Post #3290: My personal inbox situation

Since the beginning of the new year I’ve been in a decluttering and re-organizing mode: inbox, closets, studio, finances. It wasn’t a resolution since I didn’t make any this year, but it’s clearly where my focus has attenuated in these last few weeks. Perhaps it is connected to my “Making Do” theme for 2023, as that requires a bit of taking stock to find out what I am making do with – or perhaps it’s just reflective of the breathing space I’m feeling since stepping back from union responsibilities. Either way, it feels good to follow my attention to some long-neglected corners.

One area which has produced a tremendous result in a very brief period of time has been getting down to it with my personal email. Over the years I have subscribed, or been subscribed to, a shocking number of lists, newsletters, and systems/app notifications – to the tune of several hundred emails per week (if not thousands). When Google introduced it’s new inboxing system a few years ago, which included tabs for “updates” “promotions” “social” and “forums” – I figured this would help me deal with the email onslaught and I dutifully sorted inbox messages that came in, hiding away messages beneath their appropriate tabs.

Turns out, that only made my email-hoarding problem worse as I read next-to-nothing under those tabs and periodically found myself deleting thousands of emails in a go, invariably ridding myself of something important like concert tickets or receipts along with all the “clutter”. Plus, the Promotions and Social tabs deploy Google Ads, which can never be removed and lend to my email the overwhelm.

This problem with unread messages lead to other issues, like being billed for services I no longer wanted to subscribe to, but missing the notifications because they went into the updates or promotions tabs. There was also the fact that I wanted subscriptions to some things but didn’t see them because they were buried in the never-ending stream of irrelevant messages.

The problem was so bad, I had stopped recognizing it as a problem and just accepted it as the way that email works for me. It’s funny what we grow to tolerate just because that’s the way it is.

But near the end of 2022, I got to Zero Inbox on my work emails – which took a few days of sorting, deleting, and responding to things – and I recognized how much lighter I felt at the end of each day with only a couple of emails left to address. Looking for more lightness in my life, I figured I should apply the same to my personal inbox situation. I’m fine with my inbox as storage for conversations and connections, but I didn’t need to also keep thousands of ads and social notifications.

Since that realization, I’ve been unsubscribing from things like it’s my full-time job. I started by running through the first hundred or so emails under each tab and unsubscribing from everything I no longer wanted. Then, I deleted everything in my promotions, updates, and social tabs and got rid of the promotions and social tabs altogether, so things can’t hide there anymore. And now that I’ve got a handle on it, I evaluate each thing that comes in and decide whether I want to continue my subscription or not. The first few days of this were rough, but now I’m three weeks in, and there are only a handful of emails per day.

I’ve directed the subscriptions I want to keep to the Forums tab, which I review every morning and actually read now that I’m not overwhelmed all the time. The Updates tab is for receipts and reminders, which I delete when I don’t need them any longer. My main inbox is personal email.

There is no question this feels waaaay better than the “hide it under the bed” approach to my inbox I’ve relied on for years. I am not stressed when I open my email for one thing, but I’m also allowing time in the morning to scan the actual news bulletins from the NYT and Globe and Mail (subscriptions I pay for) so I feel more informed and in touch as I start my day. I’ve also realized that although there are many worthy Substack newsletters in the world, there are only a handful I am excited to get in my inbox. I can scan the rest from the Substack app once a week without all the clutter.

The inbox cleanse is also helping me identify automatic payments I no longer want to be subscribed to, and how susceptible I am to email advertisements from my favourite craft suppliers. As much as it pained me to unsubscribe from the Maiwa mailing list (not to mention all my fabric stores!), my bank balance is sure to be healthier without first-thing-in-the-morning impulse purchases prompted by email. Just last week I created a spreadsheet to track where my money goes on a monthly basis – an action completely related to the email taking-stock I have been doing.

Now that I’ve swept out the dirt from under the bed, is it possible to keep my room clean beyond the first month of the year? Only time will tell! I’ve never undertaken an inbox cleanse with this much rigor – but as we all know, old habits are hard to break. I think I’ll have to give this You’re Wrong About episode with Anne Helen Peterson on “How Email Took Over the World” a listen every six months to remind me how damaging the continued drain on attention can be – and I’ve set a recurring task in my calendar to take stock of my email situation every three months to see how things stand. Given the net-positive so far, I’d like to keep my inbox situation under control from here on out.

