Monday, September 20, 2010

Video of my TEDx Talk "Heeding The Call" Hosted by the Fine Arts Division at Fullerton College

For those interested, here's a link to the video of my TED talk, Heeding the Call, at TEDx Fullerton, hosted by the Fine Arts Division at Fullerton College, Fullerton, CA.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Call

Here's a link to my essay, "The Call," as it appears in today's Cultural Weekly. Please check it out.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

TEDx Talk Sept. 10th, 2010

Below is the text version of my recent TEDx talk. Enjoy!

I wonder if you can remember the last time you were truly and completely happy?

And I’m not referring to those wonderful moments of rapture we experience from time—when we stand looking out over the ocean at a magnificent sunset, for example, or when we walking into the awesome space of a cathedral. Or even when we’re making love… or during meditation.

No, I’m wondering if you have ever closed your eyes and traveled back through time and space to what I might call your personal Eden, before the loss of innocence—a time when the sky was cloudless, when there were none of those familiar worries gnawing at the edge of consciousness, about money, or job, or your relationship, or the kids… a moment, then, when you felt completely at one with yourself and the universe…

When I was first invited to do this exercise, I found myself on a swing, suspended by long ropes from the branch of a tall pine tree overlooking the red sandstone country church where my father was Rector, and past it over the green landscape of rural Bedfordshire, in England, where I grew up. Behind me is the redbrick Victorian rectory, where we lived. The big kitchen window stands open and through it I hear the voice of my mother, who is calling me in for elevenses, or afternoon tea, or supper…

If I start here, in my own personal Eden, it’s because the place in me that responds to this “calling” of my name is the same, I believe—because we’re talking here about the “real me, the core self”—is the same as the place where I respond to that other, deeper call, the one that tells me not only who I am but what it is I’m given to do with my life. It was not for nothing that I was “called” Peter, as I hope you will come to understand.

It’s my conviction that each one of us has a calling—a mission, if you will, a purpose for our lives—and that we can each hear it, if we stop to listen closely. Those who are the happiest among us, I believe, are those who have listened to the call and who have learned to follow it.

I happen to have been called to be a writer. I have known this since I was twelve years old, not because I actually remember it from that age but because my mother—yes, that same mother whose voice I heard calling me from the Rectory kitchen!—was at pains for the rest of her life to remind me of what I told her at that age: that I wanted to be a writer.

And indeed, I was a writer as a teenager. I wrote poems. I wrote poems about love and war, all those things I knew absolutely nothing about. By the time I got to university, my sole aspiration was to be a poet and, indeed, I wrote a great deal of poetry during my undergraduate years and began to publish it in undergraduate magazines.

But then, alas…! I was ejected into the real world! In my last year at university, I was confronted with the awful truth that poets—even the best of them—do not make a great deal of money. I would need to find some other form of employment if I wished to make my way in the world.

I considered my options. The first was to use my talent with words—such as it was—to make a living. I considered journalism. But then I recalled the face of a wizened old Austrian count in a Weinkeller in Vienna, where I had spent a somewhat inebriated summer as a student, gazing at me through a haze of cigarette smoke and shaking a finger under my nose. Sie sollen NICHT Journalist werden,” he warned me. You must NOT be a journalist. You’re a POET. And so, from the dizzy heights of literary ambition, I chose not to prostitute my talent.

Instead, I went into teaching. A noble profession, I thought, with the dreadful condescension of the youthful intellectual, and one that would afford me wonderful long holidays in which to follow my true vocation. What a delusion! It took me hardly any time at all to discover that by the time the long holidays came around, I was so depleted, emotionally and in every other way, by the demands of an extraordinarily demanding job, that I had no words left to write…

I left teaching… I cast around a bit, then ended up returning to graduate school, buying myself more time to be a poet at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. I also embarked on a doctorate. University teaching, I imagined, was the ticket. Longer holidays! Fewer students, more receptive and more intelligent!

