Balancing What's Said and Not Said

Sometimes, the idea of a painter’s work draws me in more powerfully than the appearance of it. Even though I might like the intent, I feel bored or put off when viewing it.  In other cases, the art-work immediately captivates me, but when I read the artist’s or gallery’s descriptions, I think, “Really?”  The explanations seem ponderously intellectual or so obscure that I can’t relate them to what I’m seeing.

For me, the Wangechi Mutu show at the Nasher Museum is a refreshing change of pace.  Visually, Mutu’s paintings are glorious and provocative, and through them she explores a variety of social and political themes.  Although the concepts are not brand-new, her paintings and short films deliver the ideas with such vibrancy and power. (Now, at this point, I will confess that I don’t have an art history background. I simply have a passion for the visual dialectic.  I'm drawn to what's beautiful, but mostly, I gravitate towards what surprises me, what sparks my thoughts and feelings. I want the visceral experience as well as the chance to question my assumptions.)

Many, if not most, of Mutu’s works feature women, and they are fabulous— extraordinary and fable-like.  Using a combination of painted forms and magazine cutouts, she’s created figures that sprout motorcycles and machine parts from sinuous limbs, evoking images of women who are at once creepy, sexy, and powerful.  In this illusionary world, they act out a rebellion against both European domination and male appetites.  Despite the serious subject matter, Mutu has a clever sense of humor, offering multiple interpretations of “A Little Thought for All Y’all Who’re Thinking of Beating Around the Bush.”  In this one, a woman rides a snake she’s beheaded, and there’s a sense of triumph and glee.

In another painting/collage piece, “Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies,” Mutu depicts a human triangle.  At the top, a small creature (somehow malevolent, animal, and male) appears to be driving this human pyramid.  The figure it rides is clearly female and Gumby-like in her accommodating physical stance.  At the bottom: another female.  Very full-figured, she carries the others and clearly has the strength to do it.  Although the most put-upon, she has the fortitude to endure.

For me, the most disturbing piece in the exhibition was “Eat Cake”—a short video installation.  Although I’m not typically drawn to this art form, I found it mesmerizing even while I felt disgusted.  In the 12-minute black-and-white, we see Mutu dressed for a party but sitting in the woods in a high backed wooden chair.  Apparently, this is a private fête, and she regally sips from a cup as she surveys her surroundings.  Oddly, she sprinkles some of the liquid on the ground, apparently indifferent to the waste and the drink itself.  Soon after, she unveils a three-tiered chocolate cake and proceeds to devour it with her hands.  Using her fingers and one-inch long white nails, she grabs hunks of chocolate cake and shoves them in her mouth in a manner both proprietary and carnal.  She seems unconcerned as she capriciously spits out some bites, tossing them to the side.  She simply takes another chunk of chocolate to her mouth, chews, and swallows. Eventually, she consumes the entire cake, but along the way, she takes breaks, absentmindedly reshaping the mass into a dome with her hands.  It’s like a child who plays with mud or wet sand.  Clearly, this woman thinks of food as a possession more than a source of nourishment.  She trusts that there will always be more and feels no reason to conserve it.  I left the video with a heightened sense of our gluttonous, wasteful Western world.

There’s plenty more to see in this show, and I’ll leave others to seek it out.  For me, the exhibition more than lived up to my hopes.  It revitalized my enthusiasm for contemporary art as well my appreciation of the Nasher. 


The Art of Happiness

I happened upon Hyperallergic’s review of Stefan Sagmeister’s art exhibition: “The Happy Show” at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles.   It’s a rich piece on the nature of art (as opposed to design) and Sagmeister’s vision of happiness:

Although the writer, Dahlia Schweitzer, initially focuses on the artist’s theme and style, she eventually explores the question at the center of the exhibition:  “What does it take to be happy?”   

In conversation with the show, she writes:

“Happiness … comes from an acceptance and appreciation of things exactly as they are right now — even if/when we wish things were different. The decision to be happy must be followed with not only an awareness of what things make one happy, but also the patience and persistence to then follow through. The decision to be happy must, perhaps most radically of all, be acknowledged as a decision. As a choice. Not as a random state of internal Zen, or as a guarantee afforded with the right purchase.”

I agree that happiness involves a delicate balance of acceptance and change; yet, to primarily achieve this by lowering expectations seems a sad path to contentment.  What about adding more positive experiences to your life?   

That’s what the psychologist, Barbara Frederickson, argues in her book, Positivity.  Her ideas leapfrog the simplistic: “Don’t worry; be happy,” and rather than advising individuals to deny their negative experiences, she recommends that they instead focus on fostering the natural goodness in their lives. 