Post #3289: My Way-Seeking Mind

In my Zen tradition, some time after we take our vows (precepts), we are called on to deliver a “Way Seeking Mind Talk” to our community. This commitment had been on my agenda for some time, but between foot dragging and the pandemic, I only delivered the talk this past September 2022. Although it was well-received by the people who attended (and those who listened afterwards), I was reluctant to share it elsewhere. It is an intimate talk that reveals some painful details from my life – it took a lot of courage just to share it once! But the spiritual path is one of courage, and of facing up to one’s own life – something one of my teachers reminded me on my trip to the zendo this past weekend. I’ve removed my identifying details from the talk so it doesn’t show up in a google search of my name.


My name is….  My pronouns are….. 

I live in….. / territory of…..

I grew up in…… / territory of……..

I have been in this practice for eight years, taking Jukai in March of 2017 and adopting the Zen name of Tosho Jakuen which means Clear Advocate/Serene Garden.

This is my first time back in the zendo in about three years – though I have practiced online with many of you during the pandemic. I thank my teachers Shinmon Michael and Myoshin Kate for the prompt to prepare this talk, something I have been planning to do for many years. After such a lengthy absence from the zendo, returning to give a talk feels like the right way to re-enter physical community with you all. 

I’ve been sifting through my ideas for this talk like a handful of stones from the beach, trying to choose the one that stands out the most or could be polished up as the shiniest. It seems foolish to collect stones, but I do. Almost everytime I go to the beach across from my house on Gabriola Island, I come back with another stone which might sit on a window sill or find a place in the garden. I have a stone that sits beside my laptop on my desk, one that I chose earlier this year when I was having some difficulty with work. It’s got an almost satin surface, and yet it’s not so smooth as to be boring. When I close my hand around it, I am reminded of the ocean down below and the way in which it gives me solace when I am most in need.

Right as the pandemic was starting two and a half years ago, my neighbour Nancy died of heart complications resulting from a long bout of pneumonia. She wasn’t very old, only in her early sixties and her death troubled many of us in my neighbourhood even though she had only lived among us for a year or so. She died alone, for one thing. But for another, she was a person very much not at peace in her life and it seemed wrong that she was robbed of having a chance to grow old enough to find that peace. At least that’s how it seemed to me. 

At this time, I was hosting a weekly meditation circle at my house, which Nancy attended along with some others who lived close by. I decided that in the absence of any closer person to her, I would convene our neighbours in the park at the appropriate social distance. I found a zen prayer and collected beach stones. As part of the informal service, I asked everyone to write a word or thought on a rock and then share some words with the group before returning the rock to the basket. After everyone had dispersed, I took the basket of written-on rocks down to the beach, and I chanted the Makka Hanya Haramitta Shin Gyo (the Heart Sutra) on the edge of the sea before taking the rocks and throwing them one by one into the water, wishing our friend Nancy well in her travels on the other side. 

There are two things at work here as I write this talk, one is the solidity of stone – the reminder of earth and hardness – and the other is the fluidity of water as represented by the ocean which washes the stones away and makes them soft. These are both a kind of refuge which I will touch on in my Way Seeking Mind Talk today. Like a collection of stones in my palm, it’s hard to choose the right stories with which to begin. I have started by talking about the ocean which I live beside, and the death of my neighbour Nancy, but I could start just about anywhere. 

In Brad Warner’s recent book The Other Side of Nothing he calls the Way-Seeking Mind Talk “What Am I Doing Here”. I just happened to read that a few weeks ago, after I had agreed to come and give my talk in the Zendo. This rephrasing was helpful because it made the whole thing seem a bit more approachable, but it also made me laugh because the first time I went to Dokusan here in this Zendo, I asked Michael – What Am I Doing Here? It seemed to me very preposterous that I would find myself in a Zen meditation center sitting in a room the size of a supply closet with a monk-like person wearing black robes. I’m sure I am not the first person who has gone into the dokusan closet and asked this very question, and now many years later I am here to give some thought to that question in front of all of you. 

