Petals and Vine

As I strolled through the botanic garden’s annual orchid exhibit last week –  giddy over my first day off in weeks,  the unusually warm temperatures and a break from working with words – I was hoping to capture the explosion of color, texture and shape with a few camera clicks.

What I didn’t plan on was the pattern that emerged as I looked through the final shots. For almost every floral subject, there were at least two versions: one zoomed in and one pulled far back.

The photograph above is the close up version of the image below.

In the first picture, you can see the petals and vines that constitute the color, texture and shape I was going for. In the second, you can see these, but there’s far more than the parts. It had become an entirely new whole.

I thought to myself, this is what it feels like to see creative work developing. 

It all begins with a few petals and some vine. But then the artist turns it into a gown. Being a witness to it is a lot like watching magic happen.

A very viney example from one writer’s effort in a workshop I facilitated last year:

Roberta was in the midst of her morning routine, mulling over what to write about for the weekly prompt assignment, when her hunt for her hairbrush took her to a closet which led her to a red box that she had forgotten about. Opening the box rerouted her but gifted her with the subject for her prompt. This is the moment in our story where it is important to know that in addition to writing, Roberta is artistically ambidextrous: she makes fabric, quilts, books and paper. After bringing in the results for a few in-class sessions of feedback, (“You’ve got to let go of the hairbrush and let us see that box, Roberta!”) she was moved to cross-pollinate her love of words, thread, paper and binding and make this beautiful handmade book that illustrates the story I’ve just summarized, but far more poetically and optically.

Here is the result, at medium range:

Here is a page, close up:

And then far back again:

A circuitous journey, like this blog post, which just took you from orchids to photographs to floral gowns to a writer’s workshop to a hairbrush to the accidental finding of a red box that turned into an actual book about finding a red box and then back to photographs again.

The creative path is a mysterious one. But as a frequent spectator I can tell you that one of its most potent qualities is contagion.

Photographs by Ellen Blum Barish. “The Red Box” written and crafted by Roberta Levin. Copyright 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

A Writer’s Work

The morning after the election, dazed and confused along with so many others, I found myself searching quotation databases for words of wisdom to soothe my soul.

Using key phrases like “moving through shock” and “coming back from defeat” and “when bad things happen,” I found encouraging words from Martin Luther King, Rabbi Harold Kushner and former President Bill Clinton (see below.)

Those post-election days are a blur to me now, but I’ll never forget how comforting it felt to find the right words.

I have been thinking about that moment as I watch my family and friends respond to and recover from the election of the man who turned the world upside down.

Some ranted, went mute, fishing, or to bed.

Some cried, cooked, collapsed.

But as bearings returned, so did action.

My rabbi invited local legislators and the community for a town hall-style meeting at our synagogue.

The Christian-Muslim-Jewish women’s interfaith group in which I have been a longtime member met for a heartfelt dinner and discussion at a local Turkish restaurant.

My daughter organized a fundraiser with other millennials for a women’s homeless shelter.

Journalists and news organizations debated the principles of real news.

Businesspeople innovated.

Women marched.

And it was good. This was action. We were facing this.

More accurately, people I knew were finding their place. I just hadn’t found mine yet. I couldn’t figure out how to plug in. What could I do to make an actual, concrete contribution?

I considered what had given me solace in the days and weeks post-election.

Laughter from Alec Baldwin’s Trump and Kate McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway on Saturday Night Live.

Empathy from Sara Bareilles and Leslie Odom, Jr’s song, “Seriously.”

Community from Chicago storytellers expressing how they were feeling at live lit events.

Beauty through my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds in words, photographs, poster slogans, political cartoons, films, paintings and sculpture.

 It’s ridiculous that it took me so long to see it. But I finally got it.

Comedy. Music. Storytelling. Words. Photographs. Film. Painting. Clay.

 All artistic expressions.

Art moves me to feel. Sometimes better, sometimes worse. But feeling strongly moves me to get up and do something. Maybe that something is making art. But it can also be about inspiring others.

And this is where I can be helpful.

I’ve seen what can happen when people write stories from their lives. They lighten. They rise up a little.

But being inspired could also stir someone to change a vote, run for office, or create a ruckus.

I’m not the person who will turn a vote around or set up a foundation.

I will, however, show up. Offer my signature. Write a small check.

But I hope that I can generate a bigger impact – a larger noise – through making, and inspiring others to make, art or express themselves.

One piece of this is my commitment to infusing this blog space with inspiration on writing, creativity and craft. If you aren’t already a subscriber, I hope you’ll be one. It’s easy. And free. Subscribe here.

But I have another idea that is still marinating:

To curate a live lit storytelling event featuring personal narratives about the givens in our life – the color of our skin, the place we grew up and/or live and the religion in which we were raised (or not). I’m thinking of calling it “Race, Place and Divine Grace.” Stories about the parts of our lives that we can’t change in an effort to look at how we might, in fact, change. To hear one another – the full range of perspectives – a little better.

