and when I do that, I feel whole

 

An anonymous someone once commented that “a physicist is the atom’s way of thinking about atoms”.*

Well then, an artisan could be said to be Creation’s way of thinking about creativity.

I like that, and this post dances around that notion.

Sheep farming, Central Otago, New Zealand

 

My mother’s family farmed sheep. The station was remote in her day – a hundred dusty, gravelly miles to anything approaching civilisation. It was a high country sheep run in the South Island’s Central Otago province, and was – by New Zealand standards, huge. Over 100,000 acres. It was where I spent my childhood summers, and where I gleaned a little knowledge of sheep farming from my uncles and cousins – tending, lambing, shearing. Given that background I guess it was inevitable that my first experiments with ‘making things’ would involve wool.

 

Fingerknitting

 

Fingerknitting came first. Imagine the magic of watching a woollen chain manifest from one’s own tiny hands – and the surge of ideas about what it, in turn, could be turned into! Next I remember learning a simple way of knitting a long tube using an old wooden thread spool. It had little nails hammered around the central hole, and by winding the wool around the nails then popping the previous row of ‘stitches’ over the new round, a long tail would eventually make its way out the other end of the spool.

It wasn’t long before I learned the knack of needle management and began knitting garments. The first ones were for my doll. That’s when I learned about shaping and sizing – she was my in-house model. Soon sweaters were on the production-line. For my teenage sweethearts at first. And myself of course. I adored being able to make a garment that was exclusively my own, one that would be seen on no one else in New Zealand – or on Planet Earth. No one! It was, in retrospect, the beginning of my enterprise as a maker of wearable art.

I loved knitting. You have to love it to end up with a whole garment, because it takes a l-o-n-g time. Every stitch is a little action in its own right, and there are uncountable numbers of stitches in a sweater. Why did I find it so appealing? At the time, in my early teens, I would have said: It shuts me up and makes me feel good.

Now I’d have more to say, like: It calms me. It slows down my manic mind. It brings me to a stillness where my hands know exactly what to do without any help, where I seem to disappear altogether into a quiet spaciousness where wool and wooden sticks and fingers are dancing together as one. It makes me marvel to see the fabric coming into form – it’s addictive, especially if a pattern is being used: just another row, just to see how it’ll look…

 

Fair Isle jumper - detail

 
The hands that mastered circular needles, traditional Fair Isle patterns and gorgeous multi-hued designs produced with my own hand-dyed yarns (see example above) went on to explore other fibercrafts. Silk painting, dye craft, off-loom weaving, paper crafts – there are a few examples here. Then they went on to incorporate these in mixed media works, together with painting.

In retrospect I notice that I’ve always been attracted to acts of making that require a rather extreme degree of patience, and in return offer an almost reverential relationship with the materials at hand. (Let’s face it, you’d have to be seriously addicted to slow art to make a practice of painting the exhalation of your breath.) Renate Hiller calls it “the practice of empathy.” Her hands might be a decade older than mine, but her take on the profound importance of human handwork is identical to my own.

Renate Hiller - hand and spinning stone

I’m looking at my hand right now as we talk. It’s got a lot of wrinkles ’cause I’m 81 years old. But it’s linked to hands like this back through the ages. This hand was shaped by when it was a fin in the mother seas, where life was born. This hand is directly linked to hands that learned to reach and grasp and climb and push up on dry land and weave reeds into baskets. It has a fantastic history. Every particle and every atom in this hand goes back to the first — what Thomas Berry calls ‘the primal flaring forth,’ the beginning of space-time. We’re part of that story.

The use of the hands is vital for the human being, for having flexibility, dexterity. In a way the entire human being is in the in the hands. Our destiny is written in the hand. And what do we do in our modern world with our hands? You know, we move the mouse, we drive and so on. We feel plastic most of the time. The hands are relegated to very little that’s actually bringing dexterity to our times. So we have come ever more estranged from nature and also from what other human beings are doing – the whole social element comes into play as well, because if I make something then I think ‘Hmmm, how was that yarn made?’

So there is this loss of understanding the value of things, of the meaning of things, and in handwork, in transforming nature we also make something truly unique that we have made with our hands, stitch by stitch, that maybe we have chosen the yarn, we have even spun the yarn — even better – and that we have designed. And when I do that, I feel whole. I feel I am experiencing my inner core, because it’s a meditative process.

