Sunday, September 30, 2012

Interesting Illustrations

Sometimes, being an illustrator is easy. There are days when drawing is painless and the images rush and flow from the pencil as if the graphite was lured onto the paper by Odysseus's Sirens, to be trapped on the page, which is transformed into a more forgiving place forever and always. The shapes are lovely, the shadows rich and supple. Its a world where ugly is transformed into fine art and becomes a thing of beauty simply because it was rendered with a pencil. Plain becomes interesting and mysterious. The blank white page comes alive with emotion and the artist... yes, me... I cannot believe what I have created.

I am stunned and filled with fear that this thing I have created sucked my stores dry and there is no more where that came from. I study it, find faults that no one will ever see and worry a little about what I will do with such an amazing creation. I can't keep everything. Like children, they must be set free to find their place in the world. I like the idea that there is artwork out there that I created, but don't know exactly who is currently looking at it and whether or not they have come up with the proper interpretation.

I take a picture of these great works and stare at them until I nod off and my ipod slips out of my hand and hits me in the nose. This indicates a good day's work.

On occasions, the illustrations come hard and heavy and the creating is chore. The lines awkward, the strokes offend the image. Nothing flows with peace and abandon. Rending becomes an effort like dragging glass over wet boulders, they slip and break on the rugged surface, shattering, leaving shards that cut and scrape. Every line is carved. It is easy to abandon, but this work must be completed, whether it is for an assignment or commission, the work must be completed. This is when it is difficult to draw.

I have been known to question myself where my art is concerned. I admit, I am a demon in my own head. I keep looking for my "style" to emerge and feel disappointed that all I see is the same old me... my style.

I draw, paint, render, print, sew, bake.... etc. I do it as I have always done it. I am careful, controlled, rigid, methodical and... I am hopeful, enthusiastic, enamored, playful, creative and in love. I am all of these things when it goes well, leaving less of the left brain qualities behind while I dive freely into a pool of the more engaging characteristics of my art self.

Still, all of these qualities and more are present when the art flows as well as when it doesn't. I never leave any of them behind, so when it goes badly, it is really my perception that is skewed. I know that when I am disappointed, its not really half as bad as I think it is. I don't really give myself a break and yet, I can look at any other drawings and find the glory, well rendered or not. I love gazing upon the artwork of children. I can see a love for the process of art in them and that is beautiful thing.

My first child, Courtney, spent many years feeling as if she missed the creative art gene that the rest of us all have. She felt her work was never good enough. I do know the feeling and maybe she was echoing my doubts about my own abilities. But the main characteristic of her artistic discontent was that she didn't love the process. Art is messy and she wanted it to be perfect. The one thing art is not.

When Courtney left home to attend college in Bellingham, she began to explore her art self, in the same way I explored design at Central. She launched an expedition through the uncharted territory of her creativity that was quite amazing, creating interesting art using any medium she could obtain... all the while claiming she wasn't an artist.

When I attended Central Washington University, I discovered a different world in art and its relationship to communication and design. That was my focus. Occasionally, I produced a drawing that wasn't technically perfect, but I loved it anyway and even though I didn't have an ipod to stare at before I fell asleep, I would sit in our tiny kitchen late into the night and look at what I made with my hand and a pencil. I did that with many of my works, but with my Self-Portrait from 1983, I feel wonder every time I look at it. Sometimes it feels amazing.

It was like that when Courtney came home from college and showed us this urgent need to create a charcoal drawing. She was driven and it was a strange thing to watch someone who felt like a left-brainer attack this artwork like a full-blown, obsessed artist... and she wasn't free until she finished the thing.

This piece is my favorite of her now vast body of artwork.  I loved the lines and the energy and her commitment to finish or to get it right.  It was perfect.

I know a well-drawn work of art gets the glory, but, what makes it interesting is loving the process.

As I begin a quarter of Advanced Drawing, I am going to give myself a break and try not to be the perfectionist. I am going to learn and lose control and draw freely. No mistakes will be made, because art is joy, the process is love and the result is a gift.

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up. — Pablo Picasso

Smoking, Courtney Cline, 2010 Charcoal 

My Self-Portrait from 1983 - Pencil on Newsprint

Friday, September 7, 2012

Helping Hands

The art of helping is a delicate thing. There are so many different ways to do it right and so many people doing the work. This is a good thing. Helping doesn't necessarily mean we have to roll up our sleeves and get dirty.  Sometimes it’s as simple or maybe as difficult as writing a check and sending it in the mail.

Every effective organization needs money to get the job done and that person, who sent money instead of joining the mission, becomes an equal partner in the solution. Everyone helps in his or her own way, and this is extremely important.  Who am I to tell anyone how or where they should direct their energies to make a difference in this world of so many areas of need. I don't think it matters how we help, what matters is that we do help. Purchasing Fair Trade products or even buying a pair of Toms shoes helps someone else in the world. Help is help.

