Cold Calling Louise Bourgeois

She might be listed.

The phone books were stashed under my studio chair. I flipped open the whitepages and dragged my finger through the B’s until I found it. Ha! I picked up the phone, took a deep breath and cross checked the number before dialing.

Shortly after college I went through an inspired cold call phase.

A few rings.

“Hello?” a woman’s voice answered.

The calls were like rites of passage for me. Exercises in bravery. Proof to myself that doors were meant to be passed through.

“Hello…my name is Alexandra Posen, and I am…um…trying to reach the studio of Louise Bourgeois?”

Not daring to believe, I continued, “do I have the right number?”

“This is Louise” an understated voice replied.

My eyes roamed from sculpture to sculpture in my small studio, trying to ground this moment in reality.

“Ms. Bourgeois, I admire your work very much. I am a young artist, and I was wondering…”

“Yes?”

I could hear the age and accent now.

“I was wondering if it might be possible to meet you-”

Before I had a chance to fumble through my ill formed request (I hadn’t gotten this far in my mind), Louise abruptly interrupted me.

“Call back Sunday morning.”

“Ok….I will call you back on Sunday. Uh…thank you so much.”

“Good. Good bye.”

Click.

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It took me a few anxiety ridden moments to process the fact that I had just picked up the phone and made direct contact with a mythical art hero. A few more moments to decide if the call was a good one or a bad one. She sounded a little scary.  Had I disturbed her? Did she like me? What was the meaning of calling back on Sunday?

Like so much in my life, then and now, my love of artist Louise Bourgeois and my impulse to call her was largely based on instinct.

Had I done diligent homework, I might have been savvy to the fact that she routinely held a Sunday Soiree in her living room.

Thursday to Sunday felt like an eternity. The second call was infinitely harder to make. I remembered my shyness.

The call however, was successful, and I when hung up, I had a time and a place to meet. I also had a vague idea that there would be other visitors, and certainty that a great adventure lay ahead of me.

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Here is the rub: I remember very few concrete details of that special Sunday afternoon.

I do remember the room. How it smelled like dry wood and New York. How Louise sat imperiously behind an indutrial desk as master of ceremonies. How four or five of us sat in chairs and benches along the peripheries of the dim room. How she ate jam from a jar. How one of the guests was a famous curator. How a small man did an expressive dance improvisation in the middle of the room. How nervous I was.

And with much effort and some cringing I have recalled how at my turn, I presented a show and tell. I spoke about puppetry, masks and the art I was making. I shared images from the installation that I was working on at the time- a piece called “The Diary of the Inbetween”.

I remember that Louise looked looked deeply, carefully, and then moved on to the next guest. It was a guy around my age- and all that I can remember about him, is that we shared a falafel afterward and kissed underneath the yellow glow of a West Village lamp post.

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Detail from “The Diary of the Inbetween”, Alexandra Posen, 1998

My twenties were a maelstrom of passion, insecurity and creative seeking.  Memories from that time are a blur of essences only. Even my few hours in the living room of Louise Bourgeois, are obscured by the emotional weather of my young heart and imagination.

I wish I remembered more. Like who that curator was.

But it is ok. Bourgeois dwelled in that foggy space too. She honored the atmospheric nature of emotions, and welcomed messy contradictions and obscurity. In fact, I cannot think of another artist who so firmly grasps the substance of metaphor. Not to mention the abstraction of memory…

As a painter, sculptor, printmaker, and installation artist, she tackled the subconscious intelligence with unique integrity. She worked till the end of her life wrestling potent themes such as sexuality, corporeality, death and the parent child relationship.

Nearly twenty years ago, I followed an adventurous whim and made a pilgrimage to see the queen mother of art. I was, of course, in part, seeking her approval and love. I am not sure that I got it. Then again, I am not sure that I didn’t.

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Detail from “The Diary of the Inbetween” , Alexandra Posen, 1998

CREATIVE EXERCISE:

This is a drawing and exercise designed in 2002 by Louise Bourgeois, for DO IT: The Compendium, by Hans Obrist.  

