Thursday, December 30, 2010

Shosin: Otherwise Known as Beginner's Mind

Shoshin is a Japanese word, roughly translated as "beginner's mind", a Zen concept I admire. At times in my artwork, this state of mind is most useful. And I was reminded of it a few days ago, making art with my five year-old niece. She puts her favorite colors everywhere, so the people she drew had bright blue hair and rainbow dresses. To quote Pablo Picasso, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up."

Not growing up comes in handy when facing the blank page or canvas. There are many ways to head into the direction of beginner's mind. Writing or drawing with the non-dominant hand can jumpstart a certain playfulness. In writing, sometimes it's provocative to start at the end, not the beginning, and then decide how things got there.... In all creative endeavors, the trick is allowing yourself to to play with the ingredients and make new combinations. The biggest challenge is emptying the mind of preconceptions. Just as in meditation, the mind is over-busy, full of shoulds and should-nots.

In various creative writing circles I've belonged to, we often played the game where we came up with a short list of words and everyone wrote a poem or short story using those words. What fun it was to see the unpredictable variations that were born. I also recall hitting beginner's mind under the tutelage of Natalie Goldberg at a writer's workshop, where she would give us a prompt such as "Tell me about the street you grew up on." Then we would freewrite for ten minutes, a method she fully develops in her seminal book, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala, 1986).

Depending what stage of art-making I am in, I sometimes need to tidy up my workspace and put away unfinished projects, messy scraps and files, etc. When I am deep in a collage series, the mess doesn't matter. But if I've been away from making art, as now during the holidays, I can't seem to get started again unless I clear the deck and start anew. At some point where once there was only chaos, the arrow turns instead towards potential. Maybe that doesn't qualify as true beginner's mind, but it brings me calm and makes me receptive to whatever might come next.

May your new year start fresh, and bring much creativity and unpredictable delight!

photo by KAO: Dawn Shadows

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sticks and Yarn

Knitting: how did it ever get started? Did people use twigs, perhaps bones? And the yarn itself - when did spinning fiber into strands become commonplace? These questions were on my mind last week as I tried my hand at knitting. I was visiting Mom in New York, and she was recuperating from a hospital stay, so I had some time on my hands. Mom is much better now and I'm back in Texas getting ready for Christmas. I've not gotten very far on a narrow blue scarf, but I am intrigued and hope to keep learning this ancient womanly art. I've been a crocheter since college and do find knitting to be much slower than crochet, but both have their appropriate uses. Knitting is known for its ability to stretch as needed. Crocheting is great for intricate open designs.

As it turns out, knitting was not always done with two needles. Rather, it is thought to have started with a single needle, employing a series of knots or loops. There was also a technique known as nalbinding that could be confused with knitting, so in some ways knitting's exact train of origins remains unknown. Socks are among the first known knitted items, dating back as far as nine or ten centuries ago. In the OED, the word 'knitting' dates back only to the 1400s. Egypt/the Middle East is the place knitting (using cotton or silk, not wool) is thought to have started, later spreading to Europe and the American colonies. In the Scottish Isles, woolen goods became an important, highly developed craft. The origins there may have been related to the knot making done by fishermen. During the Middle Ages in Europe, there were knitting guilds. In other times, being trained in knitting was promoted as a way for poor people (both men and women) to make money. Of course, eventually the Industrial Revolution came along and now we all take machine-knit goods for granted. My curiosity about the first knitting needles still remains partially unsatisfied. Mysterious and ancient, knitting makes me feel connected to centuries of peoples past, clicking away by candlelight and moonlight......

Spinning began with the spindle and distaff, later evolving towards the spinning wheel and the spinning mule. I've never tried hand spinning, but know it has experienced a revival in the last few decades. I'm not sure I'll ever have the patience for it, but appreciate the unique results artisans are able to achieve by starting from scratch. I learned that yarn itself is much older than the art of knitting, having been dated back some 20,000 years to the Upper Paleolithic era. Primitive people are thought to have rolled tufts of animal hair or plant fiber down their thighs to make yarn, then winding it onto stones. It is fascinating to think what a breakthrough this simple act may have been.