I am grateful that so many of you are here to listen to that answer, here in the Zendo and online. I am grateful that as the pandemic winds on, there is still a Zendo to attend. So thank-you to my teachers, and to my Sangha for that.

There are a lot of ways to answer “What am I doing here?” and so I’ll start with the simplest story I tell about how I ended up in this Zendo, which is that way back in 2013, I was doing my Master’s degree in Liberal Studies at SFU downtown. That program is different than other graduate programs – it’s aimed at older, working students – and the courses are all over the intellectual map. So in one semester I was studying the philosophy of scientific discovery and I did a term project on the emergence of neuro-plasticity as a concept. In the course of that research I read a lot of scientific studies about meditation that were interesting to me. In the next semester I chose a course lead by Heesoon Bai, an education professor, called “What is Enlightenment,” in which we explored the philosophical concept of awakening. As part of that course we were required to do an experiential project, and so curious from my prior research, I decided to meditate for five minutes a day and write about that experience as it unfolded. Pretty soon I was meditating for longer and longer periods of time, becoming more curious about the experience and the subtle changes to my thinking and awareness. During that time I met a couple of guiding meditation teachers, one at my workplace, one at the university – and at the end of the semester I went on a four-day self-guided meditation retreat. I wasn’t ready to go find a temple or anything at that point, but I was interested in finding people to meditate with – and I started having people in my neighbourhood over to meditate once a week. 

Around this same time I heard Norman Fischer giving an interview on a podcast and liked the sound of his voice, so when my friend Carmen recommended coming to this Zendo and I made that connection between the voice and the head teacher, I was more willing to come here than I might have been to another Buddhist Center.

But still another part of that story involves going to a Tibetan Buddhist Retreat on Denman Island when I had just started coming here, and deciding that the aesthetic of Zen practice and practice life worked better for me than other forms of Buddhist practice. 

So that’s one thread of how I ended up here. But it’s the simplest answer and perhaps not the truest. It makes the whole thing sound like a rational, academic venture – like through research I discovered meditation was good for me and so I became a Zen Buddhist. The end. It’s a good story for parties. Doesn’t make anyone too uncomfortable and so on. 

Another version of how I ended up here starts for me in a childhood in which I was much alienated from myself. Though my parents did their best, I did not come from a family of unconditional support. We are very duty-bound to each other, but I think it’s fair to say we find one another difficult a great deal of the time (and haven’t been afraid to tell each other so over the years). In our family mythology, I was the difficult child – fussy and angry in babyhood, and labelled too emotional by the time I was a toddler. During my formative years I was frequently in trouble because I talked too much, was too loud and exuberant, got frustrated easily, and often cried. Attempts to control my behaviour involved yelling, scare tactics, isolation and sometimes hitting. I was blamed often for larger family problems such as marital issues and my mother’s depression which I believed myself to be the cause of. As I have come to look back on my childhood, I now understand that I was a child who didn’t know how to regulate my emotions, being raised by people who were pretty deficient in this way also. 

But when I was younger, I didn’t understand that at all. Because there are a lot of mental health problems on both sides of my family – clinical depression, manic depression, schizophrenia, and suicide are leaves on the branches of our genealogical tree, as are alcoholism, violence, and other forms of acting out – I was lead to believe that my moods were hereditary and something that were not quite my fault (even as I was being punished for them). I think it was supposed to help me somehow, to know that other people in my family had similar difficulties, but instead of making me feel better, that knowledge left me feeling defective and trapped inside something I had no control over. 

As a teenager I attempted suicide and was medicated for depression which left me feeling ill and lethargic. SSRIs weren’t a thing at the time, and the drugs they gave teenagers were intended for adults and mostly heavily sedating. Trouble within my family intensified during these years and I spent much of my time with other alienated youth hanging around on the streets and at punk rock shows, beginning a period of fairly heavy drug and alcohol use in my life that lasted into my early twenties. I moved out of my parents home the day I graduated from high school and from then on have refused to take any medication for my mental health episodes which up until a few years ago involved severe bouts of depression, anxiety, and a form of obsessive compulsive disorder which manifests in recurrent negative thought patterns. Although I was raised to believe myself genetically doomed to suffer from disorders like this, I have come to understand them as something else – something learned in a disordered family system, something embedded through repetitive stories and projections, and something that I can ameliorate through diligent practice if not eradicate all together. 

