Friday, January 30, 2015

how to be alone

I'm reading this book right now called "How To Be Alone" by Sarah Maitland. I picked it up on a whim at the bookstore. It has a beautiful bright blue cover with white lettering, and they had it set up right next to the cash register. I loved that they had it right there, because the title is very provocative. How to be alone. Most people don't like to be alone, and I wondered how many interesting questions were raised in people's minds when they looked at that title. I had a feeling many people were put off or annoyed. I felt an immediate kinship with the book, and impulsively bought it.

Even though I have a partner, and we've been together for over 20 years-- which is ridiculous--and married for 13 of those years, I still think of myself as alone on some level. We all are, of course, ultimately alone, so maybe it's just that, or maybe it's something else. In any case,  that's how I view myself, as an lone independent person. I work by myself, all day every day, and I like it like that. When I do have an assistant, I'm grateful for the help but ultimately annoyed by the intrusion of someone else in my work space. I prefer to work in solitude.

Perhaps the biggest problem with spending so much time alone is what can go on inside my head. The usual tear-down shit of undermining questions, unsolicited critiques, current resentments. But I've gotten really bored with all that. Mostly because I've started questioning the veracity of knowledge the voice in my head really has about anything. Like, I've always thought that voice in my head is me, feeding me thoughts and information that I need, but that's wrong. The voice comes from my consciousness, but it is not necessarily concerned with truth. It's most concerned with just keeping my attention, making itself important, and it mostly does that by trying to freak me out.

But I also think that the voice in my head is a way of trying to entertain myself. And even though I like being alone, maybe I'm not comfortable with just being at peace with myself. It's too boring. No drama. So the storyteller starts up, and I get carried away into a different place. Daydreaming. I've been practicing catching myself at it and trying to bring myself back into the present moment, because it's actually not boring to just be at peace, I'm just not used to it.  Daydreaming is just kind of a bad habit, a habit I developed early on to cope with actual boring situations, like school. And since daydreaming is an expected characteristic of being artistic, I've never questioned the idea that daydreaming is maybe not so good. That being alone in a healthy way perhaps requires also being a part of the present moment, and not your own private one.

While writing this, I googled "how to be alone" and there were all kinds of interesting links. Check it out. And what about you? Where are you at when it comes to being alone?

Friday, December 12, 2014

slow ceramics

It's been an unusual holiday season for me, in that it has been remarkably slow. This has been by design. Of course I love the holiday bump and the attendant swelling of my bank account. What I don't love is the pressure cooker of holiday shopping, the timeline of trying to get handmade items to people by Christmas or Santa will explode and ruin every one's day.

I decided not to do any shows at all this year, with the exception of my own Open Studio and a pop-up I'm doing with friends. And I also decided that I would not participate in any Black Friday or Cyber Monday promotions by offering free shipping or other discounts. All those things do is create a bunch of extra work for myself, at a discount. One could argue that the value of these promotions is reaching new customers, and even though you are not making as much money per item, you are making it in bulk, which disguises the net loss.

But I oppose it on a philosophical level. Black Friday is nothing more than a media invention designed to panic people into spending money, and it has always disgusted me. I don't see why artists and makers should be participating in it when what we are offering is the very opposite of that kind of mindset. I just can't handle the dissonance of it anymore, and this is the year where I checked out. Cyber Monday, while not as gross on the face of it since it doesn't involve people getting squished to death in a Wal-Mart toy aisle, is still of the same ilk, designed to concentrate purchases on a single day to measure consumer spending.

I did have a sale on my own website, which I figured would reach my current customers and fans who keep an eye on what I do. Those are the people I want to reach, give a discount to. My customers are the ones who keep my business going all year. I don't have a business that needs bulk holiday sales to see me through the year, and I don't see why I should be selling discounted work to what usually amounts to a bunch of one-time customers.

All of this high-minded thinking has created the slowest holiday season I've ever had, which has given me moments of pause, but I feel like it's totally worth it. I've not worked any weekends, broken down into stress tears, or had unpleasant email exchanges with people who don't understand the term "made-to-order." I've been able to create an oasis of calm in my studio, to actually enjoy the season as we head toward the darkest day of the year.

