Thursday, September 15, 2011

How Do We Know When a Piece of Art is Finished?

I was in a sculpture class in high school and our assignment was to make a plaster sculpture that required an armature. An armature is a structure that supports the piece from inside and is never seen once the piece is finished. We were provided with blocks of wood for the bases and various gauges of wire, chicken wire, wire cutters, etc. with which to construct this supporting structure.
One of my classmates, let’s call her Linda Yen, created an armature of a horse that was so lovely the teacher called a halt to the class. Everybody was gathered around (the way I remember it) for a discussion about what to do next. The armature was so beautiful that the question arose as to whether the piece could be called complete at this stage. The instructor asked the philosophical question – one I still use every day -“How do we know when a piece is finished?” What a great question! The teacher was wise enough to let the student decide whether and how to proceed with the assignment. I remember some of the options:
· Leave this one as-is and call it complete.
· Finish the piece as assigned (cover it in plaster bandage and then more plaster). The sub-text to this was that if it loses something, she could attempt to make another wire sculpture.
· Stop now and create another companion armature to cover in plaster.
There were so many possible outcomes. The piece could look even more gorgeous when plastered, but there was no guarantee. What if it looked worse? None of us knew for sure what would happen. What if she were unable to create another equally graceful armature? I remembered the instructor taking a photograph of the armature “just in case.” It turned out the student chose to cover the armature in plaster as originally assigned. It lost its grandeur, appearing heavy and clumsy when it was finished. I remember her attempt to remake a wire armature afterward. It, too, lacked the beauty of the original.
I always took it as a lesson: When something looks really lovely, maybe it’s time to call it complete. Maybe it’s not what you were expecting, but try to step back from the “assignment” (your preconceived notions, your original expectations) to see the piece for what it is. If it is a treasure, treasure it.
I didn’t realize how deeply impacted I was by this learning. Let’s face it. Most of us in high school don’t learn by others’ mistakes – we much prefer to make our own. I know I did. I was truly impressed with Linda Yen’s original sculpture. I was equally disheartened by her loss in finishing the sculpture with plaster in a way that dulled its elegance, and then by her struggle to re-create another fine armature that also fell somewhat short.
Cut 42 years into the future:
Last week my friend Peter started posting digitized slides he rescued from our old high school in the midst of its demolition. In typically wasteful fashion, the venerable old building was being torn down while still full of books, supplies, furniture, art, and, oh yes, a carousel of old slides from the art department. What are the odds Peter would come up with images of the art work made by our cohort in the late 1960s? He did.
This is a photo of my life lesson. This is a slide of Linda Yen's armature from 1969. How do we know when a piece of art is finished? Is it when the teacher says, "Let me get a picture of this now, just in case?"
The larger lesson from this event is encoded here, too. What if your life isn't what you thought it was going to be? What if you have a different life? Is it possible for you to step back and see its elegance, beauty and completeness? Maybe it's not what you expected, and it has turned into something even finer. Imagine that.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Edifice Wrecks

It’s interesting that I am working on a sketchbook with the theme “Time Travel” while this is happening. My old high school in Detroit is being demolished. I think of Robert Frost’s poem (Good Fences Make Good Neighbors) that has the line in it, “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.” This is not the case for old Cass Tech. The destruction of this building is going slowly and painfully. Some of the beautiful 96 year old stonework is being salvaged, and I wonder for what purpose (can I have a piece?) while most of the building and its contents is being turned into rubble. Lockers, labs, auditorium seats, chandeliers, books, desks, windows, plumbing.

Don’t get me wrong, in the late 1960s my friends and I would have loved for the school to disappear so we could have that imagined freedom that idealistic (or fogged-by-pot-smoking) 16 year olds at that time foresaw. Time travel has certainly been fascinating since then. Here we are now: parents, grandparents, doctors, professors, therapists, artists, lawyers. We are as surprised as anybody that we have turned out so, well, grown-up.

On my first day at Cass I knew that my home room was on the sixth floor. I ran up the stairs as I would normally run up a single flight, and I made it to the fifth floor before my legs and lungs responded, “say, what now?” I remember feeling like I couldn’t move one more step and yet I had an entire floor ahead of me. Two flights with a landing between runs of wide marble stairs. Yikes. What do I do? Go back down and look for an elevator? I knew that was a ridiculous option. There was nothing for it but to push myself up those two final flights.

I suppose now that could be read as a metaphor for the rest of my high school experience. The teachers I didn’t get along with, and the teachers I loved (Mr. Caudillo, History! Mr. Matsui, Biology!) And the lifelong friends I collected there. They all pushed me toward learning and growth I would otherwise not have had. The richness and deeply felt joy I treasure from our shared histories is beyond description.