I have no doubt this persistent alienation and my mental health context is a major factor that brought me to meditation and then to Zen practice. Though I didn’t perceive myself as in crisis when I showed up here eight years ago, my practice since then has illuminated for me the crisis that is just being alive, and my need to find a place of rest and refuge. This practice has become my daily refuge when I take my cushion for morning meditation and chant my robe chant. 

About a year after I started a daily meditation practice, the obsessive compulsive thoughts ceased completely. I almost didn’t notice when it happened because it’s hard to remember an absence, but one day I realized that my mind was so much clearer without those persistent thought cycles. My mental health is much better for it and I experience life quite differently now than I did when I was younger. 

But meditation isn’t the only factor in that, because yet another part of the story of how I got to be here is that fifteen years ago I met my husband Brian, and discovered the power of love in healing old wounds. Our anniversary of meeting is next weekend, as is our wedding anniversary since we met on the last Sunday of September fifteen years ago and married on the last Sunday of September twelve years ago. 

Brian and I entered each other’s lives at a time that was strained for both of us in different ways. Without going into too much detail here, I had been involved in radical environmental circles which resulted in a number of people close in my life arrested and in American prisons (or on the run, underground). As one of the key support people to those who were arrested, I spent much of my time taking phone calls from prison, and travelling to federal court dates in Eugene Oregon which is where the bulk of the hearings took place. My own life had been investigated by three law enforcement agencies as a result of my associations, but because I was never a law breaker I was mostly left alone to support the people I knew who were. It’s a weird chapter of my life, and one that few people could ever understand, but it resulted in the loss of many friendships that were very important to me. By the time I met Brian, my life and mental health had been unstable for a number of years, and I was recovering from a bout of serious depression in our first months of dating. 

It seems remarkable to me now that he accepted all of that about me, and not only that, came from a political family history that had some similar characteristics. From very early in our relationship he accepted me unconditionally, and not only that, loved me more than anyone has in this lifetime. He brought with him a daughter who became a part of my family, and from the two of them I learned so much about myself and my own family of origin struggles. When I was first with Brian and his daughter Mica, I would feel jealous about their relationship – not in the sense of being displaced in our partnership – but because it modeled for me what a healthy parent-child relationship might look like. Which highlighted that I hadn’t exactly had that growing up. Helping to raise a child and then teenager gave me an entryway to reflect on how I was treated and spoken to during my difficult years, and whether or not I would do the same to a child in my own care (turns out – no, I can’t imagine speaking to my daughter the way I was spoken to). 

By experiencing and witnessing love in this way, the alienation I had always felt from myself and from the world in which I lived, diminished substantially, and through my partnership I have become a much more open person, truthful to my emotional reality instead of armoured in the shell of “toughness” I had cultivated from my teenage years onwards. This opening in myself allowed me to acknowledge my desire for greater connection and spiritual understanding of the world, something I had rejected since my teenage years. It was this seeking that lead me to my university program, and directly into a course about the nature of Enlightenment. As much as I can tell a story about neuroplasticity and meditation, the truth is, I was curious long before that. And when I got curious enough, I had a person in my life who encouraged me, who took my longing for spiritual communion seriously, and who has been with me in this journey all along. I might have made it here some other way, but the support and love of my partner has been instrumental in learning to give and receive love in the broadest sense of that concept. And to practice in vulnerability and unselfconsiously. 

But I’m not done yet, because another version of how I got here is about my never-ending desire to be a part of community, something bigger than me that holds out the possibility of change. Because I was dominated and alienated as a child, I grew up with a keen sense of injustice at play in the world. That drove me into activism from my early teen years, first engaging to save the Carmanah Valley old growth from logging in high school, followed up by anti-racist organising, housing actions such as WoodSquat, supporting the early needle exchanges in the DTES before they were legal, and into some more radical environmental circles in my mid-to-late twenties. It’s why I became a workplace advocate and the union leader I am today. 

