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Show Your Work book coverIt’s been awhile since I posted here. I have been writing- the intended outcome is a book, but I can’t quite get the words, ‘I’m writing a book’, out of my mouth at the moment. It sounds too pretentious and it scares me a bit.

A lot.
Considering how many times I’ve started and stopped work on this project in the past decade or so.

I will finish the manuscript this time, because I promised a friend I would. But whether it will be anything worth sharing at the end, I don’t know. Anyway, it is keeping me occupied, a recent task being going through every one of the almost 400 posts on this blog, printing the relevant ones out and categorising them. More on all that another time.

Anyway, back to the topic of this post which is a book review.

Anyone who has been reading my posts over the past 7 years will know my anti-marketing stance when it comes to art, so surprise surprise, I am about to sing the praises of a book that could be seen as a book on promoting your art, but which is SO not an art marketing book.

I was cruising Amazon and this title was on the recommendations for me. I immediately liked the format and cover and took a ‘look inside’. I was sold from page one. This was an author who understood my reluctance to make self promotion the ultimate goal for my life on Earth, and who has written a kind, heart-filled guide on how to not hoard your creativity, how to not give up, how to keep your integrity while getting your work out there, how to not turn into ‘human spam’ (loved that), and have a great and fulfilling time doing it.

This book is so lovely in every aspect. It has a smooth cover, silky to the touch, the small square format appeals, it simply exudes friendliness and encouragement. There are loads of keri smith style handwritten pages and illustrations by the author, Austin Kleon (who wrote ‘How to steal like an artist’ which I didn’t read because I already know how and am already an artist).

Almost all the people I look up to and try to steal from today, regardless of their profession, have built sharing into their routine.  These people aren’t schmoozing at cocktail parties, they’re too busy for that. (paraphrased):They are working in their studios, getting good at what they do, and sharing their process.

‘By generously sharing their ideas and their knowledge, they often gain an audience that they can then leverage when they need it- for fellowship, feedback or patronage. (personally, I’ve never had any luck with the last one, SZ).

I wanted to create a kind of beginner’s manual for this way of operating, so here’s what I came up with, a book for people who hate the very idea of self promotion. An alternative, if you will to self promotion…Imagine if your next boss didn’t have to read your resume because he already reads your blog. Imagine being a student and getting your first gig based on a school project you posted on line… Imagine turning a side project or hobby into your profession because you had a following that could support you.

Or imagine something simpler and just as satisfying: spending the majority of your time, energy,and attention practising a craft, learning a trade, or running a business, while also allowing for the possibility that your work might attract a group of people who share your interest….

This little book is full of original, funny, insightful, wise advice that can help anyone gather the courage and get organised to share their work more. And who knows where that could lead!  Whether you are a writer, crafter, artist, or hobbyist in anything at all, give yourself a present and go buy it.( And, no, I’m not being paid to say this!)

 

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Recently I’ve read a book which took me on a beautifully written journey, which seemed destined to end in healing and redemption. I was particularly interested in this book because it promised to take its place among the ‘new’ literature we so desperately need now- one that provides an alternative vision of the world -one full of hope,  where we are part of nature, where we are connected to one another, and our lives do have purpose and meaning.

The story:  3 unrelated people form their own relationship with a strip of green, a little park in an English town which borders on a neighbourhood in decline. Each person is, in a particular way, lost. A Polish man and a lonely boy find each other. They form a tentative friendship, and one starts to hope that the child will eventually find some stability outside of his home and the total neglect of his mother. The 3rd character is an elderly widow living on the edge of this park. She occasionally does some guerilla gardening there.

Each of these characters is on a journey to some kind of reconciliation or hope, and the nature in the park is a catalyst for the healing they start to find.

Then, a crisis in the last pages sees the man and the boy who have formed a totally innocent friendship, wrenched apart by a police raid.  The man’s beloved dog, with whom the boy was also bonding,  is dragged away by the neck and will probably be put down because she has Pit Bull blood. We leave him holding a duffel bag, waiting for a bus to take him away from the tender beginnings of home and community he had patiently started to build up. The old woman we last see alone in the hospital hooked up to wires and infusions.  And the boy is torn out of his familiar territory and sent to another part of the country to his father, whom we have been told is a violent man.