  1. When you are walking, try smiling at a stranger.

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Further reading:

DO IT: the compendium by Hans Ulrich Obrist The Do It book contains artworks by more than 100 international artists in the form of do-it-yourself text instructions to be completed by the reader. Based on the traveling exhibition and e-flux online project curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, the book also includes a selection of essays and interviews, and offers comprehensive material on the groundbreaking show.

 

Louise Bourgeois: The Spider and The Tapestries. Bourgeois’ recurring motif of the spider symbolizes her mother, a weaver, and fully explores the complex relationship between mother and child.  Her 

Mindfulness and Play: the teachings of Viola Spolin

Huzzah. People are finally waking up to the serious business of silliness. Like yoga, improv classes are now hot stuff.

Even the corporate sector recognizes that playfulness, improvisation and teamwork affect the bottom line within everyday operations. It is not uncommon for institutions to offer workshops and retreats that focus on theater games and improv skills.

Viola Spolin, enviably remembered as “the mother of improvisation”, understood the gravity of play from the get go.

“Play touches and stimulates vitality, awakening the whole person – mind, body, intelligence and creativity.” -Viola Spolin

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Born in 1906, Spolin started her career as a WPA social worker for immigrants. As “drama coordinator” for this community, she wanted to address some of the very real struggles of being an outsider- isolation, insecurity and hesitance. Spolin had the vision and courage to recognize something profound: the fact that there is agency in child’s play.

When children play, one of their advantages is the focus and commitment that they bring to a given game. Viola Spolin saw the power in such a suspension of disbelief.  She also saw this quality as a muscle that could be exercised and developed.  Her pedagogy was in a sense, a metaphoric practice for being fully present to life itself.

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“Play allows a person to respond with ‘his total organism, in a total environment'” -Viola Spolin

Taking inspiration from the form of traditional children’s games, she sought transformation through her play and improvisation based curriculum. She went on to become a seminal thinker in 20th century American theater and is responsible for popularizing the “theater games” that  have become an indispensable part of the actor/director/creator toolkit.

The genius of theater games is that they set up a particular alchemy of play and objective which makes way for spectacular results.  For one thing, the game premise mandates “group agreement” and strengthens collaborative bonds.  The imperative of the game can also circumvent habitual personal blockages, and simultaneously clear the path of access towards one’s authentic trove of experience and instinct.

“Playing a game is psychologically different in degree but not in kind from dramatic acting. The ability to create a situation imaginatively and to play a role in it is a tremendous experience, a sort of vacation from one’s everyday self and the routine of everyday living. We observe that this psychological freedom creates a condition in which strain and conflict are dissolved and potentialities are released in the spontaneous effort to meet the demands of the situation.” -Viola Spolin

 

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If the visionary Spolin were alive today, I imagine that she would not only be recognized as a theater guru, but also as a spiritual leader. She saw the disconnected plight of grown-up life, and wished for a world in which the rational mind could be quieted, and in which intuition could be readily accessed.

“When student-actors see people and the way they behave when together, see the color of the sky, hear the sounds in the air, feel the ground beneath them and the wind on their faces, they get a wider view of their personal world and development in the theater is quickened. The world provides the material for the theater and artistic growth develops hand-in-hand with one’s recognition of it and one’s self within it.”

For Spolin, improvisation was not just a tool for performance, but a democratic vehicle for empowerment, enlightenment and vitality. It seems appropriate that improv is having a heyday.  What Viola Spolin pioneered was a mindfulness practice- one that happened to take root in the context of the performing arts.

In addition to popularizing “theater games”,  Spolin authored several books, including the famous “Improvisation for the Theater”.  She played a key role in shaping the pedagogy of Chicago’s Second City, and in establishing comedy improv as thriving art form.

Hats off to Viola Spolin.


CREATIVE EXERCISE:

This is a sensory exercise from “Improvisation for the Theater”. It can be done alone, standing, laying down or even sitting at a desk.  A great warm up for ANY creative practice, it fosters mindfulness, and is grounding.

