Friday, October 28, 2011


TIP #92
 Imagine yourself in a critter's place.

Would you worry about the past or future if you knew you were being hunted? Could you afford not to be in the moment if you were the hunter?
Any chance you'd not feel threatened by that huge, strangely upright creature watching you?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Lichen splashes cool, barely green, on silky birch paper.
Scorning guidelines, these lapping, liquid forms
belie the Artist's plodding brush work
in paint that well outlives the canvas.

(Flavoparmelia caperata is one of more than 10,000 species of lichen. Lichens are composite, symbiotic organisms often comprising both a fungus and an alga. The former provides structure; the latter, sustenance, through photosynthesis. Most species grow less than a millimeter per year, and, given a durable substrate, can easily live for centuries.)

Friday, October 21, 2011

TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF – Nurturing the Creative Impulse

Discovery is born of curiosity. I find interesting things because I’m fascinated with the way Nature works. I want to see where things come from, where they’re going and what makes them tick. I've make it a point not to let myself get so preoccupied of mind and heart that I fail to notice beauty when I see it, or lack the time and inclination to dig for it when I don’t. For I know the beauty’s always there.

Once I find something beautiful, my curiosity doesn’t stop there. It’s like appreciating a gift so much that you can’t wait to open it, turn it over, examine it from all sides and play with it.

     It’s like appreciating a gift so much that you 
     can’t wait to open it, turn it over, examine it 
     from all sides and play with it.

This is how one of my hobbies came to be. One autumn afternoon many years ago, I was walking to the Metrodome for a session of indoor roller-blading. I was kind of in a zone—you know, that abundant state of mind where ideas flow freely and all thoughts are positive.

While shuffling through a pile of dry leaves, for some reason I decided to pick one up and look at it closely. As I turned it over, it happened to catch a glint of late afternoon sun. As if autumn leaves weren’t wonderful enough, the light coming through this one just seemed to ignite it with color. All the veins and little irregularities, silhouetted against that bright background, made it all the more stunning.

I stopped right outside of Gate D and wondered, How could I make something out of leaves that would cause light to shine through them and show off these rich textures, this incredible, radiant color? Without hesitation, the muse of creativity answered: Make lampshades out of them.

Long story short: I’d seen lampshades with a few leaves applied to the surface, but what I do is to cover the entire shade with them, arrayed in elegant swaths and patterns. Working on a light table, I sometimes allow the leaves to overlap, creating secondary shapes and shades of color.

Other, more painstaking designs call for cutting and tiling the leaf material for a sort of mosaic effect. Then I cover the whole montage with a sheer paper film, which, once coated with a special sealer, adheres to the leaves and dries transparent.

        Once an idea like this germinates, the 
        creative impulse begins to take on a life, 
        an energy, of its own.

I’ve collected and pressed many varieties of leaves, discovering more surprising qualities as I’ve worked with them. Among my favorites are the leaves of grape vine. When dried and applied to the shade, they’re a muted, mossy green. But turn on the lamp, and the color changes to a sumptuous burgundy.

The point of all this is that I had to make—or, perhaps more accurately, let—several things happen in order for this idea to come to life:
  • I had to be “in a good place,” my mind calm, positive and receptive to discovering
 something new.
  • I had to let my curiosity move me to pick up the leaf and look at it.
  • I had to notice when that fleeting ray of sunlight hit the leaf.
  • I had to allow myself to think of the possibilities.
  • I had to take the first step toward making those possibilities into realities.

        Put yourself with Nature. Give yourself 
        to Nature. Be Nature.

Once an idea like this germinates, the creative impulse begins to take on a life, an energy, of its own. You’ve probably been there: you go to bed at night so full of ideas and plans that you can hardly get to sleep. And you wake in the morning thinking breakfast is little more than an inconvenience standing between you and the work at hand. You believe in yourself.

Would you agree that one might be considered lucky to experience this kind of creative energy once or twice in a lifetime? I suggest that, with some deliberate cultivation and a bit of practice, you can summon it anytime at all.

Where does one start in nurturing the creative impulse? I can think of no better place than in Nature. It starts inside, in your soul, in your spirit, but it’s everywhere. Put yourself with Nature. Give yourself to Nature. Be Nature.

Monday, October 17, 2011

HERE'S LOOKING AT YOU – A Reflection on Eye Contact

When I was a newly-arrived freshman in college, someone told me that one of the distinguishing qualities of the "Amherst Man" was that he always acknowledged and made eye contact with passersby. So, of course, I did just that. As a freshman, I guess it was just to make sure I fit in. By the time I graduated it was woven into my personal code, meshed with other common courtesies, like saying please and thank-you or holding the door for someone—simple acknowledgments of another's existence and worth.

I still try always to look to the eyes of strangers. And because my work is all about observation, I think about eye contact and have come to appreciate its nuances. I'm also aware, perhaps more than most, of how rare the practice seems to have become.

