Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Benched Week 67: anticipation

One of the great things about traveling is anticipation.  I look forward to seeing a new place – however briefly.  And meeting up with workmates I enjoy.  And the spontaneous art I create.  Most of all, I cherish coming home.

These bench outings, too, are filled with expectation.  I love the improvisational nature of heading out onto the streets of a city or town, not knowing what it will give me in return for the investment of my time.

Today, under brilliantly blue skies and into spring-like weather, I explored downtown Atlanta with high hopes.  With any luck, I’d find something Christmassy along the way.

High as my hopes, a Ferris wheel greeted me as I entered Centennial Olympic Park.

But the park itself was a disappointment.  Plenty of benches – but many of them were occupied with sleeping old men.  Without running water in the fountains or green on the trees, it was a sad landscape.  Even a snowman display looked a bit odd and mildly creepy.

Other parks were the same: tired old men and little else.

I admitted defeat at the final stop, a corner square framed by a wall of water, where I settled for watching guys play what I might describe as High-Intensity Profanity Chess, judging by the loud conversations.

And interacting with this lively guy, who was convinced I was a reporter and posed for the newspaper article.  He was entertaining, though a tad scary.  Especially when he started telling me about his half-brother Jesus walking on water.

For me, there was no great Aha moment in the afternoon's wandering.  No gripping realizations.  Just the pleasure of being fully present in a place and time.

Here’s the thing about anticipation: you can’t guarantee the actual can match the expectedAnd maybe that’s good.  Because sometimes what shows up, though unexpected, is better than what we’ve convinced ourselves we want.  We might desire what is wrapped tidily and prettily in our mind’s eye when what we really need arrives wrapped in something far more ordinary.  Like swaddling clothes.

If these Benched posts have taught me anything, it’s to look for the quiet, small surprises that usually go unnoticed.

But then, either to reward me or contradict me, I received this gift: as I walked back to my hotel, I turned a corner and discovered a giant wreath, radiant in a shaft of late afternoon sunlight.  Stunningly beautiful.

The ordinary and the spectacular.  The glorious brought down to earth.

I guess I found something Christmassy after all.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Benched Week 66: buoyed by rain

Sometimes, rain can be welcoming.  Seattle, living up to its wet reputation, greeted me this afternoon with the meteorological equivalent of a sloppy kiss on the cheek.  A steady drizzle met me as I left the hotel.

Why then head out in the rain to find a bench?

I wondered that very thing as I sat down on my chosen seat in a park just off the edge of the shopping district in Bellevue, WA.  What could such a dreary landscape hold for me?

Turns out: a heavy dose of calm.

Just what I needed.

The day started with a jolt of adrenaline.  Ready to make my long drive to Dulles, I started the car in the driveway to warm it up and somehow managed to lock myself out of it!  Panic surged through my body as I realized the implications.  My heart pounded.  I shouted in frustration. 

Between calls to Alison and AAA, it was resolved quickly, but a pointed lesson had been made. Besides to never do that again, the loud warning was: You’re not handling the pace of my life as well as you thought.  As clear as a road sign.

So, I sat on the bench, the rain lightly drumming on the umbrella above me, and willed myself to slow the pace of my thoughts.  Take some deep breaths.  Soak in the scenery.

In the distance, people happily skated in a covered rink. (Cue the Vince Guaraldi Peanuts music.)

Nearer to me, a young mother pushed a stroller around the circular path that passed by my bench.  Her umbrella was a welcome splash of color in the drab and darkening scene.

It’s funny how when you slow down, things ease up into your attention unbidden, like the quiet friend who stays behind after a party.  As I sat there listening, I suddenly realized the sound of the rain on the umbrella reminded me of something.

Rain on a tent.

And just like that, a sweet memory flooded back.  I’m a boy of eight.  I huddle with my family around the picnic table under the screen tent adjoining our pop-up camper as the rain quarantines us for the day on our trip across the country.  I hear the shuffling of the cards being dealt for another round of cribbage.  I feel the checkered plastic tablecloth under my bare elbows.  I smell the aromatic smoke of my father’s pipe.  I taste the sweet tang of Tang in a plastic mug.

Smiling at the remembrance, I get up and walk back.  I feel lighter inside.  And the rain seems to match my more buoyant spirit, transforming the streets into a diffused reflection of the Christmas lights.

Cheered by a rainy day.  Seattle style.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Benched Week 65: thankful

Dallas on a cold, December Monday wasn’t very inviting.  But I stepped out into the cutting wind and empty streets with a purpose: to get to the church I had seen from my room window, nestled in among the newer buildings like an elderly aunt at the kids’ table on Thanksgiving.

That’s why I wanted to find a contemplative space.  I wanted to give thanks for two things I’ve learned in this year and a half of bench sittings.