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Feeling Self with Self a mindfulness practice

  1. Spend a few minutes with yourself taking inventory of your body.
  2. Feel your feet with your feet
  3. Feel the socks around your ankles
  4. Feel the length of your calves, the shape and angle of your knees
  5. Feel the space behind your thighs.  Let one thigh feel the other thigh
  6. Keep reviewing every part of your body.  Checking in.
  7. Have your breath say hello to your breath
  8. Let your shoulders sense your shoulders, and feel their weight, their tension, their shape
  9. Feel your face with all the muscles in your face
  10. Feel the top of your head and every hair follicle
  11. End with feeling the weight of your whole body, and an awareness of the space that you are occupying.

Further reading:
Improvisation for the Theater by Viola Spolin.  Widely considered the bible of improvisational theater,  Spolin explains her philosophy and method in this phenomenal book.  Her improvisational techniques changed the very nature and practice of modern theater. These techniques have also influenced the fields of education, mental health, social work, and psychology.

A Recipe for Creativity

How do you make creativity? Curious minds want to know.

Inspired by a beautiful passage from Toni Morrison’s novel Sula, I have put together a list of 8 important ingredients that foster creativity.

First, the passage and a few thoughts about the author:

“Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings, had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.”

This description of Sula nails the potency of the creative spirit, and the importance of channeling its energy into articulate expression. As human beings, we all have creative spirit rattling around inside of us, trying to push outwards and take shape. Perhaps what defines an artist is the demanding character of this spirit, and the permission to recognize its cues for what they are: The dire need to create.

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More than any other writer I can think of, Nobel and Pulitzer prize winning author Toni Morrison knows how to cut to the aching heart of things, and how to turn the invisible into sensual and tangible form. Her novels, which include masterpieces such as The Bluest Eye, Sula, Beloved, Song of Solomon and Jazz, are bountiful with a somatic kind of poetry as they delve into the powerful tales and experiences of her African American protagonists.

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For Sula, curiosity and a gift for metaphor are the tell-tale signs of her highly creative soul. Which brings me to the promised recipe, or at least a handful of ingredients:

A Recipe for Creativity

  1. Start with a curious mind and an open heart
  2. An unbiased hunger for studying the world
  3. Compassionate interest in experiences beyond oneself
  4. Attentiveness to all the dynamics, properties, qualities and details that you encounter
  5. You will know if you are on the right track if you can find inspiration anywhere and in anything
  6. Remember that you are building an archive of observations
  7. Metaphoric thinking. Metaphors are the tools of translation for all that you see, hear and feel. Metaphors give us words and ideas with which to hold and define our observations
  8. Last but not least, learn some skills, so that you can easily use your understanding to create and express your heart’s desire.

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Toni Morrison knows the secret sauce well. The curious, compassionate and metaphoric strengths of her work are out of this world. There is so much to learn from her.

“I really think the range of emotions and perceptions I have had access to as a black person and as a female person are greater than those of people who are neither…. So it seems to me that my world did not shrink because I was a black female writer. It just got bigger.” -Toni Morrison


CREATIVE PROMPT:

This creative exercise is inspired by master storyteller, Toni Morrison. It encourages you to look closely, and apply compassion and imagination throughout your day.  Remember to share photos or thoughts! #TCHhands

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Further reading:
Sula, by Toni Morrison Two girls who grow up to become women. Two friends who become something worse than enemies. In this brilliantly imagined novel, Toni Morrison tells the story of Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who meet as children in the small town of Medallion, Ohio. Their devotion is fierce enough to withstand bullies and the burden of a dreadful secret

 
Beloved, by Toni Morrison  Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a magnificent novel.

 

What Information Overload Looks Like

“Barely 40 years ago, Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein caused a transgressive stir by adopting commercial imagery from newspaper advertisements and comic strips as the subjects of paintings to hang in art galleries. How daring that was, and how dated it is. We are surrounded today by too many images to source or rank.”    -Arthur Lubow, from a NYT article on Takashi Murakami

The world is at the mercy of information, imagery and input.

Ever notice that Times Square is ominously boring these days? The place that once shocked the system with electric tugs of attention and vortexes of sparkly seduction, now kind of falls flat. It is largely an issue of relativity. We have changed. We have become acclimated to an omnipresent deluge of media and constant consumption. Midtown’s spattering of LED screens merely joins the new normal spread of our collective psyche.

What does this new normal mean for humanity?

