Monday, August 30, 2010

Chance Encounters

I've been fortunate to have had a career which has given me the opportunity to travel around the world. Over the past 30 years I have traveled to both hemispheres and all continents other than Africa, all in the name of work, often luxuriously and always fast-paced. (Once, I flew all the way to Hong Kong just for the meeting which took place on the plane-ride over. I know, crazy!)

When the recent opportunity was presented to me to come to Scotland to speak, I jumped at the chance for a few reasons, though luxury was not to be a part of this trip! Having never been to Scotland, I was curious to see whatever wee bits time would allow. But in addition, I was interested in experiencing travel with open eyes, travel affected by neither a husband nor kids waiting at home, nor the broken heart which had wrecked my last trip, nor a lover to share it with, nor the temptation to stay connected to my Blackberry's umbilical cord. I saw it as an opportunity to, simply put, be present.

What an experience! No sooner was I in a foreign airport waiting for a connecting flight when I made a different kind of connection. I met a man who I suspect I will know for the rest of my life. As a person who rarely engages in conversation with the person next to me on a plane, I realized then that being open to the possibility of a chance encounter with a stranger was a whole new way to see the world, begin a new relationship, be present.

Aside from my scheduled presentation, I had no plans for my precious few days in Edinburgh. None. And so I just let it happen - the serendipitous findings of art, the getting lost, the impromptu meals with a wonderful new friend willing to take me under her wing, the awareness of being terribly alone and sometimes lonely in a city teeming with people, the celebration of Scotch and raucous music by myself in a whiskey bar, the intoxication of conversation and wine with someone new.

Having recently seen "Eat, Pray, Love", I couldn't help but compare some of the situations depicted in the film with my little experience. There's no book to be written from my trip, but some pretty profound realizations. Ansel Adams said of photography, "Chance favors the well prepared", and I believe that the same holds true for life in general. Being prepared for, or open to, the chance encounters of life is in great part a matter of staying present. It's taken a while, but I think I'm getting it.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

To Be of Use

To be of use: It is an age-old internal dilemma that many people face, to feel that they are leading a purposeful life, and it is one which many artists grapple with on a daily basis. The pursuit of art can be seen as an indulgence, a retreat from "real life", a drive to create objects or experiences of "no use".

Knowing of this internal conflict within many artist friends, I was struck today by two supreme and conflicting examples of the "use" of art, both by UK ceramic artists, both flaunting convention.

The knowledge of history and tradition in ceramics is obvious in Julian Stair's work. Apparently, earlier in his career, he created ceramics which were abstract and had nothing to do with function, yet had to be seen in the round, in reference to the principle of centering inherent in traditional thrown ceramics. Today Stair creates forms which are completely functional in nature, yet never meant to be used, but rather worshiped, revered, objectified. When I saw his tea bowls and teapots today at the Scottish Gallery, I at first mistook them for simple pieces. Then I looked more closely at the forms, at his purposeful placement, at the masterful use of different clays and slips to express individuality, at the carefully formed pedestals, and realized that Stair was using forms of use to tell a different story, to tell of a language of generations of humans creating by hand. So, the "use" of these pots was very different than the easily identifiable functional form. Interesting!

Then I walked to the Open Eye Gallery and encountered the work of ceramicist John Maltby. Although trained in traditional pottery techniques, Maltby clearly uses ceramics to tell a story in sculptural form. His dreamy enigmatic figures seem to delve into the world of the subconscious and imply dreams, memories, desire and hope. There was not a functional piece to be seen in the show - no pots, no cups - yet as the work transported me to a quiet state of mind, I was struck by the terribly important function of this work. Here I was, in the middle of Edinburgh which is and was teeming with thousands of visitors for Festival and the bank holiday, with noise and music and performance and ruckus EVERYWHERE, and John Maltby had created a zone of magic and wonder.

I suppose this all comes down to the definition of "use", but these two encounters provided ample justification - as if it was needed - for the transformative nature, and purpose, of art. Thank God for artists!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Design It Just the Way I Want, Please

The urge for originality and customization seems to be as inherent in people as is the conflicting urge to follow a crowd. And yet, this desire for customized product, whether in a work of art or in a culinary creation is often in conflict with the desire of the originator. The changed Web 2.0 world of today puts so much in the hands of consumers, giving them/us the ability to choose what we want. Ultimately this request for customization is one which we in the art world are hearing more and more of from customers. While it is clearly an artist's decision whether or not to alter his/her original conceit to the desires of a customer, I wonder how many artists are actually far more interested in creating customized work than might be obvious?

