August 18, 2005

A Prayer for Artists is a Breath of Fresh Air

Filed under: Art and About the Everyday — admin @ 10:13 pm

The group I sing in, Chorus Cappella, was the guest choir at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church one Sunday last month. During the course of the service, we came to the Prayers of the People. That day, Saint Paul’s took their prayer from “Glimpses of Glory” by David Adam, and invoked from the “God of grace and goodness” some very relevant requests.

First, the prayer said, “We ask you to bless all who are overworked, stressed and overanxious; we remember especially those who have no time for their homes or for leisure. We pray for the work weary, the exhausted and the worn out. We remember children who rarely see their parents and who lack affection. We pray for all who are restless and cannot enjoy where they are.”

Then followed the most powerful, poignant and eye-opening portion of the prayer for me; “We give thanks for our homes, for places of peace and quiet, for places of leisure and recreation. We pray for all who help us relax: for musicians, artists, broadcasters and sportsmen and sportswomen. We pray for our friends and our loved ones.”

Wow! The idea of praying for the general well being of musicians and artists because of the vital, life-sustaining service they provide to humankind set bells off in my head. It’s so obvious to pray for the hungry, the sick, our armed forces in Iraq. These prayers are usual, and by no means unnecessary. But to lift artists and musicians into the realm of those who deserve a collective positive vibe is rather extraordinary. Broadcasters and sportsmen and women deserve no less, but the inclusion of musicians and artists struck me because it is their talents I call upon when I need to relax.

I admit, when I escape to the theater, or pop on my favorite CD, or search for a DVD at the rental store, I selfishly await the diversion from everyday life, the thrill of the experience, but I don’t stop to say a private word of thanks to those who dedicate their lives to providing me fantasy.

Although I consciously enjoy a beautifully decorated home, or a storefront filled with art as I walk by or a gorgeously landscaped garden, I don’t think about the welfare of the person who provided my eye candy.

I need to keep visual and performing artists in my thoughts and prayers if I am to continue to espouse the mandatory place the arts must have in all our lives in order to make us complete and whole human beings. If they don’t thrive, neither do the rest of us.

Coincidentally, last summer when Chorus Cappella sang at Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church, a parishioner came up to me after the service to thank the choir for sharing our music in their Sunday worship. In an impromptu lecture, he told me that the Hebrew language has one word that means wind, spirit, and breath. It was a very hot morning and he felt that our singing had the same calming, comforting effect on him that air conditioning would have. It has taken me a year to figure out what he meant, but thanks to the prayer at Saint Paul’s, I finally get it. It was a huge compliment that we took his mind off the heat for an hour that day. We truly made a spiritual connection with him with a fringe benefit of providing psychological coolant. Now I need to be mindful of all the gifts I receive on a daily basis from the musical and artistic spirits who touch my life.

August 16, 2005

Artsy Twins

Filed under: Art and About the Everyday — admin @ 9:45 pm

When I was a child, I was fascinated by twins. Not having a twin myself, I romanticized the relationship between two people who once shared the same womb. I wondered about everything from what it was like to share a birthday to whether extra-sensory perception was a legitimate means of communication.

As I got older, I learned about the concept of twins in time — people who were born at the exact same moment you were. I wondered if my twins in time around the globe have anything in common with me other than the fact that we age at the same second every April 20.

Now, thanks to the Google search engine, I have discovered that I have an artsy twin with whom I share a name. Christina Engelbrecht came to my attention when I Googled myself one day and she popped up. I was surprised. Christina Engelbrecht is not the most common name and egocentrically, I thought Google would send me up first, since I’ve been published in a newspaper for seven years straight.

But Christina came up before me because she was a guest cartoonist for in 2004. My artsy twin is a visual artist! I should have known, since I can’t draw worth anything. She got the visual and I got the verbal in the family. We’re two sides of the same coin, a complete whole when put together. We complement one another, as twins should. Cool!

I started to go through my family and found that when my Google search consisted of a loved one’s name with the word “artist,” the world is full of artsy twins. My husband, for instance, has an artsy twin who is referred to as a “top New York interior designer” in a 2003 article from Art Business News. (By the way, my husband claims that in this exercise, he himself is indeed the artsy twin.) I’m thinking I should ask the New York artsy twin if he would come and do my house pro bono, being that we’re family and all.

