Friday, January 1, 2016

Making Art and Caring for My Soul

"It seems to me that the desire to make art produces an ongoing experience of longing, a restlessness sometimes, but not inevitably, played out romantically, or sexually. Always there seems something ahead, the next poem or story, visible, at least, apprehensible, but unreachable. To perceive it at all is to be haunted by it; some sound, some tone, becomes a torment—the poem embodying that sound seems to exist somewhere already finished. "
Louise Gluck

I am compelled to make things.  Over 25 years of academic production and teaching literature and writing at state universities, I have regularly turned to my knitting needles, my sewing machine, or, more recently, to the exquisite pleasure of covering walls, objects, and sculptures with mosaics.  During periods of greatest intellectual demand, productivity, or stress I will lie awake at night designing mosaics, fabric collage, or garments.  I cannot rest properly until I have satisfied these deep longings to create with color and texture.   It is as though the demands of my intellectual life require a proportionate amount of time for making art: there is an essential balance between the cerebral work I do and the more intuitive, associative, creative work I do.
These days, I have a “restless longing” to make stained glass mosaics. This longing will surge up out of an image or idea; pushing at my daily mental chatter, it will urge me to follow. Small creative activities can sustain me for a while, can keep my longing in check; but after a while, the pressure is too great and I must make the thing itself.  I must follow the image.  And then I am tireless in my pursuit of the vision that “haunts” me.  I will be at work for hours and not miss the time; I will eat as I work, cut every finger, make my back stiff and sore – I must make manifest the thing that was always there on the edge of my vision. 

Thich Naht Hanh once said, “The practice of a healer, therapist, teacher or any helping professional should be directly toward his or herself first, because if the helper is unhappy, he or she cannot help many people.”  When I feel my teaching is stale or stiff, when I am worn-down by the challenges of teaching in a world that does not honor contemplation and deep, transformative learning, I am reminded that it is time to practice my art and care for my soul.
        And yet, the same generative energy that compels me to make objects also feeds (and is fed by) my teaching.   In class, I challenge students to move between intellectual applications and more associative “play,” pulling them into exploratory and yet rigorous conversations.   Sometimes these conversations teeter on the edge of brilliance; sometimes they crash to the ground.  But sometimes we achieve the magic symmetry of creative and intellectual inquiry that leads to extraordinary insight.  On these occasions, I feel the same energized elation that I feel after a day of art making.  For me, teaching is one of the places where the gifts of intellect and intuition come together in a collaborative and creative endeavor.