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I was 17 years old and had never met a blind man before. Every day, he sat at the counter of the diner where I poured coffee.
The first time we met, he pulled out paper and colored pencils and started to draw. “But you can't see!” I blurted out. He just smiled.
Blinded by disease when he was 8 years old, he said that he'd always been an artist. He didn't stop just because he had lost his sight.
I’d watch him draw for hours, his face strained inches above the paper. He could still see colors and light. He drew with an 8 year old's perspective, with the ground hugging the bottom of the page, but his skies, his skies were glorious fields of color.
He signed each finished work carefully, slowly writing out the letters of his name, “Andrew David Smith.”
I had never met an artist before, and was nervous when I asked him how much it would cost to buy one of his pieces? "I don't make these to sell," he smiled. Then he handed me the drawing he had just finished. I framed it proudly, the first piece in my collection. I have it still.
It wasn't about the art for him, he said. It was about being who he was, and not letting anything take that away.
One day he came into the diner with another man. They sat in a faraway booth but the fragments I caught of their conversation captivated me. They were speaking of things I felt in my soul, things I’ve never been able to find words for. I kept their coffee cups full as I strained to listen.
When they started to leave, I grabbed Andy's arm, “Please,” I whispered, “Tell me what you were saying to that man?” And this was how I found my first teacher.
We met every Tuesday night. He patiently answered all of my questions, the ones I’d pent up for years. “Truth is everywhere,” he taught me. “Open yourself up to everything, always seek beauty.” He described the universe as a magnificent vase that had smashed into tiny pieces. "And each of us clings to our small shard of glass and calls it a vase."
The way that he moved through the world was magical. When he decided to spend the summer in the mountains, he told me he wanted to buy a van. “But you’re blind,” I reminded him, "You can't drive." He laughed.
A few weeks later he won $10,000 in the lottery and bought that van. Then a friend mentioned he was looking for a ride to the mountains, and offered to drive them both there. That's how Andy rolled.
He knew things about people that couldn’t be seen. The energy that came from his hands was so strong that he could light candles without a match. And when he smiled, joy spilled from his face.
I would have many teachers over the years, and I would know thousands of artists. But when I think back on my friendship with Andrew David Smith, I am so grateful that the first artist I ever met was a blind man. Because the greatest lesson he taught me was that you don’t need eyes to see.
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This is a cracker of a story - and it's all true!
A Christmas Cracker tells the harrowing (and hilarious) tale of what ensued when I decided to channel my creativity away from art and into domesticity.
Here's the audio (and text!) from the live event at Phoenix's RPela Gallery in July 2014.
Playback issues on Safari (Mac)? See below *
"I am sharing a story of Christmas - though it’s only July - because this story will give all artists a chill. For when we muzzle our creativity, we start to focus on perfectionism and that trick never works.
Once upon a time, I was a newlywed. I had studied art, started to show my work, get published, but when I married a working artist, I decided to hang up my beret. Don’t judge me, women do this all the time.
I thought I should support him and his creativity. And that my work would be as a domestic artist – like Martha Stewart.
I wanted to pour every inch of my creative self into this new life. And nowhere would I have a chance to exhibit my newfound domestic flair more that Christmas. Ah Christmas! It had my name written all over it.
Our very first Christmas. I began by making individual handmade Christmas cards and posting them to all our friends and family.
I strung popcorn and cranberries for the tree until my fingers were bloody and raw..."
Read more here.
*If the sound does not play, click Safari in top menu bar, select Preferences then Advanced and uncheck/tick the Internet plug-ins box.
I hang my head in shame to admit that I’ve been busy with more important things than my own creativity. And this is what I teach other artists not to do!
Here’s the story: You may not know this but Companion and I have been collaborating on a musical. That’s right, as in play.
He’s been working on it and now it’s my turn. It’s a huge project and I couldn’t imagine finding the headspace to be inspired right now. I almost set it aside until Companion suggested that I take a week away and create the space.
I looked at the calendar and found one week that looked hopeful. I called a friend who lives in a gorgeous cottage in the English countryside asking if she knew anyone looking for a house-sitter, understanding that this was a shot in the dark.
But guess what? She and her husband were going away that very week and needed someone to stay in their home and look after the animals!
I took this as a very good sign indeed.
The house was lovely, surrounded by flowers and a garden stocked with fresh vegetables, a pond full of fish, cats to cuddle and a dog to play with. Who could ask for more?
I started each day writing non-stop until lunch. Then I’d take a 3.5 mile hike to the nearest town, Royal Tunbridge Wells. I lived in Tunbridge Wells when I first moved to England so it has a special place in my heart, and not just because this is where I first fell in love with cake.
Walking through the countryside brings out my inner 8-year old. I chased the dog across rolling green meadows, talked to trees in the forest, and played in the stream. I rested under huge oaks and blue skies as I took notes, capturing each idea as it came.
