By J. Ruth Gendler
Artist and Writer
As an artist, I am interested in living in a world where people are encouraged to be more creative, compassionate, curious, courteous, soulful, and lively. I don’t think the arts are the capital-A “Answer,” but I sense that the arts are part of the answer. More than information, entertainment, or literal instruction, the arts offer nourishment. The arts are as essential for our souls as food for the body.
I have heard that many native cultures say, “We have no art, everything we do is art.” Art is not separate from ceremony, from engineering, from house building, from growing rice, and from intimate relationship. Art is not separate from the spiritual spheres; we operate on an aesthetic level. Art offers a pathway to describe and dance with the vital forces of life. Everyone participates. No one is only an artist; everyone is sometimes an artist.
Understanding the Process
Artwork: Woman with 5 Bowls, monotype, © 2010
Writing about the process of making poems and carvings in “I Breathe a New Song,” anthropologist Edmund Carpenter emphasizes the reciprocity between the artist and his or her materials: “Eskimos have no real equivalents to our words ‘create’ or ‘make.’ Their closest term means ‘to work on.’ The carver never attempts to force the ivory into uncharacteristic forms but responds to the material as it tries to be itself, and thus the carving is continually modified as the ivory has its say. This is the Eskimo attitude toward not only ivory, but toward all things, especially people …”
As art has become more specialized and separate from people’s lives, some artists have depended on more extreme images (and behavior) to challenge us and command our attention. Too many novels, magazines articles, movies, and plays feed us stories of crazy artists, “the meteors” whom the rest of society regard with a mixture of envy and contempt.
Artwork: Green Woman, Purple Iris, monotype © 2010
These images of the artists’ wildness emphasize a kind of narcissistic freedom, but they don’t show that creative freedom is rooted in courage and discipline built over many years of trying, failing, trying again. Creativity is nourished by compassion and love as well as by outrage and angst.
At an art symposium, a speaker tells a roomful of artists and educators that artists are the people who break the rules. Artist as rebel — I know the archetype and the impulse. It is an awfully heavy burden to carry full time, a tremendous pressure to be original, to define oneself by “going against.”
One might as well say artists cook up the culture. Sometimes artists break the rules. Sometimes artists help us see what is out of balance. Sometimes artists bring new eyes and hands to a tradition that is centuries old.
Artist as researcher, traveler, translator, as witness and weaver, as, in poet Jerome Rothenberg’s beautiful phrase, “technician of the sacred.” In a culture with little memory, the artist is one who remembers. Artist as messenger, traveling between the past and the future, the handmade and the electronic, confirming humanity, affirming life, giving voice to what we know but cannot say.
Artwork: Intuition, 2 Bowls, monotype, © 2010
Over the years as I have grown more accepting of my own creative process and followed the creative process in others, I have come to understand that creativity is not rare, but it is precious and needs cultivating.
Although I knew I wanted to be an artist and writer since I was 9 or 10, I didn’t know that teaching writing and leading workshops on creativity was part of my life plan and purpose. When I first started working as a poet in the school, I was astonished by the casual profundity of children’s words, the directness and transparency of their images, the generosity of their insights. When we are invited to express ourselves in a safe environment; nourished by and educated about the work of great artists; taught to revise, refine and polish our work; and listened to with attention and respect, we are capable of making work that is soulful and strong.
Ways to Feed the Soul
Artwork: Equinox, monotype, © 2010
To close, I want to share some of my favorite ways to feed the soul, encourage creativity, and reclaim beauty as part of our daily life. Although I recently wrote some of them up as rules, I prefer to think of them as “ways” or “paths” that help us to travel in the inner and outer realms of the soul.
Ask questions. And listen for the questions inside the question, listen for multiple answers. Let yourself stay with one question over time. One of my favorite questions is, “What do you like to make?” Inside that question are the questions: What do you want to put your energy into? What do your hands and heart know how to do? Make sense, make sentences, make soup, make love, make breakfast, make books, make time, make trouble, make friends, make believe, make mistakes, make a statement, make up a story, make a garden.
“What do you like to make?” opens up a new way of looking at: What makes you happy? What are you made of? What and how are you making your life? What makes this place home? What makes you, you? The making of a life involves both dreaming and building that life out of imagination and skill, focus, and receptivity. What we work on, works on us.
Walk. Walking brings the physical world of light and air, shadow and scent, to our imagination. Walking feeds our senses. Walking gives us a felt sense of the distance between where we have been and where we are going. Even if your head is in the clouds, your mind is still in your body. The brain is connected to the spine, the nervous system, the fluid that holds the organs. Walking, we sense that intelligence lives in the whole body — the skin, the senses, the ankles, the soles of the feet, the toes. Walk to make sense, to marry the rhythm of thought with the rhythm of feet. Walk to find yourself in the world, to appreciate the everyday beauty in our lives.