My brother, a physician by trade, is part of artsy triplets. Both his “brothers” play in rock bands. One triplet plays guitar in Morgan Street, and the other plays guitar and vocals in a band called Murgatroid, which is called the “pioneers of Bacchanalian Rock” on the MySpace Music Web site. My brother has fantasized about being in a rock band for years. It’s nice to see two of three triplets out there living the dream.

My mother-in-law is also an artsy triplet. One of the set does graphic design and photography in Newcastle. The other is an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska who spoke on an October panel for the Arts Education Partnership to discuss “Effective Professional Development in Arts Education.” Think of the lively intellectual discussions at holiday gatherings between these three “sisters.”

One of my sisters-in-law is a singer so I could argue that she is the artsy twin in her pairing. But her namesake is the Director of National Media Relations for Sony BMG Music in Canada. If she and my singing sister-in-law got together, there could be a mutually beneficial record deal in the future.

My mother, who claims she is not an artist but only “follows patterns” while creating stunning quilts, dresses and other textile creations, is artsy twins with a painter in France whose paintings sell for thousands of dollars. My stepfather’s artsy twin makes jewelry, which is amusing because my stepfather loves to buy jewelry.

My lawyerly brother-in-law has an artsy twin whom does a radio show in Southern California about “The Ageless Wisdom,” a non-religious approach to spirituality, the nature of the Soul, and the development of consciousness. He could have some intense conversations with my engineering sister-in-law’s artsy twin, whose statement on Mytho-Poetic Expressionism reads, “Through my paintings I seek audience with intelligent people, people able to enjoy paradox, complications, ambiguities, the divine messiness of Life. Challenging, creative people, I invite them into reverie, an embrace of Soul.” These two sets of twins could have one interesting dinner party.

My father-in-law, who actually is a fraternal twin, has an artsy twin who writes arts criticism for “Source,” a magazine for contemporary photography in Britain and Ireland. Based on his art exhibit reviews, he seems to believe in making quality art accessible to all people, rather than being elitist about it. That’s someone I can relate to as an artsy uncle-in-law.

Of the friends and family I have Googled, so far only my brother’s wife has an elusive artsy twin. But she must be out there, or else my sister-in-law embodies all the arts in one persona. It’s been a flight of imagination for me, daydreaming about what familiar names are doing in an alternate reality. A little creative outlet on a hot August afternoon.

July 28, 2005

Music as a Metaphor for Life

Filed under: Art and About Music — admin @ 3:02 pm

A funny thing happened on the way to Christmas last year. I became a children’s choir director. My son’s choir director left rather suddenly in November and at a regrouping meeting of the parents, I raised my hand and said I would be willing to help keep the choir going. Next thing I knew, I was in front of the congregation guiding eight kids through “Away in a Manger” at the Christmas concert.

Although I never expected, hoped or sought to be a choir director, the choir and I made it through the rest of season and now I am coming back for more in the Fall. Choir has been a vital part of my life since I was four, the same age my son is now. Whether or not he chooses to pursue choir singing, my husband and I felt strongly that he should be introduced to the activity early. There are a lot of choir geeks on both sides of the family, so he could come by it very naturally.

We are involved in the music program at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church primarily because they have choirs for the youngest choristers. I have spent the summer learning about choir directing and selecting a repertoire for the upcoming season. In the process of communicating with the Our Savior’s Director of Worship, Music and the Arts, Martin Morley, I happened to include a phrase in an email stating “I think of music as a metaphor for life.” Martin emailed me back “I want to hear more from you about ‘music as a metaphor for life’ when you’ve got time!”

Oh-oh. I didn’t think I was going to have to back up a quick email ditty with actual thought. I hadn’t intended to say anything trite, but I was speaking more from a visceral level than something I can actually articulate. Now Martin, unknowingly, was challenging me to substantiate it.

Initially, I thought of the “music as a soundtrack for life” idea in which we all can recall musical pieces from certain eras of our lives or from specific events that happened personally, nationally or internationally. When we hear these songs, we are immediately taken back to a time and place, whether we want to revisit it or not. We either seek out the appropriate music or the music seeks us out to compile the soundtrack of our lives.