Interestingly, crocheting dates back only to the 19th century, when it became known as a less expensive method for lace making. When I was in college, many of my friends crocheted and we wiled away many an hour making mittens, shawls, hats and purses. During my years at West University Library, I taught a coworker, Bill, how to crochet. He took it up with zeal and far surpassed my level of expertise. He then stepped up to knitting and eventually bought a knitting machine. He would even crochet or knit at stoplights on the way to work! And he learned if he took his knitting with him when called up for jury duty, he never got picked for a jury. Bill gave me a lovely, elaborate crocheted doily when he retired.

At this time of the season, I would be remiss if I did not offer my thanks to all who read my humble blog. I always loved doing reports as a child in school, especially the kind where I got to do artwork as a part of the project. Sitting down to blog is a weekly ritual I enjoy, giving me an excuse to marry words and images together. I am thankful that Harris County Public Library required staff to learn how to blog some 3 or 4 years ago. Blogging helps me stay focused. It keeps my language skills polished (to some extent), and hopefully givers readers content they can use or enjoy. Thanks especially to all who took the time to make comments this year. Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Room: a Novel by Emma Donohue

Room: a Novel (Little, Brown & Co., 2010) by Emma Donoghue is simply unforgettable. Room, like Door, Bed, Duvet, and other nouns, are always capitalized words in this purposely claustrophobic novel. Room is five year-old Jack's whole universe. He and his mother are held captive in a 11 x 11 foot bunker. Indeed, the Room is the place Jack was born. His mother was kidnapped from college seven years ago. When mean "Old Nick" visits his imprisoned sex slave, Jack hides in the wardrobe. His mother has poured all her love, attention and knowledge into her son. He can read. He has an impressive, quirky vocabulary. Together they recycle everything that comes their way into art or other inventions.

I won't say much more because of the spoiler factor. How much longer must mother and son live like this? Will they escape? Read it and see. Jack is a boy wonder you just have to meet. I think Room will be popular on the book discussion group circuit because it brings up so many horrifying and sadly relevant issues. Because one of my friends is very involved in campaigns against human trafficking and modern slavery, I have become much more aware of the issue. Please see the Not for Sale: End Human Trafficking/Re-abolish Slavery site for further information.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Favorite Books, 2010

Time for my annual roundup of best books read.... Since I have blogged about many of these during the year, I will keep my comments short. Due to my 2010 TLA Lariat List reading duties, all titles are fiction, and quite by chance this year, all the authors are women.

The Postmistress (Putnam) by Sarah Blake. When a doctor leaves his small town on Cape Cod to volunteer in London at the start of World War II, in case of his death he leaves a last letter for his wife with the town's postmistress. Will the letter ever be delivered? Top notch historical fiction.

The Book of Fires (Pamela Dorman Books) by Jane Borodale. In 1752, pregnant and ashamed, 17 year-old Agnes Trussel flees rural Sussex for London, where she becomes an assistant to a fireworks maker. Will she lose her job when her pregnancy becomes known? Explosive, colorful and captivating.

Claude & Camille: a Novel of Claude Monet (Crown) by Stephanie Cowell. The unruly love story of Impressionist painter Claude Monet and his wife/muse, Camille Doncieux. An intense portrait of the Monets and the Parisian artists the surrounded themselves with.

Good to a Fault (Harper) by Marina Endicott. After a lonely woman crashes her car into the car of a homeless family, she invites them to live with her. Indeed, her life will never be the same. Heart-warming/heart wrenching story from Canada.

I Still Dream About You (Random House) by Fannie Flagg. At age 60, a realtor and former Miss Alabama has lost her interest in life. She plans her suicide, but a much coveted real estate listing keeps interfering. Spunky and oddly enough, humorous.

