Recently, I watched a film produced by Patagonia–
The Refuge: Fighting For A Way Of Life.
The film illustrated the plight of the Gwich’in Nation of Alaska, specifically the area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
“The Gwich’in population is located in northeastern Alaska, the northern Yukon and Northwest
Territories of Canada. Known as ‘The Caribou People,’ the culture and life of the Gwich’in has
been based around the Porcupine Caribou herd for thousands of years. The Gwich’in peoples
have relied upon the caribou for food, shelter, clothing, tools and medicine. So intertwined with
the Porcupine Caribou herd, the Gwich’in have named the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge
“Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” which translates to ‘The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.’
The Coastal Plain is the destination of the Porcupine Caribou herd, which migrates to the Coastal
Plain each year to birth and raise their young. Not only does the life of the caribou begin on the
Coastal Plain, but it is also where the life of the Gwich’in nation is supported. The lives and
heritage of the Gwich’in are directly tied to the caribou herds – much like the Plains Indians
relied on the buffalo. Without a healthy caribou population, the Gwich’in culture would
struggle to survive.” from http://www.alaskawild.org/educate
This painting is my tribute to the Gwich’in Nation in recognition of their intricate and interdependent relationship with the Porcupine Caribou. In legislating, thereby allowing corporate oil moguls to exploit this sacred region, we are influencing climate change to our detriment. In saving this region from such exploitation, we are not only protecting the rights of the Gwich’in Nation, the Caribou and migrating birds, we are protecting the future of a healthy earth for generations to come.
Things are scrambled. There is disorientation. My brother in San Francisco doesn’t drive. He relies on buses. The buses are running but it’s always a risk. Who else is going to be on the bus? What are their personal habits of cleanliness and responsibility towards others? He can’t get to his usual places to shop for the food he usually eats. He is eating more canned food. His health is suffering. He isn’t getting the exercise he normally gets. He lives alone, is a social being and feels cut off from his connections. His lifestyle has been severely curtailed. He lives minimally with a small carbon footprint. Even with that, this is rough.
After a recent conversation with him, I felt sad. I told him that he needed to eat healthy. That much he could do for himself. The stores where he usually shops are over-crowded making him less likely to shop there. I told him he could have fresh produce delivered. Regardless, he is down-hearted by everything that is going on right now. Living in San Francisco, he feels the impact more than I do where I live. Less freedom of motion. His is one story among many…one good reason for kindness towards one another.
This face came about from what I was feeling in the moment. The words that I wrote were:
There is so much that is going on that is challenging for many at this time. I wouldn’t know where to begin. An ongoing sadness and simultaneously, an awareness of the extreme beauty that surrounds us. Concern for self and family and community, the world–the earth. Humans haven’t lived softly on this planet. Why have we distanced from the earth who sustains us? There are so many questions hovering in the air. I like to think that where there’s a question, nearby is an answer. We have to pay attention–become conscious of the feedback that we are receiving from the earth and her other creatures. We aren’t alone in this. Why do we forget?
Then, yesterday, sitting in my tiny garden in the backyard, leaning into the uncertainty, a little hummingbird settled nearby, framed in a wire rectangle of the fenced enclosure. It visited for an indeterminate time and we studied one another. The rarity of such an experience always feels like an honoring.
This painting is a reminder to not run away from your feelings. As they arise, do acknowledge them, embrace them, sit with them, be patient with yourself through them. It is in this state of acceptance and bringing comfort to them that they are recognized and eased. Have you noticed that?
In the midst of uncertainty, some things feel right with the world. We look for those things.
Take good care.
A couple of years ago, I was invited by a local art gallery to preview an art exhibit, choose a painting and write a poem referencing that painting. The painting that spoke to me was of an adolescent girl wearing a swimsuit, standing at the end of a diving board, preparing to dive. Her body looked rigid, almost like the diving board itself. Shoulders were raised nearly to her ears; her mouth was tense and straight. Below is the poem I wrote.
I am not there to read this poem to you. I’d like you to read it quietly once. And then, read it aloud to yourself or to someone else. Feel the poem. Pretend that you are the diver.
©by Christine O’Brien
Feet plugged into the
sticky resin springboard,
I note the space between me and
the crushing water below.
The form I hold.
The grace I invoke
as I design form
gliding through space.
The breath I hold.
The breath I take
like thunder in a canyon
fills my ears.
The shadow of fear
remains at the other end
of the platform
while I stand on the edge
in focused repose.
This is not my first dive
though my raised shoulders,
clamped mouth and clenched jaw
could be interpreted as fear.
There is always that
but with prayer and practice
it quickly transforms
as there is no turning back now.
The dive grooms the diver
in this conspiracy of grace, form and space.
Originally, it was a dare from friends
that sent me up the hot aluminum ladder
on that sweaty summer day.
Now, it’s a drive from within,
not towards perfection
or for judges’ scores.
There is no competition.
It is the ecstasy of flight
that sends me to this precipice.
Neither bird nor stone falling through space,
I am a wingless angel
who rejoices in
those few seconds of airtime.
Body imprinting space
air molecules conforming, buoyant.
I visualize the flex, fold, arc,
the straightening as
I neatly incise the water with my hands,
barely a splash.
I surface a few feet away,
a different sort of Phoenix rising.
And then I made my own painting of another sort of dive by another sort of creature.
How do you care for our earth? As an individual, I steward a small piece of earth. I’m grateful for this little plot of land with its variety of fruit trees planted by someone else, perhaps over fifty years ago. They probably had no thought of me. But they gave me a gift all these years later.
