Friday, May 8, 2015

Art in Community

Art at the Center is in a time of transition; to a new space and new ways of working.
Part of this process has been to look closely at what is at the center of our practice.  When we chose the name, the idea was that art was central to community, connection, and sharing. While a physical location provided a space to gather, what made the art central was the people and the connections formed around gathering, making and sharing.
During this time of transition, I have had the great opportunity to work in a variety of settings and to reflect on what is unique about artistic practice in community.
Recently, I have been reflecting on some of the stories and experiences in this blog.  
What I find over and over is a theme of how community supports creative practice.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Exploring Creativity and Contemplation

I have been leading a book group for the last few months based on The Artist's Rule: nurturing your creative soul with monastic wisdom.  
We meet once a week gathered in a circle around a candle and a selection of art materials.  We discuss a chapter and reflect on practices suggested for creativity and contemplation.  Our gathering begins with some quiet time of creative contemplation exploring materials.  The photos below show some of our explorations of natural materials from the chapter on finding inspiration in nature.
What has been interesting to me in this group has been the way our time of exploration and play with materials sets us up for discussion.  The play with materials and the energy of making together really feels to be a part of our interaction.  This is true whether or not participants choose to share what they make.  I enjoy the quiet of making and rustling of materials as much as I enjoy the insights and stories others share about their practices.
We completed the book last week and will break for the summer.  As I reflect on the experience I am thankful for the community that formed around this gathering and this practice.  I am also thankful for having had this space to explore my own creative practice in a time of transition to a new space and way of working in the world.
Maybe because we meet in a church, I have been reflecting more on the connections between artistic practice and spiritual practice.  Both are intensely personal and yet are nurtured in community.  Just as attending church or a regular prayer practice or meditation class can ground a spiritual practice, having a group to meet and share can ground and enrich creative practice.  Creative people need community.  And creative community itself is a spiritual practice.  It requires a safe space to show up, to reflect and to share, to witness and to be witnessed by others on the journey.

One of our final mornings in the group, we explored the idea of names and identity.  We adapted an exercise from chapter 11, creating clay stones with words of inspiration or names inscribed and imprinted in the clay.  This exploration of identity, inspiration and call seemed especially poignant as we discussed the names and expectations that come from outside and those that may seem quieter coming from within.  I was reminded again how we need spaces that see and nurture our sense of our creative identities.  These touch stones are a good reminder of a personal sense of creative identity and inspiration; this transcends the particularities of the roles and jobs we find ourselves in as we bring our creative vision into the world.

Art Day at Roslyn Retreat Center

On April 18 I attended a full day art retreat led by Bishop Goff at the Roslyn Retreat Center in Richmond.  We met in the picnic pavilion pictured below - a great open space, perfect for a mild spring day.

Here's a view of the inside of our studio for the day.

Tables were set with all sorts of materials - scraps of wood and wooden objects...
...many different kinds of paper including different designs, textures and images...
...and a table full of recycled containers and other bits and pieces (imagine a huge junk drawer)...
there were also many kinds of glue, hand-held power tools, books for inspiration, wire, metal, paint, a rich selection of open-ended found materials. 
For the morning I enjoyed the invitation to walk around and find something that spoke to me and then just to play with putting materials together.  In the photo below the lower piece of wood was the first one I picked up.  I liked how it sort of suggested a screen and buttons but in a very low tech way.  I made the screen part into a colorful collage and added additional buttons and collage elements.  
The second round piece of wood was a sort of decorative plate.  Here I returned to a familiar theme and created a color wheel using buttons I brought along for the day. 
The introduction to the retreat included an invitation to bring an object to work with - something from an attic or basement or thrift store.  I brought along a wooden wine box, thinking it doubled as a nice carrying container for materials and might be fun to decorate.
For the afternoon, I worked with the box, adding decorations and a door to create an Art Box.  My neighborhood had two Little Free Libraries within walking distance and a nearby neighborhood plans to install additional sites.  I have been thinking for a while about something similar for an art exchange.  That was the inspiration for the Art Box.

I added one of the pieces I began in the morning to the side for decoration.  The door was the most difficult part.  My initial thought was to wait and make it at home but that felt a bit like procrastination.  Finding hinges seemed to be a good sign I could improvise something so I decided to challenge myself to fashion a door out of what was available.