You have to find your way; you have to listen with your whole being. And that is the schooling that we all need today. Because we’re so egocentric and this makes us think of what is needed by something else. So we are in a way practicing empathy — empathy with the material, empathy with the design.

I think that this practice of empathy that we do in the fibercrafts is paramount for bringing healing to our world, and it’s a service for the Divine – that we are surrounded by.

– Renate Hiller


Renate Hiller is the co-director of the Fiber Craft Studio at the Threefold Educational Center in Chestnut Ridge, NY.


* Quoted in A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson


Photo credits: NZ high country sheep | finger knitting | knitting detail by yours truly | Hiller’s hand and spinning stone


alchemy meets maker’s mind : a retrospective glance

 
At the close of my three-month daily details project last year I wrote a post titled  curiosity and wonderment.

It reminded me of a little piece I’d penned by that name – years ago – to accompany a slide presentation and discussion of my work to students.  (Yes, it was that long ago – slides, not powerpoint!)

Putting it on a page, with a few illustrations, seems like a good way to fatten out my artist’s statement. Here’s an excerpt.


Curiosity.  Wonderment.  Amazing that one’s via creativa could be summed up in just two words.

Plato said that philosophy begins with wonder, so perhaps that makes me some kind of philosopher – but I’m not sure what kind.  Certainly not the academic kind; I have always found it tedious to have to remember and regurgitate the ideas of others when there is a whole universe of places to find ideas of my very own – both in the wonder-full world of nature and the curious recesses of my own brain.  And especially in the way these two inter-act when I am freely and playfully making things.  Perhaps that means I’m some kind of a practical philosopher, but still I’m not sure.  Must we be categorized and pigeon-holed under labels such as philosophers, or, for that matter, artists?

It is play, not properness
that is the central artery, the core,
the brain stem of creative life.

No play, no creative life.
Be good, no creative life.
Sit still, no creative life.

The impulse to play is an instinct.

– Clarissa Pinkola Estes

As a small child I never demonstrated any artistic interest in reproducing objects, people or landscapes in any medium.  But I was endlessly fascinated with, and always busy, creating things – all sorts of things. Especially things that involved some kind of alchemy.  Things that altered the everyday, that changed my usual way of seeing the world in some way.  I’m recalling the shoe-boxes I’d fill with little treasures and cover with colored cellophane then peek into through little viewing holes under different kinds of light.  Or things that were made by transforming simple materials – like turning lengths of yarn into forms by crocheting or knitting or knotting.  Or things that changed color when I put them into buckets of dye, or left them buried in Dad’s compost heap, or under spawning mushrooms in the bush.

 Miriam Louisa Simons: earthWorks series

detail – earthWorks series
folded, buried, distressed khadi paper, found objects

I began my professional life as a classroom teacher.  It was a perfect fit for my personality and my love of teaching has never waned.  But I soon discovered that being contained within educational institutions was hazardous to my creative life.

I branched out on my own, set up my own designer label producing art-to-wear.  It was a perfect outlet for my creative passion at the time – completely self-taught, I manufactured every stage of each garment myself from concept to completion.  Pattern design and sewing, textile surface design, modeling, marketing and sales all fell under my one-woman banner. […]
 

Continue reading here:
curiosity and wonderment [the page]


my brush is my suijo

 

I’d never attempted a self-portrait

until the day

I drew my breath

 
In John Daido Loori‘s must-have book for artists of all persuasions, The Zen of Creativity, he writes about the way shakuhachi maestro Watazumi Doso Roshi regarded his flute as a tool to monitor his authentic integration with, and expression of, the Life Force.

[The] ability to be free in his music was the result of Doso’s life-long, unrelenting commitment to the discipline of the breath. He actually wasn’t very interested in the shakuhachi as a musical instrument.  He called his flute suijo, which loosely translates as “concentrated breathing tool.”  Doso saw himself not so much as a musician or entertainer, but as one who is totally devoted to developing his life force – chi – by utilizing and strengthening his breath.  The bamboo flute was simply a tool for that practice.  He said once, “Since I must have some way of knowing how my breath is doing, I blow into a piece of bamboo and hear how it sounds.”