Once in town, my routine included trekking past all the regal Victorian villas to the High Street full of fabulous shops, where I’d treat myself to a cup of tea and a beautiful slice of cake before making the journey back.
When I returned to the cottage, I’d answer emails and address only the business that absolutely positively had to get done. Then dinner, a long soak in a hot bath, followed by an evening of musicals on TV for inspiration.
It was heaven! I’m the kind of girl who lives very close to my spirit because that’s where my best ideas come from. So although my self-imposed exile looked like a holiday, it’s actually the way I work best. Not only did I accomplish an incredible amount of work, I left that week feeling inspired and ready to put my creativity back into my daily schedule.
So to any artist who complains that they don't have time to devote to their own creative work, I say "Let them eat cake."
It was on September 13th, when she was just 13 years old, that Orelle was struck by a car as she crossed 13th Street. Unlucky number 13.
Orelle spent the remainder of her short life in pain, finally finding peace when she took her last breath exactly 13 months later on October 13th, 1932.
It was my Grandmother who kept the memory of her sister alive all these years. She once confessed to me that she wasn’t afraid of her own death because she knew that she would see Orelle again. See her without the pain that the unlucky number 13 had wrought.
Several years ago I asked my Grandmother - what was Orelle like? She smiled, “A bit like you. She was a dreamer, very artistic and she was always writing poetry and plays.”
A bit like me. No one in the history of my family had ever been described as being a bit like me. I wrote poems and plays and dreamed my way through life. I had always wanted to be a writer but never dared pursue it. It was when my Grandmother told me of Orelle’s wish to write that I finally owned my own.
I will never have the opportunity to hear the sound of Orelle's voice. But I feel the power of it course through my veins each time I put pen to paper.
Today, as I write this, it is June 13th, and would have been Orelle’s 96th birthday. My gift to her is to share her story with you. Thank you Orelle, for inspiring me to live the life you could not. The life of an artist.
Mickey was born the moment that his father died. His dad was rushing to the hospital to greet his firstborn son when he was hit by a train and killed instantly.
A few years later, Mickey's misfortune continued when his mom married a Bad Man. Family lore has it that the Bad Man beat little Mickey so brutally that all the sense was knocked out of him. Mickey would always remain a boy, even after he was grown.
He was my father's cousin. This boy/man lived with his invalid mother in the forest near my grandparent's Minnesota lake house. An idiot, they called him, but not unkindly. To me he was a cross between a giant and Snow White's sweet dwarf, Bashful.
Each summer Mickey would teach me the trails of the forest, pointing out the birds, trees and wild animals he called his friends. He taught me how to put a squiggly worm on a hook and to cast a fishing rod. He never spoke to me, only gestured and smiled, both of us equally shy of one another.
One summer, Mickey shared a secret. We followed the trail that led from my grandparent's dock toward his mother's house. In a clearing, I saw a small sign with the word "Mickeyville" scrawled upon it. A pretty little town lovingly built of wood in miniature. Mickey, it would seem, was a deeply talented woodworker. His eyes shined with pride as I walked through Mickeyville. It was all there, brightly painted houses, a school, a tidy church with its tall steeple. And there was the hospital, right next to the railroad tracks. Just as in Mickey's life, there were no people in Mickeyville.
I wouldn't return to the lake house for another 20 years. They were all gone by then: my beloved grandparents, Mickey and his invalid mother. I picked up a rusty fishing pole from the edge of the dock and cast the empty hook into the water just to remember how it felt. There was a hard tug and I reeled in a huge Northern pike - off the dock with an empty hook! The ghosts of my people were having their way with me.
Leaving the spirits of the water, my eye caught the trail into the forest. Soon I found myself standing in the ruins of Mickeyville. Countless winters had battered the buildings, most crushed by the weight of snow and neglect. The tall steeple of the church stood alone. I reached through its wide front doors, past the rows of tiny pews, across the altar and removed the small wooden crucifix fastened to the back wall.
Today, the crucifix from the Mickeyville Church sits on my own altar where it remains my favorite piece of art.
I was having was one of those days and life was bringing changes that tinted my spirits blue. I turned to the TV, hoping to escape my melancholy mood.
Mary Poppins. I never watch kids’ films, but it was the only thing on, so I settled in with a sigh.
I had forgotten about Mary Poppins and how much I’d loved her. I was surprised to find I knew every song and remembered every word. I had forgotten that when I was a little girl, I wanted to be Mary Poppins.
I imagined that when I grew up I’d create a life where I would sing with birds and dance with trees. I’d have adventures and live my dreams.
“Real life’s not like that,” they all warned gravely, concerned for the future of this curious little girl. But I was intent.
Every time I saw a shooting star, I'd wish for those magical powers. I poured a small fortune into wishing wells. And I spent so many years bent over in search of four-leaf clovers that I still suffer from back pain.
