Conceptual Awareness – Surfaces and Presentation

How we present our images to the world has a great deal to tell us about why we make them, and how we think about them. In this article I want to explore the first of five points that Minor White elucidated in discussing how analyzing a photograh can reveal information about the conceptual process of the photographer.

In outlining his framework of analyzing images he takes the approach of working from the outside in. His initial points have to do with the appearance of the image as it exists in the world and is experienced by a viewer. The first point it about the quality of the surface of the print itself.

Is the surface of the print apparent, and do we notice the paper itself, the texture the grain the substrate? Or is the viewer under the impression that they are looking into a scene, through the picture as if a window.

Oak Tree and Rocks, Forest of Fontainebleau by Gustave Le Gray, MET collection online. 1849-52. Wax paper negative creating an impressionist-like quality of light and texture rather.

In the days during which White was an instructor, pre 1950, there were limited options for printing and viewing photographs, at least in comparison to what we have available to us currently.

He focused attention on this point rather simply, in that either the image was produced to be crisp and clear and to eliminate the sense that it was printed on paper at all, or it was produced in such a way as to cause the viewer to perceive that it was itself an object to be considered.

Artist who have made the choice to emphasize the paper, the printed and produced quality, are drawing from a background or conceptual world of painting, drawing and built images. These artists are broadly working from a mindset of producing an image rather than presenting one. Allowing the paper to become an element of the whole allows for additional layers of created meaning and expression.

In contrast were photographers whose images were presented so as to make the paper invisible. The goal to create a sense that the viewer was directly on site and seeing what was depicted. These artists were likely coming from a conceptual mindset that utilized the camera as an extension of vision itself, a tool to aide in seeing.

Currently, the options for printing out images on different surfaces seems endless. While the majority of fine art prints are still produced on high end specialty photographic papers, there has also been a rise in producing museum quality images on acrylic, glass and metal. Some images are projected onto surfaces, and other images are never intended for printing at all, but only ever exist as viewed on a screen.

Artists working in the commercial sector are able to produce images on just about anything. Third party manufacturers specialize in applying images to drink ware, decor, textiles, wall coverings, personal accessories and pretty much any kind of material. Images are printed on phone cases, sneakers and can even wrap cars and busses.

Does this myriad of options destroy the ability to meaningfully assess such quality in images being produced?

I think it is helpful to always think about it in terms of choices. There may be more choices available, but the essential dichotomy remains intact: Is the artist seeking to present their images in a way that emphasizes the scene as a scene to be viewed beyond the substrate, or is the type and quality of substrate an integral part of the art as a piece of work?

What does it add to an image to be printed on metal as compared to glass, or textured matte paper? When a photographer produces and image with the intention of removing a barrier between the viewer and the content, is an image printed on ultra-crisp acrylic less of a barrier than high gloss archival paper?

The response will be different for each image and substrate. There may be qualities of a photograph that are simply so geometric and abstract, so unusually composed within the frame that no matter what sort of clarity of printing the viewer will never be able to see it as a “real” scene, as a witness.

Similarly, there may be images, a street scene perhaps, which are printed directly on a wall, but sized and represented in such a way that the wall itself disappears, and the average viewer would have difficulty seeing it as anything but a convincing portal.

A variety of options, as if often the case, does not damage the core ideas, it simply muddies the waters.

Most photographers producing images today, likely do not spend much time thinking about the effect of the print itself on the viewer. Even fine artists are often only concerned about a reasonably priced and archival option.

We have all been living in a world drowning in created images. We are used to a porous sense of reality. Scrolling through a social media feed, watching television or even out and about in a world of commercial imagery we are constantly seeing images of scenes which do not match our reality. If this is related to a sense of fantasy, or suspension of disbelief, we are all professionals. As a consequence, we are probably very forgiving and dismissive of the substrate for any given image. This may be considered as a maturing sense of visual literacy in the general populace.

How do you think about the representation of images? Does it matter the format in which you are viewing something? When creating your own work, do you spend time considering the choices you have made about how the surface of the photograph is present or absent to the viewer?

The magic of such a framework isn’t that it gives any specific answers. Like all forms of investigation, it will lead to more questions.

To spend the time considering these qualities will provide the artist with more tools. Rather than producing something unthinkingly, we can utilize a broader range of tools to convey meaning, deepen our connection with viewers, and learn more about the values we have in place while we are creating our own work.

The next post continues with the second point of White’s five point framework and deals with something that has become a whole new reality since his initial writing: post processing and the vast array of options for editing images once they have been captured.

Read the next posts here:

Conceptual Awareness – Reflecting on our Photographs

Creating photos is also creating a trail of breadcrumbs. Looking carefully at the images we create can help us discover language and ideas about how we think about our work, and perhaps who we are as artists. Here is the first in a few articles that will be looking at a specific framework which was created to help turn photographs inside-out for analysis.

