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.
I am a wildflower stalker, albeit a haphazard one. My dedication falters when learning proper nomenclature. My mother started me on this path when I was a child. We hiked in the same hills where I now live --the Colorado Rockies -- and before each hike she would load the nylon hunter orange drawstring backpack with sunscreen, sandwiches ,water bottles, army surplus rain ponchos and always, always the battered, thumbed wildflower guidebook. The sandwiches would be smashed and inedible by lunchtime but we weren't allowed to complain. How could we with those views, these mountains, that meadow of flowers?
My mother taught me all the quaint names -- bread and butter, monkshood, elephant pagoda, false sunflower and Indian paintbrush. We had to stop on each hike and peer at flowers and ponder their identification. Of course she was also teaching us reverence, but I only cottoned on to this as an adult. Now it's karmic payback as my own kids suffer my abrupt roadside pullovers to snap a photo for later identification. In their minds, I think the needle of my eccentric scale is now well beyond unusual and has leaned into embarrassing.
But the bottom line is that my mother slowed me down and taught me how to look, really look and notice the ant on the stamen, or how the wind moved the leaves on a stem or how to be astonished by how many hues one blossom can capture. She developed my artists's eye as we explored the natural world. Someday I will get to thank her.
“They are all beasts of burden in a sense, ' Thoreau once remarked of animals, 'made to carry some portion of our thoughts.' Animals are the old language of the imagination; one of the ten thousand tragedies of their disappearance would be a silencing of this speech.” Rebecca Solnit
I have decided to join the drawing/painting/collage a day challenge for many reasons, not the least of which is to force my hand. And it gave me an excuse to buy a honking big sketch book that just went on sale at our local art supply vendor. I decided to commit to a year’s time and be flexible with venue. Maybe the drawing/painting/collage will be in my tanker size journal, maybe it will be in my planner, or on a cocktail napkin. But I wanted to have a theme to get me out of the gate and keep me on course.
Last month I attended a lecture on climate change given by the renowned scientist Tom Lovejoy. Among his many, many accolades, he has been crowned the godfather of biodiversity. Currently he is a Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation and University Professor in the Environmental Science and Policy Department at George Mason University. He also works on the ground in Brazil. He was also a good friend of my mother’s, an avid conservationist, who turned me into one. Since he stayed with us, I had the opportunity to get to know him outside the context of their friendship. Tom is wry, gentle and humble, despite the fact that he occupies a very big stage in the environmental arena and wages a constant battle against ignorance and greed in his quest to save the Amazon, and with it, our earth. His visit and lecture inspired me to to research extinctions -- particularly in the last century --most of which were precipitated, or at least, enhanced by mankind’s reckless behavior. I decided to memorialize some of these fauna and flora to begin my personal challenge. I started with the Pyrenean Ibex. Celia, the last of her subspecies, died in the Iberian Peninsula in 2000. There was a brief attempt at cloning her, but this failed. You can learn more about this wild goat by clicking HERE
or pick up Elizabeth Kolbert's excellent book, The Sixth Extinction, at your bookstore.
I have different hats; I'm a mother, I'm a woman, I'm a human being, I'm an artist and hopefully I'm an advocate. All of those plates are things I spin all the time. Annie Lennox
I have always loved hats.
Years ago I shared a studio space with two tweaked women in Soho. Their collective level of imbalance was hard to handle and at times I had to flee when they were both present in our joint space. I would walk through Soho to regain equilibrium and stumbled on a wonderful store called The Hat Shop.
As I tried on one hat on after another, the exceptionally stylish proprietress Linda Pagan (she is often snapped by street style curator-at-large Bill Cunningham,) and I started to chat, and instantly fell into step.
She then placed a particularly fetching felt hat -- reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca --on my head, and said : “You know, men really do love hats.”
I walked out with that hat--and a new friendship. She taught me that wearing a hat is not just a practical part of your wardrobe, but essential to the creative spirit. She believed that a worthy hat carves space around its wearer, marking her as an individual in a crowd. And she is a testimony to this belief in her own life. She travels on a shoestring to remote pockets of the world, is a voracious reader and is curious about everything. She eschews status fashion and shops at flea markets and vintage sales -- her signature style is an art all its own.
When we moved to Colorado, I saw less of good friends like Linda but kept my hat habits and collection. I soon learned that large hats give way to baseball caps in mountain towns. Some people think my big hats quaint, and still others think I live in another century. Only my dermatologist gets excited about my sombrero addiction.Every spring I visit a local and very talented milliner and get a new hat for the upcoming sun season -- either for stepping out on the town, or strictly for rugged outdoor rambling. Together we pick out the trimmings, decide on brim width and style, and she transforms the raw straws into portable works of art a couple of weeks later.
Isabella Blow said it best:” I don't use a hat as a prop. I use it as a part of me.”
The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
My kids would be the first to tell you that I am so not on the cusp of the new, new thing, or the new thing. Or even just the thing. But after a recent trip to silicon valley and a tiny tour of google, I gained five minutes of hipness in their eyes.
