COWS: A Circular Story That May Mean Everything, or Nothing.

My DH is a good man. I knew that very soon after I first met him almost 40 years ago. What it took me awhile to discover is, he’s not very good at remembering important dates. Ocassionally, that bugs me a little bit. Uusally not, though. And I can get a good laugh out of it, too.

On Monday, September 11, I decided to wait to see how long it would be before my husband remembered it was my birthday. Around 1:00 pm, I posted something to that effect on Facebook.  He didn’t see it.

By 7:30 pm, I couldn’t bear it any longer. I told him I was going to the grocery store to get a cake. (Which, btw, I never do, because, you know, I’d eat it all.)

When I arrived home, he came outside to help with the groceries. He was stunned to find only a frosted carrot cake. He looked at me, and I said, “I SAID I was going to get a cake. For my birthday.” A panicky look crosses his face. As I walk into the house, he follows me, saying, “But TODAY’S not your birthday! Is it?? It’s not! Is it??”

True-to-form. And me, too, because I ate almost all of the cake in five days. (In my defense, it was a single layer.) (The frosting!!!!)

On September 12, 1940, four teenaged boys in near the small village of Montignac, in the Dordogne region of France, discovered the cave of Lascaux.

lascaux4b

Aurochs!

On Tuesday, September 12, we knocked off early from the day and drove out to Bodega Head, our favorite cliff site overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We passed a lot of cattle in the grassy rolling hills on the way.  Jon asked how I could tell beef cattle from dairy cows. I said I am no expert, I just know the most popular breeds and their purpose: Black-and-white Holsteins, with the occasional fawn-colored Jersey and Guernseys, vs. Black Angus and white-faced Herefords.

My husband asked if cows were ever tri-colored, as in white/black/brown, like calico cats. I said I’d never heard of that. I couldn’t think of a reason why that wouldn’t be so, so I said I’d look it up. I mentioned how surprised I was to see grey cattle on our trip to England more than 30 years ago. (We’d gone to Paris to visit good friends, then gone on to England to visit more friends there.) Jon doesn’t remember noticing the cattle. I did, because I’ve seen a lot of cows in my life, and those grey cows were different. The warm color of pewter.

On our next trip to France, two weeks after 9/11/2001, we visited Lascaux II, the beautiful reproductionn of one of the main cave galleries of Lascaux. I saw the aurochs, and the horses, those beautiful running horses that are the heart-center of everything I do. Jon was worried “second-best” would be disappointing. I kissed him and said it was enough.

After making art for more than two decades inspired by that cave, I realized just a couple months ago that “aurochs”, the name of those prehistoric cattle depicted on the cave walls, sounds an awful lot like our modern word: “ox”. I wondered if they were connected. But I kept forgetting to search for that.

Tonight, I was on my way to bed when, for some reason, I can’t remember why, I remembered I wanted to look up  tri-colored cattle breeds.

So I did. One of the images was of a breed that resembled the auroch images in the cave of Lascaux.

DreamCheerE

DreamCheer, a heifer born in 2000, sold at action in 2003, in Texas.

Which reminded me that I still hadn’t looked up “aurochs” and “ox”.  I did. Bingo! They are related! In fact, the word “aurochs” is the name of a species of European wild cattle (Bos ursus) that went extinct early in the 17th century.

In the process, I realized that what I’ve thought most of life were Guernsey cows are actually probably Brown Swiss cows (also milk producers). Or maybe even Charolais, which are not (which is embarrasing. Because that would mean I only use color as a determinant. )

And those “ancient-looking tri-colored cattle”? They might be Normande cows, introduced to Normandy, France in the 9th and 10th centuries by…Vikings!

Prehistoric aurochs, wild aurochs that disappeared in the 1600’s, aurochs-looking cattle brought to France by Vikings….

The mind boggles.

And of course, it was on my 49th birthday, September 11, 2001, that I wrote the story about my artwork that still means so much to me today.