Just ahead of the middle of the twentieth century, as the GI’s were on their way back home and eager to dive into passions and professions, Minor White was given the chance to lead an innovative photography program at the California School of Arts in San Francisco. He seems to have relished his role helping to shape several years of students who were given the chance to dive head first and deep into professional practice and creative pursuits within the medium.

During this time White began developing his personal focus on using photography as a means of learning more about oneself as an artist and a human. He pushed students to challenge themselves and look closely at what they were like as photographers, and what their images could tell them in return.

In an article titled “You Concept is Showing” he outlined a conceptual framework for how someone could look at photographs and begin to sort out where they fell within a broad spectrum. His goal was to provide his students with a means to look at their own work as a means of archeology. To use the work that existed to get a sense for what decisions were being made, which could then be used to tease out further questions. By pursuing these lines of inquiry, the artist could go beyond the simple emotional reactions to a piece, and hopefully come away with new avenues to explore and questions to try and answer.

Any artist will likely have a sense of what they are trying to achieve with their work, regardless of the media they utilize. The question of intentionality contains layers, however, and White was under the strong bias that those who could speak more clearly to the choices they were making were also able to achieve more impactful results. Not necessarily in universality of their image, but in the ability to articulate a goal and describe how successful, or not, the final piece was in relation. He was clear and succinct in his description of a piece that had been created thoughtlessly, whether it was attractive or not: the ever-hungry wastebasket is right over there eagerly waiting.

The framework utilized five points from which to analyze a photograph. Each of these elements would provide some insight into the nature of the concepts which had been used to create the final photograph. He emphasized that no single element from the list was necessarily more important than any other, and that the process wasn’t a matter of tallying up a score based on the elements. Each image must be individually considered, and each of the five points may or may not end up tipping the balance either way depending on how it was utilized.

The five elements that he initially discussed can be summarized like this:

  • Treatment of the surface of the print.
  • Adjustments made to the image during the processing stage, such as chemical treatments or hand work.
  • Composition of the image.
  • Representation of the subjects and sense of reality.
  • Creative input and sequencing of creative execution.

Photography is a broad subject, and the number of ways in which an artist might describe their conceptual standpoint within the field are too many to consider. These five questions are not meant to pinpoint a specific niche. Rather, they are indicators of where an image may sit along the continuum between two poles.

White described the two poles, as he saw them, in this way. First, the photographer who uses a camera-as-brush. This may broadly be considered a way of taking photographs which are under the control of the artist, who is creating the image to share with others. Second, the photographer who uses camera as extension-of-sight. As opposed to the first, this may be thought of as an artist who is looking to find something to share by expressing the truth of subjects that exist outside of him/herself.

I find this broad spectrum highly compelling in that it seems to have many useful guideposts to inform any sort of artist who uses a camera. Clearly similar descriptions could be applied to artists in any media. I think that there is little stretch in describing all artists as either creating something from within them to share, as opposed to trying to capture something from without in a way that others will be shown what the artist has taken note of. For our purposes, and White’s, we will stick with photography.

At the time of his teaching this method, and writing about its implementation, the world of photography was in a golden age of technological breakthrough and maturity within the medium. Film photography was expanding through the availability of “miniature” cameras, and artists were exploring with ever more abstracted ways to develop and alter the exposure of film within the darkroom. Despite this, and in comparison to the technological advances which we are encountering today, the photography of the mid 1900’s was able to retain a purity of execution when it came to clicking the shutter release and exposing the image to film. I am curious to compare and contrast White’s core ideas to see how well they hold up in today’s world, and what they can continue to do as a means to inform our own photographic journeys.

Reflections in a shop window as captured by Minor White, on display California Historical Society in San Francisco through January 2022

During the next few articles I will look at each of the five criteria as they were originally outlined, while also speculating about whether, and how, they can continue to inform us today.

Do you consider yourself a Pictorialist, or a “Straight” photographer? Do you craft your images like paint on a canvas, or seek to bring forth the underlaying truths inherent in the subject at hand? I thought I knew before diving in, and I am eager to dig further. I’d love to know how your own perceptions of your conceptual framework stand now, and what you discover along the way.

Trust and Follow

Not allowing myself to take the pictures that reveal themselves to me is simply a lack of trust in myself. The process isn’t pretty, and the images challenge my perceptions of who I am.

It doesn’t feel comfortable, and it doesn’t conform to the conceptual ideas I have spent time considering when it comes to who I say that I am, and what I tell people I am interested in exploring.

To NOT take the pictures, however, is a denial of something else.

