All the Angles


My camera and I love to go exploring. My camera is my license to walk slowly and stop often, to turn around and look behind me, to randomly change direction. It is my passport to wander and to lose myself in form, color, light and shadow. Sometimes my camera and I go through all kinds of contortions to find just the right angle.
I suppose I could do all these things without my camera, but when I hide behind the lens, maybe people don’t find my actions quite so odd.

(Originally posted on Facebook, September 15, 2013 from Pal Ngagyur Shedrup Dojoling in Nepal.)

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Guests & Tourists

I’m not a very good tourist. I tend to either avoid the highly packaged “attractions” or else sneak in around the edges, on my own time, doing my own thing. I deeply respect the rights of the local people to keep us gawkers cordoned off, herded into manageable tours and treks that interfere as little as possible with their “normal” lives while still permitting them to earn income from our desire to gawk.

Don’t get me wrong, I like to see the historic and cultural “places of interest.” But I like to know what I’m seeing. All too often, what you get from tour guides is a watered-down (and occasionally downright fabricated) version of history and culture. Like pablum for babies, with lots of sugar.

I’m reminded of clearing my Uncle Bill’s bookshelves in San Antonio, Texas, after he passed. His partner, Ann, had owned the travel agency at Joske’s back in the latter half of the 20th century and my, how the two of them did travel! Uncle Bill’s books were not travel guides, however, but travelers’ memoirs and language books – Chinese, Korean, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Russian, French, etc. They always wanted to know at least a little of the language of their hosts. Sometimes they even took classes before the trip. I think “tours” have changed a lot since Ann was selling them at Joske’s. I also think Ann and Bill were not themselves tourists. They were interested and respectful guests.

Earlier this week I stopped in at a little shop in Ubud that sells locally crafted fabrics. The girl behind the counter seemed quite knowledgeable as she told me about the beautiful cloth she spread in front of me and how it was used in her village as protection against bad magic. She would sell it to me for a mere five million rupiah (~$350US). She seemed almost apologetic about the backwardness of her beliefs and offered some admiring words about the culture I come from. “But why do you think we come here?” I said. “It’s because we have to get away from the chaos and noise of our culture. We come here for beauty such as this.” And she smiled as tears glittered in her eyes.

Broken Things

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I broke a teacup today. Well, I didn’t exactly break it; it was broken when I unpacked it from the move. You can tell by the clean lines of the break that divided it into exactly four pieces that it was a pressure fracture rather than an impact. That would have shattered it and produced messy shards.
The cup was part of a delicate little tea set hand painted for my mother by my best friend’s grandmother in the late 1950s. Well, she was my best friend back then. After my family moved away in the summer of 1962, my best friend and I wrote letters back and forth for a while. We were in high school and by the time we both went off to college, we only saw each other a few more times. Now I don’t even know where she is or what her name is. These things happen to women. We change our names and move on.
One of my Facebook friends suggested I have the cup repaired by the Japanese technique that fuses the pieces back together using gold or silver, making the piece more beautiful for its accident, making the break a part of its history instead of the end of it. That didn’t seem right for this piece.
My friend Debra Broz said she could put it back together and make it look good as new. I’ve seen her work; no one would ever have known it had been broken. Except me. I’d always know. And I’d always know it was Debra’s art as much as my school friend’s grandmother’s art that created my teacup. That didn’t seem right either.
Another friend suggested I have one of the fragments made into a piece of jewelry. Maybe I’ll do that.
Or maybe I’ll just try to track down my school friend and we can talk about her grandmother and drink tea from the cups that didn’t break.

One Is the Agent

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I needed a new cover for the re-issue of Way of the Serpent, something that could provide the basis of covers for sequels in what has now become the Recall Chronicles. I analyzed the covers of dozens of other dystopian science fiction novels. I perused photographs available online. I searched through my own considerable inventory of photographs.

I kept going back to this one painting (see above), to which I’d attached a rather complicated title, a title that was in fact a line from a Buddhist practice I did sometimes: “One is the agent, caught in the reaction of cause and effect.”

The more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that this painting and my novels were coming from the same space, a space in which agency constantly grapples with conditions that are, after all, oftentimes a result of one’s own actions. We’re not puppets, but we’re never free of entanglements, never entirely free agents.

The characters in my novels are like this, valiantly battling the circumstances of their lives, circumstances that are, to a varying extent, their own fault.

If these sound like the kind of characters you’d like to read about, you’ll like Way of the Serpent and (coming soon!) Shadow of the Hare.

Truth and Fiction

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Although I continue to hold a position as Professor Emerita of Anthropology at my former institution, I stopped being actively engaged in anthropology almost a decade ago. Or did I? The further I get beyond that watershed date called “retirement”, the more easily I see the profound influences of social science on my life as it continues to unfold.

Today I decided I needed to look back on a textbook I used for a class I taught on Neanderthals, in which we studied novels about Neanderthals alongside the scientific treatises. The book I pulled off the shelf is called Fiction & Social Research: By Ice or Fire, edited by Anna Banks and Stephen P. Banks.

The introduction the Bankses wrote for that book struck a deep chord with me and may account at least in part for my eventual turn toward fiction writing. They credit Eudora Welty, Nadine Gordimer and Milan Kundera for inspiring them “to think about the nature of truth and the place of fact in storytelling, and the relation of truth and facticity to the imagination.”

Perhaps the most important thing I learned from Anna and Stephen is that “facts don’t always tell the truth, or a truth worth worrying about, and the truth in a good story – its resonance with our felt experience… – sometimes must use imaginary facts.” From them I learned the concept of “verisimilitude”, the notion that a story can have an unmistakable ring of truth even when the “facts” are entirely made up.

