Art Conversations on Art

The Art of Seeing: Ficre Ghebreyesus

Artist Ficre Ghebreyesus exhibit at Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco

I first learned about artist Ficre Ghebreyesus after he died at the too young age of 50. His wife, poet, Elizabeth Alexander penned a memoir called Light of the World and painted such a picture of her husband that I needed to see more of his art. I’ve written about Alexander’s memoir and there’s a painting on the cover of a boat (a recurring theme) painted in jazzy blue and coral stripes. The colors and the composition depict stillness coupled with an energy and movement that compelled me to search for more. Google did not lead me astray. The images it pulled up were vibrant, some like a veritable patchwork that might have seemed too busy in any other hands, but in his, it all just worked. In the way that some art moves us and we can’t quite reason the whole why, his art spoke to me of joy and peace.

Artist Ficre Ghebreyesus exhibit at Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco 2018

One afternoon, I happened upon the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and couldn’t believe my eyes: Ficre Ghebreyesus had an exhibit! And it was in its final week, closing the weekend upcoming! I made a date and we walked the compact, well-appointed galleries the following Saturday for the first time, listening to a docent talk through his work.

Artist Ficre Ghebreyesus exhibit at Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco 2018

The piece for which the entire exhibit was named, “City with a River Running Through” is actually four pieces and all told measures over 18 feet long. Can you imagine what it must be like to envision the still unpainted entirety, while working on each section? Unlike some artists who do pre-sketches or small paintings as a way to work out composition and color ideas, he went in wholly invested in the final outcome only he could see. I lingered in front of the painting for a few minutes, walking up to different sections wanting to see the detail work of his brush and get a sense for how he might have thought the green swatch needed to go next to the coral one with wavy lines on it. The painting is enormous and it hung well on the wall, me grateful that there was a space that we could see such a large painting displayed.

Artist Ficre Ghebreyesus exhibit at Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco 2018

It reminded me of why I like museums, that sense of discovery and seeing the world in a different perspective that can shift our own. It also emboldens me to think how artists work in private and sometimes get to see acclaim while they’re alive, but also how their work lives on after they do, even if in back rooms and how it takes someone who believes in their work to put it out into the world and how that work can sometimes bring a needed light into the world, even after the creator’s light is extinguished.

Artist Ficre Ghebreyesus exhibit at Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco 2018

Through this exhibit and its curated pieces of work, I saw a broader scope than what the online search had afforded. He painted scenes from his home country of Eritrea like a painting called Paradise influenced by the Adam and Eve garden of paradise, but this time offset with bottle trees reminiscent of Eritrea.

Artist Ficre Ghebreyesus exhibit at Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco 2018

In several of the paintings, boats cropped up, both placid and yet symbols of movement. One painting that became a new favorite involved a boat on water that’s green then blue, the boat itself striped in greens and swatches of periwinkle and pale purple. Underneath the central boat there is another boat that looks like a shadow. I could stand in front of this painting for hours and find new insights it provides. The tranquil colors kept me transfixed as the subject kept me wondering, if I climbed into that boat where would I go? Or, how sometimes, when difficulties arise, wouldn’t we want a boat to just sit in or go to another part of our lives, rowing out past the difficulty. And, right now, the thing I wonder as I look again at the boat is if there is a shadow self who wants something else from life hovering underneath what everyone else can see, and yet also supported by an unseen hand that holds those dreams and hopes intact.

Artist Ficre Ghebreyesus exhibit at Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco 2018

When Ghebreyesus was alive, he and his brother owned a cafe in New Haven, Connecticut—I remember that from reading Alexander’s account. He came to painting later in life, studying and making art until the end.

“I started painting ten years ago, but I suspect I have been metaphorically doing so all my life. When I started painting, I just did it. I had never felt a stronger urge. The pieces that flowed out of me were very painful and direct. They had to do with the suffering, persecution, and subsequent psychological dilemmas I endured before and after becoming a young refugee from the Independence War in my natal home of Eritrea, East Africa. Painting was the miracle, the final act of defiance through which I exorcised the pain and reclaimed my sense of place, my moral compass, and my love for life.”

Ficre Ghebreyesus

Even though he died of a heart attack at 50, what a prolific body of work he left behind! And, what does it say about doing the work you know you must do with urgency?

Artist Ficre Ghebreyesus exhibit at Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco 2018

It makes me question where next he would have gone artistically if he was still alive today—what motifs would continue showing up in his work. Would he have gone through a blue period or started a new school of thought or methodology? Might this refugee offer refuge to others? Would his connecting to where he was from and where he lived today and the latent struggles of being an immigrant in today’s United States have resonated with others disillusioned by the current state of affairs. I like to think he would have continued offering joy by way of brushstroke, layering colors that at first glance don’t seem to have anything to do with one another, but when the final detail is filled in, culminates in a canvas that thrums with life.

Artist Ficre Ghebreyesus exhibit at Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco 2018
Art Conversations on Art

Chasing the Light at California Food Photography Workshop

At the California Food Photography Workshop, you will be nourished by the food and people.

Michael Waters pulled out a small notebook during workshop one day. He pointed to it as the repository for ideas, quotes, scraps of life that he might need a lifeline to find later on in his poetry. I still remember him talking about reading articles about art in the New York Times, how one form of creativity informs another. And it makes sense.

