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.