Ph.D. in hand, I came to California to teach Comparative Literature at USC. I began to climb the academic ladder. It took me several years to conclude that this was not was what I was supposed to be doing with my life. The same feelings of vague, sometimes acute dissatisfaction returned—the feeling that you get when you know you’re out of place. But I chose to misinterpret it once more. I was more interested in art than in literature, I convinced myself. I was, however, totally unqualified to teach art, so I moved over into administration. I became a Dean.

Smart move!

I was appointed dean at Otis Art Institute. And later, Dean of the arts at Loyola Marymount University…

Here I interrupt myself. Because while I believe firmly in that “calling” I have been talking about, I’m equally convinced that we ignore it at our peril. We get to be unhappy, sometimes even bitter people, who walk around wishing we were someone else, or somewhere else, or doing something else…

I also believe that in addition to the call, we’re offered all kinds of hints along the way—signposts, as it were, that say NO EXIT, ONE WAY STREET, or DO NOT ENTER; or else they say THIS WAY, THIS WAY…

But we have to pay attention. We have to be watching for them, or we drive right past and end up in the familiar cul-de-sac.

Let me offer some examples of signposts I have ignored, and signposts I have paid attention to.

It will be obvious by now that I ignored, for many years, some very clear signals about my academic career. I don’t wish to sound churlish or ungrateful for the opportunities I had. It was in most respects a wonderfully rewarding path. I climbed the ladder with increasing recognition and success. I was nearly at the top when I decided to quit. I was being invited to interview for top jobs, even presidencies at some truly great art schools around the country, and I was bemused by my inability to accept the offers that came my way. But when I started to think more closely about what had been happening in my life, I could not escape the conclusion that I had managed to sabotage every job I’d ever had. You’ve heard of the Peter Principle. I was the living, breathing Peter. I had kept rising just beyond my level of competence. Well, not so much competence, because I believe I managed to do a decent job. But it just did not feel right. Experience was trying to tell me, at every pivotal point along the way: STOP! YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE! YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE DOING THIS WITH YOUR LIFE!

But I chose not to listen. I chose to listen, instead, to the fear—the fear of not having a job, of not having the income, the security, even, perhaps, the identity, in which by this time I had a great deal of my self wrapped up. Only in retrospect would I begin to see things clearly. Academia, even that special branch of academia represented by the art school, was not my calling. It was what I had settled for.

So I did manage to quit. Let me tell you another Peter story. It happened nearly twenty years ago, at one of those moments in life when everything seems to be falling apart. I had finally committed myself to my calling as a writer but was still floundering, unsure what direction I should take or “what to say.” My mission to be a writer was clear to me. That felt good. But what was still not clear was my mission as a writer. It was a matter of, Okay, I’m a writer. So now what?

January 1st, 1992. A propitious date. I went to my desk in the morning to check on my to-do lists. One of them was a list of telephone calls to be returned. There were five names on the list—and every one of them was a Peter. So I joked to myself, this had to be the year of Peter.

Well, it happened that I was commissioned that year to write a piece about an art installation in Rome. It was a big, ambitious light and space installation in the ancient Trajan Market and the artist was Los Angeles-based Peter Erskine. It happened that another LA artist was having an exhibition in Rome at the same time—Peter Shelton.

So there we were, three Peters from Los Angeles in Peter’s city, in the year of Peter. I had been in Rome a couple of years before and had wanted to find the church with Michelangelo’s Moses. I had seen the David in Florence—the epitome of young male virility and strength—and wanted to see Michelangelo’s vision of masculinity at the other end of life, which I had always imagined the Moses to be. But I had failed to find the church on that previous visit. This time, I was determined to find it.