In poetry there is such a thing as ekphrasis. It’s one of my favorite poetic forms when done well because it’s a type of call and response. Have you ever encountered that kind of experience? You’re at a museum, looking from one painting to the next and then, gobsmacked. Riveted. Nothing can pluck your attention away. That kind of visceral emotional response doesn’t always elicit a response in the form of the written word, but when it does, oh, baby!

I always liked photography, but perhaps unsurprisingly? it really caught me in its craw during poetry school. We read books, each other’s work all day long that it made sense to then read the sky, the light dappling through the tree branches, the smile on a classmate’s face or the wry expression on another’s. The administrator of the program liked my photos enough she used them for a time in printed pamphlets for the program and on the program website. For my graduation gift, my mom proudly toted along a DSLR camera for me to continue pursuing photography.

During the California Food Photography Workshop, you have many opportunities to style and shoot food with helpful critiques if desired.

Going into 2017, I knew it would be unlike anything we’d been through in 2016. I needed it to be. It’s not that 2016 was a bad year– it taught me valuable lessons, offered great opportunities, but I needed to move on from it. Who knew what 2017 would hold? And yet, it became the year of pushing myself creatively, going deeper and saying yes to the people and chances that could take me there.

I started the year with a question posed by a food photographer and writer whose work resonates with me: What is your visual voice? I continued asking myself this question and trying to answer it on my own to little avail. I plied friends (poor things!) with the question and didn’t even pretend to offer pretense. I came away always with the question in one hand, the other hand empty.

I guess you could liken visual voice in photography to drinking wine. In the beginning, you don’t have words for what you like and don’t like. You just know it when you taste it. Over time, with repetition, breadth, and a bit of bravado, you begin to find the language. A wine becomes “earthy, barnyard.” “Hint of green apple. Smacking of blackberry jam and pepper.” The appreciation takes on poetry. And this is where I found myself, amassing a collection of appreciation for so many different styles of food photography that over time a through line emerged from my favorite food photo artists.

This past June made all the difference in girding me with what I needed to go deeper as I attended the California Food Photography Workshop in Northern California. The three day intensive workshop was exactly what I had been looking for– generous hosts / teachers in Sarah of Snixy Kitchen, Alanna of the Bojon Gourmet, and Gerry of Foodness Gracious. As part of my “Say Yes” year to creative endeavors, I snagged a spot once I learned about the workshop. 

California Food Photography Workshop is an open place to take your food photography to the next level.

Unlike a one-day photo workshop I attended, loved, and that helped me begin thinking about light and composition in making pictures of food, one thing that resonated with me in the California Food Photography Workshop was its length. Getting away for a few days immersed in photography with likeminded photographers passionate about food made it a  creative bootcamp. The schedule stayed full with us shooting and styling breakfast and lunch before eating what was on-set. Our intimate group gelled pretty quickly (what a gift!) and that created this safe space to try things out. Finding the photo in the editing process reminded me of Jeff Friedman’s poetry advice to “find the poem within the poem.”

What color story do you want your food to tell? At the California Food Photography Workshop, we took our time bringing our style to our food.

At night, we lingered around the table, wine glasses tinkling and laughter punctuating our conversation. It’s not understating it to say that the workshop left an indelible impression on me. I thank Sarah for her quick wit, Lightroom savvy and the way she deftly zhuzhes food, giving it that final tweak. I thank Alanna for the artistry of her hand shots and the light she seeks after that feels painterly. I thank Gerry for his good nature and his secret to shaping the perfect scoop of ice cream for a photo. I thank Carla for sharing a simple detail that unlocked an insight for my photography.

Working with different lighting scenarios at the California Food Photography Workshop helped us figure out the right settings.

But, I also thank each person who attended the retreat. Fawni, for her elegant way of placing her food and making it look whimsical. Jenna, for her perspective and making the drive to Sebastapol fun. Denisse, for how we hit it off in the parking lot, camaraderie carried on throughout the next few days and going for it on set, styling the prettiest salad that inspires me still. Kim, for trying out a messy food style and also for the great conversation on the drive up. Alisa, for her friendship and a conversation that helped me define a blind spot in my food photography that allowed it to be unfettered. Annette, for her styling that reminded me of the beauty of including a pretty element of edible flowers. Renee, for her clean compositions and sass. Judy, for her fun-loving spirit reflected in her food photos. Reah, for her partnership on set pouring chocolate tahini sauce on cue and her sweet warmth. Lisa, for her keen eye as she took photos of guest Chef Green and friendly demeanor. There isn’t enough space here to encapsulate the wonderfulness of Alysha, who shared her rock star photography skills on set and kept us laughing late into the night. The days passed too quickly!

To talk too much about the time would be to dispel the magic of it. If you were to ask me now what my style is, I discovered it with a little help from my friends, up at the California Food Photography Workshop. 

Practicing pouring (before devouring!) at California Food Photography Workshop.

As a final exploration of visual voice, a yogurt bowl will tell the story. I kept moving it, getting a different emotional pull from each background. The time to play on set added a crucial element to photography. Chasing the light and considering the possibilities–these are two of my favorite ingredients of food photography. Does one speak more strongly to you?

