I wanted a description of anoptimism of a worldly nature, rather than an optimism of that said “everything will work out.” There have been times when, with a needle and thread, I mended pieces of my life back together after they have been torn apart. Scars became not just evidence of past trauma, but of a stitching back together, deciding to move forward. A few months ago, I found Jane Hirshfield’s poem Optimism-- a neatly stacked pile of words that illuminated what I was pointing to visually through my practice.
More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs -- all this resinous, unretractable earth.
- Jane Hirshfield
Blocked on One Side
After my back injury, varsity track was no longer an option. My high school art teacher asked me if I knew about Frida Kahlo. My dreams of running sub six-minute miles dissolved into a desire to paint something not yet seen. There is something magical in Kahlo’s paintings—they do not resolve the pain; yet all the while there is beauty in the way that the image narrates Kahlo’s inner realities. Over the months that physical therapy twisted my limbs to mend my back, I could feel the shifting of my 16-year-old dreams. Athletic aspirations blocked by injury morphed into new goals that would ultimately prove more interesting. It would take another twenty years for me to fully realize just how important painting is to me.
newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another.
Optimism without a struggle is empty. Thirteen years after my back injury I ran my first marathon, (slowly) – I had stitched myself back together. The marathon created resolution that allowed me to fully move on from the disappointments of my back injury. Not every wound will remain so neatly healed.
Unlike other things in life that have torn me apart, where after stitching myself back together I could leave them behind, my dyslexia comes with me wherever I go, creating new roadblocks. My disability is something that I both refuse to be dominated by, yet cannot outrun. The incorporation of written language in my work has become a way of speaking about resilience through my struggle with dyslexia. Obscuring the forms of letters and numbers beyond recognition, these letter like forms begin to take on new meaning in my work, like a branch that must twist itself in a new direction in order to reach the light.
A Blind Intelligence
In the forest, the remains of trees that fell during a storm become the nourishment for the next generation of plants. I’m pulling apart work that I’ve made in my studio, cutting it up, so that a new generation of work can take root. There is not time to stop and question the possible damage I may have done. Today I took out a blow torch and burned part of a piece made on polyester fabric. Torch in hand I let go of expectations of what the piece was, how it relates to my work now, where it was going: I watched how the plastic fabric melted in a strange way, parts of it dripping off. It’s always good to question what the materials are capable of.
Something good will come out of the wreckage, this is the creative wisdom I know. I just have to keep going.
Perhaps every artist knows that if they show up in the studio and keep working that sooner or later they will start heading in the right direction. In the studio I often lose sight of guidance that I have been given and struggle with the work. Continuing to work on it, with a vague sense of direction, I begin to understand where it is that I need to be going with the work.
A Tree, not a Pillow
The optimism that I am interested in is located in readapting after being challenged. It is like the tree that turns its branches in a new direction when blocked. Abandoning original plans of where it was going to go and what it was going to be, the tree finds a new direction.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape
I think there is an expectation in the world to be like a pillow, that after something trying happens, things should return to their former state. This would require an impossible undoing of memory. After being stitched back up, a piece of fabric bears the seam of where there was once a hole.
Someone asked me if I still have dyslexia since I am able to write well now. Learning to read is a branch that I turned, but light is still blocked on one side of this tree. If I were a pillow I would return to my pervious state of not being able to decode words after being challenged with them.
Monterey Pines grow straight upward when they are in groups or when they are not exposed to excessive wind. When Isolated from other trees on the coast the wind pushes against the tree from multiple angles, the tree’s only way of adapting to the situation is to grow in the direction that the wind pushes the hardest. The struggle that the wind creates for the tree ultimately makes the tree into something more memorable and visually satisfying than the trees that grow further inland and are not challenged as fiercely by weather. In my own practice, it is often the setbacks that make a piece more interesting. Having my original plans thwarted becomes fertile ground for new ideas. I like it when a painting starts out as one thing, completely fails, then from there becomes a new piece. It contains the residue of failure and resolution. The way in which the painting was failing becomes a harsh wind that pushes against my practice and forces my growth in unexpected directions.
When I’m going through this process it’s almost embarrassing to let someone into my studio to see what I am wrecking. It’s probably not a good idea to let people see this part of the process because they might talk me out of it. And I must confess that a part of me feels fraudulent that I can’t get to a piece that I really feel resolved about unless I make it into something that I first almost destroy. I can’t treat paintings as pillows.
As I write this letter the page is full of words underlined in red that I have misspelled; I still have dyslexia, but I am also writing this letter. There are times when stitching back together is only required once; circumstances that can be overcome and resolved, are then comfortably tucked into memory. Other wounds require a constant stitching back together, things that cannot be overcome. These wounds require a gritty optimism, not yielding to defeat, but never fully tasting victory. Jane Hirshfield’s tree turns its branch to grow in the direction with more light; but the tree must constantly renegotiate its symmetry throughout its lifetime to allow for this branch that has turned to grow without uprooting the tree. Creative practices inhabit a reality of constant readjustments. In my practice, when blocked on one side, I am able to turn a branch and grow in a new direction, but it is the negotiation of how I will balance this new growth that becomes tricky.
Optimism that is rooted in constant recalibration is about persistence. Artists remain forever stitching worlds back together. As one piece nears resolution, another falls into disarray. The forest that is the art world is ever changing and it’s hard to know which side light may be blocked on, but fortunately there is the capacity to turn a branch, to twist in a new direction.
I must confess that while the idea of optimism is beginning to articulate it's self in my mind and it is at the heart of my practice, it's something that I have to work very hard to cultivate. In the studio right now there are many pieces that are not making sense to me and the fatigue from the semester is getting to me. The tree doesn't turn it's branch with ease, the stretching in the process hurts.