We rely on maps to navigate earthly and celestial terrain, and I feel grounded, in control somehow, when I am pulled into a fabulous map. Oh here I am! There I will go! And then there are maps for our internal landscapes and methods we call on to steer through spiritual terrain. Mine help preserve sanity and joy—and trek through heartbreak and confusion. But they were falling short of guiding me through my own brand of American angst.Read More
This year I wrote our kids a New Year’s Eve letter and gave them two framed We the People posters designed by Shepard Fairey...Read More
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and the birthdays of two out of three of my favorite men fall in its wake. One belongs to our son, Duncan, the other to my late father, Henry. I think of Henry and his footprint in our era of belligerence and deliberate ignorance where men like him are scarce. My son reminds me of him --Read More
I joined the movement and hashtagged #metoo on social media but did not share any particulars. I still struggle with my old WASP reflexes -- do not share, do not assume that your story is of any interest to anyone else, and by all means maintain appearances -- whatever that means. But as an artist, I know better and try to override this indoctrination to plunk down my own narrative. I want a very different story for my own daughter and all the young women in my life and decided to link in with the collective for their sake and mine. I was deeply moved by all the testimonials on social media and the courage it took to expose the raw stories, the anger and pain. And I think this movement will have positive consequences for future legislation and make the world a little better for our daughters, even with a sexual predator currently in the Oval Office.
I was seven when an employee of my parents' began touching me, and this inaugurated a long passage of harassment that at times escalated into incidents of assault. Even in the post-Gloria Steinheim era, there was still a prevailing attitude that our vulnerability as women was part of the female inheritance. I heard men, and some women, say dismissive things like: “She is asking for it when she dresses (or drinks) like that.” “She should know better. ”Girls exaggerate the extent of the problem because it serves their vanity.” “Is it really that bad?” “Shouldn’t you be flattered?” “Boys will be boys.” When I shared one harrowing incident to a friend who I thought might be sympathetic the reply was: "At least you're not a supermodel, can you imagine the attention they get?" I second guessed myself. Maybe I was the one who was too sensitive or was inflating the problem. It felt indulgent to mention this part of my life, so I shut up and repressed my outrage--and a great deal of the memories.
Age has granted me ease of passage in a man's world, at least physically, but the cascade of #metoo stories jolted me back to a different era, and I have been telling my stunned husband about all the transgressions I thought I'd forgotten. I mourn for all women, for all the energy it takes to maintain vigilance over our own safety, from ignoring catcalls, to the constant requests to smile, to fretting about poorly lit and spooky public spaces, to the steady intrusion from strange or familiar men, to dodging workplace harassment and insinuation, to surviving sexual assault. I think of all the squandered time we expend navigating these climates and of all that noise that distracts us from doing something else, like finding a little peace.
And I remembered a story of kindness. I lived in New York for many years and always in gay neighborhoods. This was a deliberate choice-- I felt safe, there was a solidarity that I loved, and I preferred a community that was not dead at night. One evening I was headed home around midnight from a concert uptown. I did not take a cab because I was spooked by an aggressive cabbie the previous week. He kept asking me out on the long ride home and though I bailed out from the ride when I could, I was not keen on being trapped in a car again. So I descended the stairs to the an empty subway platfrom save two pairs of men, each on opposite ends. I centered myself between them and hoped for the best. It was the dead of winter, and I wore a hat, a voluminous scarf, a long overcoat and boots. One pair moved closer and began to comment on my appearance, wondering what I would look like without all my layers. I moved toward the other pair. My aggressors followed. As I grew closer, the other men broke off their own conversation and hustled toward me. I recognized them as men from my neighborhood. Both were strapping, and though I did not know their names, we frequented the same coffee shop and exchanged pleasantries. As they approached, the other men retreated. We boarded the train and they walked me home, even though it wasn’t their stop. When they delivered me safely, they gave me a hug and the name of a car service and waited until they saw the light on in my apartment. Here is a thank you to all the decent men, and there are many, who have kept us out of harm’s way and pushed back with us. I was lucky enough to marry one such man and am lucky enough to be raising one.
