Tending our dreams

January 25, 2008

illustrations from ‘The Colored Pencil Forest’, S.Zoutewelle

I fell in love with the word ‘tend’ several years ago, it has the same root as tender.

Tending one’s dreams as opposed to realizing them implies another, gentler approach.  Realizing means striving in order to get somewhere or something.  Tending takes patience to let something reveal itself to you. Realizing means you already know more or less what you want and where you want to go. Tending feels like something you do at home, in the course of your normal day.

I tend my home and garden and relationships, I don’t realize them.

I tend a plant and see to its needs that it can be the best that it can be.

To tend something you must be near it, intimately involved with it. Tending involves trust and care.

Tend your dreams.
They are there, buried deep in the soil of your life and mind. 
Even in the dark they are there, know this.
The spring rains and earthturningtowardlight will coax them above ground.
They are fragile then, let them develop a strong root system
to support that first tender green shoot.
Watch over them,
see to their (your) needs
and they will flourish
and bloom.


I had the conversation below with a member of the Artist Grads group, a list serve of people who have completed the months long creative recovery program,’The Artist’s Way’, by Julia Cameron.

It is a wonderful and highly recommended book, but there are some worrying underlying assumptions which put people under pressure to ‘achieve’. We discuss this aspect:

M wrote: Somehow, after doing this programme I am left feeling hopeless and somehow not quite dedicated enough to my art.

I replied: Maybe this exposes the downside of the ‘realize your creative dreams’ trend. I recognize those feelings of guilt or inadequacy concerning my level of commitment to my art and I’m wondering how we got to feeling that we have to jump through creative hoops- whose hoops? Who says we have to be dedicated to our art in a certain prescribed way? Built into the self-help trend or realizing your dreams is the assumption that if you don’t you’ve failed.

Thus, ‘our art’ becomes yet one more goal in our goal oriented society, instead of a personal quest governed by our own unique sense of tempo and unfoldment.

M: It is obvious that I have been doing creative and artistic things, but somehow I have not accepted that these activities are actually expressions of my artistic self.

S: As long as we discuss art in the context of the accepted paradigm of this culture which is about improvement, progress, achievement, consuming, and prosperity, we are going to go in circles and will never be satisfied. We will always be judging ourselves and our art according to those standards, and those have, for me very little to do with my art.
I am not searching for one ‘universally accepted definintion of art’. As an artist I am dissatisfied with the existing definintions of what art is and am trying to expand them to be more inclusive. I am trying to find an art that fits with my deepest values instead of making my art acording to external values that mean very little to me.

M:…I am still in the process of finding a gentler way to tend to my artistic nature and stop the constant self criticism that only adds to my frustration.

S: thanks M, me too. The key word is ‘gentle’, I think. And you use the word ‘tend’ which comes up repeatedly in Thomas Moore’s writings:

“…careful tending of the soul results in an atmosphere full of connections and significances’,
(paraphrased)  we need to tend our personal shrines, tend borders, gardens, communities and dreams…..

I got off the train in Groningen, and went to the ‘Ladies’. You have to pay a hefty 50 euro cents to get in, there is an ageing woman always present to take the money.

But she does a bit more than just clean the toilets and guard the gate. The whole toilet block was recently redone, so, in a gleaming tan tiled space, you enter a roomy cubicle, and there on a shelf behind you is a small votive candle. Actually, the whole Ladies Room is illuminated in soft candlelight; and somewhere there must be an aromatic oil burner. Little crafty things that she makes during quiet periods are for sale on the wall behind her- cards, bracelets, etc.

Imagine stepping off a train in a crowded station and entering this sanctuary of healing calm. I feel the tension flow out of my shoulders every time I go in there.

But one day I went in and it was different. The candles were lit, but there was someone else on duty.  And I realized, it was really the first woman’s caring presence that made it all work.

Yesterday,  I told her how much I appreciated the care she put into her job. She took it in stride, and it seems to me more people must have taken the trouble to tell her what an oasis she has made for many of us travellers in a simple rest room.  