I do see something in these images that speaks to me, even if I can’t read that language.

I do feel something resonate, even if it points into the wilderness.

Trust cannot be taken, it must be given. I want to give it to myself, but I confront the uncomfortable truth that I may not trust myself the way I thought I did.

Sweeping, the Personal Shrine

The values we choose for ourselves provide an anchor to hold fast to, and a filter to help us making meaning. It is important to enshrine those values with a conscious recognition of what they provide for us. We must also be constantly paying attention, because the elements of our life that can provide value and perspective are often not the headlining titles or the exciting events that take place. Our shrines are the everyday elements that we return to, and would do well to approach with the respect they deserve.

Shinto Shrine, Ada E. Leeke collection hosted by the Center for Korean Studies Digital Archive

My life as a tween changed in the 90’s when I discovered Saturday Morning Anime on Cartoon Network. I had always like cartoon shows and comics, but never had I seen anything like this. It was a first step to opening my perception to another culture. Though presented in a highly stylized way and told through wildly fantastic narratives, there were some aspects of real world culture which seeped out through the cracks.

It was in the unique tolerance for open spaces, quiet scenes without subject or action, and heavy openness within the story-telling that I came to feel that one’s perception of life could be significantly different than what I found myself surrounded by.

Of all the unique bits of scenery that seem to have settled in my subconscious, I think distinctly of a lone figure, dilligently sweeping fallen leaves from the ancient stone steps of an equally ancient shrine in some remote area of the city, nestled at the foot of the mountains, removed from society. The person taking care of the shrine was depicted as serene, dilligent and single-minded in the work, though relaxed and at peace with the world around.

Such a peace with myself and my surroundings was something I did not feel growing up, and perhaps that is why I took hold of this image and kept it with me. It was a taste, a fragrance on the wind, a clue that things could be otherwise, even if it did not provide any direction to turn in which to seek it out.

In more recent searches for that same space of peace with the world by consciously following the threads of my own curiosity, I have circled back around to learn a bit more about Shinto spirituality.

I will not claim any significant knowledge or education about Shinto. The following context and historical notes come from the wonderful Encyclopedia Of Shinto available online for those who wish to dig deeper.

Shinto is the worship of Kami. There is much to be said about this term, but it was this quote from the resource linked above the caught my imagination. It describes Kami as encompassing the pantheon of popular folk and historical deities in literature and culture, but also…

…refers to all other aweinspiring things—people of course, but also birds, beasts, grass and trees, even the ocean and mountains—which possess superlative power not normally found in this world. “Superlative” here means not only superlative in nobility, goodness, or virility, since things which are evil and weird as well, if they inspire unusual awe, are also called kami.

EOS, Kami – Concepts of Kami – “Definitions and Typology”

When people encountered these awe-inspiring aspects of their world, they felt the need to venerate them somehow. That has developed into a complicated system of national shrines as well as a myriad of less official, or personal shrines, dedicated to a vast array of different kinds of Kami.

Though physical shrine buildings have been in use for more than a thousand years, the earliest expression of worship took place outdoors, at places thought to be sacred. Instead of the spirits inhabiting the place permanently, they were thought to roam, and visit these sacred locations only at certain points of the year when a ceremony would be held to honor them.

The use of the word “Awe” took hold of my imagination when I encountered that quote. For even though we have watered it down in the daily use of the word “awesome”, the core of that word is directly tied to an experience that by definition should be powerful enough to cause us to stop in our tracks.

How pure and simple, that one should feel the need to pay respect to whatever has caused such a feeling?

Is this the common beginning for all forms of religion? Did each of our great monoliths of relic and ritual come from such knees-to-the-dirt beginnings? One can draw the line convincingly through to Pagan ritual and poly-theistic system, but I must admit it seems a likely beginning for any line of thought in which we begin to try and form a relationship with something greater than ourselves. It seems a likely primal beginning to any such seeking.

Psychologists who are working to tease out the mechanisms underlying emotional states, have come to some general agreement about how we can define the word

When experiencing Awe, one is encountering something novel, something that is outside of expected experience of the world. Beyond this violation of expectation, there is also a necessary awareness that there is a gap in one’s knowledge about the world. This experience doesn’t fit in the box according to what we think we know of how things work.

Awe is an experience so outside of your experience and expectation, that you cannot easily assimilate it into your view of the world. It is a challenge to what you understand, and cannot be easily put aside without some kind of cognitive reckoning within our own mental map of the world.

Because of these factors, Awe also seems to bring a self-transcending quality, a sense that we are smaller in relation to the world around us, a reduction of the ego.