Playing with textures at the California Food Photography Workshop

When in doubt for backgrounds, look down. Having fun at California Food Photography Workshop.

I didn't style the flowers, but strategically positioned the bowl at California Food Photography Workshop.

The grass was impossibly green at California Food Photography Workshop so it had to be a background.

Art Quotables

Spread the Sun Creativity Quote

Spread the sun creativity quote anneliesz

Art Quotables

Creativity begets creativity

Creativity begets creativity. - anneliesz

Art Conversations on Art

In a word

Adrenaline courses through me. Even as I tried to shut my eyes for a whole 20 minutes, my mind transported me back to Oaktown Spice Shop and the cooking with tea workshop that I led there tonight. We are on the cusp of my favorite holiday—not the one all wrapped in ghoulish attire, but the one resplendent in gratitude. I am swimming in gratitude right now. It’s keeping my eyes open when they should be shut. Tonight, I met a chocolate maker, a teacher for special ed. students, a podcaster, and oodles of others who shared a kind remark and assisted with panache during the demos. One man told me he can’t remember when he’d had this much fun on a Tuesday night. Another one told me he had found the workshop through the podcast (that’s only a week and a half old!). One woman bought a book for her tea cart-owner mom and had me inscribe it as a gift, eager to share the easy and fun ideas with her. Another woman told me she learned a lot. A man asked me if I had ever wanted to be a teacher. You can’t go to sleep quickly after these kinds of encounters.


Let’s rewind to last year: my mom was diagnosed with cancer. I was laid off two weeks after her surgery in a round of routine dismissals with no hard feelings attached. Her surgeon told us they had gotten all the cancer. My agent told me my book had found the right home. I followed in my Dad’s footsteps and forged out on my own starting a fledgling company and sailing this ship on in the afterglow of his life. If you had asked me a year ago where I would be, the answer would not have been the one blinking at me in the darkness of a Tuesday night. I’m teaching (sporadically), writing (sporadically), and doing something creative as work everyday for companies I believe in. The second time I visited India, I remembered something a friend had said on my first visit, “Take good notes. You can only visit India for the first time once.” This season will happen only once in quite this way and I am trying to take good notes of it that they might birth the possible inside of you too. Our time is finite.

What is the one thing you feel you must do that scares the crap out of you to attempt? Next, think about how the world might just become a better place from your feat. Then, go do it. Will a cooking with tea book change the world? In a word, no. But, will it brighten up the bookcases and kitchen countertops where it gets streaked and splotched with use? You bet. And, I’m grateful for the chance to just show up. I share about Steeped as a reminder that if I can do this, you can do the work set out for you. Be encouraged! Keep going!  And, thank you for showing up too.

Art Quotables

Well Said Quotes: Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh well said quotes

Art Art Bookshelf Cookery Bookshelf

Cooking with Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia OKeeffe cookbook

After a brief summer hiatus, I’m back, and so is the fog. We had actually been experiencing summer-like temperatures in San Francisco, which is completely unexpected and requires copious amounts of cold confections to withstand the 80 degree heat. My Texas self would shake its head in shame…

In our last exploration, we dug our heels into the Georgia O’Keeffe Lake George exhibit at the DeYoung museum this spring. I hope I did an adequate job conveying what an important role that museum visit played in forming questions for me about the process of art as well as seeing her own style change. As I exited the exhibit, I happened upon a small book in the gift shop and had to work hard to contain my glee as I held A Painter’s Kitchen: Recipes from the Kitchen of Georgia O’Keeffe by Margaret Wood. I clutched my new treasure and pedaled home quickly to plumb its depths. Little did I know then that O’Keeffe prized good food and did due diligence to seek out nourishing recipes!

The cookbook features a foreword from local Bay Area vegetarian chef and powerhouse, Deborah Madison of the restaurant, Greens, in Fort Mason, and author of Vegetable Literacy as well as my marked up favorite, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (I have the original printing of this now updated cookbook). Her description of the book is right on when she says, “No dish is encumbered with complicated embellishments; there are no intricate layerings of flavors and textures.” (p. x) This insight perplexed me a bit because when I think of O’Keeffe’s artwork, all I can envision are intricate layers, though no embellishments. Does her artistry reside solely on the canvas? The recipes enclosed in this book are brief in method and ingredients. I read the book in two days, annotating along the way.

Madison quotes biodynamic gardener, Alan Chadwick:”The cooking has been done for you in the garden; it’s merely finished in the kitchen.” (p x)  This really gets to the heart of A Painter’s Kitchen. O’Keeffe kept a ranch garden from which most of her meals derived since the alternative for fresh fruits and vegetables was 70 miles away. Margaret Wood describes meeting O’Keeffe and beginning to cook for her when she was 24 years old and O’Keeffe was 90. Her stories and details about O’Keeffe in the headnotes are the real reason to pick up your own copy of A Painter’s Kitchen. From it, I learned that Georgia O’Keeffe occasionally slept on her roof under the stars. What a way to dream! Woven throughout the headnotes are snippets of her practical wisdom, such as this comment from a dinner she held with two visiting poets: “It’s easy to talk about what you’re going to do- you can talk yourself right through without really doing anything.” (p. 44) This was not the first time poetry was mentioned in the cookbook, as Wood remarked on O’Keeffe’s appreciation for Chinese poetry.

