Art and About
Engaging with the creative force in everyday life

January 27th, 2008

Dispensation at the Kitchen Sink

Posted by christina in Web Columns

I am captivated by the newest art statement in my house. When I’m in the room with it, I’m mesmerized by it. When I’m out of the room, I contemplate its color, composition and form. It is my new kitchen soap dispenser.

Most everything that goes in public view around our house gets over-thought by our personal design review committee co-chaired by my husband and myself. Heck, even the stuff in our private spaces is placed and displayed with great intention. It is Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message” to the hilt. We’re overeducated control freaks striving to control the messages we’re sending through our art, our furniture, our accessories and even our utilitarian products. We buy handsome things, however we don’t go out of our way to make a full-fledged art statement with a simple spoon or a coffee maker or a vacuum. We like these items to be functional and within budget, and hopefully fit into our aesthetic ideals as well.

The soap dispenser was a quickie purchase made to replace our broken soap dispenser. I can’t say I didn’t think about my choice at all, but I certainly wasn’t looking to make an art statement. In fact, I didn’t want to draw attention to the soap dispenser at all. The one I was replacing was an oil-rubbed bronze that melded discreetly into our chocolate-brown Zodiac countertop. I doubt anyone looked twice at it, which was the goal.

The new dispenser is shouting for attention. It is a clear glass jar adorned with hand-painted red apples and variegated green leaves. It is probably more suitable in a country style kitchen than in our contemporary home. I like folk art, which is why it caught my eye, but I initially rejected it because of its country-ish flair. But the red and the green matched the color of our kitchen and the adjacent room, and like I said, I do like folk art, so I thought I would give it a try. Thematically, it sits within a few feet of a garden window in which I have three large glass bowls constantly filled with fruit, and I thought the motif might work. Still, with all this thought, I didn’t consider this an art purchase as I put it in my cart.

The magical moment occurred when I filled it with soap. We use a fairly standard anti-bacterial orange hand soap, which I actually find to be an unsettling color. But it is the one brand that our whole family agrees doesn’t smell too much like perfume and doesn’t feel too much like lotion. I have always bought opaque soap dispenser to hide the color. I knew I had made a big exception because of those apples on a clear jar.

But as that liquid soap filled the dispenser, it was transformed into glorious amber nectar creating a stunning backdrop to the apples and leaves. It looks like mango honey with the light shining through it. The color picks up on our copper backsplash and the array of autumn-hued flecks in the countertop. The vibrancy of the amber, red and green combination play off the bowls of tomatoes, oranges and lemons I currently have in the garden window. The scene buzzes with the energy of a successful still life.

Now, when I come out in the morning and flip on the kitchen light, I am greeted by this stunning display. In the afternoon, as I zip through the kitchen preparing meals and snacks, I take a moment to appreciate the dispenser. At night, when the dishwasher is filled and I shut down the kitchen for another day, I take one last look at the scenic sink area. I feel giddy from such an unexpected artistic interaction. It’s good to be out of control for a change.

January 20th, 2008

Drawing Courage From Our Children

Posted by christina in Web Columns

My son came to the breakfast table with a pencil and paper and asked, “What’s your favorite drawing utensil, Mommy?” The question caught me off guard. It was an unusual topic to start the day’s communication. I also didn’t have an immediate answer. I only draw when I have to. Just about the moment I decided I to answer “pencil,” he jumped in and volunteered that his favorite drawing utensil was the pencil because he could erase stuff. I agreed that I would also pick the pencil for that reason.

If you have children, you may have been called upon to use your drawing skills in ways you haven’t attempted since you were a child. Of course, there are those of you who draw well and regularly, whether there are children or no children in your lives. Then there are the rest of us.

When my children were very young, I realized I had a lot of anxiety about drawing for them. I have always wished my brain and my hand had a little better relationship so that the pictures I see in my head come out the tips of my fingers through the pencil and onto the page. Intellectually, I understand how drawings are made of basic shapes put together. But even compiling shapes for me is a frustrating experience. If drawing were a foreign language, it would be like understanding vocabulary in my head but being unable to make it come out of my mouth.

I was comforted to learn that I wasn’t the only parent who was shy about drawing for her children. Being asked to draw a horse or an airplane was making parents sweat all around me. We shared insecurities about making unintentionally abstract art, which would cause our kids to furrow their brows and ask, “What is that, Mommy?”