And I'm creating a whole new body of work right now, and I'm completely immersed in it. The holidays are a side note to me compared to what I'm doing in the studio. The work is crazy labor intensive, taking hours and even days to produce a piece, which is the polar opposite of what I've been doing for years with running a production pottery.  It's slow ceramics, slow making, and I am loving it. The pleasure is so deep, and it's a pleasure I have not experienced in years. Because I also love selling my work-- a lot of it--I will probably figure out how to put some of these pieces into production and make them more widely available, but for now, I just want to ride this wave.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

make it mighty ugly

I've been noticing lately that I've been falling back into workaholic habits: long hours at the studio, sneaking over there on the weekends to finish pieces, cutting lunch short so I can get back to work, and feeling agitated when things come up that take me out of the studio. Like last week, I woke up Tuesday morning to an eye that was swollen almost shut. I was diagnosed with preseptal cellulitis and given an antibiotic. The next day I woke up with both eyes swollen and an ugly rash on my face, neck, arms, and legs. Allergic reaction to the antibiotic. My left eye was so swollen I could barely see out of it, so I slapped a bandage over it and went to work. With no depth perception. I realized at the time that was not the right thing to do for myself, and I should be home resting. But really, I am so into what I am making these days that I am indulging the workaholic for now. Frankly, I'm just happy to know that I can still be this excited about clay again.

Something broke open for me about 6 weeks ago or so. I listened to an interview with Kim Werker, who wrote a book called Make It Mighty Ugly. Apparently, it's a book she wrote just for me, all aimed toward my personal demons: perfectionism, fear of failure, stopping before I start because of the voices in my head, blah blah blah. I've had several people tell me that I need to make something ugly, to get past that shit, and I resist that idea so much. But the way Kim talked about it made me realize that it's not about making something ugly on purpose, it's about making something and not being afraid that it will be ugly.

I've been drawing and making designs on pots for a while, and I know I can make something really beautiful and nice to look at. But there is something about these designs that bore me to death. It started when I was working on my grandma's urn last year: I made the urn with a perfectly designed trillium flower all around, and I hated how it looked. So perfectly boring. My hand, almost on its own, scratched it up. I liked it much better, and left it at that.

This year, I've been working on mishima concepts, and I really love the process. It's insanely labor-intensive, but the results are lovely and I'm having fun re-interpreting my work through this new design process. But, I'm running into that same wall of things looking perfectly boring. The work, though enjoyable and beautiful, feels like a dead end design-wise.

I had a couple of pieces in the studio that I had reserved for "fun". Meaning I could do whatever I wanted with them and they didn't need to fit into any category of work that I've made before. I kept pulling the pieces out, and just staring at them. Nothing was happening. Weeks went by. It wasn't until I listened to Kim that I was able to pull those pieces out and do the work. I still struggled with the voice telling me to not screw it up, but I worked through the first wall and made some work that was kinda ugly, and it helped push me to a different level.

The main thing I got out of it was to not judge the process or the work-- not before, during, or after. Judging is a preclude to letting the voices take over and shutting down the creative process. A couple of weeks ago I had an idea to make some small dishes carved out like Art Deco roses. Immediately the voices started in on how the concept was too simple, too obvious. Judge judge judge. I was able to override the voices and make the pieces anyway, and it is their very simplicity that makes them so awesome. I finished some other pieces last night and I was having that anxiety around feeling like they were not the way they "should" be. I caught myself judging, and stopped. The work is just what it is. It has no intrinsic value one way or the other other than to teach me about what I want to do next.

And fuck it anyway. I have Open Studio this weekend and the work is going to be finished and shown no matter what. Come see me if you can!

Monday, November 03, 2014

caterpillar wrangler

I have not posted the past couple of weeks because I have a new obsession, and I think you all are going to be as fascinated by it as I am. My new obsession is caterpillars. Specifically, monarch butterfly caterpillars.