The food being served from O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch kitchen focused on healthy ingredients, and centered on vegetables from her garden, organic grains and meats. I smiled visibly when I read that O’Keeffe made her own bread using a small mill to grind her own flour, while the housekeeper canned and preserved foods. Her approach to scratch cooking and concern over food sourcing parallels contemporary cooking in my neck of the woods and home (although I play the role of cook and housekeeper).Wood describes O’Keeffe’s style of eating as “simple food… with fresh and pure ingredients.” (p xxi) That neighbors would bring her food gifts of wild asparagus because it delighted her reminded me of why I appreciate her art and compositions.

You can tell from reading the cookbook that this experience working with and for O’Keeffe left an indelible mark on Margaret Wood- the kind you want to share with others. The glimpse she provides to other fans of O’Keeffe’s artwork is one that is intimate, as if inviting us to join them at the table. This cookbook lives with my others but I like to keep the cover faced out, so that when I am cooking, if I happen to glance in the direction of my cookbook collection, Georgia O’Keeffe is smiling out.


Art Conversations on Art

Painting a Portal to Another World: Notes from the Georgia O’Keeffe Lake George Exhibit

Georgia O'Keeffe Lake George Reflection Seascape

What happens in the unseen world? It is a question artists have tried answering through their media since the beginning of time. Perhaps it is one of the reasons Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings have always pulled at me. While we try to remember to “stop and smell the roses,” she is examining their inner caverns, the hidden places that other than her seeing eye, only pollinators explore. Her close cropping to focus our attention on the interior world of a flower can’t help but keep me transfixed.

O’Keeffe offers insight into her approach: “I said to myself- I’ll paint what I see- what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it- I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”

My own appreciation came at a young age, probably at an art exhibit in Dallas. Overwhelmed by her vibrant use of color and lines, I sought out her work in the beginning entranced by the floral compositions. The red poppy might still be one of the most iconic works by her but recently, I found myself equally moved by Red Canna, 1919 with colors that anywhere else might clash, but here, orange, coral, burgundy, chartreuse, turquoise and purple cavort playfully.

Recently, I attended the Lake George exhibition of O’Keeffe paintings at the DeYoung museum in San Francisco. The idea had been to wake up early enough to have time to spend lingering in front of the paintings before the melée of the masses had roused from their beds.

What is it about O’Keeffe’s paint style that beckons to throngs of people?

From O’Keeffe in 1976, “Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they say something. For me that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is often the most definite form of the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint.”

This quote makes me think of David Chang’s offhand remark to Anthony Bourdain about Bay Area cuisine consisting of figs on a plate, but how ingredients like figs on a plate get interpreted and assembled into a larger whole. Her assertion that in the abstract she finds the definite makes me wonder how each of us clarify the intangible? For her, she paints to get closer to the truth. For me, I write and sometimes sketch really bad poems to get closer to the Poem.

While I knew of O’Keeffe’s fascination with the natural world, the Lake George exhibition revealed her appreciation of food. She is not someone I previously associated with food as I might Cezanne with his still life paintings. Hanging from the museum walls were “alligator pears” from 1920 and 1921- in a bold vivid stripped down still life of avocados with her telltale vibrancy letting the emerald avocados pop against the more muted background in puce with grey and white, along with a basket in brown and burgundy. There, I read a note of O’Keeffe describing growing corn as “one of my special interests.”

On O’Keeffe’s pared down perspective: “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”

Isn’t that the object of the artist- to figure out where to turn the attention of a by-stander, to understand that the work will become public domain as soon as it is seen but first to figure out what the work wants to say and then slice away all superfluous and extraneous detail so that there is no confusion as to where to look? It’s not as if she is averse to detail. No, one thing that makes her paintings shimmer are the illuminated edges where flowers touch leaves or one petal ends and the other begins. It hearkens a halo effect on the inside of the flower forms that creates dimensionality.

As in poetry where one thing might stand for another, this kind of indirect communication is something that makes paintings the very best kind of puzzles. At the end of the exhibit one wall bears three paintings of leaves. Without reading the description to the right of the central painting, there is one looming leaf and another that is diminished and brittle. The loneliness in these paintings made me hate them. Their lack of that infusion of color and choice of muted tones made them cold and uncaring. It didn’t take much to see that these works were important for the artist even if they were not emblematic of the whole body of her work. They seemed to me like catharsis paintings and I felt sorrow for the small leaf on the outskirts. But even in these dull colors of decay and fall, a lesson emerged of beauty displayed in the sheen of satiny leaves.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings take a risk. They embody an urgency to live life now – to open one’s eyes to the incredible unseen world all around us. I left the Georgia O’Keeffe Lake George exhibit charged with energy to keep my creative work progressing. I also heeded the not so subtle nudge to get outside and slow down enough to appreciate what is always changing, always growing or dying but never ceasing to impart some great truth about why we are all here.

“It takes courage to be a painter. I always felt I walked on the edge of a knife and could fall off on either side. But, so what? What if I did fall off? So what? What if you do fall? I always wanted to do something I really wanted to do.”