One year, my sister-in-law gave my daughter the gift of a “paint date” for her birthday. My daughter was two and loved to paint, paint, paint. Auntie Erin came over and planned to spend the morning in painting nirvana. While the two were getting started at the easel, Erin confessed to me that she was worried about her own product. She envied my daughter’s uninhibited approach to paint, and wondered aloud why a two-year-old paints better than she does. I nodded in empathy.

I’ve been a mother for seven years now and I have collected many compliments on my drawings of horses and airplanes from my kids. They also like the way I paint. I’m starting to relax a little about drawing in front of them, and I am re-learning the basics of drawing as I talk them through making horses and airplanes themselves. I have been forced to draw more in the last seven years than I have since I was very young. I don’t remember being much of a doodler. Once words were in my grasp, I killed time by writing instead of drawing and my drawing development didn’t get very far. I am now making up for lost time.

Drawing happens to be my parental bugaboo. I know some parents feel self-conscious about their voices and are afraid to sing to their children. I know some feel funny about dancing in view of the children. To these people, I am the first one to encourage them to let loose in front of children. They are a very forgiving audience, and when they are young, their parents are godlike creatures whom they adore. Your kids don’t care if you sing off key or look like a dancing dork or are drawing-challenged. They love you because you’re you.

Maybe children are sent into our lives to help us un-inhibit ourselves. Maybe they are sent to free us from the creative chains of bondage we slap on ourselves. With children, we’ve all been given a creative second shot with a totally accepting and loving audience. Since this is the type of support we give them as they learn new skills, it’s a nice reciprocity when they provide us the same developmental encouragement.

January 13th, 2008

Imagination is Intelligence Having Fun

Posted by christina in Web Columns

“Imagination is intelligence having fun” is an anonymous quote that is one of my favorite sentiments. It helps me keep in perspective the inherent intelligence of children, all children, who are born with magnificent imaginations and gravitate toward imaginative play. Anyone who has watched their privilege child opt for playing with the Christmas boxes rather than the shiny, spiffy toy inside has seen this in action.

Sometimes as adults, it is not so much fun to use our imagination. If we can solve a problem by buying a solution, or paying someone else to come up with a solution, then we often take the easy road. Like any other mental ability, using our imagination takes practice and if we don’t practice, it becomes harder to do.

Christmas is almost three weeks ago, but a Christmas conundrum from this year will undoubtedly be churning away in my imagination for the next 11 months. Our tradition is to cut down our own Christmas tree, and this year was no exception. My husband and I had a brief discussion about whether we would be better environmental citizens by getting an artificial tree, but we opted for the tradition because the arguments for real versus fake keep the scale almost balanced. We know that having no tree at all is best, but we are not quite ready for that step yet.

The difference between this year’s tree felling and year’s past was that we cut down a huge tree. The biggest our house could fit — 9 1/2 feet high and fairly bushy. It was the culmination of a quest I began 13 years ago when my husband and I went searching for our first tree together. As a child, I always wanted Clara’s mega tree from the San Francisco Ballet production of “The Nutcracker.” As an adult, I intended to get as close as I could. We kept buying houses with high ceilings, and I always envisioned a tree scraping the top, but none ever did before this year.

I knew that this year’s tree was THE tree the moment I approached it at the tree farm. The family didn’t disagree and a mighty effort was put forth by all of us to chop it down. It was heavy and awkward, but we got it home and decorated and it was magnificent. Underneath it, I placed some large-scale family wood toys of a rocking chair, rocking airplane and train to represent the over-scale toys under the giant tree in “The Nutcracker.” The effect was better than I ever imagined.

Except for one thing. I felt great guilt for killing this mighty tree just to decorate our house for a month. My head told me it was beautiful but my heart was conflicted. Here’s a true confession: I usually talk to our Christmas trees, offering a “good morning” and “good night” as I water them each day, calling them “Mr. Tree” and making sure they are given proper anthropomorphic attention for the important purpose they serve in our holiday celebrations. I never called this year’s tree “Mr. Tree” and barely said a word to him. It was the elephant in the room — he was dying for our pleasure and I couldn’t look him in the eye and admit that.

I convinced myself that this tree was our call to action to stop killing trees. I started introducing our tree to people as “our last living Christmas tree.” After Christmas, we shopped some artificial tree sales, got some branch samples, and pondered what a reasonable budget would be for a fairly frivolous and extravagant purchase. How much is an artificial expression of a tradition dating back hundreds of years worth? We couldn’t arrive at a satisfactory answer. We nixed the potted tree solution as impractical because I would really like the ultra-large tree. I started exploring other ways to express the tradition that may be a little more metaphorical or abstract. No solutions yet.

