Saturday, April 15, 2017

Reflecting on Art as it Reflects Us.

“Art is a mirror to nature.”  Shakespeare

House in the Woods 1989

“Art is not a mirror held up to reality
but a hammer with which to shape it.”  Bertolt Brecht

The Gulf Stream 1995

“In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.”  Ernst Fischer

Watch Man 1997

“My art is the knife the tears through the surface of reality; 
then it becomes the needle and thread that stitches it back together.”   Dawn Patel

Ancestor Dress 2016   photo credit: bloomphotographybykara

Monday, March 20, 2017

Cartography of the Unseen World

I woke up this morning thinking two things.  

1. I really should start working on an artist’s statement for “I Am Usha.”

2. I am at an age where many people have reached the top of their field.

And then, as I so often like to do, I completely deconstructed both of those concepts until I was staring at scattered piles of  assumptions, ready to be reassembled into something that resonates with my frequencies.

Let’s start with number 2.  What an interesting phrase.  Is the field on a hill?  Or has the person who has reached the top, like Yertle the Turtle, merely piled the other less fortunate, less ambitious, and less opportunistic into a mountain onto which to climb?  The mere concept of a winner relies on the existence of a loser, or many losers.  The more losers, the higher the winner rises.  

Some people will tell you this is the way of the world.  Others will insist it is human nature.  And still others will look toward nature itself as a justification for the competition model of human behavior… law of the jungle, survival of the fittest.  One can look at world history and into nature to find a certain logic to this theory and stop looking further.  This is a narrow search, the place where many have chosen to remain, having found the answer they were seeking.   

Or… one can widen the search.  One can search for and discover the history and the anthropology and the systems that wait patiently, just outside of the mainstream.  There are answers that you will never find unless you ask more questions.  There are voices you can’t hear unless you get very very quiet.  You have to be listening for something you’ve never heard before, something which at first might sound like a hallucination, or look like a mirage.  The unfamiliar always enters this way, always finding a way in.  Let your senses adjust and stay with it.  This is how we widen the search.

I have spent my life wandering through fields.  I can often be found on the edges, where the well trodden paths mark the way, reminding me I’m not the only one wandering.  I look down and see the coyote track, the deer track and the evidence of a system in flux, always striking a balance.  I have wandered through many fields, some lush with life and some deadened with chemicals and overuse.  Some in dormancy and some in their prime.  Witnessing the nature of fields from the ground has taught me many things, things I never would have understood if I insisted on climbing to a pinnacle.  

“I Am Usha” is the Cartography of the Unseen World, always witnessed in fleeting glimpses, wandering low along the edges.  Every piece of art is created as a marker along a path, a path that runs parallel to the deer paths on the edges of the fields, in a world where the human eye does not adjust to the wavelengths of light.  One sees with the heart, discovering a new form of communication within the body that has been patiently waiting to be awoken.  When I am creating from this place, a direct line from my heart to my hand guides me.  With great trust and an even greater love for the process, I make art.  I leave my own prints in the soil of consciousness, not to rise or fall in the drama of the world, but to mark my path in this parallel place.  

“Usha” is no more than a name, my name in my Ancestors’ language.  It is simply “Dawn.”  A name for transition, for the darkest time at the moment before light.  In this strange moment of flux, one sees with the heart what the eyes cannot decipher.  After my own personal transition from grief and detachment to acceptance and forgiveness, I have the strength and confidence to claim my name.  I claim it as my own, if only to offer it as my gift, a Gift of a Map for the Travelers to Come. 

Video Stills from "Skeleton Tree Dance" Jan 2017

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Break (it) Down

The Prophet             by Kahlil Gibran

And a woman spoke, saying Tell us of Pain.
And he said:
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over the fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.

Much of your pain is self-chosen,
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseeen’
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.

Mariposa 1994

Break (it) Down

I have been thinking about the tension of opposites.  Engaging with the world in a time of turmoil has flung me into the tension of opposites.  I am beginning to see how this experience, if not consciously broken down, leads to a breakdown.  The last time I experienced it I gave into the grief for a very long time.  This time I am stepping back from the world when needed, for self care and reflection.   Sometimes I have to get to the point of spinning my wheels (and flailing my arms) before I realize it is time to step back.  Painting has a great deal to do with stepping back, for my approach to creative work includes hours spent in meditation, gathering information, shifting and understanding.  The painting is only the tangible record of it.  Painting is the material world, the body of work.  The rest is spirit.  