So, back to Cass Tech. I went there last weekend with my husband and walked around its half-demolished husk. Completely fenced off as it was, my mission was to capture a brick from the old building if I could. The perimeter is wide and kept scrupulously picked clean. Hard hat warnings are posted. I found a shard and picked it up. It held so much energy I got goose bumps up my arm. First of all, the building was black when we attended. In the intervening years it had been sandblasted to its original buff color. If I doubted the blond brick piece in my hand was authentic, its juju put to rest that notion. My eyes got wet, my scalp and hand tingled. WTF?

When I attended school there I could NOT WAIT to get out so that my real life could begin. Remember the human skeleton in the figure drawing classroom? We named her Mrs. Nelson after the teacher (old and shriveled, we thought) that retired that first year. Todd remembers smoking weed on the roof and a concurrent struggle with math. I don’t remember the weed (and I don’t remember the math), but I DO remember Todd. I remember walking downtown after school and hanging out at Hudson’s, mostly in the book department where there was access to a hidden back stairway. Hudson’s is also long ago demolished. I remember going to Wayne State University after school and eating French fries in the cafeteria. I remember skipping school and spending time at the Detroit Institute of Arts instead. I remember when my best friend had to bring her little brother to school with her because the babysitter didn’t show up and her mother was already at work. What a crew I ran with. I remember Ellen flinging her leg over a banister and sliding down a flight. She had on a long skirt and sneakers. Tres chic. We all wore skirts to school then, there was a dress code. I remember the elevator operator who told me, “Your eyes favor Bette Davis.”

Back to last weekend at Cass Tech. I found a breach in the chain link fence and walked through it. I took about thirty paces toward the broken building, its large edifice appearing to recede as I attempted to draw near. At just that moment a police car drove by and I heard my husband speak with the officers. Although I couldn’t hear their words, I scooted back out of the enclosure. Yes, the last two police officers still employed in the city of Detroit found me breaking the law! My luck remains consistent. As it turns out they weren’t threatening to arrest us for trespassing, they just passed on a warning “tell her to be careful.” But I was too distressed to carry on. I left with a shard of brick and these pictures. Cass Tech is still teaching me things: now it’s about time travel.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Multi-Generational Impact of Art Therapy

I go to the homes of my clients when necessary due to their mobility limitations. I visited a client today, I’ll call him Steve, but that’s not his real name. Steve is recovering from traumatic brain injury (TBI). Steve also has severe symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) secondary to the car accident that caused his TBI. His symptoms are very hard to tease out and separate. They are all tangled like a ball of yarn after a cat attack. Today we talked a little bit about art therapy and we made some art.

Sleep is a challenge for Steve. Sometimes he can't sleep. Sometimes he gets too much sleep. He is on a complicated regimen of medications, each with its own side effects. Sometimes he has vivid and disruptive nightmares. Today Steve worked on a recent dream that had disturbed him. My thought was to help him externalize the dream in order to create a therapeutic distance from it. I showed him how to make an accordion book with four pages. The structure and limitations might really help him contain his distress. Being able to open and, more importantly, being able to close the book gives him some much-needed control. Steve was really forced to compress his dream into a tight space. But he made it happen. Steve worked silently at the table beside me. He was able to tell his story in four pictures, including an introduction and conclusion! He drew images and wrote words with a pencil, and then colored his pictures with markers. He told his story in very concise imagery and language. It was an impressive accomplishment.

When he was done, we talked about the process.

Without prompting, Steve reflected on his changed perspective at the end of the story. In the third picture he was depicted as small as a speck, nearly invisible, a microscopic dot on the paper, overwhelmed by a gigantic mountain seeming to block his path. The very last picture showed him big enough to fill half the page as he changed the dream channel. The image progression showed a remarkable improvement in self perception, and a sense of personal power. Again, this was quite a feat. It likely would have taken multiple sessions to get there without the art’s assistance.

And then Steve thanked me for helping him to “complete something in one hour.” Yeah, that’s important, too. He struggles with distractibility, and it can take him the whole day – or longer sometimes – to finish a simple task.

Later, toward the end of session, Steve told me, “You know, art therapy is affecting multiple generations in my family.” Oh? “Yes. Now when my grandchildren come over they all want to make art with me. They are not interested in TV anymore.”

And he’s told me this before, but somehow today, in these words, it stayed with me differently.

Nice one. Truth is, getting to work with people like him changes my life, too. Thanks, Steve.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

ArtHouse Coop Sketchbook Project 2011: Art of Revenge

I just completed this project. ArtHouse Coop chose at random, the subject "Revenge." I found it puzzling and challenging. It was only afterward that I learned that my true satisfaction comes from successfully making my mark on the future. Within this sketchbook are hidden (and not-so-hidden) symbols of my children. Their success buoys my spirit and is truly the best possible revenge on all who have done me wrong. Check out this SlideShare Presentation: