Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Reading Derrick Jensen, Painting Salmon

My friend Angela Ford gave me a copy of Derrick Jensen's A Language Older Than Words, just in time for me to be reading it during the days I was painting Salmon Sonnet (acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20"). This was a profound confluence.

Jensen's book is possibly the definitive analysis of our culture's incompatibility with life. His legions of facts are so accurately grim that at several points I thought, the hell with helping the earth heal, let's get on with palliative care. It isn't the first time I've wondered if, with greatest integrity, our task might be simply to witness & mourn.

At the same time, Jensen's candid interactions with coyotes, trees, bees, & other relatives point our only way to health: communication with all those beings we've been wrongly told are unconscious. His Native friend Jeanette Armstrong assures him that the critical difference between Native & non-Native cultures is simply that for Natives, talking with land is not metaphorical, but fundamental, everyday reality.

Affirming non-human consciousness & celebrating inter-species communication is where I've come through my 38 year commitment to creating art for ecological healing. This painting is one little piece. 

 On the back of the canvas is written, "'the salmon have always been very spiritual to us. Now we don't know if they'll survive, & if they do, if they'll be edible." These are the words of a Northwest Coast elder, whose name I've lost. Around the back stretcher bars is written, "the salmon prays for us, that we be fed with their generosity, so that we are generous, so that we recognize that the great conifers along their rivers are our parents & grandparents. O."
The 2 stones at the bottom left are a dedication of the painting for the good of all our relations. The day I finished this painting, an ex-boyfriend of my daughter caught a salmon & gave half of it to me. This is so unusual, I can't count it a coincidence, particularly as her flesh fills me with radiance. The poem that grids the water reads:
she welcomes any danger as delight—
a mystery, a pleasure in her strength
that carries through exhilarating length—
a secret journey cold & fierce & bright.
the salmon hatches in a limpid stream,
remembers every smell en route to sea.
she plumbs the starry ocean deep & free.
the archetype of following a dream,
she overcomes all obstacles. she swims
her river's bends & rapids to the place
where she began. she brings the ocean night
to teach the inland day. the needled limbs
of conifers grow strong in her embrace.
she feeds the people her abundant light.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

photo courtesy of G.M.Sterne

Presenting a Flag to Medea Benjamin

Last Tuesday Medea Benjamin came to Copperfield's, our local independent bookstore, to present her new book, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. A few years ago I painted a series of flags to reclaim this symbol by linking it to things I love about America: mountains, waters, trees, animals, & my kind of heroes. One of the flags, Americans Helping the Middle East, honored 13 people who've done brave & compassionate work there. Medea Benjamin is one of those named in its stripes.

Just I week before she came to speak, I found a forgotten canvas giclee print while looking for something else. The perfect timing pushed me to arrange to present it to her, in appreciation for all she does. [The original is on display at Sebastopol Gallery.]

I don't often meet a real hero, but there she stood, short in stature & huge in heart & voice. With eloquence, humor, unflinching truth, & well-chosen slides, she told us horrific facts about drones, the role of our President & the CIA in their use, & implications for the future. The thousands of lives lost in the Middle East may be followed by turning the killer drones against domestic dissenters. The willingness to kill American citizens without due process, as happened in Yemen, is a monstrous violation of constitutional rights. Killing civilians & even "enemies" in other sovereign nations is an affront to international law & an outrage to simple decency.

The group Medea co-founded, CodePink, is one of several working to stop the killing, partly by making the human costs real, the victims known. I recommend you read her book & find your own small way to help. Over 50 countries now have drones. The potential for surveillance & killer drones to be used to stop indigenous resistors to corporate expansion give me nightmares. 

May peace prevail.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Holding Fukushima

This graphite drawing (16.5 x 16.5") shows Bear Woman & Buddha holding the crippled reactors at Fukushima in their hands of love & power.

I painted this image as a prayer that the horrendously dangerous conditions there do not progress to global catastrophe, that somehow disaster be averted.

There is a critical need for an international team of brave & brilliant scientists, engineers, & others to work together to solve this unprecedented problem—without delay, without political posturing. Please call on your government representatives to act.

