Variety Adds Interest

A new fence went up in my neighborhood. Everyone in Phoenix has a fence around their side or back yards. (Largely to keep kids and pets out of pools, but also because housing is close together here.)

The fence is different from all the other fences in the neighborhood. Instead of being made out of wood cut to the same width and height, it uses a variety of widths, a variety of lengths. The result is a far more interesting fence.

Instead of looking at the fence to see where there might be a mistake, where one slat is a tiny bit higher than the rest, I look at the fence as a whole, pleasing in its effect–a functional piece made from different sizes of lumber. And functionally, it would be harder to jump this fence than one that’s the same height.

This fence. Just like real life. A lot of metaphor happening there.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer who helps people ask for what they want.

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The Art Bully

This collage was created on a shopping bag, using a black, printed stripe on the bag as well as the kraft-colored bag. A #2 pencil was used to sketch the bird. The feathers were found in the street. The printed pieces, cut from a newspaper, read, “We tend to forget we are animals, until we become prey.”

Making your way as an artist has never been easy. For most artists, it can at least be interesting. During the Renaissance art patronage shifted from bishops and cardinals (that’s how all those lovely European cathedrals were built), to wealthy merchants and bankers with political interests, who supported artists and offered them a livelihood, but were often not the kindest, most ethical, or generous people.

The Medicis  supported Leonardo da Vinci, Boticcelli,  and Michelangelo. Luckily, the Medicis had excellent taste and a gift for choosing the right artist for the job. It is not outrageous to say that the Medicis, by investing in art, laundered a lot of money by hiding it in art. The entire city of Florence (Italy), home to the Medicis, is alive with commissioned art.

Now that there are fewer Medicis (and art patrons), artists have to look to the American business model for a patron and a path to fame.

I began to pay attention to just how hard an artist has to work to become well-known. Roughly, here’s how it works: an artist develops a niche, a specialty, and focuses on that to attract an audience. The artist teaches this specialty, using favorite products. She (could be a he, too, but for this article, I’m using “she”) contacts a number of companies that produce the products she uses, hoping to get onto the company’s marketing or demo team.

Once that happens, the artist gets free products, but has to promote those products on social media, podcasts, blogs, on-line and in-person classes, books, and videos. Traditional book publishers shucked their marketing departments, using artists to market for them instead. It was a gamble, and for some publishers, it worked.

And effortless piece of art (butterfly, dog nose print, more) is no more than a piece of gum on a sidewalk.

Now the celebrity artists are often bound to art- or craft-supply companies, required to promote the products. If an artist is especially lucky, they work with their supply company to develop a new color line, maybe even a new product, and travel to promote that company.  For some, it’s a symbiosis that works. Artists develop classes to teach and books to write, and companies provide product and name recognition.

Sometimes, the supply companies unwittingly train art bullies. What’s an art bully? Someone who insists on specific name brand products being purchased for class use. Someone who insists that when they praise a product, their followers must like it, too. And if a celebrity artist/art bully doesn’t like a product, well, their friends, audience, and class participants shouldn’t use it, either. It’s the “cool kids table,” all grown up, now with art products.

Sure, I understand that not every ink, watercolor, paper, or tool is interchangeable. But a list of specific brand names in a supply list makes me suspicious. Is this brand the only one that will have a favorable result?  Is putting an art celebrity’s name and face on a product line a guarantee of art success?  (Short answer: Never. Success is 90 percent artist effort and 10 percent supply perfection.)

Some time ago, I said (in the thread of an art celebrity’s Facebook comments) that I had no luck with washi tape. It doesn’t stay stuck for me.  I joked it must be the art equivalent of kale. (I’m not a fan.)

The celebrity was not amused. She told me I must be using the washi tape wrong. Surprised, I said I was pretty sure I was doing it right, and had even tried several brand names. Out came the art bully. She disliked people contradicting her when she recommended her preferred products, she said.  She was pretty sure, she insisted, I didn’t know how to use the tape correctly, and certainly was not using her recommended brand. (Yeah, I was.)

Let’s get real: art skill never comes from buying a magic product. Art skill comes from experimenting, from failing, from trying more and different approaches until the practice begins to take hold. I thought of how asking questions to learn was so easily squashed by art bullying.  Like the worst of grade schools, you have to color the sky blue (with a specific product) and stay in the lines.

But I remained quiet. I did not clap back. Why? I don’t feel better when I make someone feel worse. Because I knew her fear of not supporting her money source, and I really can figure out how to use (or not use) washi tape. I made a mental note never to take a class from the art bully, though. There’s a price for bully-hood.

