painting

Negative Space

When I learned to draw, one of the techniques I found so helpful to capturing reality was “negative space, ” paying close attention to and drawing the space around an object, rather than the object itself. It helps particularly with complicated objects and with linear perspective.

Hasn’t this past year been a communal exercise in negative space? We traced the space around the objects that we thought defined us and in that space we found the dimensionality of what we once took for granted and a perspective that was so hard to capture.

As a yogi, when I hear “negative space,” I also think of the Sanskrit word, “dukha,” commonly translated as “suffering.” One understanding of the etymology of the Sanskrit can be traced back to the seed words of “duk,” meaning “bad,” and “kha,” meaning “space.” The origins of dukha as suffering refer to the imbalance in the axle of a wheel, which caused discomfort to a traveler. And isn’t that how we feel when we are suffering? In a bad space, bumping down life’s highway.

One of the prompts I offered to my Art and Yoga class at All Soul’s this past spring was to create a piece inspired by negative space. I wrote this piece for the class, but didn’t share it then, so I share it here. The painting above is an old one done years ago from the “In the Garden” series.

Negative Space

As I drove around the corner and was about to pass the elementary school, I saw a toddler trying to climb the curb on the opposite side of the street. There was too much space around this tiny person, dressed in a dirty pink fleece jacket. She was small enough that climbing the curb meant that she bent to touch the cement to lift her foot towards it.

I pulled the car over and unrolled my window. As I did, I could see an Audi rounding the corner and waved for caution.  The care stopped. I could see from my rearview mirror that the driver was going through the same thought process I was.

Opening the car door, and leaving it open, I asked, “Where is your Mommy, honey?” as I walked towards her. I looked around. No one on the ball field. No one on the sidewalk in front of the school either.

When I picked her up, she bared her little teeth at me in a halfway smile, or in looking up at my face she grimaced to focus, I couldn’t tell. She was young enough to wear diapers or pull ups. She pointed at me and then at the house beyond the curb.

“I’ll drive up the road to see if there are people looking for her,” the man in the Audi said to me as he drove slowly past us.

“Does your family live here?” I asked too brightly and too loudly. I knocked at the front door of house she had pointed to and waited. She slumped on my hip and rested her head on my shoulder. There was no sound in the house.

 The Audi circled back.

 “There’s not a soul anywhere.” The only sound was the car’s idle.

 “I guess we’ll have to call the police,” I said.

Then: movement at the furthest corner of the ball field, in the woods beyond the school building. A woman ran towards us, her hands outstretched, her long blond hair electric behind her. I began waving, pointing to the child at my chest. As she got close, I could hear her urgent sounds as she ran low to the ground, unaware of the mechanics of her body’s propulsion, so single minded in her focus.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” she breathed.

“I found her as I was driving up.”

“Oh my God, oh my God. There. Oh my God! Thank you. Thank you.  My lead teacher is there…” she looked to the school. There was still the emptiness of the ball field. No one.

“She was where?! Oh my God. She…we! She’s part of the school. I’m day care. Special ed. I don’t know how. We have an outdoor classroom. She was gone.”

The woman didn’t look strong enough to handle adrenaline pumping in her slight frame. I was thankful she wore a mask, not because of the coronavirus, but because her fear and her guilt would have been too vivid and sorrowful to witness on this beautiful spring morning.

The man in the Audi drove off, waving at us, his calm smile incongruous with the flames of panic that continued to engulf the teacher.

“Thank you. Thank you. I hate to think…” the teacher said as she took the little girl from me. She clutched the child to her chest as she ran back to the school without looking back.

Later someone suggested that I should have followed up with the police anyway. But having worked at an elementary school for a brief time, I knew the teacher would have to file an incident report with the school and notify the little girl’s family. The negative space this child had created on an early spring morning would leave a permanent scar.

