. It is a capacity for the discernment of spirits that enables an artist to recognize real beauty from plastic pretentions to it, from cheap copies or even cheaper attempts at it.

The artist details for the world to see the one idea, the fresh form, the stunning grandeur of moments which the world has begun to take for granted or has failed even to notice, or worse, has now reduced to the mundane.

It is love for human community that puts the eye of the artist in the service of truth. Knowing the spiritual squalor to which the pursuit of less than beauty can lead us, the artist lives to stretch our senses beyond the tendency to settle for lesser things: sleazy stories instead of great literature; superficial caricatures of bland characters rather than great portraits of great souls; flowerpots instead of pottery.

Finally, it is humility that enables an artist to risk rejection and failure, disdain and derogation to bring to the heart of the world what the world too easily, too randomly, too callously overlooks.

Charles Peguy wrote, “We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.”

Imagine a world without art

Imagine a world without art.

It wouldn’t be a world without beauty, because—face it—we’re surrounded by more beauty in nature than we mortals could ever create.

And it wouldn’t be a world without creativity, because humans survive by solving problems, and solving problems requires creativity.

And we would still express ourselves, still communicate with one another, because that’s what humans do; it’s who we are.

So what would be missing?

Artists. The impulse to make art. The impulse to express . . . what?

Art is expression. Art is a particular and peculiar kind of communication. Through it, we express feelings and ideas, pose questions, articulate meaning. So how is art distinct from language?

Before language, before expression, art is a response. Art is a particular way of responding to the world, different from thought but partaking of thought, different from feeling but partaking of feeling. Art is a way to process and understand information coming to us from outside and inside of us, a means to connect perception and thought and feeling, to discern relationships hidden in the clutter of the mundane.

Art is how we interpret the world.

And art making begins the moment we clutch our first crayon.

Would we even know beauty without art? Imagine color as a mere signifier of information: this yellow fruit is ripe; those green berries will make you sick; snakes with red stripes kill. Imagine form determined solely by function or ease of production. Imagine being unmoved by color, impartial to shape.

Imagine indifference to proportion, balance, symmetry, line. Imagine rhythm doesn’t matter and melody as simply sound. Imagine your life without narrative. Try to understand anything without metaphor. Imagine yourself unadorned, your home undecorated. Imagine nothing inspiring you to song.

Imagining is an act of art.

Responding to beauty, to symmetry, to rhythm is in our DNA, and making art is a primal response to beauty. We collectively make art because we must. We don’t all agree on what art is, but we all are drawn to whatever we define it to be. I believe we all enter life with the impulse—and the capacity—to make art. If we are able to follow that impulse, we make art for ourselves; if that impulse is thwarted, we find art nonetheless. Artists or nonartists, we gather it and surround ourselves with it.

Art is so much a part of our daily scenery that we sometimes forget how much we value it.

We value it because it gives us pleasure. We value it because it brings beauty to our personal spaces—indeed, it makes personal the spaces we inhabit.

But beauty isn’t the only reason we make art. Art is how we make sense of ugliness, how we find meaning in loss, how we understand pain. Art is how we make sense of life.

And so we also value art because it enables us to see the world and ourselves differently. We value it because it lifts us out of our everyday struggle for survival. We value it because it seems to speak directly to us, reminding us of truths we otherwise tend to forget. We value it because it connects us, and reconnects us, to ourselves and to each other and to the world and to something bigger than the world.

Art is how we talk back to life.

For some of us, art is how we speak with the divine.

Art is the language of the soul. Art is the voice—no, the breath—of spirit.

Spirit is what we express through art.

And spirit is what we need more than ever in these dim, uncertain days.

So take a moment today to experience the art around you, in all its forms—painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, writing, music, dance, drama, film, video, architecture, furniture, craft, fashion, food, graphics, tattoos—however you define it for yourself. Take it in; receive its gifts; know its wealth.

Imagine a world without it.