art, writing, aikido and the universe


May 2014

Slicing Through Artist Block: for my friend Vanessa


There are those awful times when I didn’t feel like I’d ever have another idea.  For anything.  Everything I thought of, I’d already done several times over and I just can’t get motivated to do the next – dance with the same set of movements, another still life, or another poem about rain. I believe that you are your actions, rather than your thoughts and therefore, I could no longer count on my old identity as an artist.  (This is a somewhat comforting thought when you are occasionally homicidal toward coworkers or spouse or the really bad driver in front of you, as I am.)

In retrospect, I find that in those barren stretches I do things that eventually erupt into creativity again.  But I don’t realize it at the time.  Many of these times, I often feel the world heavy around me.  Or I’m running in too many directions because of desire to learn as much as possible about the world.  Or I wish to dissolve into fantasy (at which point I read a lot of novels).  I might be putting a lot of energy into work or politicking or socializing, or not have any energy at all.

Then, boom.  Something changes.  It could be as simple as the strep throat I am just getting over.  I  step back, slow down, and watch the world go by.  The ideas drift by like pollen in the spring air. Achoo, ideas start flowing into my thoughts and popping into my journals.  My journals start plumping.  It as if all that time I spent away from paints and song were simply a catalyst.

So here’s a list to step once more on the path of creation.  These are ideas for writing or art, my two main endeavors these days, but they are applicable to any art form.

1. Make your own list of things you’d like to do or learn but haven’t yet. Investigate what it would take to do one or two.  Maybe start one. (My latest favorites are jumping out of an airplane and learning welding.)

2. Work on writer’s prompts or art exercises.  You can find these on the web and in books.  My favorite books for writer’s prompts are Susan Wooldridge “Poem Crazy” and Josip Novakovitch “Fiction Writer’s Workshop.”  For art, I find inspiration reading books about symbolism in history and across cultures, or leafing through the art books I’ve accumulated.

3. Read books.  Go to museums.   Visit the theatre.  Enjoy friends.

4. Tell yourself you’re going to do something small.  Something that just takes 5 minutes.  A quick sketch or two of your cat.  A few random words about yourself or why you hate your boss.

5. Do something small as regularly as possible.  Maybe vow to make it once a day.  It’s okay if you don’t keep the vow and end up doing this once a week.  Keep going.

6. Turn off the media stream.  Give yourself some quiet time to think.  I like to take walks and just look and listen carefully.

7. Switch creative outlets.  If you’re a writer, try drawing.  If you’re a painter, try singing.  Sometimes trying something we don’t have any expectations of being good at is just what we need.  Beginner’s mind.  After, I find I approach my regular channels with that same beginner’s mind and a different perspective.

8. Do “morning pages,”  writing steadily for 3 pages anything that comes into your head.  Each day. (See rule above about daily work.) Don’t edit, don’t think much.  Try to spill words onto the page as fluidly and steadily as possible.  You can throw out the pages afterward.  I like doing this in the morning captivated by the warmth of a cup of coffee.  But any time in the day can work.

9. Remember the process of making art is the important part.  Whether the product is good or bad doesn’t matter.  The finished work is merely the by-product of the process.  Sometimes I like what I did. About 9 out of 10 times, I toss it in the garbage.

10. Be patient.  Know the muse will find you when you are both ready.  It will happen.

finding the muse: autobiography

My recent post, “Creative Process on Tuesday,” explored creativity in a day.  This autobiographical account examines how creativity swirled like water throughout my life, seeping through the cracks, and occasionally changing its shape by pouring into a different medium.  That said, it is important to note that I had dry spells where I didn’t create much, and times when work and daily living chores were overwhelming and I didn’t sit down to make anything.

As a child and teenager, I experimented with drawing and writing but not in any disciplined way.  I also learned to play classical violin and piano and taught myself guitar.  I found that I couldn’t create music, perhaps because the training was so structured, although this did change as I got older.  In college I rediscovered a love of dance and after graduation I pursued that love by studying modern dance and doing my own choreography.  At that time though, I didn’t have enough confidence in my own abilities.  Also, it was daunting that so many of the dancers had trained since they were little children.  I decided to give up the arts (hah – the muse doesn’t let go readily) and go to graduate school to become a speech-language pathologist. This was the right decision for me.  Relieved of the pressure of making money from art, I merrily continued to pursue the arts while in graduate school, just as a “little exercise” and a bit of journal writing.  During this time I took up belly dancing.  I remember sitting on the floor of my apartment, sewing a burgundy belly dancing costume by hand.  My roommate exclaimed, “I thought all that graduate students did was study!”  But I couldn’t leave the arts so completely.

After enjoying belly dancing for a while, I got bored because of the limited number of movements used in what was essentially a folk art.  So I decided to take up Orissian temple dance.  I found an excellent teacher, Ritha Devi, who taught me in her basement apartment in the east 90s in Manhattan.  It was fortunate she had a basement apartment – the dance involved percussive stamping of the feet.  The first dance I learned was Pushpanjali, a dance of offering to the gods.  Orissian dance was very complex and involved not only fast footsteps but isolation of body parts, as the rib cage, hips and head often moved independently.  In addition, the dance had mudras, or hand gestures that had specific meanings such as grinding sandlewood or the opening of a flower.  (If you are interested, you can go to YouTube and find lovely Orissian temple dancing.)

I continued Orissian dance, as well as my own modern dance choreography.  I got married and got pregnant. I loved being pregnant and on my due date, my husband videotaped my carefully choreographed dance about pregnancy.   When my son was 1 1/2 years old we spent 6 months in India learning about the culture and going swimming at the beach in Orissa.  When I came back, I got pregnant again and this time I was too tired to continue dancing.  After my second son was born, I didn’t have the time to keep in shape for dancing and work on choreography so I gave up dance altogether.

