Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Finding Direction

Wherever there’s a well-worn path, there are the two lines made by the outer edges, lines that seem to converge as the path stretches away into the distance. This creates a wedge shape, like an arrow pointing in the direction we’re going. Since it’s “well-worn” the path implies regularity, the routine of living and the comings and goings of one or more people. Once there’s a path, others will use it. The more people using the path the wider it gets, evolving into today’s multilane highways. The more lines in the wedge the stronger the directional force as many wedges push our attention the same way. There’s a visual urgency when so many lines come together in one place and the speed of the perceived motion strengthens. You could say that the increasing pace of the times shows in the proliferation of parallel lines. Multistory buildings repeat the same lines with every story. The growth of cities is marked by more multistory buildings, rising higher and higher which creates another vector of directional power pulling the gaze skyward. As the number of lines increases so does the directional force. Maybe one of the reasons we seek out nature when we go on vacation is to be free of the relentless force of a world with so many lines pushing our attention around.

Any wedge shapes points. The life force of the species shows in this visual representation of direction. One visual signal of civilization would surely be lines. They signify the presence of intelligence. When people look at the photographs of the moon and the place where it looks like a pyramid, it’s the straight lines meeting in a wedge that demand explanation. This is why many use this as proof of a prior civilization.

When we use metaphors of direction it often refers to values and goals, like when a friend is going the same way in life or another takes a different path.  Life choices are tied to the direction we feel we’re going and are often referred to as the various turns and routes taken. Comparative mythology scholar Joseph Campbell called the archetype of “the path” as life journey the oldest of all the central images found across cultures. It reflected the idea of the inner life visible in the outer movements. When we speak of direction metaphorically we’re referring to ambitions. “Having a direction” refers to the idea of a purpose, or as the “I Ching” puts it, “having someplace to go.”. Lines are a sign of purpose. Being “aimless” means wandering without meaning. Where there is motivation the various elements in a situation become organized by the direction it’s headed. The need for a goal, even if a small one, is something for life’s energy to organize around. Inspiration is often a matter of being spurred to personal goals by the example of another that carries us in the same direction. In visual imagery when all lines converge in the same place there’s a sense of momentum coming from within, concentration on a single point. The whole picture plane is aligned with the focus of the viewer. The first person quality creates a feeling of inner directedness. When there are contradictory wedges pointing different ways there’s a sense of being pulled in many directions by external forces.

Choosing a direction is about taking an interest. It doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it heads into new territory. The horizon is always out of reach so the challenges and lessons are endless. Creating art can be like John Cheever’s description of writing as like driving in the night only seeing as far as the headlights reach. But that’s enough.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


This was a total surprise. My experiments with clay are leading me in an unknown direction.


Throwing pots on a wheel is a craft of touch. Learning it is an
exercise in beginner’s mind. No knowledge, no skills and no
sensitivity to the medium. Watching a woman who had been doing it many
years, barely touching the edges as she narrowed the top on a delicate
vase got me to thinking about the different levels of knowing that
came with different pressure of the hands and fingers. If you look at
a map of how much of the sensory cortex is devoted to what parts of
the body, the fingers and thumb have disproportionately large shares.
As my teacher Bianka said, I’m still “lunging at the clay”. Developing
touch that learns and responds more carefully requires practice. Every
new skill could be thought of as developing a touch for a particular
thing. And everything we get in touch with adds a type of awareness
that has practical applications that also extend the metaphors
available in verbal expression.

Images for touch in art suggest the depth of its importance for human
well-being. The most famous touch is probably the Sistine Chapel image
of Adam being given life when touched by God. It’s a common metaphor
for sharing a transformative energy. The image of touch as a healing
influence is widespread, whether in religions, energy healers or
simply one individual touching another. As I watch people in my
neighborhood carting newborns around in baby carriers I remember the
pediatrician that lived upstairs who carried her baby in her arms or
on her hip all the time when the baby was tiny. She clearly was aware
of all the research on the importance of physical closeness, not just
for a baby’s sense of safety but because touch itself is so important.
Massaging babies improves their digestion and absorption of nutrients,
but the more significant finding about touch is its role in long-term
bonding. Touch stimulates production of oxytocin, a key ingredient in
bonding for all mammals. Many of us grew up in societal groups that
were not conditioned to touch and are thus uncomfortable with it.
Given the research on how it affects not just health, but
intelligence, it’s a difficulty we should learn to overcome.

The research on the advantages to gentle touching goes on and on. When
a drug research lab was feeding rabbits a high cholesterol diet so
cholesterol drugs could be tested, they couldn’t understand why the
cholesterol of the rabbits in the middle cages didn’t go up. They were
eating the exact same food as the others. A surveillance camera
provided the answer. The technician on night duty would take out the
rabbits in the middle cages and pet and play with them. Being touched
affected their cholesterol. The effects of stress on cholesterol were
shown in studies that measured higher cholesterol in accountants at
tax time and students at exam time.  Since cholesterol is a component
of neural function for the manufacture of new connections, working
through the stress to a successful conclusion may make proper use of
it, while not dealing with it may allow the cholesterol into the
bloodstream. Massage when under stress could reduce the negative
health effects via its beneficial effect on metabolism.

The fact that so many positive effects accompany touch underscores the
importance of human contact. We need to feel part of a larger whole.
It doesn’t have to be physical. We’ve all experienced being touched by
a gesture of kindness, a look of understanding, the attention of
another when we need it most. The concept of being touched, by a
painting or through empathy for another, conveys a feeling in our
depths stirred to activity by the connection.