So, if you write, write on! If you paint, paint on! If you sing or play guitar, play on! The time is now. Like the colors outside that keep changing, so will life. I’m grateful to keep her vibrant outlook writ on the walls of my mind for the journey ahead.


Georgia O’Keeffe painting, “Lake George (formerly Reflection Seascape)”

Art Conversations on Art

From the Stacks: The Art of Fasting

from the stacks | the food poet

Close your eyes. Squeeze them tight. If I implored you to think of just one thing that sets your heart alight, what would be the first image to shimmer into view? This is an easy one for me to answer and a hard item to give up for 21 days. Bound in hardback or pliant soft cover, I could be the first customer if eau de livre could be bottled and sold from the glass case at a boutique perfume counter.

It might not be hard to imagine that we become the children we have been. We get taller, rounder or more svelte, but some things don’t change. Whether tucked into my reading cave or braiding my adolescent legs above the bed while my eyes settled into slits from reading “The Fountainhead” until the wee hours, that kind of rapt attention books have commanded from me is only deepening with age. As such, when our church recently put out a challenge to fast from something we love for 21 days, the curious idea presented itself behind closed eyes- I decided to shelve buying books.

We don’t live extravagantly. In San Francisco, you would be hard-pressed to find everyday extravagance outside of a small subset of the city’s population. And yet, I had found a disturbing trend happening last year that involved whimsy and a growing collection of books to inch into the already bulging bookshelves. Instead of waiting and saving up, I had begun to become a book bag lady. Cookbooks lined the back wall of a kitchen counter only to domino cascade into a heap on the floor one too many times. The poetry wall shudders under the weight of all the slender volumes that are doubled up and stacked high. It might not come as a surprise that I once worked at a book store and then for a stint as a librarian (before the staff realized my gift of gab rivaled my affection for books).

I would want to say that all of the books in my possession endured my pencil jotting marginal notes or had the pleasure of being opened and read. As is the case for voracious readers, sometimes it’s too hard to choose which one to read at any time. One book gets toted along on the morning commute. Another sidles into bed as lamp light casts its glow into the dark house. More requirements present themselves- books requiring notes must be read outside of bed lest a pencil pokes the sleeping spine next to me unwittingly. Some books because of their heft do not get packed into the carry-on bag whereas I can’t imagine leaving others behind when off on a Mister Toad adventure or writing excursion. I don’t consider it to be book hoarding, since they often find their way into other peoples’ hands as the occasion calls for, but we purged the stacks twice last year and still they jut forth with titles that play the part of suitors, whistling and doing a dance to get some notice.

During the Great Purge of 2013, some difficult decisions had to be made. Some books from my graduate school capstone on intercultural relationships made their way into a focused collection at school. Given how hard they had been to cull together, I couldn’t imagine them not finding an equally invested home. Well-meaning cookbooks worked their way into new homes through an online garage sale held with friends last fall to make sure they too, would not lose their way.

What is it about a book that makes it the perfect gift? What is it about a book that makes it hard to part with? I have toyed with only buying food or poetry books- both subjects in which writing in the white space along the outer edge of the pages is part of the reading experience. I finally came to understand the role of the e-reader in my very stubborn physical book loving life. On it, I can rip through fiction and dig deeply into memoir. With audio books, I can work out and listen to a fantastic tale that transports me from the gym room to whatever circumstance the narrator depicts.

Twenty-one days without new books may not be a revelation for you- perhaps the thing you would give up would be different. This exercise of patience and self-control is curbing a pattern of mindless book-buying. At some point, even as an avid reader, you have to have a heart-to-heart with yourself about what stays, what goes and what will span the test of years. A friend proudly owns 400 cookbooks, but most of them are in the garage in boxes, which is a bit like a guitar that has taken on the guise of living room decoration with a coat of dust on its wood paneling. This can’t be my path.

In this 21-day journey, I’m reaching for books I haven’t picked up in years and showing discipline in buckling down to finish remaining chapters before adopting something new to supplement the end of things. Some books remain untouched as their time has not fully come into being just yet. Others play the role of reference guide, there to shed light when needed but sometimes just as neglected. After the 2013 Purge, we installed a stainless steel Metro knock-off from Ikea so my type-A personality could group cookbooks by category, deriving pleasure from their organized readiness for a cooking adventure. When the fasting comes to a close, I already know which new books will join the ranks. But this exercise has accomplished its aim. Do you ever give up something you love for a time period to really ruminate on a habit or pattern in your life?

Art Conversations on Art

Upcycling: Found Object Art and the Art of Recology

Perhaps you’ve heard the adage, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” If you consider the amount of trash that works its way into the rubbish bin and out into landfills each year, the statistic is quite staggering. According to Spencer Michels, “Each year, Americans throw away about 250 million tons of garbage. That’s roughly four pounds per person per day.”

Instead of being discouraged into inertia by the immensity of the problem, a reality of that magnitude calls for creativity. Before throwing something away, is there some other purpose that item can serve? Perhaps just as important, is the idea of redefining trash, once another type of possibility exists for that item. Redefining it as a “found object” enables upcycling and  found object art.