Paraphrased from a panel discussion available at this YouTube link: “Beyond Oneself: The Ethics and Psychology of Awe

Awe, as a dramatic revelation that the world around us is not the world we tell ourselves it is, relates directly into my interest in curiosity. Awe, when someone is in the right mindset, can be the spark to light the fires of curiosity, the signpost pointing out a new direction of exploration.

Curiosity itself is the pursuit of new knowledge in order to fill in gaps within our mental maps of the world.

As a child my life was about trying to fit in with others. I was constantly on the look out for signs that I was violating a social norm, or other unwritten code of conduct. I do not know where this sense of fear came from, but it led me to live for the acceptance of others rather than following any internal guidance. I spent all of my school years, not in a state of trying to ingratiate myself to others, but in a more passive state of simply working to avoid a faux pas. The aim was to maintain any connections I had. My sense of self was not strong.

I remember working at my the clothing store which was owned and operated by my grandfather. He had me working at the age of 14, doing odd tasks as they came up.

One evening, after the store was closed, I was tasked with sweeping the wooden floors before we could go home. Being impatient I set about completing the task as quickly as I could. He stepped in right away to correct my technique.

Sweeping, he instructed, cannot be rushed. If you flick the broom too quickly it just send dirt and dust into the air, into the clothing, and ultimately back down onto the floor you just swept. The only proper way to do it was methodically, slowly, patiently, so as to make sure everything could be gathered and disposed of at the end.

For me, this was a chastisement, a wrong step the I desperately wanted to avoid, but it also became a touchstone in my life that has carried through. It was a first lesson in respect for one’s work, and self-discipline. It was a test of my character.

My last decade of life, at least, has been dedicated to more consicously following the internal tug of curiosity. It has led me through art, to spirituality, to entrepreneurship and now psychology. I have come to respect the process.

Following the threads of things which are at the edge of my understanding has allowed me to broaden my mental map. Along the way, it has given me chances to define and exercise aspects of myself that I value and use as guide posts. It has allowed me to discover the person who spent years trying to be nothing in order not to do wrong.

Curiosity has helped me expand the map, but true understanding of myself comes from self-reflection on my own journey. It is through looking back on the patterns of my life that I am able to piece together the person that I am. So when something repeats I try and pay attention to what it is telling me.

The act of sweeping itself, has come to hold unique significance to me, and I find that I must pay it the due respect that it demands.

When I take part in the weekly ritual of sweeping the floors in my home, it always becomes more than the broom in my hands. It becomes the experiences with my grandfather, who turned out to be a significant role model in the years after he taught me how to properly sweep the floors. It becomes a connection to the romantic vision I had linking the act of sweeping to an act of meditation and being in the moment that I had observed in anime shows in another context of my childhood.

Sweeping forces me to slow down, and allows me a chance to feel my body in motion. It is easy to be more aware of my physical self. I notice whether I am stiff, or lethargic or fluid.

Without conscious effort, my mind drifts to the current focus of my curiosity. Many of the times I have spent sweeping the floor I have been at work pulling together threads for concepts about purpose in life, and blog posts like these. It is as if sweeping and curiosity, self-knowledge and universal questions are all bundled up together for me somehow.

I have learned to respect the repetition. I see now that sweeping, for whatever reason, is a unique physical manifestation of meaning in my life.

Shinto describes the natural reaction to such a discovery. Now that I have discovered something that links me to deep purpose and mystery, the only reasonable way to honor it is to build it a shrine. Not a physical one, but a honorific space in my awareness.

The words Reverence and Veneration come to mind.

I believe that there is some kind of difference between merely being aware of what drives value, and treating that awareness as veneration.

Both of these terms come with ideas of respect and deference, but also with concepts related to “paying” respect, honoring in a more proactive way.

For me it will perhaps be to approach the task more mindfully, before I pick up the broom. An act of clearing my mind in respect so that I can more fully embrace the way in which the activity links together these running threads of my imagination, my upbringing, my physical body and my creative pursuits.

What might it mean if more of us took the time to venerate the aspects of our life that resonate most deeply? I wonder how the human conversation might change if reverence pooled naturally where it connected most deeply, like rainwater, rather than being bestowed upon things that have been agreed upon.

Image Process – Scarlet Spring

This is a slideshow walk through how I put together my piece “Scarlet Spring”.

