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!

Post #3285: Return

I am fully back in my schedule after one year of being out of it, and at least partly working away from home. No matter anything else, it feels good to be in this routine again – the early morning work start and mid-afternoon finish, the being at home to get things done in and around the work schedule. I have spent the last two days utterly inside my own life for the first time in what feels like months. Early morning meditation, lifting weights, household chores, and ocean swims (followed by the sauna) surround my working day and I am fully returned to September energy after the heat wave of last week well and truly broke.

I still need to get down to writing again, but at the very least I am breathing, along with the wind that has been sweeping our island for the last couple of days. I am determined, even inside the windstorm to get into the ocean every day (testing to see how late in the season I can go) – and yesterday I went down to the beach and wobbled my way into the crashing waves. I had no intention of swimming in such rough water but I went in up to my chest and bobbed around a bit, soaking in the frenzy of the swells and pulls. Our beach is surrounded by a reef, which cut the waves somewhat, but walls of water still came down from above me as I stood in the energy of it all (the calmer water in the photo above is from last week).

An update from the summer: my residency project/bid on the bigger property came to naught in early August, though I still feel very much like it’s what I want to be doing with my life going forward. I don’t know what to do with that feeling other than wait it out and see what happens next.

But for this fall I am on a path of return to a quieter place, to the meditation cushion, and from a long year away from the routine that works best for me. I am canning, making herbal concoctions, and cleaning the house. I am planning fall meals and house concerts. I am home again, in the place where I co-create love and security with my partner and community. I feel very lucky that I could go out and try some different things on the work front, but now I am tired from that effort and look forward to cooler days spent in nourishment of the self.

Post #3284: Getting through August

I feel stupid whenever I tell people that from mid-to-late August is my worst time of year. Summer is supposed to be happy time and all that. But for whatever reason in the seasonal cycle August brings on depression and anxiety. I get stomachaches and arthritis – physical manifestations of the mental health spiral – and I spend much of the last two weeks after the full moon in a fog of exhaustion. I do not know why this is so, but it has been this way for most of my life and no matter what I do (holidays, time off, self-care) it comes on just the same. I am hostage to this part of my cycle and I do not like it one bit.

Earlier this week I turned to my Tarot deck in search of three reminders three reminders to help carry me through the next two weeks. The cards I pulled are above and in short serve as an excellent narrative to dig into over the next couple of weeks. In essence – I have everything I need to get through this time (The World) and I carry an abundance of inner strength, though I should beware of carrying unnecessary burdens (10 of Wands). Following my own intuitive path instead of bowing down to hierarchies and traditions is the way through right now, which includes freeing myself of creative constraints (reversed Hierophant).

When I was younger, I believed (at least partly) in magic and the power of tarot as a method of divination. Though having long ago abandoned both those beliefs and the tarot cards I learned to read in my teens, I have started using tarot again in the past year as a tool for intuitive work and self-care. Given the impenetrability of my internal emotional space at times, not to mention my rigidity of self-imposed rules, I find the tarot helpful in illuminating my subconscious motives and desires as I feel my way through the self in all its drives and depressions.

One thing I have learned in my low periods is to listen to my body and take it easy, rather than trying to force myself to maintain the same levels of energy. Instead of pushing to adhere to my regular schedule of creative and work output, August has become a time where I take my foot off the gas, often breaking from my workout schedule and allowing myself to play a bit more in the studio. I make time to check-in with myself around what might be missing, or what schedules and routines I can amend in the fall to better align with other shifts in my life. This year, these last weeks of August coincide with the transition back to my old job (the one I took leave from a year ago), as well as a trip to a remote location in the Broughton Archipelago where I plan to do some writing and work on a talk I’ll give at my Zendo in mid-September. I look forward to some days spent reading and writing before coming home to my old work team.

An arena in which I’m making some space this fall is in my creative practice. I’ve signed up for an online workshop via Maiwa titled Printing and Painting with Natural Dyes and am looking forward to returning to some textile experimentation since I’ve spent almost no time in the studio since May. I also want to fit in a bit of collage and art journaling to complement some writing I am doing related to creative practice and spirituality. And finally, I plan to return to my newsletter as a way of turning out regular written content. Now that I’m not travelling half the week for work, and I’m out of the super-consuming managerial position I took on last fall – I plan to reorient my life to my creative and spiritual dimensions as much as possible.

By using self-care tools and looking ahead to the next season, I am getting through this month where everything just feels a bit harder than normal. Somewhere on Instagram last week I saw a meme that said “Nothing in nature blooms all year. Be patient with yourself.” I’m working with that in the knowledge that September will soon be here and I’ll be ready for the change in my mental health season when it comes.

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