I am an organizer of people and I strive to work with others in common on projects – my closest relationships and friendships have always been based on shared work. And I fantasize often about living and working in a more collective way. As part of that drive my partner and I run a residency out of our home for songwriters and musicians, as well as hosting regular house concerts (we just had one last night). 

Where I used to focus my drive for community around protest to make change, I now work towards building resilience and connection in all the work that I do. Which isn’t to say I discount playing an oppositional role in order to open up dialogue or space, but that I have found to live in continual resistance is straining. This was a significant identity shift in my life and one that came about after some hard experience that demonstrated how difficult it is to sustain love inside of inflexibility, whether that is systemic or personal.

My drive for common cause is still strong however, and that includes being in spiritual community, a place where we come together in acceptance of the present moment, and support each other in making the journey from one part of our lives to the next. A place where we co-create refuge in the zendo and on retreat, and in our minds when we think of one another practicing in another place like our teachers are this month. A big part of how I got here, is that eight years ago, I walked into a welcoming space with others who take seriously the ethics of care for each other and the planet – and while it might seem odd to build community with people who are mostly silent in each other’s presence, I have felt that by paring back the social expectations, I have known some people in the community as well or better than many people in my life. 

******************************

I started out by talking about stones from the beach and the ocean but I’d like to finish today by taking you to a different place from my life which served as a refuge when I was young. Besides books, which were my first refuge, I was lucky enough to grow up on the edge of a forty-acre wood, which belonged to an old man named Mr Baerer who let the community use it as a park. In that forest there was a creek, an old rubbish pile from logging days, and a small cave framed by an oak tree that was big enough for two children to sit in. There were trails that lead to other parts of the neighbourhood, and these took us to places away from adults for hours at a time. My friend Miranda’s older sister Tanis would make up stories and games for us to play, and drew magical creatures on the walls of their pony paddock. My brother’s best friend Tim spent hours learning to walk without making a sound so he could go right up to a deer in the forest without it running away. Though the original trees had been cut, the mature second-growth cedars and Douglas Firs towered over us, giving way every once and awhile to a grove of Arbutus trees up on the dry rock outcrops. I have walked those trails with my friends and alone through all the years of my life, it has recently been protected as a park. As I have been working on this talk over the last week, I keep coming back to a spot in that forest where the creek opens up from the foliage and a small log bridge crosses over it. There is a trail to this spot, but when I was a child it looked more like a deer trail than anything and so only the children followed it off the old logging road. I think the reason I’ve been returning to this spot in my mind is because it was a profound place of refuge and exploration for me, a place owned by no one and shared by all, and where the trees offered a watchful presence to life unfolding all around. 

I think about my practice these days much like that, like the cool forest floor on a hot day, like the creek cutting through the snow, like the nettles that only sting for a moment before they are made into tea. My practice is also like the ocean rising and receding over the stones that I pick up from the beach whenever I go there to walk. It is one of the ways that I continue to make peace with my life history. It is my refuge, and my path. 

I thank you again for being present to witness my way-seeking mind talk. I thank my teachers for their dedication to our practice, and everyone who helps to continue this tradition so that others may also discover their own way to it.

Post #3288: Cycles of creativity

I tend to flow between cycles of obsession when it comes to textile work. My sewing machine might sit untended for months with a project cut out beside it, my looms might be warped and left unwoven for as much as a year – but when the right moment comes, I return to my tools with a strong focus that can carry me through many projects, one after the other.

This would be a problem if I had to produce textile work for a living. I am so inconsistent with my output, and deadlines aren’t something I rise to when my pay isn’t assured. But I’m fortunate to be paid for something other than my studio work, which leaves me free to pursue what I want, when I want. This allows me to work with the physical implications of making (weaving, sewing and other textile work are hard on the body in various ways – and repetitive strain injuries are an issue for many professional makers and artists), as well as following my own (mysterious) internal cycles which flow between learning new skills and turning out work that I already have the technics to pull off. It also allows me to experiment and pursue things I am actively bad at (like figurative painting on fabric) without feeling like I’ve “wasted” my time.