The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life by John Daido Loori  (1931 – 2009)

This intrigued me. For many years now, part of my own art practice has been to use a single, horizontal brushstroke to express the exhalation of my breath.  It’s a contemplative practice I’ve written about before on this blog (see the links below), and one that continues – whatever the vagaries of my life.  It’s clear to me that my breathscribe paintings are my suijo, my “concentrated breathing tool”.  They show me how my breath is doing. Which in turn reveals what my mind is doing. And that tells me everything about how my Life is doing.
 
 

Wonderingmind Studio: Miriam Louisa Simons, Breathscribe Series, Desert Breath

 

More helpful advice, this time from Watazumi Doso Roshi himself. It applies equally well to artist and musician, singer and dancer, indeed, to all of us as we embrace genuine authenticity:

So in that sound you have to put in your guts, your strength and your own specialness.  And what you are putting in then is your own Life and your own Life Force.  When you hear some music or hear some sound, if for some reason you like it very well; the reason is that sound is in balance or in harmony with your pulse.  And so making a sound, you try to make various different sounds that imitate various different sounds of the universe, but what you are finally making is your own sound, the sound of yourself.

Watazumido Doso Roshi (1910 – 1992)

 

My outer life has vanished,

but love’s breath still breathes for me.

– Hafiz

 


how many ways can you draw quiet?
California breathing
breathscribe series


untitled – silk banner

textile | transformation
Hampshire, England

It often happened during the years when I was teaching art at Brockwood Park School in Hampshire, England, that my own artwork had its origin in classroom activities.

My keen group of students were learning how to paint on silk and other fibers as part of a fiber art program. They also wanted to explore off-loom weaving processes.

I had a wonderful stash of painted silk color samples from studio experiments in earlier days, and laminated them onto canvas to make ribbon strips. In the attic I found a discarded window blind made of narrow pieces of wood – these were painted using light-reflective acrylics.

 

Wonderingmind Studio: Miriam Louisa Simons, Silk Banner

 

The wooden sticks and the silk ribbons came together in a pattern discovered in one of the texts we studied – it’s a very old Chinese pattern symbolizing the ebb and flow of the Tao.

 

Wonderingmind Studio: Miriam Louisa Simons, Silk Banner - detail

A closer look.

The weaving was eventually mounted on a length of painted bamboo matting.
1780 x 650
painting on silk, off-loom weaving
silk Habotai, canvas, wooden sticks,
acrylic paints, fiber-reactive dyes


nomad collection: England


aquascape : homage to Itchiku Kubota

paintings
Queensland, Australia
 
aquascape series, copyright miriam louisa simons

 

In the 70s and 80s I was working in textile surface design – at first creating one-off designer garments and ensembles, and later making pieces for walls to wear.

In 1987 I received a generous Arts Council study grant to work with master indigo dyers and shibori artisans in Japan.

It was in Kyoto that I learned about the ancient technique of tsujigahana, researched and redeveloped by Itchiku Kubota.

At an exhibition of his kimonos in Kyoto I was almost unable to stay on my feet in front of the beauty and power of the works. They were simply breathtaking. I came home with a treasure of a tome, resplendent with glorious photographs of these silk masterpieces.

Years later, when working with toxic dyestuffs was a thing of the past and I was delighting in the possibilities of tube colors, pastels and brushes, I decided to make a study of a panel from one of Kubota-san’s kimonos.

It was the beginning of a new series of paintings – the aquascapes.

360 x 820
acrylic paints on textured canvas
mounted on canvas covered panel (not shown)

Private collection, Hawaii


[Imagine my delight to be ‘Featured Artist’ in the new issue of ONE: the magazine.
Since the editor used a tiled version of this aquascape as the background to my page, it seemed timely to post it here, with a little background information.]


forest sutra

nomad collection | technique mixte
Uttarkashi, India

 

I am helplessly seduced by
solitude, silence, stillness
but sooner or later
I get horny for creativity.

 
Wonderingmind Studio: Miriam Louisa Simons, forest sutra, Uttarkashi, India
 
Sutra is a Sanskrit word that can mean thread, (sew, stitches) or spiritual teachings. Since I was on retreat at the remote Krishnamurti Uttarkashi Retreat at the time, both meanings are relevant to this piece.

