“Nibbled at by ducks“ is a phrase my mother coined to gently complain of the demands of small children, minor tasks, and major responsibilities. She was an artist who gave up her studio, whose time was pecked away at until there was nothing left over for art. As a child I had a pet duck named Fang who followed me everywhere. His nibbles were not exactly painful, but they were insistent, and he was irresistible and entertaining. Today, when I struggle to carve out time for making art, I think of my mother and Fang. I know that the things that keep me occupied are not bad; on the contrary, they are good and worthy: 5 children, 9 grandchildren, a partner and husband I love and help with our second business, many long-time friends, and community work like the Haystack Board, USM and the Center for Book Arts. I am grateful to them all, but I have made a commitment to myself, and I know I must make art. It’s who I am and it’s as essential to my well-being as eating good food, walking in the woods, and dreaming while I sleep.
The winds of homecoming.
There are lines from a poem by Rilke that I have by heart:
“The inner- what is it?
If not intensified sky, hurled through with birds, and deep with the winds of homecoming. “
Every time I open the door to my studio at the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook and pick up my brush, I come back to myself, to the mysterious “inner” that speaks to me out of my work. It feels like coming home. But, make no mistake, winds are swirling, spirit birds are flying, and the work is intense. Making art drains me, but it also sustains me inwardly to be able to give of myself to those outer demands.
Chronos and kairos.
As artists, how do we “find” time or “make” time for art? It’s ironic that once I get to my studio, the time that I thought was chopped into seconds, minutes, hours is suddenly a broad field through which I can move freely. Time feels expansive, not contracted into clock-like increments. I have entered what Helen Luke (Old Age: Journey into Simplicity) describes as “the fragile yet omnipotent beauty of the present moment.“ The Greeks have a word to describe this kind of time: kairos. It feels sacred. Experiencing it, I feel centered. It does not necessarily depend on my being in a physical studio space- I could be painting on the backside of Monhegan Island, or in a classroom or workshop with other artists, or on an airplane drawing the riverine patterns thousands of feet below my window. The point is to enter, and engage in the act.
During a residency at the Vermont Studio Center, I made a suite of monoprints that address the theme of time. Titled “Mountain/Time,” the mountains in these works came to stand for what endures, what is sacred (kairos); tally marks, four strikes and a slash, like the ones I had seen in a dungeon in France, became what the Greeks call chronos–our chronological time. We carry both experiences as artists, and our task is to make time by letting sacred art-making time claim us.
How do you do it all?
This is a question I often hear from younger artists, trying to balance child-rearing and an art practice or other creative work. For me the answer is, I did not do it all at once. Early on, especially with Tom’s of Maine as a new business, toddlers to chase, work as a paralegal and as a teaching parent at the School Around Us, the lack of time for my own art made me crazy. I got very depressed. Later, as I took on more responsibility at Tom’s, I recognized the need to take short sabbaticals for art. In the 90s we moved to Monhegan in summer, and I opened my small studio to visitors. By 2000, I was ready to find a studio away from home, and work on a solo show. I made the commitment to myself to put art at the center. Still, it is a constant effort, and the best strategy I have found over years is to have a dedicated place, a studio, and to take these sabbaticals (art trips, residencies and workshops) that re-energize my work.
Tools for the practice of art.
Here are some ways I have found helpful as an artist to balance art with the other demands in my life that nibble (and sometimes quack!):
Draw a web. Put art near the center of your web of responsibilities, not on the periphery. Fill in around it with things that give you energy and joy. Promise yourself, write it down on your “to do” list. Include it in a personal Mission Statement.
Create a studio. A place for your art-making to happen is filled with the tools you need, set apart, whether a studio space separate from home or a corner of a room. Imagine an invisible cord of light around it.
Believe you are an artist in everything you do. Even when you are chopping vegetables for dinner, changing a diaper, holding the hand of a friend, you compose with color, you let your heart move its love through your hands. No time is wasted, even the barren, fallow times when you feel blocked and unsure. “Everything we do is an act of poetry or a painting if we do it with mindfulness.”(Thich Naht Hanh, Peace is Every Step, p 40).
