Monday, December 28, 2009


Scientists involved in understanding human learning and development have been intrigued for many years by the Nature/Nurture debate. Biologically, while we are all born in pretty much the same manner, it’s obvious that as we grow into maturity, we develop into very different people. It’s not just a matter of looks, but also personality, emotional attitudes, intelligence, learning styles etc.

What puzzles these learned men is trying to analyze which aspect of our existence determines “who we ultimately become”; is it internal biology, or the influences of our external environment? The Nature advocates claimed that our psychological, behavioral, and emotional makeup is largely determined by our parents’ genes and our ancestry - we are the net sum of our biology, determined by chance (or design) at birth. Our DNA is our destiny. The opposing viewpoint stresses that while nature supplies the framework, basically we are born a blank slate, or at most we arrive pre-packaged with a predisposition towards certain traits, but it is our upbringing, parenting, our environmental influences, our relationships and our education that really determine who we are. Obviously our height, race and eye color are genetic, but our personality, affect, learning styles attitudes and probably our religious beliefs and number of friends are determined by our environment - by what happens to us after birth. In recent years, the debate has shifted away from which one is responsible to an acknowledgement that both have influence, but just what is the extent of influence? Which controls what?

In an earlier essay, I mentioned image stories, which are past incidents that are strongly remembered and seem to have a personal importance well out of proportion to their specific details. I postulated that certain of these incidents continue to influence who we are today, not because they were dramatic, traumatic or life changing, but that somehow they keyed into something we intuitively know is essential to our being. I think this same “mythic significance” can not only be connected to incidents like image stories, but it also applies to places we have been or visited, and objects we have owned or collected. The memory or recall involved here is psychic memory. Throughout our lives, we have known special places, areas, objects and possessions that have an unexplainable importance to us and seemingly are some sort of focus for peace, solace, comfort and inspiration. Some of them may look special, while others are hopelessly uninspiring visually, some may be close and accessible, while others may be far away or long ago.

These are not places that anyone else would necessarily see as special. They don’t have to be grand or elegant, nor are they required to be scenic or spectacular. They are, however, places we know to be personally very important. Whether these places exist in our childhood or in our present backyard, they have a meaningful quality, and to remember them is to experience feelings and sensations that elevate the occasion.

In Essay Fifteen, I mentioned that when I was a child, my family and I had visited a place in New England (although I cannot remember where) that had wonderful doors. They were exquisitely carved with exposed levers, wheels, cogs and other wooden mechanisms that moved intricately when the door lever was pulled. When I picture the doors in action, it is not the technology or skill that comes through but the sense of wonder. I discovered that something ordinary and real (a door) could be transformed into a thing of wonder, a magical super reality. If you could make an ordinary door into a fantasy dream, then you could do that with the other “ordinaries” in your life. In retrospect, that awareness helped me to learn to see more intently. It helped me to understand that I could never know by glancing and confirming, but it gave me permission to study the ordinary to perhaps discover the extraordinary. That realization of the power of transcendence (I think) was the beginning of feeling that I was an artist.

I could tell you about a raging torrent of a waterfall; I visited in my early teens where the cascading water roared over the cliff edge, through a crevasse and then vanished from sight, beneath the ground and its base. There was no river flowing away that I could see. The signs around, explained that it drained into an underground cavern, and re-emerged several thousand yards to the East. Above the falls, the river ran quiet and still. In a heartbeat, it was transformed into a maelstrom of thundering energy ... and then swallowed up. The energy was gone - it had been transformed. At the time, I had no place to put this, I was young and the memory was all about water. I knew I loved that memory, but I was unaware of the significance it would have.

It was only recently, as an adult that the connection became apparent to me, and it came out through my photography. I photograph quite a few landscape type images, and many of my photographs have holes, openings, windows and portals which I feel change the quality of vision and understanding. I had written a brief “blurb” for a show catalogue that said:

“...And I have long been intrigued by light and energy that comes through holes, sneaks around edges and shimmers off of translucent surfaces, origin unknown, destination a mystery. To me this is light and energy that shows us more than what is merely there...”

