20 June 2012

Sometimes You Just Need to Flop

My cat Callie, like all felines, is an expert in relaxation. Many times each day, Kevin or I will walk into a room to discover Callie flopped down, stretched out on her back, paws flailing into space, in a state of deep relaxation. We call it "a puddle of silliness" and will warn each other "Watch out! There's a puddle of silliness on the bathroom floor." At which point, the other will tiptoe around the corner to catch a glimpse of a being in a state of complete and utter rest. 

Callie in a deep state of silliness

There's something to consider here: how often do we allow ourselves the opportunity to just flop down and rest? Maybe it's not silliness at all. Maybe it's a super-important state of being. I know I don't take the time to rest--not nearly as often as I should. And I just recently had to relearn that lesson again.

In January, I changed my way of eating to one of whole foods: meats, veggies, a little cheese, berries, and nuts. I stopped eating wheat and sugar and anything that came from a can, bottle, or box or had more than five ingredients. The improvements to my health and well-being were amazing: my rosacea cleared up, leaving my complexion smoother than it had been in years and my blood sugar stabilized, meaning that I didn't have to eat every three hours to prevent headaches. But the stable, sustained energy I gained was even more amazing.

Before I changed my eating habits, I would come home from work, cook dinner, and crash on the couch until bedtime because I just didn't have the energy to do much else. But after I started feeding my body the nutrients it needs, I noticed prolonged energy that would last from morning until night.

My skyrocketing energy levels enabled to take on new projects and new responsibilities. I said “yes” to commitments that I would normally eschew as taking too much out of me. Numerous index cards with project lists are lined up on my kitchen island, helping to keep me on track. From morning to night, I have been working and making progress on projects for home, work, and art. This extended period of productivity has been amazing to me because—although I always work hard, I’ve never been able to sustain that level for months on end without physical collapse. I attribute the change to my new diet and no longer feeding poison to my body. The past five months have been a period of creative bliss, growth, and expansion.

Last week I started to feel a collapse of my mental, rather than physical, energy. I felt intimidated by my to-do lists, rather than energized and encouraged. I wondered why I added yet another exciting, yet time-consuming, commitment onto my already burdened list. I became afraid of failure and anxious about not completing my responsibilities. Everyday problems that are normally manageable, like running out of cat food or forgetting to register the car, started adding to my stress level.

I was feeling overwhelmed and burdened. I was able to recognize some negative thinking that can lead down a dark path. That became my deepest fear—that my feeling of overwhelm would encompass me and spiral me down.

So instead of helplessly watching myself disappear into the dark, I reached out. In talking with friends and family, I came to realize that I was on the edge of burn out and that I really needed to step back and rest. It was a revelation to have them say “Hey, you are under a lot of stress right now. Take it easy on yourself,” because I’m so used to handling things that I forget sometimes I can let things go. I reached out to an online support system that I recently joined. I put my fears out into the world and was inundated with messages of support. I did something formerly unthinkable and asked for help on a project that seemed particularly unmanageable. 

With Cynthia’s help, we shifted the schedule so that I could take four straight days off from work.
The first day, I just sat on on the couch and watched the European Championships and some truly horrible television. Then the next day I read a book for fun and knitted on a shawl for fun—my only goal was enjoyment. Saturday I spent enjoying a street festival and coffee shop with my husband. And on the fourth day, I began to feel strong enough and my mind was clear enough to begin tackling my list and responsibilities again. 

I re-learned the same lesson about balance. I need to take breaks. I need to plan time “off” when I am not being productive and not even thinking about being productive. In the past, my body has served as a natural regulator for overwork. I would break down with illness that required me to do nothing but rest. Now that I have straightened out health problems, my body can keep going, but sometimes I need to just stop and flop. 

How to Find Ways to Flop

1) Talk with friends or loved ones. Often they can provide you a different perspective that can remind you that "Yeah, you do have a lot on your plate and you are not taking the time you need for yourself." We can get so caught up in doing that we don't see the larger picture. Other people can give us a broader view of what's going on and help us know when we need to take a break.

2) Ask for help. This can be a difficult one because we are so used to doing it on our own. It can be hard to say, "Hey, I would love a little help here," because that would be an admission that we can't do it all. But there's a little secret: we can't do it all. Not even if we want to very, very badly. So it's more than okay to ask for help. Think of it this way: if someone you cared about asked for help, wouldn't you be more than willing to help them? That's how your people will feel when you ask them. 

3) Reach out. If your real-life support system is less than supportive, you can find a like-minded online group that will serve to provide virtual support. Sometimes it is helpful just to admit that you are feeling overwhelmed. Being heard and acknowledged is very powerful.