My husband is involved with Conservation International, and we got a glimpse of how google is partnering with conservation groups, and sharing their prodigious coding expertise and data collection, to monitor the health, or lack thereof, of our planet. The implications are encouraging -- we can tackle problems in a more targeted fashion instead of being trapped by the feeling of helplessness and general handwringing. You can see in real time (almost) where fish are being harvested illegally, or where a forest is being pulled down, or where mountains are being blasted down to anthills. The "whos" of this process are a whole different matter. I love this kind of collaboration between the profit and nonprofit worlds, and it was a thrill to be in a universe that was so foreign, so innovative and playful. There were even topics to think about in the bathroom stalls -- all equipped with Toto toilets. My stall door had a plastic pouch to showcase articles of interest. In mine was an article called “Code for the Commode” which I’m sure was very clever, but was incomprehensible to me
We returned with a more portable innovation -- google cardboard, and our kids have been jumping down the rabbit hole and exploring this extraordinary google tool. I put aside my trepidation about virtual reality and joined them. We looked at U2’s collaboration with musicians from around the world, and explored places of wonder. It really is visually sumptuous, though I had to take a break because it gave me serious vertigo because I was always whipping around in circles, trying to capture the three dimensional experience.
Of course this device has already been featured everywhere from the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2015/nytvr/ to Wired http://www.wired.com/2015/06/inside-story-googles-unlikely-leap-cardboard-vr/and back again, and is only a new, new thing to me. To get one here….https://www.google.com/get/cardboard/
In this case, seeing really is believing.
It seems I am still doing homework. When I was in elementary school, my parents never went near my homework. They may have proofed some papers in high school, or noodled around with a math problem, but I was on my own if anything crafty surfaced.
It’s a different matter these days, and I find myself manipulated with the line: “But, Mom, you’re an artist, you can do ANYTHING.” And off my ego and I go.
The fourth grade is studying ancient Eygpt and its mythology. Our son was assigned Seth, or Set, the God of chaos, and for those of you who do not know him, this was a good match. However, Seth has both a complicated personality, and visage. He has a bright red jackal head with menacing devil eyes.
If you need a blow by blow of Egyptian mythology, our son is your source. If you want to talk for hours about anything random, bingo. If you need to know the nuances and differences between DC comics and Universal comic characters, he can take hours of your time. But building a jackal head from hell outfit? Not so much.
So I bought paper mache mix and built an armature and got to work covering it and recovering until the whole thing weighed as much as Jay Defeo’s famous painting The Rose. It took days to dry.
It cracked when our son tried it on, and I cracked with it. I had crazy glue in odd places and I had several deadlines lurking in front of me, and spending hours mastering this new sculpting material was not what I had in mind.
I skulked and whined. I behaved like a three year old. I wrote a grumpy email to his teacher. My daughter snapped me back to attention: "Mom, you need to calm down, this is fourth grade we're talking about here. FOURTH GRADE. No one cares."
And then I started over. I rebuilt the armature and used old fashioned newspaper strips and methyl cellulose and came up with this.
It was fun, campy(our son added the blood smears on the teeth) and best of all, he was delighted and aced his presentation.
I hope I get an 'A,' but I'm nervous because one of the front teeth fell off......
"Not everybody wants to be looked at. Everybody wants to be seen." Amanda Palmer
Last week I took our children to hear our United States poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, who opened the Winter Words lecture series for our local literary organization, Aspen Words. Herrera is an outstanding speaker and a truly compassionate and gentle man. His poetry aligns with his mission -- to sweep those on the fringe back into the margins, back into our sight. Our son asked him a question during the Q and A, and not only did Herrera answer with good humor and sparkle, he also asked Duncan to join him onstage. He then asked our delighted son to repeat what Herrera’s 3rd grade teacher said to him: “Juan, you have a beautiful voice.“ That simple sentence transformed Herrera’s life and launched him on his journey. Herrera did the same for our son, who is a dreamer and seeker in his own right, and was thrilled to be on stage with this amazing artist. When Herrera became our national poet laureate, he started the Casa de Colores: project as “ a house for all voices. In this house we will feed the hearth and heart of our communities with creativity and imagination. And we will stand together in times of struggle and joy.” https://www.loc.gov/poetry/casadecolores/
Herrera well understands that artists have the power to pull us in, to make us pause to see beyond the tiny scope of our lives. He invites us all to be activists, in a gentle and unrelenting way. He wrote Poem by Poem for the victims of the Charleston church massacre last year. Here is an excerpt:
"you have a poem to offer
it is made of action—you must
search for it run
outside and give your life to it
when you find it walk it
back—blow upon it
carry it taller than the city where you live"
May the world nurture more artists like Juan Felipe Herrera.
You can read more about Herrera here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/juan-felipe-herrera or listen to the NPR interview: http://www.npr.org/2015/09/16/437287870/from-mexico-kidnappings-to-eric-garner-hererra-writes-poetry-of-the-moment.
And he does have a wonderful voice.
Just living is not enough....one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower. Hans Christian Andersen
The gardening catalogues are clogging up our post box and I am daydreaming about my gardening future. I’m beginning to feel the earth move under my feet, even through a foot of snow.
Conservation InternationaI's "I need nature" campaign is a household hit, and our kids love the celebrity takes on various "personalities" of our natural world. The film shorts make a compelling reason for why we all should be conservationists.
My favorite features Lupita Nyongo and makes me long for my flowers, the Mojo Garden (our garden) and summer. You can find Lupita as flower below, but don’t miss PenelopeCruz as water either.