Monday, July 27, 2009



Every place is an armature for thoughts that fit that setting.
The longer I spent in the chateau’s topiary garden the more I understood of what attracted me and the lessons keep unfolding. Initially, the metaphor of cultivation seemed like fertile ground for ideas I hadn’t thought yet. This was particularly true in the context of a country like France where the emergence of culture is visible from prehistory to the present, where I found the aesthetic values, pervasive in every aspect of life, so affirming. Feeling the presence of high culture with the experience of being around the castle for a month, pushed my thoughts toward the manners of society and the customs of the highest strata. The refinements and specificity, the attention to behavioral form that shows that you belong to a particular culture are part of the education of the individual, determined by the social group. Transmission of attitudes and values occurs on many levels often below conscious awareness. We can feel what our group wants from us even when it’s not stated outright.
From there I began to reflect on nature and nurture, how the personal mode of behavior is sculpted by others, dependent on others’ attention, the value as far as the shapers are concerned is determined by keeping to that shape. The bushes are genetically the same, but the shape they take has been determined by the cultivator. Upbringing and environment seemed far more important than the basic genetic code. Epigenetics has shown how environmental factors can turn gene’s propensities on and off. The sophisticated elaboration of an individual style of being depends on so many overlapping factors that feed personal development.
Being in the garden made me feel like part of a thing of beauty. The bushes were healthy, gently tended. Tended for order and harmony that I got pulled into. I look back at body aches and pains that seemed to disappear and see that the garden had become my Temple Beautiful. Day after day, its carefully arranged tableaux healed the chinks I’d contracted into from day to day life in the outside world. It was a place of escape and recuperation.
In the last week, I began to include my presence in the garden. After all, I was choosing the angle and what to include, it was me studying this place, this phenomenon which made me a significant factor in its presence. I used to hate it when friends would debate whether a tree falling in the forest made any sound. Thinking back, I suppose what I was reacting to was the debating of it and not the question itself, which like the sound of one hand clapping point to the treachery of verbal statements as well as the importance of the observer to the observed. “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.”
Including myself felt closer to some aspect of truth. This is the same reason literature seems more true than psychology. It seems more honest, allows the logic of the universe in a single individual to shine with the unique perspective offered to the field of knowledge. Including myself in the garden finally linked what I’d been doing at the chateau and what my work has always been about – what the interior drama feels like. Images can contain more than the outer surface. The topiary garden was big enough, in reality and metaphor, that it filled my vision in all directions, giving me access options from outside to deep within. Though fully escaped from outer reality, the sculpted trees and bushes can have flexible roles in a society of their own, a life sized gameboard for imagination to play on. It was a fantasy space, patterned on the sense of magic in the creator and I felt myself admiring the many creators, the artisan(s) that made the large urns placed thoughtfully, alone and in social groupings, the sculptor of the trees, the designer of the garden, the tender of the roses, even the placement on the hill. It’s not a big step from those kinds of thoughts to an Aesthetic Consciousness that is transpersonal. When I started to include myself, I still felt strongly that I was resonating with an awareness that tuned through my placement in being to mirror the perceptions and understandings available through my lens of experience. The emanations I used to represent me were clearly reflecting from beyond me. Drawing is a way to see something, to represent a significant relationship that is unclear until the right structure is found to understand it. Going back and finishing the drawings begun in the garden, they keep teaching me, pointing out aspects of a growing mystery and a lasting appreciation.

Saturday, July 25, 2009



When I found out about getting the Artists’ Residency at Rocheforte-en-Terre in Brittany, France, the initial sensation was something like terror. The prospect of a month in an unknown place made all the day-to-day patterns of my life wrap around me with barbed tentacles that would sting me if I moved. I liked my days and I was giving them up for days I knew nothing about. I also knew it was time to do this, for exactly the same reasons, to stir up those patterns with an entirely new experience. I directed the fear into excitement, a similar adrenalized state that reframed the apprehension.
A profound change of surroundings obliterates the thoughts that go with familiar places. This includes attitudes toward time. The novelty of a new place stimulates the dopamine circuits producing an alert focus on the present. The mind is scrubbed clean by the constant stimulus of entirely new ways of being. Separated from the time triggers of my life in Baltimore helped me settle into an ongoing unfolding moment. The perception of time as a commodity that can be spent faded into the more fluid learning experience of the whole. Immersion in work has always been my purest experience of focus in the here and now. Surrounded by difference, everything was in focus; the creeping invisibility that erases the familiar never had time to set in. Almost everything I did felt like a peak experience. Appreciation and gratitude were constant companions.
Having always focused my work on making the intangible visible, the concreteness of the material surroundings was a particular challenge after a career of imagery drawn from skies and other chaotic systems. What is solid would seem more inert, unchanging as it persists in time. I quickly realized that objects have spheres of influence not defined by their outer boundaries, and that outer influences extend their effects to whatever responds to that frequency. Topiary trees were an especially provocative meeting of matter and mind. I ended up spending most of my time in the garden.
I got back from France feeling very laid back, with none of the pressures of time I generally experience. This ease was immediately threatened by the demands made by the familiar. Routines begin with settings, so being back in the same settings triggered a range of automatic behavior programs. The conditioned pattern of going right out to walk after lunch, then meditating, then into the studio, is a pattern I value, it’s what assures that I’ll get something done. Not going through with the expected pattern creates tension. The prompt goes unanswered. This time, I leave it that way, live with the tension. I can see how confining those routines can be and that stirring them up a bit could actually reduce my tension about time, created by routines trying to complete themselves.
Like so many contemporary living spaces, my studio is a nest of portals into virtual places. Our objects function like locales with a vocabulary that builds on the metaphors of sites and schedules within a realm of information. Every object/place has it’s own triggers for attitudes toward time. Modern culture has so many prompts flashing, insisting on the pattern of behavior they represent. Every object is a world that wants something from us, has ways to use our time and attention. My time in France helps me pull back and choose the worlds that matter, to reprogram my habits and allow more space for growth.
The presence of that experience in memory adds to my store of gratitude, for Christopher and Jane Shipley, who worked so successfully to make it a rewarding experience, for my fellow residents, Betsy Boyd, Beth Shipley and Amy Metier, who enlarged my experience with their personal sensibilities, what they distilled from what they saw increased my ability to see where I was, and to the people of Rocheforte-en-Terre who welcomed us and helped us feel like a part of the life of the town and offered a deeper understanding of life in France. I‘m grateful for France itself, the value of beauty and regard for the past. Immersion in a vast historical time defuses the ticking clock of contemporary time. The futility of counting the grains of sand on the beach frees me to be on the beach and appreciate each extended moment in its full duration.