I’ve been a little lacking in posting of late. Lots of drafts in the works, but much time has been absorbed by school. Not that I haven’t been writing! In my last post I published my midterm submission from my Humanities class – a self-portrait collage and related description. My final project assignment for the class was to write paper about my process of an artist, called MyArtStory – to define my art, to talk about what informs it, and describe challenges with it – and the collage was a precursor to that.
The paper’s been turned in, and the class has ended. I’m pleased with the end result, and I thought I’d put it out here as a post…
I have an affinity with the spiral as a symbol of life’s journey: In many spiritual traditions, a spiral (or a labyrinth) symbolizes an emergence. A person’s life path is laid out before them, and the sojourner treads the ever-widening path from center outward. Turns that start out as tight and difficult eventually broaden as experience eases the ways in which we contend with life’s challenges. Conversely, the spiral can represent a journey into the self, as one starts from the outer limit, from the point of today, and regresses through one’s past on a journey of self-discovery. Once in the center, the follower reflects on the meanings of life’s events, and can then return to the present by coming back out along the spiral, with a deeper understanding of how today’s inspirations came to pass. The spiral journey is there whether you’re conscious of it or not…
From early in my life I remember grown-ups often asking me what I wanted to be when I grow up. It was a tough question as a kid, and to a degree it is even still. At that age, how was I supposed to know? Why did they always keep asking me that? Was there something wrong with me that I didn’t have a plan for my own adulthood? I would ask my mom for guidance: “Ma, what should I be when I grow up?” Her answer was always the same – “You can be anything you want to be!”
To me, her response didn’t feel like it helped me come up with an answer to such a high-pressure question, and I still felt like I was supposed to have one. I came up with a vague solution: I would be “an Artist.” Despite my upbringing, I had a narrow vision about what it meant to be “an Artist,” though; in my mind, I’d pigeonholed that to mean a painter. Saying I would be an artist when I grew up conjured images of myself in a beret and billowing white smock, palette in hand, in a Parisian attic studio, toiling away with oil paints, living on espresso and cigarettes and day-old baguettes, while coyly curling my eccentric mustache with my fingertips. I didn’t fancy myself as a painter, though, so telling people I would be an artist felt like I was lying. I was just coming up with an answer to satisfy their curiosity and to stop their prying.
I was a creative kid, and grew up in very creative surroundings. Ma is of the Hippie generation, and her circle of friends were as creative as she was and is. My childhood was a particularly fruitful period for her. She led and participated in Consciousness Raising groups; she wrote stories and poems and songs; she was an activist; she sang and played guitar; she did chakra reading and color balancing; she worked on art installations; she was a charter member of the Expressive Arts program at Sonoma State University; she even co-founded, wrote for, and edited the school’s very first student-published departmental newsletter: The Ex-Press. She had friends, and friends of friends, with amazing creativity. We would spend Sundays at the home of Charles Schulz, Ma having coffee while I got to visit with my favorite cartoon character, Snoopy, and pore over the original hand-drawn sketches and strips, even getting to read some before they were printed. Ma’s professor, Raymond Burr, visited to tutor her. On more than one occasion we sat with Alice Walker, talking about everyday topics, not even aware of the depth of genius inspiration we had come to be influenced by in our lives. Aware or not, the influence was there. I was raised in an absolute hotbed of creativity, and was allowed unfettered freedom to explore my surroundings and thoughts.
In some ways, I went through a period in my twenties feeling like the freedom I experienced in childhood had been a disservice. I blamed a lack of guidance for my own lack of determination. I didn’t feel like I had a path towards any particular future, and simply “dabbled in a little of this and a little of that” for many years, both artistically and in my own life practices. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I recognized where my life’s spiral had brought me. I’d found myself, yet again, in a situation where I was losing a job because of a business closing. I had moved through life from job to job, taking opportunities that came along and sounded interesting to me. I worked in the natural foods industry, both in mom-and-pop and in corporate levels. I worked in home décor sewing workrooms. I walked dogs. I made production prototypes for pet toys. I worked in the retail fabric industry. Each job seemed disparate from the others, but on my own spiral, I started to realize they’ve all repeated, revisited, and come together to inform who I am now. Growing up with health food stores led me to working in them. Having dogs led me to working with them. Sewing in high school Home Ec led me to costuming and to sewing workrooms. That, in turn, combined with my grocery store management experience, and led to me managing fabric retail. Which then led to the prototype sewing, etc. I realized that, in everything I do, I’ve been here before…
When that last retail job went under, I had recently gone through another major life change: my partner of nearly ten years had taken his own life. Naturally, this was the beginning of some major life-shifting for me. I came to realize it was time for me to keep myself aware of my own spiral, and to stop being a follower. I learned it was possible to steer my own future, and not rely on Whatever Comes Along to get me through. I had always been disparaging of the notion that school could get you somewhere that the School of Life could not. It’s certainly true that higher education is not a necessity in advancement, but for me it began to open doors in my own consciousness that I had not recognized were closed. A good friend encouraged me to take a class at CCSF, and even paid for it to make sure I’d get started. I didn’t know where to begin, and with no idea how much it would inform my future decisions, I took a career-planning class. The instructor’s method was not to give you tests to tell you what you should do with your life, but rather to recognize and be true about what you like, and what you don’t want to do. With that tool, with sharing openly and constantly with those around you every aspect of life that you enjoy, and with taking every opportunity to grow that is offered to you, you’ll find that your life transforms as you end up making a living in ways that you find fulfilling. She calls her method Planned Happenstance, and it’s a fitting name.
