A University Day

The Access Program at the University of Washington allows anyone over 60 years of age to audit any class for free. My husband is taking a class this summer, and I tagged along on a dry run to see if the 6:20 a.m. ferry to Seattle would get him to class in time. My assignment was to time each segment.

Using Winslow’s short cuts, worn by footsteps along the edges of developments or private property where owners allow the tiny trespasses that shorten a commuter’s walk, it takes 15 or 20 minutes to walk to the ferry from our house, all downhill. Not quite replicating a school day, we took the 9:30 a.m. ferry, and planned the rest of the route during the 35-minute crossing.

Seattle’s light rail system runs from the airport to the University, along a corridor through downtown with two stations a few blocks from the ferry. The ride to the University, which seems complicated and long when you drive, is only 17 minutes by this underground train. Arriving at the University Station and riding escalators three flights up, put us at the base of a wide tree-lined walkway – a grand, 20 minutes-by-foot approach to Drumheller Fountain, and the center of this venerable campus. (Total elapsed time door-to-door – about one and a half hours – I confess to losing track a little.)

Classes aren’t in session right now, but individual departments were holding their graduations. Many young people passed us wearing black academic gowns over festive summer outfits. Rain began to fall, but like most Washington folk, they eschewed umbrellas.

The Registrar’s Office was closed for lunch, so we headed to the Suzallo Library, which used to house the Special Collections (now moved to a climate controlled modern building, safe for books, but missing romance). These days a startling Starbucks is just inside the Suzallo. In a huge room retaining the old stained glass windows, at many tables and comfy chairs, the graduates and their support teams took a break from the rain. A mural high on a wall is dedicated to coffee from bean to cup, and the critical role of coffee in the pursuit of knowledge and camaraderie.

The target class is Accelerated Greek (8:30-10:30 a.m., five days a week), so we headed to the Classics Department in Denny Hall, the oldest building on campus. A remodel has updated the building, but classical sculptures stand by windows and hint at the academics within. We located Parrington Hall where the class will be held, returned to the Registrar’s office, then walked to the University Bookstore –– a place we’ve often been for books and art supplies, but never an assigned textbook. Seriously flagging now, we caught a bus back to the light rail station, headed down to the ferry, rode across, and walked home.

I admire my husband’s unquestioning ability to get up in time to make that class – and enjoy the discipline of the whole experience. Such a beautiful place with much potential for learning – many exciting possibilities!

 

Books: Take Rooms In Your Heart

After the death of Ursula K. Le Guin, the Wordsmith sent an article by Karen Joy Fowler (Ten Things I Learned From Ursula K. Le Guin). Looking back on all this reading, I find myself thinking about one of Le Guin’s lessons: “There is no reason a book of ideas can’t also be deeply moving, gorgeously written, and inhabited by people who take rooms in your heart and never move out.”

Philip Pullman’s Lyra is truly one of those characters. Our young friend brought me the U.K. edition of the first book in Pullman’s new series, titled “La Belle Sauvage.” (It’s a dazzling physical book – printed watercolor blue waves for endpapers, embossed golden “Dust” glittering the book cloth, and a spine so fat it holds a long quote from the book.)

La Belle Sauvage is also the name of Malcolm Polstead’s canoe, a canoe that carries him, his daemon, and the baby(!) Lyra on a journey along a flooded River Thames. This book is the first of a planned trilogy (“The Book of Dust”) set in a parallel time when Lyra, the unforgettable heroine of Pullman’s singular trilogy (“His Dark Materials”) is but a wee babe.

It’s all here in the new book – a shadowy reflection of our own scary times, enchanting daemons, strange devices for manipulating time and space, big adventures, and spies. If you read and loved the earlier trilogy – welcome back – and if you haven’t, well, there’s a lucky project for the new year!

From the Trail Boss I found a tiny volume in my stocking, “How to Walk” by Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. Hanh is wise, comforting, and instructive in the best way: “Walking is a wonderful way to calm down when we are upset. When we walk, if we focus all our awareness on walking, we are stopping the thinking, storytelling, blaming and judging that goes on in our heads and takes us away from the present moment.”

Walking meditation, mindfulness aide – perfectly illustrated by the sumi ink drawings of Jason DeAntonio – Hanh’s voice stays with me (“yes yes yes, thanks thanks thanks”) as I walk back to health.

And, when it first came out, I read Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” – characters so despicable they’ll never occupy my heart. And I fervently wish they didn’t occupy the White House.