Every author has the freedom to choose how to end their story, granted. But I question the integrity of such an ending. ‘Shit happens’, yes, I am bombarded by this detritus of the ‘old story’ every minute through the media. But that is not what I am looking for when I reach for a book. Artists, writers, story tellers, have the chance to create a new story- one of hope. One which illuminates ways to connect, to find meaning in life, rise above circumstances, to treasure the small things, to bond with places and people, to thrive rather than just survive. I believe we have a responsibility to the material we put out there. Barry Lopez, words this beautifully:

If I were asked what  I want to accomplish as a writer, I would say it is to contribute to a literature of hope…I want to help create a body of stories in which men and women can discover trustworthy patterns.

Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story in the end is social. Whatever a writer sets down can help or harm the community of which he or she is a part.

Each of the little green shoots of healing were ground out at the end of this book, like so many cigarette stubs. I trustingly embarked on a journey with the writer and her characters and felt betrayed by what happened to them at the end. This kind of writing feeds the ‘old’ story of a hostile universe, a meaningless world without grace or miracles or healing.

Not that every story must have a happy ending, but when you deliberately annihilate hope, there has to be a good reason for it. As I see it, these decisions did not serve the story or any purpose at all. It is simply trendy to have a dark ending. It is a device.

And therefore meaningless.

 

 

The book is ‘Clay’ by Melissa Harrison. If you don’t mind the ending, I”d still recommend it for the gorgeous writing.

Sonia Demetriou’s new book

Sonia, whose blog I’ve been following for awhile now, has recently self-published a truly beautiful hybrid cookbook. It is a great mix of reminiscences as well as new discoveries of her family’s heritage on the island of Cyprus.

Androula’s kitchen, Cyprus on a plate, contains a wonderful variety of  personal anecdotes and practical information about current and lost ways of life on Cyprus. Sonia also follows up her passion for the island’s traditional skills such as pottery, weaving and basket making, letting us see current examples of the crafts through beautiful photos accompanied by informative explanations. You really get a taste of daily life on the island, and we haven’t even got to the recipes yet.

The second half of the book is given over to ‘Food glorius food”.  What makes it unique is the personal element- nearly all of the traditional recipes were either made in Sonia’s cousin Androula’s kitchen, or given by relatives and friends in the village. Where the recipes are more general, various friend-cooks give handy tips and snippets of history and anecdote to accompany the bread, soup or pudding being made.

I love to read cookbooks, and this one is my favourite kind to have- you get all kinds of background stories that put the dish in a context and add so much more to its enjoyment.

In Sonia’s own words….

‘…this book is a record of my journey in search of some of the island’s local traditions and crafts, which have been integral to the Cypriot way of life for centuries. It is a tale of the people I met, the food we made and enjoyed in Androula’s kitchen, and some of the Cypriot’s best loved recipes, which I collected along the way. The ancient history of Cyprus is well documented; I wanted to find out about the mundane life of yesterday and its place in modern Cyprus’.

This book is brimming with spices, landscapes, stories, characters, seasonings, sweets, art, and handwork, but most of all a lot of heart and soul. It is a  real gift, and it makes an ideal one as well.

No I’m not getting a cut, this is an unsolicited endorsement of a fellow writer’s worthwhile and beautiful creative product.

To start at the beginning of this extended book review of Between Grace and Fear by W. Cleveland and P Shifferd follow this link. To see previous post, scroll down page.

The last posts dealt with devaluing of the arts and marginalising of artists; what artists need to change in order to do something about the situation; and what it is that artists contribute to positive societal change.

In this concluding post I’ll talk about community arts – this topic was actually the strongest binding factor throughout the interviews in the book. It is here that the socially engaged arts are most visible, and acknowledged as being of great value. And perhaps it is also where the arts are most needed.

Repeatedly as a theme in the interviews, it was stressed that the artist can no longer be seen as an isolated individual with no relationship to- and no responsibility to the surrounding community. In community projects across the globe, artists are working with conflicting cultures, underprivileged groups, and war torn villages. Creating a safe and inspiring space for individuals to express themselves through dance, painting, theatre, song, story-  the artists are helping a community bring forth its creative impulse so it can make its needs and dreams more tangible.

