Monday, December 12, 2016

Do Something You've Never Done Before

Years back I ran into a friend who is a poet. I asked her, "so how's your poetry going?" what have you written lately?”  She said "I haven't been writing, everybody's writing poetry these days, you see it all over Facebook and Instagram, I really have nothing new to add."

This got me thinking. Sometimes we have ideas but we tell ourselves, “nah, this one has been done before”, or “so and so is doing or talking about the same thing.”

What we don’t understand is that we have to say that same thing through our own voice, we have to make the thing in our own way, through our own experience, that’s what makes it unique and different. This very thing that I am saying has indeed been said before. I am just saying it again, in my own way.  

Listen friends, some of us are so concerned with creating something so original that it paralyzes us and we end up not producing anything at all! I’ve been there with my sewing, with my writing, and even with my visual art making. I want to create the next big, innovative thing and it’s overwhelming, stopping me in my tracks, and I end up not making anything at all. 

But I venture to say that the fact that YOU are doing it makes it original and unique. Everybody is sewing and refashioning these days too, but I am making stuff out of my own uniqueness and personal context, the next artist is doing the same thing. In my two years of teaching the NYC Craft Entrepreneurship course I have been asked, “there are so many jewelry makers on Etsy, why would anyone else join those large numbers and expect to sell? Because there is enough room for everyone. Because people care about your story. Because you are making something from your own hands, YOUR hands, no one else can do that, or take that away from you. No one else can be you.

So, please, share your gift. Don’t hold back. If it’s something that has been done or said before, it has not been said or done by you…yet. Do what you have never done before, that's what makes it good, unique authentic work!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Sometimes You Have to Play a Long Time to Play Like Yourself -Miles Davis

What does that mean? So in that long time of playing, who are we playing like, if not like ourselves? The answer is, we are playing like other people.

“Wait, what? I am no faker and I don’t copy anyone! I’m an innovator, I do original sh*t! “(excuse the language). That’s the first thing that came to my mind when I first heard this quote. And the same sentiments also arose when reading Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. In it he says,

“Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self.”

That's when I learned that great artists copy, that's how they get better and make it their own. 

Recently, I needed to apply this lesson, when it came to my museum practice. For the last two years I have been rebuilding my museum education career after taking a seven-year break to care for my kids and start my creative business. It's been a slow process and I have to admit that it took me a while to find my groove again. I wasn’t confident in my teaching at the beginning. The museum education field had changed so much in the seven years that I was away, and I realized that the way I used to give tours was not the way they were facilitated now. 

I knew the remedy right away, though. I needed to watch and learn. So I observed a lot of other museum educators give their tours, and, yes, I  sometimes copied their techniques because they worked! Little by little I started developing my own style, my own teaching personality and I began to facilitate like myself. It doesn't mean that I stop learning or that I stop observing other people, it just means that I'm more secure in who I am as a museum educator and as a teaching artist because I followed and copied for a long time.

Where are you in your art journey? Are you teaching/playing/working like yourself yet? How did you get there? Would love to hear your thoughts!

Friday, November 4, 2016

Finding Your Voice as an Artist

A year ago, during the exhibition Salon Style at the Studio Museum in Harlem, I was facilitating a tour and I stopped to talk about artist Chakaia Booker and her work, Repugnant Repunzel, 1995, made from rubber tires, metal, and wood.

Chakaia Booker, Repugnant Rapunzel (Let down your hair), 1995. Collection The Studio Museum in Harlem
Although made from various materials, the first thing you notice about this work, is the black rubbery substance. The kids didn’t realize, though, that this black tar material was actually reconstructed tires. When I revealed this information, they were like, “wait WHAT?” Yup! Chakaia Booker found her medium!

Booker, who grew up in New Jersey,  started out creating wearable art. She came from a family of sewers;  her grandmother,  aunt, and sister sewed for themselves and for other people. After graduating with a degree in sociology, Booker became a ceramist, securing various internships in New York City. This then lead to large-scale textile sculptures. 

Soon after, Booker began to work with discarded materials found at construction sites guiding her towards the use of car tires in the early 1990s upon moving to New York. During this time, car fires were rampant in the city allowing her access to the left over tires. She says of her process, 
"When I began to understand how to utilize this material [tires] then I began to think of it as a surface treatment for the work, the tire itself was like an icon, in terms of upward mobility, expansion, and also play, because there were always tires in the playground and everywhere we go.  A lot of times, most people, when they come up to the sculptures and see the material, don't really understand what they're looking at. They like the flow, they like the energy that comes from the pieces themselves."
Chakaia Booker is a great example of someone who explored various media finally landing on one that gave her a  strong, powerful artistic voice. This is how it happens with many artists, it takes time and it’s about process.

Sometimes you think you found your medium, and then this changes. Mediums can be for a time and ultimately lead you to your next great work. I thought I finally found my medium in oil painting.  Before then, I mostly drew, constructed collages, and painted with acrylic paint in Junior High School art class. 

Poster about drunk driving created for a contest with acrylic paint. 

It was in LaGuardia HS of Music and Art, however, that I discovered oil painting! I loved it; the smoothness of the medium, the richness of the colors, the texture and smell of the paint itself. I even loved that we had to use turpentine in order to soften and re-work this thick pasty substance. That chemical smell from the turpentine made me feel like an alchemist mixing elements in her lab that absolutely needed to be ventilated. It added a seriousness to my art. I felt like a worker operating on very important projects, projects that just happened to be paintings.

In the early 90s, I moved into my own studio apartment and showcased my work as if it were a gallery! 

But when the kids came along, this all changed. Oil paint was too toxic to use around them, especially with the turpentine, so I gave it up for sewing. I then combined this with screen printing which also has the potential to be toxic until I discovered a safer way to print.