One thing I've noticed is how many of the people I most admire—as well as occasional strangers who just strike me with the power of their presence—tend to be those who best connect with others through eye contact.

So what is eye contact all about? What difference does it make?

It suggests you can trust me, I know what I'm talking about, I find you attractive or a score of other messages.

I can't begin to comment fairly on eye contact without acknowledging the great cultural and historic differences in how this powerful form of expression is perceived around the world. In some Islamic, African, south Asian and Native American cultures, among others, eye contact—or eye contact for more than a very short period—is considered disrespectful.

I suspect this may also hold true in some sub-cultural groups, such as inner-city gangs and abusive households, where day-to-day survival seems to hinge on the same kind of dominance-subservience rituals that apply in the animal kingdom. Here, to those bent on violence, eye contact may be taken as a challenge or even an act of aggression.

In the realm of my experience, though, it's hard to understand how meaningful communication can be done without looking at the face of the person you're conversing with. In my world, eye contact is an indispensable authenticator of any dialog, demonstrating attention, competence, confidence, attraction and, yes, respect. This is the context—you could say the bias—in which my reflections should be taken.

As children we instinctively absorb all things visual, our eyes like little black holes of curiosity. So it's no coincidence that kids look people right in the eyes. Before we're even a year old aren't we already learning that changes in the facial expressions of those we most depend on might make a big difference in how we're treated?

Depending on that treatment, the innocence, the openness, the disarming clarity of our childhood gaze might survive our growing up—if we're lucky. But more often than not it gets pushed down by learned associations like fear, guilt and shame.

And this all works the other way around too. Just as we learn how to interpret messages in others' eyes, we also learn how to send those same messages with our own.

Eye contact is an eloquent form of non-verbal communication. To a stranger, it may say simply I'm here, my receptors are open for business, and I'm ready to interact with you if you like. Add a little smile or perhaps a simple greeting and it suggests I'm sharing a bit of my spirit with you today. With a whole vocabulary of other, sometimes subtle, visual clues, it might say you can trust me, I know what I'm talking about, I find you attractive or a score of other messages.

Acknowledging another human being with your eyes is also an act of generosity. It's a sharing not just of time, attention and some of those implied messages, but also of a sort of spiritual energy. Don't you, as I do, experience a lifting of your spirit when a stranger bestows a smiling greeting on you?

Don't we all have days when we're so sad or angry or ashamed that we just wish we were invisible?

When I pass someone whose gaze remains fixed straight ahead—or who never even looks up—I imagine what might be going through her head. I try not to make judgments—Well, she's sure an unfriendly sort! or Geez, what a snob!—and understand that, instead, she might just be deep in thought, feeling insecure or coping with any one of a thousand ailments. Or is it one of those cultural things?

I know I sometimes feel I don't have enough energy or goodwill even to get through the day, not to mention sharing it with someone else. And don't we all have days when we're so sad or angry or ashamed that we just wish we were invisible?

Sadly, some misplaced instinct tells us keep to ourselves just when we could most use a little human contact—when we're depressed or lonely. Isn't it precisely the diversion of isolation to contact, self-pity to altruism, that so often proves the best antidote for these afflictions?

Might the same factors that make us avoid eye contact with others also cause us to miss the myriad wonders going on all around us every day?

So when I observe the eye-avoidance behavior in others, I know I have a choice. I can either take the hint—whether intentional or not—to keep my distance, or I can share the light of my spirit with them anyway. When I'm on my own game, I'll do the latter; I smile, say hello and wish my fellow human being a good day. Sometimes there's no response...that's okay; I hope the gesture helps in some way.

On a really good day, I might add a little unspoken blessing to my acknowledgment—perhaps wishing the stranger the strength he needs to hold up under whatever that burden he's bearing, and the clarity he needs to find his way out from under it. And in this case, though eye contact wouldn't seem absolutely necessary to convey a blessing, I still try. I guess I hope that, in the same way a handshake seals an agreement, eye contact might help ensure that the "message" gets delivered.

I can't think for long about anything without asking myself how it relates to Nature and the ways we humans interact with Nature. So, here's a two-bit theory for you: Might the same factors that make us avoid eye contact with others also cause us to miss the myriad wonders going on all around us every day?

And, just as the human interaction of giving and sharing can draw us out of ourselves and restore us to emotional and spiritual health, doesn't a similar interaction with Nature produce the same kinds of healing?

Every single day, whether you live in the wilderness or the inner city, you're surrounded by Nature's gaze. Return it.

So, even if you're having a bad day—especially if you're having a bad day—let your eyes be your vehicle to that healing. Look for connections with others. Realize that, as poorly as you may feel about yourself, the person with whom you make eye contact just might need that affirmation, that blessing, more than you do.

