When I found out about getting the Artists’ Residency at Rocheforte-en-Terre in Brittany, France, the initial sensation was something like terror. The prospect of a month in an unknown place made all the day-to-day patterns of my life wrap around me with barbed tentacles that would sting me if I moved. I liked my days and I was giving them up for days I knew nothing about. I also knew it was time to do this, for exactly the same reasons, to stir up those patterns with an entirely new experience. I directed the fear into excitement, a similar adrenalized state that reframed the apprehension.
A profound change of surroundings obliterates the thoughts that go with familiar places. This includes attitudes toward time. The novelty of a new place stimulates the dopamine circuits producing an alert focus on the present. The mind is scrubbed clean by the constant stimulus of entirely new ways of being. Separated from the time triggers of my life in Baltimore helped me settle into an ongoing unfolding moment. The perception of time as a commodity that can be spent faded into the more fluid learning experience of the whole. Immersion in work has always been my purest experience of focus in the here and now. Surrounded by difference, everything was in focus; the creeping invisibility that erases the familiar never had time to set in. Almost everything I did felt like a peak experience. Appreciation and gratitude were constant companions.
Having always focused my work on making the intangible visible, the concreteness of the material surroundings was a particular challenge after a career of imagery drawn from skies and other chaotic systems. What is solid would seem more inert, unchanging as it persists in time. I quickly realized that objects have spheres of influence not defined by their outer boundaries, and that outer influences extend their effects to whatever responds to that frequency. Topiary trees were an especially provocative meeting of matter and mind. I ended up spending most of my time in the garden.
I got back from France feeling very laid back, with none of the pressures of time I generally experience. This ease was immediately threatened by the demands made by the familiar. Routines begin with settings, so being back in the same settings triggered a range of automatic behavior programs. The conditioned pattern of going right out to walk after lunch, then meditating, then into the studio, is a pattern I value, it’s what assures that I’ll get something done. Not going through with the expected pattern creates tension. The prompt goes unanswered. This time, I leave it that way, live with the tension. I can see how confining those routines can be and that stirring them up a bit could actually reduce my tension about time, created by routines trying to complete themselves.
Like so many contemporary living spaces, my studio is a nest of portals into virtual places. Our objects function like locales with a vocabulary that builds on the metaphors of sites and schedules within a realm of information. Every object/place has it’s own triggers for attitudes toward time. Modern culture has so many prompts flashing, insisting on the pattern of behavior they represent. Every object is a world that wants something from us, has ways to use our time and attention. My time in France helps me pull back and choose the worlds that matter, to reprogram my habits and allow more space for growth.
The presence of that experience in memory adds to my store of gratitude, for Christopher and Jane Shipley, who worked so successfully to make it a rewarding experience, for my fellow residents, Betsy Boyd, Beth Shipley and Amy Metier, who enlarged my experience with their personal sensibilities, what they distilled from what they saw increased my ability to see where I was, and to the people of Rocheforte-en-Terre who welcomed us and helped us feel like a part of the life of the town and offered a deeper understanding of life in France. I‘m grateful for France itself, the value of beauty and regard for the past. Immersion in a vast historical time defuses the ticking clock of contemporary time. The futility of counting the grains of sand on the beach frees me to be on the beach and appreciate each extended moment in its full duration.