incartamento

So there I was, happily holed-up in a casa di campagna, a  country hideaway near Alba in Piemonte, Italy. Beautifully restored by Swiss friends, it was a rustico offered to me for a summer’s studio practice. They knew that my teaching work left little time for my own artwork; they also appreciated how important it is for a teacher in any field to be personally engaged with their subject.

I have written previously about a few works from that precious time at Casa Columbina.  See, for example, one Italian summer,  farfalle, and saying the unsayable.  Also see this page in the ‘nomad collection’: Italy

But this little piece stayed in the shadows – perhaps because, at the time, it was too personal, something made for my eyes only, something made to help bring a chapter to a conclusion.  You see, a long relationship had come to an end, and although it was a mutually agreed and (mostly) mature winding-up, there was debris.  It took many moons for the debris to settle, and making this piece definitely helped.

I simply couldn’t toss out my ex-partner’s letters.  He wrote beautifully.  We shared so much: questions, ideas, travel, art.  I wanted to honour both our years together and the traces left in his letters.  I wanted to make some kind of a container for these letters, something simple and rustic, only using materials found at hand.  

As I was playing with possible formats, my Italian neighbour popped in.  I tried to explain what I was doing and she tried to understand… she spoke no English and my Italian is beyond pathetic.  Eventually, she conveyed her understanding that what I was doing was “wrapping it all up”, making a dossier or file… and that Italian word for it was incartamento.  

Oh, I liked that word – it fit my purpose perfectly, and in true Italian style it rolls off the tongue like honey.

Fast forward a couple of decades.  My memento comes out of hiding and a dear friend who knows how to drive a camera expertly documents it for me: thank you, Carol Brandt.


Miriam Louisa Simons - Incartamento 1

salvaged cardboard
khadi paper
acrylic and oil paints
resin stains
the letters
old drawings and photographs
gauze
beeswax
butcher’s twine and other threads
butterfly wings
shoelace

215 x 240 x 65mm

 

Miriam Louisa Simons - Incartamento 2

It can be opened vertically as a book, or horizontally as a box.

 

Miriam Louisa Simons - Incartamento, detail of letter bundle

The letters, wrapped in khadi paper, stitched, bound with butcher’s twine and sealed with beeswax.

 

Miriam Louisa Simons - Incartamento 3

 

Miriam Louisa Simons - Incartamento 4

 

Miriam Louisa Simons - Incartamento 5

 
And now, all these years later, the quiet pleasure of having this memento matures like fine wine.  It gives off a bouquet of gratitude and appreciation for the experiences shared, the learning and depth of feeling that flowers within intimacy.  I prop it up and smile.  

The capacity to make is nothing less than alchemy.


 

soulstice bowl

Miriam Louisa Simons - Soulstice Bowl

 

It all began with a question, as usual.

What, I asked myself, is my purest intention regarding my art practice? What is my highest aspiration? It might sound a touch heady, but I do think it’s good practice to occasionally revisit one’s focus and intent, because these things change as time passes. I am now in the lovely position of making for the sheer wonder of it; concerns with selling and exhibiting no longer invade the playground. So what drives me to make, now?

Mulling these questions was juicy and productive, like shining a light into the dim corners of my experience, spotlighting the details and seeing how everything has interconnected to bring me to this perspective, now.

Once I had clarified my overview (about which, more later – maybe) and recognised that my intentions for my work and my life were identical (surprise, surprise), the next question presented itself: How could I make a container to hold these intentions?  It occurred to me that the container should be made out of something I’d created in the past, to symbolise the way one’s via creativa morphs and meanders over time. I also wanted it to be constructed in a way that reflected my journey from textile artist to … whatever I am now.

I dug deep in the boxes of bits and pieces that make up my studio ratpack. (I keep everything: my belief is that everything is on its own journey – paper, canvas, thread, pigment, brushes – and I’ve lived long enough to see how those journeys are often linked to my own in unforeseeable ways. Often many years pass before those links become evident, and I’m always grateful that I didn’t toss too soon.)

