Aesthetics in Real Time

I hope that you don’t mind my taking the time to share some personal things on my mind in this post – I need to do some serious processing of big questions I’m dealing with, and I can think of no better place to do it than here, as it connects deeply to work, passion, volunteering, and engagement. I would love to hear your thoughts on what I’m chewing on – right now getting some perspectives and feedback would be most welcome as I try to pull out my compass and orient myself in a new direction.

One of the things that struck my husband in the last two weeks is the fervor and delight with which I’ve set about decorating two properties he’s going to manage (in short, I am tasked with making two four bedroom homes gorgeous, comfortable, and special in three weeks time). I’ve made Pinterest pages, talked incessantly about headboards, and attacked the overwhelming task with an authoritative and direct air that I rarely take on in my work life.

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At the same time, I have become increasingly confused and worried about my work as a coach – while I love the work, it isn’t my everything. Nothing has ever been my everything (nor do I believe that one thing can or should be), and I’ve always sought ways to piece together the things I love to create a quilt of meaning. I’ve been questioning what’s missing in these last few weeks, and as always, symbols and coincidences float in and out of focus in these moments of confusion. As I feel at sea in my work, this flotsam of decorating has floated into the swath of water I’m treading, trying to keep my head above the water line.

Kevin asked me what I loved to do when I was a little girl, and I was overwhelmed by a stream of images that all felt connected to creating beautiful, warm spaces:

  • Pretending my bedroom was a studio apartment (the fantasy of a city kid, I suppose); drawing endless pastel portraits on bright construction paper to cover the walls with “pop art”; making a mailbox which I taped outside my door, then sweeping and cleaning and pretending it was my own little pad
  • Reading the NYTimes real estate section every Sunday, asking my beleagured mother what we could afford in rent, and then circling properties with my little red pencil, drawing floorplans of what I imagined they looked like from the ten word descriptions, and sitting her down before dinner to exhaustively go through our potential options for a new home
  • Creating rugs and paintings with colored pencils and torn up index cards for my dollhouse
  • Pulling out my craft box of sequins and ribbons and wood and making sculptures; painting wooden matryoska dolls with characters I created; painting cardboard boxes black and decorating them with gold pens, then nailing them to my walls to create oval shadow boxes to display figurines and tchatckies I had bought in Chinatown on our family outings for dim sum.

As I’ve reflected on these memories over the past few days, what has really stood out to me are the themes of art and spaces, which used to be such a huge part of my world.

I was admittedly a very privileged child, and had the amazing opportunity to play the violin & guitar growing up; my mother took my to the museums of New York City regularly from age five onwards; my incredible documentarian aunt introduced me to old movies and jazz while I was in elementary school. Art was everywhere. As I grew up, I loved to draw, and write; I acted and sang until I got to college; I had a rap group once I was there (didn’t guess that one, now did ya? 🙂 ). I majored in Philosophy of Art, with a concentration in video art and creative writing. I loved making video art, and had an exciting internship with Electronic Arts Intermix; I planned to continue working in this world after college, until I decided (when?! how do we forget these most important dots in the timelines of our lives??) to be a school teacher.

Feeling confused this week, I went back to the Get Yourself Unstuck! A First Step activity I do with all my clients, and completed it for myself. I have stared at it and circled and underlined and folded and unfolded the paper, looking for patterns, squeezing for meaning, feeling revelatory constipation. I fell asleep last night holding the paper and a pen, hoping to dream about answers. This morning, while making breakfast, I listened to NPR and heard this interview with Ann Hamilton, a multimedia artist who shirks the title of artist and instead refers to herself as a “maker.” For some reason, this plucked a string in me that vibrated down to my core. Artists have skills I don’t; but make, I do. I found my Get Unstuck Activity crumpled in the still-hot pillows and tangled sheets on the bed, and reading over it, I saw many things that seemed to connect to this idea of art and making: beauty; creativity; mystery; curiosity; imagination. I wondered where these things show up now – do they appear in my volunteering? In my work? In the causes I support? It got me thinking about where they went, and why.

One of the projects of my heart that I was so committed to as I neared college graduation was something I called “Aesthetics in Real Time (A.R.T.).” My idea was that impoverished neighborhoods physically and aesthetically depleted, and that beauty – or the lack thereof – has a serious psychological impact on a person. Art is necessary for humans; we’ve been making it for as long as we’ve existed. What might change for children growing up in these neighborhoods if they were surrounded by more beauty? Nature? Art? What if we could increase the gardens, the murals, the public art, and take away the empty lots, the abandoned buildings, and broken glass, the trash, the detritus? I was fascinated with what need & purpose it serves for us, and how it might increase health and well-being for children. I hoped to explore this through my work. How to make these spaces more beautiful without gentrifying them, I wondered? My thought was to create a program where artists worked with children to create artworks, which would then be displayed in spaces otherwise used for advertising: billboards, bus depots, taxi cap tops, etc. Instead of seeing signs for AllState and McDonalds, we would see paintings and photographs created by the children of the city. Not only would this be aesthetics in real time, but it would hopefully give the children a feeling that they had an audience; that they were seen and heard; that they could be known on the large stage of their city for their art.

