Another Fortunate Accident Or Just Misfortune?

I really wanted to do something fun with this big piece of glass I found. It was the biggest so far, more than 3 feet by 3 feet. I sketched different variations of possible designs over many days. I knew I had to choose one or I would never get started. Eventually you just have to dive in.

As soon as I applied the bold lines of black, I felt I had tilted from my original plan. Damn. Do I keep going? Make the best out of a bad situation? When will I get another piece of glass this big?

Since I started this art thing a few months back, I had been promising myself I would make no corrections — that the process had to be open and free and accepting of whatever came of it. Each piece of art had to be an expression of circumstance, not intent.

Screw that idealistic crap! I might never find another piece of glass this big again! I grabbed a paper towel and some Windex and decided to start over. I didn’t even know if I could start over, but I was going to try. I sprayed the Windex and wiped the paper towel along the surface. Some of the black paint came off, but most of it just streaked and moved around. Much of the paint had dried enough already for most of the lines to maintain their original placement, but give up their guts each time I tried to wipe the whole thing away. I rubbed hard against the dry portions, leaving great swatches of injury along the entire span of design. Ugh, this was pitiful. It was just growing more and more hopeless with every swipe. Not only was I probably not going to be able to start over, but I was most assuredly ruining any chance of saving it and wasted…um…an entire…um…wait a minute. This was kind of cool.

Maybe I could make this work. Maybe I just needed to give myself up to the error. Not only that, but maybe I should paint the whole thing in error — create more scars and add the next color before the last color completely dries. It could be the worst thing I’ve ever done. But maybe not. It was time to check the depth of the pond by diving in head first. Let me know if I broke my neck.

This is how that big piece of glass turned out.

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I liked it, but I wasn’t brave enough to purposely try to fail again with another large piece of glass, so I grabbed one of my smaller pieces. If it sucked, I’d throw it away and not tell another soul. I could just continue my life as if nothing happened.

I explored with lines to keep it simple. No reason to be a hero. I wiped the wet paint when some of it had dried. Okay, still kind of cool. Maybe not a total disaster.

I kept going without a net. No plan. No expectation.

There is something very cathartic about giving yourself up to commit errors that you have pledged to leave alone — promised not to fix. Much like life, sometimes we have to let the mistakes happen, maybe even encouraging them, to see what type of beauty can be expressed from the mess.

Believe it or not, error can become art.

And because of this, perhaps we should all stop being so hard on ourselves when we make mistakes. We can never really erase them and start over anyway, so why bother looking the other way when they happen? Maybe mistakes aren’t really errors at all, but rather, expressions of the awkwardness we are meant to feel when life jolts us into an unexpected direction. You never know.

Regardless, I think I will keep going in this new direction and see what happens…

Until my next mistake.

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Ignore The Feeding Frenzy And Thank The Feeding Friends

I learn about life through my experiences. I have become cynical about some things, but overall, I believe I am optimistic and generally happy. I rarely have to look far to remember why.

I was fortunate enough to have a blog article published on the Huffington Post site recently. Not an article I wrote for my own blogs, but one I wrote in response to an open call for blog posts that dealt with America’s working poor. I figured my story fit the bill. I work. I am poor.

Some of you may have read the article. For those of you who didn’t, let me just say that it was an anecdotal summary of my career in about 1000 words or so. I didn’t try to pass the blame to anyone for any professional shortcomings I may have experienced and I wasn’t trying to garner sympathy for my plight. I just told my story — plain and simple — so people could see that hard work was not necessarily a ticket to success. I knew that there would be a percentage of the readers that responded negatively.

The feedback was mixed as expected, with about as many supportive comments as there were critical comments (and there were almost a thousand comments in all). The supporters applauded my candor and continued resolve, and generally seemed to understand the nuances of the purely expository purpose of the article. The detractors, on the other hand, were almost universally judgmental and insulting. They happily filled the informational blanks with their own assumptions to rationalize their outbursts. For example, one critic said he had no sympathy for a “pot-smoking loser” when he addressed the fact that I had initially dropped out of my first attempt at college. I never mentioned anything about smoking pot in the article (probably because I didn’t smoke pot. I preferred gin). I just said the temptations of a big university were too much for me. The critic obviously didn’t like the fact I had left out details he needed to make a hasty generalization, so he filled in the gap arbitrarily.