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Scientists say that we are stuffing way more data through our system than our brains are built to process. One of the key effects of such surfeit, is that the brain loses its ability to order and prioritize information.  In other words, we are in a noisy sea of sameness, and we don’t know where to focus our attention or when to look deeply.  Important things, meaningful things, sensitive things get jumbled and flattened with the frivolous, popular and commercial.

In an interview with Sanjay Gupta, Dr. Daniel Levitan explains how information overload effects the brain:

“It puts us into a brain state of decision fatigue. Turns out, the neurons that are doing the business of helping us make decisions, they’re living cells with metabolism, they require glucose to function, and they don’t distinguish between making important decisions and unimportant ones. It takes up almost as much energy and nutrients to process trivial decisions or important ones.”

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The artist Takashi Murakami captured this phenomenon when he ordained an art movement called Superflat.  Originally specific to Japanese culture and history, his concept seems more and more relevant to the global reality of today.

Coined in 2000 for an exhibition at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the term Superflat refers to the leveling of distinctions between high and low.  Everything is driven by consumerism and there is a virtual flood fill of information. Murakami communicates this state of affairs in his icon-bombed paintings, and through his surreal sculptural mash-ups.

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Takashi Murakami came to the Superflat idea partly by reflecting on the missing third dimension that is characteristic in Japanese art history, as well as the critical role that animé and manga played in expressing postwar sentiments in Japan.

“We want to see the newest things. That is because we want to see the future, even if only momentarily. It is the moment in which, even if we don’t completely understand what we have glimpsed, we are nonetheless touched by it. This is what we have come to call art.” -Takashi Murakami

The point is that we are in Murakami’s future now. Information overload and runaway consumerism have spread us thin and made us shallow. We no longer read, we now skim or scroll. We follow power points, rely on headers and avoid complexity. We rarely stop to look closely and reflect.

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It makes me think that we all need to work very hard to protect these essential moments of attention and sensitivity that allow for profundity and meaning.

And, is this not the role of art?

If you take the time to look deeply, art will not disappoint.


CREATIVE PROMPT:

This whimsical exercise is inspired by the visual bazaar that we live in,  Murakami’s paintings and the concept of SUPERFLAT.

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Further reading, toys and supplies:
Takashi Murakami Plush Toy

 

 

 

Murakami: EGO A comprehensive volume of the artist Takashi Murakami’s work.

 

 

Random Stickers 

 

 

 

Time Square Red, Times Square Blue by Samuel Delaney.   Delaney digs into the example of Times Square, and how it has changed over time.

Advice for Young Writers: Move to the Country

In a live interview, years ago, conducted by Dave Eggers on a stage in San Francisco, Denis Johnson (prolific author, National Book Award winner, war zone explorer, homeschooling dad, recovered addict) was asked the inevitable question: what advice do you have for young writers? “Move to the country,” Johnson said. Most of us in the audience had moved from small towns and suburbs in places like Minnesota or Georgia to great cities such as New York, San Francisco and L.A. to further our creative careers, live among like-minded people, and absorb the creative atmosphere these cities provided, absent in our home towns.  To us, this advice sounded, well, wrong.

Dave Eggers interviews Denis Johnson in 2003
Dave Eggers interviews Denis Johnson in 2003

But Johnson’s rationale was sound. Writing is not a particularly remunerative career. Sometimes it takes years, even decades, to reap the fruit of one’s labors. If you live in a big, expensive city, you’ll spend most of your time paying your rent, not writing your book. The struggle to just stay in the city will take up all your time. Instead, Johnson advised, move to, say, Northern Idaho, where Johnson himself lives, or the equivalent in your part of the world. Besides, you’ll be happier there, and happiness stokes creativity, in spite of all the propaganda to the contrary. Sociologists have long known that people in small towns are happier than those living in cities, as you can see from this chart. You’ll write more, and better.

Rural Happiness
People living in small towns or the country are significantly happier than urban folk. Via https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/03/18/why-smart-people-are-better-off-with-fewer-friends/

 

Your work may be dependent on what Brian Eno described as Scenius–the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene, the communal form of the concept of the genius–which flourishes in cities. If so, you’re going to have to pick it up and take with you to the country, as Flaubert did, who lived with his niece and extended family in Rouen, but had a lively social life in Paris. It’s largely a matter of style, goals and effort. But tremendous beauty and inspiration can be found in rural areas. And community too.