This was, in a way, the first project in my Civicization; the only community service opportunity at the school I attended for 13 years was serving soup at a Thanksgiving soup kitchen, and volunteering had never been emphasized as something to seek and do. I had always longed to be of & in service, but never known how; this was the first time I felt it was my calling to create those opportunities myself if they weren’t presented to me, instead of waiting around for someone to offer me something. My dreams were dusted with visions of these children and their art. I felt fire in me to go forward with this; the uncomfortable hoofs beating on the ground, impatient to gallop, afraid of the energy building up and desperate to find a release. I felt in my heart that this project would be the work of my young adulthood – and where did it go? I have no recollection of how it fizzled; I just know that I still have an email account with the name, and nothing else to show for it.

Funnily enough, I just answered my own question from before – this is what made me want to be a teacher. I wanted to create this program as an arts education non-profit, but felt that to do so, I should first have experience on the ground as a teacher, so I could speak from a place of first-hand knowledge when working with students and other educators; this led me to my graduate program, and the rest is history. Ain’t that some ish.

a painting by Wendy McWilliams which I lovea painting by Wendy McWilliams which I love; because art!

The more I’ve thought more about this idea of art and art making, the more I see how it connects to many of the things I have struggled with personally over the last 5-10 years. One is the feeling that I must do one thing, and do it well; the emphasis that is put on expertise, on “focus,” on credentials, on being able to clearly define what you do in a word or phrase has plagued me my whole life, and as a young adult it’s come to really impact the choices I have made for myself. When I think of my friends, the only ones for whom doing many things seems natural are the artists – they teach, do part-time work related to their craft, and they make art. But for the rest of us, the idea-of-many-ness is often interpreted as foreign, or a sign of wanderlust, confusion, lack of focus, or being in transition. I imagine my artist friends struggle with this, too – I know many of them even struggle with calling themselves “an artist.” But a question I find myself asking is how I can learn from the way artists I know balance their time and activities, when I feel I have no art to offer (or perhaps it’s just undiscovered).

The second is struggling to understand how the things that are most important to me can be translated into work. Those things include swimming in the mysterious; engaging in mystical questioning; creating communities where revelations happen; holding space to think and imagine; making objects that inspire change. I’ve struggled to find a medium through which I could do these things which, when described this way, sound to me like making art. The medium I’ve worked in up until now is teaching – designing experiences that prod the mystical, ask the questions, push others to slog through the making of objects that, in my hopes of hopes, might lead them to the precipice of “aha.” When I can engage with Philosophy and share it with others, that too feels like a medium that allows for these things a cherish. But I wonder whether some of my struggles to find the work that sets my true nature free is, in a way, a struggle to find the right medium(s).

So I suppose I have no answers, but these many questions swimming around in my head – and which I am having an uncharacteristically difficult time getting said head around.

What would it be like if I thought of myself as a maker? What might open up for me professionally and personally?

If I could hear the deep pulse of aesthetics that I think may, still, be throbbing somewhere in me, how would this change the way I look at volunteering, at civic engagement? What new opportunities would I work on, and which would I leave behind?

Should I follow this love of creating warm, beautiful spaces, or will it just become another thing in the long, sometimes confusing list of activities I do?


2 thoughts on “Aesthetics in Real Time

  1. I love the idea of thinking about ourselves as makers rather than artists. I love making stuff. Don’t we all? You know the most beautiful thing I made all week happens to be my ginger pickled beets. No, seriously, they are gorgeous. I had no idea when I sliced them they were the ones that looked like peppermint twists. Technically not art I guess but they are some beauties!

    Why not follow a passion? Especially when it’s such a strong one that you just unearthed and reconnected to. For the last year a mentor’s advice has been playing in my head like a broken recording: “Pay attention to the things you stumble upon.” Dude, you’re paying attention, taking notes, making lists, doing it all! I say, keep stumbling, and make some kick-ass, beautiful creations while you’re at it!

  2. This was a rare post where I not only wanted to give my htoughts but you even asked for them – and I came up dry! I was in a confused and wending mind state as much as you. Seems like you’ve gotten past that now and are in a good new flow. To which I say, brava!

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