Look, too, for connections with Nature. Every single day, whether you live in the wilderness or the inner city, you're surrounded by Nature's gaze. Return it. Send it the blessing of your spirit, your loving intention.

It's all about what I call "seeing generously," the notion that, by looking with care, compassion and wonder, we confer our blessing on every person, place or thing we behold.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


TIP #50 
Take a gander at ghostly geese.

Some late-fall night when you’re outside, keep your ears open for what may sound like a crowd of people jabbering in the distance.

Look up and find the stringy "V" of geese slicing south two thousand feet up, dimly lit against the black by ambient earthlight.

Friday, October 7, 2011

STANDING WITH MONET – Getting Behind the Art

Every few years, it seems, we hear of yet another famous painting which, on expert inspection, reveals another painting under its surface. It’s always a fascinating story—and a fine metaphor for the process of discovery.

Patch of Grass - Vincent Van Gogh  PHOTO: TU Delft
You don’t have to find the portrait of a woman under Van Gogh’s Patch of Grass to understand how the smallest of details can help you explore and get beneath the surface of a piece of art. Sure, it’s wonderful to appreciate a work for what you can see right away: the subject matter, the composition, the brushwork, the color. But there are so many other telling details and layers of meaning to be found if you’re only willing to look, observations that speak of the artist, of life in his or her place and time, and even of the very day on which the work was created.

There are often more tangible, more telling 
details proving the immediacy of the artist’s 
presence that day.

One of the more obvious ways to delve deeper into a work of art is to look for the symbolism the artist might have used to reinforce his or her point of view, or perhaps to skirt the scrutiny of church, state or some other censor.

Among the most currently notable examples, for its central role in Dan Brown’s popular Da Vinci Code saga, is the symbolism purportedly encrypted in Leonardo’s iconic work, The Last Supper.

Symbolism is, by its nature, subjective, but there are often more tangible, more telling details that bring you back to the day the work was done, proving the immediacy of the artist’s presence that day. Among my favorite such details is one I found in one of Monet’s plein air beach scenes. It depicts a warm, windy day, the effects of a gust ruffling a woman’s dress and lifting her parasol.

On the Beach at Trouville - Claude Monet

Drawn in by Monet’s knowing grasp of light and motion, I noticed something that pulled me in even further. It was a detail that immediately bridged the century and a half separating me from the artist, one that verified that he was indeed standing, painting, on that windy beach that day: grains of sand embedded in the paint.*

There are other clues in other works—paintings, drawings and sculpture—that speak not just of time and place, but to the true humanity of the artist. See if you can find them: hairs or finger prints in the medium, slips of the hand, stains left by drops of sweat.

Drawn in by Monet’s knowing grasp of light 
and motion, I noticed something that pulled 
me in even further.

Looking into and beyond the surface of the art can capture you, if you let it, in a sort of time warp, placing you there next to the artist and subject, close enough to touch. It doesn’t get much more real than that.

Old photographs also pull me into the scenes they capture. One of my favorite ways to experience this is to study the image—especially one that’s rich in detail like a busy street scene or a landscape—looking for details even the photographer might never have noticed, like a glimpse of a person who, at the moment the shot was taken, happened to be looking out the window of a building. What, I ask myself, was this long-departed soul doing or thinking at that moment he was unwittingly immortalized?

What was this long-departed person doing or thinking at that moment he was unwittingly immortalized?

I remember one such photo in particular, which appeared to have been taken from atop a five- or six-story building. It looked out over an intersection and down a busy street. It appeared to be summer. The scene bustled with activity, automobiles sharing the streets with horse-drawn carts. Hundreds of pedestrians, tiny elements in the composition, walked under signs identifying the shops: Dry Goods, Meat Market, Saloon. Among a group waiting to cross the street, one pedestrian, turning his head and torso, was looking up right into the photographer’s lens. What was it that made him turn and look up? What was he thinking?
                                                     *      *      *
Next time someone tries intimidating you with their knowledge of painters, palettes and periods, tell them you look deeper than that. Tell them you talk directly with the artist.

* Some art historians say sand, as well as other natural materials, were intentionally sprinkled on the wet paint of plein air works by the artists to impart the very immediacy I felt when viewing On the Beach at Trouville. I prefer a less cynical view.

Monday, October 3, 2011

MOMENT OF DEATH – A Ghostly Etching

What was the pigeon's last conscious thought at the instant captured here so hauntingly on glass?

There was nothing tentative about this swoop down the open atrium, no hint of trouble—wing beat is frozen just as down-stroke began; head forward, dead on. 

Even the feet felt the impact…or did they, striking as they did a split second after the head?

Did the bird mistake the dark, inner space of the stairwell as refuge— perhaps from grasping talons?

Might death have been swifter, kinder this way than by a hundred tearing bites of falcon beak?

(The medium that renders such a white, ghostly impression is fine dust accrued from the natural abrasion of the pigeon's finest feathers—called powder feathers.)