The Space Between Thoughts
I went again to the wilderness area of the Boundary Waters this summer - a perfect place to disappear. Silent. Beautiful. Awe inspiring. Nature in its glory. And it requires work to be there. It's a well earned quietness.
I value activities which quiet my brain. I run. I paint. I hike. I paddle. Not thinking takes work. Yet I also value the fact that I am a thinker. The tension between not thinking and thinking plays itself out in many ways in my life. Art being one of them.
I often question whether painting is a release from thinking or a means to think?
One of the things I love about the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota is the protection that has been given to the area. It's a unique treasure, a true jewel, with over 1 million acres of forests, wildlife, birds, and pristine glacial lakes and rivers.
There is nothing quite like spending days in a canoe just taking it all in. And sharing that quiet time and beauty with others.
Yet the pristine beauty and health of the area is being threatened. In 1909 the Boundary Waters Treaty was signed by Canada and the United States, requiring that neither country pollute the waters that flow across the border. Today the rules are being relaxed under the Trump administration to allow sulfide-ore copper mining in the region. The forests of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area are deeply interconnected through streams, lakes, wetlands and groundwater. Sulfide-ore copper mining activities will disrupt and severely damage this relationship. It hurts to even think about.
So I come home and wonder: How am I helping the world to be a better place? What can my role, as an artist, be? How can I help the Boundary Waters with my paintbrush? And I think. And that thinking paralyzes me. I feel so small in the grand scheme of life. And I realize I need to find the space between my thoughts to keep painting. Let my heart talk.
Toni Morrison counseled:
This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
So I pick up my paintbrush. And I keep painting.
With love to all,
How much do you share as an artist? Does the viewer want to know the artist's story behind a painting? Does that ruin or enhance the experience of looking at a painting, breathing it in? Can it still become your own? Should titles be broad and all encompassing or should they add mystery and intrigue?
"We Never Went Backpacking" could be titled "Hermit Thrush." Would you like it more? Does it influence how you see or feel about the painting?
My creative process usually starts with a title which is usually influenced by an emotion. Is that important to know?
My heart broke this past winter. My cousin died rather unexpectedly. Life isn't suppose to happen that way.
I loved Dean fully. When I think of him I hear his full bodied laugh. I hear him telling family stories loudly. I see him living on top of his mountain in Braintree, Vermont proud of his blueberries, hops, turkeys and family. As far as I am concerned all of Vermont loved Dean. It appeared every single community member in his small town, especially all his middle school students, came to hear the mourner's kaddish chanted for him. You loved Dean if you knew him.
Dean was my twin in his love for the outdoors. Every year we talked about backpacking together. Every year it didn't happen due to jobs, kids, broken bones, mismatched schedules. But there was always next year. We knew it would happen.
We never went backpacking.
Dean died in February. His funeral was on Valentine's Day. All of our hearts broke.
Art helps me process emotions. Art helps me express emotions. Art helps me feel. Art helps me heal. Art helps me love.
What do you want to know as the viewer? Do you want to know that the base layer of "We Never Went Backpacking" is a map of Vermont? Do you want to know that the vibrant colors were designed to communicate my deep feelings of love and loss? Do you want to know that I purposefully worked on cardboard because Dean taught me how to reuse materials? Do you want to know that I carved the Green Mountains into the cardboard to add the texture and depth that I was feeling? Do you want to know the additional textures are school letters and numbers representing Dean's love of teaching? Do you want to know the Hermit Thrush is Vermont's state bird?
How much of this information is important to share as an artist?
I recently listened to a podcast where the artist suggested that a title should never influence the viewer's perception of a painting. The viewer should be allowed her or his own interpretation. I understand this argument. Yet I also believe it is a choice both the artist and the viewer makes.
I asked my daughter what she thought my title combined with the painting was representing. She replied, "global warming."
With love to all,
Breathe it all in. Love it all out.
I thank Mary Oliver daily for those words. They remind me to take a deep breath, listen to the sounds around me, embrace the moment, and see the beauty.
I’ve contemplated a lot recently about who do I want to be as an artist? Why am I painting what I paint? Why am I teaching what I teach? Why are the arts important?
We are complicated beings and these are complicated questions.
I spent a good part of May as the Artist-in-Residence at the Glen Arbor Art Center in northern Michigan. I painted daily in a studio in a barn in a field in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I had planned on exploring through art the marks humans have left on the lakeshore. Instead I became enraptured with birds. I am indebted to the Glen Arbor Arts Center for their advice to follow my heart and let the experience guide my painting. What a gift.