Based on extensive research, Dr. Frederickson has found that there are ten different types of positive emotions that promote individual resiliency and happiness.  The key is establishing a ratio of at least three positives for every one negative.  The more stress a person experiences, the more important it is to seek out experiences which promote transformative emotions.  So what are we talking about exactly?  These are the ten feelings we want: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love.   Most are obvious.  If you enjoy dancing, then dance more frequently when you’re unhappy.  That will give you joy. 

If your job has reached a frenetic pace, take time to drink tea or meditate (serenity).  Then download your favorite comedic film (amusement), and sign up for a class on a topic that’s always intrigued you (interest).   However simple this recipe seems, it isn’t.  It requires self-awareness and the willingness to sometimes push yourself.  Still, you can rearrange your life to naturally include these experiences so that they buffer you against the negative life events that are sure to happen at some point. In the end, you may still need to revise your definition of the “complete life,” but so too, you can revisit what it takes to make you happy.  Maybe it’s as simple as sitting in a garden watching butterflies or helping a friend complete a house project.  No doubt, these are easier to attain than any other fantasy you have of happiness.

(For more information about Barbara Frederickson and Positivity, click on this link:

What's the Rush?

Here’s an interesting idea: Slow Art Day.  This weekend (Saturday April 27, 11am-2pm), various museums and galleries all over the country (and world) will sponsor a moment of art appreciation and conversation.  Basically, if you register at a local gallery or museum (see the list of participants here:, you’ll gather with other viewers to spend ten minutes looking at five pieces of artwork. Then, over lunch, you’ll have a chance to discuss your experience. What did you notice about each piece?  How did your reaction change as you leisurely considered and walked around it?  Did you examine it for meaning or simply enjoy the colors, shapes, and texture?

Too easily in the US, our hectic, overactive lives lead us to focus on efficiency and speed.   That mindset can be difficult to overcome when in an art museum, and Slow Art Day is a way to encourage a “mindful” approach to each painting and sculpture.  Ultimately, it encourages gallery-goers to steep themselves in the effects of the artwork, to luxuriate in the colors, shapes, and textures. 

“Mindfulness” has become a recognizable concept, one that’s been translated into a way of combatting stress and even problems with overeating.  It can be a way of life as well, facilitating an attunement that enriches and expands your experience of the world around you.

If you join the fun on Saturday, you will only see a few individual pieces of art, but you’re likely to notice aspects of each you wouldn’t on another day, in another way.  If you happen to live in the Triangle region of North Carolina, the Ackland Art Museum at UNC-Chapel Hill is participating.  Sign up here:

If you don't happen to live near the Ackland, you can always arrange your own outing with friends.  The North Carolina Museum of Art and the Nasher have great collections and restaurants too.

Do You Have to be Emotionally Off-kilter to Be a Good Artist

Apparently, it’s a discussion that will never die.  As a psychologist and writer, I frequently hear it:  “You have to be at least a little crazy to be a good artist.”  And out on Saturday night with friends, the debate began again.  A music lover asserted that creativity derives from an emotional “imbalance” or mental “unhealth.”  …  Sure, we can all think of famous artists who abused alcohol (Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jackson Pollack) and of ones who suffered from a major mood disorder (Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and Van Gogh).  Does that mean, though, that everyone who struggles for emotional stability becomes a great artist?  (You wouldn’t assume that if you’d ever worked in a psychiatric hospital.)  Does it then mean that if you’re normal and love writing, you should hang it up and opt for banking?  Or basic journalism?  Not in my opinion.  I can think of many celebrated artists who have no history of mental illness. 

Personally, I believe that artistic greatness stems from a devotion to craft and an ability to convey universal emotions or themes while delivering them in a unique, fresh style.  Think of Monet, whose impressionistic paintings embodied a different kind of realism.  Picasso too. Think of Frank Gehry’s architecture: designs that play with boundaries to deliver buildings recognizable and compelling?  What about the Latin American writers who veined emotions through magical realism? Ray Bradbury and Frank Herbert?  They shifted our perspective on true human experiences by creating alternative worlds.

Literature is what I know best, and my most ready examples hail from there.  Still, I don’t think that other art forms are any more inherently correlated with psychological dysfunction.  No doubt, emotional upheaval can spawn the intensity necessary for a dramatic piece, but it is never enough.

Ironically, research suggests that there might be a different connection between creativity and health.  As it turns out, almost everyone has the urge to create, and individuals tend to be happier when they have time to innovate or express themselves in novel ways.  That doesn’t have to mean painting on canvas or choreographing a dance routine.  Instead, it might be gardening or cooking or improvising to fix a pesky problem in the tool shed.  If viewed from a 180-perspective, maybe writing poetry or painting is what helped Vincent Van Gogh and Anne Sexton live as long as they did.