I had grown up in Northern California, moving constantly. That gypsy lifestyle made it difficult to have long-term friends, and shielded me from forming relationships that continued beyond the school yard. Nature had become my best friend. No matter where we moved, I could always rely on myself for company, developing my love of nature, and learning to work with the tools that the outside world provided me. I knew I wanted to work outdoors, and I knew I didn’t want to stand behind a cash register all day. With that knowledge, I set forth to discover. My love of nature led me to start a vocational program at CCSF in horticulture, with the aim of earning a certificate in landscape maintenance and becoming a City gardener. Never shutting myself down to possibilities, I took every class needed for the certificate, as well as every class that sounded interesting. I studied Earth sciences, horticulture, design, art history, photography, English, anthropology. Again, they seem unrelated, but with all of them, I’ve been here before. I started to recognize that they’re all part of the larger labyrinth, and are interconnected, and so my studies continue. I completed my original aim in horticulture, and ended up earning four separate certificates in the programs there, and now work not only as an independent gardener, but also as a buyer in a nursery. Once again my retail background combined with my new learning.
I also started to recognize that I had, in fact, always been an artist, and that my childhood “blind answer” had not been a lie. I had studied ceramics and silversmithing for years in high school. I had written and sketched. I had sewn and knit. I had been prolifically active in theater, both in school and community. I had sung and played guitar. No one of these practices felt to me like it was “My Art,” but I was well-practiced at being an artist all the same.
My biggest challenge as an artist is that I have a certain level of impatience. Not with learning, because that’s an ongoing process that I love to be a part of, but rather an impatience with learning something I already know in depth. It’s never enough for me to know how to do something; I need to know how to do it really well. Better than. Yet, once I feel I’ve “perfected” something, made my masterpiece (as it were) in a medium, I start to feel like I’m not learning anything new from it. I tend to lose interest in it, and seek some new form of mental stimulation to keep myself excited and learning. Sometimes, too, I’ll find a medium to be unfulfilling if I have a crude and unrefined hand at it, and can’t seem to bring it up to my own standards. Even so, media always come back to me as my spiral loops past them again and again. I may feel I’ve learned all I can about something, but as time goes on and I continue to think about it, I ultimately return to it with a fresh angle and new excitement borne of the realization that I can now take it to a higher level.
My horticultural studies led me to volunteering as a gardener on Alcatraz. That, in turn, led to me become a Garden Docent, leading tour groups around the island, once again fulfilling my love of being on stage. Gardening led me to study Ikebana – the Japanese art of flower arranging – which began to inform my garden design aesthetics once I recognized the science behind the beauty. I started writing a blog about my gardening and design experiences, and the encouragement that garnered me helped me decide to enter an essay contest. I won first place in the contest, and my essay was published in a national horticultural journal, and I continue to contribute to it. It was with a flash that the self-realization of my writing enlightened me to what really is My Art.
Experiencing the joy of writing finally made me recognize my love of this art above all others – but not exclusive of them. To be an artist in one medium doesn’t mean you have to eschew all else. I continue gardening, and studying all things related to plants and the earth. I continue studying and refining my eye in Ikebana, focusing on plants and materials that I find in the urban environment around me – not purchased from flower shops. I continue to practice ceramics, to be able to make my own vessels for my Ikebana. Most importantly for me, though, is that I continue to use my garden blog as a forum to write about my experiences and share what it is I’m learning. It’s not just an artistic outlet for myself to write creatively and entertainingly about the world of gardening and Earth systems, combining science and art. It’s also an opportunity for me to teach in a way that the unexperienced can relate to, since I’m sharing from the first-hand perspective of a learner, with all the trials and tribulations that can entail. And I can share the successes, too, by detailing how something came together to work so well. It’s quite gratifying.
At the beginning of this year I decided to start a project that has long been on my mind. I’ve had a lifetime of stories that, to me, were simply “the way I grew up, the way things were.” To my friends who hear the stories, my life is a world of marvel that needs to be shared, and I’ve been told for many years that I should write these stories down. With the intention of publishing a memoir, I started an eponymous blog to share my life’s stories. The blog format is an excellent way to accomplish a task such as this, one that can feel so prohibitively monumental at conception. Piece by piece, I’m writing short stories to combine into a larger work. Short stories allow exploration of creativity within a small package, are easier to tackle in little bites, and can be published to the Web to gain a following and to garner feedback individually. Eventually they can be combined and reworked into chapters, or even to become chapters themselves. It’s a much less daunting task to put out a short story and build it into a larger work…
MyArtStory is about continuing to explore and experience all arts and practices and sciences, and to grow and share how they inform my life. Recognizing that art permeates even the most seemingly mundane tasks of my everyday life has led to a fulfillment unlike any other, and has allowed me to embrace the fact of Art. Simply acknowledging the arts I have practiced and studied makes me able to say with confidence and pride that, yes, I am an Artist. Through all the twists and turns of life, I’ve been here before, and have never left the spiral. Regardless of what jobs I work to make a living, at the root of it all I am an Artist. I always have been.