The Crocheted Cosmos

The Crocheted Cosmos

 

"Crocheted Cosmos" 270 D'Oyley No. 9, Victorian crochet, Project Gutenberg

270 D’Oyley No. 9, Victorian crochet, from Beeton’s Book of Needlework

All my life’s a circle, sang Harry Chapin.* And in another world and time, Black Elk, …the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.**  The form of a circle or embedded circles with a central point, often sectioned in four, is ubiquitous and basic: our solar system with its concentric planetary orbits; our globe with its hemispherical divides and its recurring cycles of seasons.In mythologies across culture and time, the circle stands in for these natural occurrences and becomes a graspable metaphor for the universe and our unfathomable relationship to it.  As DaVinci showed in his famous “Vitruvian Man,” our bodies themselves are circle-related structures. Even our four-chambered hearts, centered in our chests and central to our physiological and emotional functioning (metaphorically at least), partake of this archetypal form.The Chinese yin-yang symbol implies the ever-repeating flow of daylight into darkness. The mandalas of Hindu and Buddhist origin map the cosmos and the all-important path to its center of stillness. Stone circles all over the world eternally correspond with and praise the sun. Ancient (and modern) epics narrate human journeys that start from and return to home, to origins.

L to R: Diagram of Majorville Medicine Wheel, Alberta, CA, c. 3200 BC; Leonardo DaVinci, Vitruvian Man, about 1490; Tanka painting of Manjuvajra Mandala, Tibet, 1400–1500

In this way, the stone circles, the mandalas, even Da Vinci’s drawing are functional as well as mysterious and beautiful. Domestic arts are easy to understand as functional and pleasing, but they also “try to be round.” They, too, have metaphorical qualities. Look at “D’Oyley #9,” above. Its circular perfection encloses an asymmetrical universe of shapes that nevertheless reside and abide in relation to the center. Its biomorphic forms are reminiscent of a garden or, less obviously, of the distribution of organs in a body. The D’Oyley feels organic, a term that means “developed naturally,” as well as in some sense, unmediated, not interfered with. Complex, quasi-symmetrical, hinting its connections to other aspects of creation, it feels so satisfying. Why is that?

Earth as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by DSCOVR's (Deep Space Climate Observatory) EPIC scientific cameraHere’s our globe regarded from the eye of a satellite. After considering the D’Oyley, how elastic do we have to be, to zoom in or out and see a pileup of snow as a patch of French knots, or imagine a storm as chain-stitched around its tight central core?  Or to understand the clumps and rows of clouds as a kind of sweater, perpetually knit and unknit? The globe and its activities are a cosmic manifestation. The D’Oyley crochet is both a rendering of cosmos and a physical object—which, deepening its mystery,  could be returned to thread with one long pull. It occurred to me that weather and stitching are “Penelopean labors,” circular, recurring labors of making and unmaking that mark the doings and fates of planets and humans.***

The arts don’t merely mimic nature but of necessity engage and reveal it. Art allows us humans, whether as maker or audience, to play-act our circlings and spiralings, much like a child who invents games or demands to hear certain stories over and over in the quest to master complex emotions and circumstances.

The circle and other forms in nature are the structures upon which existence is built, irreducible patterns that reveal the shape of being, what we exist within and are made of.**** We intuit these forms and possess a seemingly innate desire to re-make them—in homage, solidarity, yearning, imitation. The Hebrew God said he created humans in his/her image, forms of a Form. Could this not be where the sense of beauty originates? Beauty, experienced via recognition, resonance, like responding to like. We are “struck” by it, like clapper to bell. Our inherent formal structure recognizes and seeks its twin in the external world. Art is a love letter.

Dear Circle,

The first time
I laid eyes
on you, I knew
we were made for
each other.

You encompass me,
my center
is yours. You
live within me
and I, in you,
forever.

Yours, truly,
———

P.S. Please see enclosed!

What does all this have to do with creative practice? Art-making is our attempt to find and express meaning—and to participate in the cosmic unfolding, whether to revel, rue, praise, lament, witness or question. There’s nothing to really “practice” here, as the urge is innate and happens by itself. We can cultivate awareness of forms and their effect on us as a species and personally. We can remember that we embody these fundaments. My own contemplation leads me to the understanding that all art-making is ritual and spiritual (and functional)—without any effort to make it that way. No matter what, it can’t be divorced from this essence, it can’t become single, alone, unmoored. When we struggle, when our work gets little recognition, even when it fails, it is grounding to remember that we are graced to be working in this archetypal realm, reflecting the cosmos, refocusing and dispersing it like lenses, little prisms. In making art, we are enacting behaviors as old as the human race. And we are continuing the unending re-expression of cosmic order. Underneath our struggles and the more mundane goals we have for our work, that is what we are doing.