Case in point is the photo at the head of this story – a warp that I started putting on in springtime 2022 and only fixed and started weaving last week. Between April and November I did not send a single shot through either of my looms, for reasons I cannot explain. The whole thing just suddenly seemed too tedious, and I turned my attention to other things like fabric collage and textile painting with natural dyes as well as taking long breaks from the studio over the summer when I was working away from home and picking away at a single knitting project.

But when I am on, I am really on. Since returning to the loom(s) in November, I have finished the tea towel warp that sat for several months (4 more towels), a huck lace sampler and table runner (from the Jane Stafford Weaving School courses), 2 huck lace scarves, 5 rustic tea towels (which I am hemming the last one of today), and a shawl which needs fringes completed before I can wet finish. I have also woven half of the above shawl, and have pulled out a tea towel kit from my stash that I’m going to put on my small loom over the next few days.

Of course, when I’m weaving at this volume (in addition to my 40-hour work week), I can’t get a lot else done. There is some television knitting (socks!), but writing, dyeing, and other creative activities take a bit of a back seat when I’m weaving obsessed. I do have a goal of learning some new fiddle tunes this year, so I am making 15-20 minutes a day of space for that at least.

I sometimes wish I was a bit more measured in my approach – wondering if my skills would develop more steadily if I stuck to one thing or didn’t take long breaks to pursue other interests – but this seems to be hardwired into my constitution. Lots of interests, but obsessive focus on one or two at a time. Over the long arc, I tend to return to things at least, and each time I do I note that subconscious has kept my skills up (and sometimes even improved them) in the meantime.

So, weaving it is right now! At least for the next few weeks.

Post #3287: The end of ’22 and making do

I have barely written a thing all fall. Not here, not in the newsletter (save for one issue), and not in my personal notebooks either. It’s been a wordless time for me, and one that I’m eager to break with given my need (in general) to say a lot of things.

The truth is, you can tell when things aren’t going well in my head by the lack of words here and elsewhere. Sometimes it’s because I’m depressed, other times it’s just the very bad brain fog that makes sentences feel too exhausting (or impossible) to form on the page. Lately it’s been a bit of both. Sickness, seasonal holidays, and mid-life health stuff have in no way helped matters either. I’m just very tired at the moment and my creative voice has gone flat as a result.

I was angry at myself about this the other day. Not long ago I was feeling very fit and creatively capable but somewhere between work stress and Covid, 2022 derailed me. The anger part was about how I didn’t immediately recuperate and bounce back to being “me” again, how I’ve been lazy and undisciplined for months, puttering in the textile studio instead of doing my “real” work (like the book I was working on through 2021 and into early 2022). Way to be unkind to myself, I know. And also not effective in turning things around.

After churning the self-hating hamster wheel for a few days something from deep in my meditation practice surfaced: that really, what I’m struggling with is impermanence. Impermanence of the body as it responds to and recovers from sickness, all while doing its perimenopausal dance. The flux and flow of external circumstances like work, which has impacted my mental state and steadiness. Not to mention the rhythm of other lives around mine, like my aging parents who have needed a lot more attention in the last year. This realization was helpful because it’s helping me understand that being angry with myself about what I’m not doing is really just being angry about the unchangeable fact of impermanence. That even though you get moments where you feel all sorted out in life, they are fleeting and soon replaced with the confusion one must wade through to get to the other shore, the next moment of clarity and purpose.

This is where I find myself at the end of 2022: wading in the confusion. At most I can say that the big stressors of the last year (a toxic job, renovating a house and moving my parents into it, and two pretty bad illnesses) have come to an end, but I am not sure I have the energy to advance any big plans in 2023 just yet (just looking at my list of goals last year exhausts me).

So instead of an impossible list, I am focusing myself on the theme of “Making Do” for 2023.

To “make do” has two meanings, both of which I can apply to my life at the moment. First, it means to use what one has on hand, and second, to persevere through less than ideal circumstances.

Using what I have on hand is a tangible goal in my textile studio, kitchen, and living space – that instead of buying new (or even secondhand) materials I will create using my vast stash of yarn, cloth, and other bits and pieces. In the kitchen it means eating whole foods from the pantry more frequently and purchasing less readymade food overall. In the household it means forgoing waste and want more generally.

