Finally, the little matter of the second koan: "Don't make Practical: Practical comes from China".
Naoko was right: in this day and age, whether I like it or not, Practical comes from China. I've spent several years studying the world of business and I can confirm that with some exceptions, most stuff that forms the bulk and backdrop of our material culture is mass-produced in the midst of other cultures, in other lands.
so, what now? What DO I make? How am I relevant?
Earlier this week as I sat and wove on my living room floor, I actually heard an answer:
I am relevant not because I provide for physical needs, but because I fire the spark of imagination that makes it worthwhile.
So I had left off with Naoko giving me the benefit of the doubt and sending me off with a good mark for my final studio work, in spite of my inability to reconcile my ideas of wilderness survival with practical work.
I came back to BC and got on with my life, getting a commercial diploma in fashion design which landed me a corporate job immediately. I realized that my work, my art work, was toxic to me and unresolved, so I did my best to put it out of my mind.
Several years elapsed in this way, until one day while I was visiting friends on Galiano Island, I reached onto a bookshelf for the worn spine of a large paperback book. The title had been rubbed away by use but I could still see the imprint of the publisher; I had good associations with that icon, and that was what prompted me to reach for that particular book.
It was 'The Book of the Vision Quest'
, by Steven Foster and Meredith Little.
I began to flip through it, and realized that what I had been trying to create in my final studio work was the preparation for a Vision Quest.
I wrote to Naoko and let her know what I had found, finally creating the narrative that I was unable to articulate while I was in the moment.
Here is my message, from April 2007:Hello Naoko,
A few weeks ago something happened that has compelled to write this
message to you, so that I can establish a feeling of closure on my
final studio project from April 2000. You gave me a high grade for my
work and I felt that I still had more to do to earn it.
What happened was that I came across a book that spoke directly of the
issues that I was trying to address in my work.
Please search your memory to see if you can recall my project, which
was to collect or make objects and then pack them in my trunk,
imagining what I would take with me, what I would need to survive both
physically and emotionally, if I were to go into the wilderness for an
extended period of time by myself.
I was received by my peers at my critique with some (justified)
confusion. At that time, I could barely verbalize my inspiration and
thesis and I was very attached to it emotionally, and self conscious
about proposing such an extreme scenario, one I had never even come
close to experiencing, as a point of departure. Everything I had done
made sense in my own mind, but when I had to face my peers, I felt very
silly and naive. I couldn't place my work in any cultural context for
them, or myself.
Last week I came across a book called The Book of the Vision Quest, by
Steven Foster with Meredith Little (Island Press, 1983).
A Vision Quest (as these authors practice it) is to go into the
wilderness to an isolated spot with a bare minimum of supplies, and
fast for three days and nights.
The purpose of doing a Vision Quest is spiritual. One learns one's own
mind by severing oneself from the known, experiencing the threshold of
one's physical existence, and then returning to the known. This
archetype is quite ancient and has roots in cultures worldwide, as the
I realized that my final project was about me metaphorically packing my
trunk and embarking on an extended Vision Quest. I wish I had been able
to say this to my studio mates then!
Here is a passage from the book that describes what I was doing, and
what I was intuitively aware of while I was packing that trunk seven
"Though you will walk as nakedly as possible to your rendezvous with
the Great Mother, you must carry some of the tools of civilization. We
cannot recapture the early peoples fine-tuning to Nature. We can only
simplify the elaborate technological barrier behind which we live our
passive, helpless lives.
As you collect your gear in readiness for the trip, you will face many
minor choices about what to bring and what to leave behind. This
process itself is part of the experience of severance, of sorting out
what for you is an essential bit of material environment and what you
dare to let of of for this brief time. Your fully loaded backpack is
symbolic of your attachment to the life you are leaving... Do you
really want to carry that much? Like the burden of fear, it may prevent
you from getting where you want to go.
"Part of the Vision Quest experience is learning what you can get along
without, psychologically and physically. Recognize that as you prepare,
you are involved in a symbolic act. You are selecting from your past
those things that will make it possible for you to walk into your
future. You are finding the delicate balance between the security of
the past and the risk of freedom."
I am still engaged with these questions and issues; and now that I am
at home with my daughter, I have had the freedom to do do more
exploration (some workshops on wild foods and survival, for example). I
will be doing at least one Vision Quest this summer, on Labour Day
Weekend. I'll let you know how it goes!
I think that I will have to explore my interest in terms of native
fibers, and study some anthropology.
She was so gracious, and wrote back to me affirming her support for the depth of my project, and saying she would look forward to my next step. It provided closure on that project, at least.
But what of the practical work? What of the koan: "Don't make practical: Practical comes from China"?
That's a little post-script, a happy beginning to new things, and I'll finish it off tomorrow.
There are several pieces of advice that I remember from my time at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.