3) Find time for yourself. I'm incredibly lucky in that my work is flexible enough to allow me to take the time I needed. But even if your work isn't as flexible, try to carve out a free hour, free afternoon, free day, or even free weekend when you can rest and recharge. It's paradoxical, but taking time away from your list will help you get through it.

4) Just stop working. Draw an imaginary line on the clock past which you will no longer work. In my case, I just stop working after 9:00 p.m. at which point I'll pick up my knitting and watch a movie or settle in with a good book. Let yourself wind down before bed and turn off that need to be productive around the clock.

5) Know that this will pass. Life can throw some really nasty curve balls and sometimes, no matter what strategies we use, it's all we can do to manage them. In these instances, the best thing we can do is keep breathing and taking it one step at a time. Focus on the present moment, rather than what you need to do in the future or what happened in the past. Taking things one breath at a time makes it more manageable.

6) If all else fails, get yourself a cat and flop when they flop.

10 June 2012

Incubation Inspiration

I've been working hard to find ways to incorporate both paint and stitch in my work in a coherent manner. I get closer and closer to finding a method each time I try something new. So doing the work is a very important part of the process. As important as it is to actually do the work, I am finding that it is also critically important to take time away from the work as well.

Back in January, I wrote about my struggles finishing paintings with patchwork and stitched frames. I posted a picture of some pieced borders I had sewn to a painting, but I was never happy with it. It was too predictably patchwork with the multi-color pieced border. There was nothing innovative about it. But even worse, to my mind, there was nothing expressive about it. It looked like any old quilt border sewn onto a painting.


So two months ago I cut the borders right off and played with raw-edge applique to create a border that I then quilted with an irregular grid pattern. This made me happy because it felt like it was getting closer to my intention and my vision.

A month later, I played with the idea some more with a photo of a bridge I took with Instagram. (You can find me there as kimberly_paints. I follow everyone who follows me.) While I really liked it the effect,  I felt that it lacked presence and didn't feel substantial enough as it was just a small floppy quilted piece. (I am still playing with different ideas adding substance to the piece.)

And just this past week, I had another inspiration during my commute home. I took the basic idea of raw-edge applique and grid quilting, but stretched it around a canvas. That made me happy because it added that presence that I felt was lacking.

So today my intention was to return to the studio and continue working on my finishing conundrum. But it was a glorious Central Pennsylvania summer Sunday and I found myself drawn to planting flowers and vegetables in my garden, reading on the back deck, knitting while watching Spain vs. Italy, and going for a meditative walk.

I didn't enter my studio until well after dinner. I painted for twenty minutes and then decided to pull fabrics to frame this small painting.

I chose a wide range of colors thinking that I would create a border much like the previous pieces.

But as I started placing the painting on the fabrics in different configurations, I wasn't happy at all. I didn't want it to be derivative or predictable. I wanted to take another step forward.

And then, like a flash in the night, I had an image of an appliqued frame that echoed the motifs of the painting. The painting itself would be mounted on a piece of black duck cloth. The appliqued shapes would be stitched to a background of osnaburg that had been painted to resemble the background of the painting. And then the entire piece would be stretched around a canvas.

I grabbed a sketchpad and pen and quickly captured my idea so that I wouldn't forget it.

I am learning that as important as it is for me to do the work, it is equally important for me to take time away from the work. I had a relaxing day that was clarifying and was a break--a  pause--from the constancy of work. While I was enjoying myself, my subconscious was still mulling my creative conundrum.

Doing the work is essential, but it may be in the pauses where the greatest growth happens.

06 June 2012

A Little Bird Told Me On the Drive Home

My beautiful commute takes me past sheep farms, dairy farms, a llama farm, and through some state game lands. I'm very grateful for the quiet country roads that I traverse twice daily. It's a familiar path I've followed for over ten years. Other traffic is minimal--I may encounter a handful of cars along the way--and the driving is pleasant. Once I came across a roving herd of cows. Traffic was barely mooo-ving that day.
It's a twice-daily twenty-minute drive that I enjoy. Because it's so pleasant, I find I can use the driving time productively. Sometimes I practice mindfulness exercises: maybe I look for the color blue in all its hues or maybe I look for things that have changed, which helps me become attuned to the seasons. Other times, I use the time for problem solving. When I'm in the midst of figuring out how to construct the block-of-the-month quilt, I drive around for weeks considering different construction methods and how to write about them. And sometimes, my drive is full of flights of fancy where I let my creative imagination soar.

Last night, as I was driving home, I started thinking about a question that I have been working with for some time: how to incorporate both my painting and my stitching into coherent pieces. I'm enraptured by painting, there's no doubt about that, but I still want to use my stitching. It was through quilting that I found my creative path, so it's important for me to honor and incorporate my stitching background into my work. I'm been trying different ways to meld them both together, but haven't quite found the combination that makes my heart sing.