While talking to someone at the show, my waterfall suddenly came back to me, and it was all clear why I had carried that with me all these years. At that moment, it was apparent that the photographs of a middle aged man were the result of the memory of his thirteen-year-old self. At that moment, I could also see that the boy at the waterfall, many, many years in the past, was directing my adult vision.

Certainly, what I have been talking about is personal and comes from my own life and experiences, and I am not suggesting that these incidents apply to you. Rather, I am suggesting that as you look into your own past, memory and history, you attempt to re-discover those little treasures from your past that represent a milestone, a touchstone or a talisman that has your own personal story and mystery throughout its fabric.

The next few essays will deal with accessing your own highly charged memories and objects, and some suggestions as to what you can do with them. As always, I invite any comments or observations you might have.

Sunday, December 06, 2009


When we think of artists of any genre, be they visual artists, playwrights, storywriters, poets, essayists or sculptors, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming they have what amounts to super powers. “Oh, of course they are good, and produce wonderful and evocative work, because of the wonderful places they live, the amazing people they encounter or the exotic locales in which they live!” We convince ourselves that if we lived such an inspirational existence and were surrounded by fascinating or bizarre people, we too would have a shot at greatness and immortality. We worry that our mundane existence will never result in getting anything sold or published, because our associates consist of the losers at work our boring relatives and the folks in the neighborhood. We are cursed to live in a cookie cutter apartment or a desolate suburban community, and there are no cathedrals, sailing ships, or mysterious, gimlet-eyed nomads, living in yak skin yurts to be seen anywhere. There are no wonderful stories in our lives, and we have no treasure at all in our artistic savings bank.

First of all, I’d like to introduce you to a few people whose blogs I read regularly. Tai lives in Central California (not a yurt to be seen), and writes and illustrates thoughtful, poignant and evocative vignettes about everyday life, while Gypsy Woman creates evocative visual/verbal observations about life. Hélène has constructed a hand drawn whimsical (and quite poignant) narrative of her life as a clerk in a bookstores as she hopefully awaits George Clooney, while Sarah, The Unpaid Intern, is an “urban anthropologist” in London, bringing to life moments of connection she observes while riding the tube or taking walks. On a far more somber note, Risa, a hospice professional, writes about her life and her work in end of life care, trying to parse meaning and truth while surrounded by death and dying. I don’t know any of them personally but their art transports me to worlds I have never visited, and helps me see truths I did not know existed. These women write, not based upon their visits to exotic locales, fighting mercenaries in French Indo-China or prowling the back alleys of Beirut for the CIA (although they might be willing to give it a go). I imagine they look, act, live and work in very prosaic ways, but the words they use and the images they convey are anything but ordinary. These are people who have learned to use their eyes and ears; who have accessed levels of their minds and memories most of us ignore, and most importantly of all, they are people who are willing to dare. They dare to look, they dare to dream intensely, and they dare to have the courage to “put it out there”.

This is what an artist does – she allows us to see a bit of the world through her own eye and percolated through her own sensibilities and perspective, a different viewpoint and a vision with a different bias than our own. These are people who have learned not to just walk, ride, drive or hop from point A to Point B, but to experience the journey. They see things others pass by, they hear things others ignore, and they touch things from which others pull back. No, I am pretty certain that they do not have x-ray vision, particularly acute hearing, or an exquisitely sensitive sense of touch, but they do keep their receptors active, and actually stop to find out what something smells like, rather than guessing and moving on. Artists are brave souls. They also are not afraid of getting messy.

As an example, here is a snippet of overheard dialogue The Unpaid Intern posted:

"Oh Andy he's such a lovely bloke, I call him my teddy bear."

That's nice I thought as I absent-mindedly eavesdropped.

"I mean seriously, he is such a lovely bloke." Her friend made a sound like "hmmm"

"He has just got out of prison though". Her friend turned to her.

"Oh yes" she said "What he do?"

"Manslaughter. Although don't know how they got it down to that. He did reverse over the bloke. Twice"

"God!" Said her friend.

"No but seriously he is lovely. You just can't push him or he'll loose it"

"The thing is" said her friend "There will always be someone to push him"

The woman paused "I hadn't thought of it like that."