I’m not talking about hoarding either. In fact, that statistic on garbage calls me to ask myself in my firm and friendly let’s get real voice, how can we do more overall with less? Perhaps it’s a question you also ask yourself. I’ve never been able to write well at a cluttered desk- imagine the stunting of creativity in a cluttered house? For me, it’s some form of an insidious growth that spreads over far too many surfaces. If you’re in similar straits, join me and put together your boxes of giveaways: clothes for goodwill, clothes for Dress for Success, and cookbooks for a cookbook swap party.

Back to upcycling we go, though, because I find a particularly tender spot when it comes to tossing magazines. Perhaps it’s the idea of resigning all those words to the trash and all the images to mottle and morph into unrecognizable figures. Years ago, I began a mixed media project that took on a life of its own. For a while I fashioned mixed media compositions from the dregs of exhausted magazines and fancied the idea that I might one day sell them- the ultimate upcycle.

Poring over piles of magazines takes a dedicated Saturday and a stiff drink, which for me usually involves kombucha. Flipping through their pages, I tear and cut as I go, creating piles of images, textures, borders and sometimes typography and words. The last round of magazine triage occurred while old X-Files episodes played in the background, a perfect way to settle into that kind of day.

For the traveler heading out of terminal 3 at SFO right now, you’re in for a treat of the artistic kind. Our San Francisco garbage and recycling collector, Recology, is displaying an exhibit that stopped me on the moving walkway weeks ago. The idea of being confronted with art and much more, the ideology of remastering the old into the new percolated so much hope and possibility within me that late evening. Art does that- sometimes it stops you in your path and creates a fork in the road.

The Art of Recology,” features work from artists-in-residence over the years at Recology. Since 1995, their artist-in-residence program has worked with over 95 artists with the intent of encouraging people to think differently about art and the environment as well as conservation of natural resources. The artists work with discarded materials, with found objects at a studio on-site at Recology and receive a stipend during their tenure. They have “scavenging privileges” and at the end of their time in residence, an art show featuring their work.

Nemo Gould, a former artist-in-residence at Recology defines “a found object” as “just a familiar thing seen as though for the first time.” And in that simple statement lies a tremendous truth: look deeper. What is the intrinsic value of the thing about to pass from being a mop handle and rusted typewriter into trash? Treasures can be found everywhere if we just open our eyes to see them.

And yet, perhaps artist, Henri Marie-Rose says it best, “I worship life through art with the simple insouciance of the new moss in the crack of the sidewalk, the persistent weed, and the ever new and surprising, versatile orchid.” Imagine the opportunities for ekphrastic poetry!

That persistent weed sprouting up in my kitchen of single-function gadgets and purchases procured on a whim take on new meaning. They poke and nudge me to ask myself the question, “how can I give them new life” and if I can’t, “who can?” While I don’t see an avocado slicer making its way into macrame or a collage anytime soon, it can be its own gift that keeps on giving, just like the regular happy sight of a massive white styrofoam Hummer blocking the pedestrian pathway in the United terminal with its jiggered wheels and body. To be human is to upcycle.

The Art of Recology SFO | The Food Poet“I constantly had to balance my urge to create art with my desire to observe, to ponder various environmental issues, and to absorb all the fascinating activity that was constantly going on around me.” -Jeanine Briggs

Found Object Art_Wooden Carving_D Cherie Johnson_The Art of Recology_SFO | The Food Poet Found Object Art_Typewriter Mop_Michael Kerbow_Art of Recology_SFO | The Food Poet

D. Cherie Johnson                                                     Michael Kerbow

“I hope to create elegant, thoughtful pieces from raw, rough materials. When people see my work, I’d like them to be able to experience the wonder and appreciation that I feel for our planet, our place in human history, and the magnificent colors and forms that surround us.” – D. Cherie Johnson

Found Object Art_Monkey _Nemo Gould_SFO | The Food PoetNemo Gould

Found Object Art_Rope Whale Tail_Ethan Estess_Art of Recology_SFO | The Food PoetEthan Estess

Found Object Art_Art of Recology_James Sansing_SFO | The Food Poet Found Object Art_Bottlecap Dress_Remi Rubel_Art of Recology_SFO | The Food Poet

James Sansing

“I am interested in the point at which nature has infiltrated and textured the relics, but has not yet absorbed the evidence of a human narrative.”
– James Sansing

Found Object Art_styrofoam hummer_Andrew Junge_Art of Recology_SFO | The Food Poet

Andrew Junge

“Objects have power, they are invested with meaning and purpose by their makers. They carry with them stories of past use, past users, and often a history we, as their temporary custodians, can only guess at. This point becomes ever more poignant in the face of our capitalist/consumerist culture. We throw so much stuff away. Cool stuff.” – Andrew Junge

Art Conversations on Art

Deepen Your Creative Practice

A cubby waits outside a room.
Each cube holds tennis shoes
or emptiness. My hands untie
the stringed bow to let my feet slip out.
A shoe deposit for the cube,
feet pad into an empty room.

deepen your creative practice

If we were honest, emptiness scares us. We want to be full of whatever it is that we are chasing. Sometimes we need to find something “other” that can help deepen our artistic discipline. Looking too long at an empty screen with restless agitation and expectation can throw off the writing process.

I’m not sure I would agree that “practice makes perfect” but practice helps tighten and strengthen skills to get the job done better. I’ve written before that we expect doing what we love to come easily. Yet, the more I write, the more pre-writes I realize Iam creating- not masterpieces in the making.