Meanwhile, please visualize the form of spirit that is powerful in your life to hold Fukushima, to keep all beings safe.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Bear Dance, watercolor, 12 x 12"


When I sketched this bear, I asked her what she wanted to hear. She said, "James Peshlakai." So I put on his wonderful cd, Songs of the Navajo. Every time I worked on this bear painting, I listened to it, enjoying a power & harmony.


Yesterday I shared this on James Peshlakai's Facebook page, & he posted some very beautiful comments on the role of the bear in his own life & in the spiritual life of the Navajo people."They teach us how to live w/them here w/in the 4 mtns, they us how to keep our children healthty & well fed, they teach us how to guide our children on the course of the Beauty Way of Life. It's in our Songs."


Sometimes happiness simply arises while paying attention to the subtle scents & drifts of nature, the way they infuse creative process, the way they support every moment of our lives. One moment I was working on this painting, listening to Navajo songs, I felt Bear whispering:


I am an animal spirit. I bring the power of the sky to the land through my dreaming. I heal the land & I heal you. I bring the pleasure of my strong body as a healing to the land & to you. You need me & I give to you freely.


James Peshlakai lives in the mountains with the bear people. I live in a place once populated by bears. They are missing now, driven away by civilized excess. Yet the trees have grown up & simple painters can hear their spirits, still moving over the land. As we restore harmony, their descendants may one day return.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

An Altered Book on the Japan Tsunami

When a friend suggested I make an altered book about the Tohoku tsunami, I wondered whether I was called.... Then everything started coming. 

I went to the local thrift store & found the perfect book to alter: Stepping Stones to Japanese Floral Art by Rachel E. Carr. The binding of this 1960 edition of her 1955 book resembles a hand-made book. It beautifully illustrates one of the most graceful & delicate aspects of Japanese culture, dramatically contrasting with the tragic disaster of the tsunami.

Sebastopol Gallery is having its first concert: Hale Thatcher, Pete Tomack & Sahar Pinkham playing a lovely benefit for Japanese tsunami relief. In looking for an image for their publicity, I found this charcoal drawing of out-of-control water, which I used on the cover & title pages.

Trout Black, who is reading his moving poem, "This Didn't Happen Over There," at the concert, not only gave me permission to repeat it in the book, but also sent this one:

After the Tsunami

The cherry trees
near the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant
are blossoming now.

No one comes 
to see them.

They are lonely.

What else is there to say? But in altering the book, I had to go on to say a lot. I painted images of the tsunami rearing up over towns. I made charts of nuclear waste, Japanese reactor sites, threatened wildlife. I wrote accounts of kindnesses, a friend's first-hand experience of the tsunami as it traveled to Moro Bay, the Dineh legend of ancient warnings to leave uranium in the ground, the work of Professor Katsuhiko Ishibashi, the loss of 110,000 Laysan Albatross chicks. I made windows of pressed flowers, weaving, netting.  I wrote my own poem:

undersea great mountains crack
out of groaning rocks
death pours wide circles

I also interspersed chants to Kanzeon & Amida Buddha, & images of Buddhas & Bodhisattvas. I ended with an origami crane, these words, & a linocut:

All over the world
   people pray 
        for the Japanese
& for themselves
          each other

& for the radioactive waters
             & the fish in the sea

All over the world
       we pray with
       the fish in
              the sea....

Friday, February 11, 2011

American Raven: Ideology, Painting & Prayer

One summer a small branch was blown off my neighbor's pine tree, landing on my patio complete with a lovely set of cones. In the process of sketching it, I added a raven with an empty spirit eye, clinging to the branch. I called the sketch "Pine Branch Warning Raven."

This uncritical allowing elements, including titles, to arise as they wish is a crucial part of creative process: it's an open invitation to spirit to speak through us as artists, to give messages to others, to the world.

I liked the sketch, scratching my head about what Pine Branch might be warning Raven about. I decided to take it further, make a big acrylic painting from it. I started by streaking a big dark area on a 40 x 30" canvas. After I had painted the spirit Raven & the pine branch to my satisfaction, another inexplicable element answered my open invitation. I painting stars & stripes on the gray area, creating a subtle & somewhat ragged American flag hanging upside down behind Raven & his branch.