The decorations came down on Epiphany and our waste management company was coming to collect trees the next day. Our tree was still drinking a lot of water meaning he was far from dead. Instead of sending him with the compost truck right away, we removed the ornaments and lights, but re-erected him in the tree stand on the patio outside our living room so we can continue to enjoy his majesty as long as it reigns.

The first night out, it rained and we awakened to a sunny but cold January morning with water droplets shimmering on the tree branches. At breakfast, my husband commented that they looked like small lights with the sun shining through them. My kids saw the “lights”, and then described the “ornaments” they could also see among the branches with the light playfully weaving through. In our imaginations, the tree is still decorated and standing proud — maybe even more glorious in his natural environment than he was in our home.

One thing I know for sure: Whether we end up cutting another tree, purchasing an artificial one, buying an artistic representation of a tree, making an artistic tree ourselves or finding an alternate solution to honoring the tree tradition, this year’s tree will be the gold standard as we endeavor to match nature’s sculpting of branches and needles. He has challenged our imagination to intelligently come up with a solution.

January 6th, 2008

Missing the Forest for the Trees

Posted by christina in Web Columns

I ended 2007 by doing something I’ve never done before. I’ve never even had the impulse to do it before. I gave money to a street performer in San Francisco.

Calling this woman a street performer sounds somehow degrading and demeaning. She fits the definition since she was performing on the street, with a box open to receive money, at a random time of day with one continuous act that had no real beginning, middle or end. Her powerful mezzo-soprano filled the alley she had chosen, a space I am sure she picked for acoustical value rather than the amount of foot traffic that passed by. She was on Maiden Lane, just off Union Square, while all the other street performers were outside the major tourist areas and department stores. She was more off the beaten path, but it worked to her advantage because her voice was gorgeous and folks were stopping and listening.

I was actually standing in the alley before she was. My husband and daughter ducked into the Sharper Image to do some window shopping, but my son wanted to stand on the street and play his Game Boy. I stayed with him trying not to think about how cold I was and convince myself that this was but a short stop on our way to dinner. Suddenly, the insipid music of the Game Boy was eclipsed by glorious opera. I scanned the street, looking for a vehicle with its radio turned up really loud. Intellectually, I know opera is not the usual music genre people crank up in the car, but this is San Francisco and I’m always prepared to see or hear just about anything. I didn’t locate a likely suspect, so I leaned against the building and decided to enjoy this strange interlude.

About two songs later, my husband and daughter were ready to go, but instead of taking the crow’s path to the restaurant, we decided to go the long way to see a few more holiday lights and sights. As we headed down Maiden Lane, we found ourselves approaching the mezzo. My husband shot me a “she’s good!” look, and I picked my jaw off the ground as I realized she had been serenading me from only a few yards away. I had been so fixated on looking for the opera source on the main street, I never perceived it was being created by a living, breathing human being accompanied by a boom box. I certainly hadn’t noticed her standing down the lane. Talk about missing a good thing right in front of your face!

My kids were transfixed for a few minutes listening to her, and it was then I decided we should put some money into her box. Aside from her obvious talent, she looked impressive in a fairly generic yet interesting opera costume that captured all of our attention. I couldn’t help but wonder what she was doing singing in the streets. Getting some general performance practice? Overcoming stage fright? Earning a little income? Whatever her reason, she shared with us some wonderful music which made our New Year’s weekend celebration all the more special. Too shy to give her the money myself, I sent one of my kids to deliver the offering and then we continued on our way to dinner. As we walked down the street, my husband said, “Oh, we should have gotten one of her cards. You never know when we might want to make a connection.” We didn’t go back, though, which I regret now.

A few years ago, another wonderful soprano, Jamie Bonetto, wrote me an email responding to an article I had written. I don’t remember which article she was writing about, but I kept what she wrote because it struck me as something important to consider. She wrote:

“I agree that art (and music) have therapeutic qualities.  I also agree that every human being needs this in their lives.  I always give money to street musicians.  They enhance life for all.  Where would we be without the arts?  Everyone should be given access.  It is food for the soul. “

At the time, I didn’t understand why street performers had come up in her comments. Since I had never given much thought to street performers, I hadn’t considered that they enhanced my life. In fact, I was often as uncomfortable passing a street performer as I was a beggar. Now I feel quite silly. If I am going to espouse the importance of engaging the creative force in everyday life, then my regard of street performers should be a no brainer. It’s the epitome of Art and About. My intersection with this street mezzo reminded me that even I need to be more mindful about opening my eyes and ears to the creative forces surrounding me.