Posted by unpaid intern at 10:28 am

A conversation, overheard between two women, while riding to work. In this brief dialogue, we have a wonderful insight into the two unnamed women, their personalities and their worldview. We find ourselves intrigued by the boyfriend, and it is great good fun to imagine how their relationship plays out. We also experience the duality that art can portray so beautifully – what is truth and which of the two characters is closer to a truth that is going to affect their life and their future? This is an entire story, waiting to be written, and it takes place during a one-minute conversation during a ten-minute commute to work. No trip on the Marrakech Express with the assassin in one cart and the Femme Fatale in the next.

I would like to suggest an assignment before you go on to the next essay. The assignment? - Go and visit some art. You will find art exhibits almost everywhere – they are more common than you might think. There are commercial art galleries that sell crafts and fine art, they are always free, and there is absolutely no pressure to buy. Most colleges and universities have galleries or exhibitions, museums will have larger collections, and often traveling shows move about the country, anchored in exhibition halls or even malls. If you live in or near a big city, hotels, major office buildings and banks often have exhibits in their lobbies. During the holiday season, many localities have artist’s marts or gift shows. I am not suggesting you go and buy (unless of course you are so motivated), but to look and wonder. Art almost always originated out of the artist’s wonder, and the viewer needs to wonder to get the full impact. You are not required to like it, want it or even feel that it matches the sofa, but it is important to give yourself permission to emotionally react to it. If something doesn’t “do it for you” well than just move on. Sooner or later, you will discover one that opens a line of communication.

Monday, November 23, 2009


In the previous essay, I suggested that there might be two types of memory. The everyday type of memory that is first developed in our very early years and refined in school has many uses, but it is also misunderstood. It is great for recalling past data or processes, but it is not very effective in what we think as “problem solving”. Because this memory deals with data already learned, it can limit us from “thinking outside of the box”. It has been observed many times, that if a hammer is the only tool you have, everything looks like a nail. The other memory, which I referred to as Psychic Memory, is harder to quantify, but it can be a powerful tool, especially for the artist.

One way of differentiating the two types is to draw an analogy. In a much earlier essay, we talked about analytical learning styles, which is the logical, linear type of instruction/learning featured in schools and vocational training programs. In a less formally structured way, this type of “problem solving” progresses from a myriad of small data bits, which we then form into larger cognitive structures called information (instead of data). When enough information is available, a strategy or plan of action can be formed, and we are able to move towards a solution or a mental framework that makes “sense” of the problem we face. As this process occurs, our conscious, aware, mind constantly scans the process, fine-tuning and directing it towards ever more precise and detailed conclusions. If successful, we can feel that we have solved the problem that was presented, and we have been active in and aware of the entire process.

The second form of memory, or psychic memory operates much more like intuitive learning and decision-making than it does analytical learning. When we utilize intuitive problem solving, on some preconscious level we may be collecting and storing data, but the type and the scope of the data collected is not a completely conscious activity, nor is it consciously direct. Unlike analytical problem solving, during which we are actively collecting as much information as possible, intuitive data gathering takes place outside of our active and focused control. Wandering, daydreaming, “wool gathering” and moments of relaxed and unfocused meditation are the fertile grounds for building a reservoir of intuitive data. Rather than an active quest, it is a passive quest – remember, “All Who Wander Are Not Lost”.

As the data is processed, and often right up to the moment of “intuitive insight” (or decision making), much of the intellectual processing takes place “out of sight” of our conscious awareness. While we may be aware of our sudden insight, (the light bulb going on over our head) we may not have any idea at all, as to how we arrived at this inspiration.

Just as in Intuitive learning, psychic memory has a similar manifestation. The process, the orientation and the mechanisms by which it works are not usually visible to our mind’s eye, but we can train ourselves to be aware of the results, and to understand their implications for us. Most importantly, we can develop an attitude that recognizes intuition as a strength that is the equal of analysis. For working artists, psychic memory has the potential to be a fertile field, and one that can produce a bountiful harvest.

Before continuing, this psychic memory that I have mentioned is just a hypothesis, but one that seems to explain a great deal. It is clear that our personality, attitudes, mind-set and approach to everything we do in life is unique and highly individualized. It affects the way we think, what we value, and probably how we live our lives. It is also clear that this unique set of personal traits is set by environment (or life forces) at least as much (if not more than) genetic and biological determinism. The assumption that I will be making is that one of the external factors that help us form our “selfness” is psychic memory.