Journey 1995
Love for the world creates a desire to enter the world.  That, and the realization that it is not possible to retreat from life.  It follows you and pulls you back.  The more “alone” you make yourself the more your senses adapt and hear the smallest heartbeat, the tiniest call.  You feel the pulse of the world as acutely as if you were standing in the center of it.  It has lead me to a very conscious decision to reconnect.  One could say I picked a fine time.  I know I am not the only one.  This love can be so easily transformed into grief with the day to day experience of witnessing the world we love.  My grief has turned into action, but that has thrown me into a world of activity that is also motivated by fear and anger.  The fear, grief and anger are all so related they end up on the same team.  My conditioned response is frustration, inarticulately communicated to friends and acquaintances… leading to more frustration, of course, and ultimately frustration with myself.   

Untitled 1995

Jung’s theory on the tension of opposites concludes if one stays in the discomfort of this tension a third thing arises.  A “quantum leap”  of thinking and being, ultimately of consciousness.  It cannot be predicted because it is new, born out of opposites.  Try to force it would be like trying to determine the personality and destiny of your unborn child.  Sometimes we have a “feeling” about these things, sometimes even visions.  But in these bodies, in this world, we still have to wait and see.  How can I remain with my love for the world and my grief without breaking in half.  It seems only with the qualities of joy and hope, which are not always my natural states.  For me joy and hope have to be worked at, earned through understanding.  It is not just an intellectual understanding, it is a whole body and spirit experience, my definition of faith.

Faith 1995

I go into the world and am pulled by the tensions.  I act and react, often in ways I regret, and then return to my inner world where I can quietly break it down.  This is a conscious act, brought about by the same conditions an emotional breakdown would be.  I am approaching it these days as “beating it [a breakdown] to the punch.”   Taken to the point of a breakdown, I am able to break down the opposites and see them more clearly.  In this understanding I find myself in a more open and honest state, where trust, not in a determinist future, but in the vast universe of the present, can grow.

Juggernaut 1995

I found these older paintings of mine to be surprisingly effective for illustrating the tension of opposites that I am so aware of today.  Something to revisit in my work this year....  Perhaps my paintings will see the third thing before my conscious mind can grasp it.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Female Center

I sometimes hear voices.  I kept pretty quiet about that my entire life, because, well, I was afraid of being judged by minds that do not understand such things.  This has been a month of letting go of fears... so that one's gone too.

In the early morning hours I sometimes hear a voice, telling me one thing at a time, helping me understand. It's always been a fatherly voice, until yesterday.  Yesterday the voice was female. It told me to Enter. 

The words were "Put yourself inside of me."  (If you immediately thought about sex read the next paragraph.  If not, you can skip it.)

The sexuality of the phrase, while undeniable, could easily become a distraction from the larger lesson of the words.  Making female power centered on sex is a way of taking away female power, by limiting it to one dimension of human activity.  If we as a culture had a healthy relationship with feminine power, then the relationship between sexuality and all the other forces that drive us as humans would exist in harmony.

I reflected on the words I had heard, "Put yourself inside of me" until I finally decided to paint.
My first interpretation of the voice was that of the earth, the mother, the female.
Fire inside, fire in the center.  What to enter?  The Center.  It is in the entering that the understanding begins to unfold, through the feeling, through the energy, through the very act of entering.

We are at a time in history when we have so much to look back on and sift through.  Books and knowledge excite me, offering so many paths of thought and exploration for the mind.  But, in the end, I have to get out of my head for the clarity I need.  The clarity that is needed for peace comes from calling my ancestors and finding my center.  It comes from a place that cannot be defined with words.  
The knowing that comes from the mind and the knowing that comes from the heart's center do not need to be in competition.   Coexisting, they work together, for we are in the world, as well as the spirit, at this time.  This is the conflict I see around me, that of opposing poles.  How does one shift that magnetic push of opposition into an alignment?   By entering the center, where the forces no longer push or pull.  Rather than split the atom, enter it.

What my ancestors and spirit are telling me is to release fear.  This happens by facing fears, not suppressing them or pushing them away.  Looking at fear and then letting it go is the way through the anxiety of our time.  It leads to a centered calm.  Everything must change, in a profound and all encompassing way.  That change is happening, and in order to adjust to the change, a strong and centered female energy is needed.  And this is an energy that is misunderstood in a patriarchal world, where equality is often sought on male terms, and feminine power is still confined by those very terms. 