Initially, I read most the comments just to see what kind of feedback I was getting. But I soon realized there was nothing for me in any of them. Comments of support were nice, gave some momentum to my self esteem, but were fundamentally unnecessary. I love my life. I think the trade-offs I’ve made instead of following a traditional path have been worth it. I like the way I view the world. Sure, I have complaints and things to say about areas where I believe society can improve, but that doesn’t mean I need a hug to be happy. I always need hugs, but not for that reason. Hugs are just healthy and good for people.

But it was within the critical comments I found the most waste. Not one person told me anything that I didn’t already know. Many said I had made “reckless decisions” and deserved what I got. Hell, I knew THAT! My entire life has been a model of how a person can survive quite happily on a wave of reckless decisions. And I have never argued against my own accountability within that model that has had both good and bad results. Most of the other negative comments, however, were just venomous insults, striking out at me. It was as if they were trying to injure me for what I could only guess was some pervasive disgust in their own lives that manifested itself as some form of pompous self-righteousness and could only be expressed through the degradation of another human being.

I found it very, very interesting.

It confirmed to me a simple truth — there are people who want to help and then there are just some people who want to hurt. Negative criticism is not necessarily hurtful. If it is based on reasonable interpretations and is offered with the purpose of benefiting someone than it can be a very valuable tool. Unfortunately, I believe the bulk of critical expression these days is usually a misguided cry for acknowledgement by the critic in hopes of being recognized as an intelligent, valid, and relevant creature.

As an artist, it is important to be able to separate the two types of critics — the helpful apart from the hurtful. Luckily, I have not encountered either yet. Probably because few have actually seen my art.

But unlike the comments of support for my Huffington Post article that I found fundamentally unnecessary, I’d be a liar if I didn’t confess I enjoy comments of support for my painting. Perhaps it’s because it is all so new and I have yet to completely synthesize the truism “ars gratia artis”, art for arts sake, into my own psyche. I still like to hear that I’m not wasting my time nor my paint.

One of my good friends, George, never fails to let me know how much he likes my art. In fact, he doesn’t stop with the compliments, he proactively seeks out opportunities to get my pieces out into the world. He is an artist himself, a chef who uses food as his medium, so he can identify with the risk of putting one’s art on the table for the consumption, thus the criticism, of the public. We are brothers cut from the same cloth — we both believe a life should be explored during its entirety and not just when you’re young. George is the proprietor of Shier’s Artisan Foods (awesome eats) and currently operates a food wagon in cooperation with the Midland Brewing Company, a craft brewer in Midland, Michigan. Last month, George facilitated the hanging of a number of my pieces around the walls of MBC’s publc tasting room.

They hang there as I write this now, available for anyone to view and criticize to their hearts content. I must admit, it’s a little scary having my babies out there where I can’t defend them, but I can’t worry about the negative things people might say. Ars gratia artis, right?

All I can do is be thankful that there are people out there like George and the folks at Midland Brewing Company. And I know there are others out there as well. It is important to focus on the people trying to help instead of dwelling on those trying to hurt.

“Your stuff is great and it needs to be seen,” George says.

Thanks, George. That means a lot coming from you.

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This is one of the pictures hanging at MBC in Midland. For George’s sake, I hope it doesn’t make anyone lose their appetite.

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Faith and Art

Like art, faith is not reserved for the religious, nor does any religion have a monopoly on it. To the contrary, at one level, faith is a common and important psychological coping mechanism used every moment of our lives to allow us to function as normally as possible. I am not exaggerating when I say it keeps us from going insane. We all need faith in this way — the scientist, the laymen, the atheist, the zealot — it is the mental bonding agent that allows us to hold it all together emotionally.