We can all find personal satisfaction in actively using our skills and resources to produce something new, and there can be an invigorating sense of self-discovery along with it.  Whether our experiments become valued art is irrelevant.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve met someone who on learning that I write poetry, immediately said, “I wrote a poem once.”  Typically, it’s someone who doesn’t read poetry or even literature very often, but that smile is memorable.  The process of writing that poem made the person feel happy and proud.  All kinds of art matter, and you don’t have to have problems to create it.  Let’s separate what art does for us personally from the interpretation of its greatness and then again from our assumptions about the person who makes it.

Doing Something Good When Something Bad Happens

Freud originally conceived sublimation as a defense mechanism, a healthy redirection of “unacceptable impulses.”   Maybe you’re thirteen and have only one parent. Despite how important your father is, you feel incredibly angry at him for the various ways in which you think he neglects your needs.  If you acted on this rage, you might jeopardize the relationship.  So your “psychic” compromise is to vent those feelings elsewhere.   Perhaps you choose boxing as your after-school sport.  In this way, you may never fully recognize or even acknowledge the anger you feel towards your dad, but you’re able to release some of it by boxing in the ring.

I think of sublimation in the broader sense.  When something horrible happens, as in the death of a close friend, how do you transform that pain into something bearable and perhaps productive?  If depression and suicide is as hereditary as hair color in your family, how do you cope? 

I saw two films at the wonderful Full Frame festival this weekend in Durham:  “Which Way to the Frontline From Here?” in which Sebastian Junger pays tribute to a close friend who died while photographing the violence in Libya … and then “Running From Crazy”—Mariel Hemingway’s exploration of the inherited depression and suicidal tendencies that run rampant in her family.

In their on-screen appearances, both Junger and Hemingway seem tortured with grief and in Hemingway’s case: anxiety, as well.  (She clearly worries about whether the family predisposition to substance abuse and suicidal depression will afflict her daughters.)  Yet, both have chosen to construct something positive from this.   Although very different in delivery, these documentaries honor and explore their experiences while at the same time stretching beyond them, feeling their way towards the prevention of similar tragedies. 

Junger focuses his film’s attention on Tim Heatherington, a friend and former collaborator.  At the end of the movie, we discover that Heatherington bled to death after having been hit with shrapnel from a mortar.  Sadly, had those around him been trained in first aid, he might have survived.  Heartbroken after learning that information, Junger took a proactive approach to the problem.  He opened a training school to teach freelance journalists how to manage critical health situations in the field.  Now, he can follow every film screening with a Q&A in order to highlight the importance of the problem and a potential solution.

For her part, Mariel Hemingway has acted as a spokesperson for various mental health treatment facilities and prevention organizations.   In the documentary, we see her give speeches at McLean Hospital in Boston and then at a Suicide Prevention event.  The problem of ameliorating mental illness and the dysfunction that frequently travels down generations has a less clear solution than injured freelance journalists; however, Hemingway is able to use her family’s cultural prominence to help combat the stigmatization that frequently derails conversations about mental illness and treatment. With admirable honesty, she offers up a complicated portrait of herself and her family, one that’s blessed with seminal artistry but plagued with devastating psychiatric problems. In “Running from Crazy”, the filmmakers underscore the importance of talking, looking, and trying to find answers to the prevention of suicide and the treatment of concurrent mental health problems.  Ultimately, they’ve spring-boarded from grief into proactive behavior.

While telling these tragic stories clearly helps those suffering, it also offers support to those with similar experiences.  There’s a balm in knowing you belong to a community.  Yet, even more important, by finding a public forum for these voices, these filmmakers have proffered a model of how we can all make a difference.   Something good can come from something bad.  We just need to challenge ourselves to act.

Creative Writing vs. Social and Political Consciousness

In my MFA program, I learned this about poems: if there’s no surprise for the writer, there’s no surprise for the reader.  Most contemporary poets believe that a poem doesn’t truly take flight unless it offers an unexpected twist of heart, thought, or image.  But it’s hard to manufacture surprise when you already know why you’re writing.  How do you wind around the topic in a way that invites your reader to participate without telling him or her how to feel?  How do you write about social injustice?

My graduate school advisor, John Balaban, reached the draft age during the Vietnam War. Although he conscientiously objected to the war and our part in it, he flew over there to help rather than to fight.  Working with International Volunteer Services, he experienced the violence first-hand and ultimately chose to work in military zones where he could rescue children damaged by bombs and stray bullets.  When he returned to the States, he wrote about what he saw and became well-known for the reality he brought back.  His poems will break your heart.  Their words don’t tell what to think.  They don’t state the horror he felt, but emotions infuse the images and rhythms.  You experience the horror. 