Brides and grooms pick a “theme song” for their first dance at their wedding. This song has meaning for them and is a musical expression of their relationship. Brides and grooms who don’t normally dance will even take dance lessons in order to properly celebrate this song. That is how important this specific musical symbol is in their lives.

We all know people, and maybe you’re one of them, who can quote a song lyric when it is apropos to a conversation we are involved in. Some people sing these lyrics. Some people find that annoying. I wonder how many song lyrics pop into people’s brains at the time of conversation but aren’t shared. It’s as if our brains are constantly Googling lyrical search words and sometimes, we get a direct hit and feel compelled to share it.

Music is constantly with us, whether we seek it or not. We sing to celebrate a birthday. We sing to mourn the passing of a life. Music underscores war, revolution, hardship, discovery, triumph and tradition. Music is a common language between humankind. It would seem music and life are inseparable partners, and I suddenly have to appreciate the profoundness of the sage bumper sticker that reads, “Life without music would be a mistake.”

Coincidentally, it was something Martin himself wrote about the arts in general that helped me come to my final conclusion that music is the audible representation of the spirit of life. He wrote, “Artistic expression through music, visual arts and dance gives us avenues of connection with our Higher Power: the creative and re-creative force which made us, lifts us up, and inspires us to live with both passion and compassion.”

“Inspiration” and “spirit” come from the Latin word “spiritus” meaning “breath.” For me, music is a metaphor for life because music is the breath of life.

July 18, 2005

Falling Off the Pop Culture Bandwagon

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 4:42 pm

The parent of one of my son’s friends recently moved here from out-of-state. Upon learning that I was a Bay Area native, she asked me, “How do listen to new music around here? All of your radio stations play oldies.”

I opened my mouth simultaneously planning to get defensive and offer her the call letters of a station or two that would meet her needs. But I ended up saying nothing. The truth was, I didn’t know a radio station to recommend and I didn’t have enough evidence to be defensive. There could very well be someone playing new music but they are not programmed in to my memory buttons on the car radio. For the most part, I am out of touch with current popular music.

This realization took me by surprise. I know I have young children and “Sesame Street’s Greatest Hits” is the Top 40 play list in my house. But those few moments I’m in the car by myself, I thought I was listening to enough different stations to keep up with the music scene. My true realization was that although the stations I listen to sprinkle in a new song every once and a while, I usually turn the channel to see if one of the other stations is playing a song that I know. I have become my mother.

Flashback: Fourth Grade. I am just beginning to key into popular music. Within the past year I have bought my first record albums, an eclectic mix of Dolly Parton, Styx, Rick Springfield, Blondie and Danny Kaye sings Hans Christian Andersen. My mom listens to the radio while she sews in another room. She is listening to music from “her era.” It does not appeal to me. I analyze why she does not listen to contemporary popular music and run my theory by her. I hypothesize that she used to be hip and happenin’ and then for some reason, at some point in her life, she turned off the radio for an extended length of time. When she turned it back on one day, she didn’t like what she heard. Mom agrees that this theory was probably valid. I vow never to let that happen to me.

And now it has. As I think about it, music is the least worrisome indicator for me of how my radar for the popular arts scene has been shut off. Other artistic outlets for me, which I used to find very important no longer, exist in my daily life.

I don’t watch any broadcast television. I do read the newspaper, so I know about hugely successful shows like “Desperate Housewives” or “The Sopranos,” but I have never seen them. I don’t even have a desire to see them.

I don’t read any bestsellers, save for “Harry Potter.”

I rarely go to movies because there is hardly anything that compels me to go to the trouble of setting up a babysitter and saying goodbye to my hard-earned money in order to see a movie that has more than a 50% chance of wasting my time. I used to be selective in my movie viewing, but also very experimental and willing to take risks. Now I go for the sure-bet only.

I have continued to keep in touch with the theater world, but even there I have switched focus. I used to have a cursory knowledge of what American theater was up to but I put energy into keeping up with what was happening in the British theater which I found more exciting. I had a chance last week to look at a London theater guide and discovered that my global interest in theater has yielded to domestic offerings.