My faith that I will wake up each morning instead of drifting off into the underworld keeps me from going crazy the night before trying to contact people to say goodbye. My faith that I can drive to work every day without getting killed in an automobile accident keeps me from staying home all the time and getting fired. And perhaps most importantly, my faith that intolerance and ignorance will eventually give way to reason and compassion (regardless of how long it takes) keeps me from writing off every other person I meet as a waste of my time.

Unfortunately, at another level, faith is what some people treat as a type of official membership card in an imagined club God has sanctioned — “my faith has been approved by God — yours is just a cheap counterfeit”. This “exclusive” belief is an attempt to secure afterlife insurance and a defense against uncertainty whether those people are aware of it or not. When faith is held as a shield against fear in this way, it can and often does lead to a blindness that is perpetually confused with clarity. Why look around us when what we want is right there?

I might even agree with that logic if I could be sure truth was the goal of our desire instead of just security against uncertainty. But I’m not one to make that call for the rest. I can only speak for myself. I made friends with uncertainty long ago.

In the mid-1990s, when I first encountered a man who would become a good friend of mine, I was walking through the used bookstore he owned and noticed an entire section devoted to Theosophy. I was unfamiliar with the topic, but the fact that this particular section held both used and new books, as well as being situated in a prime corner of the building easily accessible for convenience, told me he regarded it with importance. I was intrigued. I introduced myself and asked him about some other titles before pretending to ask about the Theosophy section as an aside. He gave me the ten minute tour of the subject (referring to it as a “religious philosophy” more than a religion) and said he and his wife had been Theosophists for the better part of their adult lives. He spoke to me the whole time in an informative tone and without proselytizing, something I thought uncommon in a religious discussion — or even in a religious philosophy discussion, for that matter. He seemed rational enough for me to press him with a simple question:

“How do you know this stuff is true?” I asked.

His response surprised me and changed the way I would exercise my own spiritual health forever after.

“I don’t,” he said with a smile. “But even if it’s not true, it’s a good way to live.”

I found this approach to faith refreshing. It wasn’t the stagnant pool of entitlement and righteousness that has caused so much conflict in the world, but rather a view of faith that seemed to validate my decision to seek alternate roads to answers I wasn’t even sure I was capable of finding. It allowed me to indulge my pioneer spirit and understand my curiosity as a tool instead of a hindrance. And finally, it allowed me to remain open to the views of others whom I suspected were just living life the best they could under the power of their chosen wind.

But the most important thing I found from the talk with my bookstore-owner friend that day was learning the motto of the Theosophists — an inarguable statement in it’s mathematical simplicity:

“There is no religion higher than truth.”

I can find no fault in those words and have integrated them into my spiritual DNA ever since.

And this is how I view the creation of art, like faith, as something that all of us need to do to some extent to keep us sane. Whether it be painting, writing, playing an instrument, communicating with a co-worker or a friend, driving a car through busy traffic, cooking, believing in the divine, not believing in the divine — we need to live some part of our lives artfully every day, even if how we decide to do it is different from how other people might do it.

This all might not be true.

But it’s a good way to live.

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Buried Treasure

More often than not, it isn’t obvious. More often than not, we have to dig under all the distracting garbage to find it. More often than not, we forget it’s even there until we trip over it accidentally.

Treasure is there. It’s just that sometimes there is an art to finding it.

My sister messaged me last week. She wrote “Hey you…are you alive? Breathing? Doing something today that brings you JOY?”. She was just touching base and trying to make plans for the holiday, but her message started me thinking about her. She is an artist by nature — adept at any medium — clay, wood, paint, leather, crayon, glass, feather — living a life that seems to be a creative expression of her own will upon it. But the true art of her life may be her ability to find treasures that other people overlook. She finds them in form and design, garbage and nature, places and people. This ability is as beautiful and creative as anything I’ve ever seen.

My sister hasn’t had an easy life, but I believe she has had what deserves to be a joyful one — not in what she has been given, but in what she has found. She is a treasure hunter — forever keeping an eye out for the next good find — the next gem. She has furnished her homes beautifully and creatively with either used things or things she has made. Her artwork is often an item of the mundane turned into something to celebrate. You will rarely, if at all, see her with anything brand new, but she is constantly surrounded by new items in her world decorated by nothing new.