I've been into the Monarch migration for a long time, and I'm extra immersed in the Monarchs this year. The Monarch migration is on right now, and if you follow me at all, you know I did a paper cut Monarch butterfly installation in the window of Marion and Rose's Workshop a month ago.  I've been fixated on translating the peculiar overwintering habits of Monarchs into art for years. The overwintering habitat is an art installation in itself, and trying to express it in art has been an ongoing challenge for me. Butterflies have a certain quality that can be read superficially as merely decorative, the most extreme feminine side of nature. When I see butterflies used in art or craft, it often comes off as cute, pretty. It's rare to fine interesting art created with butterflies. It's a problem that I perhaps created in my own mind, and have been trying to puzzle out for years.

Recently, I was visiting a popular destination for overwintering West Coast Monarchs at Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz. I've visited many times, especially back when I actually lived about 5 minutes away. For the first time, I went into the educational center there, and as I was looking at different breeds of milkweed flower (the ONLY food Monarch caterpillars eat), shitty t-shirts and baseball caps with Monarchs on them (I get that people buy this stuff and the money goes to supporting Monarch habitat and education, but could someone please create something that is actually wearable?) and little books and pamphlets on Monarchs, I was drawn to a live milkweed plant that was in the Center, and to my surprise, I saw a live Monarch chrysalis hanging on branch, along with a live caterpillar.

The feeling I had in that moment was both a feeling of recognition-- I knew immediately what I was looking at-- along with shock at how beautiful it was. The Monarch chrysalis looks like plastic. It's smooth, with a sheen that you don't often see in nature. And the most amazing part is that it HAS GOLD ON IT. A line of golden beads, and then flecks of gold around the base, just to totally blow your mind.

After that visit, it took a couple of days to sink in, but one day as I was walking to my studio, I realized that the milkweed plants that are scattered all over my neighborhood-- thanks to one neighbor on our street who planted a butterfly friendly native habitat in their front yard-- may have some Monarch caterpillars on them.

Let's just say that my morning was hijacked by caterpillar collecting, and I now have a full indoor habitat for Monarch caterpillars. I am currently hosting 15 caterpillars in various stages of development, from just hatched babies to big fatties ready to pupate to chrysalis pods that will be hatching butterflies in a few days. I hunt them everyday on my block and it's rare that I don't find at least one.

You may ask why I have this going on in my house. Because I can. It's safe and easy to raise butterflies indoors. Going from a caterpillar to a butterfly is a dangerous and tenuous business, and in an urban environment like mine with lots of predators raising them inside can help with their survival rate. I'm doing my part to make sure the butterflies survive. Mind you, I can't be bothered with a human baby or anything. But the butterflies, I can get behind that.

Watching the caterpillars go about their daily business is better than any TV or facebook feed. I find myself standing around in the kitchen, just watching them for 20 straight minutes. There are times when they all seem to be sleeping, and other times when they are all eating. Keeping them supplied with fresh milkweed leaves is a twice a day chore, it's like trying to supply a Roman banquet.

If you want to keep up with my 'pillars, I've been posting images on Twitter with the hash tag #MonarchCircus. If you live in coastal California,  you may want to think about looking around your own neighborhood for caterpillars and hosting a few of your own. Just don't go on vacation without hiring someone to bring them daily batches of fresh milkweed.

Friday, October 17, 2014

life near the epicenter

Today is the 25 year anniversary of the 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake that was centered near Santa Cruz where I was living back in 1989. It's an event that was a major turning point in my life, and this week as the anniversary was approaching, I felt the need to write about it again. It's on site called Medium, and you can check it out here.

Monday, October 13, 2014

turn it off

I grew up with public radio, and nothing soothes me like a calm and uninflected public radio voice. When I moved from Santa Cruz to the Bay Area, one of the perks in my mind was access to KQED, which is talk 24 hours a day, my favorite. Early on, I developed a studio habit of always having the radio on, always listening.

After 9/11 happened and the wars that went with it, I started recognizing that having tragedy pour into my ears all day was visibly eroding my mental health and ability to concentrate while I worked. For the first time, I started listening to music stations in my studio instead of talk all day. Then I discovered podcasts.

I'm addicted to podcasts, especially story telling and interview ones. Don't worry, fellow junkies, I'll list all my favorites below in the comment section, and I expect you to do the same. I will download 6 or 7 hours of podcasts to listen to while I work. Nothing soothes me like the opening music of my favorite podcasts.

