Friday, October 29, 2010

A Paradoxical Experience

Writing a blog can be a paradoxical experience. On the one hand, you feel a bit like someone's watching you dress in front of a mirror, and on the other hand, you are by yourself (in your studio, office, cafe, fill in the blank...) and no none, even if they are sitting at the table next to you, can see what you're writing.

I'm often reluctant to write about process, because I'm superstitious. Superstitious. As if I write about art before it's made, it will be jinxed, or or more accurately, I'll feel bound to carry out what I said, rather than follow the ideas that come to me in the moment.

I'm breaking with that belief, because I'm playing with an idea. After listening to some of my friends talk about their grandchildren, I've begun to feel a sense of longing for my own grandchild, similar to what I felt when my friends began to have children some twenty years ago. The fact is though (much to my delight) my two kids in their early twenties show no signs of settling down and creating grandchildren anytime soon. 

I've decided instead to create a piece for an imaginary grandchild, someone yet unborn, someone who in fact may never be born. (I told this to my daughter Lizzie last night and she wrinkled up her face as if to say, "Are you kidding Mom? That's just weird.") Weird or not, I'm pursuing it.

A Young Hannah, Age 1
I've been collecting fabrics; my daughter's old organdy curtain flecked with sequins, some pink polka dot pajama pants (passed on to me when Lizzie got bored with them), and pieces of cloth that are shimmery, and remind me of Lizzie, who's a dancer. Why not my son's castoffs? Honestly, he and I would both agree that polo shirts and wind jackets (he's a golfer) don't make for great quilt material.

Remember Where We Moored the Boats, Jill Ault, River Gallery, Chelsea MI
Jill Ault, Remember Where We Moored the Boats
I began working with the fabrics I'd selected, putting up the organdy curtain on my studio wall, sewing quilted squares, and tacking them on, only to discover when I stepped back, that I'd left my own tastes out of the equation. I thought of an Aikido class I'd taken many years ago from  Wendy Palmer, who helps people examine their lives from a variety of different perspectives using Aikido. She says that Aikido, a martial art, "is the perfect structure in which to learn how build powerful connections...and live life with an open heart." She also spoke frequently about the moment when you grasp your opponent's hand and how that moment becomes a blending of energies--"feel the blend and move from that point" she would say.

"Feel the blend." These words spoke to me. How could I blend my energy, the energies of my children and someone imaginary? I discovered an answer when I found the work of artist, Jill Ault. Ethereal and otherworldly, her work seemed to suggest the presence of something beyond what we can see with our eyes. It reminded me of the obvious: to trust the art making process, to return to my own intuitive way of cutting, painting, pasting and connecting all the pieces. To create connections between myself and others beyond what I can see on the surface, the invisible openings of the hearts and minds. Stay posted.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Healer, Heal Thyself

Mask for a Young Person, ©2005, H. Hunter

I was determined to try and make this week's post about something other than the bereavement group but I underestimated the power of the group to affect me. I thought I'd learned how to leave the group behind me when it was over for the evening, ready to absorb myself in whatever awaited me next. We're such forgetful creatures, we humans.

Forgetful perhaps, but I think something else is at work here. The longer one does this work, the more one tunes in. You learn when to speak, when to wait in silence, when to make eye contact, and when to lay down your tools and acknowledge the force of the wave crashing over you.

This week we made clay grief masks. I love introducing this process. We pound the clay, tear it to bits, reassemble it and poke holes in it. By this time, I'm sure you've guessed we're not following the orthodox method of kneading clay to remove the air bubbles. No matter. People love it. Permission to pound the clay to bits has had tables absolutely vibrating.

Watching their faces last night as they worked affected me deeply;  eye sockets became deeper,  eyebrows arched higher and tears were etched into the clay.

The next day I had a headache of monster proportions. "What's up with this?" I wondered,  checking off my mental "self care" list: eating--check, sleeping--check, exercising--yeah. Nevertheless, cracking a smile seemed like just that. An impossibility.

Halfway into the day, I felt tears stinging my eyes. I sought the refuge of my office and called my husband, wondering between snuffles what was wrong with me. After some probing, oh yeah, the group. That little thing about being gentle, going easy with myself. Permission to cry was what I needed and what I received.