“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world. ”
— Gustave Flaubert
I am currently in Colombia with my family cramming as much in as we possibly can between Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena. Traveling tilts you off axis, which to my mind, is a very good thing. Our family becomes more intimate as we push into close quarters, and reliant on each other for company.Read More
"Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them." -Maria PopovaRead More
I do regret the energy I spent trying to prove that I had something to offer. It made me vulnerable to sabotage - either through my own anxiety, or by crazymakers. I didn’t listen nearly enough to instinct...Read More
The other day I explained to our son why I am such a poetry junkie. I told him a good poem could blanch a bit of darkness or make me feel more connected to this vast network of ours. And that a great line will cast something familiar into a different relief and make me look again. But, most of all, poetry gives me the next clue. "Like in a treasure hunt you mean,” he said. Exactly.Read More
#Nofilter is as pervasive a hash as any. It makes sense in these times of alternative facts, baffling headlines and gaslighting -- we want truth back, whatever it may be, since we have to navigate a world of shape shifters like never before. But every artist knows that filters are automatic to any process or narrative, any picture and any composition that we float out there. “No filter” is a fabrication, to say the least. Here's a creative rummage post from the road....Read More
This year I want to create more, and consume less. I am a somewhat reformed magpie in terms of material stuff, but I want to address other kinds of consumption -- my constant nose diving into the national news for instance. It’s an addiction that is chomping into my creative life as I scramble to look at the news each morning. My husband is a writer, and pulled me out of this self sabotage by sharing a snippet from a recent interview.Read More
For several years my husband and I have hosted a writer's residency from May to October/November for established writers on our property called Aspen Words Catch and Release...Read More
My sister Heather was, among many things, a disciplined thinker and a writer. She was a poet, and a good one, which is no mean feat. Painters can take a few shortcuts every now and then and get away with it. Not so with poets-- there is no smudging involved with a good poem. We always planned to collaborate on a book, or joint show, and fuse our work together to celebrate each other’s artistic medium. She died before we could get there. Shortly after her death I started to paint with this collaboration in mind, and I swiftly realized that I was still in deep mourning and could not pull inspiration from her words, just longing and grief. It was just too soon.
When this show opportunity at The Art Base surfaced a year later, I found I couldn’t get back to my original intent. This often happens when I lay ideas aside -- they often pick up and scuttle off like crabs. So I turned to my own writing and reading, and some of what I uncovered became part of this show and what you see on these walls. When Spring pulled up, I poured myself into my gardens. When my husband bought me a macro camera lens for my birthday, I discovered a new paradise. All of the garden inhabitants got blown up, abstracted, wild and unfamiliar. I was as thrilled as my eleven year old self when I saw a slice of pond water under a microscope for the first time. I sketched and photographed and wrote some more. I tried to learn Latin names without much success and read outdated botany guides. My kids were patient when I would pull the car abruptly over to the side of the highway to inspect a plant in bloom. I finally realized that I was stumbling around like a clumsy leviathan without really seeing so much around me. I hated to leave my garden and the hills around my house. My family would find me on the ground, wedged in between plants --peering. My awe for my backyard grew tenfold.
Heather was big on reverence -- either she was glued to the stance of a perching bird or the way the wind on her beloved Texas Hill Country ranch would move the grass, or she would explore byzantine and snarled ideas and resurface to deliver them with clarity to the rest of us. I cannot wade into theology or philosophy as easily as she could, but we both shared a love of gardens and the natural world. So I realized that this is a collaboration after all. One of her poems is on these walls, and her influence -- her exhortation to stand at attention --flows through my work. This show reinforced what I know in theory, but often forget in practice when I am distracted and lazy: that the best antidote for sorrow, disappointment and pettiness is creative inquiry or taking inventory. And it will inevitably pull you time and time again into the garden of delights.
***Update*** Want an audible "glimpse" into my upcoming show at The Art Base? Tune in December 7th at 3:30pm MST for my interview with Aspen Public Radio's Carolyne Heldmann, on her Cross Currents show. Listen here: http://bit.ly/IsaCattoAspPubRadio
This show is dedicated to you dear heart -- Heather Catto Kohout
Our nation is, without question, an angry and divided one. This state of affairs scares me as mother, and as an American, but I am coping by thinking a great deal about rage --how to diffuse it in my own life, and in my broader community. But sometimes you stumble onto it like a landmine, and it takes a long time to piece yourself together.