The Irresistable Henry House (Random House) by Lisa Grunwald. Raised as a practice baby in a college home economics program, Henry House has many mothers. How will this affect his life? Darkly comic.

The Brightest Star in the Sky (Viking) by Marian Keyes. When a spirit periodically visits a Dublin townhouse, the tenants are suffused with the expectancy of romantic change. What follows is a plenty of falling in and out of love as forces of fate and magic collide.

The Swan Thieves (Little, Brown) by Elizabeth Kostava. Psychiatrist Andrew Marlow tries to solve the mysteries surrounding his patient Robert Oliver, a prominent painter, who stopped speaking after attacking a painting in the National Gallery of Art. Contacting the women in Oliver's life, Marlow becomes deeply embroiled. A multi-dimensional, sweeping novel about art, love and obsession.

The Scent of Rain and Lightning (Ballantine) by Nancy Pickard. The man who went to prison for killing her father 23 years ago is back on the streets. Should Jody Lincoln believe new rumors of his innocence? Surprise and suspense electrify a small town in Kansas.

Still Missing (St. Martins) by Chevy Stevens. Realtor Annie O'Sullivan is kidnapped, impregnated and held captive in a secluded mountain cabin. Will she survive? A suspenseful first novel with many unpredictable elements.

I really miss having time to read nonfiction, especially memoirs. My Lariat List assignment will end in April of 2011 after we vote on our 25 favorite novels (main citeria: that the novels be a pleasure to read) at the TLA conference. Then I'll be free to read as I please. The Fed-Ex and UPS drivers will not be stopping by my house quite as often, delivering large quantities of Lariat fiction. It has indeed been a privilege to serve on this task force, as well as a real bonanza for books. Any fiction-loving Texas librarians who might be interested in turning themselves into Lariat reading machines, please feel free to contact me. In the meantime, happy holidays!

"Good fiction reveals feeling, refines events, locates importance and, though its methods are as mysterious as they are varied, intensifies the experience of living our own lives." - Vincent Canby

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Rock, Shell, Bead & Brick

I needed a little break from collage so I picked up my pliers and wire and started wrapping rocks. Call them tchotkes, doodads, fetishes, what have you, I don't care -- I'm on a tear. Earlier in the year, I blogged about finding finding a bunch of beach brick down in Galveston, most of it likely to be remnants of hurricane Ike, which manifested its horrible self here on the Gulf Coast during September of 2008. The bricks' humble shapes spoke to me, softened as they are by sand and salt water. As for rocks, I've tended to pick them up wherever I go. Funny, though -- looking through my scattered-around-the-house collections, I realized you can never really have too many rocks. Indeed, I need more! For purposes of wrapping as small sculptures, the less rounded the better, and also it's best to have at least some flat surface area.

And so my season of Christmas giftmaking began. I pulled in all sorts of supplies that were otherwise languishing in my study -- ribbon, beads, shells, etc. Though not used in any of the photos above, I also have a small stash of plastic-coated telephone wire, delightful because it comes in many colors, some of them even striped. Wish I could get my hands on more of that stuff! I also began to incorporate small pieces of driftwood into these small assemblages. Yesterday I took a short day trip to Galveston to see what else I could find on the beach. The softened bricks were less abundant and the pieces I found were often small. I imagine most of it has now been buried in the sand or carried away by beachcombers.

Brick has been around for at least 5,000 years. It makes sense that the first bricks were made in the Middle East, where rocks are in short supply. What are bricks made of? Clay, shale and sand mostly. After being formed, they are baked in furnaces for as many as 100 - 200 hours. I took several semesters of ceramics in college, and now I'm thinking it would have been fun to make some artisan bricks, but life is short and I'll let that thought go!

Is it just me, or does this time of year seem to speed up and rush towards the holidays? My time and attention span for blogging, not to mention household chores, is in short supply. And so I'll say adieu and get back to my giftmaking.... The rocks and wire are calling me. Happy holidays!

photos: 3 wrapped rock/brick assemblages by KAO