I guess this is the artistic manifestation of the maturation process. I know I can tell you a lot more about the Contra Costa and San Francisco visual and performing arts scenes than I could 15 years ago. I have read some darn good books, even if there is no I can talk to about them because no one else has read them. My bent toward edutainment on television is more than satisfied by the myriad cable channels producing informative and captivating programming. Quite frankly, I don’t miss the movies. If I see only one movie a year, and it is a movie like the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, then that one movie can hold me for months. Especially with the advent of DVDs.

People tell me I’ll get back to pop culture once my kids stop watching Barney and start keying into what their peers do. I’ll be curious to see what happens to me then. I don’t want to be clueless about the pop culture they find nurturing, but I have to realize that keeping up with the times may be more of an intellectual exercise for my brain while my heart seeks more compelling avenues. This could get very interesting.

July 5, 2005

Embrace your inner artist

Filed under: Art and About Creativity — admin @ 2:37 pm

Quick! Answer this question. Don’t think about it. Don’t hesitate before you answer. Answer immediately based on your gut reaction.

Are you an artist?

If you answered “yes,” you need to read no further. You already understand the answer to life, the universe and everything.

If you answered “no,” or if you hesitated, then read on.

Here’s another question for you. How do you define the term “artist?” Name some people whom you consider to be artists.

Are you done? Did you define “artist” as anyone who expresses his or her creative self through painting, dancing, music, design, gardening, cooking, writing, fashion, teaching, computer programming, house cleaning, managing a gas station, parenting, healing or administrating? Then you can stop reading now and go appreciate a world full of artistic beings.

Or does your definition of “artist” have something to do with someone who expresses themselves via the visual arts? Did you name Michelangelo, your high school art teacher or your best friend who draws really well as people you consider artists? Then I have a story to tell you.

I saw a television commercial for one of those paint-your-own-pottery places. The tagline was “(This Pottery Place) isn’t just for artists. It’s for people who want to have fun.”

I gasped. My head started spinning, and I almost lost consciousness. Did I just hear them correctly? A business that provides the means for ANYONE to paint pottery is making a differentiation between “artists” and “people who want to have fun?” A business that, to be profitable, depends on every single person who enters to bring their inner artist with them is making a distinction between “artists” and the rest of us? Could the end of the world be far behind?

I took a few deeps breaths, sat down and sighed. I had to accept that the advertisers for This Pottery Place were just playing into the societal belief that some people are artists and some are not. They are in a business with the power to change this way of thinking and instead, they let inertia overwhelm them. The tagline could easily have been “Fun for the artist in all of us” or “Anyone can be an artist at This Pottery Place.” Or, for the bold approach, “You are an artist at This Pottery Place.”

I admit, I do not consider myself particularly gifted in drawing or painting. But I have done pottery painting at this kind of place and I was pleasantly surprised with what I was able to achieve. It seems like in a 30 second promo, there must be a way to capture the essence of pottery painting empowerment. Painting pottery is so much more than just fun — it is artistically invigorating.

The term “artist” is overloaded with preconceptions, misinterpretations, and for many of us, doubt. At some point in our lives, someone needs to sit many of us down and make us repeat, “I am an artist” until we believe it. That someone sitting you down may need to be yourself. And I admit, I am guilty of self-conscious hesitation when using the term about myself.

Only six months ago my sister-in-law asked me if I considered myself an artist. I gulped and weakly answered “yes.” It was an intellectual answer but my gut still wasn’t comfortable with the term. I was relieved when my sister-in-law said, “Good, because I think you’re an artist.” It was nice validation, although sheepishly I wondered what she based it on, since I don’t really paint or draw.

Expanding the definition of artist is hard work. I don’t really know why. All children love to draw and paint, even if their paintbrush is their finger and all they have to draw on is a dusty roadside. So we all are born artists, even in the most limited sense of the definition. Maybe the definition gets even more limited when, somewhere along the line, we notice that some kids in the class draw extremely representational pictures at an early age when the rest of us require people to guess whether the green blob on the paper is a frog or a portrait of our mother. As adults, we should know that the green blob is just as valid a form of artistic expression as a scale drawing of the Golden Gate Bridge. But we have internalized the limitations and the damage is done.