The first piece I received from my Foundation Studies professor Frances Dorsey
, at my critique with her after my very first semester. I had created an embroidered wool blanket in very neutral colours; and though I can't remember her exact words, she told me that next time, I should consider using a fine thread of a bright colour in the design: not as a complement, or even an accent; not even meant to be seen. The purpose of the bright thread was to create a visual resonance, a sort of vibration that would stimulate the eye without necessarily triggering conscious perception.
Of course I politely declined; and of course, now I see how absolutely brilliant she is and I use her advice all the time.
The second piece of advice came indirectly from my Print and Dye professor Naoko Furue. I say 'indirectly' because I think I just happened to be in the print & dye studio while she was teaching another class, and so I overheard her. This time, I do remember her words:
"Don't make practical: practical comes from China!"
I was so devastated by this that I barely remember how she elaborated on it. I desperately wanted to make beautiful, functional work; I thought the only alternative to functional was cerebral visual commentary on abstract concepts, and I couldn't stomach that stuff! Thus, at the time I heard it, her statement seemed damning to my precious heart.
(This ties into another little lesson from Frances, taught through the chopping-up of belaboured paintings in gouache: 'don't get attached'.)
Naoko was my professor for my advanced studio work, in my final semester before graduation. I tried to make a lot of very functional work... and ironically, it all added up to a very cerebral visual commentary on abstract concepts.
Ever centred on survival (see my previous post), I had imagined myself to be leaving for a year to live alone in the wilderness, and had packed an edited collection of objects that I thought would be necessary to sustain me. Many of them were made by me, but not all: for instance, I had packed a beautiful bowl that my dad had given to me; and not all of the objects (or perhaps none of them) were purely functional: there was a big emotional component, too, in the level of embellishment and decoration. I tend to be a bit atavistic in my embellishment habits.
I sound very rational about this now, of course, but I was inarticulate at the time; and when none of my studio mates 'got it', I was helpless. I struggled to choke back tears.
They were polite and trying to be supportive, but they shifted uncomfortably in their seats. I could see they pitied me, the poor lost soul.
I think Naoko must have rescued me; she was a bit more in tune with what I was doing than I was at the time, and she gave me the benefit of the doubt.
Later, she said to me: "Rebecca, I feel you are on a mission. I don't know what that mission is, but I feel you are pursuing it with great intensity."
Now, how does this little story resolve? Cliffhanger!
You'll have to wait til at least tomorrow night to find out.
Have any of you ever worked through The Artists Way
? If you haven't, and you have saturnine tendencies, then head to your nearest used-book store and pick yourself up a copy. It's a very helpful book.
Now that I have all my little basket-community dreams coming true, I am obliged to face a few of my demons about making baskets, and art in general.
I have this bad demon (an utterly entrenched mental habit) that insists that only useful things (and people) have value; art is merely either frivolous trinket-stuff, or entertainment and trade for the wealthy. At its worst, this habit makes me wish I could lobotomize myself and get rid of my creativity altogether, because it really gets in the way of pursuing useful things such as a lucrative career.
I can see that this habit is one more stony mass binding me into orbit around 'survival'. In an orbit around 'survival', it makes sense that only 'useful' things have value.
Of course I can argue that even in my own experience, I feel that art has value: I love going into Strathcona because there are little bits of art and creativity on display on every corner; in some blocks, on every house and in every garden. It's lovely, it brings me great pleasure and happiness. In my friend Renee's house, she has paintings -- real ones! -- and the vibration of the colour relationships alone is enough to captivate me.
"But," the voice says,"Back to business. This has to go somewhere. Someone has to pay for all this. Who is going to do the paying!"
I am a little kid again, trying to figure out where my meals are going to come from when I am big, and alone in the world.
Unfortunately, I know from my experiences with depression that questions and mental habits like these really don't have any answers; they just exist, demanding and insatiable. There is no argument that I can make with myself that will free me to leap out of this old rut; this weary trudging will always be a part of me.
But I don't want you to think that I believe it's hopeless. I know that once I can accept these ideas as constructions of my own mind, if I am diligent, and persistent, I will be able to sustain mindfulness of this habit and gradually lift myself out of it, gently. The questions will always be there, and blows and disappointments may send me back to them; but for the most park, I should be able to stop asking, and simply leave them behind.
Thanks to my sister Andrea and her random research genius, I had an entirely uncanny experience today....
I went to an open studio session of The Urban Weavers Project
at the McLean Park Fieldhouse in the Strathcona neighbourhood of Vancouver. At the front gate there was a huge pile of bright red, elegant-looking osier dogwood, and a bale of guilty-looking English ivy. I knocked briefly and then went through the door into a modest room -- an entire living room! with natural light and a kitchen! -- devoted to basketry with local materials, with photos and project samples up on the walls, and chairs and buckets of water with materials soaking in them.