She was born a free spirit. Growing up in the 60s and early 70s, she’s been dancing to her own drummer the whole time. It didn’t surprise me when she came out as gay back in the 80s — long before it was fashionable to do so. I remember thinking at the time that it made sense, that being “straight” just didn’t seem to fit my definition of her. To me, she was a person of fluid and rounded corners — a meandering river free of the rocks of expectation and the snags of tradition.

After she graduated from high school, she spent years holding court on the gulf coast of Texas, working hard and maintaining her beach house that was a hub for free-thinkers, musicians, artists, and those “fringe” people who often had to choose the terror of being honest with themselves over the pain of families who couldn’t accept them as they were. Yes, my sister’s house was a haven for the broken, the broke, the creative, the tolerant, and sometimes just folks who craved the support of other “weird” people. I, myself, lived down there for six months in 1984 after I split with my first serious college girlfriend. I needed an escape route from the pain of love and her A-frame on stilts near the splashing waves sounded like the ticket. I found solace there amidst what some people might call “human wreckage”, but what I found to be an exciting swarm of vibrant souls who withheld judgement until they understood a person’s character; didn’t let the pain of their injuries keep them from laughing; and loved life freely regardless, with passion and without apology. Even thirty years later, I look back on it as a time of magic. I did not come back unaffected.

Eventually, knowing that our mother was not getting any younger, my sister moved back north to Michigan so she could be close by if needed. She built a house in the woods and again made it available to those she thought might need it. She added a ramp to accommodate wheelchairs and made sure there were plenty of craft and art supplies to offer any at-risk children she helps supervise or family members looking for something creative to do.

But the woods are different from the ocean.

Though she’ll only admit being twenty-nine, her hips and knees scream otherwise and the last time I saw her she was using a cane and “wobbling around like a penguin”, according to her own words. And even though the artist and treasure hunter still shines through her eyes, I can tell it’s getting harder for her to see those works of art and hidden gems in a world where she used to find them so effortlessly. Yes, life is slowing her down.

But if she reads this, and I know she will, I hope it helps her walk a little lighter and feel a little younger to know that her life has been and will continue to be a work of art to me. That even though her aging pain makes the world seem bland these days, the simple virtue of her presence still adds color to it. That even during these long winters, she will forever be a warm spot for those stuck out in the cold. And that even when I think my own art is crap, her enthusiasm and support for it is the only proof I need to know that there is treasure there…somewhere.

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Surprise! If It Quacks Like a Duck Dynasty…

As an artist and writer, I’m sensitive to the implications of censorship and the importance of having freedom to express oneself. But I’m also a realist and understand nothing is done in a void, that there are consequences to everything I do. I’m accountable for any impact I have and I’m okay with that. I wish everyone was.

So, even though I really wanted to let the outrage at Phil Robertson’s suspension from “Duck Dynasty” fade away on its own, you might guess I have a hard time letting waves of ignorance go by unchallenged.

If you’ve been living under a rock for the last 48 hours, Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the family at the center of one of TV’s most popular non-fiction series and ubiquitous merchandising blitzkriegs, was suspended by the A&E network in response to complaints they received. The complaints came in response to a recently published GQ magazine interview where Mr. Robertson made a number of controversial remarks — specifically, remarks he made concerning gays — remarks few of us would find all that surprising coming from a conservative Christian. Yep, he thinks gays are sinners and going to hell. Surprise, surprise.

But people were surprised at his suspension by A&E. People were outraged. If you are one of those outraged or surprised people, or if you’re just interested in where I’m going with this, please read on. I have a few questions for you.

A conservative Christian said he believes gays are sinners and going to hell. What part of that surprises you? Powerful organizations supporting gay rights felt his comments could negatively impact their cause and complained to his employer (A&E). What part of that surprises you? His employer, a for-profit corporation that relies in part on Mr. Robertson’s popularity to maintain advertising revenue and merchandising profits, suspended him when his comments had the potential of putting those revenues and profits at risk. What part of that surprises you?