But I've been noticing something about listening to podcasts all day while I work. My brain is constantly tuned in to listening, and when I'm tuned into listening, I can't do much of any other kind of thinking, like creative thinking, which is a problem. Then, a flood of thinking starts happening at inconvenient times, like when I'm trying to fall asleep or at my other favorite time, at 3 in the morning. I've noticed this problem while I'm gardening as well, and I stopped putting in earbuds while I garden over a year ago.

So I did something crazy last week, which was to turn off all my podcasts while I work. Also, since this is a cold-turkey kind of thing, all music too. Why music? Because even music tends to sweep me away, and I want to train myself to be present again. Complete and meditative silence in the studio while I am working.

I was afraid I would be bored somehow, but I wasn't. And isn't it a weird thing to be afraid of boredom anyway? Our whole culture is afraid of being bored. No, I wasn't bored and after I got over the initial discomfort of not feeding my podcast addiction, I liked the silence, didn't need the voices. And I was able to concentrate on problem solving some business-related things, and even come up with creative ideas as I was moving along. I've actually had to start keeping a notebook at hand to write down all the little things I was thinking about.

I think those of us who have a studio practice are prone to constant radio or podcast listening, even if we use it as a "background" thing. We generally work alone, so having that voice presence can make us feel comforted. I'm pretty convinced that for me, having an auditory distraction always going on is undermining my creative thinking, and I've been doing it for years. What do you think? Do you listen to anything while you work, or even watch things? Let me know if you think it affects you creatively.

Monday, October 06, 2014

okay with okay

It's not a secret that I am prone to anxiety. This is how my anxiety works, and maybe yours too: 
  • Take something that is causing me discomfort or uneasiness, like slow sales or the California drought. 
  • Use that shred of doubt or uncertainty and spin out a scenario, usually a worst-case scenario, into the future. 
  • Spend time thinking about how that is going to feel and what is going to happen. I'm going to lose my business and all my friends and colleagues will pity me; I'll witness the desertification of California and be one of millions of evacuees that are forced to leave the state due to lack of water. 
  • Take those feelings of fear, dread, and panic, stuff them right into my chest, and bring them back to the present moment. 

All of you fellow anxiety sufferers know precisely what I'm talking about. And I know exactly what I'm supposed to do: stay in the present moment at all times, because the present moment is all we have. When you find yourself living in some dark corner of the future, very gently and without judgement lead yourself back to the present moment. Over and over again, that is what one does to overcome the pulsation of anxiety.

I've been getting a little better at this, here and there. My trick is to just say to myself, "what if it's just going to be okay?" Like, all of this worry energy is just a waste of time. Things are probably not going to be horrible, they are definitely not going to be perfect, they are just going to be normal, totally acceptable, and okay. I mean, obviously we are doomed, but things are okay right now in this moment.

I was having a instance last week while I was installing my paper butterfly sculpture into the window of a store, and it was taking me about 4 times longer than I thought it would. It didn't really matter because the opening wasn't until the next day, but my natural reaction when things don't go as planned is to start the anxiety drum. This can make me a really annoying person to the people who love me best, by the way.

I was stringing each butterfly, one by one onto this fishing line, but my mind was somewhere else, working out a play-by-play of a future disaster regarding the balance in my bank account, because I obviously don't know how to manage time or paper installations. All of the sudden I noticed that I really loved the process of stringing each butterfly. It was labor-intensive, but I was enjoying it. I liked stepping back after every few minutes and seeing how the thing was shaping up. It gave me a moment of freedom where I was able to say to myself, "what if it's just going to be okay?" I'm okay right now,  I'm doing something totally enjoyable that will bring others delight, I'm not hungry or thirsty, I'm able to just stand here and do this thing. At some point I'm gonna die and it will all be over, but for now I'm finding the pleasure in living, and it's okay.

The second part of this exercise is being okay with things being okay. Anxiety sufferers are always waiting for the other shoe to drop so it can be difficult to be okay with okay, because it's not comfortable. We'd rather be chasing thoughts down a rabbit hole because at least that gives us a sense of doing something, of being in control. Being in the moment challenges us to let go, and anxiety types hate that shit. If we let go, who will keep the world spinning?

Little by little, every day, I'm working at being okay with okay.