If you want to take a step toward fixing that damage, go try painting some pottery. You’ll be surprised by how quickly you move yourself from the category of “people who want to have fun” into the echelon of the artists. Then step back, and think about all the artistic ways you live your life, even if your creative approach to mending the garden hose doesn’t have museums knocking on your door inviting you to have a solo exhibit.

June 22, 2005

Finding a cure for the creatively stuck

Filed under: Art and About Creativity — admin @ 2:30 pm

In the course of normal conversation, my sister-in-law, Erin, made a statement that I have never heard anyone say. She told me she was creatively stuck. After a lifetime of singing and vocal training, including earning a Master’s of Music in Vocal Performance, Erin has spent the last four years not singing. At the time this conversation took place in February, she wasn’t sure how to get unstuck.

I was fascinated. For the most part, I live in a world of creatively thriving people. Very few are professional artists, but all make creative activity a part of their daily lives. In my job, I interview artists, actors, painters, dancers, musicians and writers. If they were creatively stuck, I wouldn’t be interviewing them. I consider myself to be very fortunate that I get to surround myself personally and professionally with people who value the creative life force.

Erin said that part of her stuckness was due to the fact that singing, a major creative outlet for her, had ceased to be creative. She felt she had become a technician, producing beautiful notes, but not much else.

Four months later, Erin is singing again and says she is on the road to becoming creatively unstuck. To look at her, it is obvious that her creative spirit is coursing through her body again. She looks happy, she walks lighter, she brings joy into a room when she enters. There have been several big changes in her life lately, but everything is tied together and I have no doubt that getting her creative juices flowing again has helped heal her and steel her for life’s challenges.

How did she do it? After much analysis on her part, the answer is astoundingly simple. Erin began to focus on the process, not the product. I admit, I choked when she first said this because it is a line I hear from artists all the time. While I was an arts beat writer, it was a phrase used so often in interviews of artistic types that a photographer with whom I frequently worked used to joke about it. If ever we were having a day of dissatisfaction in our jobs, one of us would quip, “Well, it’s all about the process, right?”

As Erin described how she refocused on the creative process, I started to really appreciate what that means. Basically, she shoved her perfectionist tendencies to the side, set up no expectations for herself and didn’t look toward past failures or accomplishments as her barometer for what she is doing now. As she put it, if you’re looking in the rear view mirror, you can’t drive the car. It is a daily challenge she has to meet head on, but she appears to be invigorated by it.

Coincidentally, the last four months has yielded another conversation about creative stuckness with my friend, Jennifer. Jennifer is endeavoring to raise her 2 1/2-year-old son, Clayton, in an arts rich environment. A year ago, she asked me how to start painting with her son, since I am known for letting my kids go nuts with paint. I wrote out instructions for her about letting Clayton explore the paint any way he wants and not to worry about the mess. I gave Jennifer some pieces of paper as big as her child so Clayton could have a large canvas. Jennifer called me from the art supply store the day she bought the brushes and paint. In February, I helped her assemble an easel. Yet Clayton did not paint for the first time until one month ago.

By all reports, Clayton had a blast and Jennifer felt personal elation. It turns out, her fear of the mess and uncertainty about how the painting session would go had held her back from giving Clayton the art supplies. She realized that the limitations she put on herself, she was now putting on her son and that is one legacy she does not want to pass on to the next generation. Jennifer now feels that when she sets up the easel for Clayton, she also needs to set up an easel for herself.

Jennifer feels that culturally, we all put so much emphasis on product that the process is deemed less important. If the picture we paint is not worthy of being mounted on the wall, then it’s not worth the time to create it. Boy, I should have had a mirror to look into when she said that. With all my creative advocacy, I am guilty of this thinking. Erin and Jennifer have set a new, very high bar for me to reach toward.

June 1, 2005

A Common Thread

Filed under: Art and About Textiles — admin @ 9:27 pm

Zimbabwe is the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic. Nearly a quarter of the population ages 15 to 49 have the virus. One million children in Zimbabwe have been orphaned due to HIV/AIDS.