Prior to my residency, I had been working on a show for the Peppermint Creek Theatre about homophobia and antisemitism. As I sat outside my studio and quietly watched birds, I thought about the women I had interviewed: Queer Jewish women who were willing to tell me their stories. In my studio in a barn in a field, I found myself painting birds representing these women's stories. In their words I heard strength, courage, love, and a fierce determination to be who they are in a world that doesn’t always want to accept them. Suddenly a swallow represented the woman whose home is her true north, an owl symbolized the wisdom of the two rabbis I interviewed, a hummingbird embodied the fighting spirit of these women, a loon found stillness in just being. The series is titled "Here I Am."
Art is about communicating, imagining, thinking, finding symbols to represent difficult subjects. It’s about honesty. It’s about growth.
I recently taught a workshop focused on the conceptual component of painting. With a lovely group of artists, over three days we asked: Why do you paint what you paint? Can you bare your soul in your art and still have it be universal? Do you have to bare your soul? Do you have to tell your secrets? And most importantly, what are you trying to communicate? Paintings were conceptualized to deal with aging, death, politics, love for children, feeling lonely, feeling blessed – the gamut of human emotions we all confront. Texture. Color. Images. Words.
Art plays a crucial role in transforming, redefining, reimagining our world whether on a personal, regional, or global level.
We are complicated humans living in complicated times. I feel blessed to have art as an avenue to express concepts and emotions. AND I feel blessed to be able to share this with others.
An art journal page from my residency: life lessons.
I'm teaching a three day workshop at the upcoming International Society of Experimental Artists Symposium in Grand Rapids, MI.
Painting for Self Expression
Sept 19-21, 2019.
The City Pulse ran such a nice article about my Here I Am series.
How One Artist Dug Deeper
I've updated my website!
Please check it out: www.jessicakovan.com
Traveling this summer but still want to create? Try out one of my online art journaliing classes! Work at your own pace. I am always just an email away to ask questions!
I greet you from the other side of sorrow and despair with a love so vast and shattered it will reach you everywhere.
As artists, we are taught to channel our feelings onto the canvas. If you want to sell your paintings, it’s safer to not talk about your politics. Hide them in your paintings, and hide them well. I paint what’s in my heart with color, texture, and words—hopefully, then, the feelings will transfer from my heart to the canvas. But I have tried this, and I am still bubbling up inside.
I was going to write about painting today. Instead I am writing about emotions.
After last week’s murders at the Tree of Life synagogue, friends reached out to me offering condolences and prayers. I didn’t react like my other Jewish friends. Their offers of prayers and thoughts added flames to my anger. They should feel the same pain I feel. We are all people. Our society, our community, is seriously dangerously messed up. We are living in a broken world. Don’t pray for me. Pray for all of us. And do more than pray, dammit. Speak up. Speak out. Be angry. Be informed. Vote.
I wonder where my anger comes from. I will continue to reflect on that. In the meantime, my heart hurts. It hurts for all of us. I feel rage for all of us. And I feel immense compassion for the families and community that have lost love ones to gun violence, racism, anti-Semitism, and fear of “the other.”
I am working on turning my anger, fear, sorrow and despair back into love. “Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with others.” That’s what I’ve told myself in quiet moments this week.
I feel vulnerable even saying I got angry. I don’t want to offend anyone. Instead I want to just put it in my art. I will write my emotions into my paintings and then add the appropriate colors: black, white, grey and perhaps a little blue.
But will that help the world?
With gentle love to all,
This time of year is always a time of reflection for me. Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur. The Days of Awe. I find myself asking: Where is my heart? How is my heart? What have I learned over the past year? What are my intentions?
As I sat in the synagogue wrapped in the beautiful sounds of the holidays I felt wrapped in warmth. My heart was being held gently. As I mused about the coming year, the word that came to me was kindness.
May the world be more kind.
May I always be kind.
May those I know and love be kind.
I have recently been yelled at twice by strangers. On a quiet Sunday morning on campus I was running in the bike lane. A middle aged man riding the opposite direction chose to tell me loudly and clearly that the lane was not for runners. He was right. His way of telling me was not.
While driving a couple days later another middle aged man yelled out his open window quite vehemently at me. My driving was not dangerous. Perhaps I disturbed him by intently reading his license plate (Juggler) - perhaps a little bit too closely. But my mind starts doing somersaults with creativity when I see words that intrigue me.
I interpret both of these experiences as symptoms of something very odd going on. We are living in times when it is OK to not be kind. I will not accept it. I do believe it is hard to be human. I don't believe it is hard to be kind.
So where is my heart as I go into this new year? What are my intentions?
AND always keep my running shoes laced tightly. That's so I keep standing and moving forward.
May your new year be filled with kindness, joy, and love.
