Monday, March 29, 2010

Beach Brick and Beach Glass

A couple of summers during my college years, I lived in Montauk, Long Island, NY. There more than any other period in my life, I became a beachcomber. I especially loved picking up beach glass. One of those summers I had a running competition with a friend to pick up the most beach glass. But I was traveling light in those days, and actually gave him most of my glass when fall came and it was time for me to move on. So I do own a bowl or two of the frosty shards picked up from various beaches, but am by no means a major collector.

There's not as much beach glass around as there used to be, due to the widespread prevalence of plastic containers as well as anti-littering campaigns. My husband and I went to Galveston a week or so ago, and my long walks on the beach quickly became gathering sessions for a different kind of jetsam, weathered brick. Galveston is and will be getting over hurricane Ike (September, 2008) for years to come. The beaches have been sifted and cleaned of wreckage many times. What remains behind are these brick fragments. They are all over the dunes. Most of the brick is not whole, but I found myself imagining a small structure built of this brick, cobbled together in some artistic fashion. I think it would be neat if some artist were commissioned to build at least a commemorative sculpture from the stuff.

I lugged home a few buckets of the beach brick, and hope to make a mosaic planter or other artifact out of them. Then I decided to do a little reading about beach glass for this post and found many beach glass fanatics, activities and websites. The North American Sea Glass Association has an annual festival which this year will be held in Hyannis, MA. They have a Beach Shard of the Year contest with many categories, including bottle stoppers, most unusual, historical, etc. The best places to find beach glass include the northeast Atlantic shores, California, Puerto Rico, Spain and Italy. One mecca for beach glass enthusiasts has always been Fort Bragg, CA, but the best picking place there recently became a state park, and beachcombing is now forbidden. There is also a surfeit of less than genuine beach glass out there, sold in craft stores and dollar stores, created with rock tumblers. Bogus beach glass has a more uniform appearance than the real thing, and lacks the true frosty look which is created when the ocean leaches out lime and soda from the glass. Other names for beach glass include sea gems and mermaid's tears (but this term has also come to be used for small pieces of plastic tumbled by the sea).

I doubt that hurricane brick will become the new beach glass, but I was awed by its rough/soft, faded beauty. Mother Nature in her diversity has created a new treasure for hunters and gatherers!

photo by KAO: Hurricane brick and beach glass in basket

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler

Ah, the simple pleasures of a new Anne Tyler novel. No one does family life better. Her families are so perfectly imperfect. They squabble and worry and muddle through things. They fall apart and come together. Noah's Compass (Knopf, 2010) is full of family complications. This time out, Tyler's protagonist is Liam Pennywell, a school teacher forced to retire at age sixty-one. Not that he ever really wanted to be a teacher anyway... He studied philosophy in college, and looks forward to getting back into his philosophy books. Liam simplifies his life by renting a smaller apartment in the suburbs of his native Baltimore.

On the first night he sleeps in his new apartment, he goes to bed early. When he wakes up he is in the hospital with a head injury, and can not remember how he got there. Apparently he left the patio door unlocked and an intruder entered and knocked him out, although curiously nothing was stolen. Liam has three daughters, and the youngest one, Kitty, comes to stay with him during his convalescence. She is seventeen and in love with a boy her mother doesn't approve of. Liam's ex-wife, Barbara and his other daughters Xanthe (a ranter) and Louise (a conservative Christian), as well as his grandson Jonah come and go from his apartment, and we the readers begin to pick up on the back history of the Pennywells.

Liam becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened the night he was attacked, and his research takes him into some surprising situations. He fabricates a job search and meets a middle-aged woman named Eunice who initially offers to help him with his resume, and they become romantically involved. Liam's loss of memory becomes a lens he uses to take stock of his life. Was he ever really present as a father and husband? Liam is well-meaning but bumbling, especially with women, of which there are plenty in his life. He rarely sticks up for himself when they criticize him, since he knows just how imperfect he is. I found him endearing.

Because he is rather a melancholy type, how enchanted I was when near the end of the novel, Liam bursts out laughing. In conversation with his daughter Louise, he recalls a family story about how his ex-wife gave away their Christmas tree, decorations and all, one Christmas morning when a neighbor suddenly had need of a tree. That Tyler can make me so happy just because someone laughs -- now that's my kind of fiction. Her characters become so real to me, it's always tough to reach the last page. I never want her books to end. No matter what direction Noah's Compass pointed towards, I felt very much at home.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Negative Capability

Writer's Block

Bedside
she kept
a statue of an Egyptian cat,
a dream dictionary,
a rhyming dictionary,
at least five pens,
scissors,
peppermints,
a small crowbar,
a bottle of rosewater,
and headache pills.

And under the bed,
her notebook
gone blank
seven months.

She had nouns,
but no verbs,
not even dreams
of falling.