 

How About Your Personal Projects?

The Cambridge Research professor Brian R. Little, author of “Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being” asks about our personal projects – how many we have and what they are.

Since the 1980s, Little has studied “trait psychology,” which looks at patterns of behavior, thought, and emotion, and he specifically peers through a lens of personal projects. For him these projects must have “personal saliency” – be significant for the individual. He finds people “typically report that they are pursuing about 15 personal projects at any one time.”

I read about Little’s book in connection with creativity, and was curious about his use of projects to define us. His book sometimes employs obscure (to me) words where simpler ones might do, but I reread and made notes to try to comprehend the chapter “Personal Projects: The Happiness of Pursuit.”

Little writes: “Personal projects are the things we are doing or planning on doing in our everyday lives. Personal projects can range from routine acts (e.g. ‘put out the cat’) to the overarching commitments of a lifetime (e.g. ‘liberate my people’). They may be solo pursuits or communal ventures, self-initiated or thrust upon us, deeply pleasurable or the bane of our existence. As our personal projects go, so does our sense of well-being.”

This might fall into the category of “duh” – that modern catch-all for the obvious (yes we do feel better when we get something done), but his ideas expand my list of core (really important to me) projects to include things I wouldn’t have thought of as projects. People differ in their reaction to the word “project,” but it’s interesting to think about what affects our sense of well-being.

My husband and I had a good time comparing lists when we went out to dinner the other night. Because Little devotes a chapter to personality and environmental preferences, I was curious about where my husband needed to live to support his core list. And, while making my list, I realized lists change over time, 10 years ago mine was very different.

The meaningful project and the easily done project have different effects – the latter alone is insufficient to assure well-being (too bad given how often I let the cat out), and meaningful projects tend to be complicated and harder to complete. Not surprisingly, Little says, “Well-being is enhanced when both efficacy and meaning are experienced within the same projects.”

Tangling with Little’s book is a project – but a rewarding one.

frances-waiting-to-come-in

 

 

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“The Jealous Curator”

The Canadian Danielle Krysa describes herself as a curator “who is inspired (and just a tad jealous) of amazing contemporary art, every day.” Each day she presents a new artist on her website, and on Saturday Krysa records a podcast interview with an artist, “Art For Your Ear.”

I began listening to her podcast back when she first started it last year, and now she has a rich archive of interviews. Something calms and focuses me about her voice (often infused with a chuckle) and relaxed interview style. Often infectiously inspiring by their dedication, artists talk about their back stories, studios, and working methods. Alone at work I feel like I’m eavesdropping on an interesting conversation between people who share my proclivities.

Krysa becomes part of the narrative. She’s got a great sense of humor, and I’ve liked hearing about her own struggles (art school) and successes (books: “Creative Block,” “Collage,” and a new book, “Your Inner Critic Is A Big Jerk,” all published by Chronicle Books, and hilarious collages on Instagram with 96.1 K followers!) (https://www.instagram.com/thejealouscurator/?hl=en)

You can listen on iTunes or by this archive link where Krysa provides images of work by the artist. It’s a treat to see the work and listen:

http://www.thejealouscurator.com/blog/art-for-your-ear-podcast/

(If you are curious, here’s a fascinating one to start with, the English installation artist, Rebecca Louise Law: http://www.thejealouscurator.com/blog/2016/08/05/painting-with-flowers/)

I’m about to go to Alaska for the arrival of Baby Brother either as scheduled or in a lickety split hurry, so after this I’ll post a little series I’ve been working on (often while listening to “The Jealous Curator”).

Jealous Curator

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Sumi-e On A Saturday

A good way to have a good time? Spend a Saturday at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, in a classroom full of sunshine and students eager to try their hands at sumi-e painting.

The instructor, petite and gracious Louise Kikuchi, told us a little sumi-e lore – about the indelible ink and how it is made, about absorbent paper and brush strokes: “the only stroke you can make at this moment.”

On large pieces of newsprint we copied each introduced character, beginning with the symbols for one, two, three, graduating to horse, cat, willow tree. We finished the day with a landscape.

Each time after we did our best effort on a piece of rice paper (often not so interesting as practice marks), Kikuchi would hold up our offerings and gently comment, describing her impressions of our lines: lively, fierce, graceful.

I loved having a brush in hand all day – making me realize yet again how important it is to focus, devote time, and have materials ready. So if I fix these lacks, posting results will bring some color to February.

And I will use color, because luckily I haven’t a sumi-e ink bar, or I would get sidetracked grinding the bar and making ink rich and dark like Kukichi’s.