What is old is new again, a meme for my own artwork and my own interpretation of this famous cave. Which makes this this project to restore those same ancient aurochs so compelling.
Brown Trade Bead Ancient Bull Necklace

And because of all this, I want to share with you my favorite (and now ironic) quote from the 1996 movie Twister:

Jo: [cow flies by in the storm while in Bill’s truck] Cow.

[cow flies by in the storm]

Jo: another cow.

Bill: Actually I think that was the same one.

 

 

 

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WHAT IS THE STORY ONLY YOU CAN TELL?

I’m often asked to speak about my art. I’m good at it, too. It’s been a long journey, but I’ve become extremely comfortable sharing what is in my heart.

There is one frustration I sometimes encounter, though.

That’s the people who come up afterward and ask, “Can I make horses, too?” “Can I combine fabric and polymer, too?” The woman who exclaimed, “Oh, I love that idea! I paint gourds, and I’m going to make cave pictures on my gourds, too!”

Or the people that don’t even ask. They just start making cave ponies.

It’s not that they took my idea.

It’s that they got the wrong idea.

I know we all “copy” to some extent. I consider it a spectrum, just like any other human behavior. It ranges the gamut, from being inspired by someone else’s work (“I love that shade of blue! Hmmmm…I could make a necklace…”) to outright hacks. (Like finding your design on a shelf at T.J. Maxx or Target, and yes, that has happened to artists.)

I know I don’t own the idea of horses, the Lascaux horse, or even ancient images. It would be preposterous of me to say no one else can use these images.

I DO own my story.

And if you’ve ever listened to, or read my stories, and really heard them, you know I’m not just making little plastic horses.

I recently had a visitor to my studio, a delightful person who collects my work. We talked about her work. It’s an unusual profession, and one where many people would pick up the “hero” aspect. (I haven’t gotten her permission to write about this, so I’m being very circumspect.)

Her take was different. Deeper. More sensitive. Profound.

And when she spoke, I felt that ring of truth, that recognition of passion, that little shiver that goes down your spine when you hear deep knowledge expressed by someone from their heart.

It was her story. And it was astonishing.

If you know my story, you know my little horses represent many things to me–a childhood desire to run free, to fly, to feel the wind blowing my hair as my horse and I course across a plain together. You know it’s about the beauty of horses, the thrill of watching an animal born to run, run with all their heart. Doing what they were meant to do. Being what they were meant to be.

But they also represent choices. The choice to be the person you were meant to be. The choice to overcome fear, self-doubt and the weight of adulthood, and try something you’ve always dreamed of doing. To step into yourself, to take up your dreams, and live them. To follow the call.

And the choice to create beauty and embrace hope in the face of despair.

It boggles the mind to think that someone can hear my story.

And then copy my work.

Not just because my work is so personal and so important to me.

But because they missed the whole damn point of the story!

It’s that in YOU, is a story that only YOU can tell.

Because it is YOUR story. It happened to YOU. And it changed you–how you look at life, how you look at yourself, where you fit into the world.

Your story creates a place where, when you stand there, you are powerful. And you are beautiful, and you are whole.

How…..can anyone want to ignore their own powerful, wonderful, incredible story? And try to substitute someone else’s??

Even when your story is not about something you do, or something you make, it is still a place that YOU came to, a crossroads, YOU found yourself at, a journey YOU find yourself on.

Example: Anyone can do hospice work. It doesn’t take a “special person”. It just takes someone willing to be there. Anyone could do what I do.

But only I can tell the stories that come to me by doing it.

I know a woman who translates for the rights of an indigenous people in Brazil. She has even spoken at the United Nations. She insists she does not speak FOR them–they speak THROUGH her. She is their pipeline to a world that needs to honor their cries for help.

But the stories she tells about how they found her are incredible, and powerful.

That is why envy, and jealousy, are so destructive to creative people. To ANY of us.