The imbalance has been focused on male, light, linear thought, hierarchy and force.  We are witnessing its final stages.   It cannot be tamed, let alone fought , with more of its own .  A receptive, dark, female energy encircles it and tames it, not with force but with unimaginable power.  This happens on every level of human activity, from the most intimate to the most public, through personal relationships to political struggles.  All we need to do is look to nature and spirit to bring our human world back into balance.  Starting with, but not stopping at, ourselves.

Female is reception.  It is Yin.  It is the stillness in the center of the storm.   It is the heat from the center of the earth.  
That is where I enter.  

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Life Size

I've been painting big lately.  Something I haven't done for a long time, because
1. I thought I didn't have the space
2. I thought I had to worry about selling art and big paintings are a hard sell
3. They can appear grandiose.

But I did it anyway, because
1. I am no longer willing to be my own worst enemy
2. My spirit is louder than my censoring brain
3. I am remembering...

These three things
1. Winslow Homer
2. Mark Rothko
3. They didn't shrink themselves, and I don't have to either

How it feels

Years ago, when I had a studio space (that I'm still paying for with graduate school loans) and I wasn't so worried about the first list, I painted some really big paintings.  The experience of being in the painting was overpowering, it was the final plug pulled from the cord that tied me to the nullifying voices in my head, voices shrink me down to someone else's expectations.  What a rush it was, the first time I painted something as big as me.  The closest I can come to describing my experience is that it was a divine encounter with myself, which soon revealed itself to be a divine encounter with everything.  I communed with a paintbrush and pigments and gave this feeling form.  For me painting is alway part prayer, part meditation, part storytelling and part formal arrangement.  But in the scale of my own body, the ratio of each part tipped far over into meditation and prayer.  My body became such a vital part of the prayer, in this dance with the elements of the art.

I found this very hard to talk about while trying to be taken seriously in graduate school in the nineties.

The final product was disappointment.  I took the pill that makes you small and tried to fit in, finding myself a satisfactory academic success but a personal traitor.  I decided Academia wasn't a good fit for me and  I put away my giant canvases and settled for a shrunken, more cerebral, version that distanced me from the way I felt.  It made it easier to talk about my art, to think about what to say before I said it.  The ideas I painted about were fascinating to me, and I never had to worry about making a fool of me.  Inevitably I lost interest and was pulled away by a richly rewarding and demanding life as a single mother, teacher and business owner.  Although I have continued to paint and live as an artist, I seldom tried painting on that grand human scale again... until this month.  It felt like I had returned home.  I am realizing now that every painting I have done between 1996 and 2017 maps a long and winding worldly path back to this scale of Living with Spirit.

Winslow Homer

My first and only time at a Winslow Homer retrospective was one of the few times I have cried in public.   Not only in public, but in a crowded room of strangers.  I was caught off guard, walking into a room full of his larger than life canvases of marine life.  I stood in front of majestic women, waves, and fishermen - tears running down my face.  I thought, "I want to paint this way."  Not "I want to paint these things" but rather I recognized the feeling from my own experiences of painting.  I wanted to be able to convey that back to the world.  I understood, in this wordless communion with a room of strangers; it is possible to convey the feeling of the divine dance.  

Winslow_Homer - The Fisher Girl (1894)
Winslow Homer - The Fog Warning

After all, Nature Does it All the Time

Late Afternoon Sky in November

Mark Rothko

Even before my day in the Museum with Homer, I discovered something about art with Mark Rothko.  This time I was alone, much younger and even more self conscious.  Fortunately, at the moment I happened upon the Rothko multiform abstraction at the Milwaukee Art Museum, no one was around to distract me from what I saw before me.  I stood there, and it pulled me closer.  Staring into it, I felt myself fall and... sadness is not a big enough word.  I left the museum profoundly moved,  but the despair was bigger than me at that time in my life and I ran from it.  

'Magenta, Black, Green on Orange'  by Mark Rothko 1947
Black Gray by Mark Rothko

 Many sunsets later, I know Mark Rothko was also my teacher.

Sunset  Door County, WI

"I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however . . . is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command!"  Mark Rothko

What I understand now, through a lifetime of painting and coming back to these lessons, is that Rothko's  "intimate and human" is precisely my "divine encounter."  They are one and the same, beneath the shapes and colors in a deliberate composition.   As Homer with the Human and Nature, and as Rothko with the Tragic and the Void,  I set out this year with my Ancestors and our shared Memory, to see what there is to be discovered in our journey together.  

So, I connected with a couple of Art World giants, and (hopefully) with neither grandiosity nor self deprecation, I compare myself.  I'm not claiming I can and will reach their heights of mastery nor success.  But I do understand them, as much as any artist who spends a lifetime making art can know.    