The Tart Taste of Fertility

Quince

Quince

I painted a picture I took of a quince as a way to keep creating.  We have a huge quince bush in our back yard — it blooms a delicate salmon-pink flower in the spring and then ripens about ten fruit in the summer that are so tart the squirrels won’t eat them.  Not much excited me about the subject as I sketched it, or kept me in a sweet flow as I painted.  Unlike the seed pods, it wasn’t a tortured process, but it felt like practice. Come to the canvas, mix the colors, listen to music, and fill a brush with paint.  Repeat.

But the universe was talking to me, I just wasn’t listening. As I became bored with painting, I grabbed one of my favorite books, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols by J.C. Cooper (Thames and Hudson, 1979), and looked up “quince” on a whim. The quince is an ancient Greek symbol of fertility, the food of brides and sacred to Venus.  Like ancient Sarah, I audibly snorked  and chuckled when I read this — what a strange sign! I am now fifty, so my baby making days are well behind me.  I’m in a phase of my life where I see my children ripening into adulthood.

I put the book down and returned to the canvas  — a verdant sea of green.  As I played with hues and shapes and shades, I realized that the sign for me was that my life is fertile ground, not my body.

That is the lesson of yoga as well.  Asana (poses) is what most people think of as yoga, but it is only one limb of an eight limbed practice.  There are also the ethical disciplines of the yamas and niyamas, the appropriate use of the life force in pranayama, and the abiding in silence and cultivating stillness to deepen an awareness of our connection to true self.

The practice of yoga is a tool to help us till the fertile ground of our being.  Once we have prepared this ground, we can fully bloom.

Conforming to the Box

Outside the BoxSometimes an inspiration or motivation for a creative piece morphs and moves so much that I feel as though it has its own life-force.

As I had just taken a job with First Book, a non-profit social enterprise that gets new, high quality books to kids in need, I had been thinking about some of my favorite books as a child.  Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, came immediately to mind.  As a girl, I loved Harriet.  She was everything I wanted to be:  completely her very own person, an adventurer, confident in her abilities and yet totally tuned into the world around her as an observer and a critic of sorts.  She knows no fear and gets through one of the most devastating things that can happen to an adolescent — a social shunning by peers.

I particularly loved the illustrations of Louise Fitzhugh, and one that jumped immediately to mind was of Harriet in the dumbwaiter, spying on the Manhattan socialite.  I decided to look up the novel online and was drawn into a beautiful journey learning more about Louise Fitzhugh.  She herself was a social renegade and a bit of an outcast because of her rejection of her family, her community and her sexual orientation.  When Harriet the Spy was published 1964,  the book received as much condemnation for a character that defied social norms as it did praise for the creative genius that Fitzhugh demonstrated with her character and the story.  I thought of my mother and how she most likely introduced me to Harriet, just as she had introduced me to other work for children that encouraged individuality and non-conformity, like Free to Be You and Me or Where the Wild Things Are. Mom wanted her children to be able to create their own stories — to question what society dictated for them.

Outside the BoxOutside the Box started from this thinking.  Sometimes who we are makes us very small to the world around us.  We might be seen as inconsequential because we are young, or we are women, or gay or have different religious beliefs.  But the weirdest thing is that when you feel inconsequential, it actually feels as though you are being squeezed into a very tight little box, kind of like Harriet in that dark dumbwaiter. The paintings on the sides of this form come from this place.

But as I meditatively worked painting and plastering this form, I found a much more redemptive place in my thinking.  Yes, we can feel constricted by social norms and they can be an evil force in life.  We can see ourselves as inconsequential.  But we can have the courage to challenge these norms as illusion.  In the eight-limbed practice of yoga, we are disciplined to focus inward, to quiet mind fluctuations, to find the end of duality because it sets up a falsehood that draws us deeper into the illusion.  What we work towards is freedom to understand that we are connected, we are part of the great universal consciousness.  While we remain unenlightened, we are actually just living in the shelter of a one-dimensional house.  Discovery involves some fearless climbing out of and scaling up the illusion of  a place that separates us from ourselves and the other.