Sumi paintings

 

On Painting

For years I had a print ad for the venerable Art Students League on my wall. Below a small line drawing was the art school’s motto: “Nulla Dies Sine Linea” – “No Day Without a Line.”

So when I read about the book, “Art Students League of New York On Painting: Lessons and Mediums, Styles, and Methods” by James L. McElhinney and the instructors of the Arts Students League of New York (offered by “Blogging for Books”), I was curious. I spent several days in January reading with pleasure this hefty volume and taking notes.

Written by instructors at the school, the book is divided into three sections with different formats: Lessons and Demos, Advice and Philosophies and Interviews. Two-page spreads titled Lessons in Print give instructions about accomplishing particular paintings. Writings by these different people provide an expansive view of the history of painting, introduce artists (both traditional and innovative), describe techniques, inspirations, and studios, and reveal working and teaching methods.

While they share technical details, much of the pleasure comes from painters’ revelations about the underpinnings of a life in art. They speak of artistic awakenings, (many were struck at a young age by an experience at a museum), paths to becoming an artist, and methods of work. Pages of the artists’ paintings are followed by a gallery of images from accomplished students. The reproduced art, both lavish and beautiful, often fills the page.

Much about art and painting is to be learned from this book, because artists accustomed to communicating describe the making of paintings. With some the artspeak gets thick – but others deliver words of wisdom. Sharon Sprung who paints figures and gorgeous textiles says: “My advice to everyone is to look harder, look more than you paint. Immerse yourself in the visual world. Ask a lot of yourself, but without negativity and self-doubt. You need to risk being wrong if you ever want to be right.”

James L. McElhinney, the author, works in the field and paints in long skinny Moleskine books, making visual journals. Of artists and sketchbooks he writes: “The greatest benefit of journal work may be that it returns painting to a devotional scale – an environment in which painting can be experienced on an individual level where painters and viewers might pursue more intimate conversations.”

Near the end is an interview with Knox Martin, an artist who vehemently distinguishes drawing from sketching. He answers a question this way: “One lovely thing I do: I had a botanical print because it’s descriptive of the plant itself. Every stem and joint is exactly, honestly detailed.” He describes drawing from the print in pen and ink and then enlivening it by extending leaves and pushing stems – “Without making it unrecognizable, the leaves and folds began to rotate this way and that until the whole rectangle was activated.”

Martin is an abstract painter, and no image accompanies his words, but words, descriptions in a good book, can inspire – set one off on a new path!

(Following the example of blogger friends, I signed up for and received this book from the “Blogging For Books” program in exchange for an honest review. More information about the book here.)

Art Students League book cover

Change It Up

This first month of a new year, I’m thinking about change – who likes it, who loathes it, and about my conflicted relationship to it. I’m envious of people who began life with a childhood in one place, aware that my peripatetic childhood inclines me to motion. And I’ve always thought it a mistake to be so eager to change things in some way.

And then I read a wonderful article (here) by the novelist Jhumpa Lahirie about her passion for the Italian language, an obsession pursued so ably she can write eloquently in Italian (translated here by Ferrante’s translator). Lahirie says writing in Italian makes her a “tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way.” She writes:

“One could say that the mechanism of metamorphosis is the only element of life that never changes. The journey of every individual, every country, every historical epoch – of the entire universe and all it contains – is nothing but a series of changes, at times subtle, at times deep without which we would stand still.”

Born in America to immigrant parents from West Bengal, Lahirie describes her mother as coping with that move by “a refusal to modify her aspect,” while Lahirie always felt for herself an “insistence on transforming.” Lahirie’s embrace of change is so strong:

“The moments of transition, in which something changes, constitute the backbone of all of us. Whether they are a salvation or a loss, they are moments that we tend to remember. They give structure to our existence. Almost all the rest is oblivion.”

Oblivion!

She ties change to her reason for art: “I think the power of art is the power to wake us up, strike us to our depths, change us. What are we searching for when we read a novel, see a film, listen to a piece of music? We are searching through a work of art, for something that alters us, that we weren’t aware of before.”

Lahirie acknowledges changes can be small – “at times subtle,” and they can be a “salvation or a loss” – maybe some of both. She finds much positive in the act of change itself. Viewing change as positive puts me in mind of the resistance born of negatives associated with change – risk and fear and their relatives.

I like Lahirie’s view better – making change happen with permission and encouragement!

Amaryllis changing