Whole universe

Observable universe logarithmic illustration, Pablo Carlos Budassi

Notes:
* Harry Chapin, 1942-1981, “Circle,” from Sniper and Other Love Songs, 1972.
** Black Elk, 1863-1950, as quoted in Black Elk Speaks, John G. Neihardt, 1932
*** Penelope, weaver, wife of Odysseus, The Odyssey, Homer, 8th Century B.C. See one of the many translations, or Wikipedia, to understand the role of Penelope. But also google “Penelopean labor” or “Penelope and feminism.” Also note that textile and text share the same root, from the PIE *tek-” to make.” The noun form means, essentially, “structure,” referring to the pattern and of weaving and the texture of cloth.
**** These forms-that-are-expressed-everywhere include not only the circle, but also the golden section and spiral, fractals, the Fibonacci sequence, and the Pi ratio, among others (to which I may return in other posts).

And thank you to Alan Monasch for his contribution to the “Dear Circle” poem.

 

 

Advertisements

Ships at Sea

The Invitation 620
Above image: The Invitation (Boat Series), Rosemary Starace

I just lower my standards. So said the poet William Stafford,* in answer to a question about how he navigated his daily writing practice and avoided “writer’s block.” It’s generous, practical—and much quoted—advice, offering writers a way to engage the featureless expanse of the blank page, an end-route around doubt, hesitation, fear.

When I first encountered this idea, I heard it in terms of standards of quality—the thought being that we writers might simply put down some words no matter how poorly formed, and accept that there will be days when our work will not live up to our ideals. Then at least we will have fulfilled our commitment or quota, and created an opening for inspiration and revision on another, better day. This lets us proceed—no small thing, for we know how uniquely difficult that can be.

I valued this, even while I disliked abandoning messy, unresolved pieces even overnight. They wailed at me, “How could you?” and “See, you’re a fraud!” I was a perpetrator and an incapable rescuer all at once. Where was the life ring? Though I would tell students and artist friends to “trust the process,” and I knew that to be true, I had an inner Ahab who interfered. I was accepting the process conditionally while I pursued perfection—and the redemption of a more successful tomorrow. My low-quality output was ok only if I could anchor to the notion that I would eventually prevail, through talent or determination. What could be limiting about that?

There’s another meaning of “standard:” A standard is a flag or set of flags announcing the identity and status of a ship, its ensign. When, in the 1600s, it became technologically possible to attack ocean vessels from a distance (with ship-mounted cannons), it also became essential to be able to signal surrender from afar. At first, ships displayed the white flag of truce already used in land war, but this was ambiguous; some countries’ ensigns included a white flag. So, the practice of indicating surrender evolved from flying a white pennant at full mast to lowering the ship’s standards.**

One day, discussing Stafford’s remark with a friend, we realized that he may have meant his statement this way as well: When you come into the presence of poetry, it is helpful to lower your standards—to enter the space of writing with humility and openness, no matter what your reputation or need. To refrain from announcing, especially to yourself, who you think you are or should be. To jettison ambition and the desire to be great as you approach the majestic vessel of language, or as it approaches you. Stafford’s navigational principle not only references the quality of the words you put down, but the quality of self or ego that you bring to the act of writing. Lowering your standards comes to mean surrendering yourself to the process.

This relieved me, and relieves writers and artists in general, of a heavy burden. Jumbles of words and hazy images no longer reflect personal shortcomings nor call for heroic intervention. Determination is only the willingness to continue, not with striving but with presence and attention.

Presence and attention create a kind of open water, encouraging what is new and not yet known to appear, like a whale spout or gleam. Our attention is wide, up in the crow’s nest, not down at the ship’s wheel, focused ahead. This produces a sense of impending discovery, giving pleasure and satisfaction in the work itself. And our presence is unique; the less distracted we are by false goals, the more likely our seeing will be original, un-beholden. Artists can have confidence, not in the questing, determined self, but in the sea-worthiness of “the craft” that carries us. Process is nearly autonomous. We don’t steer it, we learn to ride it. It’s also a gift, available to everyone, wind to a sail.

The quality of our presence is therefore essential to the quality of what we make. But the desire for a great outcome, while entirely human, is something better kept in the hold as we enter the writing. When we work, we are necessarily at sea.

 

* William Stafford, 1914-1993, American poet and pacifist. A search of the Internet did not produce the actual interview in which he uttered that now-famous statement, but revealed many hundreds of references to it in dozens of contexts. Also see “When I Met My Muse.”
** Information from British Flags, W. G. Perrin (1922), as referenced here.