  1. It starts with printed layers of silk with a very open weave. I have selected a variety of my digital photographs to print on the silk as a single color layer.
  2. The final image is created by combining two layers of printed silk. The first layer is secured to a wooden board, and the second is secured over a larger frame sized to fit the board. Of all the steps, building the frames has been the most difficult for me, but I am learning a few tricks.
  3. With all of my raw materials ready to go, I being the exploratory process to see what images begin showing up.
  4. I spend a lot of time setting up the layers of silk that I will be using, but mock-ups on the screen never have the same impact as what they will look like when they are truly on the fabric. This is one of most fun parts of the project for me. I spend time working with a single layer and combining it in different ways with the other designs. Unlike working on a screen I can really get a sense for the nuance. Simply working with my hands to manipulate the materials and see how the images line up is magical. Along with taking the initial photographs, this part is one in which I expose myself to serendipity and the core idea of these pieces: that the final image is an emergent property that comes into being as the elements interact with each other.
  5. In this case, though I had initially planned to do a print using both red and blue, when I came upon this interplay between two layers of red I immediately knew I had found something good.
  6. Fixing the first layer of silk to the back board is simple. Keeping the fabric taut without damaging it is the most challenging part, but gravity works to my advantage here. The fabric doesn’t stretch, and it doesn’t need to have significant tension. It simply needs to lay flat and eliminate any creases. At this stage, before actually adhering the layer I double check to make sure the image fills the space correctly and looks good on its own.
  7. Adding the second frame give the image a final “crop”. It should look good on its own, with strong graphic elements and balance. If the rear image doesn’t stand on its own, it probably means the final will be unbalanced as well.
  8. At this stage I get one more chance to see if the second layer I initially like still works for the final. Sometimes I am surprised and change my mind, but in this case it is even easier to see the final image I had initially been drawn to as a good solution.
  9. Adhering the second layer is essentially the same process, but there is a gap between the two layers due to the depth of the frame. Thankfully the same technique works here. It is very important to look at the way the layers are interacting here since I wasn’t able to see this gap between layers when I first set up the image. Lining up tiny elements of the design to play off of one another is like exploring deeper into an undiscovered territory. It is like spending time with the flowers once you have stumbled into the meadow.
  10. and 11. are the final images. It is difficult to photograph these pieces since the silk is a bit reflective, and the angle of viewing has some impact on how the image actually shifts. This, of course, is also part of the magic.

Hope you enjoyed taking a little behind-the-scenes on this one. I really enjoyed putting it together and hope to create another two partners to go along with it.

Image – Stories In Wood

This is actually one long scroll format image that would print at around three feet wide and eight inches high. The slideshow above is a taste of what it would be like to “read” the image from left to right.

The darkest purple layers are the foundation of the image and were created by scanning continuous shots along the length of one knotted tree that has been laying near the path in a park near my home for a couple of years now. It really inspired me when I first saw it how much of a continuous story it told. Since then I have been trying to put it together into a cohesive project.

This image needs a final printed version but I haven’t been able to settle on what that might be. These sorts of hand scrolls were very popular in ancient China but are not very suitable for how someone today likes to view or handle images. For now it will have to be experienced in this format.

Below is the full image for reference.

Awe/Struck

Awe-Gone

To experience a sense of awe, of wonder, of being overpowered by the experience or sudden realization of something, is strangely absent from much contemporary discourse. I can’t think of the last time in which I heard someone describe a personal experience of something that truly stopped them in their trackes.

Our over-used word “awesome” has obviously been drained of this meaning, and probably has a lot to do with the decline of related uses of the word “awe”. Aside from the word itself, I still think there has also been a reduction in instances of the sense of awe, the experience that it describes.

When was the last time that you felt such a moment? When the world tapped you in the middle of the forehead and made you rethink the situation you were in, and see again with new respect or understanding?

Kami

Shinto religious and spiritual traditions out of Japan are founded around a concept of shrine worship. Shrines are dedicated to powerful spirits that represent natural forces of the universe and can reside in any object, location or even within cultural conceptions and ideas. Traditionally they were related to elements of the natural world: mountains, forests, rain, wind, thunder, etc.

“…all other aweinspiring things—people of course, but also birds, beasts, grass and trees, even the ocean and mountains—which possess superlative power not normally found in this world. “Superlative” here means not only superlative in nobility, goodness, or virility, since things which are evil and weird as well, if they inspire unusual awe, are also called kami.”

Kojikiden

The existence and nature of Kami are a bit fluid and cannot be precisely defined, but when talking bout Kami one is talking about the embodiment of the spirit, not just the abstract spirit. Kami isn’t the spirit of thunder, so much as it is the thunder as it splits the sky over your head. It isn’t the spirit of river in general, rather then specific rushing and roaring of experiencing the river’s power, or gentleness, depending on the moment. That is the key, that Kami are experienced as moments, as encounters, as dynamic expressions that strike awe into us due to being beautiful, or terrible or simply otherworldly.

It is this aspect of Kami that I find particularly useful, essentially a synonym for Awe, a word for the encounter of something so outside your previous experience or scale of understanding that it causes a kind of overwhelm and reverence.