As I was driving, I began playing with different possibilities in my mind. It was a very fruitful and fast process. The best way I can describe it is that it felt like swiping from one picture to the next on my iPhone: one idea would appear, I would examine and ask questions of it, and then a modified idea would appear. I came home with a handful of potential ideas to try.

And so after a delicious dinner of grilled ribeye and asparagus followed by strawberries and cream (nothing beats seasonal, local eats), I went into my studio and started fooling around with fabric. I started pulling pale shades of aqua and green, which lead me to pale yellows and peaches. I placed them on a piece of felt in a colorwash design and stitched them down using an irregular grid. I grabbed some unpainted paper cloth and cut out a bird and the letters S-O-A-R. I marked them with pencil and then used light washes of acrylic ink to add color. Then I stitched them down. I stretched the piece around an old canvas (learning how to use and load a staple gun in the process) and called it finished.
Stretching the piece around canvas gives it a presence that I like. It has more structure than a flat, floppy quilted wallhanging. It also makes a deeper connection with painting. I need to perfect my folded corners, but that will come.

The other idea I want to try--and I don't think this is the right piece for it--is brushing gloss medium onto the piece after it is stretched. I've played a little with gloss medium on quilted patchwork before and I really like how it confounds expectations: it looks like fabric but is shiny.
As I'm playing with mixing media I'm discovering new perspectives on stitching, painting, and art. It will be interesting to see where future commutes take me.

01 June 2012

The Artist Formerly Known as Punxsutawney Phil

The creative process is so juicy and lush with possibilities. I love reading blogs by people who open up and share all the fruits of their process--whether it be successes, stumbles, or sidetracks. Reading someone else write "Yay! I just had this great success," or "Hey, you know what? This went wrong for me, but here's what I learned and here's how I'm going to move on from it," or "The project I'm working on is leading me to ask these questions and I'm going to follow that path, even though the destination is unknown," is very inspirational. It's raw and open and honest and I believe that the best art comes from expressing the real essence of ourselves.

But as a blogger, I've taken a more Punxsatawney Phil approach. Every now and then I'll pop up, give a quick status report, and then return to hibernation mode, not to blog again for months. During those months, there are juicy things happening inside my studio and inside me, but I tend to keep them to myself, preferring to only blog when I have things set in my mind.

Over the past few months I have been deeply engaged in painting. I mentioned way back in January that I had started painting and had fallen in love with it. And then I disappeared into my studio not to be heard from again. During that time I took the BIG online painting class with Connie Hozvicka of Dirty Footprints Studio (who I absolutely love and is one of my blogging artist heroes). It's not an overstatement to say that that class radically changed me.

What made the class so real is that the focus was really on process, rather than product. We were encouraged to blog on the class website about our experiences--whether good, bad, or ugly. I had to be mindful of the painting process and pay attention to my internal chatter, listen to what my inner critic saying, and discover when I was being resistant. But it was also about figuring out what was going well and what worked.

It was about sharing my experience and listening to the experience of the other students. Someone would write about their struggles and I would know exactly what they meant. Or I would write about my challenges and someone (most often several someones) would offer me a new perspective that would help me breakthrough.

Going into the class, I made a commitment to myself to participate deeply and share openly about my process with the other students. And so I found that the more honest I was, the more I learned.

And that has made me rethink my blog. I don't want this blog to be a stage showplace, where I pop up every few months, say "Ta-Da," and unveil my latest works. I want it to be as messy and honest and real as my experiences in the studio. That means sharing my process, warts and all. That means sharing my art. In some ways, that scares the daylights out of me. I fear someone commenting, "That face looks weird. Why do you think you can paint?" But the truth is those words truly reflect my own insecurities and struggles with my art.

Today I did something terrifying. I started a new painting last night and this morning I posted a picture of the in-process painting on facebook. And you know what? No one said the face looked weird or that the arms were funny. Those who commented were totally sweet and supportive. And really, even if someone did say something critical, it wouldn't really matter. The reality is: I am learning. But the deeper reality is: I am painting and writing from an open, honest place that reflects the best part of me. As long as I do that--as long as we do that, as long as we work from the deepest, most true part of ourselves, then our work is successful.

And so I will breath deep and share with you my final class project from Connie's class. Are there things I would differently? Are there parts I could improve? Sure, but we can always say that about things. But it's rich with personal symbolism about becoming a painter and living a BIG life. And it comes from an open space in my heart. And so I wish to share that with you.

My deepest wish is that your creative path be fruitful and juicy.