“You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
To me, art feels magical. I love when layers build up on a canvas or a page, and patterns and colors and images appear that I didn't plan on. I love going with the flow. I love letting my imagination and creativity accept the unplanned and then figuring it out. I love continually relearning to accept the chaos in order to give birth to something new and learning about myself in the process. Art journaling truly provides a place to embrace chaos to see what bubbles up.
I hunger to use bits and pieces of my life within my art journal. I knew that about myself when I met Julie Fei-Fan Balzer. Julie and I were in an art workshop together and Julie was quietly using all of her extra paint in her art journal underneath the table. I was enthralled. She makes her own art journals, carries them with her everywhere, and then paints in them. She puts bits and pieces of her life in it all the time and creates new pages. She's wonderful and I was hooked.
Using Julie as my inspiration, my art journaling evolved. I suddenly figured out what to do with all of those discarded paintings - cut them up. And what to do with all of those scrap pieces of old cards and calendars and paper that a mixed media artist hoards away. Cut them all up. And put them together in funky ways with needle and thread and glue and tape to create your own art journal. And then paint inside. Create your own chaos. And then give birth to a dancing star. Let the magic happen.
I broke my foot at the beginning of the summer. There has been a lot more sitting time in my life and more time to share my new found love of physically making art journals with others (my daughter, my friends, my niece, my brother-in-law). What better gift is there than a day of art creating with people you love? And each person walked away with their own personal art journal to paint in, save quotes in, glue wine bottle labels in, or just stare at. Perfect.
Am I the only one truly enthusiastic about eluding the blank page? I don't think so.
Julie Cameron writes: “Creativity is always a leap of faith. You’re faced with a blank page, blank easel, or an empty stage.”
Actress Octavia Spencer notes, “The hardest thing about writing, for me, is facing the blank page.”
I've done away with the blank page. Now my leap of faith occurs when I open my art journal, meet myself there, place the paint down, and trust the process.
Want to make your own art journal? You can join me next week in East Lansing at Grove Gallery (August 26, 9-4) or elsewhere this fall. To find out more, check out my upcoming classes and workshops!
“If creativity is a habit, then the best creativity is the result of good work habits.
They are the nuts and bolts of dreaming.”
— Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
I’ve jumped into the 100 Day Project on Instagram. 100 days of creativity. 100 days of a daily practice. You choose your daily practice of creativity, announce it to the world, and post it daily on Instagram.
The 100 Day Project began in 2008 and continues to evolve. The 2017 project involves sharing your daily project on Instagram with two hashtags: #100dayproject and your own special hashtag. This year's project began April 4th.
“Practice takes time. Practice takes commitment. Practice is a radical act in this speeded up world. Through practice, we develop a creative habit. Through habit, we reconnect with and know ourselves again as a creative being.”
PRACTICE IS A RADICAL ACT IN THIS SPEEDED UP WORLD.
For the 100 day project, you declare what your project will be. Mine will be art journaling. But I have created rules for myself. I was first a daily pages journaler (just writing, no art). I have been journaling/writing every morning for almost 20 years. I come from the world of academia where you write in long sentences. As an art journaler. I want to get better at collapsing my sentences into thought bites – something you can chew on.
If a sound bite is a short extract from an interview, chosen for its pungency or appropriateness, then a thought bite (my wording) is a short extract from my head.
So my 100 Day Project is to art journal with thought bites. My personal hashtag is #100daysofthoughtbites.
I hope this is a good idea. Ask me after 100 days. I am so curious to see how it evolves.
Want to join me? Want to jump in? If you do it, let me know! We can follow each other.
“In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.” ~ Frances Bacon
With markers in hand, I took my painting “Herr Drumpf” to an election party Tuesday night. I invited people of all ages to express their feelings about the election directly onto the painting. I considered it a way to heal from the past year of ugliness. As the evening took an unexpected turn, a different form of therapeutic art took place. “Herr Drumpf” became loaded with a weight I didn’t expect. As emotions became so tangled that evening, so did the graffiti.
Watching young and old alike graffiti over my painting soothed me. It provided a sense of comfort and community. It gave birth to colorful, grieving, angry, and sometimes hopeful messages. Providing one small avenue for people to express their emotions soothed my artist's soul.
I see the world through an artist lens. I believe
art has the power to help reconnect and heal.
Color alone can help me connect - the green
of a forest or the reds of an early morning
sunrise provide instant solace. Yet, this fall I
created a fully monochromatic painting
completely devoid of color. The color had
been drained out of me. Through the painting,
I tried to communicate that light shines through
I now need to find a way to bring the color back.
We all need to find a way to bring the color back. To bring back hope and healing. My head hurts. My heart hurts. My heart hurts for my kids, for all kids, for all minority groups, for myself. For our nation.