But that was only half of the equation. Today in art group, I found the other half. As we sketched large ghosts on white paper with oil pastels, we drew small things inside the ghosts that move us or scare us. Besides bright purple pigtails, my own ghost had a broken heart and dragged a long set of chains. As heavy as the chains appeared, their acknowledgment lightened my load considerably. Putting the burden of that grief that I was carrying onto paper, gave me comfort in a way I often espouse though perhaps too rarely allow myself to experience.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Mapping the Trail of Grief

After the Fall, H.Hunter ©2007
Last night was the third meeting of our young adult bereavement group. It's an evening where we spend time thinking, talking and drawing out how grief manifests in our bodies. It is one of the most fascinating and potentially powerful nights of the group.

It's typical after the death of someone you love to experience a variety of physical symptoms; lethargy, stomach aches, headaches, exhaustion, lack of appetite, sleeplessness, the list goes on. For me, a particularly powerful moment is when I pass out a list of words, "feeling words", we call them and I ask group members to circle all the words that apply for them at the time. I caution them that many of the feelings may be contradictory and that's o.k.

This circling of the words is a cognitive exercise--it's not too hard, the words are provided, they just have to circle them. Then we take it a step further. I ask them to mark the 4 or 5 strongest feelings. That takes some consideration, but it's somewhat of a relief to circle them. Putting words to feelings makes them more concrete, less nebulous.  I take it one step deeper then, handing them a page with an body outline drawn on it, asking them to chose a color to correspond with each of the feelings--as if they were making the key of a map. Here's where it picks up emotional speed.

After people have selected colors for their feelings, I begin to explain what a metaphor is and how we can use symbols to express feelings. Everyone knows about butterflies in the stomach, how a headache can feel like a hammer and how a heart can be broken. With these simple suggestions, the group takes off.

I never cease to be amazed by the variety of symbols that people come up with; locks on mouths, fire streaming red and hot from out of a pair of hands, gray clouds that encompass the whole body. I become silent in the face of these symbols, which open up doors soundlessly so that people can speak about their grief in a way that would not otherwise be possible.

I have a tendency to want to talk and help. Drawing does the work instead.

"The body weeps the tears the eyes refuse to shed." William Osler

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Quilt Road or, Taking the Long Way 'Round

Untitled (as of yet), ©2010, Hannah Hunter, Collage
 I'm setting out on a year long journey. In November of 2011, I'll be participating in a group art quilt exhibit at the Davis Art Center along with seven other wonderful women artists and quilters. It's been awhile since I've been part of a group exhibit in which there is such a long lead time. While short notice provides the challenge of creating under a deadline, this longer advance notice affords an opportunity for a luxurious thought process.

My first reaction to being invited was me, "Me? I know how to quilt, but I've never been one for large scale pieces." One of the seven other quilters, Diana Connolly, creates lively geometric works and doubles as an ER social worker at our hospital. She's used to much tougher cases than my soft skepticism. When I voiced my doubts, she looked at me with an expression which could only mean something like: "Get over it and get on with it!"

So I have, backing into it in my own way. I'm connecting 12" x 12" Ampersand panels (which happen to have gone on sale today at Daniel Smith) and creating large collage pieces with allover patterning and funky quilted borders (I'm having fun stitching together border pieces which play on the idea of the traditional quilt border).  Quilts often tell stories and one of the works in process is an homage to a patient, whom I became close to before she died last year. I spent a lot of time learning her family history, a classic story of immigration from the Far East to America. 


         Composition V11, Deidre Adams, ©2007, Cotton fabrics, rayon and polyester thread, acrylic paint

I also decided to immerse myself in another way. Opening tomorrow at the Pence Gallery in Davis, Ca is a fabulous show entitled: 12 Voices, a collection of art quilts traveling the country and organized by the Studio Art Quilter's Associates. I volunteered to lead some docent tours so that I could learn about the quilts in detail. What a great decision! I was treated to a tour by Pence director, Natalie Nelson, and found my way into pieces that would have remained strangers, without her well informed descriptions of process and extensive information about the artists.


 Truth and Fiction, Joan Schulz ©2008, (48" x 98") Glue transfer process. Pieced, machine quilted

Over the next year, I'll be writing posts about my progress with my "quilts", their inspirations and mediums as well as descriptions of the artists' work (sneak peeks from our monthly meetings...) Hopefully, in the process, we'll be able to engage in a dialogue celebrating creativity of all kinds.