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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Balancing creation and destruction

Imagine... (cue John Lennon piano)... no destruction... only creation. Would it be the utopia that it seems? Though we may write songs about such a world, I think that both processes are virtually always required, and that the secret ultimately lies in their balance. At any given time, one may outshine, overpower, or otherwise eclipse the other, but in the end, there must be balance.

A not-so-pleasant event recently reminded me of this fact. While rushing around a few weeks ago, I tripped and fell hard in a parking lot (gracefully, I'm sure). Two things kept me from bashing my face into the asphalt: my kneecap and my right hand (my left arm was wrapped protectively around my laptop case). Though nothing was broken, there was damage: a bruised patella and sprained wrist (although, since I didn't get x-rays, there was the possibility of minor cracks as well).

Having a biology background and being generally interested in how the body works... whenever I'm sick or injured, I often contemplate the amazing ability that the body has to heal. Bones, for example, are not inert, lifeless scaffolds on which our muscles and organs hang. They are living tissues -- a fact that usually escapes our thoughts until one is broken and then heals (or doesn't). And here's the punch line: Bone health requires the proper balance of creation and destruction.

Though I won't go into great detail about the process of bone formation and resorption, I will mention two kinds of cells -- mostly because of the poetry of their names: osteoblasts and osteoclasts. The former are responsible for building bone; the latter are diametrically opposed, digesting bone so that, for example, calcium can be used elsewhere. "Osteo" comes from the Greek word for bone (think osteoporosis: "porous bone"). "Blast" refers to being embryonic -- ie, formative and creative, whereas "clast" means broken.

When bones aren't actively trying to heal, the functions of these two types of cells must be balanced. If the bone-absorbing cells outperform the bone-depositing cells, brittle bones will result. The other way around will result in excessive deposition of bone, which also is problematic. For bone to heal after an injury, the balance must temporarily shift to favor bone deposition. This also is true in children, whose bones are actively growing. But those years favoring the osteoblasts are ultimately balanced by those marking the other extreme of life, when the osteoclasts are slightly dominant.

I could wax poetic about calcium dynamics and how they're affected by diet and physical activity, but that may put most of you to sleep. Instead, I'll just leave you to think about your busy bones and the fine balance of creation and destruction.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Being a Real Artist

This blog entry focuses more on creating than destroying, but the questions are common ones that I think many creative folks struggle with from time to time. So, as you may already know, I’m interviewing lots of artists as research for my book. Some of them have been creating art for years; others are just beginning to experiment. Some make a living from their art; others never will (and not all of them even want to). But this question of making a living from art came up in a recent interview with a guy from New York.

For most of his adult life, this guy has been a businessman. His resume includes titles such as “founder” and “CEO,” which might explain his point of view with respect to what it means to be a “real” artist: A real artist makes a living from his or her art.

This definition of sorts came up in conversation in a way that demonstrated his modesty – that he was not a real artist (as are several of his relatives). Instead, he was just experimenting. He was looking for a creative outlet. He wanted to engage in some act of self-expression. But I had to ask: Isn’t that what real artists do?
But, as eager as I was to point that out to him, I find myself sometimes projecting the same money-oriented value on my writing. I remember very clearly how, upon getting my first paid gig as a writer, I declared that I was finally a “real” writer! I would sometimes correct myself and substitute “professional” for “real,” but I was surprised at how difficult that substitution was.

I think that equating “professional” and “real” leads to some of the confusion around the subject – that and the fact that in our society, we use money as a surrogate for value. Though the cost of something actually is determined by a great many things, in the end things that cost a lot are generally considered valuable, and those that are inexpensive (or free)… well, not so much. And yet, there is no way to assign a monetary value to the things that many of us value most in life – friends, love, health, truth, freedom.

So, I’ve been contemplating all this for a few weeks and noticing when I’m slipping into what I’m calling a flawed way of thinking with respect to “professional” vs “real” or “valuable.” It happened most recently while at a fiction writers’ group. Though I’ve been a professional writer for close to a decade now, I’ve yet to be paid for writing fiction. Most of my work has been educational or journalistic, but I’ve written a couple screen plays and have several others and two novels in various stages of completion.