Walking in the high Himalayan forest I was enchanted by the pieces of bark that would fall from the trunks of huge trees and lie scattered on the forest floor like small sculptures in their own right.

I had no art materials or equipment with me.  Everything used in this piece was either scavenged from the roadside, under the trees, beside the River Ganges, or bought in the village market.

340 x 900
Stitching, gilding, assemblage
Khadi paper, hessian sackcloth, threads, river stone, old cotton dhoti, recycled cardboard, tree bark*


*Bark from the Chilgoza Pine – Pinus Gerardiana – which is native to the northwestern Himalayas. The fragments in this piece were gathered in forests near Uttarkashi, northwest India. Chilgoza Pine is a cousin of the Lacebark Pine (a native of northeastern and central China) and is also found in Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan.


art does matter

 
Why do I love Patricia Sullivan’s blog Art Does Matter?  I love the mix and variety of art and craft she features – jewelry, sculpture, painting and the oft-neglected fiber arts. I enjoy reading her perceptive reviews of exhibitions in her neighborhood (Philadelphia) and other important shows in the US. I find the way she writes about her own practice and creative process both enlivening and inspiring.  And I love the way she has been a loyal supporter of this little blog over the years.  If art matters to you, Art Does Matter is a blog worthy of a place on your blogroll.

 

Patricia Sullivan - Widget Locket #3

Patricia Sullivan: “Widget Locket #3: Homage to Art Nouveau”
chased/repoussé sterling silver, patina, plexiglas, archival paper
hand-fabricated chain/clasp, 21″ x 1.75″ x .25″, 2013. Photo: P. Sullivan

I design and typeset the two-dimensional interior news’ widget piece in Illustrator and draw out the decorative motifs that I chase and repoussé in silver. The 2-D graphic piece is printed in color on archival paper and set inside behind clear plexiglas that I hand-saw and polish to snap-fit into the octagonal-shaped oxidized silver locket body. Because I use materials like metal, paper, acrylic and sometimes fabric in my work, each jewelry piece becomes more of a mixed media composition that’s actually a wearable container for our recollection of soon-to-be-outdated technology.

Patricia Sullivan - Widget Locket #4

Patricia Sullivan: “Widget Locket #4: Homage to Mexico”
(front and reverse detail) Photo: P. Sullivan

… this locket’s chased patterning is derived from the history of the decorative arts of Mexico, such as the elaborate patterns found in ceramic or copper/tin tiles. I use chasing and repoussé on metal (a technique common in the history of Mexico’s metalworking genre) to create a beautiful exterior on the locket. Once the locket is opened, it reveals text that is printed on archival paper designed and typeset in Adobe Illustrator. The paper is cut and pressure-fit tightly into the locket’s rear octagonal piece and set behind polished Plexiglas hand-sawed to fit the exact shape of the locket. The entire locket body, hand-fabricated sterling silver oval chain and hollow-constructed silver clasp are oxidized to give this piece a darker, more “age-old” overall look.

[Notes sourced from Patricia’s blog. Click on the screenshot to read more.]

Patricia Sullivan's blog - Art Does Matter


I paint with my back to the world

 
Yesterday I moved home and studio. Body and mind need R&R. What could be better than a cup of tea and some wry wise reminders from painter Agnes Martin about what matters? I love what she shares about staying in bed until she knows exactly what she wants to paint. Ahhh.

 

Agnes Martin - Gratitude 2011

Agnes Martin – Gratitude – 2011

 

I don’t have any ideas of my own
and I don’t believe anybody else’s,
so that leaves me a clear mind …
– Agnes Martin

 

 


the creative imperative

 
As a postscript to last week’s post – in the hands of alchemy – I’d like to share this video.

It’s called the creative imperative. Poet David Whyte and artist Jerry Wennstrom cover some wonderful territory, including

the discipline of innocence

keeping wonder alive in your heart

reverent attention to possibility

and

claiming your own happiness

 

 

You must learn one thing.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made
to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which
you belong.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which
you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness
and the sweet confinement
of your aloneness
to learn that anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

David Whyte


[Transcribed directly from the video – apologies for any errors in line arrangement.]