 I was on the train from Amsterdam to Almere Buiten late in the rush hour this weekend. It was a bleak and rainy Friday evening, I was on the last leg of a 4 hour journey.

I heard laughter and looked down the aisle to see the train conductor( ticket collector) joking around with a small group of young people. I looked twice because lately in Holland there has been a flood of intolerance for anyone not white, particularly refugees. The conductor was white and in his mind sixties, the kids were brown- and caramel skinned and in their late twenties.

Then an extraordinary thing happened, the conductor asked them if they wanted ‘a sun’ punched in their train tickets. They said , ‘sure’, then I said, ‘Don’t tell me the train company is getting creative all of a sudden’! He replied, ‘No, it’s just me, I’ve always been creative’.  I immediately wanted a sun stamped in my card too.  For me it was a symbol of how someone in even the most mundane job could transform a situation for the better. The atmosphere in his car was so friendly and warm just through his presence, and because he had the nerve to trade the dull old perforating punch for a radiating sun.

This struck me so much because this is the same country where any kind of craft is often immediately labeled by adults as childish. And playfulness is not really the rule of the day.

The floor of his coupé was littered with little paper suns.

I thanked him, and went off refreshed and happy.

He said, ‘Next week it’s butterflies’.

Craft as performing art II

January 5, 2008

A performer learns their music until it becomes a part of them.  During the concert, they should no longer have to think of the content or technique.

In the performance, all the practice, study and skill combine to create an experience of the music, for both the performer and audience.  But there is also a factor ‘X’ that is more than the sum of the parts.  It is the spirit of the music as channelled through this particular performer with this audience at this moment in time. 

And at the core of this experience is ‘letting go’, letting go of effort and any trace of ego.  The musician has to take a leap, as it were, and trust that everything they’ve done up until now has been sufficient to prepare them for this moment.

When this letting go is achieved,  a state of flow can ensue.  This is the artistic high, the sportsman’s perfect, slow motion performance, when time stops and there is full relaxation and surrender as well as total alertness. It is a beautiful state to experience, and there are moments of flow in craft as well.

powershot-11-062-aframe-cosmetic-1.jpg  I can make practice lines with my loaded brush endlessly, but at some point I will have to move over to the work in progress and make the lines there.  This, too is a letting go, requiring trust that all the experience and skill I have gained until now won’t fail me now. The stress comes from knowing that it is possible to totally botch it, and I have done this on rare occasions. Mostly this happens when I am not in a centred state and should have been doing something else instead.

But when the work is going well, and that timeless state takes over, then there is no effort, only trust, joy and gratitude.

Craft as performing art

January 4, 2008


Gilded Roman lettering for the village church

Photo by Rende Zoutewelle

A concert pianist practices a piece, ironing out the mistakes until it is as perfect as possible. But the ultimate test of her skill  and experience comes in front of a live audience when there is only the present moment…. and no chance to do it over. 

There are similar moments in art and fine craft even though the audience is not present until completion.
I’ve been working on a sign for several months now. The letter design, layout,  spacing revisions, transfer to the prepared board have all been done. The last weeks have been spent gilding the large Roman capital letters. And today came the performance bit- outlining the entire text with black oil based enamel. You basically get one chance.

Of course there is some margin for error, and I have a whole battery of correction devices lined up in front of me to catch a wayward tremor or blob. Too much pressure on the brush creates too thick a line. Getting paint on the still delicate gold surface could ruin the entire letter. Too much solvent in the paint could dissolve the gold size. It is so scary to start, and so high when you somehow face down the natural trepidation and make those first strokes, risking ruining weeks of work.

Also I learned an important lesson from Jovica Veljovic during a workshop I did with him. He explained the importance of leaving some slight irregularities in at the beginning of a piece, then one doesn’t have to strive for an almost impossible perfectionism.

Luckily, my client wants to see evidence of the human hand in these letters. And I find that by letting my perfectionism slip just a little, the whole effect is alive.

I mean, if he wanted perfect, he could have ordered stick-ons, right!!?