They are our cumulative memories and awareness’s of persons, places, incidents and ideas that became one of our psychological building blocks. Why one memory is more important than another and how a particular memory accomplishes its impact is unknown. There are, however, some good reasons to feel that this does take place and significantly, it opens up some productive artistic avenues. Psychic Memory is not the type of memory to be preserved and then accessed for our usable memory bank. It is a memory more deeply buried, which serves as a marker or beacon, illuminating a psychic intersection. Just as a highway intersection represents a set of choices, our psychic intersections are decision points in our development – they are moments when we made a “choice” about who we are or who we were about to become. The memories associated with and linked to these “moments of truth” are powerful and laden with creative insights for us to explore.

In Essays Thirteen through Sixteen, we discussed Image Stories, which I described as personal stories that are always tickling our consciousness and seem to be with us on a regular basis. While superficially they do not seem to be memories of great importance, they evidence a power and a hold on our awareness. My premise is that our Image Stories are created and nurtured by our Psychic Memory and as artists, we need to not only honor them but to use them in our creative process. The following essays will deal with utilizing Images, Stories and ideas from your Psychic Memory. As always, feel free to leave comments or to e-mail me directly with ideas, suggestions or reactions.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


The artist's world is limitless. It can be found anywhere,

far from where he lives or a few feet away.

It is always on his doorstep.

~Paul Strand

A painter paints the appearance of things, not their objective correctness, in fact he creates new appearances of things.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

What I am seeking is not the real and not the unreal but rather the unconscious, the mystery of the instinctive in the human race.

Georgia O'Keeffe

Monday, November 16, 2009


In a previous essay, problem solving was discussed, and it was pointed out that a logical and focused plan was very effective in dealing with some problems or situations. Of course, for the artist, there were times that a more open-ended approach allowed for the discovery of the unexpected, instead of merely arriving at the desired, pre-determined goal. The later is often much closer to providing an answer to a question as opposed to a unique and creative solution to a problem.

For most of us, “problem solving” has its cognitive roots in school. From earliest times, the teacher would present information, rules or processes, and it was clear to all of us, that we were expected to pay attention to this material, as we would certainly be tested at a later date. Whether it was in pre-school when the teacher admonished someone that they knew better than to blurt out a response without first raising their hand, or much later when we were desperately trying to remember arcane theorems or formulas.

School encouraged a process that we would use over and over again. We knew there was a solution to the problem being posed, and it was our job to search our memories to retrieve the “correct” answer, technique or situation that would allow us to give the right answer and therefore pass the test. Our memory, therefore, was a repository of already stored data, and the more effective we were in pulling out “answers already stored” the better we were at “problem solving.”

I’d like to raise two points. For our purposes, this use of memory is not problem solving at all, but rather a technique for answering questions that someone in authority or command is posing. In the case of school, the answer is already known (by the teacher), the answer has already been supplied to us (either earlier by the instructor or through assigned reading), and our job is to locate it, and present it in the proper form at the proper time. This is not problem solving, but rather an exercise in demonstrating you have been paying attention, and that you have memorized the proper information.

While memorizing the correct theorem is useful to the student in advanced math classes, it is not even close to what a scientist utilizes in research. Rather than trying to “remember” how to achieve an already postulated goal, he or she is seeking understanding or insight into an area that is truly unknown or barely understood. It is not an exercise in demonstrating to “the teacher” that you remember what was covered last Thursday, but rather it is a quest to discover, to reveal or to at least get a glimpse of something that never before was known. It is a search for mystery rather than a process of regurgitation of what you digested the day before.

I would like to propose that we could also think of memory as having a dual nature.

There is the typical use of memory where we access the bits of information from our past that we deem will be useful. Most of what we remember is analogous to either the stacks in our internal library where the books are filed, or our mental Google or Wikopedia. All of our personal and learned data, facts, information, incidents research and accomplishments are neatly filed away in our mind and when we need to know something about Aunt Harriet and her garden, or whether or not the Emersions (whom we invited for dinner) eat seafood, we “access” the required data in our memory. This data is pretty straightforward and complete, and while there probably is some alteration due to our personality and priorities, most of our memories have a framework of accuracy and universality.