Because it means we cannot see the power of our own stories.

What is the story that only YOU can tell?

And how will you tell it today?

September 11, 2009…and life goes on.

I meant to write this on my birthday, September 11. But I spent the day with my family.

Which is the way it should be.

And by waiting a day or two to post, I found that same ol’ three-of-a-kind thread thing goin’ again…. (I mean, sometimes an idea I’m mulling shows up in two or three or four variations in my life, which means I have to deal with it/write about it/ponder it.

I always think about THE 9/11 on my birthday, of course. Not because 9/11 makes me special–terrible things always happen on someone’s birthday.

But when something awful does happens on your birthday, I think it’s natural to think about your birthday in a different way.

I usually I keep my thoughts on that day to myself. I don’t want to sound glib about all those people dying so I can have little “aha!” moments at their expense.

This year, I did want to say something. And I wasn’t sure I could say it in a way that would sound right. So I waited.

Then yesterday I found this lovely article on a friend’s refrigerator. That was the second thread.

And today, once again, I found out that someone who seems to be making my life a little harder, is actually struggling with the same circumstances themselves. Proving once again that when someone says “it’s about YOU”, it’s usually about THEM. (And I say this with compassion today, because I get that sometimes they’re hoping you will figure out what to do about it, so you can teach them.)

So sometimes someone who’s giving you grief has their own bugbears that have nothing to do with you personally. This is the third thread, which ties in so nicely with that second one.

And so all three threads come together.

Because the first thread–what I wanted to say this year on 9/11–is that life….goes on.

Life goes on, even when innocent people die in an unfair attack. Life goes on, even when terrible things happen to us.

Life goes on, even when beautiful things happen to us. I look at my tall, handsome, silent teenage son, and wish I could have one week of his sweet childhood back (and knowing what I know now.) Oh, I would hug him, and do whatever it took to hear his beautiful, bubbling laughter again. I look at our dog, halfway to adulthood, and marvel that only a few months ago, he was small enough to carry in one hand. We want to hold on to the beautiful times, wishing, hoping life will pause, that time will stop. We swear we will never forget.

But life goes on. And we do forget.

Life goes on, whether we are brave enough to apply to art school, ask for that job, introduce ourselves to that lovely person across the room, join that tae kwon do class, learn to ride, climb, drive, sing….or not.

Life goes on, whether we stand up for something, or whether we remain silent.

Life goes on, whether whether we do the right thing…or not.

Life goes on, whether we have the courage of our convictions…or not.

For better or worse, for richer or poorer, we get our chance and take it (or don’t) and life goes on.

We have our turn, to be here, to do the good work that is within our grasp, to love the people that are in our care, to take care of the issues in our path. We are given that turn, every day, and the next, and the next.

And then our turn is over.

We know….WE KNOW….the good that is in us, the art that is in us, the music that is in us, the love that is in us.

And we also know so very well the fears, the resentments, the anger, the hurts, the weaknesses we carry, that hold us back.

That’s why Mother Theresa/Dr. Keith’s words resonate in my heart this weekend.

Ten thousand years ago, someone, somebody painted hauntingly beautiful images of horses, bulls and deer on a cave wall in what is now France. We know almost nothing about them, except that they must have had a compelling reason to do that. We only know they were people like us, who had their turn. And then they were gone. All that’s left (and we are lucky to have that) are the paintings.

Hard as it is to imagine, thousands of years from now, we’ll be fortunate if a handful of names–Charlemagne, Confucius, Mozart, Einstein–and hopefully more of those will be names of WOMEN!!–survive as anything more than a hero’s tale, a mythical creature. Maybe we leave a bigger footprint in the sands of time now. But maybe not.

So do it.

Be kind. Love. Do good. Forgive. Make stuff.

Just do it. Just do it anyway, no matter what. If it’s important to you, if you know it’s the right thing to do, just do it.