There are people who change their world simply by the nature of their career or job.  My husband is a special education teacher and every day he is dedicated to his work with students. He loves his job and has loved it for 25 years.

Nurses, shelter employees, counselors and psychologists (and so many others) also heal, protect, and listen to, interpret, advocate, assist, and on and on.

I recently had the opportunity to meet another kind of job-related helper on a team building challenge ropes course for our office retreat.  Let's call this helper "Travis."

One of the new terms I have learned through my job and our training workshops is "Vegas Rules." You know, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." I find I quite like this rule. I am bound by Vegas Rules not to reveal any information about other people on this retreat. But, I do feel I can share my personal experience because I have decided there is a true art to facilitating a challenge course where participants are expected to expose themselves and learn to trust their coworkers. And this facilitator is my focus... well not really.  This is about me.

I have never participated in an event like this before and spent a great deal of energy trying to get out of attending. I somehow knew I would not like to be "exposed" to this ropes course and imagined all nature of horrors such as not being physically capable of mastering some of the unknown challenges and facing humiliation, granted in my head, as I imagined people trying to push my less than physically fit, 52 year old body over a wall like Richard Gere did during the obstacle course scene in "An Officer and a Gentleman." This is only a small example of what my mind was doing to myself and despite all this, I did end up attending.

So, about this helpful person... the moment Travis introduced himself and began to lead us through the forest and had us doing simple exercises to determine how well we worked as a team, I trusted him. I couldn't begin to define why this was so, but maybe it began with his straight talk and direct eye contact. Those mannerisms alone would be solid lead points for building trust.

Travis is a big man, sturdy and a little imposing with close-cropped hair, good skin and a sense of humor. He exuded physical and mental strength, helpful qualities for a man in his position.

He also explained everything we were about to do and what he expected from us. First thing, individuals have the right to exclude themselves from any activity in which they do not wish to participate.  Another important point he made was a little explanation about comfort zones.  He threw a few nylon harnesses on the ground and arranged them like a target. He stood in the smallest center circle and said, "This is your comfort zone." Then, as he stepped out of the smaller circle into the larger circle, he said, "this is your risk zone. This is where I want you to be today." Then he stepped out of that circle into the unconfined area and said, "This is the Death Zone.  This is not where you want you to go today. We clear?"

This little graph should help:

Most of the information out there refers to the outermost ring as the Panic Zone. Travis called it the Death Zone... I will stick with that.

I spend a great deal of time in my Comfort Zone.  A huge part of my brain spends time making sure people won't notice me, or more specifically, notice that I am fat. It's a really silly exercise to think I can manipulate this perception because, logically, I know people see me exactly how I am.  This fact doesn't hold much real estate in any practical region of my brain. Emotionally, I've got the Klingons running all over the place, strapping me into a cloaking device that indeed, hides me from all the perceived judgment going on in my head while at the same time, keeps me firmly rooted in my boring little Comfort Zone. Yes, that place where fear lives and action is limited or sporadic.

Now, here we are back at the challenge course and I am keeping up with my team.  We are weaving in and out of trees, suspended a foot or two above the forest floor, by ropes, widely spaced 4x4 posts in the ground or large staples protruding from the trees, creating a foothold. We must stay linked by a body part, hand, foot, hips, etc., as we weave our way through the ropes. A quarter of the way through the course and I'm sweating.  If I shake my head, my teammates would get drenched.

Our challenges have gotten more difficult and I have this thought in my head that if I can do it, it's too easy.  Is this the Risk Zone? My death zone would have been falling off the course and making my team start all over again so I am certainly not complaining as I hang on. We finally reach the end and I haven't yet let them down and feel quite proud of that fact, when our guide directs us to the area where we will really be tested.

We enter a clearing in the woods and just beyond Travis' head, I see a clearing with a huge wooden wall looming up into the trees.  I swallow hard.  We are here, not there, I tell myself and concentrate on the rules and directions our facilitator is sharing with us.

When I refocus, I see that we are expected to climb, while strapped into a harness and safety cables, 50 feet up a tree using those dratted staples that caused my feet to scream at me while on the low ropes. We climb up and maneuver ourselves onto a log suspended between two trees. Once on this log, we balance and walk across, maybe 30 feet, ring a cowbell, turn and then walk back to the middle of this beam.  Once there, we turn around and sit back into the open air, while our team brings us safely back to earth, where we kiss the ground and thank Heaven we are back in the United States.

