Monday, July 26, 2010

Mix Those Media!

I just returned from a three-day workshop in Mendocino. The course description looked very interesting, and just what I needed to push my edges a little bit. My approach to making art is pretty straightforward and simple, and I am probably happiest using just a pencil, or just a pen, and if I do use color I prefer a very limited palette. If there are too many colors I get overwhelmed, and even a little anxious (kind of how I feel when I look at a closet with too many choices of clothing--see conversation with Charmion below). In any case, I thought it might be good to get out of my comfort zone, which I definitely did.

The teacher Mira White is a master who creates beautiful visionary pieces using a wide range of materials. (We also discovered that we have a mutual connection to Meher Baba, but I'll save that for another time and post). My fellow students were a very compatible group of seven, with at least one thing in common---they didn't hold back. And everyone, except for me, seemed very comfortable starting with a totally abstract approach and came up with some very interesting work. I may not have created anything particularly notable, but I learned something really important about the way I work---I tend to start from something concrete and work toward the abstract. I do this in painting and in poetry. Kind of like a Lectio Divina approach to art.

Several of the projects started with spraying, pouring or smearing color on the surface and seeing what developed. So I would dutifully do that, and then just stand there and look at it, bewildered. Once I did start working, I would beat it to death until all of the interesting paint effects were covered up by a fairly mundane and lifeless drawing. Oh well. I have no doubt that some of those effects and techniques will inform my work to come, and I am interested to see how that develops. In any case, it was an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.

(The dog is Patch, John's helper)

Monday, July 19, 2010

I like to carry my sketchbook with me and now include some watercolor pencils which are very handy for quick sketches. Often I think that I should draw something besides the view out over the valley, but those Sonoma Mountains are so compelling for me that at the end of the week, I have pages and pages of sketches of them in different light. I was born and raised in Petaluma, and my earliest visual memory is the view over the Petaluma valley from the front porch of our little house, seeing those violet hills. So the view from Bishop's Ranch touches me at a very deep place. Someone once said (I think that it was Camus) that an artist usually spends his whole life trying to recapture his first visual memory, and I can relate to that. That vista is irresistible to me.

Simplicity in all things

I am home now, back into kind of a routine, admittedly a little disorganized and chaotic compared to last week, but I have hopes that now that I am settled back in, starting tomorrow, I will be able to incorporate some of what I learned and experienced. But before I get too involved in the quotidian, I want to share some of the highlights of this past week. I wish I could say that I had a spiritual shakedown, or meltdown, and have a much more profound relationship to God and creation, but that wouldn't be quite honest. However, I did get some tools, and had some wonderful experiences, and having the psalms and scripture swirling in my head today, has been such a gift. (What's that? Oh yes, the Song of Zechariah.) And I met some fascinating people.

The last day I had a very interesting conversation with Charmion, and in addition to having a lovely and unusual name,she had some very interesting things to share. We were talking about simplicity, and how to deal with clutter, which is a topic I love to explore, so I asked her how she dealt with having to many things, for example, clothes. She said that she owns eight of everything---pants, tops, skirts, etc,---in different colors, and each day she just wears what is on the next hanger. After she has had something for six years, she gives it away and replaces it. Now think about that for a minute. She NEVER wonders what to wear. Can you imagine how much time you would save if you never had to wonder, or worse, try things on and change your mind, and then try something else? Oh, and she never shops in stores, but buys everything online from Lands End. We did agree that both Land End and LL Bean have gone down in quality and reliability, but nevertheless, that's what she does. This was very intriguing to me, and I am inspired to come up with a similar strategy. Now, keep in mind, that this is a woman who was on Jeopardy in the early 1980's and won $5000, which she used to buy her first computer. Oh, and she sings beautifully as well. Like I said below, I am so glad that we don't have to keep silence all week.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

BenEx Dogs

A predictable but difficult challenge with silent retreats these days, is that hardly anyone leaves their phone at home, or even their laptop for that matter, so it tends to encroach on the sense of being away ( I mean, here I am, blogging, when the schedule says I should be resting in preparation for Lectio Divina later this afternoon). But a plus to this is that we are able to share images that people have on their IPhones, and for some reason, people feel compelled to show me their dogs. This is Henry.
There must be a greater meaning to this because the reading at lunch today had to do with, what else, a dog and how it came to be part of a Benedictine monastery. So, I'll just go with it, and post more images as I receive them.


One of the things that we do here during the week, in keeping with the Benedictine ethos, is to choose work that we will do in the afternoon. None of it is very complicated, mainly things like stuffing envelopes, trimming pods from the wisteria (before this, I didn’t know that they were so inclined to propagate and spread), deadhead the rose bushes, rake leaves, simple things like that. Way on the bottom of the list of choices was washing windows. Not surprisingly, no one signed up for that. I say not surprisingly, but the truth is that I love to wash windows, and have never understood why so many people don’t. That little phrase supposedly uttered by many a housekeeper “I don’t do windows” always sort of baffled me. So, I signed up, and have spent the last couple of afternoons washing the windows in the refectory and Swing Pavilion. I like it because it is solitary work, and the results are so immediate and apparent. Stepping back to see that clear, sparkling glass is so satisfying.