When you have a teensy glimpse, as I did this year on September 11, the tiniest little glimpse, that what matters is not how we love, or what we love, but that we love…..

That it’s not how good our making/singing/dancing/loving/caring is, but that we do it….

Because yes, there will always be someone to criticize it, to judge it, to sneer at it, to make fun of it (and sometimes that someone is me, I’m ashamed to say. Oh, I am merciless about bad singers. Move over, Simon Cowell.)

But you must do it anyway….because yes, it matters

Then suddenly, and for a moment, it doesn’t seem so very hard after all.

p.s. Yes, I know today’s column is a lit-tle incoherent. But hey, it was my birthday! :^)

NEW JOURNEY: The First Step

Letting go of one stage of life in art, moving on to the next.

WARNING: The following is my personal experience and thoughts on this particular juncture in my life.

I do not cast judgment or aspersions on anyone else’s decisions and goals. It is simply one person’s thoughts (mine) on what I’m going to do next, and a discussion on how I’m getting there.

Time to share some of the reasons I checked in with artist/writer/life coach Quinn McDonald last week, and some of the insights I’ve had since then.

I’ve been feeling like a failure.

Or rather, I’ve now achieved all the goals I set for myself fifteen years ago, for better or worse, and I can’t find new ones.

Some were great: Getting juried into the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. Getting juried into the equally elusive Buyers Market of American Craft winter wholesale show. Getting juried into one of the country’s top retail show, the ACC-Baltimore show.

I’ve been featured in national magazines. Interviewed on TV–twice! Wrote a book. Wrote articles, even a regular column, for magazines.

I’ve been a guest lecturer for the Arts Business Institute. Given speeches at an international crafts symposium, various state and regional artist groups.

I’ve sold wall hangings for $5,000, an outrageous goal when people were balking at paying $50. I’ve had my work exhibited alongside some of my art heroes. I was selected for juried exhibitions in dozens of other states. I’ve won awards.

I’ve learned how to apply for public art proposals, how to create an exhibition proposal and how to pitch an article idea to a magazine editor. I’ve learned how to promote myself as an artist and writer.

In the process I’ve met wonderful people, made new friends, traveled across the country, and enriched my relationship with my now-adult daughter (who was three when I started all this!)

Some goals proved hollow or too elusive, and I’ve set those aside for now.

But I can’t think of any new goals. I have no idea what’s next.

Not knowing feels like failure.

Last fall I came across this incredible article on failure in the October 2008 issue of soon-to-be-defunct ODE magazine. Writer Marisa Taylor explores why failure is not just critical, but crucial to our development.

I know something is changing in me. But “giving in” to it was terrifying.

What if this “next step” means walking away from my art? What if it means not being very good at something?

What if it means going deeper into my art, and I’ve already used all my talent? What if I can’t sell it? What if I can sell it, but I don’t know how? Or don’t want to??

I realize I’ve fallen back into bad thinking habits. Thinking I have a finite talent for learning, focusing only on what I do well, whether I love to do it or not. Fear of looking stupid.

I realize lately I’ve taken more risks with my writing than with my art. How many people do you know would say it right here, “I’m afraid of looking stupid”…??

“The brain is a muscle,” says Taylor, “that grows stronger the more it’s used.” Failure, she says, creates even more synapses, more connections. Success and failure in the business world is about taking big risks–because only mediocrity lives in that middle ground.

And creativity is all about new connections. Like mediocrity, it never lives in that middle ground.

For me, selling my work gently but firmly led me to making creative decisions from my wallet, not my heart. Playing it safe, lowering my prices, focusing on work I thought would sell more easily.

Now, selling artwork is not a totally bad thing. It’s wonderful to have people love your work, it’s incredible when they tell you how beautiful it is.

When they buy it, it means they value your work enough to pay you for it. Their hard-earned money for your incredible work. One of my 15-year-old goals was to sell a wall hanging for $10,000. The day I sold one for $5,000 was a banner day.