As I write this I regret not having taken photos of the two semi-circular pieces of pulped paper with embedded crochet that surfaced as candidates for my container. They had, in fact, been a big bowl made circa 1987 in New Zealand. My nomadic lifestyle meant everything had to be easily stored, so I had cut the bowl in half then soaked and pressed the pieces flat. That was thirty years ago.

Now I cut the two pieces in half again, then soaked and pressed these four quarters of the original bowl into a plastic mixing bowl from the kitchen. Paper pulp is such a pliable, forgiving, merciful material! In a few days the form was dry. I removed it from the plastic bowl and reinforced the overlapping quarters with wire stitches. The interior was painted, and the exterior given a touch up.

 

Miriam Louisa Simons - Soulstice Bowl detail

 

You’re a very fine bowl, thought I, placing it on the little stand I’d made with a circular plastic pipe cap from the plumbing department at the hardware store. (It was covered with paper mâché and painted to match the bowl – thus a little secret space was created under the bowl. I love secret spaces.)

 

Miriam Louisa Simons - Soulstice Bowl detail

 

But that wasn’t the end of it. The bowl was hungry. My vision hadn’t included writing my intentions down; it was enough to have unearthed and clarified them. But now the bowl was whispering and I was listening. There should be offerings, it said.

 

Miriam Louisa Simons - Soulstice Bowl, interior

 

So on the Summer Solstice the third phase of the project began. I wrote my most important intention down on a scrap of Japanese washi and rolled it into a tiny scroll. Into the bowl it went, and each day for a full six months it was joined by another little scroll. They began as intentions and soon included blessings and prayers and praises – whatever thought or feeling turned up to be offered during my morning contemplation time.

On the morning of the Winter Solstice, the last scroll went into the bowl. Life had neatly arranged a new project, one which I recognised to be an exquisite response to the intentions I’d offered up six months earlier. In the company of mind-shifters Peter Kingsley and Michael Brown I began a transformative inner adventure of such significance that I now think of my life as pre- and post- this journey. And from this new perspective who knows what will express in the studio?

 

Miriam Louisa Simons - Soulstice Bowl, interior detail

 

I’ve never been drawn to ritual, even though my relationship with objects borders on the metaphysical. But my soul bowl, a container with an unforeseen ability to speak into my heart and elicit its deepest longing, is clearly a ritual object. Surging into creation at one Solstice and ebbing at the next, it is one of those life-happenings that keep me infused with awe and awake to the immensity of the unknowable.


Miriam Louisa Simons – Soulstice Bowl, 190mm high x 260mm diameter. Pulped Arches watercolour paper, gold lurex thread, wire, acrylic paint, Japanese washi, various threads. 1987 – 2016


Peter Kingsley: pre-Socratic scholar and student of the Sufi path, whose book Reality demonstrates (among many other things) how the ancient Greeks gifted us a system capable of bringing a human being to the experience of reality. What would it be like to be fully, continually aware of all of our senses – and what’s more, to be aware of that very awareness? How can we “come to our senses”, be fully and maturely wideawake?
peterkingsley.org
Michael Brown: one the most wise, humble and generous human beings I’ve come across, who gave me contemporary tools and support material to independently excavate the archaeology of that energetic terrain – at the vibrational level: a never-ending adventure into integration.
thepresenceprocessportal.com.


bowls from bygone days


how was it for you?

 

I’ve been reading a great post from Maria Popova at brainpickings about the moment we recognise we are fated to become artists.

“How does one become an artist — not in a practical sense, not by some external measure, but by an invisible and intimate surrender to the creative impulse? It often happens in a single moment of recognition — a point of contact with some aspect of the miraculous in some aspect of the mundane, catalyzing an overwhelming sense of the unity of things and an uncontainable desire to emanate that sense outwardly; to share it, in some form, with others — whose otherness is suddenly dissipated by the very impulse.”

The article is about Patti Smith and her memory of this momentous recognition. It’s inspiring and wondrous. But it left me thinking, well, what was my big moment of recognition? How was it for me? Was it a single moment or did it unfold over time?