A story Pema Chodron uses to illustrate how we gravitate to the security of this box — this illusion:Outside the Box

The truth, said an ancient Chinese master, is neither like this or like that.  It is like a dog yearning over a bowl of burning oil.  He can’t leave it, because it is too desirable and he can’t lick it, because it is too hot….We need encouragement and try [to leave our security].  It’s quite daring, and maybe we feel we aren’t up to it.  But that’s the point.  Right there in that inadequate, restless feeling is our wisdom mind. We can simply experiment.  There’s absolutely nothing to lose.    (From the Shambhala Sun website: http://www.shambhalasun.com)

So to think outside of your box, where must you climb?

To Do, Be OR The Challenge of the Empty Laundry Basket

A way to say goodbye

A way to say goodbye

At my goodbye party at Iona, I explained through a very ugly cry, that I was leaving because of my yoga practice. This life on the mat has helped me understand that challenges are at the very root of growth and development. Challenge helps us question, discover strengths and quiet the internal dialogue that binds us. I had grown comfortable at Iona and had lost my beginner’s eyes. While I could have stayed for many more years because I loved the work and the people, I knew comfort wasn’t good for me or the organization. I took a position at First Book on July 22 and I have beginner’s eyes, hands, mouth and feet. I remind myself every evening that just like headstand, this is the challenge I need and I will learn.

As I was leaving Iona, I decided to do a project for the teams I worked with. As a conceptual artist with a laundry basket full of 3.5 ” cubes of wood, I decided to do a block for each of the 12 individuals that would form a whole.

Block Puzzle

Block Puzzle

I started with the facade of the bouquet — since I thought of each person bringing a unique beauty to the whole — the sum being more beautiful than the parts. This facade took a long time, and to tell the truth, I was disappointed that it looks like a mundane painting on a china vase.

And, the process would be too long to produce the project by the time I left. On the other facades, I painted the Lao Tzu quote that was going through my mind about Iona’s strategic planning process and my own thinking about my own future journey.

The other is a white foreground with black lettering:

Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu

The last facade was more opportunistic. Ben sent me an incredible picture of his time at Ocean City. I loved the shimmer and the mystery of this new place. Fourth facade done.

Oppportunistic inspiration

Opportunistic inspiration

By this time, it was my last week. I had to step up the pace to complete the process. Interestingly, these are the images I’m the most happy with. I had to move fast, and to riff on the outer facades. So the words “bloom” or “flower,” the images of a shell, a bird in flight, then a feather flowed onto the wood. I began to use the wood as part of the design rather than to cover it up. I had to stop capturing reality and move to flowing creatively. I love that these are the images that are the “inside” the reality. Fitting for a team or an individual thinking about the future. According to Keith Sawyer in his new book on creativity, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, a good way to bubble up ideas around a problem or question is to give yourself a deadline or a boundary so that you can’t get stuck with one idea. Another way to bubble up ideas is to “topple,” to help your mind create ideas by association. For example: I didn’t like the picture I painted of the bouquet, but I really liked the idea of “blooming,” so I concentrated on a quick painting of the opening of a day lily. Then thinking of yoga, I used the stylized lotus to imagine the same bloom. Then I got realistic about what it was I wanted to say and I “said” it with image and word. Three blocks down in an evening, instead of in a week.

Toppled ideas

Toppled ideas

The last creative idea was to think about the how the individuals I know and love would make their own mark at Iona. I created a space for them to do this, using chalkboard paint.

It’s three weeks later than the day I left Iona. I spent yesterday tying a bow on the project, literally and figuratively.

I spent time thinking of the gifts I had received from these people in the six years I had worked at Iona and thanking them in writing, choosing the very right piece of the puzzle for them and wrapping it up. I wonder if they’ll have time to put the puzzle together?

Everybody gets chalk to make their mark

Everybody gets chalk to make their mark