That could seem discouraging to results-oriented thinking which goes something like this: I am going to sit down for an hour and just write. At the end of that hour, I will have something wonderful to share with the world that is fully baked. This is sometimes where I have a bone to pick with blogging.

But that is a topic for another day. Today, we delve into creative practice. Recently, I unfurled the flag of my yoga mat onto a wooden floor, marking my small dominion of space. As others arrived and got situated, my eyes closed. I lay flat on the mat, listening to street sounds invade the tranquil room.

We began our practice as the teacher instructed each of us to focus on our breath and the motion of the inhalation / exhalation. He called us to soften our eyes, giving permission against alert eyes- no tigers would assail us here. In so doing, the practice linked breath with motion and thought.

Something remarkable happened in class. As I craned my torso forward onto my palms, lower body inching back into a downward dog, I was struck with an insight that brought exuberance to my whole body. It surprised me to reckon with something so foreign to my current preoccupations.

Another insight greeted me the next week. I found myself newly aware of  how I have been compensating ever since a very bad thing happened to me. This insight did not come as I settled into downward dog like last time. In fact, I’m fairly certain it came as I set up for a different yoga pose.

To deepen a yoga practice is not so very different from deepening a creative practice. The first step requires showing up. With it comes the acknowledgement of having set aside this time and choosing to be right here. There might be a downward dog or a few sun salutation poses to cycle through. Beyond

this, I don’t know what to expect in class. Herein lies the rub. If I showed up to yoga expecting to leave with insight like the two recent epiphanies, they wouldn’t come. Why? My focus and desire for them would eradicate them from revealing themselves. Instead, showing up, ready to iterate

familiar movements and make them better (shoulders engaged, fingers splayed evenly), my practice will deepen. And pearls of truth might just reveal themselves to me. I don’t practice yoga for those insights. I find myself going deeper into yoga because without it, I am found wanting.

Writing is not so very different is it? Do you set strict parameters on your writing space? Try breaking the parameters. Just as you might hold a yoga pose longer to challenge your body and mind to not break the form, this too can sharpen your writing. It might introduce new stimuli you wouldn’t

perceive in the everyday rhythm. Does your writing experience involve ensconcing yourself in a different coffee shop each day for the variety? Try sticking with one location for a week as your challenge. Whatever your obstacle to get into the writing, find and set a challenge to overcome.

The role of pre-writing cannot be underscored enough. If we only value the words we write that are publishable, would it not make sense to value all the writings that got us to that place? I think of a conversation I had with Andrew about how many shots he takes to achieve the hero shot.

If you get a chance to view the photo card of a pro, you might see ever so slight variations of the same captured image. Why would they take 300 or more photos of almost the same shot – to get closer to the final image. This might require setting up the shot and then changing the original stance.

A friend who published a cookbook last year mentioned something interesting along the same lines. During the cookbook photoshoot, they couldn’t quite get the cover image right. They kept trying to nail down that hero shot of hero shots and it eluded them. Eventually, they moved on and ventured

out for an offsite lunch break. A benign comment made at lunch gave new direction for the shot… they nabbed it that afternoon. Part of deepening a creative practice is learning to listen. You never know when a comment made on the bus inspires a character for a poem. It’s in not seeking for the “it”

that “it” sometimes finds you. Another part of deepening creative practice is to pursue something completely unrelated. This gives the mind a break of concentrating so fixedly on one thing that can get it stuck in a rut. Research and investigate a topic that intrigues you. Take a language class. Explore.

Writer friends are among the most curious people I know. They want to figure out how something works and then let it inform their work. I think of Rebecca‘s pursuit of photographing her beloved Kentucky’s holocaust survivors or more recently, translating an Iraqi poet’s verse memoir of the war.

One role of art is to provide commentary on the world around us or the world within – to try to make sense of it or re-envision it. As artists, if we keep our eyes open and reflect on what bothers us, the answer will sometimes lead to the crux of the work itself. Be open, be bothered, be ready.

Many poems have been written by my hand where the entire work is scrapped and perhaps one line or phrase remains. As a poetry mentor used to exhort me, “Find the poem within the poem.” With three big projects on my plate right now, when I sit to write, I never know which one will be the focus

of that particular writing session. I may go in with an idea of what I want to write about or be pestered enough by an idea that is finally ready to get realized on paper. In staying open, while writing, the departure from the original idea might be exactly where the work needed to go.

Cheryl wrote a small diatribe against well-meaning posts of “how to become a better writer” recently. As someone who craves seeing other writers’ processes, it spoke to that part of my sensibility, but she also charged readers to just dive in and just write. Like anything, you only become better by doing.

Again. And again.

So in a new year where resolutions still smell fresh and resolve has not dissipated into a bath of good intentions, make this the year to deepen your creative practice. And let me know what departures you are making in your work, how you are challenging yourself and what insights you glean as you create.

deepen your creative practice

Art Conversations on Art

Do What You Love: A Story in Parts

CONVERSATIONS ON ART- Do what you love

What is that one dream or goal that feels just out of reach? You know the one- perhaps you pull it out of its secret drawer kept lockbox shut to regard it from time-to-time. Maybe, it’s an open secret- something the people around you know you enjoy but don’t understand how fully you would endow yourself if able. Better yet, it could be that thing you are chasing with your full being that keeps you pursuing opportunities with the deft hand of someone who is hungry to fulfill their passion.