While Travis is tossing around what looks to me like diaper harnesses, I have officially stepped into the Risk Zone. I am not looking at the trees anymore. Nope. Who the hell cares about the trees, the balance beam, the cowbell... no I am looking at these harnesses and they look soooo small.  I can feel my blood pressure rise as my coworkers are buckling themselves into these little bits of nylon and steel. The vein throbs in my neck sparking the idea, "if I have a heart attack, I will get out of this."

I look at Travis until he establishes eye contact and I ask him "who's got the biggest harness?"

He points to one of the young men in our group. "He does."

I look over at the harness and watch as a slim, small stature man pulls the strap tight over his stomach, which is an average-sized stomach, some would say even normal for his height and weight.

I glance back at Travis, who is probably quite intuitive and has continued to watch me unravel in tiny degrees from 15 feet away. I know everyone can hear my next words. "That is too small. It won't fit."

And BAM! I'm in my Death Zone.  I can feel myself tear up and I am trying not to show my panic. Did I just say that in public?

A few minutes later, I am looking up at the young fit people climbing the pole one after the other... success. Success. Success. I will not establish eye-contact with anyone, except my coworker standing next to me, someone who is actually closer to my age than anyone on my team, puts his arm around me and says "its okay. Just go slow, work your way up and don't look down. You can do it, Darcy." It occurs to me that I know I won't look down because my stomach would just get in the way.

I did look him in the eye and nod. He was so nice to try to reassure me but I can't maintain eye contact because, although my Death Zone receded a bit, I know there is someone in this group who is now thinking about my stomach and once I think about this fact, my Death Zone expands.

An hour passes rather quickly and everyone has taken a turn… everyone except me.  Travis asks me if I would feel more comfortable in a full torso harness.

"Will it fit?" I don't say me because I am still doing that thing I do where I try to make sure no one notices ME.

"Yes." He assures me and then walks through the group, down a path and disappears from sight.

Well now I am all alone in the middle of this crowd. I didn't realize how much I needed his calm assurance until I didn't have it to keep me from wondering what the group was doing. It reminded me of labor made easier by having a focal point.  Travis was my focal point.

As the last one to climb the tree, I think everyone is watching and observing that Travis is out of the area and I am not wearing a harness.  I don't know if they are thinking about my stomach, but I am and I can feel a surge of panic like I have never felt in my life. It brings tears to my eyes just writing it.

Travis returns and I feel simultaneously reassured and panicky. He tosses this new harness on the ground and arranges it so it looks like I am stepping onto his version of the comfort zone target and I glimpse a fleeting thought that I am so far away from safety, I can't remember how to get back, so I am obediently following directions and ignoring the fact that he can't buckle this new super huge harness over my stomach.

I look at him and realize, it doesn't matter what I do now; I am exposed. The tears begin falling in earnest although Travis has done nothing to spark them... well other than get down on his knees in front of me and fiddle with my harness. He keeps looking up at me, checking my status, I'm sure.  Then he stands, crosses his arms and contemplates my Death Zone... still, again, more.

He is as comfortable in his contemplation as I am uncomfortable with it and after an excruciatingly long moment that was probably no more than three seconds, he disappears from my sight again.

I don't move. The straps around my upper thighs and over my shoulders restrain my body.  I have no idea what my team is doing... I can't even look at them. I feel like the straps are pushing and pulling at me from behind but I know the pressure point where the cables are attached so my people can bring me down safely are in the front. I try to draw in a full breath but feel pressure around my lungs like I do when I am having an asthma episode.  My breathing is shallow, as it tends to do when I speak in public. Given that, I know I have three minutes before I start to see stars.

I see his boots as he steps back into my personal bubble; Travis has three big hiking clips in his hand.  As he clips them across my body, I begin the sobbing.

He looks me in the eyes and we are literally face-to-face. The knuckles of both his hands are digging into my stomach as he checks the strength of the linked hiking clips. "Are you okay?" This is the first time he has addressed my panic issue and I feel like I am totally the wreck of the day.  His sincere eyes are searching mine for some sign of retreat. "You don't have to do it," he says, as he stands ready to unhook everything he has just rigged together.

I can see it in his face.  He will stand down, no judgment... just say the word.

It's at this point it occurs to me that to everyone else, it might appear that I am afraid of heights. Through my sobs I tell him "I'm okay. I'm okay. I'm just processing."  I don't even know why I said that.  I am devastated and I am trying to reassure him that he doesn't have to worry about me. I'll be fine even though you just spent an hour in my "no-man's land."

"I am not afraid of heights." I say and think to myself that he was the only one who heard that as I move towards the tree, with the soundtrack of my team shouting out encouragement.

The good news is now that my stomach isn't the center of attention, I stop crying and get down to the business of climbing.