But that thrill of selling is short-lived. Defining my success as “how much money I made at this show” or “how much money I made this year” made my world smaller and smaller. As the recession hit harder, and fear affected more and more of my customers, my sales took a walloping.

I kept saying I would not give in to that, but I did. As I look at all my decisions the last few years, I can see I’m still holding on to that lame definition of success.

It’s left me with an empty place in my heart.

My coach said it’s easy to see how I got there.

Just for simplicity, she suggested I temporarily replace “success” with the phrase “thrill of selling”.

Art shows are all about making money, from the producer to the show guide publisher, down to the booth holder and the parking lot attendant. Money is the coin of the realm here.

You sell your work or you don’t. You make “enough” money because enough people buy your work, or you don’t. If you are“successful”–selling your work for a lot of money–well, it gets harder and harder to raise the bar.

And if not….if you feel you have something–a pot, a quilt, a necklace–to offer the world and you’re “not successful”–it’s not being valued/bought, that’s painful.

The recession has made that worse. There’s been a sea change in our culture since 9/11. It’s a culture of fear. And it’s been exploited by many for a lot of different purposes.

So, said my coach, you’ve got something wrapped around your axle, so to speak. You are an artist–and money is not important. You are an artist–and money is important.

It is very, very hard to hold two opposing thoughts in your head at the same time. Which is where some of your discomfort is coming from.

Hmmmmm…..

Here’s the first question I was asked:

“What if money were not the coin of the realm?”

(Actually, the very first question was, “Are you a perfectionist?”, but we all knew that answer….)

So if I mentally/emotionally remove myself from that art show environment, what else is there?

Stay tuned…..

YOUR REAL CAREER

This is another party story, like Turning the Tables.

At this same party, there were so many new people I’d never met, unusual in our smallish town. I would ask people, “What do you do?”

It always feels like a hopelessly inadequate question. After all, a person working as a clerk in an office could also be an artist, a singer, a T’ai Chi master. You never know.

It reminds me of a section in Martha Beck’s latest book, The Joy Diet. In the chapter “Play”, she asks you to name your real career.

A real career is not necessarily what you’ve trained for, or what you do to earn a living, or even the job you’re currently in (or not in).

Your real career, as Webster defines it, is “…the course of action a person takes over a lifetime.”

It may not be what you do for money. It may not be anything you’ve ever done. It may not even be what you do in your free time.

It is, she says, “…the course of action your true self would take if you were to live to the limit of your potential.”

This is a harder concept to grasp–what do you dream of doing? What feeds your soul? What are you at heart?

And this could be, she says, a Japanese scholar, a scientist, a mother.

This reminds me of the older definition of amateur: What you pursue for love. Or perhaps what you would pursue, for love.

To cut to the chase, she often asks her clients, “What were you doing the morning of 9/11? And what did you do that evening?” What seemed most important to you then?

When I found out about the two towers, I was working in my studio. And making preparations for my birthday celebration.

My husband and I immediately went for a walk. And talked.

We observed that there was a new dividing line: The people who knew. And the people who didn’t yet know.

I held my family close, and struggled with what to tell my kids.

I went back to my studio to make little horses. I struggled with why I should still do this.

Then I wrote about it.

And then I went out to celebrate my birthday.

I had to write about the event to make sense of it.

I had to ask myself why why making those horses still had meaning for me.

It was because they were, for me, a symbol of everything that’s tender, and good, in the world.

So I know my real career is making sense of the things that happen to us in life. To write about them as I go through them. To mangle my intentions, to struggle with meaning. To find a little way through.

And then to share them, through stories, with other people.

And then make little horses that embody those stories.

Oh, and to always leave room for cake.

I’m curious.

Pretend we’re at a party, and we meet.

What is your job?

And what is your real career?

PS. Art biz tip: This should be someplace in your artist statement, you know….