And I did. It was the church of San Pietro in Vincoli—St. Peter in Chains. I was with my wife, Ellie. We found the Moses, and admired that spectacular work of art. Then Ellie wandered off in one direction, I in another. And I found myself looking down into a crypt chapel, where there was a reliquary—a large glass display case which contained what purported to be the very chains from which Peter, the saint, had been released from prison by the angel of the Lord…

Well, I was born on the Anglican feast of St. Peter in Chains. I was given my name by my Anglican priest father for that reason. I realized at that moment that I was looking down at my own chains—the chains that had restricted me as a man, as a writer, for my whole life; and that it was time to free myself from them.

A big epiphany, then. A very big one. I returned to Los Angeles with the realization that this was the purpose of my writing—indeed, the purpose of my life—to search for the freedom that each one of us longs for and few of us achieve. I stand here now, in front of you, as a result of having dedicated myself to that long search. It’s a search in which I am still obviously engaged. I do not expect to ever reach the end.

Not all epiphanies are so big, of course, nor so immediately and completely life-changing. It’s the little ones, the ones that come along every day of our lives, that are the important ones. I have come to believe that everything, every event, every object that we stumble across in our lives, can be read as a signpost; that if we only pay attention, we have something to learn from something as small as a gum wrapper dropped on the sidewalk. (Do I walk on by? Do I make a judgment about the person who dropped it there? Do I stop to pick it up and put it in the trash? Do I reflect a little more deeply on the way we humans trash up our planet? My behavior in that instant, if I examine it, will teach me a lot about who I am and the skillfulness of my actions in the world. It may teach me to modify my ways, to become just a little bit more skillful in the future.

So what I have come to talk about is essentially the examined life. I have come to understand that there is absolutely nothing in this world I cannot learn from, if I listen to what it has to tell me. Because every single thing I look at offers me the opportunity to reflect on the action of my mind.

As I was preparing this talk, my memory took me back to a poem by the 19TH century French poet, Charles Baudelaire. As I see it, in part at least, it’s about those things that call out to us as we pass through the real world, at once acknowledging our presence and asking us to pay attention to them. So let me, in closing, just read a single verse from that poem—first in French, because it happens to be beautiful, and I’m sure there are plenty in the audience who will understand it. And then in English:

La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
 Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
 L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
 Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.

Nature is a temple in which living pillars 
 Sometimes give voice to confused words; 
 Man passes there through forests of symbols 
 Which look at him with understanding eyes.

So there you have it. Everything calls to us. Our own voice calls from within. The real world calls to us constantly from out there. And this world, I believe, would be a better place if we each learned to pay attention to the call.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Holding Events: A Discussion Reflecting on How to Get the Most Out of Events at Independent Bookstores by Patrick Frank

Below we have a guest submission from Patrick Frank, a poet-essayist-songwriter from Kingstree, South Carolina. In addition to leading creativity workshops and being an active musician, his poetry and prose have been published in more than sixty periodicals. He also writes actively for OpenSalon where you can view his current online publications. Today, Patrick shares some advice on the process of holding events at independent bookstores and discusses what has and hasn't worked for him. I'm hoping that readers will want to join in the discussion with their own experiences.

Patrick Frank:

Having now engaged in five music-book-poetry events at independent bookstores in North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina, I think it is possible to look back and reflect on what has worked and not worked, to explore how I can make these events more fulfilling for everyone involved—including me.

The purposes of my events are three-fold:

*to explore the creative process with participants, while sharing a few of my original songs and poetry

*to support independent bookstores, which have been enormously stressed by big chains and Amazon

*to sell copies of my book, On the Blue Ridge Line, published under my own imprint, Beckoning Dove Press, in 2010.

On the Blue Ridge Line consists of a series of brief essays on the creative process, followed by a compilation of my original country-folk-blues songs, composed between 1981 and the present. The book is produced “on demand” by CreateSpace/Amazon.

Let me acknowledge that I have been struggling to find the right format and mode of preparation for these events. Some things have worked, many things have not. But I will treat the initial five events as an opportunity for learning and proceed from there. Here are some of my reflections…

*Preparation and focus are enormously important. When I have been lax in preparation, things have fallen apart. When that happens, it feels like I am an actor who has forgotten his lines. As a former drama major, I can tell you that is a nightmare.