So here’s a big “Thank you!” to a couple of social scientists of great imagination and courage who planted in this social scientist the seeds of a late-blooming desire to write stories – completely made-up stories – that have the ring of truth.

Lessons From the Art Studio

SOLD Morning in the Garden of Eden. 18 x 12, acrylic on lokta paper

Almost a year ago, I moved out of my art studio to devote myself full time to writing. Do I miss my studio? Of course I do – wonderful days full of surprise and discovery spent in the company of my beloved handmade papers and amazing colors and mediums. And fellow artists. I miss them, too, although I still go visit them in their own studios (one of which used to be mine).

I learned some important lessons in that art studio, some of which continue to serve me well in my writing. I was reminded of one of those lessons when I saw this quote (posted today by PEN America on Facebook):

“I think the difference between being a person of talent and being a writer is the ability to apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair and finish.” ― E.L. Konigsburg

Paintings are statements – images that inspire you in the moment and that you speak onto the canvas (or, in my case, paper) to the best of your ability. But you don’t go on forever rephrasing them. If you do, you will become your own worst obstacle, inhibiting your ability to receive the next inspiration, to make the next statement. If you keep reworking, you may end up with an amazing painting, but there will likely be several more – perhaps equally worthy of having been shared – hidden within it. In painting, there comes a moment when you have to look at a work, wish it well, sign it, and hang it on the wall. Let it speak its piece while you move on to the next thing, attend to the next inspiration.

The same thing holds true in writing. Write the story. Finish it. Polish it just enough. Publish it. Move on. So what if it’s not the whole story? The next one will add its own statement and then also the one after that.

Coming in May: Shadow of the Hare – Book II in The Recall Trilogy! 

Read more from Donna Dechen Birdwell.

This I Believe

"Pursuit of Happiness" 18 x 18

“Pursuit of Happiness” 18 x 18

I believe everyone should run, play games, sing, dance, tell stories, and make poems and create all kinds of amazing objects out of clay and paint and whatever they can find. I believe that we should honor and celebrate those who are especially good at these kinds of things. But we should never discourage those who are more enthusiastic than expert, more passionate than talented, more eager than educated. We reach our full potential not through criticism, but through the sheer pleasure of doing a thing increasingly well.

We have become a nation of spectators and that breaks my heart. Creativity, imagination, and physical exuberance are essential human characteristics and we deprive ourselves of our very humanity whenever we shut these qualities away, experiencing them only second-hand as we watch players on a field, actors on a screen, dancers on a stage, or listen to musicians and singers or read books or gaze at works of art.

So who cares if your paintings are not museum quality? Who cares if you’re not the best player on the court or the best singer in the choir? Who cares if your stories make the bestseller lists or not? Just go out there and enjoy the fullness of your humanity. Critics be damned.

A Question of Balance

 

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During the first weekend of EAST Austin Studio Tour, 2014 edition, I had some wonderful, insightful conversations with my guests about my paintings and about art in general. It was a very rewarding experience except for one minor detail: Nobody bought anything. I had good sales during the 2013 tour, so I guess I had expectations for 2014 as well.

A young high school student sat down with me late Sunday afternoon in the waning hours of the first weekend’s tour to interview me for a class assignment. “What is the point of making art?” he wanted to know. I rambled on about the importance of the viewer as well as the artist in completing a work of art. “The goal of art is to engage the viewer, to get them to stop for a moment and engage with something more than daily life.”

With that as a goal, my first weekend of EAST was clearly a success. Numerous visitors were engaged enough to hang around and talk about my pieces. Some took the time to read the accompanying poems posted with several of the paintings, poems from my fellow writers at Austin Zen Center’s Tuesday night writing group.

Maybe this weekend someone will feel engaged enough with one of my paintings to want to take it home with them. We are open at 702 Shady Lane from 11-6 both Saturday and Sunday.

(The painting above is entitled, “A Question of Balance.” It is available.)

Obliterated

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Artists sometimes do odd things.

One of my favorite sites on my visit to Prague in winter of 2003 was the John Lennon Wall, where countless fans and tourists had posted layer after layer of tributes and expressions of devotion. It was beautiful and inspiring.

Today I read the news that a group of art students had taken it upon themselves to white out the entire wall! This was supposed to represent the beginning of a new era in honor of the anniversary of the “Velvet Revolution” and the inscription “Wall Is Over” was intended to be “an allusion to the subtitle of Lennon’s song ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’.” However, the act of overpainting the wall inevitably evoked as well the Communist era in Czechoslovakia; during the 1980s, the Lennon wall was repeatedly painted over by Communist authorities in Prague.

The very notion of “starting over” is misguided. We always work with what already exists, for better or worse. All these art students have succeeded in doing is in imposing their own idea of a massive blank canvas over hundreds and thousands of other ideas and messages, layered into a public space that was allowed to belong to everyone. The students acted in an authoritarian way that I find flies in the face of the legacy of the Velvet Revolution they sought to honor.

(Read the article from HyperAllergic here.)

Images Have Power

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Art is not just stuff. Art is a physical manifestation of the heart, an expression of the human spirit, a bridge linking minds across languages, transcending ideas. Images have power. Art is subversive.

This little video emerged on my Facebook newsfeed this morning, only days after the announcement that a wealthy Chinese businessman had bought a painting by French Impressionist Edouard Manet for a record (for this artist) $65.1 million. China is producing some of the most voracious and deep-pocketed art collectors in the contemporary world, as well as some of the wealthiest artists. China has also produced Ai Weiwei.

I have no need to hang a Manet in my own home. I prefer Ai Weiwei and yellow origami umbrellas.