Putting children in orphanages is an outdated model in Zimbabwe. Children who have dead or ill parents are raised by grandparents, aunts, uncles and older siblings. The focus in Zimbabwe is to help the generations affected by this trauma with family-based solutions, since over 95% of the children orphaned by HIV/AIDS are living with a close relative.

One of the ways the Lafayette-based J.F. Kapnek Trust is helping orphans and their families is by developing preschools and centers for early childhood education. The preschools not only give young children a head start on their education, but they also allow for a much-needed respite in the middle of the day for caregivers. Thus far, the Kapnek Trust has helped build eight preschools, each of which has 80 children enrolled. The preschools are lacking toys and educational materials for all these kids, and here is where creativity and the arts come in.

Last summer, Susan and Arden Strasser initiated Hope for the Heart of Africa, based at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Lafayette. Arden is a pastor at Our Savior’s and Susan is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner who is working on a Ph.D. in Public Health. Susan and Arden lived for six years in Zimbabwe and South Africa and founded Hope for the Heart of Africa based on work they had done with African partners in health, welfare and the church.

While in Zimbabwe last year, Susan and Arden met a security guard, bored at her job because nobody came through her gate. To pass the time, she would knit. Susan says knitting is a large part of Zimbabwe culture and that the women are incredibly talented and creative knitters.

Susan saw the guard knitting with old crooked needles and asked the guard to knit a sweater for her daughter. Three days later, Susan received the beautiful sweater and an idea was born. What if the need for toys at the preschool was married with the untapped knitting skills of the local women? If the Strassers could generate seed money and knitting supplies, the Kapnek Trust agreed to help get the Knit Together program going.

Knit Together provides women in the Zimbabwe community a creative and therapeutic means by which to connect with the preschool children. By making dolls, teddy bears, fabric books, puppets, blocks and even color swatches for learning color names, the knitters are enriching the lives of Zimbabwe’s next generation. The women who agree to participate in Knit Together are provided with an equal amount of sewing materials for their personal use or to sell as a source of income.

The common creative thread of knitting reached across the world and touched the community at Our Savior’s, which has collected tremendous amounts of knitting supplies. Five large boxes have already been shipped, and a shipping container will be taking another huge load to Zimbabwe at the end of June. Some avid knitters couldn’t resist knitting something themselves to give to the children of Zimbabwe so a Baby Cap mini-project was launched to warm the heads of Zimbabwean newborns.

Monetary donations for Knit Together are accepted throughout the year by sending a check to: The JF Kapnek Trust, Re: Knit Together, 936 Dewing Ave., Suite E3, Lafayette, CA 94549. Monetary donations for Knit Together will enable the project to buy knitting supplies in Zimbabwe, which helps the local economy and cuts down on shipping costs.

May 24, 2005

Ah, Those Golden-Brown Hills

Filed under: Art and About Nature — admin @ 2:53 pm

The Change always comes so fast. I’m a native Californian, and I’ve watched it happen every spring for 33 years, but it still astounds me. I go to bed one night surrounded by rolling green hillsides and wake up the next morning to see mountains of brown fire hazard staring at me through my windows. Oh, I’m sorry — the tourist bureau wants me to call them California’s Golden Hills. But let’s call a spade a spade. Brownish hues cover our landscape for at least half of every year, and although I would never live anywhere else, that brown is not the ideal backdrop for my personal fairy tale.

I set my fairy tale in the lush green landscapes of England, New Zealand, Virginia or Northern California. Perhaps it is because green was such a rare sight for a girl who grew up during the drought in the ’70s. My childhood memories are sepia tinted by California’s dry and brown decade. Now that I have kids, I use the growing-up-during-the-drought stories as my version of the elder generation’s tale of having to walk to school in the snow barefoot up hill both ways. The dry hills were brown, the stuff we were allowed to flush down the toilet was brown and the reusable water we kept in a garbage can on the patio was kind of brownish.

My brain stores a lifetime of memories of picking up visiting relatives at the airport who commented on the drive home about the beautiful golden hills, how unusual the countryside is, and the mesmerizing, warm landscape. The grass is always browner, I guess.