Artwork: Earthman, collograph on black paper, © 2010
Learn how to wait. And when to wait, and what to wait for. Creativity has a different schedule and a different rhythm than other forms of work. It doesn’t like to be rushed, but sometimes it is urgent. Investigate the difference between procrastination (avoiding work) and gestation (waiting for the work to ripen and oneself to grow into it). Sometimes there is a great difference between gestation and procrastination; other times they borrow each others’ clothes. Sometimes we need to invite the creative into our lives with attention, awareness, personal rituals. At times we are waiting when we need to act. Other times we are busy trying to make things happen when it is time to wait.
Attend to your dreams. Listening to and writing your dreams, drawing them, dancing them, develops respect for our immense imagination and the inner coherence of the psyche. As one 7th-grade student wrote, “A dream is made when your soul writes.” In our dreams we never stop and say, “I am not creative. I don’t know how to finish writing that line of dialog or describe the attic room with the old white furniture. I don’t know how to draw a sycamore or paint a bridge.” Dreams, like poems, operate on many levels at once; they teach us about fear, courage, transformation, humor, and mystery.
Listen to words, find your language. I often suggest to young people who want to be writers that they learn another language. It is a much more lively way to learn grammar and the idiosyncrasies of our own language; it reveals the way language and thought are intertwined, but are not the same. Likewise listening to everyday idioms and etymologies wake us up to the images that live in our words. Conversation is a compound of the Latin verb vertere, to turn, (found also in verse, reverse, universe) and com, meaning with. When we are talking together, we are turning with each other. Language, like the body, is alive, expressing the soul, the self in breath, phrase, and tone. Language whispers and weeps, walks, dances, and sings. Find your language. Allow your language to find you.
Take down the dulcimer. When I was researching an anthology of myths, poems, and prayers about night and day from around the world, I was delighted by the dawn songs and the morning prayers. How we wake up matters! A Hasidic prayer cautions to be careful how you speak the first words of the day. “A person who wakes in the morning is like a new creation.”
A Favorite Rumi Poem
Artwork: Red Bowl, collograph, © 2010
“Today like every day we wake up empty and scared. (I actually memorized this line as ”empty and sacred.’) Don’t go in the library and begin reading. Take down the dulcimer.”
These days, we might say, “Don’t go to the screen and begin clicking.” Some of us are at work before we are awake. We look at the screen before we look at the sky. In mid-life, it often seems we don’t know where our metaphoric dulcimer is, or it needs mending.
Rumi concludes: “Let the beauty you love be what you do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
Our art can be an offering, a prayer, a practice. It is bigger than our minds and feelings. It is an exchange between our small soul and the great soul of the world. The more we are alive to the world, the more the world comes alive in us.
About J. Ruth Gendler
Photo right, and at top, by Richard Stangl
J. Ruth Gendler is a best-selling author, nationally exhibiting artist, and educator who has worked as an artist in the schools and led writing workshops for adults and children for 25 years. Her books include “The Book of Qualities,” “Changing Light,” and “Notes on the Need for Beauty.”
The “Book of Qualities” has been used to teach personification and values in schools settings from rural 2nd grade to college English classes, adapted for theater and dance, and quoted widely in sermons and speeches.
“Notes on the Need for Beauty” offers an artist’s reflections on the soulful aspects of beauty. Gendler reminds us that beauty gives meaning, purpose, and delight to our lives. She invites us to slow down, listen to our senses and ours souls, and nurture the beauty inside and around us. Spirituality & Health included “Notes on the Need for Beauty,” as one of the 50th best spiritual books of 2007.
Gendler has a current art show in the Seattle area entitled “Sight and Insight” at the Normandy Park City Hall (April 18-May 31st). Her work will be included in the shows “Imaginary Looms” at Oakopolis Gallery in Oakland, CA, in June and July, and “One Room, Many Voices” at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco Fall 2011. She posts occasional web essays on the creative process at Redroom.com.
About Gendler’s Bowl Artwork
I have loved bowls for a long time because they they are utterly real and very metaphoric. Years ago, In the first pages of The Book of Qualities, I wrote about The Wind, who “carries big blues bowls of rain with her,” and drew a picture of Pleasure sitting, “with her silver bowl full of liquid moonlight.” In the Intuition quality, I noted that Intuition has a splendid collection of “cups, bowls, and baskets.” As I was writing about the body and the soul in “Notes on the Need for Beauty,” I often sensed that we are vessels, filled with varying qualities, elements, and energies. Sometimes, I feel like the bowls are everywhere! There are so many things that are bowls: boat and dome, small cups of water and mountain valleys. Books, tangible, coherent and contained, feel like bowls of language and light.