Those who protect the product they are hired to market, who care about the source of money more than spreading creative ideas, may do well. But they can’t do good.

I’m not at all sure that the art bully ensures the success of creative work. That work is always private, soulful, and revealing. And not stuck with a brand name.

—Quinn McDonald’s blog has, in 18 years, never been monetized. I want to keep it that way, so I can like and dislike, recommend or share what works for me and what doesn’t,  with freedom.

New Tree, Old Tree

Trees have it tough in Arizona. The wind blows dust around them, wind gusts are high, the ground is hard, roots are fragile. Trees often topple in our monsoon season. Often, they are left to dry out before they are cut flat and removed.

This tree was left to die, but still had a life to live. You can see the cut end in the right of the photo. But the tree had other ideas. It started growing again.  Created a new tree right out of the old one, using what was available to create a whole new tree.

It was a lesson for me: Yes, I have fragile parts, and yes, I’ve been felled before. But giving up is a choice, and it doesn’t have to be the only choice.

It’s what I teach my coaching clients: you get to decide. You have a choice. Even when it doesn’t look like it, you have a choice. Build on the answer you want.

–Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach and is working on a book: The Invisible, Visible World.

Positive and Negative

Without  sunshine, there is no shadow. Without sadness, happiness cannot be recognized. We live with our own shadow–the negative side of our personality, we could not choose to see the positive, to decide not to give in to fear, but be courageous instead.

The Japanese art of notan (rhymes with so-wan) uses black paper on a white background to create positive and negative spaces. But it does more than that. The figure above shows a zig-zag cut-out, and while the spaces where white meets black look like they are intact, they are not. The illusion is created by leaving the corners intact. Our eyes fill in the rest.

Each section is cut out, then turned down, edges matching. The effect is mesmerizing. The process is simple, the result is complex. Just like the decisions we make in our lives, the ones that change the shape of the future.

-Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who helps people discover their creativity and set it free to play in their lives. She also delights in seeing the invisible, visible world, where creativity holds the oracles that make our lives interesting.

As Above, So Below

“As above, so below,” is a phrase with a long mystical history. Believers in magic and mysticism believe that the words were found on the Emerald Tablet, and kabbalists (Jewish mystics) believe that because we are made in the image of God, our lives are microcosms on the divine.

This image is a bit simpler, but no less beautiful in meaning. We don’t get rain often in Phoenix, and when we do, puddles are their own microcosm of the world.

In this one, you can see both the road and brickwork and the sky and trees. So, “as above, so below,” there is beauty wherever you stand.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing and helps people put their own creativity to work. She is writing a book, The Invisible, Visible World.

The Shadow Side

Shadows play an important part in our lives. They depend on sun to exist. Without sun, there is no shadow. And a lack of shadow indicates a lack of sun. Simple enough.

But shadows have another meaning. Our “shadow” side is our darker side. The side that we don’t like as much, because it is mean, and shallow, and possibly dark. Without our shadow side, we could not be alert enough to compare one emotion to another. Sadness to joy, kindness to meanness. Without our shadow we would not be able to stay in balance.

Most shadows depend on a bit of dark blocking out light to create a shape. This shadow of a fence blocks out most of the light, but it is the light through the fence that defines the fence.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and coach. She is writing a book on the Invisible, Visible World.

The Answer is Near

Strange, I thought. In a huge xeriscaped space, there was a plant coming up. Looking healthy, too, even though it is July in Phoenix and nothing looks sprightly and green after a week of 110º+ days. This little plant did.

Xeriscaping is landscaping with rocks, gravel and native plants. The Greek word for “dry” is xero, and the word was coined within the last 40 years to encourage landscaping without lush lawns.

Back to the plant. It surely didn’t have deep roots, it was too young and small. I didn’t see any drip irrigation tubes around. But then I heard a faint “drip.” I looked up to the trees. Nothing. Then to the nearby roof line. And there it was.

A pipe drain from an air conditioner. Many of them are placed on roofs in Arizona, for easier access. Our houses are put close together and fenced in, for the most part.

As the humidity rises in summer (no, there is no “dry heat” during monsoon), air conditioners start to drip water regularly. Somewhere beneath the rocks, a plant seed knew it was time to make the big dash to sprouting, getting water and sun, and setting another generation of seeds.

And opportunistic seed. Ready to take advantage when the time is right. A great example for those who are afraid of risk. Of taking a chance. The time will never be perfect, but when enough circumstances line up, it’s time to go!

Quinn McDonald is working on a book about the intersection of chance and time. It’s called The Invisible, Visible World. The experiences that happen if we are aware and awake and present to opportunity. She is a creativity coach and writer.