In this group, there are several writers who have sold screenplays, written for television, or have published novels or other stories. And I often find myself feeling very self-conscious when I’m contributing something to the group. Deep down, I want their approval or some acknowledgment that my idea is in fact good. Because they (I still find myself saying) are real writers. They even have agents!

In fact, in Los Angeles, having an agent is a bit of a holy grail. It’s not quite as good as selling something, but it’s assumed that if you’ve got an agent, then you must be good. Again, it’s an external-oriented approach to value. An artist’s painting has value if someone buys it. My writing has value if an agent deems it to be worthy of his or her representation (i.e,, they think they can sell it). At the same time, we all understand that selling screenplays for example – in addition to requiring talent -- has a lot to do with connections and timing and commercial factors.

Then last night, as I was interviewing yet another artist for my book, I was reminded of this whole other approach to art… more of a bohemian approach… an art for the sake of art approach… as if self-expression and the drive to create were as natural and important as breathing (might it be true?). And, just as you wouldn’t ask permission to breathe or seek validation for your ability to breathe, then why seek outside validation — why ask another person to put a value on your art?

Similar questions have been addressed in the other blog site I write for (, and some pretty lively discussion has ensued. I leave you only to contemplate the differences between “real” and “professional” and between money and value.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Creating and Destroying in the Garden

This was the first year I planted what I call a real veggie garden: 3 raised beds and a few in-ground areas for a total of something like 100 square feet. Talk about an awesome, creative, magical experience! In February, there was nothing but dirt, to which compost, seeds, and water were added (plus love and a little elbow grease). Then the sun (fire!) provided the energy, which worked in combination with the innate knowledge of the seeds to grow delicious, nutrient-rich, energy-providing fruits and veggies.

It almost seemed like something from nothing – reminiscent of the old theories of spontaneous creation. Certainly, I was more an observer than a participant in this creative act – though I did provide the water and kept the weeds and snails at bay. But even though my role was relatively minor, it never would have happened without my vision and maintenance. It was a collaboration with nature that taught me a lot about experimenting and patience.

Then this weekend, I tore most of it out. It’s late September now, so the summer veggies are ending and it’s time to sow the seeds for the fall/winter crops. The plants seem to have their own internal cues, or maybe they’re just reacting to the shortening hours of daylight. Either way, they begin to whither and brown. Some of them exhibited a final burst of creativity, shooting out one last set of flowers. Some of them even had fruit on them when I pulled them from their earthen home, shaking the soil off their roots, returning it to the beds. Dust to dust (or in this case, dirt to dirt).

Since I live in southern California, this will happen at least twice a year: pulling out the previous season’s crops to make space for the new ones. The spent plants will become mulch to fortify the soil and the cycle will repeat itself… creating and destroying and creating again. In some places, they still burn the dried remains to release any stored nutrients (I love it: potential energy being released to the earth by fire!), but in fire-prone southern California that isn’t a good idea. So I content myself with composting. The worms are very happy about that.

So I once again have a blank slate. What will I plant? What will I try this time? My success will partly be dictated by the season (“For everything… there is a season”). Were I to plant corn now, it would surely fail, even though I harvested a dozen or so delicious juicy ears a few months ago. Should I allow my culinary desires to take precedence, I might plant buttery lima beans – but again, I would be disappointed. So, instead, I’ll opt for beets, cauliflower, kale, and other greens which won’t even sprout in warmer temperatures.

The lesson in this, for me, is that not only must one make space for new creations, but when those creations are a collaborative process, timing and agreement are everything. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Storage and stagnation

In physics, they speak of “potential” energy  -- the energy held within an object, due either from its position or from its composition (ie, the chemical bonds that hold its molecules together). And then there is “kinetic” energy – the energy of movement; potential energy unleashed; the energy of work; the energy of change.

While conversing with some new friends, I started thinking about change versus permanence (which really started sounding more like “stagnation”). In the context of art, for example, my husband noted that though he’s glad that there are art museums where we can view, contemplate, and be inspired by great works of art, there are those who consider museums to be art graveyards. Art frozen in time. Frozen on walls. All of that creative energy, all of that inspiration and work – captured (trapped?) in a painting or sculpture. Until…?

