Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Calm After the Storm

I had a fascinating conversation with a friend last week about a new project in which she is engaging. While it is still in its infancy and certainly not mine to discuss, it did open up a dialogue as to how we view art and more specifically, the artist in our very fractured world.

Since that dialogue, I have been extraordinarily fascinated not only by the process of artistic inspiration and creation but also by the role the audience plays in the methodology. What obligation does the artist owe her audience and by extension, what obligation does she owe herself?

Three separate experiences this week have tweaked my consciousness in this regard.

This past weekend The Husband and I embarked on our annual pilgrimage to The Las Olas Art Show. Small in stature compared to others we attend, this exposition tends to involve a more local artist colony with a few notable exceptions. Because of its size, there is a more intimate feel to the displays, the artists are less inundated with crowds, and they are far more interested in chatting with interested onlookers. It isn't at all unusual for us to see repeat vendors, some of which we have been fortunate enough to patronize before and to now check out their latest pieces. Sometimes, we are simply excited to reacquaint ourselves with artisans to whom we have given long looks in the past, but for some reason or other hadn't yet added to our collection. Such was the case on Sunday.

We had seen Daniel Lai's work before at previous shows. His use of recycled books and soft paper materials that he elegantly transforms into quiet and almost zen-like three-dimensional sculptures was an immediate magnet for me. There is quiet beauty in his work and I can almost imagine myself in his head as he transforms his journal thoughts into physical iterations. As we made our way through his small booth, we were fortunate enough to have an extended conversation with him. He was as soft-spoken as his work conveys, but there exists a powerful and obvious fierceness within him as he passionately described his pieces to us. His artist statement is telling.
I often write my experiences in a journal but find it inadequate to convey how I truly feel. As a result, I translate these paragraphs to a visual form that is three-dimensional, simplistic, and often relatable to many. My sculpture series is a three-dimensional journal that conveys snippets of my emotions and feelings toward life; the themes of this series often touch upon knowledge and contemplation. I call these sculptures "three-dimensional hieroglyphs of my experiences." Often times, the true meaning of text and words are just beneath that thin layer of their lexical meaning. In other words, we live in a metaphorical world. Three-dimensional representation of my experience transcends the boundary of words.
He had me at hello.

We purchased a small piece from his Reader series. and I am not exaggerating when I say that I have spent hours since just gazing and losing myself in its grace and peacefulness.

A small final anecdote about Daniel the artist. As we were finalizing our purchase, he asked us some very pointed questions about how we intended to transport the piece. Was it being shipped? Would we be taking it on an airplane? Where would it be in our car and how would we mount it? I promised him that I would take special care with it and then he said...and I will never forget the determination in his eyes as he said it..."Thank you. These are my babies, you know." While it was incredibly important for Daniel to share his work with a wider audience, he made it known to us that while we would be providing a new forever home for his work, it was still his and it was merely on loan to us. I suppose that is the true measure of art. We can enjoy it, revel in it, even purchase it...but we can never truly own it. That is the exclusive purvey of the artist.

So what does the artist owe her audience? Well, over the past ten days I have been privileged to join with a few thousand others in a new private group on Facebook called Harmony in Unison devoted to sharing live Jewish music concerts by the musician/songwriters themselves. The brainchild of Beth Schafer and Stacy Beyer, the idea is to provide a virtual stage for these musicians and to share songs, stories, and experiences across the magical platform of Facebook Live. While there have been a few initial glitches with copyrights and technical issues, the early evening interactive serenades have been nothing short of soul-reviving. The generosity of these artists to freely offer their time and their music to a most willing audience has been nothing short of jaw-dropping. These are people who make their living doing this work, and for them to provide it free of charge is a gift for which every single member of the audience is grateful. Their music has been a tonic for me in these tumultuous times. Over the past few years, I have distanced myself from much of it, but this music is a part of my soul and I am grateful for the opportunity to reconnect with it and with the community. These Jewish music artists inherently understand that their songs carry a spirit that can only be properly served by the continual sharing of it with a welcoming and participating audience. We are the necessary reflection of their prayers and we are the echoes of their soulful voices. If you are interested in joining Harmony in Unison, please add yourself to the group. I am happy to approve your request. You will be glad you did.

Finally, there is the debate about Meryl Streep. I will admit that I didn't see her speech live as I am averse to award shows in general and openly hostile to the Golden Globes in particular. (Subject for a different post.) That said, it was difficult to avoid the viral sensation that Ms. Streep became the following day (I caught her remarks in their entirety on YouTube) and the debate that she has re-ignited as to whether or not performers, sports stars, and other artists have a right to espouse contentious beliefs from their very public platforms.

I was impressed (as I usually am by Meryl Streep) with her poise, dignity, and passion. She never once mentioned the new president by name but she also never once hid her intentions. She was simply espousing a common belief that perhaps bullying and anger were not traits that the people needed nor wanted in their leaders and perhaps the country would be better served if these foibles were controlled. To suggest that the greatest actor of her generation, with more awards to her name than she probably has space to display them, is overrated is a fallacy at worst and folly at best. It's kind of like saying that Picasso designed colouring books. But, that really isn't the issue. Does the actress Meryl Streep pretend that the person Meryl Streep doesn't exist for the sake of the paying audience? Was it correct to yell at the Dixie Chicks to simply "Shut up and Sing" when they had the audacity, in the minds of some, to criticize George W. Bush?

There is no question that the performing artist takes a risk by speaking her mind publicly on contentious issues. Some people can and will look at her with a different lens and it will probably cost her a few fans. (Just ask the Chicks about their falling album sales and aborted concert tours. And fair or unfair, to this day, I can't watch any Mel Gibson movie.) I happen to think Ms. Streep was brave. She is the best of the best and she spoke her mind with a grace and passion that I believe is sorely lacking today. If the artist can't be true to herself, she cannot be true to her audience. She owes her audience her performance on the stage or the screen. She owes the truth of her convictions to herself.

Since the horrors of last Friday and the misery I have found myself surrounded by down here since the election, I have cocooned within the passion and beauty of these magnificent artists. My friend and I discussed the idea of spirals in her work as opposed to circles. I said to her that we tend to think of spirals as a downward trend but what if instead, we were to examine spirals as moving out from something rather than into the depths. Each one of the artistic experiences I had this week has made me believe that we can find joy in the misery and comfort in the tumult. There is hope somewhere in those spirals.


  1. That is a really beautiful piece of art! I agree with you about joy/misery. I have written about that in the past -- that you can find joy in times of great sorrow, as evidenced by how we celebrated my mom at her memorial service, rather than mourning her sudden and unexpected passing. Of course it was very sad, but there were still many happy memories.

  2. This is beautiful. I especially loved "these are my babies, you know." I understand that. My paintings are my babies. They started off as plain sheets of watercolor paper and then, slowly, they came to life and became places, things, etc. It is a special thing to create art.