If you live near Chicago and have any thoughts about how we might co-mingle, let’s talk.

So this year, I’ve decided to go for more feeling, less reeling.

Will you join me?

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

“Is there an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people?…The response would be…to forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world, to reach out to the people around us, and to go on living despite it all…no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it has happened.”
Rabbi Harold S. Kushner

 

“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right in America.”
Former President William J. Clinton

 

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017.

Chaos Wants to Be Art

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It may be inconsistent with most childhood experiences and unintentionally un-American, but I’ve never liked fireworks. Especially the elongated, grandiose versions set off on July 4th.  Sound, sight and sensation reign supreme and the whole spectacle jangles my nerves. Even with children of my own who loved the pageantry, I was grateful for a husband who shared their enthusiasm and would, every year, leave me to a quiet house.

So it was extremely atypical for me to be anywhere near fireworks on the fourth of July when I found myself in the midst of them at a music festival in Milwaukee earlier this month. My husband and I had driven up from Chicago to hear The Indigo Girls with college friends. When the show was over, we were heading back to the car and suddenly there was a BOOM! And then a THWACK! And then, BOOM BOOM! And, THWACK THWACK! And then the OOOOHS and AAAHHHHS, not only from the crowd, but from my husband and my friends.

I was surrounded by explosive-loving loved ones. I was going to have to surrender to this experience.

We found seats at a nearby picnic table and I kept my head down to concentrate on acclimating. I was giving it the old college try.

When I looked up, the showers of colored light made the gondolas pop into view. That’s when I slipped my iphone out of my pocket and starting taking pictures.

I must have taken at least 50 shots. The click of my telephone camera couldn’t compete against the booms and the thwacks but standing behind it, I felt just the slightest bit protected, even though I was cursing the fact that I left my new SLR camera at home.

The next day as I was looking at the images on my large desktop screen, you could hear the SWOOSH SWOOSH of deleted photo after deleted photo as I sent them to the trash.

Then I came across this dark, unsuccessful shot:

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My finger was just about to hit delete when I noted that there were three decently shaped firework bursts in this picture. I had recently learned in a photography workshop that compositionally speaking, three was a sort of magic number (one is its own thing, two can be a coincidence and three is an actual pattern).

So I put it aside, deleted 40-plus more, and concluded that fireworks and I would never live in harmony together. I couldn’t even turn them into art.

But I was wrong. Something made me click onto the photograph again, as if it was calling out, yearning for another chance. I placed it into editing mode and heightened the exposure and saturation, just a bit.

And it transformed into this:

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A perfect picture it isn’t. My Canon could have done far better and I’m not even sure what that yellow light in the far left corner is. (I didn’t want to crop it too tight.)

But it’s cool, right? A little bit magical, even. I think it’s my favorite shot … ever. So of course I posted it on my Facebook page.

One friend, a painter, commented that it looked like vintage Asian art.

Another friend, also an artist, wrote that it made her heart thump.

My youngest daughter wrote, “You actually watched fireworks??”

Rescuing the photograph from the trash, enabling it to reveal its beauty has me thinking, once again, that often, what we think of as chaos simply wants to be art.

Photos by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life’s Imprint

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A handful of out-of-town family members and two friends were in town recently and they all insisted that we visit the Art Institute of Chicago.

So we went. Three times in one week. I spent more time there than I had in years.

On that second visit I noticed that I was taking the art in differently. It wasn’t simply that I was viewing pieces for a second or third time. I was seeing them in a deeper way. Like I had been absorbed into them and was viewing them from the inside out.

The painting above is a great example. I was mesmerized by it. So crafted and chaotic at the same time. It conjured up the memory of a subway wall I saw in New York City a few years ago:

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Which is all chaos and no craft, but beautiful nonetheless. Just a wall. Exposed to the elements.

A few days later at the Chicago Botanic Garden  – I know where to take out-of-towners – I saw this rock:

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How amazing is this? It got me thinking about how life makes its mark. Not only on rocks and walls, but on us, too. In ways we can see like our scars, wrinkles, freckles and bruises. But also in ways that’s harder to see: The weather system of feelings and emotions that live inside us.

These moments made me grateful for art, nature and out-of-town visitors. But it also deepened my appreciation for personal narrative. For the process of getting it onto the page and the gift of reading or hearing it.

Which left me with this thought:  That the lines and curves in the letters that make up the sentences that constitute our essays and memoirs are the writer’s art. The visible marks of life’s imprint on us.

Photos by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.

 

Wonder Takes Our Breath Away

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“What can we say beyond Wow, in the presence of glorious art, in music so magnificent that it can’t have originated solely on this side of things? Wonder takes our breath away, and makes room for a new breath. That’s why they call it breaktaking. We’re individuals in time and space who are often gravely lost, and then miraculously, in art, found.

Continue reading “Wonder Takes Our Breath Away”