The sheet of plastic had been rolling around the back of my car for about 6 months, the wood scraps were almost the right size and the metal rulers proved just stiff enough to offer horizontal support while light enough to not add bulk.  In the end it was a good exercise in sticking with a problem and working with what was available.
The inside of the box is still empty.  I plan to add the color wheel mounted in the back along with some small shelves and a note encouraging people to participate in an art exchange.   
It needs a bit of work to be ready for mounting and will live under the covered portico at St Aidan's for starters.  As I tell people about the idea, I get different questions - Does it have to be finished art? What about bags of supplies for kids to take home and make something?  What if someone takes everything?  How will you know who got what you put in?  How will people know they can participate?  
Clearly I have some details to think through but I look forward to trying it and will share some of the stories of what I learn in a future post. 

It was lovely to be in a space as a maker with other makers.  Our reflection at the end focused on the nurturing energy of sharing time, space and materials for this creative work.  I was honored to hear the stories others shared about their creations and to get to share my process as well.  

Monday, April 27, 2015

Making and Wholehearted Relationships

In Reading Daring Greatly by Brene Brown a few quotes jump out at me as I reflect in particular on the chapter on parenting with a whole heart.

"Wholehearted parenting is not having it all figured out and passing it down - it’s learning and exploring together.  And trust me, there are times when my children are way ahead of me on the journey, either waiting for me or reaching back to pull me along.”

In my experience making and materials exploration invite this learning and exploring together because adults aren’t as far ahead as kids in their knowing.  Typically parents know more about a given topic than their kids so it takes more effort to get into the explorer frame of mind.  With open ended materials it’s more about exploring together.  The idea of reaching back to pull me along resonates too - I see adults find a new way to perceive art and creativity through watching their kids discover - seeing their child explore in a playful way gives the adult permission to do that too and then there is a new openness that is less about getting it right and more about being in the moment and exploring together.

Further along, she writes,
“…in its original Latin form, sacrifice means to make sacred or to make holy.  I wholeheartedly belief that when we are fully engaged in parenting, regardless of how imperfect, vulnerable, and messy it is, we are creating something sacred.” (p.238)

Brown writes about parenting ; the idea seems equally applicable to other relationships of love and care too.  Being fully engaged requires sacrifice because in a moment of full engagement, we give up our preoccupations and distractions to be fully present.  This sort of presence honors and and sanctifies.  

Friday, April 17, 2015

Reflections with Staff at Emmanuel Preschool

I returned to Emmanuel Preschool after a week as Artist-in-Residence for processing and planning next steps with the staff at the school.

The best part of this discussion was how the engagement and energy of the adults mirrored the engagement and energy of the children the previous week.  Teachers shared new perspectives on individual children as well as stories that confirmed and deepened earlier impressions of a child's process.  I was reminded why it can be so energizing to work in a collaborative environment.

At the same time I also appreciated each teacher's honesty in sharing ways that a new way of working was challenging or different for them as facilitators.  For example, one teacher tried a follow-up activity  where the children had a large shape with the directive to fill it with collage items in shades of a single color.  This was a class that dove into the collage activity in the studio, with students creating 3 and 4 collages  and two boys stayed for both groups, working a full 90 minutes.  She was disappointed to see they worked as quickly as possible to fill the shape with painted green glue and then moved on to something else.  In our conversation, we were able to explore how the studio exploration of collage focused on getting to know materials and building in an open-ended way on small square papers.  In contrast, filling a shape may have felt more task oriented - it was easier to determine when they were "done" - when the shape was filled - so they worked to get to that end as quickly as possible.
Mostly I was just really grateful to this teacher for sharing what didn't work - that takes confidence and courage and allows for clarification as well as the insights of the group to help with new ways forward.
We broke into small groups to brainstorm next steps for teachers to continue collage exploration in some way in their classrooms.  The four year old teachers focused on patterns and building and ways to extend these and the story telling associated with creations.  The twos teachers discussed exploring color themes and sorting materials with children so they could explore different textures within single color families.  As they discussed ideas, there was an energy in the room and a sense that one idea built on another so that they began to see how exploring variations on a single media could take them through not just one follow-up activity but many.
At the end of the session, one of the threes teachers shared a classroom story.  She read the children a book featuring collage dogs in the illustrations.  Afterward she took them to the recycling center to collect objects and had them work in pairs and groups of 3 to assemble a creature of their own of some sort with the objects.  She photographed the creatures and then the kids told her stories about them and then they took the objects BACK to the recycling center.
I loved this story of taking this open-ended process art idea a step further by just doing the arranging.  The only record of this creation was her photos and notes and yet, perhaps because of this, it was so rich.  The other fun piece to this was that the children did this activity the day before they visited the studio, to help prepare them for the idea of creating with recycled objects.  A lovely example of scaffolding their experience - from just arranging to arranging and gluing.
I left the meeting feeling I had learned as much as the teachers and wishing there were more time for the layered sharing of learning stories - stories of what the teacher learned, what the kids learned, how the teacher set up the experience, how children took it in new directions, how children suggested learning experiences and how teachers witnessed these.  Similarly I am grateful for how much I learned from hearing ways teachers extended the work we began in the studio, sharing my reflections but even more so from hearing theirs.  There were layers of reciprocity in the sharing among teachers, children and myself and I am thankful for the way that will enliven and enrich all our practice.