Years ago I taught a class at the Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I was ungainly and pregnant, and far enough along that I was just about to lose my flight privileges. I remember being cold in that raw April and staying alone in a spooky cabin. But what I recall the most is my first encounter with a certain kind of rage from a complete stranger. There was a timid young man named Stephen in my class who wanted to tackle my assigned still life with a fresh perspective. I suggested he “blow up” a component of the still life , in this case a gourd, and paint it. He was delighted by this one simple exercise in abstraction and immersed himself in painting for the rest of the week.
When his mother came to see the student show at the end of the week, she took one look at his painting and stomped over to me. She said: “This is crap. You cannot tell this is a gourd. How can I hang this on our wall? What kind of teacher are you? You taught him nothing!” She was shaking with fury, and as the adrenaline and fear swept through me, I grew a little frightened for my safety --and my unborn daughter’s. I tried to explain my approach, but I might as well have been talking to a windy Lake Michigan -- she refused to even look at me. She turned, swearing, and went to get her money back--or so she said. Her gentle son gathered his things, head down, and slunk away after her.
Although the mother’s reaction was extreme and loony, I am still startled by the anxiety, and occasional hostility, that abstraction can produce. While the high end art world has long embraced and cultivated every kind of expression, there is still a disconnect and a constant need for better education about art, process and art history in our schools, in our communities. We naturally tend to pull away from what we don’t immediately know, or don’t visually recognize as an object. It’s safer to choose from known images, from landscapes to still lifes. You don’t have to explain that cow in the pasture or the bird or the bowl of fruit. Abstraction has a spectral range --, from the abstracted, to the thoroughly abstract to the purely conceptual. Without a narrative, and subsequent education, people will fret about abstract painters and their work -- what if they are tricksters who are taking some kind of shortcut and flipping the viewer off?
My own work moves between representational and abstraction, but I still field apprehensive questions, even at my age and at my stage in my career. “Why don’t you paint trees, or faces, or mountains?” “How long did this take?” Or “I don’t get it.” One internet critic even told me I painted like a child and that I was a fraud. These encounters do knock you back on your heels for a moment, or an hour, or maybe a day. But I have finally learned to act, not react (thanks to my husband’s influence), by asking my own questions of the viewer, and by offering my backstory if the title and artist statement do not resonate. For the most part, this simple strategy works for maneuvering all kinds of terrain. John Cheever put it best:
I think I can conclude that life, as it passes before our eyes is a creative force -- that one thing is put usefully upon another -- that what we lose in one exchange is more than replenished by the next--that it is only us, only our pitiful misunderstanding that makes for crookedness, darkness and anger.
One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,
Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.” Khaled Hosseini
I have broken through to the other side and have a thousand followers on Instagram. It seems like a pyrrhic achievement. What’s the big deal? It’s not the affirmation that people might think I’m cool, successful, hot, or hip. After all, there are plenty of Instagram stars. Taylor Swift probably has the same number of followers as Warren Buffet has dollars. I'm not interested in convincing anyone that my life is glamorous or that my thigh circumference is perfect. My feed is simply about my studio and the visual delights that I stumble into, and inspire me, and my creative life. And occasionally, something personal that intersects with my virtual visual cabinet of curiosities. So my pleasure in hitting 1K is about connection to, and with, a creative community who want to swap images and ideas like baseball cards.
Here is what I’ve observed:
I have discovered that there is a rich community of artists and visionaries that proliferate outside of the sanctioned art world who make exceptional work. Most of them have tidier studios than mine. There are many interesting voices out there that I would otherwise miss.
I can now toss around phrases like organic reach, influencer and audience engagement with impunity and earn eye rolls from my teenager.
I'm still baffled by the “follow / unfollow” trend!
I'm still baffled by all the thong selfies who follow me -- not a fit.
I’m not sure it's such a good thing to have this quasi literacy, and not, say be fluent in Italian instead.
Launching on all of these social media platforms takes a great deal of time.