This is different from artists going in to ‘educate’ a community about art. In Holland I often see an attitude toward participatory arts which is oriented first around the artist- a sense of the artist going in to show people what culture is. An exception to this is the HEIM2012 community performance project done by some friends of mine at Moving Arts (Dutch language site).

Whereas in the UK and USA the emphasis is on discovering with the community what the need is, and bringing in one’s creative skills to help those people heal, vitalise and enable themselves. By giving people means to tell their stories and to give them form through the arts,  the arts are helping people move from being passive to being empowered.

Listening and responsiveness need to be at the core of connected art. For an artist to really make a difference over the long term, strategies need to be created with and by people deeply involved in the situation.

‘Committed art activism provides a context for others to take action’.

Between Grace and Fear is a courageous and ambitious book. It is one of several pioneering efforts happening now which will help put art back in the middle of life. The people interviewed  are from diverse backgrounds and disciplines and are each inspiring. I found it at times more of a study book than a relaxing read, but that is because it is so densely packed with ideas and information. It is a wonderful resource for new directions in art and new perspectives about what art is and what artists are here for.

Cleveland ends the book with a bang! Chapter 31 is called ‘Bridges, translations and Change: The arts as infrastructure in a changing world’. It is an amazing and inspiring list of recommendations, actions, and ideas for integrating the arts into all our systems and daily life where they can do their much needed healing and transformative work. I’ll excerpt that some other time.

continued from previous post,  Organisations need to change but so do artists

For the first post in this extended book review click here.

How arts and artists can and do contribute significantly to positive change

The idea that the artist’s only job is to make things to hang on a wall or put on a pedestal is rapidly becoming old news.

Contrary to the thought that artists are grown ups who make vast amounts of money (or starve in garrets) by playing around making art ‘that my 3 year old could do’, artists through their training in creative process and experience develop important skills.  And these areas of expertise are actually vital to remedying the problems our society is in.

Intellect, logic, and rational thinking have led to the imbalance and breakdown of many of our systems.
In his book,  A whole new mind, Daniel Pink argues that a quiet revolution is now taking place where the right-brained skills of pattern recognition, empathy, design, meaning, play, etc  will be the tools used to build a more humane and sustainable future. Artists and other creative thinkers are in demand from corporations, government agencies, healthcare, education, to help them think outside the usual parameters of their systems, and in so doing, help renew and vitalise them.

Why artists?
Artists continually ask, ‘What could we change here? Why not try this? ‘

The artist’s core expertise is to improve on the previous state.

The creative process starts when a question or problem is posed, it progresses when the artist sets out for a basically unknown goal, making mistakes and correcting course until a solution is reached. In these explorations they hit on new insights and solutions which couldn’t have been found within the situation that produced them. Also, because artists operate outside organisations and professions, they are free of the preconceptions which so often limit creative thinking in those places.  This is why artists working, for example, with people with dementia, often get surprising results (lucid moments, deep contacts), with individuals whom the professionals have given up on.

Because the nature of the arts is to speak to the hearts of people, and to go past prejudices and conceptions, they are effective in bridge building between cultures and conflicting nations. They speak to the parts we have in common as humans and bypass debate and argument. So they bring people together in a common space with universal language of song, colour, play, and story.

When artists  run  projects in prisons, school rooms, or hospitals, these places and the people in them are left more vitalised than before the artists came. Arts enliven society and enable people to access their own creative abilities to begin to solve their own problems.

So the arts are vital to building healthy communities and healing damaged ones.  I’ll expand on the community building aspect of the arts in the next and last post about the book.

continued from previous post, The arts have a crucial role to play Part 2

Organisations need to change, but so do artists

By their nature, organisations and systems  don’t support change- they are designed to perpetuate ‘the same’, (‘We have always done it like this’), and will fight to stay as they are. As a result they atrophy and begin to break down- look at the banks, healthcare systems, education etc.