But I do have hope. I am already watching my own kids turn their frustration, their deep disappointment in our nation, into a commitment to do more. I believe they are representative of a new activism which will emerge - an activism based in the love of our nation. An activism based in a new understanding of identity politics. Their generation voted overwhelmingly against hatred and bigotry. I have hope that we will follow and learn from their activism.
Art is a natural way to express feelings and ideas. There are artists throughout the nation instantly taking action. Subway art in New York City. Chalk art at Webster University. Writers. Dancers. Visual artists. When I see this, I feel hope. When I watch my kids speak up, take action, I feel hope. When my students show me their paintings and their journal pages, I feel hope. There are so many ways we can all speak up, be proactive, begin. We can't be silent. We are all in this together. We must find hope in the aftermath.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” ~ Mary Oliver
The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a time period for deep soul searching and re-grounding, a time to regain balance, and a time to ask questions. Am I the person I want to be in this world? What am I doing to help make the world a better place? How am I helping to “repair the world”?
“Repairing the world” or Tikkun Olam is an inherent part of being Jewish. Hence, I ask myself: What acts of kindness am I, as an artist, performing to perfect or help repair the world?
When I am alone painting in my studio, choosing to be an artist feels selfish. Yet art is my solace. It helps me make sense of the world, whether through writing, painting, music, reading, or theater. Through art, I wrestle with my emotions, my circumstances, my dreams, my joys, my aches, and often, my pain. The drive to create, to express myself visually, is deep. It helps give voice to feelings that are difficult to express verbally. In the most difficult of times, my yearning for self-expression is palpable.
What is my role as an artist and tikkun olam? I often donate to worthy causes. I’m currently preparing to teach a four-week art class for victims of sexual abuse at the Women’s Center of Lansing. Over the past year I have painted a door to be auctioned off for Habitat for Humanity, sculpted an art bra for the Women’s Center, created masks for the Firecracker Foundation (a local organization that aids children of sexual trauma), donated a painting for Art for Charlie (an organization supporting pediatric hospice and parental bereavement), and was a guest artist at Reach Art Studio, a neighborhood art studio.
Yet, I’ve tried to create a life that includes tikkun olam at all levels, not just my volunteer work or “extra time.” When I think about “giving back” as an artist, it’s undoubtedly woven into the fabric of my being. I find myself drawn to organizations and events with a common thread: They believe art, in all its forms, can be a vehicle for awareness, hope, and healing.
Art reminds us of beauty and of pain, of hope and of healing. As much as I am happy to support local causes, helping others be creative and learn about themselves through the process is the most gratifying form of tikkun olam I know. When leading on-line art journaling classes or teaching mixed-media workshops, I work to help students understand themselves better and express it through their art. It is a form of self-expression that can be both disorienting and healing. This has always proven true for me and I find it true for others as well.
I know my Judaism has shaped the way I approach my art, both professionally and personally. I have been taught to reflect, trust my intuition, strive for perfection, and give back. In learning about myself through art, and then helping others create their own systems for healing and growth, I hope to help repair the world, one person at a time, one step at a time, one paintbrush at a time. In that vein, I annually reflect on Mary Oliver’s question in the back of our prayer book: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I just came back from 8 days in the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area in northern Minnesota. It is hard to describe the stillness it created in me. Canoeing and backpacking in the Boundary Waters has been on my bucket list for a very long time. My daughter, Sarah, joined me. It was quiet and peaceful, unconnected to the material world, yet so connected to the natural world. It was just what I needed. When I close my eyes now I imagine the early morning fog and the call of the loons. And my coffee and morning journaling. Bliss.
I came home to September. Fall, to me, is about being deeply reflective. It is the start of the new year and perfectly timed with the next round of new classes to be taught and the deep goal setting questions I ask myself. My bulletin board states “Are you reaching your full potential?” and reminds me to “Be Deliberate. With Purpose.” Yet at the same time I have posted messages to myself that remind me to Slow Down, Be Still, Listen. The conflicting messages of life.
I am getting ready to start teaching the next round of my on-line art journaling class. It is one of my favorite classes to teach. It is fun to plan out, fun to watch the growth that happens, fun to help create a community of artists, fun to be part of for myself. And perhaps most importantly, teaching the class forces me to create daily. I am both a student and a teacher.
As much as I needed the Boundary Waters, I also need art. I love how art helps the soul. I love how art journaling is accessible to anyone, no matter your comfort with a paintbrush or pen. It reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s quote: “The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow.”
Interested in my on-line art journaling class: Good Morning Creativity! More info: www.jessicakovan.com/online-art-journaling.html
Inhaling life one