Now, I don’t espouse eliminating museums or destroying great works of art, and I can come up with plenty of arguments about how those works are not dead at all, because they continue to inspire and instigate. But at the same time, it makes me wonder how those artists – if they were alive – would feel about their art being frozen indefinitely on a wall somewhere. Perhaps some of them would be proud that they had left their mark on the world… created something of beauty that outlasted their own earthly existence. But maybe some of them would feel differently. Might they feel limited? Trapped? Pigeonholed? Misunderstood? It’s possible.

Certainly, a lot of energy goes into the creation of art. Physical energy. Emotional energy. Mental energy. Creative energy. Might all that energy then be stored as potential energy locked inside, only to be released when the art is somehow changed? That change could be its destruction: All the potential energy being converted to light and heat of the flames. Not only the chemical bonds of the materials but the emotional and creative energy fueling the fire.

Yet another law of physics states that energy is never created or destroyed. It only changes form – released and recycled, potentially to create something else. I know in my own experience in witnessing art on fire that waves of inspiration and creativity have passed through me – perhaps freed by the fire and pausing if only temporarily to spark something in me.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fire and Dust

Wow... what an amazing burn! For those of you who weren't there, there are already many incredible videos and photos posted on Youtube, etc. I was able to chat with quite a few artists about their work -- its creation and destruction, and will begin posting excerpts from the interviews this week. But I'd like to share one story with you now, which for me captures the meaning of transformation.

Suki (aka Karen Christians) is an artist from Massachusetts. She creates jewelry and works with precious metals -- an art which she began AFTER being horribly burned. Without going into details, I'll just say that years ago, she was caught on fire. One can imagine that after such a horrifying and painful accident, that she was not only physically but also emotionally scarred. But somehow, in her healing -- perhaps the key step in her healing -- she began to work with fire... to make art. She took the very element that scarred her and used it to make something beautiful... and in the process, her own trauma was transformed. Amazing!

As a goldsmith and jewelry maker, she has done a lot of cool things (including founding a school!). This year at Burning Man, she made two wooden "diamonds." So, transformation #1: wood to art. Each of those diamonds were then burned (one with the Man; the other with the temple). Transformation #2: wood to ash. But, some of that ash (mixed with the ash of the Man, the temple, and everything else that was in consumed in the fire) was collected and will be purified and compressed into 5 diamonds! (Transformation #3). Those diamonds will eventually be set into rings (transformation #4!).

Now, the story of the gold for the rings is great too...
Before the burn, Suki reached out to many many artists, jewelers, and goldsmiths and asked for the tiniest of scraps of gold... so in came the donations: many tiny scraps, which ultimately will be used to make the rings for the diamonds.

But wait! There's more! Those 5 diamond rings -- each designed/made by a different artist -- will be donated to one of five nonprofit/charitable organizations -- where they will be auctioned/raffled/etc. The money that's raised by those rings (transformation #5) will then fund many different projects, helping countless people (transformation #6 and beyond!).

My conversation with Suki really made me think about the power of change. Left as wooden sculptures, her diamonds would have been nice -- but they became ALIVE through the transformation from one form to the next. I have a feeling that that's applicable in a lot of other settings...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

International Arts Megacrew

Yesterday, I spoke with Kiwi and Irish -- head honchos of the International Arts Megacrew (tangent: I love that their acronym is "I AM"). Both Kiwi and Irish have created and burned art on the playa, but this year they'll be creating -- and destroying -- their biggest work by far: the Temple of Transition.

We talked about transitions and rites of passage (the Burning Man theme this year)... and how that ties into the creation and destruction of art. They both emphasized the idea of letting go and the impermanence of everything. I could have talked to them all day about collective art as well (another favorite topic of mine) -- but they had precious little time during their last few days in Reno, before heading out to the playa.

I think it was Kiwi who also made the comment about fire: "You light it on fire; you attract a crowd." "Like moths to a flame," added Irish. Which, if we had more time to talk, could have led to a whole discussion about the public nature of this creation/destruction. But that will be pondered another day.