Time and again I have witnessed Julie Powell, a friend and very talented artist who works in beads, accomplish that magical combination of retaining her vision while creating a custom work for a customer. The bracelet shown is one example of that - a bracelet inspired by one of Julie's original pieces and customized to the colors and desires of the customer. Julie is not a pink person, and probably never would have been inspired by the particular blouse belonging to this customer. But Julie's eye, her talent, and her vision enabled her to think beyond her comfort zone and create a piece which is pure Julie, and absolutely delights the customer!

Separately but related, a few months ago I was amused that the website had cited Keds sneakers as something "cool", as I've never really understood the mass appeal of these iconic sneakers. Clearly I was in the minority, as the protests and responses to my remarks on Facebook about Keds were numerous. Now I have learned that Keds has sponsored a summer of art, "Creativity on Canvas" at the Whitney Museum, and one of the outcomes is customized Keds that customers design themselves and can have produced. Cool, indeed, customized, and artistic. Bravo for this corporate commitment to art and customization!

Monday, August 23, 2010

And They Call It, "Puppy Love"

I've been feeling a bit blue lately, nothing really big, just an accumulation of realizations and feelings as I come up on a year post marriage. Sometimes I can shake the blues on my own, and sometimes I know it's important to just let them be, process them and work through them so I can move on. I have tried various anesthetics in the form of people,activities, distractions, and substances, and many of them have been incredibly fun, but in the end, the feelings are there and I have to deal with them. And I am.

And then came last night with a call from a friend asking if I could help her in a pinch by taking care of her dog, Oona, for 24 hours. Naturally, I jumped at the chance, and have found myself in an absolute state of calm and happiness during Oona's visit. It's not that Oona has made my blues go away, but her presence has helped me understand viscerally the way therapy dogs in healthcare environments make so much sense. Sometimes we mere mortals get caught up contemplating our navels, or fret endlessly about that over which we have little control, and the presence of a dog reminds us to let go and enjoy. Sometimes we humans don't realize that the grumpiness we're feeling is actually the longing for some physical touch, and petting a dog or being leaned on can provide that desired contact. Sometimes we need an excuse to pick ourselves up and get on with life, and a dog always needs to go out.

Call it what you will, the wisdom of the dog or the zen of nature. I call tonight a most welcome random act of "Puppy Love".

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Spread the Love

If you know me, or have read my writing, you know that my cowboy boots seem to be a recurring part of my wardrobe and apparently represent a part of my personality I want to express. I don't think of myself as a cowgirl; I just like the way cowboy boots look and their sassyness, and apparently, so do many other girls and women.

Having always wanted a pair of red cowboy boots - always! - I pined for them as a little girl (just as a friend relayed that his 3-year-old did recently), continued for years to admire women who wore them , and finally bought a pair several years ago - and wore them one time only! I loved those boots but never felt comfortable wearing them - too flashy, too conspicuous. Why did the red ones feel all wrong but the multi-colored ones did not? I could come to no other conclusion than the fact that I know myself, and these highly coveted boots were just not me! One felt like costume and artifice, the other felt like home and me.

So, the other night a friend was over and admired the boots I had on, expressed that she had always wanted to wear cowboy boots, never had, etc. I learned that we wore the same size, insisted she try mine on, then pulled out the red ones from the back of the closet and promptly gave them away. The grin on her face was priceless, the boots had a new home, and yet another woman in her 50's could now express her inner cowgirl! (Those are her happy feet in the picture above.)