Curi-awe-sity

When I talk about curiosity, I talk about the willingness to follow a thread of something into unknown territory. I talk about this idea that what you might discover may have the power or consequence of challenging your beliefs about the world.

I think there is a case to be made that this sense of Awe that comes from encountering Kami, the original sense of awe as something which forces us to reconsider what we thought we knew, must be related to this kind of curiosity. Awe cannot be the same thing as simply being “impressed”. It isn’t the same as seeing the best of something. It isn’t the upper (or lower) limit of what we might expect. In order for something to truly instill a sense of awe, it needs to break the limits. It needs to reset what we thought we knew. It isn’t just the tallest, or grandest, it is something so tall that we didn’t think things could reach that height, or so grand that we now have a whole new perspective for what that word might encompass.

In this way, the idea of Kami as something to worship lines up well with my passion for following curiosity. If curiosity is the mechanism by which we are seeking to broaden our perspectives, then these Kami are the milestones by which we can tell that we are on track.

Spirits of Nature

Given that the roots of so many spiritual traditions first came into being as forms of nature worship, it can be easy to think about this reverence for nature as the first step on the road, a proto-religious experience, or the first draft of awareness of something larger. I want to make the case for another perspective. That it is our exposure to nature that drives the most examples of being awe-struck.

Our world has become more constructed over time. Each layer, each addition, is man-made and comes from the cultural imagination. We can certainly create things to inspire one another, and things that inspire awe, but in order to truly get outside of human influence and into a space where objects and creatures can operate according to an entirely different set of rules, we need to look outside of human culture.

Nature wasn’t the fist step on the road, it has always been the ultimate “other”. Does knowing the physics of thunder and lightning make it any less impressive? Perhaps it is our developed sense of “spirit” that gets in the way. Some idea of consciousness, or again, a resemblance to human cognition. We think that these spectacles of nature are less important because they seem to be without life, without a directing force.

That is why this description of Kami appeals to me so much. It is a return to the direct connection between man and what moves our spirits. That is what this is really about. Not the true aspect of what we are experiencing, but what the experience itself will inspire us to do. It is the question of what we take away from the moment, and how we let is shape our thinking moving forward.

Now more than ever we need a strong connection to the natural world. We think we have it figure out, but there is no substitution for the awesome moments it produces within us, and the ability those encounters have to fuel our own curiosity and creativity.

I would love to see a return, not to nature worship, but nature seeking as a purposeful way to get ourselves in touch with the aspects of the world that can really inspire us. Seeking Kami in our lives could be a useful way to think about seeking Awe, not as an accidental occurrence, but as a goal for us to be reminded of and to make time for.

Image: Feral Spirit

Spring 2021

Digital image composition from photographs of natural elements.

Curiosity, Compassion and Creativity

Creativity

My journey with art and philosophy is being undertaken with the central goal of coming to know myself better. I have come to the realization that art is a conduit for me, while philosophy is my digestion of what has come about on the page or screen, or through the lens.

At some point I began to see the path through art as less of a fluke, and more of a process. Less of a quirk related to my nature, and more a set of events that have unfolded in a similar way for many other people. I began to start thinking of art making in a broader sense, as creativity across the spectrum. Humans working to express themselves in the way that resonates best for each individual. Creativity in all its forms seemed to be a key focus of the human experience.

Taoism describes the nature of the individual as a unique expression of the whole of creation. Each person, plant, animal, even inanimate object, is a manifestations of a single unifying energy. We all share the energy in one sense, and in another sense we are all, together, concurrently, one and the same with it. I am going to set aside the cosmological questions related to this and use it as a helpful lens through which we can focus on one key aspect: if we are all unique manifestations of the Tao, it can be thought of that our purpose is to express ourselves as such. If the nature of the Tao itself is to manifest into unique forms, then perhaps our nature is to aide that manifestation and pursue our own unique creativity as deeply as we can.

Another way to put it might be that each one of us is here to be the most true version of who we are. Humans, perhaps separate from other creatures, are creativity super-colliders. We seem to be built to smash ideas together in order to come up with new ideas, new iterations and thereby whole new concepts. Imagination, contrary to popular misconception, is not the ability to conjure up an idea that has never existed before. It is a process of seeing connections between things, and using those to extrapolate something new. As a core trait of humanity, we are all built to be creative.

Generally in America we have narrowed the perspective of what creativity means. I’d like to spend more time on that in a separate post because I feel so strongly about it. For many people when they think of creativity, they think visual art, music, performance art, poetry, etc. It is beginning to broaden out for those who do design work, coding and other activities which are sort of gray areas. I would like to point out that any kind of problem solving requires creativity. It is key to every business and occupation at some level, because we all need to synthesize existing data and eventually turn it into something that didn’t exist before. Creativity is the core of those who work in research labs, those who build and maintain budgets, those who craft social policy and every other industry. So, before I continue, let us be clear that creativity is not a trait bestowed upon the few as a magical gift, it is a core human trait that we all have the capacity for even if we are not given the opportunities to use it as often as we’d like. Even if the type of creativity that we exercise is not recognized by the larger society as such. I see you and your talents!