I am Usha

First in the "I am Usha" Series  9' x 5'

Second in the "I am Usha" series 5' x 5'

The goal of life is rapture.
Art is the way we experience it.
                                                     Joseph Campbell


Thursday, January 5, 2017

i am usha

The Dark. A natural and essential part of our existence.  Not evil.  Not inferior.  Deep.  Forceful.

Darkness is intense,  and so widely misunderstood.  Who has not used the word "darkness" to describe something ominous and threatening; when in truth it is simply the unknown.  It takes a brave deconstruction, followed by an honest reconstruction, of language, culture and history to fully understand what darkness truly is.  It takes conquering the fear of the unknown.

One thing I have had to admit to myself, in these times, is my own reluctance to go deep and wide.  To be honest with myself and to keep Looking.  Especially when it is hard to look, when what I see before me is greed and unimaginable cruelty.  The Horror.  Looking at the world with my eyes wide open and my heart wide open feels like a punch in the chest, leaving me breathless.  I begin the year 2017 with the humble realization that I, too, have been hiding from my own intense darkness. 

What I learned as a child:
What one sees in the dark will not be believed.  
Turn on a light and it disappears.  

What I learned as an adult:
Leave the seeds of your own imagination and intuition in the light of the bright sun. 
They will shrivel and die.  
For they need the cool damp soil, the long dark nights and rain.

Finally, I not only understand darkness; I thrive in it. I am learning to see in it.  I need to go into darkness to fully understand myself and the world.  There I have found a deep connection with my ancestors.  My ancestors are my connection with the unwritten past that I carry within, making them the seeds of compassion for myself and all life.  

In the light of day we learn we are all one in the world, and we reach out to the sun.  In the darkness we learn we are all one in the universe, and we germinate.  

Darkness is where seeds germinate.

My journey into this acceptance takes me into the mythology of my patrilineal ancestry and my Sanskrit name, Usha.  Let me be clear - India is more than the land of chai tea and asanas, colorful goddess memes about enlightenment and little brown men in tree poses.   That is the surface of India, the travel brochure ad, the guru's full page ad.  I love my yoga classes and I appreciate the West's need for something to ease the imbalance in its own culture.  I struggle at how often that leads to a narrow vision, the appropriation of only a slice of a monumentally complex culture, existing now in a country devastated and transformed by Neocolonialism.  There are certainly many Westerners who consciously address this problem.  And I respect the complexity of American life, being a part of it while I sometimes bristle at it.  I have driven home frustrated from at least a few yoga classes, when, chatting after class, I have tried to explain my own experience of India.  I lack the words as much as the culture I live in lacks the understanding.  It is an impasse that has led me to create a world of art surrounding this name, Usha, and all it represents.  You cannot embrace the shiny surface of India without swallowing the darkness that is as much hers.  And this goes for all of spirituality, all of nature, all of this existence.

Usha is also a character I have worked on in several stories.  Often intensely personal work,  I seldom felt comfortable having my stories be public.  They are stories that reflect my most personal struggles, my relationship with my Indian father, my outsider status, my stubborn pride over an identity I fail to fully understand.  Usha has been a protagonist in a private monologue.  She journeys into darkness, giving me the courage to reveal these stories and the imagination to create new ones.  In the dimming light of the Empire's Lies I feel the time has come.

 I am one of many.

Sometime in the 70's:  a day in the life of Usha.  

"I am Usha" is not about history and a retelling of ancient myths.  There are piles of books for that.  It is my personal discovery of an unknown lineage through the journey of visionary art making.  It is my own solitary conversation with my ancestors when I wear my Sanskrit name.  It is a change that occurs when you see your present self through the eyes of your cellular memory.   It is more than a name, and more than an exploration of culture; in the end it is a search for meaning in the abyss.  Implicit in the search is the release of old norms of thinking, a rejection of dogma, opinions and assumptions.  What replaces these untruths does not reveal itself immediately and an uncomfortable darkness descends.  Uncomfortable because it is the unknown, the one thing feared so deeply.  But Darkness and Unknowing have become my closest confidants in this language of art I have developed in a lifetime.

"I am Usha" is a journey into the mysterious understanding of the necessities of darkness that ultimately leads to the light of communicating and connecting with the world.  Each of these cannot exist without the other, making me realize "I am Usha" is my way of joining the divided parts of myself as a mirror to the divided world I live in.  It is my hope that this creative vision quest will unite past and present, illustrating the illuminating potential of darkness.  In the end this is all I ask of my art.  

Note: all paintings are my own, painted between 1994-1997.
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