What has surprised me, is since I started doing the windows, one of the first things I think about when I wake up in the morning (around 5:00) is how much I am looking forward to washing windows that day. It really is kind of strange, especially when I am currently listening to a set of CDs by the wonderful poet and thinker, David Whyte, called What to Remember When Waking Up. Needless to say no where does he mention anything as mundane as washing windows. It’s especially odd in a context like this week, where I am surrounded and immersed in scripture, prayer, and chanting the psalms.

Beyond Windex

There must be something primal about washing windows,
although it couldn’t be too primal because in the large scheme of things
windows haven’t been around that long.
But regardless of that,
the deep satisfaction that I derive from this chore
goes way beyond simple housework
and touches something deep inside.
Why else would I wake early looking forward to this particular task,
especially here while here on retreat,
where I have been given such beautiful and profound thoughts to ponder?

It must be something about vision,
or clarity, or boundaries--
the false divisions that I draw between what is inside and outside,
between me and the rest of the world,
between me and God.

Maybe it’s the satisfaction of knowing that with a little time, a bit of tending,
and a little elbow grease,
I can see through a glass less darkly,
even if just for a little while.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Silent variations

Whatever It Takes

I wonder if it was just a coincidence that my ears got plugged with wax last week
just before I was scheduled to start an eight day silent retreat.
The over-the-counter solution that I tried only seemed to make things worse,
and after a couple of treatments, I could hardly hear a thing.
This had never happened to me before.
The silence enclosed me like a bubble,
and it was like being on my own personal silent retreat,
surrounded by quiet wherever I went.
In a way, it was good preparation for this week,
a reminder that the chatter that normally fills my days doesn't really amount to much.
But my ears cleared up just before I left,
and I am glad to be able to hear those birds chirping in the trees,
as I settle into this mostly silent community.

A few words from the Ranch

This experience is winding down, but at the same time getting richer and richer, as the community forms and the participants are no longer an amorphous group of people, but have become specific and precious individuals with whom I feel so fortunate to share this time.

After the morning presentation on various aspects of the Benedictine life (today it was Lectio Divina and balance), given by Sr. Donald, we have a short time for group discussion. During the break, we usually fit in a few private conversations. One priest participant and I discovered that we had both visited Pune, India, and compared notes of our experiences. After the usual observations about the poverty, filth and such, he thought for a while and said that after having been in India, he lost his taste for green tea. Don't you love that? I never in a million years would have expected him to say that. Some people talk about having their spiritual life opened up, or shaken, or deepened, but for him, who seems so at ease and grounded in his faith, it was green tea and he is now back to coffee. There has to be some profound spiritual insight in that. This is also the guy who today was wearing a tee shirt that had written on it in big letters, "Does "anal retentive" have a hyphen?"

This evening, I had conversation with a librarian who told me about her recent conversion experience. A nominal Episcopalian for many years, she had a series of encounters with the Divine that have brought her to an incredibly close and intimate relationship with God--a direct, clear call to her vocation. Hearing stories of such personal, and totally compelling events, is such a blessing, so I am grateful that we are not held to complete silence this week.

If we were held to complete silence, and some serious person were enforcing it, I would probably be in trouble, as after dinner tonight I couldn't help myself when it came to helping Josh take a picture of three participants in the dining room. I am afraid that I got a little bossy (very unlike me) and just grabbed his camera and started giving directions. But the picture is going to be good, and Josh even got to be in it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Another hiatus

I am now in Sonoma County at the Benedictine Experience, a week long retreat. This is my third time here for this experience at Bishop’s Ranch in Healdsburg. There are about thirty of us in community, observing the Daily Offices, keeping silence (mostly) and following the Benedictine balance of prayer, work, study, and recreation. And while it isn’t as exciting as Africa, there is something very compelling about the rhythm of the Daily Office and structured days, and it’s refreshing to be away from so much of the world. Last time I was here, I did a lot of writing and posting (see archives), but this time is different---more silence, prayer, and reflection.

I may be posting a few items from the Ranch later this week, but in the meantime, I just wanted to explain my silence (tiny bit of a play on words there).

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Artists for Conservation

My new site at Artists for Conservation is now up and running. Please check it out.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


We came upon these two brothers just as they were finishing up their afternoon meal-a late lunch of some antelope that wasn't fast enough to escape his fate that day. They took turns working on the kill, so we could see one sitting up, looking around, perhaps taking that moment to digest a bit, while only the back of the other would be visible. We could hear the crunches as he ate and tore apart the prey (best not to think about that too much). After lunch they strolled off, later taking a few minutes to clean each other off, or maybe just making sure that none of that fresh blood that was smeared over their muzzles went to waste.

Monday, July 5, 2010

This beauty was sauntering across the road when we were on our way out to the bush. She stopped, turned around, and just looked at us. We turned off the engine and just looked back. I wish I could that I did this painting right there on the spot, but unfortunately I didn't have my watercolors with me. Considering how long she stood there, I probably would have had time, but I took a photo and did this in my studio.