Sometimes finding your medium, takes you trying different media. As I mentioned before, I tried various media (just like Chakaia Booker) and continue to dabble in collage art, but I find my most joy in sewing.  Jack Canfield, author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, says, 
“pay attention to how you are feeling and keep your compass set for joy.”
Where do you find your joy? Sewing is something I do consistently, without striving, it just happens and guess what, it gives me so much joy! I find myself thinking about constructions and patterns even while away from my sewing machine. Yeah, I know, it’s not as sexy as painting, on the high/low art chart it probably is pretty low, but it’s mine and sewing comes with something that painting does not, a legacy. Sewing connects me to my mom and generations of seamstresses before her.

Sewing also allows me to call myself an Artist, a fabric artist.  I used to struggle with that term. I have now come to realize that part of feeling worthy of the artist title lies in the consistent use of one's medium. I have made this sewing art a practice because I love it so much and do it consistently. Artists say something through their materials and they say it constantly. In the years I have been sewing, I have nurtured a passion for reconstruction/refashioning, that gives me a voice and makes me come alive! 

Some of you might say, "okay, that’s nice for you but I am not creative." I hear this all the time, “you are so creative, I wasn’t blessed that way”. I venture to see hog wash!  You just haven't found your medium! That material which allows you to express what you want to say. I fell in love with reconstruction and for me fabric was the only way to share this idea of reuse and redemption. It's my lens. Now you need to find yours.

Maybe you’re struggling to find your medium. So how does one go about finding one’s medium? Here are some suggestions:

1) You dabble, you explore various materials like I did, like Booker did, until one strikes a chord. You continuously ask yourself, what draws me?

2) You go to workshops. If something does strike a chord, attend a workshop to get better at your medium, this builds consistency in your art practice.

3) You go to museums and galleries. I work in museums and this consistently fuels my curiosity about new media to try or new avenues to explore concerning my own fabric medium.

4) You ask your artist friends, other creatives who have struggled with this very question. The artist community is invaluable.

5) You research your own art legacy. How do other family members express themselves? You might not know that your ancestors, were painters, weavers, or sculptors. That might give you a clue. I didn’t tap into my sewing legacy until I went to college. That’s when I started asking my mom questions about sewing and she revealed this legacy in my life. I guess I was bound to eventually sew! 

Have you found your voice as an artist through your medium? Are you at the exploring stage? I look forward to hearing your process! 

Monday, October 3, 2016

On Having a Second Art Language

I’ve been thinking a lot about second languages lately. In my son’s school, all 8th graders are required to take a second language, My son, M is taking Spanish. Spanish is also my second language. This had me wondering, is it the same with art? Is it possible to have a second and even third “art” language(s)?

When I sew, I am always reminded that I am also a singer, it says so right there on my sewing machine.  Singing is my second art language.

I’ve always dabbled in singing, it’s part of my art legacy. My mom has an amazing voice and sang around the house, my older sister also sings and takes it further by writing songs, and all of us sisters sang in church (whether in the choir, in a duet or by ourselves). Song was always there in the backdrop. I even sang to my husband during our wedding! But I never had a desire to be a professional singer, I was very clear on my calling from a very young age, visual art was my forte, and singing, well, it would be my second art language.

This second art language is not for money. Although I occasionally use it in my museum practice, I don't get paid for it. The singing that I do, is for anyone willing to listen and I give it freely. It’s not going to get me famous and I’m okay with that. My fellow artist friend, Terina Nicole, says, 

“you don't have to be famous, fame is fleeting, it's in giving the gift to the people in your lives that matters. That's the gift and it's for those in your community, those around you, those that know you.”

Nowadays my singing practice revolves around Dan who absolutely loves music. Music is his first art language. Whenever he’s anxious or upset, I just sing a tune, pop in his favorite cd, or change the channel on the tv to the music station, and that makes it all better. With Dan, I sing my heart out. I am actually not very confident with my singing skills, my voice cracks when I get to the high notes, but when singing to Dan, I try out different harmonies, intonations and even do a little skat jazz singing from time to time. Elmo songs become bluesy jazz renditions that make me feel like I’m lying on a piano in a bar with a bowl of change on top of it for tips! While performing in these intimate concerts for my son, I feel free to experiment because there’s no pressure, it’s a second art language. I didn’t study it formally, so perfection is not demanded like I would demand of my first art language, visual art. It’s liberating! This singing is for me, it’s for friends who ask me to sing them a little tune when they find out I like to sing, it's for my neighbors who hear me mostly in the summer when the windows are open, it's sometimes for the church, and always for God and Dan who are my main patrons, they are my audience of two.

But although my sewing machine calls me a singer, dare I call myself that?

Mark Nepo, poet and spiritual writer, puts it like this, 
“in our culture, when someone has a talent for something, we’re told to label ourselves. “If I write, someone says you should be a writer. If someone loves the land, oh, you should be a gardener. Or if someone sings, you should be a singer. However, we’re being turned into a noun when the aliveness is in staying a verb.”

He goes on to say, “If you love singing, just sing, You don’t have to become a singer, you don’t have to become a gardener. Just keep your hands in the earth.”

I find it interesting that Seth Godin said the same thing
And that’s the beauty of having a second art language, it allows you to remain the verb without the pressure of being the noun. It allows you to just SING, instead of being the Singer.

So if you want to sing, sing, if you want to paint, paint, if you want to dance, dance. Whether it’s your first, second of third art language, just do it, be the verb! That’s where the joy resides.

What's your second art language? How can you be the verb? Tell me so in the comments. Let's have a conversation. 

*My art friend Terina Nicole is the designer and founder of Jypsea Leathergoods. This New Jersey native creates beautiful, bold statement pieces for art & design lovers who enjoy expressing their individuality. To know more, go to