Sometimes I get chided for the number of boots I own and insist on traveling with and hanging on to for years; after all, they are only boots, and I am the same person with or without them. But the human need for self expression, whether through words, pictures, performance or decoration is innate, and when an article of clothing can fill that need, hallelujah! And when it's just not me, I'd rather spread the love and pass it on, without trying to be someone I'm not!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Men in My Life

Last week I gave a party, a really big party in my really little house, for approximately 65 people. I insisted on cooking everything for the party myself, as cooking and entertaining are among the ways I enjoy giving to others, and this was a group of people to whom I really wanted to give a gift. Among the attendees were artists, friends, colleagues, and customers, and we all ate and drank and talked and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Nestled among all the other party guests were three important men in my life: my son who acted as sous chef, my husband from whom I am separated, and my lover who had recently ended our romance. I was happy that they were all there together (though I made no effort to introduce said husband and lover to one another!)as they each mean a lot to me in very different ways and I continue to want all three of them in my life, though not in their former roles.

My son is no longer my boy, but rather a man working on making an independent life for himself as an actor. He has chosen a difficult career path, and it is not being easy on him. To see him at ease at this party, handling the multi-tasking kitchen responsibilities with aplomb, made me proud, and yet it was such a different pride from that I felt when he was younger. I am proud to know this man, to have an adult relationship with him, and to watch him as he experiments, succeeds and fails, all on his own terms.

My husband (since I am technically still married, though separated) wanted to be at the party, and it was wonderful to see him handling the situation on his own, particularly after the setbacks he has experienced from his brain injury. He and I shared many years together exploring much of the world of art, and as this was a night all about art and artists, I was glad that in spite of no longer being a couple, we could both enjoy this world which was equally important to us both.

And then, my former lover, from whom I have sufficiently recovered from heartbreak and with whom I am navigating the waters of friendship: why had I invited him and why was he there? While it is true that I had been crazy for him, and was deeply, painfully hurt by his rejection, I also know that I don't fall in love easily, and the love doesn't go away easily, if at all, for me. And he and I, too, enjoy the world of art and artists together, and hope to continue doing that in some way or form going forward. Did we smooch in a corner for a second and forget for a moment that we were no longer doing that kind of thing? Of course we did; the chemistry is still there. But the relationship with this man, as with the others, has also moved along.

I went home with none of these men that night. My former lover left, my son and husband helped clean up, and I went to bed - alone, happy, comfortable with all three relationships.

(Sculptures by Suki Diamond, ceramic artist)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Care for Her

I brought this lovely lady home from the flea market a month ago. She was calling out to me for reasons I could not quite explain. Perhaps it was her fabulous overalls and style. But more likely it had to do the message on this vintage poster: "Care for her through the YWCA." While the poster went immediately to the framer, I went to Google to learn more about the YWCA.

As a Jew, the "Christian" part of the name has always been an initial stumbling block, yet over the years I have learned about the "Y" , and that the YWCA is the oldest and largest multicultural women's organization in the world with a mission to eliminate racism and empower women. In the 40's women came to the Y for job training. Today, more often than not, women come to the Y in times of crisis, as survivors of rape or domestic violence. I didn't know this before, but this poster helped me find out.

So why write about it? Not particularly to show off the new art that is hanging in my bedroom, but more to express my gratitude for organizations like the Y and the Girl Scouts which have boldly worked to provide safe havens and places of learning and empowerment for girls and women. Since I am having so many conversations with women these days, women who are in the throws of change, who are looking for resources and guidance, I am learning that the need for safe havens and advocates for women is as strong as ever. Care for her.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Inspiring Women, Mad Men

This past weekend I was honored to be invited to attend the American Bar Association's Margaret Brent awards presentation to Women Lawyers of Achievement. This is an award which is given out annually to five exceptional women lawyers who, throughout their careers, have achieved professional excellence and have been influential in paving the way to success for other women lawyers. While we know that enrollment of women in law schools is now a significant percentage of the population, the stories told at this presentation were a reminder of how recent the acceptance of women in the field actually has been. Women in the law have made tremendous strides, yet still lag men in pay and opportunities for advancement.

The Hon. M. Margaret McKeown, my friend who was receiving one of the awards and who invited me to the ceremony, told the crowd the story of her first day on the job as a young attorney, arriving at the office an immediately being asked to make copies, as it was assumed she was a secretary. She now serves on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Elizabeth Cabraser has been an integral part of many of the largest class actions ever launched and/or settled in the nation. Think of some of the major cases in your lifetime - the Exxon Valdez litigation, the Albuterol products liability litigation, and the breast implant products litigation - and these were cases that Elizabeth tried. She stressed the reality that we still live in a world where opportuntities for ordinary people often mean opportunities for straight, white, male people. "Until we are all ordinary and have ordinary rights and opportunities, none of us can become extraordinary," she said.