Curiosity

Exercising creativity is the act of expressing ourselves. The unique way in which we as individuals approach and wield creativity has to do with the circumstances of our upbringing, the experiences we’ve had, the genetic mix at play within us and the people we surround ourselves with (to name a few). No two people will come up with the same ideas. I firmly believe that when someone is exploring their own creativity, it is a pure expression of who they are for the world to see (and for them to see). Fostering this is an important piece of how we can all get to a place of self-knowledge and self-love.

Curiosity is our path towards creativity. It is the subliminal tugging at the strings which makes decisions for us between the options presented to us in our daily lives. Well, perhaps curiosity isn’t the voice itself, but I believe curiosity is the act of listening to that voice. It is the act of cultivating awareness about what our bodies are telling us.

I can’t describe the biological or psychological factors at play, but I can describe the feelings that I have had. I can talk about how every time I have walked away from art for an extended period of time it has called me back. I can recall the un-namable undercurrents of frustration and discomfort that came with me everywhere until I made time to express myself and explore with the paint brush, or pen, or whatever it was at the time I was using.

The voice calling me to make art was strong, but there were other voices talking to me about why I didn’t need to make art, or shouldn’t pursue art. They tried to tell me that what I was making wasn’t good enough and wouldn’t become good enough to be worth it. Those voices told me that it was a frivolous waste of time. They told me that I could be spending that time doing something useful around the house, or preparing for the future. They told me many things, but they spoke with the cold language of anxiety, of rationality, of the mental space. The calling towards art was deep seated, and came from somewhere else, and I could feel that it was using an entirely different language. It came up through the bones, and through a tugging in my chest.

Curiosity, for me, was embracing that voice, and ignoring what my mind was telling me. Curiosity was giving myself permission to do something new and unknown. It was a process of faith. Curiosity does not guarantee outcomes or success. It may end up making a fool out of you once things are said and done. If you’re a cat, it may have more dire consequences.

That is because curiosity is the desire to move into the space of the new. It is the desire we all have within us to look around the next corner, or overturn another stone. It is the submerged drum beat pushing us ever onwards toward moments of creativity.

Why is this so important for us?

Creativity requires that we smash other things together. We are not able to come up with brand new ideas that do not have relation to things we’ve never encountered. Creativity is an iterative act, taking two things we’ve learned about and taking it one step further to make something new. Curiosity is how we build our library of experiences. Curiosity pushes us to experience new things, which gives us more opportunities to be creative. Have you heard the saying that “if you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”? Creativity gives us more tools to work with, which can entirely change the nature of the problem we are trying to solve.

Curiosity moves us and drives us towards more opportunities to express ourselves more fully. I look at curiosity as a kind of engine propelling us towards deeper and more nuanced ways for us to get to know ourselves, and to put that out for the rest of the world to see. That is one of the reasons that I have recently begun to think of curiosity as a most sacred and fundamental value in my life.

Many people hear the word curiosity and think of a vague and tenuous childlike drive. While it may be childlike, I do not think is lacks any kind of strength. On the contrary, I believe it takes great courage to pursue curiosity when it comes knocking.

Think about this: in order to truly learn something new, we need to allow ourselves to be open to the idea that what we thought we knew was wrong. This requires a setting aside of our ego. It may require that we reconsider entire sections of our lives. We function within the world based on the stories we tell ourselves about how that world works. Opening ourselves up to new information, unknown information, could shake the foundations of everything. I mean, if I accept the fact that I feel pretty lethargic and irritable every time I have dairy, then I might need to seriously consider giving up cheese!?! Is that even possible?

Belief changes come in all shapes and sizes, and most of them don’t end up being cataclysmic, but this is still frightening stuff. That is the difference in my mind between causal exposure to new things and actual earnest curiosity. In one you will most likely reinforce your own beliefs by absorbing information that appeals to you. In the other, you will openly suspend what you think you know, which may cause you to be a situation where your landing pad is no longer there on your way back down.

Here we are now: Creativity allows us to express who we are, and Curiosity is what drives us and challenges us so that we can have more opportunities to explore our curiosity.

Compassion

If you are with me to this point, then compassion will be simple to understand. Compassion, from my understanding, is simply the energy we put into supporting the curiosity of other people. It might be thought of as the external version of curiosity. It is the willingness to allow others to explore who they are and to express it as fully as they can. It is the understanding that everyone is working towards their own creativity through curiosity.

