Thursday, May 26, 2016

Welcoming the Community

We recently concluded Art-a-Whirl, the largest open studio event in the country. During eighteen hours over three days, thousands traipsed through studios in NE Minneapolis. Occasionally I weigh the convenience of a home studio with our space in an artist building, fifteen miles from our home. There are winter days when getting in the car to go there seems daunting. Art-a Whirl then rolls around and reminds me of the value of opening our doors to a slice of community we might otherwise not encounter.

I've always said it is a great way to throw a party without the housecleaning flurry that accompanies guests in one's home. We need only complete enough paintings to cover our walls, frame, hang and label them, print cards for sale, send an invite to 300 people, stock up on wine and food and open our doors. Easy!

Many friends do come through and we love their visits. I fill up my calendar with dinner dates for the following weeks. I am a bit chagrined at how poorly I would sustain my network of friends without periodic open studios. I am also reminded of how diverse my network of friends is, drawn from so many different parts of my life and my history.

Every year I have returning guests, people I don't know, but who remember my work from a prior year and are genuinely excited to encounter it again. "l want you to tell my friend the story you told me last year about this painting." one woman says. My work encompasses both story and artwork, each reinforcing the other. I am pleased when it is memorable. So often I wonder if I am spinning my wheels. I work in solitude so much of the time that the response of others is truly heartening, reminding me why I do what I do.

This year I had more work on memory. It falls in three sections: 1) my mother's experience with memory loss and the creativity that she still was capable of exhibiting 2) the experience through a daughter and caregiver's eyes and 3) memories others shared with a loved one who lost memory. The last category is fed by others' contributions to a memory jar.

At last year's Art-a-Whirl I was moved by the many people who shared their story related to memory loss with me. I decided to try to capture that all too universal experience with a memory jar. I invited others to share a memory they had shared with a loved one who lost memory, one for which they are now the keeper of the memory. It got off to a slow start. Last year I had to cajole entries, explaining the concept over and over. This year I had paintings based on others' stories hanging on the wall. Every time I looked up someone was standing deep in thought by the memory jar, pen in hand. I was touched by the love they expressed, the memories of loved ones they honored. I had people thank me for including that, giving them an opportunity to engage and to honor. I think I'm onto something. Ideas start by reflecting on my own experience, but I am never sure if what speaks to me has a broader reach. Now I feel quite certain that it does.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Becoming Authentic

I've been in a bookclub since the 1980s. We've watched each other grow through all the stages of life. We've also watched each other go deeper, leaving work identities behind as we created lives that expressed authenticity. I hasten to add that this is a pretty authentic bunch at any stage in their life, but there is something about aging that frees us to become more ourselves. Most importantly it is a group that is intellectually curious and seeks to understand the world around us.

So much of my life is about output: painting, writing and speaking. Reading is one of my inputs. It allows me to take in new ideas that feed me or revisit my understanding based on new information. Lately authenticity seems to be a recurring theme.

My bookclub is reading a book called Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt. This is a time of states passing laws targeting transgender people and their use of the restroom of their choice. With that in mind we decided that perhaps we should learn more about the broader topic. With a rather laissez faire perspective, I knew where I was politically. It was none of my business and certainly nothing that states should be mucking around in. It seemed like a silly issue for them to even address. As I began the book, I didn't expect my understanding to deepen dramatically. I know of people who are transgender, not well enough to question them about their experience, but enough to be sympathetic to the difficulties of choosing that path. It is not one that people choose lightly.

The book follows the true story of a young boy who identified as female from a very young age. S/he was a twin and her brother saw her as his sister from very early on. I was intrigued by the fact that her playmates also shared that perception. The person who struggled the most with it was her father who ultimately became a strong advocate. Her mother just wanted her child to be happy and saw early on that it would be as a female. Ultimately Nicole received hormones and later the required surgery to become physically female with the full support of her family. In the midst of these developments, the question of which restroom should be used was raised and a lawsuit filed and won. Many in the school system were sympathetic and supportive, but were trying to navigate a difficult course of divided opinion. (There is an excellent NPR interview with the family if you'd like to learn more)

At the same time I was re-reading the Chosen by Chaim Potek. I had read this many years ago, but as my understanding of Judaism had deepened, my appreciation of the book deepened as well. The book looks at the friendship between two Jewish boys in New York in the 1940s. Both have learned fathers who influence them greatly. One of the fathers is a Hassid, a Tzaddik, a leadership role for Hassidic Jews that is passed down through generations. This weighs heavily on his son who wishes to pursue another path yet feels constrained by centuries of expectations. He too was seeking authenticity, a life that aligned with his intellectual understanding.

One would not typically link these two stories, and yet that search for personal authenticity permeates both. It occurs to me that life is an effort to attain authenticity in whatever form it may take. We start with biological and familial constraints and acquire cultural constraints as we move beyond our families into the broader world. Then we spend much of our life shedding unnecessary constraints to find authenticity. Some people are perhaps much closer to their authentic selves early on, but for many of us it is something we move towards as we age. There is something quite miraculous about finding our place in the world, feeling that we are aligned with what we are to do and how we represent ourselves in the world. It is a universal story and we all share the search, yet because it is about authenticity each of our outcomes is uniquely our own.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Last Mother's Day Card

This is my first Mother’s Day without a mother. It snuck up on me. Well that’s not strictly true, I’ve been ignoring it. I wince at Mother’s Day ads, move quickly past the aisles of cards. It is no longer relevant to me.

I bought my last Mother’s Day card last year. It ended up in the collage book my mother was working on before her death. When I went through the house after she died, I found decades of old Mother's Day cards celebrating our relationship. I always looked for cards that spoke of our genuine friendship in addition to that lucky accident of birth. As my mother’s memory faded, her artistic sense remained. Then I began to choose cards that I knew would appeal to her visually, taking it as a compliment if it ended up collaged into one of her artistic creations.

This year I am a motherless child. How forlorn does that sound? And yet that exaggerates. My mother is always with me. Over the last few years, I would think about how I could store up the affirmation that I received from her regularly, suddenly realizing that she would not always be there, my best cheerleader no longer leading the cheers. Does a tree fall in the forest if no one hears it? Do I do something of worth if my mother isn’t there to do her mom thing? If our mothers do their job well, we do carry them within us. Their presence is so strong, after years of support, that we just know what they would say and we say it for them.

Oddly enough, for someone with no shortage of words, I don’t have a lot to write about this topic. I think it is because this was a relationship fully lived, love fully given, no loose ends or unfinished business. Sometimes we have the opportunity to do things right and when we do there is a sense of fulfillment, completion. It is both rare and precious. Most relationships have more complexity, more strife, more left unsaid lest we rock the boat.

And so on this Mother’s Day, I have only gratitude, both for all I was given and for the opportunity to give back. May you all be as fortunate.