I think it is really important to be reminded of the realities of inequality that still exist as we as a nation become increasingly enthralled with "Mad Men", and believe me, I am one of the biggest fans of the show. That the women I witnessed receiving awards were brave enough to stand up and demand equality in a culture - the legal culture nonetheless - so filled with prejudice and preconceived expectations is truly extraordinary.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Big Event

Having a big important event to attend today, one where there will be people I don't know from a professional world I don't frequent, sent me into my normal response of "What should I wear?". A suit? (me?) Something artier? (with this conservative crowd?) While trying on the alternatives, a quiet voice inside is saying, "And my sister Alice has breast cancer", making the decision easier, because the clothes just don't really matter, do they.

When I participated in the Breast Cancer 3-Day 60-mile walk a few years ago, it was Alice who flew across the country to surprise me and cheer me on, so it seems ironic/tragic that she is now stricken with the far-too-common disease. While she has been told that her cancer is treatable and curable, it is nonetheless a scary reminder of the fragility of life and what really matters. My daily phone call with Alice, in which I'll dish on the people at today's big-deal event and report on my sartorial decision, will certainly be the highlight of my day.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Handcrafted Food - Another generation gap?

This week, August 1st through the 7th is apparently National Farmers Market week. As frequenter of farmer's markets wherever I travel around the country, I am a happy celebrant, and am equally happy to have read the USDA's recently released report that the new number of farmer's markets in the U.S. has grown to 6,132 from 5,274 last year! California leads the way with 580, and Wisconsin has grown to 204! I love that the enthusiasm and apparent demand for fresh, local food is growing in this country, and hope that somehow this will eventually lead to better produce being delivered to the likes of Safeway and Walmart.

That being said, there is no doubt that these wonderful farmer's markets cater to those who can afford them. When that perfect peach can cost upwards of $1.50, and that heirloom tomato perhaps even more than that, it is a select audience that can try these glorious foods. And this is not so different from what goes on in the art and craft world, where there is a similar hunger for quality and disparity in spending ability leading to a generation gap in experience.

However, just as the Renegade Market is to the American Craft Council, so is there now an Underground Food Market to the Ferry Building farmer's market in San Francisco. Grittier, sometimes grungier, smaller, more experimental and, oh yes, less expensive, the Underground Food Market offers a place for small makers of artisanal food to sell their wares to the public. Often produced in their kitchens or grown in their backyards, these foods are the creative results of individuals passionate about food but unwilling, unwanting, or unable to develop a full-time business from them. The market is kind of an Etsy-like marketplace for food, and the attendees of the market look, not surprisingly, more like the attendees at the Renegade Fair and less like those at the Marin and Ferry Building markets.

Happily, there is room for both, for Humphry Slocombe ice cream in San Francisco with its long lines and for the young lawyer at the Underground Market proffering her small quantities of coconut-saffron ice cream. And maybe, just maybe, it will all affect what is found on the shelves of supermarkets for a future generation, which is, after all, the great by-product of a generation gap.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Handmade, Craft and a Generation Gap

This past weekend, one friend posted on Facebook about "Craftivism", another reminded me that the Renegade Fair had taken place in San Francisco, and I was sending out reminders about the upcoming American Craft Council show in San Francisco. All got me thinking about the role of craft in generations, and the generation gap that currently exists.

My grandmother, my daughter, and I all have made things by hand since we were first able to. Sewers, knitters, and designers alike, we always approached our making of things very differently. Of the three of us, I, alone, was the one schooled in craft, with a BFA in textiles attesting to my study of weaving, printing, knotting, sculpting, and otherwise manipulating textiles in the pursuit of art. For my generation of the 70's, having traditional craft media and techniques taken seriously as art was THE issue. Simultaneously, as we were in noble pursuit of recognition of the importance of craft, an entire generation was playing in the outer fringes with tie-dye, macrame' plant holders, and crocheted granny blankets. Today, there is a generation of artists, my contemporaries in age, making beautiful fine craft, getting recognition in museums, and with an audience at shows like the ACC which seem to be similarly aged, i.e. gray and mid-life.