M E A N I N G

A few years ago, the poet Charles Bernstein read at Smith College in Northampton, MA. The event happened to take place in a science hall; a gigantic image of the periodic table of the elements loomed over the stage. When Bernstein got up to read, instead of turning to his manuscript,  he raised his face to the chart and began to recite the table:

800px-Periodic_table.svg  free image

“Huhh!”  “Hheeeee!”  “Lihhhhhhhhh, Lie!”

“Be!!”

“Buh, Cuh, nnnN … Oh.

(“Eff!”)

What!? Sound revealed as an element of the elements! A music of the spheres? Yet the sounds uttered were human, guttural, raw—elemental. Residing in the gaps between the units of the grid was deep feeling that Bernstein contacted and brought forth. We witnessed, not a recitation after all, but a magic, a creation. Bernstein recombined the basic stuff of physical being into a new kind of matter: a poem.

Instead of following a linear narrative or a related sequence of images, this poem relied for its meaning on chance, juxtaposition, sound, sound-texture, rhythm, and the release of unqualified emotion. The poem could be considered “abstract.” Just as painting can be about the paint itself—its physical and emotional qualities—and not about what the paint is representing, poetry can use the sonorous and even visual properties of words to affect us. It does not need to rely only on what words do in their typical settings of grammar and syntax. These qualities are present in all poetry and art,  though they can be easy to overlook in favor of  the explanation or description we usually think of as “meaning.”

I recently heard a lecture, On the Lyric, by Norman Fischer, a Jewish Zen teacher and poet whose work, though lyrical, enters, as does Bernstein’s, the sphere of the abstract, the so-called “language poetry.” Fischer says the roots of the lyric reach back not only to the Greeks, whose rhetoric tends to tell us about the world, but also to the very different Hebrew imagination. This imagination makes a poetry, as in the psalms, that is a private conversation between the poet and “God,” the unknowable. A reader of such poetry becomes party to these conversations. But we are not being spoken to directly; we are being allowed to overhear a sacred argument, a holy wrestling. This type of lyric does not explain anything, says Fischer, but instead lets us feel something. If the poem is effective what we feel is the inarticulate sensation of universal human longing for the divine connection, and the grappling with its out-of-reachness.

In the early nineties, before I’d heard of Bernstein or Fischer, I made a painting I called, Feeling Permeates the Structure of the Universe: 

Feeling Permeates the Structure of the Universe by Rosemary Starace

I was grappling with opposites, especially the seeming contradictions of will and feeling, intention and flow, logos and eros, meaning and emptiness. In this exploration, influenced by my typographer husband, I discovered words and letters anew: as entities that could convey, through shape, juxtaposition, size, color, and texture, a meaningfulness that existed in addition to their literal meaning. The opposites were not opposed, but intertwined. In the beginning was the Feeling that permeates and underlies the Word.

Around that same time, my friend, artist Joel Schapira, also started making paintings out of words. One of them, Letter from Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg: Not Just Colorful Characters (14 feet x 8 feet), hangs in the student center at Naropa University:

Letter from Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg: Not Just Colorful Characters, by Joel Schapira

Schapira’s Letter from JK to AG makes words into colors and shapes, figures on a ground, and separates the individual words into a grid of vivid bubbles that float off the canvas independent of their original context. The words of the original letter become like recombinant strands of  DNA. Schapira allows different meanings to arise, form, and re-form, as our eye-ears connect the color red with red and “wHAt” with “frOM.” And, we are privy to Schapira’s wrestling: “my Alone, we must speak!” is what I overhear, what I read over Schapira’s shoulder.

Still, the letter Kerouac wrote, its ostensible meaning, is not totally obscured by the new revelations. Abstraction and representation live side by side, and even become one thing: Schapira abstracts the content of Ginsberg’s letter as he represents the shapes and forms of letters and words. Similarly, Bernstein’s utterance concretized (represented) the abstraction of the periodic table, revealing the feeling that resides within its seemingly cool structure.

The elements themselves, the periodic table of the elements, Bernstein’s poem of same, and the two word paintings inhabit the same generative universe, the place where we all live and look for the meaning we can never quite find or understand.

But this tension, too, can be reconciled, lived fully. Art has an even deeper purpose than the conveyance of ordinary meaning. It is “the pulling apart of meaning so that mystery can be revealed.”* 

Letter from Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg: Not Just Colorful Characters (Detail), by Joel Schapira

*(Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul, page 311.)