*My music and lyrics are a strong suit, and performing relaxes me, so it makes sense to lead off with a song or two, and then proceed with a brief presentation of ideas, then return to performance, then back to discussion, but this time encouraging the sharing of attendees.

*When I have had a large crowd or just two or three attendees, I have allowed this to throw me—a big mistake. I should be prepared for and welcoming of any number.

*I should put “Blue Ridge’ in the attendees’ hands at the outset, and utilize the content of the book (beyond the lyrics) to a much greater extent. There is nothing wrong with reading a brief passage from one of my essays. I have a tendency to want to move on to something new as a basis for discussion, rather than drawing on insights from the book.

*I decided early on that I am not comfortable with sitting at a table and signing books. I am not some famous author and that is simply not me, to be so passive. I want to engage with attendees and hope they will become participants. I would love for them to share an original poem or song.

*The issue of how and when to engage in publicity should be worked out well in advance. I have not had a decent flyer to distribute up to now, and I made a decision to pay an artist to design one for me.

*Long distance publicity is hard for me to handle, so I have begun become more forthright in asking the bookstores to do as much as they can on my behalf. I will provide a flyer, a synopsis of the book, a few comments on the book, and information on my background.

*It costs a lot of money to travel around the South, not to mention beyond my region. To make these trips cost effective or at least to break even, I need to schedule several events.

*As I am also a music performer, I am not averse to setting out a “tip jar” to help with travel expenses, if the bookstore is okay with that.

*But selling my book is not forefront in my mind, when I am engaged in the event. I am there to share with the attendees, many them probably writers, artists or musicians in their own right. I am there to to support independent bookstores. And finally, I am there to sell books.

*One spin-off from conducting these events is networking with like-minded people. I am very interested in creative collaboration, and I always am on the lookout for individuals I might be able to join forces with on a project.

*I realize that I must continue writing and sharing new work. Engaging in daily blogging on the Open Salon site has stimulated my continued growth as a writer, and I am now assembling material for a second book of prose-poetry. This time, I plan to seek an outside publisher.

*I locate independent bookstores through the IndieBound site. I have experimented with various ways of approaching the bookstore owner or manager. Sometimes, initial email contact works, sometimes not.

*I have met some wonderful independent owners, very down to earth and welcoming, others who strike me as the opposite, and some “in between” welcoming and stand offish. Once on the scene, I can't worry too much about rapport or lack of it with bookstore staff.

Monday, September 6, 2010

An Interview with Roland Reiss

ROLAND REISS is, first and foremost, a distinguished artist whose work has been widely exhibited and critically acclaimed since the 1960s. He has also been an important presence in the world of contemporary art for many years as one of its key teachers, a long time faculty member and department chair of the art school at the Claremont Graduate University, which has launched the careers of many of today's significant artists. He was also the moving spirit behind the celebrated summer program, "The Painting's Edge."

Here at "Persist: The Blog" we're truly grateful to Roland for joining us in our continuing pursuit of persistence in the spirit of creativity, for the depth of his knowledge, and for sharing his thoughts on "persistence" with us. I hope he won't mind that I describe him as one of the art world's greatest elder statesmen. He looks back, from retirement, on a long career in art, with the wisdom of one who has persisted despite all obstacles. His responses are worth careful reading and attention. Together, they make up one of the most complete and thoughtful statements on human creativity that I have read.

PERSIST: THE BLOG We are all about persistence, as our title suggests, and we’re asking all kinds of people what it takes to keep persisting, as a creative person, in a culture that is not always welcoming or encouraging. You yourself have been “persisting” as an artist for a good number of years. In your experience, what does it take?

ROLAND REISS: My first thought is that there may be a genetic component to persistence: that one must continue no matter what. My second thought is that some of us have been given the gift of work. The idea, in my case, from my father, that one defines oneself in the process of working and that work itself provides meaning to existence.