My hunch is that we have a second form of memory and although it may be keyed by the same kind of stimulus mentioned earlier (data, information, incidents etc.) it operates differently, and it serves a different purpose. The first (and more common) memory exists to allow us to live our everyday lives. It is a USABLE MEMORY and it serves our regular activities. It gives us the factual, behavioral and informational basis for almost anything we do; from remembering where the front door is in our house is, to remembering our first effort at bicycle riding. Without the usable memory, we could not operate in this complex world. We couldn’t even function in a simple world - for very primitive animals have a memory similar to ours. Earthworms alter their behavior based upon exterior stimulus, and then repeat that altered behavior at a later time. They remember.

It is the other memory, as artists, to which we should pay close attention. If the first memory, or usable memory, affects our actions and behaviors, as well as our consciousness and probably our preconscious functioning, this second memory affects our concepts of self and identity. It is the learned determinate of who and what we are, emotionally, spiritually and personally. It is the sum total of all of the outside influences that have formed our own unique individuality and personality. It is not there to inform us of appropriate behavior or to solve problems, but it is what determines how we behave and defines what we perceive as problems. It is our memory of our Guidelines and an instruction manual of how to be our self.

Because our usable or functional memory is called upon virtually every minute of our lives, it is readily accessible and exquisitely cross-indexed. If you key in the word “friend” to your conscious memory, you get friends from today, all the way back to early childhood. You get family friends, work friends, school friends, buddy friends, Blog friends, best friends, lover friends and Facebook friends. There are seemingly endless responses, so you start narrowing the focus, and if you keep at it, you can locate your best friend’s other good friend during the summer when you were ten years old at the camp near Lake Pohawatan.

This second form of memory, or Psychic Memory as I will call it, is a bit shyer and more reserved. Unlike Usable Memory which is constantly available, Psychic Memory has much more of a background role. To use the computer analogy mentioned earlier, the Usable Memory would be the programs that are installed such as word processing, spreadsheets and games. They are up front and visible, and at least one is used every time you use the machine. Psychic Memory is buried, and rarely opened by the operator, but it is what determines the actual “behaviors” and “traits” of the computer. It would be more analogous to the operating system in use or the amount of RAM available. For most of us, the applications and programs that we open are all that we care about, but it is the operating system, running silently and efficiently behind the scenes (we will ignore the blue screen of death) that makes it all work. Most of us are content to never open the “secret parts, both on our computer and more importantly, in our own life.

Our Psychic Memory consists of real (and perhaps imagined) incidents, interactions, places and objects that affected our developing personalities in some way. They might have introduced new insights, they might have confirmed old beliefs, and they might have caused a “psychic reevaluation”. They could feel positive, negative or neutral, but they represent moments of psychic change, alteration or confirmation. In a sense, they are crossroads or interchanges on the road map of our life.

When we open a highway map, we see many colored lines inscribed all over the surface. They are bold or narrow, curved or straight, long or short, and they cover most of the surface. Those lines go through, over, and around all of the cities, towns, geographic features and points of interest, linking them together in a fascinating complexity. Although there is a great deal of information on these maps, for most of us, the important information is at the intersections. The long straight lines require little from us other than looking at the sights, playing our music or searching for the next rest stop. However, it is the crossroads that demand our greatest attention, because they require a change in direction and the establishment of a new baseline.

In many ways, this is the function of our Psychic Memories – not to solve our day-to-day problems perform our regular tasks and to enjoy our normal activities, but to help us understand and work with our motivations, hopes, fears and dreams.

Where is this Psychic memory and how do we use it? We’ll talk more about that in the following essay, but for the artist, it will be an invaluable tool. As usual, I invite comments, thoughts or commentary.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


When we participate in an Easter egg hunt, the rules are simple. We know beforehand that at a certain time and within a proscribed area there are treasures to be found. Whether they are brightly colored eggs, candy, chocolate bunnies or prizes, they are there, waiting to be spotted, gathered up and put into our baskets. We also understand that some of the “searchers” will collect far more treasures than will others. This will occur every time there is a hunt, and no matter what efforts are made by those planning the event, it becomes obvious that there are good searchers and bad searchers. There is obviously a skill to this, and clearly some do it better than others do.

