I’m sitting in my studio today stitching on a project that has no intent. It doesn’t need one: it’s simply beautiful. And that makes me happy. My needle moves in and out of a sandwich of rayon challis and silk chiffon, a repetitive meditation on color. There’s no other point to it, which is a nice break from my usual, content-driven artistic pursuits.
The world is slapping me upside the head with beauty pretty regularly these days: the way that wood smoke carves light into the hollows of Flagstaff in the early morning; the stark paper-white of aspen bark against pine needles and blue sky on a sunny day; Leigh and Eric Gibson’s harmonies on an old bluegrass song; the sound of rain on the roof at four in the morning.
Sometimes beauty feels like a sucker punch followed by a shot of pure oxygen. It takes your breath away, then inspires you to gasp for something life-sustaining and essential.
Maybe I’m just especially sensitive to beauty right now. I’ve been practicing paying attention, practicing being grateful for the opportunity to notice.
The other morning driving down South Milton Boulevard, I thought I saw a giraffe standing in the parking lot at Bun Huggers. Of course there was no giraffe, but the thought got my attention for a brief moment.
In spite of knowing that my family could bring this up in a competency hearing in a few years, I’m going to confess that I occasionally have these split-second hallucinatory episodes. I doubt that I’m truly delusional. More likely it’s a function of my crappy eyesight. Without my glasses on, sometimes one letter on a street sign looks like another: Chinese Fakeout.
In fact, I rather enjoy these little shakeup calls. I think of it as my brain telling me a joke, or attempting to force me out of my reverie.
I worry that we’re all so jaded, so immune to the beauty and the wonder of life that extraordinary things escape our notice. We’ve seen everything on Youtube, or CNN, and can get anything delivered to our Blackberry phones. We’ve seen all the giraffes we need to see.
I’m trying to understand how it might be possible to cultivate an everyday sense of innocence, in pursuit of tiny episodes of great beauty and a generally curious state of mind. Do we have to come to innocence by way of the back door? Should we let this astonishing world sneak up on us?
Life is kind of a surprise party, after all. We basically know what’s in store for us: birth, love, adventures, the “dailies,” and death, of course. But unlike Albert Finney’s character in the movie, Big Fish, we don’t know how we’re going to die, or have a preview of any of the other details of our lives.
If this is a divine plot to keep us on our toes, aren’t we somehow thwarting destiny’s plan for us by ignoring the stream of grace and wonder that is all around us?
My friend, artist Wendy Huhn, created a piece a few years ago called “It’s a Wonderful Life,” after the 1946 Frank Capra movie. I was surprised when she emphatically expressed to me that she really believes in a wonderful life. Wendy is nobody’s fool and is sometimes just the tiniest bit cynical. But she really believes in, and sees beauty and grace and humor in all sorts of places where hardly anyone else would think to look.
I‘m working on a piece that features poppies as its central theme. I love poppies and wanted to immortalize them because their short bloom makes their presence so fleeting. But the way poppies are fine and graceful, with their rice-paper petals and brilliant color, is in contradiction to their World War I symbolism of battlefield burials. They’re delicate and flirty, but also earnest and sturdy and purposeful. The natural world is fabulous at creating things that hold a balance between two contradictory qualities.
In the studio, I instruct myself to cultivate the habit of beginner’s mind, notice the exquisite details, then process, combine, and find ways to bring my own aesthetic sensibilities to bear on materials, mostly in service to ideas, but sometimes just in grateful and contented service to beauty.