Each of us is faced with discouragement. I have known my share of disappointment. During such moments I have found relief and even joy by pouring myself into my work. Belief in oneself is essential. It requires a sense of personal integrity usually based on self-knowledge, self respect and the fragments of support one receives from others in the field. It is important to remember that many extraordinary artists received little or no support in their lifetime and sometimes devastating criticism. Ultimately one must enjoy the process of making art, secure in the knowledge that one is really good at it whether others perceive that or not.

It is important to completely embrace the idea that you are an artist. That it is your way of being in the world. That you are a living medium for society’s expression of what it means to be alive. In order to persist and to avoid a creative block it is important to practice creative openness and flow. Openness means the ability to continually produce and entertain new options, new possibilities. Practicing divergent thinking and pursuing the answer to “what if” by going beyond known limits. Flow means continuous working, staying sensitive to the nuances of your medium and ideas, allowing things to have a life of their own, unfolding before your eyes; and then focus, zeroing in at points and bringing all of your resources to bear on what you are making. Next, bringing it to a very high level, one which takes your breath away and makes you want to return again and again to the moments of excitement and of satisfaction that your effort has brought to you.

When you know once and for all that you are a maker, a maker of things, a maker of form, then you will have no choice. You will realize that it is only in the process of making that you find true fulfillment. The resulting product makes that process manifest and the enjoyment of it available to others. Persistence wanes under fear of failure or mediocrity. Wanting to succeed outside your self, in the eyes of others, at a very high level can become a terrible burden. It is a burden which can crush the creative spirit, replacing joy and confidence with fear, a sense of inadequacy. Fortuity, geography, contacts, publicity and aggressiveness probably have more to do with success today than the actual quality of the work. The desire for professional success can produce a sense of defeatism in the face of career disappointments. Unfortunately, most artists blame their work for not being able to overcome their problems in the social-professional sphere.

Probably the greatest drag against persistence is the constant fear of what others, especially critics, will think about what you have made. The belief is that professional opportunity and success flow from what others think. It is the feeling that one cannot control what others think; they may not like what you have made or what you have to say for a huge variety of reasons. Worse yet, is the relative indifference about what you have done. Those who persist manage to keep “they” out of their heads most of the time. “They” are not the most important people in your art. You are the important one. “They” should not be invited into your studio. If “they” are there, you can ask them to leave. Just keep working, if you finally get tired of what “they” will think, it will be time to trust yourself, to enjoy who you are: an art maker.

Years ago, I came across a definition of art that has served me well: Art is anything that intensifies, clarifies, and extends the nature of human experience. The capacity to produce all three of these elements in the work not only makes it art, it makes for really good or great art. When I was a graduate student, instructors would come up behind us as we were working and intone the question, “What is your statement?” like the voice of God. It took years to learn that this was the wrong question. It should have been, “Who are you and what do you find really interesting in life?”

PTB: As a teacher, you have made a lasting contribution to the lives and work of literally hundreds of studio artists. Aside from the technical skills they need as artists, what have you most wanted them to take away from their experience of working with you?

RR: I have wanted my students to see that the connection between whom they are and the art they make is a natural one. They must understand that art is a special and idiomatic way of producing meaning. Making art and sharing it are two sides of the same coin. I have wanted then to understand that aspiring to great things can only come from the capacity to appreciate great things. If they find in themselves something creative to bring to the table they will have achieved some measure of greatness. I want them to be players in the world of contemporary experience, to appreciate their contemporaries as the best that our society has to offer and for them to create the art that is appropriate to our time. I have wanted them to know that though we have one voice we may want to sing many songs. Art is a lifetime adventure and it may take you many places.

PTB: Looking back at former students who have moved on into lives of recognition and acclaim and others who have had to struggle with less favorable circumstances, do you have any insight as to what qualities contribute to a studio artist’s success?