My poem, "Writer's Block" is a compendium of sorts, borrowing from my own and writer friends' experiences of feeling stuck. Nothing stewing, nothing happening, at least on the paper's surface. Sometimes that's the way it goes. Then it is time to turn one's attention elsewhere, live well, and get on with other things. Eventually the well fills again. I have always loved the poet John Keats' theory of negative capability. That instead of reaching for facts and explanations, we should learn to dwell in mystery and be receptive. Creativity is such a mystery. It can be cultivated, even courted, but there is also an aspect to the divine spark that remains elusive. If there were no mystery to it, I don't think we would be as motivated to manifest our creativity. When I am making art, it unfolds before me (or not). I usually have no clear idea of the whole thing. Just glimmers. Then in the course of making a creation, I find out what it and I want to say. Yes, I can have intentions, but prefer chasing the unknown. And so it goes......

"If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash." - Leonard Cohen

Assemblage by KAO: Love Shrine for Leonard Cohen, created for the Crafty Chica Love Shrine Challenge on Flickr.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Creativity Prompters, Challenges and Exercises

Last month I learned that three of my collages got into an online juried show called "Personality" at Caladan Gallery, ongoing through the end of March 2010. How did I ever hear about the opportunity? Through subscribing to the free Art Deadlines list, emailed monthly. You can also take out a paid subscription for even more listings.

I've always found contests, deadlines and challenges to be inspiring. Right now I am finishing up two entries into the Crafty Chica's Love Shrine Challenge on Flickr. I've completed my assemblages but am obsessing over getting the final photograph ready (deadline is tomorrow at 11:59PM). Although I've made shrines and retablos before, this challenge was just what I needed to get myself in gear. What I love about assemblage is that I get to run around the house pulling out boxes and bags of junk I've saved for no apparent reason than possible future creative projects, and at those rare moments feeling justified for being an obsessive collector.

Once upon a time I entered a little contest at Lilliput Review to answer the question "Why Did Buddha Sit Under the Tree? Fourteen short poems were published in the issue dated January 1996, mine included. One of the nice thing about that was becoming pen pals with editor Don Wentworth. So I'm a big believer in looking around for opportunities to share your art. Otherwise making things, be they poems or paintings, can be a lonely game.

The Artist's Way: a Spritual Path to Higher Creativity (Tarcher, 1992) by Julia Cameron has also been inspiring to me. I am cycling through that book for the second time in about fourteen years, with a group of artistic friends. Just the intention involved in committing to this book's 12 week (or longer) process gives your creativity a boost.

In the creative writing classes and workshops I attended, it was common for quick, so-called "free writing" exercises to be assigned. Sometimes it was writing from a photo, or from a random group of words, always fun and surprising as to what you might come up with. The book Poetic Medicine: the Healing Art of Poem-Making (Tarcher, 1997) by John Fox is a great source of such exercises.

The Caladan Gallery site is diverse. Among their artists is a horse named Cholla. I am tempted to buy one of his watercolors! I was impressed to read that their online gallery gets as many as 50,000 hits per month, and has been in existence since 2003. It is fun to be in a show with artists from places as far away as Spain and Taiwan. I am humbled and thankful for this opportunity to share my collages on their site.

collage by KAO: The Artist Returns

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Blame by Michelle Huneven


Being on the TLA (Texas Library Association) Lariat List task force this past year has kept me busy reading all kinds of books I might not have picked up otherwise. But with only six weeks to go until we convene at the TLA annual conference in San Antonio, I am challenged to finish reading through our 2009 nominations list. In fact, most of the titles left are in genres I don't usually read: thrillers, horror, science fiction, fantasy, etc. In fact I've felt a bit resentful of the Lariat shackles lately, wishing I could start reading 2010 books by writers I know and love. So picking up Blame by Michele Huneven, I was pleasantly surprised; the book reads like a mix of literary fiction, thriller and recovery memoir.

Because she regularly drinks to such excess that she blacks out, history professor Pasty MacLemoore is no stranger to the Altadena, California jail. She is in her late twenties and still a party girl. Except this morning in May, 1981, when she wakes up in jail having lost a day or two, she is not going back out on the party circuit anytime soon. She thinks the Homicide Police are fooling her when they claim she mowed down two people with her car in the driveway of her home - a mother and her daughter, Jehovah's Witnesses delivering fliers. Guilt floods her soul. In fact, her driver's license was suspended and she should not have been behind the wheel.

If Patsy does not sound like the kind of character you could care about, I'm with you. How does someone smart enough to get a PHD at Berkeley become such a raging alcoholic? For one thing, we learn that alcoholism runs in her family. But as Patsy works her way through the prison system and stays sober, reluctantly and then religiously going to AAA, she earns our respect. She wrestles with the urge to drink again, but stays sober. After serving her time, Patsy leads a cautious, careful life, first teaching ESL and then going back to her college position. Her best friend becomes a young gay man named Gilles. She also stays in touch with her victims' family, both the husband and his son, even helping them with college finances. She marries a recovered alcoholic very much her senior, and settles into his large, complicated family.

The novel covers some twenty years in Patsy's life post-accident. There is a major twist to the tale so I am not going to go into any more plot details. When I care about the main character, I am at my happiest reading a novel. I came to care deeply about Patsy MacLemoore. I kept thinking she would eventually go off the rails and drink again, but she did not. Lots of events gave her reason to drink, but the experience of prison life, and all the shame and blame she apportions herself, keep her on the right path. She learns to coexist with her guilt. But will she ever allow herself true happiness again? Bluntly honest and appraising, Blame is by turns gritty, neurotic and insightful.