“Doin’ Your Thing at the Crafts Shop”*

"The Arts & Crafts" watercolor by Joseph Starace, 1960s

“The Arts & Crafts at BLC” watercolor by Joseph Starace, 1960s

The Arts & Crafts is a place where you hang out and make things if you feel like, and talk about this and that—if you feel like. There are lots of materials around, and things other people made in various stages of done-ness. There are also things you made and things you left unfinished, and might or might not get back to. In a cubby on the wall, there’s a little box with your name on it, and it contains scraps of colored paper and pieces of wood you found interesting.  You fool around, and maybe somebody shows you how to do something. There’s a back room that doesn’t have windows and the best materials are there, stores of them. Candy bars, too. The person who runs the place is a bit nuts and doesn’t fit in,  and that’s exactly why you like to go there.

There’s little of significance anywhere. You are not engaged in anything “important,” although you are very engaged. You understand the blessed concreteness of tile ashtrays and lanyards, and the alchemical transformations of the enamel jewelry oven. You make things for your mother, as well as for yourself.

I spent all my childhood summers in a place like this. The happy chaos of the Arts & Crafts, its aura of permission, its lack of pretension, still compel my imaginings about what it really means to make art. What if I sprinkled my words with metal powders and let them coalesce without help in a special oven? What if I braided my lines and sentences like lanyard cord, and just left the long strings hanging when I get bored? What if I roamed from project to project, and copied what you were doing because I liked it?

What if I snuck into the back room when no one was looking, and made off with some fabulous stuff—because I knew the truth, that it was all there for me?

 

*”Doin’ Your Thing at the Crafts Shop” is the title of a song about the Arts & Crafts at Brant Lake Camp in New York State. Words and music by Irwin Cohen. The person who ran the place was Mike Ilgner. The painting, of the actual building, was made by my late brother, Joseph Starace, when he was a boy.

All you need is…

Scribble

Scribble 1 (drawing by RS)

What does it take to write poetry, to make art? Does it require a special endowment, given only to some?

When I was already nearly 30, and still hiding my writing and art under the bed, I stumbled onto The New York Feminist Art Institute. This was during the heyday of “women’s liberation” when many of us began to learn that “the personal is political.” The women at the school were ardent activists in a variety of ways, but the most radical part of their philosophy for me was their egalitarian view of art and artists. “Art-making arises from self-understanding,” they said, and “content inspires form.” (NYFAI catalog, 1980) My whole self trusted this approach, which hinted I might possess something intrinsic that I could draw on in my creative work.

Before that I had simply not known where art came from.  It appeared to me as if it came from talent—and from education, knowledge, and experience I didn’t have access to. I had felt the urge, the inner necessity to paint, to write poems and songs, but I did not know how to respond to my own need. I had tried, and dropped, a few art classes, finding it too uncomfortable to reveal both my aspirations and my ignorance.

The classes I had taken were bewildering. Students gathered around a still life setup, each one painting the same scene from a different view. This reminded me of the only previous art training I’d had, in elementary school, where teacher hung up a completed crayon drawing, usually on a seasonal theme, and handed out stencils and cutouts so we could all reconstruct exactly the same image. At a world-famous art school in New York, I heard, “You must always put an odd number of objects in your still lifes!” And, “You are holding your brush the wrong way!” I could not see what this actually had to do with art, yet I was not only disheartened, but also intimidated by these mysterious and, to me, arbitrary, rules.

The New York Feminist Art Institute erased the silly rules and gave me a set of principles I could connect with and use. Eventually, I saw that their terms could be expanded:  Art-making arises from something even deeper and more fundamental than self. Call it Self—a term that includes our personal selves as well as other beings, and both the external world and the deep world. Without continued attention to all of these things, art becomes all surface and technique, mimicry—a classroom wall of Thanksgiving turkeys.

And content does inspire form, not necessarily in the sense that, say, a particular subject or feeling would bring forth a sonnet instead of a prose poem, or an abstraction instead of a portrait, but in the sense that who we are, the contents of our lives, leads us inevitably to what we create. Our art appears as the fruit of what we pay attention to.

Yet the Feminist Art Institute’s primary insight is correct: while the impulse to create is engaged by our interaction with the world, it is our own response to that experience that gives rise to art. Art flows from the inner to the outer, moves from the heart of being outward into form. This has profound implications for all people, and especially for women, because it locates the impetus for art-making and the content of art in one’s own being—rather than in an external and often male-defined paradigm of suitable subjects, styles, materials, techniques, or approaches to being an artist. It radicalized me, as a woman who had no grounding in the arts and who could have hardly expected, given my culture and education, to make the perilous interior and exterior journey that art requires. What it gave me was the knowledge that all I need to make art is openness to the flow of being through my own self and the world. Every human being has access to her or his own openness. It is a skill that can be cultivated. This skill is the “inner craft” that precedes and underlies the technical skills that also help art emerge.