RR: It is difficult to predict which students will succeed while they are in school. Some are great at being student artists but not as professionals after graduation. Fate can play a hand in success so predictions are not to be trusted. In retrospect and given my interaction with some younger, highly successful artists, I would make the following observations: Likelihood of success is greater if the art is really good. It is possible for an artist to tell if there is a strongly favorable reaction to their work even if it is not good. If it is not so good it absolutely must play into the current critical dialogue of curators and art writers, if it is to succeed. There must be a strong professional commitment on the part of an aspiring artist. The artist must be constantly productive.

Given good work and productiveness, it is essential that artists pursue their career outside of the studio. There is a certain type of artist whose lifestyle and career moves bring them considerable attention. These artists network at the highest professional level. They seek out people who can help provide them with opportunities: art writers and critics, museum directors and curators, important collectors, owners of top line galleries, highly successful artists and artists who are receiving a lot of attention. They are extremely well organized and focus intensively on their work and careers. They usually are financially secure or receive family support. They seldom teach or do so part time. These artists are highly intelligent, mobile and reasonably attractive. They usually score an important gallery early on in their careers along with attention from museums. Most are socially adept and able to advance the cause of their art in the art world.

PTB: Is teaching a good alternative path for those many artists who need to make a living but have little prospect of doing so with sales of their work? In your experience, what are the sacrifices a teaching career requires of an artist? And what are the rewards it offers? How do they balance out against each other?

RR: Teaching is a great path for those who need financial support or those who are raising families. Full time teaching will seriously limit the professional possibilities of young artists starting out because it will absorb their time, energy and availability. It does not get better as time goes on. The professional art world does not give any importance or respect to teaching except in China. Many dealers consider teaching to be a detriment to the artist’s productivity and professional life. Let me be clear, there are two kinds of art teachers. The first are those who teach from the beginning of their careers and perhaps because they love doing it. The second are those who become highly successful artists first and then obtain highly paid professorial appointments with light teaching duties and the time and freedom to pursue professional opportunities.

Aside from the detrimental effect on professional life, teaching art is an exciting and highly rewarding activity, and, in its own way, it can be as satisfying as art making. Sadly, for many artists, its satisfactions can be seen to replace the desire to persist as an artist. I believe that every artist does not make a good art teacher but in order to be a really good art teacher, you have to be an excellent artist, whether successful or not. In a truly active professional career, there is no balance; teaching must be on the lighter, less committed side. If not, you may have a wonderful life as a teacher with a secondary career as an artist.

My own experience has been that sustaining an artist/teacher career requires a great amount of energy and considerable amount of sacrifice, that means less reading, movies, traveling, art openings, social time, sleep and, above all, less time with family. I was unable to take advantage of many career opportunities that came my way. On the other hand I was probably born a teacher. I have the deepest appreciation for my own teachers and I have gratefully carried the torch they gave me. My students have taught me more about the future than I could ever know and they compelled me to stay alive to current art developments and dialogue so that I could support their growth and achievements.

PTB: Now that you have retired from teaching, does full-time commitment to studio work bring any special challenges? Or is it all pure bliss?

RR: Retirement has its double edge. While there is more time to make art, and I believe I am making the best art of my life, with retirement comes age, diminished physical energy, and less endurance. The thrilling part is I know more about art making than ever before and I love art more than ever. I now fully understand that art is my life’s work.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Roland Reiss

ROLAND REISS is, first and foremost, a distinguished artist whose work has been widely exhibited and critically acclaimed since the 1960s. He has also been an important presence in the world of contemporary art for many years as one of its key teachers, a long time faculty member and department chair of the art school at the Claremont Graduate University, which has launched the careers of many of today's significant artists. He was also the moving spirit behind the celebrated summer program, "The Painting's Edge."

Tomorrow we are all lucky to have an interview with Roland Reiss to enjoy. In anticipation, here is some information on his upcoming event, Familiar Grounds.