 

Wonderingmind Studio - Michael Leunig: Song

 

In my case, it was both. From tinyhood there was always an urge to be engaged in making for its own sake; I simply loved the way the world (and me as well) would melt into a timeless joy when I was ‘making things.’ In that innocent play I felt totally at home, totally ‘right’, fully fulfilled. (Years later I would realise that I’d always been driven by a mix of curiosity and wonderment – and that this mix had also driven the lifelong urge to understand that ineffable state.)

I was good at academic subjects, and at High School that meant focusing on language, math and science. But I was already seduced by the subjects deemed less worthy – by art and  craft and embroidery. I wanted to make, and to make art in particular, even though I didn’t really know what art was.

As a concession, I was allowed to take Art and Design as a ‘failing subject’ for my School Certificate (= O Levels) exams. What that meant was that if I failed in it, it wouldn’t matter because the other four ‘real’ subjects, which I would do well in, would carry me through. Since we had no proper instruction in Art or Design at my academically focussed school, I was set up to fail – I didn’t even know how to read the exam questions. And so it came to pass.

I was knocked back on my failure to answer the questions correctly. And that was my ‘tingle’ moment – that was when I raised my 15 year-old finger to the high priests of the art world and said stuff you. I didn’t have a clue what art was, I was ignorant of art history and criticism, I was a peasant kid in a tiny city at the bottom of the earth. But I knew what stirred my juice. It was the wonder of colour and the magic of making.

Yet even with that early recognition, it took decades for my via creativa to deliver me to full commitment to visual language as my mode of expression: to ‘out’ me as an artist. On the way I tried my hand at some amazing alternatives. Yet like an insidious addiction, the makings continued. And the hunger to be fully engaged in ‘art without apology’ was insatiable.

Eventually that hunger was satiated. There was no delivery to fame, although mini-fame fluttered for a while. I simply made my way by making, and by helping others know the joy of expressing with their own authentic voice.

It’s a long way back to that “stuff you” moment, the moment when that adolescent intuited that she would spend her life busy at an activity that for most of her friends and family (and society at large) would be both incomprehensible and worthless. Yet here I am, now in my 70s, and I wouldn’t change a thing. For me, making things turned out to be my holy pathless path, my Guru, and my gratitude is inexpressible.

I’d love to hear your own reflections: how was it for you?

 


Image: Michael Leunig, Song. I chose this image because it expresses so well the sense of wonder, fulfilment and sweetness that accompanies the visit of the muse (the little bird?)
http://www.leunig.com.au


True art does not look like art.
– Lao Tzu


no artist is pleased
creativity and autonomy


wider wonderment; deepening devotion

 

Wonderingmind Studio: Miriam Louisa Simons - Dana

 

It’s the first day of a new year. I have been a very infrequent blogger on this site over the past year, but the pot has never been off the simmer. This post has been crafted over months – months during which my studio practice has been slowly resurrecting itself after a long hiatus and finding its voice from a place so mysterious that there has been no hurried urge to share, to make explicit, its deep inward movement.

In hindsight, I recognise that this mysterious movement has always been the prime motivator of my art practice. My inquiry has always occurred within the simple activity of making things, and the things I make are the inevitable outcome of the unique mix of my abilities, experience, and the questions raised by my circumstances in time and place.

I’ve never been interested in creating replicas of objects – human or non-human, or visual narratives about social and political issues, or in making explicit aspects of my own pathology. The ‘visionary’ output of my imagination never held any attraction. So what was it that compelled me to turn up in the studio year after year – regardless of whether there was an exhibition looming or not, or any commissions to complete?

It was, and remains, a mysterious attraction to something that occurs when I’m playing in a certain way with my materials without any intention to produce any kind of ‘art’ object.

“A certain way”?  This is hard to describe; it’s immaterial what technical processes I’m using, or what version of visual language I’m ‘speaking’. What is crucial is an attitude of innocent curiosity and a willingness to encounter – and be comfortable with – the unknown. And I can’t help but notice that to the extent that I’m absent (as artist, designer, controller, critic) creativity flows. My amazement at what shows up is as acute today as it was at the beginning of my via creativa.