1.  Senses wait to be used.

When I park myself on a bench, I take out paper and pen and start writing down all the things I hear, see, smell, feel.  (As a rule, I try not to taste things on public benches.) These senses are not small things.  They are tremendous gifts, and underutilized ones at that. I’m constantly surprised and often delighted by the sounds and sights that exist just beyond the narrow spotlight of my attention.

It’s like an archeological dig. Obvious things, like the enormous pipes that dominate the front of this church’s sanctuary, lay on the surface. 

Only time and a willingness to keep looking can dig up the deeper treasures, like the radiant watercolor feel of the stained-glass windows.

Or the subtle curves of the descending dove.

I’m thankful for the ability to perceive and appreciate the pleasant contrasts of light and dark, of smooth and bristly textures, of rich green against dark wood.

2.  Stories wait to be discovered.

Look at these hanging bells.  I found them to the right of the altar.

There are people behind these simple ornaments.  Those who crafted them.  Those who hung them.  Each of them has a motivation, a story behind their part in the placing.

I’m thankful for the ubiquity of narratives, because they are links between people.  Between the teller and the hearer.  Between the artist and the audience.  Often, we don’t get to hear the stories behind the objects and art around us, but just the presence of purpose in them makes them meaningful for us.   That building, that sculpture, that bench is there because someone made it and put it there.  For a reason.

Be forewarned: exercise your senses and you’ll develop an appetite for stories.  One leads to the other.  But don’t worry – there’s a veritable feast of narratives for those who will take the time to sit at the table.

And for that, I am truly thankful.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Benched Week 64: up close and personal

It’s a strange experience meeting for the first time someone I’ve known for years.   It’s a kind of incarnation – a person previously shaped entirely by words changing into a real, flesh-and-blood human.   As if a shadow shifted to become the form that cast it.

I’ve known Carol from our days on another blogging site through to present day Facebook.  And here she was, standing in front of me with a warming smile on a blustery sidewalk of Chicago.  She had volunteered to take a long train ride in to Chicago to sit on a bench with me and I had suggested that we find that bench inside the Art Institute.  She was thrilled to visit the museum for the first time.  I was happy to have a fresh set of eyes on my third walk through.

What struck me this time wasn’t the grandeur of famous works of art – I was leaving that to Carol, who whispered an astonished “Wow!” in nearly every room.  This time, the smallest of things caught my eye.  Leaning in as close as guards permitted, I marveled at the simplicity of brushstrokes.  How could one know, working close to a canvas, that these little dabs of pigment would deftly describe a shape when seen from across a room? 

That these little flicks of white would clearly define the edges of glasses?

Or that these swipes of color would delineate the most famous ear in the history of art?

Did these painters regularly walk away to see the whole more clearly?

As we sat on our bench in one of the galleries, Carol and I picked up this thought and carried it further, asking: what are the things in our life we need to step back from to see more clearly?

It’s a thought-provoking question.  For Carol, a new calling awaits, but the path to it is daunting.  She needs to step back a bit to gain clarity.

For me, it’s just the opposite.  The experiences in the last two weeks have brought a surprisingly simple insight into the nature of what drives me: co-creating art with audiences.



The trick is to flesh out that concept, to give it a solid shape.  And as we parted, with the museum glowing in the frigid night behind us, I realized that the key challenge for me is not the expression of the art, but the finding of the people.  Delightful friends like Carol.  Audiences like you who read this blog.  Strangers I may meet on future benches.  And beyond.

It’s hard to make anything personal until one gets up close.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Benched Week 63: stepping up

The concept came to me as I half-dozed on the plane to Chicago this morning.  I had taken an early flight to give myself time to sit on a bench by Cloud Gate, the famous silver “bean.”  But the radical idea that slipped into my awakening mind (a fertile time for ideas!) was this: draw something and involve strangers.

Last week, I wrote about how I wanted to find ways to improvise art, playing off the ideas of others.  This might be a way to do that.

Crazy.  Crazy enough to work, that is.

I’d need a sheet of foam core to go with my markers.  As chance would have it, there was a Dick Blick store right around the corner from my hotel.  So, trying not to get blown away, I tucked the board under my arm and walked the windy streets toward the park.

I knew I had to draw something to get people to come over.  So I started on a rendering of the sculpture.  And I had a title: Reflections.  I also had a question to pose to those who engaged me: What are you more preoccupied with – something that recently happened or something that’s about to happen?  That would decide which side of the drawing I’d put them.  And it’d give them something to think about while I sketched them.

Then I’d get them to put their thought onto the drawing in their own handwriting.

It worked wonderfully.  For a couple of hours, I had a nice stream of people pose for me.  Along the way I met:

-    a middle-aged man from India, looking forward to enjoying his reunion with his son

-    a young woman from Australia regretting how long it took her to pry herself loose from her dull job and do something big

-    another young woman, this time from Central America, who spoke no English but wrote her thoughts in Spanish

-    a man in his twenties who is struggling to find work and wrote about anticipating good things to come

-    a Hispanic teenager who remarked that I had made her look beautiful.  I told her that was because she was beautiful.  She laughed, surprised and, I think, pleased.