Again, many people will think of compassion as a soft emotional skill. It will especially be thought of in relationship to sadness and distress. We seem to use the word almost exclusively to talk about supporting others through hardship and loss. Indeed, compassion during difficult times often has so much to do with simply being with others where they are at and letting them know that there are people around them who love and support them.

Why does compassion need to be kept only to difficult times? Why can we not meet people where they are and let them know that we love and support them when things are going well? I would love to infuse the idea of compassion with a sense of positive support.

So much of my journey has been lonely and internal. Much of what I am trying to do with my art and my writing is to make connections with other people who can share their experiences with me as they walk their own paths. Think of how amazing it would be if we had a culture where people got excited about how other people were pursuing their curiosity and creativity? This is why good friends are so critical. Even, or perhaps especially, when we are doing the world to explore who we are, it means that we push the boundaries of our social networks and established norms.

American society loves the rocket-fired genius or shooting star, but we discourage those who are taking steps to be something new. We talk about self-made heroics while telling our children that pursing untested waters is a recipe for disaster.

Creativity has one other aspect which is key to the larger conversation. It isn’t a zero-sum game where there is only so much to go around. Expressing yourself fully does not limit the ability of someone else to do the same. In fact, I would argue that the more we are able to demonstrate and celebrate it, the easier it will be for others to do the same.

We need a sense of compassion in the world that acknowledges the truths of human nature: that we are all here to be creative in our own unique ways, that in order to do this we need to be free to explore new territory, and that if we are walking a path ourselves which is often difficult and challenging, it only makes sense that we celebrate and support everyone else as they struggle to do the same thing.

It is for these reasons that I am embracing curiosity and compassion as my guiding concepts moving forward. Thank you for reading.

The Wandering Path

The name for my creative journey is a link back to many different aspects of my life and my practice. I wanted to use this idea, rather than just my name, because I feel like there is something larger I want to tap into.

When I started making art as a kid I had an implicit understanding that it needed to be a part of my life. At the same time, it was also made quite clear to me that pursuing art as a career would not provide a stable or successful outcome. I understand now that this is buried deep within my midwestern upbringing. There is a strong undercurrent telling children not to attempt anything risky, and not to stand out from the crowd. It certainly sank home for me, and became a strong but muffled tug of war which bubbled up every once in a while.

After getting through my required classes in high school I filled up everything else with art study. I wasn’t the kid who was drawing non-stop, or doing a lot of skills building on my own, but the interest was there. When I left high school I had built a desire, but only limited skills, or so I thought.

When I went to college I avoided art entirely for the first couple of years, but instead of sticking with something more concrete in the hard sciences, I found myself swept up in a philosophy class that completely changed my world.

Deep within me I felt the desire to ask the important questions, and to try and find out how to match up what I was experiencing around me, with the values I had buried deep within.

As I slide further into Philosophy I also re-embraced art classes, and finished college with a mad dash to fit in as much art as I could. Plenty of interest, no significant depth, and a deep lack of personal value kept me convinced that art was not a serious option.

The next decade followed a similar pattern of avoiding art and philosophy so that I could focus on a “real” job, which is pretty easy when it means keeping up with the bills and groceries. With stability, however, the art came creeping back in, refusing to be left alone.

We were living on the east coast in Providence, RI and I had the opportunity to attend continuing education classes at RISD. I decided to focus on a “practical” degree in print design, and spent the next five years completing it. During this time I learned how to follow a concept and develop a product. I began making art prints to sell and actually got up the courage to attend a few art fairs, with very little success. I still had the idea that I would ride my art business out of my current job and into something new.

At that point my wife graduated with her PhD was offered a job in Nebraska. We moved to the Midwest once more, and the cycle repeated itself. I put art aside to focus on a new phase of my job which required regular travel away from home. We also started a family and were finding a new balance.

I couldn’t leave the practice of art alone any longer after we had been settled for a couple of years. This time, however, instead of trying to do art with a mindset of where it would take me, I returned to it with a perspective of curiosity. I started with watercolors, a medium I had not spent much time working with, and simply allowed myself to explore. Everything else has come from that perspective in which I let the art process lead me to the next logical step, the next evolution.

The wandering path of avoiding and returning to art is about so much more than the art making. It has been about discovering myself, and connecting to my values. It has been about overcoming fear and getting clear on what I want out of life.

Taoism, a philosophy/religion that began in ancient China and continues today, is the art of following the “way” or “path”. This way is unique for every person. Philosophy has helped me identify the larger project, but art has been the major driving force in helping me to cultivate myself as I follow my own path. It is not straight, and the destination is not clear, but it is through the wandering that I am able to live by my values and experience of the beauty of the life around me.