We are facing a time of global crisis. The way that we’ve been “using” the earth isn’t sustainable. The Native Americans believe that we have a responsibility to consider seven generations to come. They and some others realize that the earth is on loan to us now and to be conserved for future generations. But most of the world hasn’t held this as a value. We’ve taken from the earth’s resources and not given in return. We’ve used and abused our earth, our oceans, our air quality. Now we see disruption across the planet and we wonder how can that be? As if it came out of nowhere. As if scientists hadn’t been warning us.
This painting is inspired by the animals that live along the Rio Grande River, the fourth longest river in the USA. Beside a large portion of this river, there is a “wall” being built to define a boundary between the US and Mexico. This particular area, along the Rio Grande bordering the state of Texas, is considered to be one of those invaluable riparian habitats. Jaguarundi, Pronghorn, Ocelot, Javelina, Mountain Lion, Fox, Birds, Beetles and Butterflies are some of the animals and insects that inhabit this area. The “wall” would disrupt the natural navigation patterns of these animals and insects. Some of these species, like the Ocelot, are already endangered. The Rio Grande River itself is in grave danger.
I call this painting “DREAM IT BETTER.”
We are touched by things that we hear or see. We know that some things, as the disruption of a riparian habitat, are wrong. We feel bad about it. It may even arouse our passion! Instead of stopping at feeling bad or sad, consider, “What is an action step that I can take to make a difference?” One step would be to do some research. To find some legitimate organizations that are opposing such destruction. Get informed. Then see how what you learn can be shared with others. Take the leap from helpless observer to active participant. One small step towards change.
Artists take liberties! Artistic License, like Poetic License, the artist’s choices reign on the canvas. Artists are creators on a substrate. They have the power to paint blue hair and put a cardinal on their subject’s shoulder. And, once again, to capture an expression.
This class was taught by another amazing artist, Sara Burch. With this painting, Sara addresses a common artist’s fear, the looming blank canvas! Believe it or not, there are those of us artists who feel frozen in front of a fresh canvas.
“How or where do I begin?”
Sara Burch’s remedy is to jump right in, laying splotches of paint on the substrate where the facial features might be. She uses a soggy brush that drips paint and it’s all so casual, playful and easy. No predesigned face, neither a pencil-drawn face nor a photo of a face to work from. The artist’s memory of a face begins to lend form to the painting as she crafts the face from the colors she’s laid down. And then, she mixes up new colors finding a skin tone. The background color adds more definition to the portrait, popping it forward. This was a fun and original approach. Some painters desire to be looser in the way that they paint. This isn’t easy to achieve believe it or not.
That idea of perfectionism gets thrown out the window when you paint in this way. Perfect is not the goal. There is art that is precise, realism, and I absolutely admire that. Sara’s approach has to do with letting go in the beginning and then defining and refining the face later. Any artist finds her own style. Sometimes by exposing herself to the style of another artist(s) and/or through experimentation. Being curious is a key element in developing your artistic range.
Were you someone who colored outside the lines as a kid? Did you feel shame in that? Art is an invitation to continually color outside the lines. To discover the land that lies beyond the defined lines. Sometimes it could mean giving your subject blue hair. And other times it could be dripping paint down a blank canvas. And then, you may have discovered another approach that no one has even dreamed of yet.
A new day is sort of like a blank canvas. You begin somewhere.
When I began painting faces, I found it very challenging. What I painted didn’t resemble the image I had in mind at all! How my mind and hand translated a photo portrait onto a canvas was juvenile art. Features–especially matching the eyes–were they the same size, at least close to the same size? The same shape? How much space between them? How far down on the face should they be? Where is the nose in relation to the eyes? And the mouth? Did I mention mixing a realistic skin tone? And then, there is value contrast! Yikes…the map of the face is an art that isn’t easy to master.
Several years of practice has improved my facility to draw a face with some degree of realism. And, I can see that I need years more of practice before I feel accomplished in this area. If ever.
And, so, I allow the whimsy that has been part of my artist’s signature.
I do like the background in this painting. The soft colors and images that sort of arise from the mist. I also think about painting over the whole thing and discovering something else. Remembering that it’s all part of the learning process, I have compassion for my newly formed artist self. Compassion versus criticism. Practice versus procrastination.
Remember the old adage “Patience is a virtue.” It really is. Making art–it can’t be rushed. It can be…but the depth of what an artist gets from the creative process won’t be reached unless she is patient enough to be fully present with the work in process and with herself (himself). Any work of art is always an inquiry. With that, an answer won’t be forced but rather surfaces.
These days, things are very serious. I feel it in my body. It’s easy to forget my body. To relegate it to last place even though I have more time to tend it. Yesterday, I came upon this little video by Elizabeth Gilbert. What I love about it is that there are no words…
And now for something completely different,
This painting went through many transformations, layers, additions, subtractions. An artist friend liked the original design and put my hawk painting on earrings…on guitar picks. Quite creative.
In the Native American tradition, as I understand it, because Hawk flies high above everything below, he has a larger perspective. I can get so caught in my small story that I lose sight of what’s beyond and larger than this small mind and the concerns of the moment.
When I’m out hiking on a mountain trail and I see the hawk gliding overhead, I am reminded to step back for a more expansive view of what I’m calling my reality. There is relief in that.
I don’t remember exactly why I chose to paint the hawk. Perhaps there was a real need to see things from a different perspective.
I appreciated the development of this painting over time. I continually tried to perfect the hawk. And to emphasize him emanating from the background. It’s one of my favorite paintings. The frame of the canvas became warped so that it doesn’t sit flat on the wall. Yet, I have it where I see it daily. It has a meaning to me that I can’t put into words.
Today, in a time when we can get very caught up in our small frame of life, when it’s hard to see beyond the moment or to feel safe, is there some perspective you can take if you look over the whole of your life so far? Imagine yourself hovering over the landscape of your life…can you see a pattern, an abiding theme? Is there something that is apparent that weaves this life of yours together? Can it support you in some way today?