Now the idea of warning became meaningful. I called the painting American Raven, & sat back to savor the complexity of its message.

It's a big painting, & knows a lot more than its artist. But I'll foolishly offer some ideas about it.

Raven is my friend, guardian & guide. Raven is a healer & trickster, who has provided for the people from ancient times. With due respect to Eagle, America would be well-advised to heed Raven's counsel.

The pine is a rather ordinary tree, not grand like oaks or redwoods. One species or another of pine probably grows in every American state. Ordinary or not, there is mystery about pines. When I was a child, my friends & I always hurried past the pine grove, fearful of the sound the wind made blowing through them.

Like Raven, Pine has a character of healing, magic, & law. Is there a pine anywhere in American not aware of the damage suffered by every forest we've exploited, degraded or destroyed?

Yes, I believe trees are conscious & in communication with each other. I believe ravens are intelligent & aware of earth changes. And I wish with all my heart that our country were run by leaders who believe these things, who bring reverence for nonhuman beings wiser than ourselves to their process of leadership.

Among the complex things contained in this painting is the simple recognition of Raven & Pine as knowers & guardians of this land, with its political boundaries & heartbreaking errors, its loving & hopeful people, its countless living creatures, its waters, stones & clouds.

I pray we become a country aware of their guardianship, grateful for their knowledge, & willing to learn.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Watercolors for a Palestinian peace activist

Many years ago I sought Middle East speakers for the Education Committee of the Sonoma County Peace & Justice Center. Talking with an Iraqi professional, I was shocked to learn that my "politically correct" belief in the "two state solution" to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was not shared by Arabs. That afternoon I sat in meditation, trying again & again to picture peace between the two states. I could not. Each effort ended in a blow-up.
Then I tried picturing peace via his desired alternative: one state/equal rights. It was easy, smooth, radiant. So I painted an imaginary flag of such a country, using colors from the Israeli & Palestinian flags, symbols of their 3 religions, land & water.
A second painting showed diverse Palestinians & Israelis parading together behind that imaginary flag of a reunited, peaceful country. This painting was immediately loved by a wonderful Palestinian woman, Therese Mughannam-Walrath. She is one of the speakers I had met, just beginning at that time to tell any group who would listen about her family's experiences of oppression & exile, seeking to create the understanding from which peace can grow.
Her sisters bought this painting, which she calls Imagine, for her birthday. At first the painting simply hung where she sat everyday to eat, renewing her courage to go out into the world & tell her story. One day she took it with her. "They got what I had to say like that!" she told me, snapping her fingers. She began taking it to all her talks. She used it for her business card. She made notecards for Friends of Sabeel, a non-profit, Christian ecumenical organization seeking justice & peace in the Holy Land through non-violence & education. I am honored to contribute this image to her work & the work of this group.

This year saw new honors. First, Therese was awarded Peacemaker of the Year by the Peace & Justice Center. Besides recognizing her many years of courageous & effective work, this award also marks significant change in American perception of Palestinian people. When she began, a Palestinian receiving such an award was unthinkable. PEP (Progressive Except for Palestine) was pervasive. I'm deeply grateful for this change, a real step toward peace, as well as joyous to celebrate Therese as an invaluable activist.

Next, I received an e-mail from her son shortly before Thanksgiving, asking me to paint a childhood memory of Therese's aunt. Martha remembers serving lemonade to her father & his Jewish friend, who often played backgammon under the olive tree behind their house. Therese cherishes this memory for its antidote to the poisonous falsehood that Arabs & Jews "never got along." I was so happy to help her sons & husband surprise her with this painting for Christmas!

Today I met with Therese & Ari Siletz, an Iranian writer who is about to go to Israel. An Iranian Jewish Peace Committee is sending him on a cultural mission, looking for a helpful Iranian perspective on the tensions & opportunities there. He will be taking a copy of The Backgammon Game, & our blessings.