But as I watched Mary Poppins again after so many years, I became enchanted. And a miracle did transpire. I remembered who I was. I remembered that little girl who wanted to create a beautiful life, full of adventures and magic and delight.
And I realized that in a strange way, I am Mary Poppins. I have created that life. And that I don't have to feel blue when life brings change, I just need to take it with some sugar.
In many ways, Mary Poppins was like an artist, leaving everywhere she went more beautiful for her having been there. She never wasted a minute wishing things could be different, but focused on the magic of each moment. Mary Poppins reminded me that how I respond to change is a choice that I make. And that life is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, if I will only believe.
Wind’s in the east, mist coming in. Like something is brewing, about to begin...
I brought no Italian to Rome.
At the Brazilian Embassy, I tell the guard that I am to see the great artist Vik Muniz. The guard speaks no English. My best mime only warrants a raised eyebrow.
In desperation, I plead, "Parlez francais?" though I do not. A call is placed and I gather that I have been mistaken for a french journalist of great repute. "French" because everyone now speaks to me in french, though my only reply is my customary Gallic shrug. "Journalist of repute" because I was granted the sole private interview with the artist so they assume I must be somebody.
The red carpet is rolled out as a diplomat whisks me upstairs to Vik. Introductions are made, in french, to Vik as he looks at me, baffled, and exclaims. "It's you!" We embrace as I explain how I chased him to Rome, wanting an interview for my Working Artist project, and how I carefully connived to arrange this meeting.
They give us an ornate room to talk in private. Vik helps me set up my film equipment and, as I struggle, he patiently teaches me how to use my tripod. Oh God, I repeat to myself nervously. The Brazillian Ambassador drops in to say hello. Oh God. A white-gloved man in uniform silently serves us espresso. I am shaking with caffeinated nerves.
But he was the same Vik Muniz he has always been, generous, brilliant, hilarious, insightful, and gorgeous. And in the end, I got an amazing interview.
If I had a nickel for every time I couldn’t move forward because of money, or because there simply wasn’t enough time… but I decided to stop letting those things that I cannot control decide my fate. I decide my own fate; it’s a thing with me.
I practice the "little-teeny-tiny bit each day" philosophy, because that’s how things get created. And that way, I can focus on the money that is needed right now, and not worry about the money that I will need in the future.
More times than not, when the money isn’t there, another door opens. I just keep working, keep taking little-teeny-tiny steps.
I’ve noticed that when people work this way, especially if it is in service to others, doors open. And the timing is always more perfect if you allow the universe to work for you, instead if dictating your timeline. Just keep working. Start small and you will do great things. Start now.
At the extraordinary James Turrell exhibition at Pace London, I felt as if I was falling back in time. I've shared so many conversations with Turrell over the years.
It was he who first taught me how to look at his work, and spoke to me about light. It was he who introduced me to the Quaker religion to which he belonged, and would sometimes invite me to worship with them.
When I told him about a magazine I subscribed to, "Quakers in the Arts," he laughed as I explained how it was more of a xeroxed newsletter than a magazine. But the editors made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in budget. There had been an article in one issue about Turrell and his work and how it related to Quakerism. The writer mused on her desire to see Turrell's masterpiece, The Roden Crater, an extinct volcanic crater in the middle of the desert that he'd made his life's work, turning it into an incredible piece of land art.
So Turrell and I decided to invite her, and all of the Quakers in the Arts to visit the Roden Crater.
They were thrilled! From all over the states came water-colorists, quilters, and poets. It was a fine day at Turrell's ranch, with hay rides and a picnic, and we even sat in silent worship together.
After lunch we piled into cars to make the arduous journey through the rough terrain to the crater itself. I drove in front with Turrell and a long line of Quakers followed. We were a little concerned about their small cars on the gravel road that twisted for miles, but everyone arrived in one piece.
At the gate, Turrell got out of the truck only to come back right away, panicked. "I forgot the keys." What? "I forgot the keys." James Turrell had forgotten the keys to the Roden Crater and there were 12 carloads of Quakers idling expectantly behind us.
There was only one thing to do. We broke in. I won't tell you how we did it, just that we did it. Because not many people can say: "I broke into the Roden Crater." But I can. Yes, I can.
They tell me that I have always been creative. My family recognized the symptoms from the start. I often heard them wail, “She’s creative!” when they didn’t understand why on earth I made the choices I did. They would cry out, hands on-head in despair, “What will become of her?”
At school, I’d entertain the other kids with song and dance routines during class. “She’s creative,” the teachers would whisper to one another conspiratorially.
After spending a large part of my adult life with the same therapist, I finally asked him what exactly was wrong with me? He shrugged, “You’re creative.”
It didn’t sound like a nice thing to be. I wanted to be something else, someone else. For many years my creativity just scared me. Being creative made me see the world in different colors thanother people see it. And when others recognized that difference in me, I felt wrong, ashamed.
It took me a long time, but now I paint the world in my own strange colors. And I feel right in feeling wrong.