Now, I understand how fun it is to be outraged. I understand how magnetic it can be to join the outraged masses and be a part of something bigger than yourself. In fact, I understand how outrage can be a tool of change and is the spark of true activism when it is legitimate.

But the outrage at Phil Robertson’s suspension by A&E is not legitimate. Its a groundless farce. And I’ll tell you why.

The outraged bandwagon-riders (perhaps even you) are blowing the horn of free speech, saying that A&E and the liberal special interests are infringing on Mr. Robertson’s constitutional right of freedom to express his faith. And they’re saying it like this is some new, weird thing. Guess what folks, the Constitution only protects us from governmental infringements, and even then they aren’t absolute. Under the right conditions, the government can infringe on any of your rights it wants, constitutional or not. And as far as private corporations are concerned, if you think any corporation is going to protect your freedom of expression over its bottom line, you are well within the definition of “fool”. How do you suppose McDonald’s Corporation would handle one of its cashiers who keeps telling its customers to “go check out the Whopper at Burger King. It’s awesome!”. Or more in tune with our situation, how long do you think that cashier would last if they ended each transaction with “Jesus loves you” or “Allahu Akbar”? Believe it or not, there are people working at McDonald’s as enthusiastic and vocal about their religious beliefs as Phil Robertson is about his. But the McDonald’s employees seem to be a little more adept at understanding the power of the corporation they work for to manipulate what they say.

And let us not forget that no one is telling Phil Robertson what he can or cannot say. A&E is just telling him he can’t say what he wants to say and continue to be a blindly adored celebrity on their channel. I’m sure there are other networks with different advertising clients that would be happy to employ him. Just don’t change your mind on the gays, Phil. Then those other folks will fire you as well. And we’ll all have to be outraged again.

The thing all of us should really be outraged by is that we live in a society where Phil Robertson’s views even matter; a society where a man with views as socially stunted and common as his, hold more weight over others simply by virtue of his celebrity. That, my friends, is where the true outrage exists.

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I chose this picture because even though my post has little to do with painting (unless you count the “freedom of expression” angle) it’s the only painting I’ve done that even comes close to looking like a duck. Duck…Duck Dynasty…get it?

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I Recommend You Suffer Through This One

Life is suffering.

This is not a pessimistic statement. It’s a matter of fact. Ask any Buddhist.

We westerners often think this is bullshit, that suffering can be neutralized by success. We think that if we can just acquire enough — things, money, blessings, self-improvement techniques, meditation books — we can defeat suffering in this life. Well, we’re wrong. Suffering isn’t something that needs to be defeated. It’s something that needs to be kept in perspective and understood. No doubt, a life of suffering is the price we pay for being human.

The problem is that most of us see suffering as a bad thing to be avoided. We group it together with other things we think are bad, like pain and grief and sorrow and anything we believe interferes with our comfort. But these things aren’t really suffering; they are just the most recognizable symptoms of our inability to understand it. Suffering is the great teacher. It helps us live a life worth living. Few of us realize that a “good life” is only as good as the lessons we learn within it, that without the hard parts, our lives are nothing more than superficial cartoons. This is why many of us find it difficult to believe that privilege is not a tonic for it. Everyone suffers — the rich, the poor, the powerful, the weak, the smart, the ignorant — everyone. Granted, it might be harder to accept the idea that a rich fat-cat suffers as much as a poor and starving child, but suffering comes in many forms, not just the traditional dirty, hungry kind.

And as it is often difficult for us to appreciate the suffering of others, it is even more difficult for us to appreciate how we personally impact that suffering. Fundamentally, the moment we interact with another person, regardless of the specific details of that interaction, only one of two things can happen — we either ease the suffering of the other or we add to it. There is no in-between, though it is possible to find a balance between the two.

I am not trying to tell everyone to be nice to each other. Sometimes being nice just adds to a person’s suffering. For example, leading a person to believe everything is okay when it’s not, is a good way for a nice person to add to another person’s suffering. No, I’m telling you to be aware of your impact on others and make it your goal to ease their suffering. Know that if your interaction is going to cause suffering, it is important that the overall impact of your interaction will result in an easing of that person’s suffering.