Perhaps we share this in common. Maybe you find yourself voraciously devouring articles from your twitter feed with interesting headlines, catching up on your blog reader or judiciously evaluating the stack of books next to your bed to consider which one will accompany you this week on your commute. I’m a firm believer that to be a writer is to be a reader. It makes sense, if you think about it. They go hand-in-hand with one another. To be a writer is to have readers.  Hopefully. Of course, artists exist who come into this connection posthumously.

My call to write came early with the help of a short story I penned about a talking pen named Percy. Later, it was affirmed through a trip to Honduras in high school where I felt called to be a missionary and the vocation to write only grew in intensity. Unlike other freshmen entering college, I didn’t have a crisis of major, but tenaciously set after pursuing my BA in journalism with a minor in creative writing. All the while, I kept burrowing away in dorm rooms, libraries, shady spots on campus with a book open and pages turning. Within me grew a strong desire for story-telling, both other peoples and over time, my own. I swapped one newsroom in which I acted as reporter and later features editor for an internship at the New York Times. I moved forward, settling into the uncertainty of the early 20’s.

The Devil wears Prada and a chance meeting
Something happens when you turn 30. Maybe for you, it happened at 33. I recall experiencing nothing short of a complete re-direction and crisis. External processor that I am, I sat listening to capstone presentations being given by graduate students and found myself jotting down on a scrap of paper in my lap, “I don’t want to be a missionary.” Couple that with a viewing of “The Devil Wears Prada” where a journalist-bound girl deeply ensconced in the fashion world comes to see how far she has strayed. from her original path. In the pivotal scene of the movie, we see the heroine in a limo in Paris during fashion week. We watch her open the limo door and step out of the car, thus leaving behind a coveted job and lifestyle. I found myself awash in emotion. She course-corrected in this fictional tale, could I?

As we were leaving the theater, I ruminated on that sense of leaving my first love, writing, behind as an ancillary activity relegated to “what was left” after work and all of the other busyness filling my days had been done. I did what I do everyday and what I do more often when feeling overwhelmed, I prayed. And this time, that little prayer found its response in a very unexpected way.

There, in the lobby of the Century Movie Theater Novato, in the line waiting for an adjacent movie stood a woman I knew from her back cover head shot. Resplendent in funky glass frames and blonde dreadlocks, Anne Lamott stood several paces away. I don’t have super-fan moments often, but the congruity of seeing someone whose writing has moved, inspired, encouraged and given my own writing wings definitely made its mark. I walked over and let her know that her work is meaningful to me and thanked her for writing. There may have been other gibberish that exited my mouth as well but they remain in the shadows of my mind if they did exist. I took it as a sign. Thus commenced a weekend in which I was thrust, soul-searching, taking the Jacob story of wrestling with God seriously and contemplating “what next?”

In an office of poetry book-lined walls that previous Spring
“Have you thought about an MFA program?”

My former teacher and the late poet Jack Myers asked the question aloud with silence on either end acting as brackets.

“Do you have any work with you?”

I pulled out the slim Moleskine journal from my bag and with it a poem I had been revising. The journal passed from my hands to his. More silence. My thoughts filled the brackets with reading the titles and names of the books in his shelves.

“I think an MFA program would be good for you.”

Disbelief and approval
And just like that, after a weekend of soul-searching and a recommendation earlier that Spring from my former poetry teacher, I began the process of reviewing programs, researching faculty, reading up on their work to see who might be a good fit for my work and from whom I would like to learn. Upon telling my parents that I was pursuing graduate school AGAIN, my mom shook her head in a way that both equated to disbelief and the kind of approval that comes from deep love. My dad responded simply, “While some kids go get their MBA, my daughter wants to get her MFA in Poetry.” Dad-speak for his own brand of disbelief and approval.

Do what you love; love what you do
It’s no surprise to me that my path has been circuitous or untraditional. I find when you write, the act itself is the destination. Far be it from me to say I have arrived. But difficult circumstances have served to remind that everyday is precious. Because of that, the importance of doing what you love is magnified. I get to manage several blogs and writers, which invigorates my joy of being an editor. I have finally adopted a daily writing regimen and found a method that is working for me with a mix of poetry, prose, a sprinkling of recipe development and a hint of reading thrown in for good measure. If doing what you love seems out of reach, consider the alternatives. It’s never too late to course-correct.

Where Neil Gaiman will blow your mind
Which is to say, what is your “mountain” and are you working your way toward it or away from it? Prepare for a kick-in-the-pants or inspiration with this Neil Gaiman commencement address. Think of it as an after-dinner mint for when your breath (living) needs freshening up. He puts it this way, “if you have an idea of what you were put here to do, then just go do it.” I like that he described his end goal as a mountain to which he evaluated all opportunities and whether they took him closer to the mountain or farther from it. If only one exhortation can be remembered from his speech, it is to “Make Good Art.”

May it lift your spirits as it did mine.

Neil Gaiman Commencement Address