A Week of Collage with Emmanuel Preschool

I spent a week in March at Emmanuel Preschool working with teachers and students to explore collage.
This was a great follow-up to the hands-on training workshops I did with the Emmanuel staff in the fall.  Fall workshops gave me a chance to get to know the staff as makers, to appreciate their willingness to jump in and get hands messy trying something new and to be part of planning ways to bring a more process and practice based approach to art back to their students.  

One part of this planning include my week as an artist in residence.  Over three days, I got to work with all the students and teachers in the school in small groups in the studio.  I was amazed and delighted by the calm and openness of the teachers, the smoothness of transitions and the richness of conversations that occurred around observing the children and their creations.  

The first day, three year olds worked in an exploratory and energetic way.  They experimented  with placement of objects, layering and glue.  Some moved toward patterns and representational images.

The following day progressed to longer sessions and more involved work with the four and five year olds.   These makers shared strategies and stories, with many working to create representational images, stories, patterns or built 3D environments.

Moving from work with four and five year olds to studio time with two year olds was a good reminder of the vast difference in development in preschool ages.  The youngest makers were half the age of their older peers; they approached the studio experience and me more cautiously.   This group particularly enjoyed painting with the glue.

Exploring ways the glue will drip off the brush.
Lots of glue!
Exploring sticking different shapes and textures to the glue - fabric, button and paper.

I also gained a new appreciation for how challenging it can be to stay the course in following what is developmentally best for very young children.  We do not feel disappointed that a two year old does not ride a two wheeler.  It seems the very definition of two-year-old-ness to ride around on a push toy.  In the same way, a two year old collage that consists of mostly painting glue is an indication that a two year old is just where they need to be developmentally.  Painting glue and feeling it's stickiness on their hands is what will allow them to form patterns and images later just like getting a sense of balance and motion on a push toy will allow them to be ready when it is time for a two-wheeler.

Continuing to Explore Art as Prayer

Back at St Peter in the Woods for an evening as part of their Lenten series, we continued to explore art as prayer. 
Once again it was wonderful to see people play and stretch and interact - with materials and with each other. Stations offered doodling as prayer, collage, mandala drawings, and decorating prayer candles.  
To start us off I shared my belief statement about studio work:
A studio is a sacred space - a space to explore and form relationships with materials, with others and with a deeper sense of self. The act of making quiets the mind, invites us to be fully present and opens us up to connections. Moments of connection spark curiosity, wonder, gratitude, and the urge to share what we discover. Sometimes we leave traces in images and objects we make; other times are more fleeting and leave their mark in new ways of seeing, empathy for another or a feeling of groundedness and connection to something greater. Community helps hold and tend this space - a creative and spiritual home for solitude as well shared experience.

Looking at the pictures, I am reminded how sharing materials around a table can feel similar to sharing a meal around a table. There is a sense of fellowship that develops in this gathering. We had more time to dig in to the materials tonight and participants were able to move around to try different materials. Some work was more social while others worked silently. Having others trying something new around you can support a personal practice and help hold the space. Artist, Ann Hamilton uses the phrase "alone together" and I love this description for group art-making because it does create spaces for solitude and deep personal reflection within the setting of community.