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.

Heartwood

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, last month I prepared (and gave) a talk for the docents of the Tucson Museum of Art, on woodturning as an artform. Besides giving a brief history of artistic turning, I described the basic anatomy of trees and discussed some of the characteristics of wood and the vessel form.

Thinking about the anatomy of a tree unsettled me this time around. Trees are living organisms; that wood was once alive, I feel, makes it unlike other media (except maybe basket materials). But the heartwood that woodworkers so value is dead wood. Heartwood is formed as a tree’s cells die; the life of a tree is all in those layers between the heartwood and the bark.

Heartwood, dead wood; a living organism dead at its center. The image has been stuck in my mind like a sand grain in my shoe.

Today, my perspective shifted. It occurred to me that heartwood is the tree’s past. It lives in the tree as our past—also dead, having literally passed—lives in us. Our history forms our structure, storing molecular bits of ourselves, recording cycles of abundance and privation, unseasonable frosts, long summers, lightning strikes, patterns of growth. Like trees, we become who we are as each old layer dies, as each new layer forms.

We live in the layers between our past and the (also dead) outer bark that protects us.

Thanks to you all

This has been an amazing year, full of blessings and dislocation and pain and healing and promise and opportunity and redemption. Most of all, it has been a year of realizing how much support I continually receive from all of you—family, friends, fellow turners and artists, mentors and teachers, customers and collectors, would-be customers, gallery owners, program administrators and staff, students, blog readers, well-wishers—all of you who with your words and actions communicate your support for me and my artwork.

Because of your generosity in all its forms, I celebrate a year of successes small and large, an abundance of love, a wealth of prospects.

I thank you and wish you a happy and prosperous new year. May you receive back tenfold all you have given me.

Courage

This post falls under the “and more” subject of this blog (“A weblog about woodturning, artmaking, and more”).

I like to think myself courageous in the face of any challenge, but I’ve recently had to learn a new kind of courage: the courage to be happy.

It’s a strange concept for someone who has spent her life fighting—to survive, to be, to want to live.

This strange new idea was reinforced recently by a touching scene in an episode of the TV series Pushing Daisies (“Smell of Success,” broadcast November 21, 2007). In the scene, Vivian Charles, one of a duo of retired synchronized-swimming sisters who have been grieving the apparent death of their niece, addresses her sister, Lily.

“It used to make you so happy, the water. I think it’s brave to try to be happy. You’ve gotten so comfortable being unhappy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to wake up in the morning and choose to be happy? To let the water wash everything away?”

The episode ends with a sweet rendition by Vivian of Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken” as the sun breaks through rain and the sisters return to the water.

Art, beauty, truth, language

I continually revisit questions about the nature of art and artmaking, and I’ve been pondering them a lot lately.

Although I do embrace what Mary Oliver says in her poem “The Swan” (see my post for July 31) and although the act of creating beauty both delights and satisfies me, I also must recognize that I—always, and more and more—aspire to make art that not only is beautiful but also expresses meaning—by which I mean it reveals a truth.

Here is the current version of my ever-evolving definition of artmaking, at least as it pertains to me: an act of rendering (with all that word’s wonderfully resonant connotations) objects and experiences that communicate some discovered emotional truth about the nature of life (mine specifically or life in general).

I realize that this definition doesn’t mention “beauty.” On the one hand, I could accept as a premise Keats’s “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’” On the other hand, perhaps I have been conflating “beauty” and “art.” Chekhov said, “Art tells the truth” (Picasso said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth”)—and beauty is enough because beauty is a truth—but must art be beautiful? Certainly, I do not find all art beautiful—is that because I don’t get the truth their makers have tried to express? Then again, not all truth is beautiful. I can find beauty in even many painful truths but certainly not in all.

For me, for now, the bottom line is that I have not yet wanted to create art that was not also in some way beautiful. That may be my own limitation. For now, though, I leave for another time the question of whether the art I make must be beautiful.

Thinking about expressing meaning leads me to think about language, and all the vocabularies I can use to communicate.

More than a vocabulary, each art is really a language of its own, with its own grammar and system of signs—and its own way of apprehending the world. From studying several languages (English, German, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese), I know how greatly concepts and perception (the roots of culture) can differ from language to language.

I speak woodturning now, and live in a world of curves. As a writer, I also speak not just English, but the specific dialect of formal written English. This second (first, third, whatever) language greatly shapes my wood art, as does Japanese. To a lesser extent, I also speak ceramics (mostly the dialect of vessels) and music (a family of languages: melody, rhythm, dance) in my art. I’m just beginning to try a few words and phrases from fiber arts (sewing, resist dyeing, weaving, papermaking) and metalworking in a few pieces.

One of the qualities I love most about English is its robustness, vigor that I attribute largely to the ease with which it assimilates concepts and vocabulary from other languages. (I suppose English—at least American English—and American culture?— is a bit like the Borg of languages: resistance is futile.) Such robustness is a quality I aspire to as an artist.

A rejoinder

I found a perfect rejoinder to my question of whether beauty is enough. It is a poem by Mary Oliver, from her 2005 collection Why I Wake Early.

The Swan

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air—
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music—like the rain pelting the trees—like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds—
A white cross streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

—Mary Oliver, from Why I Wake Early (2005)

And there is this quote from an interview with her: “I believe art is utterly important. It is one of the things that could save us.”