Looking back over more than five decades of making things, I can see that I have always been preoccupied with icon making. Whether conscious of it or not, I’ve been making secular icons, altarpieces; expressions of wonder, expressions that in their eclectic and deceptive simplicity might have the power to affect consciousness – to close the gap between the observer and the object observed, even if only for a moment’s restful ahhhh … a little benediction of peace.

Although there were many occasions when I was informed that my makings had this effect, I had little scholastic reference to back up the concept until a book called Tantra Song landed in my lap, and I learned that for hundreds if not thousands of years, artists in Rajasthan, India, have – usually in anonymity and seclusion – created images specifically for the purpose of the transformation of consciousness. I learned the significance, in this context, of my own habitual use of certain symbols and colors – components of my work that had been turning up forever, without my conscious understanding of what they stood for in the lexicon of Yoga Art. My hair stood on end.

A second mind-shifter crept up on me soon after. For the better part of a decade I have devoted an enormous amount of time and energy (aka love) creating a cyber platform for artists and artisans who speak about their practice in terms of engagement or intimacy with the unknown: theawakenedeye.com  Over the years I have had the privilege of reading and sharing the heart-felt authentic expressions of many makers across a wide range of work – all sharing the sense that their practice is an expression of wonderment at, and devotion to, something much larger than themselves. Something that moves through them when they are empty enough, quiet enough, humble enough.

Recently I came upon an artist writing very explicitly and beautifully about her practice as “devotion to the unknown”, and I felt the earth move. There was an upswelling of a mountainous YES. It was like the ‘hundredth monkey effect’ – there was such a powerful shift. Her directness moved me to totally cease censoring my own real-time artist statements to make them conform to the currently correct version of artspeak.

(Many years ago, a Melbourne curator had advised me not to speak of ‘flakey spiritual stuff’ when dealing with galleries or arts councils. For decades, I’d felt split in two – my identity as a maker whose practice is wholly concerned with the unknowable source of creation was intact in the studio and online, but in real time I felt forced to dissemble.)

So here’s the truth: the crux of my work is devotion. Whatever happens in the studio is an act of devotion to the innate Unknowable. How could I not be in awe of the mystery that pours through these hands, this mind, when given unconditional permission, when not impeded by my own small visions and versions of what real art should look like?

It’s an act of awe and devotion, yes. But as the same artist pointed out – that’s not the whole story.

Devotion to the Unknowable doesn’t mean one stops questioning the great mysteries of existence. Actually, it generates and fosters this inquiry; such was the intention behind instruction in the Mystery Schools. We discover that the Unknown/Unknowable isn’t some kind of remote and sacrosanct object. It’s inescapably and seamlessly interwoven into our every perception, thought and experience. Just don’t try to define, systematize or organise it – it simply can’t be conceptualized.

But it can be expressed. And to my mind, this is the power and purpose of any creative expression, whether visual or poetic, performed or musical: its capacity to evoke that Unknown, to render it visible in its shimmering, evanescent, momentary wholeness.

Wholeness. There’s something that happens in the creative encounter that’s familiar to artists of all kinds. It’s a melting of the division between our seemingly solid separate self and the wild suchness of the world; a dissolving that brings an experience of utter wonder, of timelessness, of knowing that this is the way the world simply IS in its naked perfection.

I never know what will happen when I walk into my studio. I may have a list of tasks to attend to, but when it comes to the empty canvas I’m brain-dead. I’m on my knees without a prayer – empty and ready. I’ve spent decades maybe, pondering questions that can’t be answered with words; they are folded up in my heart. It may be today that the Unknown makes an appearance in form. If not today, well, I’ll be back tomorrow just in case She shows up, and is in the mood to make.