To preserve your time as an artist, you need to consider hiring someone who is a professional in this world. I did this instead of buying likes. My words and images are my own of course, but I would never get anything done as a wife, mother, artist, gardener, advocate, farm manager, writer's residency host, to name a few, if I had to market and post everything. If you can afford it, do it. If you cannot, consider a trade or possibly using a virtual assistant! I found Maria Brannon--Lightning Flash Creative, through my friend Sissy Yates and never looked back! She's been my trustworthy spirit guide in this rather baffling social media universe.
I take the weekends off and observe an internet sabbatical. I found I was getting hooked on the endorphin of being "liked" and this was the remedy.
I have results. I sell a great deal more work than I did out of my galleries or my studio, and so many of my family and friends now understand the extent to which I am a professional since they follow my narrative online.
This process has reinforced my love of writing. I am now writing outside of my journals and have written a book.
Finally, and most importantly, I feel gratitude to all you good people who are engaging with me in a sincere and thoughtful way. I am delighted by it. I really do feel that the world will be a better place if we all tend to a creative impulse. Truly.
You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp. Anne Lamott
This Monday marked the second year without Heather. She was part of my life on this ground for 49 years, and still is, of course, but is now part of an interior landscape of shades, yearning and nostalgia. A great sister--and mine was--makes you visible, affirms you. Women tend to be listeners -- we listen to our kids, to dinner partners, to the disgruntled parents at school, to the lonely contractor, to the dissatisfied soul at the post office, to the neighbor, to other members of the family. As an introvert with a powerful "look at me, don't look at me" dynamic, this is a safe place, but an isolated one. Heather was the one who listened to me, and was interested in the quotidian details of my life, alongside the more opaque side of my inner life. She was honest when my paintings baffled her, or when I was prone to lazy thinking, and honest when she thought I was wrong. We would call each other when we were having fat and ugly days, or poor poor pitiful me days, or when we just needed a bitch session. We could move from the trivial to the complex with ease. She would call to ask if my daughter was over a cold, to learn of our son’s antics, what I thought of a particular book or a Krista Tippett interview, or wonder if I was sleeping well since women in our family struggle with insomnia. There was never impatience, just a flow of conversation. And like all sisters, we shared a repository of family lore and drama. My husband is my best friend, but Heather was my North Star.
Initially my loneliness was so acute that I was simply functioning the first year without her.I felt invisible and small. These feelings have morphed, they way they always do, into a gentler, constant current. I eased back into the world of joy and light and delight, but the undertow remains. As the writer Anne Lamott put it: ”you learn to dance with a limp.”
When she was diagnosed with cancer, I called her at least once a day. When I called she would pick up the line and ask, “Is this my daily harassment call?”
“Why yes it is,” I would respond.
And off we’d go. We fell into the good habit of telling each other “I love you” at the close of every call until the cancer moved into her brain and swept away her ability to communicate well over the lines.
For years, I worried that I loved Heather more than she loved me. I fretted that she disapproved of my wild child ways, especially when she was grounded in the rigor of parenting small children--we led opposite lives and my freedom might have seemed unearned and carefree, while her domesticity seemed safe, respectable and out of reach. She was an academic, a theologian, and lived in a world of reason. She harvested conclusions with discipline, while my artistic world was more emotional, chaotic and charged, relying on visual cues and sloppy mysticism. There was often no linear progression to my own career as a painter, no tidy accumulation of accomplishments. She harvested degrees like the dedicated academic she was. And though generous of spirit, she was more emotionally reserved and restrained than I. I lean towards impulsive thinking and speech, with a dash of hyperbole. She always took a more disciplined route to her conclusions. When I was young and much more literal, I mistook her reserve, her pointed glance over reading glasses and that wry smile below as a form of censure.
When my life got upended by autoimmune disease after the birth of my first child, I finally realized how much her love bound us, filling in any crack in our differences. Heather went into motion and was my advocate-in-chief. She coaxed me out of many an emotional mouse hole time and time again. When we lost our mother, we knew we lost a singular champion. But we still had each other, and we were closer than ever before. It took many years to really absorb the lesson embedded in poetry, in literature -- in all of the arts: that unconditional love is not evaluated measure for measure, but is just a constant that we take for granted. That lesson never comes early enough.