The problems these structures are facing can’t be solved from within the same paradigm that caused them, that is why creative thinking is needed and artists are being called on by every organisation imaginable from corporations to government bodies, healthcare institutions, prisons, and school systems. Artists bring the essence of creative practice to areas like these where it can make a difference.

One of the most important points in the book is that it isn’t just the system that needs to change in order to bring arts into a central role where it can do its transformative work, but artists too need to re-define their contribution and position.

Bert Mulder is a Dutch innovative thinker lecturer, author, futurologist, and information technologist. In Chapter 26, Between Grace and Fear he challenges us artists to get off our position of, ‘Oh, I’m just on the fringes and all these external factors (subsidy cuts, attitude toward artists, organisational difficulties, government policies) are against me getting work and making an income’. Mulder:

So, you see yourselves at the edges of society. But I was in the Welford School (UK) yesterday talking to a teacher and she said,

“Well, we had the national curriculum and we were all dying from it. It was horrible. So, we said we can’t go on like this anymore. Then we had a couple of artists coming in and all of a sudden, the artists said, ‘We will just start and ask the kids what they want to do’.”

The kids came up with ideas, which actually  deeply changed her view of what a child is.
For the first time, she noticed that kids can do much more than she ever envisioned. It actually transformed her notion, as an educator of what a child is.

How is it that you have to bring artists into the educational system to bring about that kind of transformation?

And when artists bring about that kind of transformation in education, in business, in the care sector, and in democracy in the larger civil society, how are you (artists) dealing with it?

Is that a responsibility or do you still think that you’re at the edges of society…

Maybe I’m projecting onto you more than you want or more than you are able to respond to.
That could be a problem, because this need in society will be filled. If you don’t fill it, somebody else will, but not with the same kind of quality.

– Bert Mulder, from Between Grace and Fear.

Mulder goes on to say that artists need to take responsibility, for themselves, their work, their communities, and be intentional and committed.

In the 60s and 70s art activism was mostly in the form of political protest- think of John Lennon and Yoko Ono televised in their hotel bed in New York protesting war. Actions like these were mostly one-off isolated gestures. Our times call for a different kind of art activism.

Artists need to invest their time and energy in their cause and commit to it. They need to form relationships with individuals and organisations  related to that cause. And finally, to be effective, they need to embed themselves in the community where they want to see the positive change happen.

The new art activism engages people and provides a context for them to take action, making, creating and giving voice to their vision. Creativity becomes a tool to improve on the context, giving a gift to it, not using it for one’s own brilliant agenda (M.Matanovic). It is definitely about art in service to.

But the real message is that if we artists don’t take ourselves and our work seriously, no one else will either.

continued from previous post,     The arts have a crucial role to play   Part 1    Between Grace and Fear

Recently my plea for valuing arts as essential tools for healing and positive change has been strengthened significantly by the book, Between Grace and Fear, the role of the arts in a time of change, by William Cleveland and Patricia Shifferd.
This series of posts attempts to present the main themes running through the book.

Expanding the definition of ‘artist’

Art schools are preparing artists for a world that no longer exists- ie the independent artist living exclusively from her work.

1% of artists in the Netherlands are able to survive financially from their work.

1%.

Not only schools, but artists need to think more broadly about how professional arts training can be applied. There is a new definition of ‘artist’ emerging exemplified mainly though not exclusively by many 20-40 year olds working now- the hybrid artist worker who combines many skills in order to enable others to source their own creativity.

Young artists are gravitating toward an art that matters- a more socially engaged application of their creative skills. Jonathan Harris is my favourite example of this. His TED talks on emotions and the web is also worth seeing.

In a recent round table I attended on arts and dementia care, my colleague healthcare artists also commented how being an artist isn’t enough these days. To do our work within the healthcare system we need more skills, those of : diplomat, administrator, group leader, organiser, etc.

In this new way of thinking about artists, artists are appreciated as professionals of the creative process who can bring these skills into other disciplines to help energise and renew them.

In a larger context, as professionals of culture, artists are meaning creators. Through their stories, dance, music, painting, theatre etc. , they create new and hopeful narratives to help people move forward positively in times of change. I’ll leave it here for now, but for concrete examples of projects read the book.  Or see my blog posts on Lily Yeh or Milenko Matanovic.