Your personal search for direction and meaning in art (your Artquest) that you are now participating in, is quite different. The treasure is not hidden (although it is rarely in plain sight), the search area is not physically proscribed, and there are no winners and losers. In the egg hunt, the winners tended to be aggressive, analytical and competitive, they develop a strategy and they then “join the fray.” Those who end up with fewer eggs are usually more random in their approach, and tentative in their actions and less focused upon the prize. They are easily distracted from the goal at hand (or, with a more positive spin, perhaps they are more interested in participating than in “winning”).

Unlike our hypothetical “EggQuest”, in your ArtQuest, your personality type will not give you a particular advantage, and if anything, the people with an aggressive, “want to win” attitude may well end up with the more difficult task. Goal orientation is a good strategy only if you are able to articulate, visualize and to describe (effectively) the prize that is being sought. Because the “prizes” we are seeking are non-specific and are rarely obvious in advance, there is no hierarchy of value. Another way of looking at it might well be that it is the quest itself that is the ultimate reward. In searching for eggs, an excellent technique is to eliminate areas where there are no eggs, thereby narrowing the search parameters, but the visual artist or writer soon discovers that everything examined, rather than narrowing the options, seem to open new avenues of exploration. The non-artist often asks where do you get all of your ideas, while the artist laments the difficulty of trying to decide which path to follow and which to ignore (at least for now).

In many ways, your search has some similarities to the Native American Vision Quest. Before adulthood, the person sets out on his own through the wilderness, not to seek but to receive understanding. During this period, he immerses himself into the experience of being, and allows his questioning, focused and analytical self to relinquish control. He orients himself to be more in tune with nature, life, and the world of dream, spirituality and harmony. It is this feeling of openness that allows the understanding into his soul. In this quest, the reward is not what you set out to acquire, but what you receive in its stead.

Seeking understanding operates on a deeper level than finding answers. The understanding often comes when you are looking elsewhere, and concentrating on something different. One might consider this quest similar to contacting the auto club trip routing service to assist in planning your vacation. They usually want to know if you are interested in taking the scenic route, or are you searching for the fastest, most direct pathway to your destination, while Google Maps always looks for the most direct route. Another way of framing that question is trying to ascertain whether the traveling is the important element, or is it primarily the destination you are after. Obviously flying or taking the Interstate gets you there rapidly, but the inefficient and meandering side roads may offer far more unexpected treasures to entice and tempt you. It is possible that what you discover through a chance encounter could be the highlight of the trip. You will have less time at your destination, but you will have had unexpected diversions and new insights and experiences to savor and enjoy. As the bumper sticker proclaims, “All Who Wander Are Not Lost.”

Please keep in mind, that both ways of traveling are valid, effective and productive. Both are correct. It is your choice to decide which is the best for you at a particular time. Choice is good; it is the doorway to possibility.

Several years ago, a friend and I had visited Joyce Kilmer National Forest, in the Southwestern corner of North Carolina. It is one of the few remaining stands of old growth, virgin forest left in the area, and it was very rewarding to quietly stroll through the groves. When we left, we were ready to return to our home in Atlanta, and the map showed that there was no direct route back across a chain of low mountains. Rather than take the main highway around the range of steep hills, we decided to see if there were any small farm roads that might cross this barrier, and after several trials, we found a fairly well maintained gravel road, heading up to the top. While the road got steeper as we neared the summit, we were able to continue, and then we paused for the view when we reached the top. Off to the side was a small, hand lettered sign, nailed to a tree:


It is the unexpected path, leading to unknown destinations, which can often be the most rewarding. As always, comments, personal stories and observations are welcome.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Art... does not take kindly to facts, is helpless to grapple with theories, and is killed outright by a sermon. ~Agnes Repplier, Points of View, 1891

Art disturbs, science reassures. ~Georges Braque, Le Jour et la nuit

Science is out of the reach of morals, for her eyes are fixed upon eternal truths. Art is out of the reach of morals, for her eyes are fixed upon things beautiful and immortal and ever-changing. To morals belong the lower and less intellectual spheres. ~Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist, 1891