Keeping our own suffering in perspective is equally as important. There is no trophy for the “most suffering” life, so don’t try to win one. We all know those who go out of their way to remind us of how much they’ve suffered. They throw it up at us, almost demanding recognition by force. They want to make sure they get credit for it. What they plan on doing with that credit, I do not know. Perhaps they think it is the cost of buying sympathy. But be confident that the goal in interacting with these people is still to ease suffering…theirs and yours. Even if all you can do is categorize the sufferable interaction as just another opportunity to learn something about yourself — how much you can take, how able you are to let go of your ego, how well you can control your temper, etc. — the interaction will most likely end up easing your suffering more in the long run than adding to it in the short run. But don’t forget, sometimes easing the suffering of another doesn’t require staying quiet. Sometimes it requires telling the other person they are being an asshole.

People do different things to ease suffering. I write and paint and tell jokes and let people know I love them. These are to ease both the suffering of myself and of others. Hopefully, if you find that any of them — my writing or my painting or my jokes or my love — adds to your suffering, you’ll let me know.

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An Accident of Winter And Glass

Some people see decisions in it, results of battling intelligences that drive it one way or another, positively or negatively, in a terminal struggle for control. But I see it as a respiration of happy accidents served in balanced doses of pleasure and pain, not ending in a hoax of finality, but continuing on in cycles, like breathing forever.

Life. It’s so cool.

And before you judge that last line as an example of naive idealism, or a symptom of recent fortune, know this — my enthusiasm for life doesn’t come from a comfortable and smooth ride; it comes from being challenged by obstacles and misfortune. I find more excitement and beauty in the bumpy ride of a jalopy over a rocky road than I do the smooth, droning hum of perfectly inflated tires on a freeway.

Generally, I gravitate toward a universal dynamic that incubates accidents. I’m pitifully disorganized, I consistently procrastinate, and I often rely on spontaneous audacity rather than well-planned implementation. But the result doesn’t really matter. Regardless of the outcome, I count myself lucky simply by being able to appreciate the fragility of success and the education of failure.

And so it goes with painting.

I was down to the last of my large sheets of plexiglass. If it were summer I would set it on the side driveway and start splatting colors, no doubt turning it into something that would inspire me to write something I thought was inspiring. But the outside temperature is below freezing, it grows darker every day, and it’s snowing. Inspiration has to come from somewhere else when the world is acting depressed.

Knowing that I was getting to the end of my plexiglass, last week I purchased some framed pictures from a local Goodwill thrift store, hoping to replenish my supply of reclaimed acrylic painting surfaces and secure them ready with their own frames as well. I felt a little guilty about my plan to ruin one of the pictures I bought — a lovely framed photograph of a group of children in various postures of cuteness — but I realized the guilt was just some residual brain dust and wasn’t the kind to heed as I quickly ripped the cute baby photo out and threw it in the trash. Sorry babies, I have no time for such sentimentality. I need something to paint on. You’ll understand when you’re older.

To my surprise, the picture didn’t have the acrylic sheet cover I was expecting. It had glass. I’ve never painted on glass.

Eager to start my first piece of the winter, I didn’t bother to get the wood-burning stove going. My studio space in the garage was a brisk 50 degrees fahrenheit. If I was going to attempt a painting on glass, I was going to be breathing like a dragon.

Like my other pieces, I had a hint of an idea, but let it expose itself through chance and intuition. I soon noticed that the paint wasn’t holding to the glass, that my designs were being gutted and ripped by the designs I painted over them. I could see it happening with each new design, mangling, if not destroying, the one beneath it.

Was it the cold? Was it the glass? What could I do? Start again? Try to wash off what I’d already done? Try to make it something I was comfortable with?

Who in the hell was I fooling? I’m not a “start over” kind of guy. I’m a jumper!

Fuck the parachute.

I kept falling through the cold winter and the brittle glass. The painting below is where I landed.

Fragile and educational.

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