My younger brother, Matt, has been a California expatriate for 13 years now. He went to college in North Carolina, moved to Chicago for a few years, and now is a homeowner in North Carolina. He says things that other California expatriates say about how much traffic there is on our freeways and how expensive the housing prices are. But like any true Californian, I continue to feel superior.

Matt only speaks when he absolutely needs to so we have all learned to give great weight to every word he utters. One summer day, he and I were driving together in silence toward Walnut Creek on Highway 24 with the magnificent yet brown Mount Diablo towering in the distance. (As you may guess, a green Mount Diablo is more majestic to me since it is a fleeting sight. Snow on Mount Diablo can give me goose bumps of delight.) Then Matt said one profound sentence.

“You know, the one thing I miss about California is the brown — especially Mount Diablo brown.”

“You’re kidding,” I said.

“No. You don’t see that anywhere else. Someday, I’d like to buy a painting of the brown Mount Diablo to hang in my home,” he replied.

From that moment, I tried to see the brown the way he sees it. I also started searching for a painting to give him that captured the California brown of his imagination. Through these two exercises, I learned that although myriad local artists paint Mount Diablo, no one saw it the way I did. And I don’t mean the ugly way. The brown shading and shadows that define the mountain to me don’t seem to hit artists the same way. The search for a painting became rather frustrating as I realized that when I became informed by my brother’s comments, the brown Mount Diablo became more beautiful than any painter could capture.

I opted to give Matt a photograph of Mount Diablo taken by a friend of mine. It wasn’t a typical angle of the mountain for those of us who live on the west side of the 680 interchange, but I did feel it accurately captured the summer grasses. My brother liked the photo, but he admitted he still wanted to look for that painting someday. I wish him luck in finding it. As for me, I’ve learned that in my imaginary fairy tale, spinning brown into gold means adding just a little perspective.

May 10, 2005

Give yourself a “Happy Birthday” rebirth

Filed under: Art and About Holidays — admin @ 4:14 pm

A string of recent birthday parties for family and friends has brought to my attention a cultural concern. Some people don’t feel comfortable singing “Happy Birthday” in public. In fact, some dread it while others hate it. Why? “Because I can’t sing” is the most common response. One person told me, “I just let everybody else sing,” which is an evasive non-response.

I have 33 years of experience celebrating birthdays and of course I have noticed that some people choose not to sing the requisite anthem. But when I observed a young child not singing at one of these recent celebrations while his friends jubilantly sang out, it hit me that this is a serious problem.

I come from a family who sings and so I realize I have a skewed view of the larger population. Even the people in my family who say they can’t sing really can sing. Everything’s relative. But whether you come from a singing family or not, I believe everyone should feel comfortable singing “Happy Birthday,” and there are grave implications for all of us when one of our tribe refuses to join in.

I discussed the non-singers with my sister-in-law. She has degrees in music so she is wise and insightful in these matters. She remarked that probably at some point in the non-singer’s life, someone told them they couldn’t sing, or suggested that perhaps maybe they shouldn’t sing. It’s horrible for me to imagine such a scenario, but she’s probably right.

Even more horrible is the thought that a person may not have been exposed to music during their formative years at the crucial time when learning to play the notes on the vocal instrument is akin to learning language. A teacher who taught the Mommy and Me music classes I took with my son could easily upset herself telling stories about families who don’t have music in their daily lives. She wasn’t talking about playing Mozart to a fetus in the womb. She was talking about parents who didn’t sing to their babies, or even parents who didn’t listen to music on the radio when their children are present. I was always struck by these stories. I’m convinced that if a child hears music, they will learn to carry a tune the same way they learn how to form spoken language. It’s all about sounds and pitch.

As a side note, I don’t believe people can’t sing. I had a friend in high school who was definitely challenged in the songbird department but she was eager to conquer her weakness. She went to a voice teacher who rigorously drilled her on learning how to use her voice. I sat in on many of these lessons and I admit, it was sometimes a painful process to listen to. But eventually, my friend learned how to harness the tune in her head and reproduce it successfully with her vocal chords. It was one of the bravest acts I have ever witnessed.