The second meaning – perseverance – is more abstract but in general represents the slight grimness of attitude I need to push through the hard moments, not to mention the overall tension in our culture these days.

This isn’t the most aspirational phrase, but it fits where I am at right now, which is struggling to close out the holiday and ready to get down to some hard (but good) work in the new year. It fits with these inflationary times and my need to get a reign on spending. It works with my overall ethos of living my best possible life in impossible times. Making do reaches back into the ruggedness of my ancestors who lived long lives with few possessions at hand to make them easier.

This is the energy I will carry with me into 2023 – and I’m sure that inside all of it I will find moments of lightness and ease, confusion, determination, and struggle – for the path of our lives is winding and not at all predictable.

Love and light to you on this evening at the end of the year. For those of you in my life, I look forward to much gathering as we come together in mutual aid and support in these months to come.

Post #3286: Learning to Paint

I haven’t been writing much in the last month because I have been totally absorbed in a course I am taking through Maiwa which teaches how to turn natural (plant and insect-based) dye matter into paint. The amount of course work per week has taken up much of my free time, and I am totally immersed in colour and techniques at the moment. I have also come up against my total inability to make any kind of representational art (but more on that in a minute).

Painting fabric with natural dyes requires a number of manipulations, both to the dyestuff and to the fabric itself. Cellulose fabrics such as cotton and linen must be mordanted before dyeing, in a process where both alum and a tannin are infused into the cloth. This creates a chemical bond between the dye matter and the mordant (it’s also why you can’t just use any old plant to dye fabric, only some plants make the chemical reaction required).

When turning towards painting and printing with natural dyes, there are several techniques we are learning to deploy: applying mordant to only select areas of the cloth and then dyeing, mordanting the whole cloth and then painting with a thickened dye, and applying a mordanted/thickened dye paste to select areas of the cloth. Each of these produces a different effect, as does the application of iron or soda ash to the dyes to shift their colour. When the fabric is finished and cleaned (through steaming and rinsing), it is not “painted on” but dyed, and retains the full flexibility of cloth which makes it highly usable in sewn applications.

Mixing and making colour samples is a place of true joy for me. Even more than the natural dyeing learning I undertook last summer, this has become a bit obsessive since the course started in mid-September. However, once I have mixed the paints, what to do with them becomes a bit of a question for me since I am not at all capable of creating representational painting – or drawing (to make a stencil) for that matter. My work is as though a five year old has set upon a box of paints – lots of squiggles and rough strokes, ending in spatter painting to get the damned thing done. I’m not too worried about it at the moment, the purpose of the learning is to get the colour-creation techniques down, not to create fine art. But I would like to learn more about the painting side of things as a way of advancing my surface design capacity for bag and garment-making in particular.

Even so, I’ve learned quite a lot by just messing about thus far including:

  • the quality of the brush really does make a difference (I will never use craft store brushes again)
  • making a palette of finished/dried colours at the outset is essential since the colours change significantly in the finishing process
  • when stenciling, less paint is better
  • blocks for printing can be made out of anything that holds paint
  • masking tape helps make straight lines – and a lot of patterns can be made with straight lines

I have also been watching the occasional painting tutorial online and find those helpful in the sense of understanding how a set of lines makes a representational image. I don’t have a mind that breaks objects into shapes in order to understand the construction of image – so it helps to see those who do at work. I am very taken with Chinese ink painting, and I feel like these materials lend themselves to that type of brush stroke and limited palette. I haven’t actually tried to replicate however, so at this point I’m just guessing.

As a younger person I really confined myself to things I knew I could do, so I wouldn’t look foolish or feel “stupid” in the process…. but eventually I learned that without making a mess, there really is no progress. Over the last couple of decades I have gotten a lot better at trying things I am no good at or don’t have experience with and that has lead me to sewing, knitting, weaving, and now here to dyeing and dye-painting on cloth. Who knows if I will take it further or turn it into something else – but it’s been fun so far and I’m not at all afraid to show my work even though it’s pretty rudimentary at this point!

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