Just in time for Valentine’s Day! Not really, not at all in fact. This card has roots so long they work their way off the page.
I have the incredible fortune to work at the Hyde Park Art Center, which allows me to chit chat with a large array of people who all appreciate creative expression in some form. Even Leonard, the guy who comes in and hangs out when its cold, reading the paper and napping in our Library, who has never taken an art class, stops and talks to me about the new exhibits and how my changing the light bulbs is an essential part of the experience. One of the many benefits is that I get to take a class each term. Usually it is the Screenprinting class but this past term I took a new class called Practice Makes…. where they highlight one of their teaching artists for a short class, focusing on their method and practice style. The teaching artist this time was Lee Blalock
I could gush about Lee, but since I find it very difficult to explain what she does, I fear it would be too confusing. It involves mad amounts of exploration and bits about feeling alien, and creating cyborg parts out of bondo and skin from Xerox copies and gel medium. all I can say is that I saw her teach kids during the summer camp and I was so impressed with what they did in a week and how she taught them, that I signed up for the class.
After her initial talk and studio visit, we all sat down and took 15 minutes to brainstorm about our practice and work. This really bothered me. I found it very difficult to really look at myself in this way, to look at my practice of art making with some playful space. I am not a technical printer, nor am I meticulous or exacting but to think about something other than the efficient steps from idea to finished print is alien to me. I drew out two columns on a sheet of paper, tried to fill them, made fun of myself, wrote down some snarky comment and when it came time to talk, confessed that I don’t really know how to brainstorm. I’m a problem solver. Is there a problem? Yes? What are the potential solutions? Let’s pick the easiest, best, and most efficient of them and do it. Problem solved. ish.
So my task was to not do anything. Don’t produce anything, don’t make anything, just play. (the existence of this blog and this specific card is testament to how I just cannot follow rules) I practiced brainstorming, taking time to consciously follow thought streams, to notice connections my mind made and following them. I even drew out a big map of them. I made some funny doodles of others instead of writing down the words.
Now, I have spent years in meditation practicing NOT TO DO THIS VERY THING. Do not follow your thoughts, do not string them together, do not assign significance, do not take a break to write anything down or make a doodle! This was a practice separate from meditation and contemplation, which allows for it’s own arising of insight. This was a practice to do what I was not supposed to do. Sit and kind of waste time doing nothing, not solving anything, not fixing or finishing or starting anything. Let myself be frivolous with this precious, precious life we have. In the Third week of class, I was in Phoenix, AZ, waiting for a plane back to Chicago, sitting and doing this frivolous practice, thinking about my visit with family, both born with and chosen. I decided to get my boots shined, an activity I always think about but never do. After waiting for a turn, I strike up a conversation because it’s weird to have someone clean and polish your shoes without talking to them. The shoeshine guy, as it happens, was a lawyer in Ethiopia with a good life, a home, a career. His wife and kids had come to the US in search of a better life and he had waited the better part of year to join them only to now have a job shining shoes in Sky Harbor Airport. What a trade off so that your children have a shot at an education that is more valued in the world, for them to have more doors to open, but for them to lose a part of their Ethiopian culture to accommodate their new American/Ethiopian culture.
A shoe shine lasts maybe 5 minutes. In this short time, this man had gotten to the pith of one of his struggles and conveyed it to me. And in this new age of transience and technology and viewing the world on a screen which was captured through a lens and transmitted through nothing, a lot of emphasis is placed on genuine connection and interaction. But what of these small interactions? I introduced myself and he told me his name but I don’t remember it. Chances are that I will never meet him again, we’ll never be able to catch up, I’ll never tell him how much our interaction had an impact on me. We meet so many people that we can’t possibly maintain a relationship with everyone but does that mean our momentary relationships are meaningless? Or less than the relationships that we hold for years and years?
It is with this mind that I returned to Chicago, read an amazing Facebook post from a friend that perfectly encapsulates the thrill and open hearted-ness that comes with fresh love, caught up on Skype with Megan, and dropped in on the Thursday night Screenprinting class. When I wrote down this bullet pointed stream (I had moved on from the mapping and the doodles to bullet points), I saw this image of a heart, with all it’s ties and tendrils, exposed and vulnerable. I made a mock up of this card that night and decided to make a set of cards and give them out to people, to foster these brief interactions and practice communicating authentically in every meeting, no matter how small. I also decided that it wasn’t fair for me to be so stingy with this project. What if a stranger who receives one of these cards wants to find out what it’s about, or who I am, or leave an opinion of it? Instead of giving out these cards in anonymity, I should be fair and leave myself open to being contacted, to risk receiving their praise, condemnation, or indifference.
There is risk in being available to others and I had formed a method, a practice in my life that minimized this risk and prioritized efficiency and a safe emotional distance. Is connection and vulnerability and openness only to be meted out to the select few who are close to me? It would appear that was my method, my modus operandi. It would also appear that this Practice Makes….. class has given me a new practice, an exercise to atrophy the protective muscles. Practice makes Michelle more accessible. We’ll see, right?
I’ll be giving out these cards as a practice in the next few months. If you have gotten one, it is because I have felt some connection with you, however brief or long standing, that has pulled away this protection and laid my heart bare.