Image – Wonderbox series, Dana, Miriam Louisa Simons


Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, by Franck André Jamme


the high purpose of purposeless play

 

The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all.
– John Cage

My mind has returned, these past months, to the delights of playing without purpose in (and out of) the studio – especially embracing aspects of chance in my work.  Early in my career as an artisan I played with processes that were very fickle – applying wax, winding, clamping, dipping fiber in dyes, bleaching, discharging and manipulating textile surfaces. These processes were instrumental in showing me the hidden gift in the “goof-up”. Eventually, as I relaxed with the unexpected ways that the process would defy my expectations and spur my curiosity, I came to regard the unexpected as pure magic. Those “failures” would always open a door onto what might be possible if I surrendered my expectations and pushed the process a little further…

 

Wonderingmind Studio: Miriam Louisa Simons: EarthWorks Series, detail

earthWorks series India.
Khadi papers, textile fragments, coconut twine,
thorns, pigments from walls, mud

 
In India I folded Khadi paper and buried it in mud for days.  When I unearthed the folded wads of paper I was enchanted to find that there were lines and tones etched into the surface by the action of the earth and water – and sometimes a worm had left evidence of its journey or a hearty meal.  In the work above, this was just the beginning of my journey – there would be rubbing, collage and stitching added before the work reached its resolution.

It’s the unexpected and uninvited occurrences in the studio that excite me the most. I’m not at all temperamentally suited to production-by-design. What’s more, I’m far enough along the via creativa now to have learned that genuine creativity has little to do with the known. Or with innovation of old ideas. Or with work repeated ad infinitum because it was acclaimed and commercially successful in the past. I’ve come to be convinced that creativity and play are a “goes-with”, as Alan Watts would say. Play is the heart of the matter, and it’s time we made fun of it, as children do. I love Laurence G Boldt’s description of playfulness as a “kind of rascal”:

Playfulness is the dew-fresh, childlike spirit of wonder.
A roving, wandering, wondering, “what if” kind of a rascal.
Unconventional, lightning flash, sailing through the cracks…

 
If play doesn’t come easy for us we can easily sidestep the “get-serious” inner critic by resorting to chance. We can surrender every decision to the roll of a dice, the selection of a random card, or the way the sticks fall using the I Ching. We can invent our own aleatory devices, and be genuine in our commitment to obey them – just for now, just while we’re playing. (There’s no need for anxiety, the critic will still be there when we stop our game!)

It seems to me that the creative life is actually one big game of chance – whether one’s an artist in the studio or a gardener in the backyard, or a family-absorbed young mother. Chance rolls a situation under our feet; we meet it with open curiosity. We make a gesture, which chance plays with before serving us another … chance.  There have been a few renegade artists who have made the use of chance a formal aspect of their work – in music composition and performance, in writing, and in visual art; I am particularly inspired by the work of John Cage. Influenced by his studies of Buddhism, Indian philosophy, and the I-Ching in the 1940s and 1950s, Cage incorporated “chance-controlled” elements into his ground-breaking work in all media, including watercolors, prints, drawings, and scores.

The function of art is not to communicate one’s personal ideas or feelings,
but rather to imitate nature in her manner of operation.

– John Cage

 
For Cage, nature’s “manner of operation” was purposeless play. Although he embraced randomness with the use of chance operations, he insisted that this “helped him make choices”, as the crucial ingredient in the process was finding the “right questions” in the first place. In the context of painting, for example, “What colour palette?” “What tools?” “What options for layout?” The painting below is the result of random composition dictated entirely by chance; the outcome is serenely contemplative.

 

John Cage: HV2, No 17b

John Cage, HV2, No 17b

 
Maybe I am such a play-enthusiast because there was little allowance for it in my childhood years, when creativity was constrained by the need for productivity and usefulness – in other words, purposefulness. But there’s another reason: it was the best strategy I ever came upon as a teacher of art and design. Whether my students were working towards formal exams, or taking art subjects for the love of it, they all responded to the encouragement to play – and indeed, one of the enduring effects of playing with chance (they reported) was that they learned to find the right questions. And that’s a great life-skill, wouldn’t you agree?

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

 


making fun of play is one of the ebooks in my empty canvas – wondering mind series
(free download)


http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/jul/10/john-cage-composer-drawings-exhibition