A gentleman named Martin was kicked back in a green patio chair chatting with one of the lead artists, Sharon Kallis
, who was working on a hat twined from English Ivy.
I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. All my little artist loneliness obliterated in a single moment! It seems so impossible and unexpected, I'm laughing still.
Now I only hope that I can contribute something meaningful here, and not just slobber all over everyone in my excitement and enthusiasm.
I've had the chance to observe the learning process of some students of mine of late, and it's reminded me of the importance of creative risk, of letting go.
My professors used to try to drill into us the importance of doing samples and swatches, drawings and studies; to get a feel for the materials, explore some ideas, and avoid costly oversights. Of course, lots of people get an idea in their heads and just jump right in -- and that can be good, too -- wonderful, in fact -- but only if they're not attached to the outcome. Which is rarely the case if they start with an idea of what they want to create.
Sometimes people get really precious with the materials or their projects, desperately constrained to work with only the premium materials, or have the project turn out perfectly. Perfectionism -- that's a brutal closed loop. Nothing grows in that soil.
I'm a pretty creative person; I tend to be inventive, and fearless in experimenting with techniques that interest me and 'trying things out'. But I am also very rigid when it comes to the ways of the world (mostly being confused by what they are), and afraid to step out and make mistakes for fear of looking foolish.
I've been doing pretty well in this area in the last few months, and I have to give some credit to the supernaturally charming and handsome Nico Luce at North Shore Elements yoga studio in Lynn Valley for the spark of a new context for me. He started a class with an amazing little tale about a teacher of his insisting that there should be no 'try' in one's vocabulary, because 'try' supposes 'succeed' or 'fail'.
Instead, one should only use the word 'practice'.
And so, 'practice', with the supposition that I act in earnest, and diligence, and with faith, has become my new context. Thus I am able to start websites and register businesses and participate in craft shows without having to 'have it all figured out', because I am practicing.
This is an extended quote from the intro materials from the Nature Awareness School's
Kamana digital brochure, written by John Chilkotowsky. I post it here because there are a few things that resonate... chiefly, this idea of defining 'survival', which is something that I come back to frequently.
Why can't my life be about abundance? why does it have to be about survival?
I'm not sure. I guess partly because I care about others and I see that some of us are having difficulty surviving -- as in, meeting the basic necessities. And for that matter, if one is living in a wealthy place, then the bar for 'meeting the basic necessities' is actually a lot higher... because otherwise, there is loneliness and isolation: from being left out, singled out, or just plain different... illegitimate.
Perhaps another reason that I have this old 'survival' rut in my head is that as a child, I spent enough time alone outdoors to know my physical vulnerability and dependence, and enough time indoors to know that my family situation wasn't a very happy place. Not terrible, no violence, just sad and angry and lost. I started thinking about survival from many angles, from a young age.
Sometimes I am sad and angry and lost as an adult, and I wonder, what do my own kids make of this?
Here is what John Chilkotowsky has to say...
"I thought I was signing up for classes based on
the subject matter of the courses - survival
skills, nature observation, etc. In hindsight, it
was really Tom that I was signing up for. He
wasn't my guru and never will be. He was however a
mentor who pointed the way ahead.
In every class, I could count on one thing -
something transformative and completely
unpredictable was going to be offered. Really a
lot like life, yes? Difference is, Tom was clever
enough to get you to at least TRY the "crazy
transformative thing" that otherwise you may have
just forgotten about.
Folks with decent experience can teach how to make
fire with two sticks, or how to build a shelter
from debris. Tom taught me something much greater
- how to grab life by the horns and hang on for
the wild ride.
What is survival after all? My definition of
survival goes far beyond the physical means to
gather enough food, water, warmth and safety to
make it another day.
To really LIVE in this one wild and precious life,
you need at least one person in your life (and
probably many along the way) that are able to
shake up your "snow globe" with a kind, merciless
hand. You need to be de-ranged - moved out of thecurrent arrangement that is stuck, and then
allowed to re-arrange into a configuration that
can be alive in what life is now.
Survival equals your/our ability to adapt,
improvise, and change.
Of course, we don't generally seek out things to
test our ability to change. Sooner or later, they
always find us. For me it's a question of how much
living we do with the time we are here. How much
of that time are we stuck, and how much are we
A skep is an old-fashioned beehive, the rounded dome type that is still referenced on honey packaging (and the hairstyle).
I'll post soon about the place where I came across this video... pretty exciting developments in the works.
Here's my booth from yesterday's Spring Market at the Vancouver Waldorf School.
I've written this post twice now, and each time I did I lost it thanks to a faulty internet connection. I'm just going to take that as I sign that I should leave it at this, and sign off for now.
Check Ella Pedersen's blog at www.littleredcaboose.com; she may have more images of the event to share.
Two felt project baskets headed for the Spring Market on March 17th...