Northern Idaho
Northern Idaho, where you can finally escape the Information Overlords

Northern Idaho is just as beautiful as this photograph suggests, but if you worry about a cultural deficit, don’t. You can be just as much of a bohemian there as in the Greenwich Village or Bloomsbury of yore–the Bloomsbury folk lived out most of their lives in the country.  You can get a glimpse into Johnson’s family life there in his 1997 article about homeschooling his children. And living in such beauty doesn’t require you to be a nature writer. Denis Johnson isn’t a nature writer–he spent 14 years as an addict, which provided much of the material for his first book, Angels, and his much-lauded stories in Jesus Son. He has spent most of his childhood, and much of his adulthood, traveling around the world, some of the stories from his journeys are recounted in Seek. And then he returns home to the relative tranquility of home and gets so much done.

So don’t worry about becoming provincial. There’s a cabin somewhere just for you.


Seek: Reports from the Edges of American and Beyond. Johnson has traveled to some extreme places, and this collection of essays includes a completely hair-raising account of his trip to Liberia.

 

Tree of Smoke. Johnson’s National Book Award winning novel about the Vietnam War.

Does Social Media Impair Creativity?

If a post falls in a forest and nobody likes it, does it exist?

With one and a half billion users on Facebook, 284 million on Twitter, and at least 200 million people on Twitter, it is fair to say that social media is powerful enough to twist the fabric of reality as we know it. Its impact on the way human beings connect, share, posture, mate, learn and create is a sociological and philosophical game changer.

Let’s consider the influence of the feedback loop. Facebook alone calculates that there are at least four million posts per hour, followed by an exponential quantity of responses and shares. No sooner has an idea or creation been launched into the world, than the peanut gallery of humanity makes a spitfire assessment. Propositions are subject to an immediate litmus test. Offerings get sorted in realtime for their popularity and worthiness:  thumbs up, thumbs down, no comment, wow.

There has never been a time in history when creative output was so entwined with the feedback loop.

So, what affect does this have on creativity?

The creative process is delicate. Creations need time to gestate, space to become and room to unfold. Creators need privacy to falter and permission to fail. Nikola Tesla, who contributed to the application of electricity, was particularly concerned with the connection between solitude and innovation.

The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone—that is the secret of invention: be alone, that is when ideas are born.” -Nicola Tesla

Worthy ideas and strong art demand courageous integrity. They cannot be oriented towards an endgame of mass approval or facile consumption. However, “what works” is the name of the new game, and for a myriad of reasons it is really, really, hard not to play.  Let’s imagine how this model of pandering to approval ratings might pan out:

  • The world is risk adverse = less travel into unknown territories = cultural stagnation
  • Content is responsive = lowest common denominator rules = deterioration of quality content
  • Process is desanctified = harsh conditions for new ideas = poetic paucity
  • Creativity is about marketing = loss of original voices = homogenious and soulless society

Some of these hypotheses are manifest already in the form of click bait, shorter attention spans, magic bullets and media junk food.

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These issues are not black and white- but to my point, as I write this I am aware that complexity doesn’t work in blog posts.  And while I could also write a book about how technology stokes the creative fire, the ramification of the constant feedback loop unnerves me.

Let’s end with these wise words by Oscar Wilde:

“I won’t tell you that the world matters nothing, or the world’s voice, or the voice of society. They matter a good deal. They matter far too much. But there are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely—or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands. You have that moment now. Choose!”

-Oscar Wilde, from Lady Windermere’s Fan


CREATIVE EXERCISE

In the spirit of innovation and Nicolas Tesla, this prompt encourages you to use your imagination and wander into new territories

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Join The Creative Hours community. Share your experience!

Email your work to thecreativehours@gmail.com or post your invention using hashtag #TCHinvention


Further reading:
The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exupéry

 

 
The Inventions, Researches and Writings of Nikola Tesla Presenting some of the marvelous findings and theories which made inventor Nikola Tesla famous. This fascinating book I ncludes lectures, articles and discussions, in particular those bearing on polyphase motors.