My friend’s goal in taking voice lessons was to be a successful contributor to the school choir, and to get a part in the school musical (she didn’t). For someone else, having the confidence to sing “Happy Birthday” is an equally lofty goal. This common tune is an extremely basic and unifying song in our culture. Most often, we only find ourselves singing it for people who mean something to us. No one should feel inhibited to show their love for another because of a bogus belief about singing talents. Every note may not come out perfect, and every tone may not be dulcet, but opening your mouth and letting melody come out should be as second-nature and primitive as we get as human beings. And allowing yourself the freedom to sing out is vital for you and for the collective good.

It’s your prerogative to sing, and the duty of the rest of us to support that prerogative by being accepting of any homespun variation of “Happy Birthday” which may come out of your mouth. I know it won’t be easy at first, but you’ll be breaking a cycle that needs to be broken. And if anyone dares to make a comment, don’t be afraid to ask about the last time they got an invitation to sing at the Met.

April 13, 2005

The Artist in Me Foundation

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 4:05 pm

Last summer, my mom visited a friend in El Dorado Hills and brought back a brochure for a non-profit organization called The Artist in Me Foundation. Founder Susan Lee shares that her active, distractible, argumentative and loud daughter has been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Sensory Integration Disorder and learning disabilities. But this same girl is fun-loving, inquisitive, sensitive and compassionate with a love of arts and crafts. Lee calls art her daughter’s “saving grace” because through art, her daughter can be herself, express herself and do things the way she wants to do them. There are no rules in art. It is fun, therapeutic and captivating for any personality.

I strongly agree with all Lee’s assertions, and I support the mission of The Arts in Me Foundation to embrace the individuality and uniqueness of special needs kids. As their mission statement declares, “Let us nourish their souls and uplift their spirits so they can have the courage, perseverance and vision to make their dreams come true.”

I think this all sounds wonderful, so I continued to read the brochure. I learn that the foundation provides monthly art classes for special needs children and hosts a Young Masters Art Exhibit twice a year to display, award and encourage a passion for art, fostering a sense of self esteem and pride. My mom had pictures to show me of the latest exhibit, for which all the artwork was beautifully framed to show off the masterpieces within. The art in the pictures was vibrant, playful, emotional and impressive.

Finally, I read about the guiding precepts of the foundation which are: To develop self esteem; treat each child with respect and dignity; foster understanding and empathy for the journey these children must travel; encourage creativity and celebrate their unique abilities; discover and develop artistic skills; provide a fun activity where these children feel like they are “regular kids;” recognize their limitations but encourage them to reach their potential; provide an opportunity to fully explore themselves and to embrace their individualism; and instill a sense of hope for the children and their parents.

I can’t argue with any of these precepts, and I staunchly cheer for any organization that espouses them.

But something fell flat with me after reading all this. Of course, I am thrilled that an organization exists for special needs children to gain from the positive effects of art and making art. It reminds me of programs I have written about concerning art programs for Alzheimer’s patients to give them a productive and fulfilling outlet for the creative part of their brain that still has something relevant and important to say. And then there are the art therapy programs for children who have dealt with horrific tragedies. St. Mary’s College in Moraga has exhibited the artwork of rape victims as a means to give those women a voice. In fact, I can’t think of a challenge to the human condition that can’t benefit from a little time with some art supplies. Was it the commonality between these other programs and The Artist in Me Foundation that left me from reaching the heights of exhilaration about their program? Had I finally become jaded about all the ways the arts are beneficial to humanity? I cringed to think that the answer to either of these questions could be “yes.”

And then it hit me that everything Lee writes about the place art has in her daughter’s life should be absolutely true for everyone, whether identified as having “special needs” or not. I wasn’t having a “Wow!” moment because The Artist in Me Foundation is documenting fundamentals. Every one of us is on a journey, every one of us has a unique view of the world, and every one of us is eligible to reap the positive rewards of creating and sharing art. I’m glad Lee and the volunteers for The Artist in Me Foundation have formalized their mission for the special needs kids in their community and focused an art program on a segment of the population which otherwise might be written off in a traditional art classroom. But we must not forget that art underscores the special qualities in all of us.