Some would say I am a pessimist. Some people also might think a realist is a pessimist but that is not always true.  I think I am a realist in that I know what my body can and can't do, which is why I wanted to stay home in my comfort zone and not go on any ropes courses and not climb any trees.

My arms are just not strong enough to pull my weight up a 50-foot tree.  I knew I could only go up so far before my arms or my knees would give out. I know this about myself. I am heavy and I cannot do chin-ups or knee-bends. I know this and I wanted to do it anyway because I had to see how far I could push myself.

The climb was rough even from the start.  That harness was so confining that it felt like it took twice as much muscle to lift my legs up against the resistance of the straps on my thighs. And as I hefted myself up each staple, I had to extend my arms to ease my stomach away from the tree and then up because the hiking clips around my front kept snagging on the bark each time I took a step up.

I knew that everyone was watching me, I wasn't imagining it. I could not hide on that crawl up the tree. I also knew that Travis was keeping his eyes on me too.  He watched every person climb up that day and I felt his focus as he made sure his contraption was doing it's job.

That day in the woods, I tried.  I made it about 40 feet before I just couldn't lift my arms up. I heard my team shouting "YOU CAN DO IT," but I knew when my fingers were slipping from the staples and my legs seemed paralyzed I was not going to get up to the beam.  I saw it was about 10 feet away but my arms were done. I couldn't do it.

It was fine. I would have liked to have made it up and walked across the top of the forest but it really didn't matter to me. I had already done the one thing I never, ever do.

I show people who I am in many ways in relationship to my work or my art. I reveal my feelings all the time. I like people to know me as a wife, a mom, a friend, an artist, a mission leader, a student, a coworker, a helping hand....

The fact is I am fat. That is not a slur or insult. It's just what it is. However, I never point to my stomach and scream to the world "Look at this! Do you see how this limits me?" That day in the woods as Travis was contemplating my girth and carefully, creatively strapping me into the harness, I knew I was pointing at my Death Zone.

I was clearly upset by his attention or more accurately, at where it was directed, but he never wavered in his calm matter-of-fact demeanor. Every move he made that day and every comment he made was solid, get the job done, attitude. I believe there is art to guiding people through difficult hurdles. They must remain objective. He wasn't thrown off at all by my unruly emotions.  That was reassuring. Travis is worthy of trust.

When I let go of the tree and was lowered to the ground, I was not disappointed at all. I was exhausted, emotionally. I let Travis unhook me and I carried on.  I shouted to my teammates throughout the rest of the course, offering my support for others, but not accepting invitations to climb any more trees. Travis offered to strap me in again after everyone had jumped off another tree onto a trapeze, but I declined. I didn't have enough left in me to give everyone present another opportunity to see that I was not afraid of heights.

Early in the day, when we were planning strategies for the low ropes and how we should proceed through the course, I had expressed a thought that I would like to have people who had done ropes courses before interspersed with inexperienced individuals. The rest of the group didn't agree and continued to separate teams based on experience.

Travis said, "wait!" He looked around at everyone and said, "you have a team member who just expressed a need and you ignored it."

I, like the rest of my coworkers, was perfectly willing to ignore my needs because I moved right along to form a newbies team.

When Travis called us out, I was embarrassed, but I knew immediately that he was there for each of us and like anyone who excels at their job, he would facilitate this group in the best way possible, not just for me, but for himself because he couldn't do any less. He did that when he didn't mince words, made us listen, or when he challenged each team member to risk more, walk backwards, do it blindfolded, take a risk.

I don't know if Travis understood what my problem was, or that it even mattered. It was the way he handled it. No differently than he would for anyone.

In our meetings, after training sessions, we are asked, "What was the takeaway from this experience?"

Well, I am still fat and after you've read this I really have pointed to my stomach and said, "Look!" No reason to pretend otherwise.  Only time will tell what I have learned from this experience.  I think about how lucky it was that my boss wouldn't let me off the hook and insisted I go on the retreat because I would have felt so outside this excellent group of people, had I not attended and learned about them and myself (not just on the ropes course, but for the whole retreat.)  My job requires me to create artwork that will affect their events so we are tied together, invested in each other and that’s a good takeaway.

As for the rest? Acceptance is an art I have yet to master. I can learn from Travis in the way he accepted what is real and relevant to the situation. 

I was horrified to have someone openly looking at and thinking about my stomach. I had no idea how tightly I wrap my arms around my body to protect me from being hurt or how my efforts to be liked make me hide myself to try to make others more comfortable in my presence.

I am at peace with the events of that day in the woods and I rather like that I fell apart, because it really showed me where my absolute vulnerability lies. 

Here's a little gem.

There’s something liberating about not pretending. 
Dare to embarrass yourself. Risk. – Drew Barrymore

I can't pretend anymore.

All Strapped In       ----      Almost There       ----       Coming Down