 As I wrapped up the drawing, a quiet college student sidled up to the table.  Nicole introduced herself as a student at a nearby art school.  When I asked, she showed me her sketchbook and we talked about engaging people with art – something she says she does often.  We chatted easily, finding a connection in our mutual love for creating.

Would I do it again?  Probably.  Or maybe it’ll be some other exploration of that line between artist and audience.  I’m just happy that for at least this Benched outing, I wasn’t just caught up in reflection.

It was the right time to step up to a challenge.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Benched Week 62: unrehearsed

“Well, this seems fitting,” I said to John Blair, Esquire, as he posed for a picture in front of a bench.  At least, that’s who he purported to be.  As I sat down next to him, he inquired as to the reason for my comment.

Silly man that I am, I began to explain my Benched saga.  He interrupted with a slightly off-topic comment about having skipped church because he was tired of the preaching of the rector.  Then it dawned on me.  I had been talking to him as if he was just a guy rather than a guy pretending to be a guy who lived two hundred years ago.

One should expect such things in Colonial Williamsburg.

I got into the flow of the make-believe.  I asked questions about his church and its attitude towards those who miss services.  (Slackers were only obligated to attend once a month.)  I posed another about other denominations.  (He confessed that he didn’t know the word.)

It was a performance, and I was a part of it.

Which made me think of jazz.

Williamsburg, with its starkly beautiful houses, would not normally be a place one contemplates jazz.  In fact, it wasn’t until later the next day, as I found another bench in the late afternoon sun, that it came like an Aha! moment.

The improvisational nature of that dialogue was very much like the session I scribed last week – one that may have contained my favorite moment of scribing ever.  In it, a jazz quintet invited a member of the audience to come up and tell a personal story.  While he talked, they adlibbed a jazz score to accompany it.  Meanwhile, I attempted capture it all visually.

It was incredible.  Call it in-the-moment magic – an impromptu harmony of spontaneous word, music and drawing.  No one knew where we were headed, but who cared – the journey was exhilarating.  I’ve never been more buoyantly happy with a marker in my hand.  (I can’t show you that part, but here’s what I drew when they first came out and played.)

Art that is unrehearsed, that plays with the boundary between performer and audience, that blends with music and storytelling -- this is my new-found north star.  I’m not sure what the next step is, but I’m keeping that star in my sight.

Walking later down a back street in the historic district, I saw John again, this time presumably coming back from his break.  As we passed, I said, “I enjoyed our conversation earlier.”

“As did I, sir,” he replied with a nod and touch of his hat.

Well-played, my extemporaneous friend.  Well-played.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Benched Week 61: of anchors and bubbles

My first encounter with Baltimore’s Inner Harbor came when,six months before my wedding, I quit my nine-to-five job to start freelancing.  First up: helping an established illustrator paint a seascape on the walls above the tropical fish tank in the National Aquarium, just a month or so before it opened.

Coming back today, felt like a returning to an anchoring memory.  How suitable it was that a huge anchor lay nicely along the harbor walkway as a reminder.

But the harbor had changed over the years.  Gone were the fun little food stands inside the building Don and I frequented during our lunch breaks.  Now, restaurant chains muscled each other in the tight space and – believe it or not – Ripley’s had staked a claim, announcing its presence with an aggressive-looking sea serpent.

The change made me slightly nostalgic.  Though, I realized as I sat across the harbor from the aquarium, the anchor of this memory was actually more about what I learned about work from Don than it was about the place.  He told me during those days, “Among professional illustrators, everyone works at, like, a 95% level.  To stand out, you have to do 97%.  That little extra you put in – that makes all the difference.” 

I had no idea at the time how that advice would become a standard for all my work that followed through the years.  Not that I’ve attained it consistently.  But I’ve never drifted far from that point.  That’s what anchors help you do.

And little did I realize the crazy, unpredictable career I would have.  How could I have imagined, as a young, untested artist riding the coattails of another painter’s success, that I would find myself back here as the featured artist of a major conference?  There’s nothing like bumping into a long-ago version of oneself to see the crazy, twisting ride of life.

Thinking of this, I started back to the hotel.  When I glanced up at the aquarium, I saw this sign and laughed aloud.

I strolled over to take a close shot of it and walked into a swirling explosion of bubbles.  A young boy fired a long stream of them into the harbor breeze as his brother jumped around trying to catch them.

One large bubble flew around me then danced on currents between the dock and the boat moored close by. Before the bubble burst, its unpredictable journey lasted impossibly long for such a delicate thing.  So many twists and turns.


Amazing things do happen every day.