PPS. For this exercise, if something spared you the sucker-punch-to-the-stomach reaction to 9/11, feel free to choose another life event that left you reeling.

CHAIN OF HOPE

As a small postscript to yesterday’s post SILENT EVIDENCE, let me share another chain story.

Our little family traveled to France soon after 9/11. We’d made the arrangements long before the terrorist attacks, and though it was frightening flying overseas less than two weeks later, I’m glad we went.

It was a difficult trip in many ways. It’s hard to remember now, but it seemed like there was a good chance we could be caught far from home if the United States declared war–and that was daunting. Til I convinced my husband with the argument that we’d all be together, in Paris, with credit cards. Where was the downside in that?

Since we were so close, we visited friends who live in Brussels, Pierre and Benedicte.

Benedicte’s father had been a doctor, and following in his footsteps, she had gone into nursing. Now she worked with a French non-profit that provided medical care to impoverished or war-torn countries. I can’t remember the exact name, but from her description, I believe it may have been this group called La Chaine de l’Espoir.

The reason this stuck in my mind, and what reminded me of it again today is her translation of the group’s name.

Benedicte spoke excellent English, but she groped for the right words. “It is hard, but in English, it is literally ‘chain of hope'”, she explained. “But that word is not good, because in English, ‘chain’ usually means…” and here she gestured, in a way that still moves me to tears, to show her hands bound. “…like ‘handcuffs?'” she suggested.

“Manacles?” I suggested.

“Yes! But this chain is a good word, because…” and here is where I cry, remembering her struggle to get just the right nuance, and again, watching her hands form links, then joining, and rejoining, in the air. “…this is what links us, one by one, to each other, no matter where we are. It is hope, these links.”

That is the chain I want to be a part of.

Does the chain save everyone? No.

Can it be broken? Oh, yes. Easily.

But it is still our best, and most powerful gift we can give to others.

ON SACRED GROUND

Today’s article is odd because I’m not sure why I’m writing it. I just know I must.

I’m reading a book on yoga called Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope. Not sure why… Just saw it at a friend’s house, picked it up and it looked interesting. Got my own copy and started meandering through it.

I found a section early on that just grabbed me. The author talks about sacred places, and quotes the famed anthropologist Margaret Mead: “There are certain places on the face of the earth where, for no apparent reason, very special things happen, over and over again.”

Now, I don’t know if Margaret Mead really said that. I did a quick Google search but couldn’t easily find it. (She said a lot of other great things, though!) It did get me thinking about the notion of “sacred places.”

I always think of the cave of Lascaux as a sacred place. Over the years, I’ve met many people who visited the actual cave before it was closed and sealed. All speak of a feeling of profound power and mystery. All felt changed by the experience.

My original body of artwork is inspired by this sacred place.

And yet I have never been there.

Two weeks after 9/11, my family and I visited Lascaux II, a detailed recreation of the main section of the original cave. When we emerged from the darkness, my husband, knowing how important this cave has been to my life as an artist, asked me gently, “Was it okay?” And I answered, “It was….enough.

And it was.

Because my sacred place is not the actual cave. It’s the stories in my heart the cave has inspired.

Every time I feel despair, or feel lost, or feel overwhelmed by the evil in the world, I think about that cave. And I can always seem to find a way back by finding yet another story that tells me a different truth.

I’m sharing this with you today because it occurred to me that “sacred places” can be more than a mere physical location.

It could be a person who always believes in you and your abilities, no matter what.

It can be a small group of people–perhaps a support group of other artists, like those described in Julie Cameron’s bookThe Artist’s Way–who always hold up to you the mirror you can see your artist self in.

It could be an activity–yoga, mediation, prayer, even singing a lullaby–that always brings you back to yourself. Your true self.

It could even be your art.

When we recognize and honor these special places–whether actual places, in our hearts, or in the hearts of others–then no matter how lost or confused we become, we can always find our way back home again.