The children were so cute I started drawing them with pencil.  Mostly when they were asleep;  otherwise, they were moving too fast!  Then I started using colored pencils and not only drawing the children, but outdoor landscapes.  My husband, who is an abstract painter, suggested I try watercolors.   I found the fluid way that watercolors demanded some things be left to chance  very appealing.  Also, watercolors have great versatility particularly when used from tubes.  And they were portable.  I could take them to the park or camping.  We started doing a lot of camping and I painted outdoors there.  I became fascinated by painting the constantly moving water, whether river, lake or ocean.

Nine years after the birth of my second son I left my husband.  I got a motorcycle and a friend gave me her father’s box of oil paints. Oil paints were delightful.  It was like playing in mud.  They could be put on thickly.  They could be layered.  And I could experiment more easily with where lines and colors went since I could paint in layers that covered previous thoughts. By this time my painting subjects were still lifes, landscapes and people.  I carried my paints in the motorcycle’s saddlebags.  I often portrayed my dreams.  I continued to use my children as subjects.  I also drew and painted my boyfriends.  I would paint on scrap bits of wood I found in the streets, since construction was always happening somewhere in my neighborhood.  I also used found metal as frames and would pick up scraps of trash that seemed interesting – colored glass, a tube, a curl of wire.  As always, I kept journals that contained a variety of spontaneous thought, poems, short stories and sketches.

My father had taught me the importance of humor. Around the time I was still married, I started making little cartoon books such as “Camping with Children,”  “Suburban Life” (for very urban friends that were moving), and “The Seven Year Itch.”  I would also draw cartoons about funny events or conversation.

As a speech-language pathologist, I had to develop ways to encourage children who did not naturally love language to learn to enjoy verbal communication.  Believing strongly that creativity is healing, I thought up many projects that would involve both hands and mind.  Among them were creating and decorating and flying kites,  writing poetry from lists of words we made up while using our senses on walks outside the school, and what I called “the puppet project.”  The puppet project was a two month project at the end of the school year.  The kids created their own puppets from paper bags and construction paper, gave the puppets names and personalities, wrote their own plays, and then performed the plays for the kindergarten children.  This was immensely successful and each year the children would ask if we would do it again.

During my time in New York City, I generally lived in artist communities.   I didn’t always participate in the life of the community since I was shy about publicly displaying my work.  However, I derived a great deal of pleasure and inspiration from meeting other artists and performers. I regularly went to museums, as I had done since I was a child holding the hand of my grandmother.   I went to my friends’ plays and art openings.  I casually wandered into the art galleries that were sprouting up like dandelions.  It was good to have affirmation that doing this seemingly useless, and entirely uneconomic (with some exceptions, of course) activity  was important.  And there was the sheer energy that was impossible not to bring home and form into my own work.

When I look back, I realize that the one constant is that I always kept a journal.  I use it to write ideas, sketches, poems, stories, and outpourings of feelings that I never wanted to tell anyone.  I write in it when I feel like it, usually dating the entries.  But there are no rules.  Sometimes I will use it several times a day and at other times, days can go by without an entry.  It is my companion and keeper of secrets and repository of many ideas yet to be fulfilled.


My grandmother, Nonne, and me

The Creative Process on Tuesday

Tuesdays are my off-from-work day.  I love them because most people (including my husband) are at work and I get to slack off all by myself.  So I putz around the house, clean a bit, read a bit, and then make it to the pottery studio for a few hours.  Then home again, where I eat a decently cooked meal for once. Perhaps I read some more or … whatever.  It it my day of no-plan.  Next I’m likely to fuss at my small garden and do other creative projects which are at hand.  Today, it is framing a beautiful picture of Ganesha and writing this blog entry.  Somehow the solitude and time to wander around the neighborhood or just wander through my small home is highly conducive to creativity.  The gentle act of moving and observing everything outside, or wandering inside and randomly picking up a poetry book, or pulling out construction paper and scissors generates spontaneous ideas.  Years ago, a friend told me that even if I didn’t have time to execute all my ideas, I could write them down and maybe get back to them later.  It was excellent advice.  Not only does it stop me from despairing that I will never get to any of my ideas, but it empties my head so that I can concentrate on the one idea I wish to act on now.  Which happens to be…writing this blog.  Right now.  In short, what I need most to be creative is lots of time.  It is not necessarily time directly related to creating.  There must be some time to let the ideas naturally germinate and grow, away from the pressure to be or do something.  It is time to absorb other people’s ideas, which naturally leads to my own creative process.  Some ideas of projects for today (only one or two of which I will get to) are:

finish sewing alterations of clothing

executing several pottery designs that I’ve been mulling over since Sunday, when I went to the Walters Museum’s Japanese pottery show

some sketching ideas I’ve been thinking about, such as another self portrait (haven’t done one in a while) or I might just sketch the cat

I’ve also been thinking about doing some really large painting projects to just play with large brush strokes

cutting out  colored construction paper to tape onto the front door as a precursor to painting an abstract design on it

starting another short story from the several ideas written in my notebook

trying to sound out one of the Child Ballads I’ve recently heard on the guitar

Ahh, or I could just stare out the window at the crab apple tree blossoms that are just opening, turning from bright pink buds to 5-petaled white flowers.  Or I could paint them….

Tuesdays are really good.



(stoneware plate created in 2013 and painted last Tuesday)

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