And then, there is the world of Handmade Nation, Craftivism, Etsy, and the Renegade Fair. As I first watched this world from afar, I have to admit that I viewed it with everything from skepticism to snootiness. The principles that I believed in, principles of dedication to honed technique, dedication to art with meaning, dedication to art which lasts all seemed to be missing. What replaced these principles seemed to be not principles, but rather a "look what I just made" attitude, an "anyone can craft" attitude, a thumb-nosing at all that my peers had worked so hard to achieve. I just didn't get it, and, in fact, was scared and appalled.

And then I paid more attention. Attending the Renegade Fair and meeting some of the leading advocates of crafting caused me to realize that, just as with my generation, the new craft movement is as strong a lifestyle movement as had occurred in my youth. There is an embracing of the handmade, a celebration of experimentation, and an acceptance of imperfection. I had often wondered when attending some of the established craft fairs where all the young artists were, and what I found was that this generation is comfortable with labels of artist, crafter, and maker, and not out to prove that one is superior to the other.

Taken a step further, the use of craft as social activism, as evidenced by the AIDS quilt project started in the 1980's, is alive and active with the advent of "craftivism". Knitters, crocheters, quilters, and sewers have been banding together to create works to gather public attention, such as the "Tank Blankie" pictured above. Sometimes stealth and guerrilla in nature, like the Salty Knits group who embellish public places, sometime commercial as in Levi's wrapping of bicycles in corduroy and placing them all around San Francisco as part of a campaign, the use of craft by the current generation is its own, is refreshing, and is to be supported. I may not wear it or like what it looks like, but I certainly like that it is taking place!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Playing Games

Often we use the phrase "playing games" about psychological games, subtle manipulation through unspoken messages we send to others. As I am trying to shed game-playing as a form of communication in relationships, I am struck by the very different and important role games have played in my life.

My dad was an avid crossword puzzler, conquering the Sunday New York Times puzzle weekly until Alzheimer's stole his brain. I watched him, envied his ability and vocabulary, and inherited his love of lazing away hours on a Sunday to do nothing but engage his brain and his loved ones with the challenge of a good puzzle. One of his favorite crossword puzzle stories was about the word "yatagan", a word which is apparently used frequently and which most of us have little use for in daily conversation.

My ex-husband, too, had a huge vocabulary and a strong facility for crossword puzzles. After his traumatic brain injury, it was sobering to watch as we spent long hours playing Boggle, watching him try to form words of more than two letters and attempt - and fail - to do even the Monday puzzles.

Since living alone, I have been drawn to online Scrabble and Lexulous with friends on Facebook. While I lose more than I win, I enjoy the challenge and, frankly, the contact with others. I began to know and ultimately date one of my opponents. I have learned more about one opponent than I ever imagined, and have been able to re-connect with an old friend through the game. I have learned that there is a community of players who are "assisted" using online tools, and a community who would never consider that. When people criticize the reality of community on FB, I have to counter with the attention of my Scrabble and Lex friends, some of whom pick up the phone in concern if they have not "heard" from me in a game for a few days.

And then came today, when I was handed the letters needed to form "yatagan", my dad's favorite word. Though it did not get me as many points as another combination of letters would have, I had to play the word - for Dad and for that connection.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Now Is The Time

Now that I have emerged from the dark cloud of heartbreak, I have re-entered a world in which people close to me are suffering. This week alone, two women close to me learned of ominous lumps in their breasts requiring exploration and treatment. My frail and wonderful aunt, with whom I have the strongest bond of love and trust one could ever imagine or hope for, is facing surgery, if only she can get strong enough to withstand it. A best friend is facing ovarian cancer in two of the women closest to her in her life. And another friend has lost the ability to sleep due to his obviously damaged back.

So why am I writing about this? Because yet another friend lost someone this week with whom he had lost touch, someone he had meant to call, meant to email and didn't, and he is now filled with regret. And his experience has provided a halo over all the other ones for me as a reminder that now is the time to let people know how you feel about them in both actions and in words.

I think about the practice at the Jewish New Year of the tradition to reflect on your actions of the prior year which you regret and do something about them, make contact with those with whom you had disagreements, resolve differences so you can move on. I believe there is a parallel practice of equal importance which is to show the people you care about that you care. Now. If not now, when. Shower the people you love with love, right James?