Many of my creative writing students feel such ardor for their poems, they forego ambiguity.  They want to insure that others recognize their meaning, their intent.   It’s not uncommon for young poets to write: I feel sad.  I feel lonely.  But not only do these phrases lock down the experience, they reduce it to an uncomplicated one or two feelings.  They also put off the reader.  One person’s experience cannot dictate another’s.

I try to tell them that the details will draw in the listeners, allowing readers to place themselves in the poem and imagine their own reactions.  It builds empathy.    Some may not want to join your journey.    Maybe, the best they can manage is simple acknowledgement and a cursory “I’m sorry,” but on some level, readers are likely to recognize in gross terms what’s sad, funny, overwhelming, or frightening.

I recently returned from AWP, the annual (and very large) conference for writers and writing programs. There, I learned about a poem by Joe Pan, which Eph;phany magazine published.  It relates to the recent controversy over drone use.  Even The New York Times referenced it in an article.  Here’s a link, so you can decide what you think about “Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper”:

Pan’s tone, snappy language and metaphor drive much of this poem’s power.  What do you think of it?  If you didn’t already agree with his point-of-view, would you find yourself reconsidering?


Raisin in the Sun - UNC Playmakers

PlayMaker’s new production of the classic, Raisin in the Sun, is one of its very best.   The play written by Loraine Hansberry, a Black woman, debuted on Broadway during segregation in the late 1950’s. Not wanting us to forget the stultifying obstacles to African American success, the current director, Raelle Myrick-Hodges chose (brilliantly) to refresh our understanding by interspersing lines from an interview with Hansberry.  Inserted at the beginning, middle, and end of the play, the excerpts weave thematically with the drama at hand.  Still, in a conversation at intermission, friends wondered:  Was it necessary? I mean don’t we all know about segregation and the hardships of African American life in the 50’s?  I don’t know.  Do we?   I’d like to think Yes, but maybe with a Black president and a world in which minority perspectives regularly appear on the front page, we’ve forgotten how it was back then.  Regardless, Hansberry’s comments enrich our understanding of both the play and the denigration she experienced.   It should also encourage us.  Despite ongoing tensions in our culture, we have moved forward.

If Raisin in the Sun pertained only to racism, it might have lost power with the changing times, but dramaturgs have praised it for its ongoing resonance.  At heart, it portrays a family complicated by individual ambitions and loyalties—a chorus of asynchronous accordions, expanding and shrinking desires.  At the center is Lena.  (Kathryn Hunter-Williams plays this matriarch so perfectly that despite having seen this actress in at least 15 productions, I thought of her only as Lena.)  Lena takes charge of the household where her two adult children, a daughter-in-law, and grandson live with her.  Firm in her faith, Lena tries to ground her children and grandson in Christian values; however, she does not deny their hardships or minimize them with talk of Heaven and the promise of something better.  She embodies a rare duality: while seeming to accept without rancor what’s wrong with their situation, she also works to change it.  From the beginning, we learn that Lena will receive a windfall that has the potential to alter everyone’s life.  Midway through the action, she takes a tremendous risk.  With the aim of finally achieving her dream and others’, her decision cascades into apparent triumphs as well as disasters.

Her children, Walter and Beneatha, seem to struggle more than she does.  Unhappy with their present circumstances, they both dream of storied futures, and they search the world around them for visions of success.   Walter, forcefully played by Mikaal Sulaiman, can’t stand the daily insults of his job.  Having seen the easy, catered lives of his White employers, he develops a viral desire to have what they have.  His sister, well played by Miriam A. Hyman, pursues out-of-reach goals as well.  She wants to become a doctor, but she has no clear financial pathway to studying medicine.   In this tightly bound family, only Lena and Walter’s wife, Ruth, seem grounded. They have fantasies of a different life, but neither nurses these until they seem attainable.  They are the most flexible characters: able to embrace change whether good or bad.

Part of the play’s brilliance lies in the dance of family and society.  These interrelated characters must find a way to balance their individual needs with those of the family while negotiating the trap of the larger society.  At times, their competing desires scatter them, but the draw of family remains.  Each character becomes a vital force in the action, and even though we leave the play satisfied, we understand that not all conflicts have been resolved.   We know the drama goes on.

Creative Writing Classes

Have a story you want to tell?  An image you can't leave behind?  Find ways to put them in words.  I'll be teaching a 6-week "introduction to creative writing" class starting on Tuesday, February 19th.  Each class will last one hour (7-8PM), and over the six weeks, we'll learn about and write creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry.  Call or email for more information.  You can use my contact page.