Find a community of artists. Take a class in something you have not mastered. Spend some weeks away from your habitual haunts, whether on a remote island, on an art residency with participants from around the globe, or as part of a year round collective.
Risk failure on the path to new work. Challenges come with change; embrace the mistakes that lead to creative outcomes; play with possibilities; cultivate a beginner’s mind, and be prepared to surprise yourself.
Art is a life-long learning process.
Throughout my education I enjoyed the stimulation of being challenged by a good teacher, learning new processes, and rubbing shoulders with other artists. I have studied sculpture and new printmaking techniques at MECA; joined Peregrine Press, Maine’s oldest nonprofit fine art press; acted as President for Women Artists of Monhegan Island, curating shows and cultivating connections between artists and poets on the island. I met two of my most cherished mentors there, women who continued to make work into their 90s. I’ve attended Haystack as student and TA in printmaking, as a presenter, and now as a board member. I have spent nourishing time on art residencies at Vermont Studio Center. I just completed Rebecca Goodale’s Visual Book 2 at USM. In all of these experiences, an art community was formed, whether temporary or more lasting, that has sustained my soul and my practice as an artist. There are friendships and opportunities to show work that arise through these connections, but the dialogue, the shop talk, the plain fun of it, never pales.
What if I can’t…?
Once in awhile a challenge comes to us that seems so daunting we hardly dare try. In 2006 I was invited to make a permanent hanging sculpture for the foyer of a new science building at a high school in Connecticut. I wanted to make something that would reflect my concern for the loss of so many creatures that we share the planet with, and our interrelatedness to all of life on this earth.
I made three wire double hélices that hang down 15 feet from a huge steel starfish. Each DNA/like form has strips of handprinted paper adhered to both surfaces with animals from Earth, Air and Water. ( see “InterRelated”) It is the first thing you see on entering, and from the mezzanine becomes a teaching tool to show the interdependency of species like the Red Knot bird and the horseshoe crab.
Failure as a Stepping Stone.
At several points in the process I just wanted to give up. I felt immobilized. I remember sitting in my studio wishing I had never agreed to do something I had no idea would work! There was so much I could not do by myself. I needed help, engineering help, help with fabrication. When I kept open, asked around, the universe sent me a perfect collaborator, and he continues to help me make the large 3-D pieces that have opened up a whole new vocabulary for my expression ( see “TumbleStar”). My studio in the old mill has 12 foot high ceilings- ideal for hanging steel work in progress, that I can access from a big ladder. I tried out my designs in many combinations using powerful magnets to secure paper to steel. When the time came to adhere them, I consulted at length with Golden products (they were so helpful!) and made my own mixture. I was able to realize my vision over several years, through numerous failed experiments, until I found what worked.
Words & images and the ecology of art.
In 2012 I mounted a solo exhibit to mark the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a groundbreaking book that led to the ban of DDT, and heralded the new field of ecology in our understanding of how biological systems work. A residency at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, where the exhibit took place, allowed me time to work collaboratively with students to explore themes in Carson’s book, and their relevance today. We built a huge eagle’s nest on the ground (8’ wide) and hid Raku eggs (made in collaboration with Sharon Townshend) containing messages about the dangers of pesticides to raptors.
I realize that I am a nest-builder, a web-maker. The richest experiences happen for me at the intersection of different mediums: printmaking and 3-D, words and images, the verbal and the visual. For the show’s catalogue, I found three poets who gave permission to publish their poems about Rachel Carson in it, and they even offered to read at the opening. I have always written poetry, and I often incorporate words into my work, as part of the visual imagery or more prominently in my artist books. Whether bringing artists and poets together in a show ( Island Visions/Island Voices) or organizing a collaborative book of words and images by daughters about mothers (The Envelope Project), I want to be the web-maker at the intersections.
Image at top of page:
Kate Cheney Chappell, Silent Spring I; Medium: collagraph monoprint; Size: 17 x 12.5” 2012; photo credit: Jay York
Kate Cheney Chappell
P.O. Box 920
Kennebunk, ME, 04043