Mary Fisher: Artists that inspire
Author, artist, advocate and social entrepreneur Mary is a global leader in the arena of social change through positive thought and action. Her interview with TextileArtist.org in 2016 was seen by over 6,000 people, many of which were moved to contact us:
Singularly one of the most powerful, thoughtful and socially motivated artists I know. A leader, a big heart with massive creative talent. Cas Holmes
We bring to a close our Artists that inspire series with Mary’s thoughts on inspiration and we discover who has influenced her throughout her prestigious career.
Mary Fisher: I think of inspiration as I think of happiness: always desired, occasionally experienced. We pass by shelves full of self-help books promising inspiration-on-call, but every artist I’ve known has both inspired and barren moments.
When I experience inspiration, and to be inspired is to have an experience, I know it. My soul breathes. My heart rate climbs. Fear retreats and passion takes over. I’m infused with a new energy. It’s as if I have not found inspiration so much as it has found me. I’m possessed.
I have no simple formula that guarantees inspiration, no ‘push this button and watch the inspiration pour out.’ But some things and people trigger the experience. They call me beyond myself. They help me become a channel for unseen images.
If it sounds spiritual, that’s because it is.
Jane Dunnewold: Fellow Explorer
For me, Jane inspires me as a partner, a teacher, a fellow-explorer and an inspiration. Read her book Creative Strength Training or get into her workshop and you’ll quickly discover that she is no ordinary woman.
I’m reluctant to try explaining Jane, even to myself. Her magic isn’t a trick. It’s a gift. I’ve seen her consistently bolster other people’s creativity. When she comes into my studio, she brings with her an air, a presence, that is 100% positive. She’s fearless about trying a new technique or testing a different fabric. Where another woman with her gifts might be cocky or arrogant, Jane is modest, kind, humble, persistently looking for a way to serve others.
Jane’s gifts as an artist are themselves inspiring. Follow this woman’s example and you’re likely to become both more prolific and more polished. She not only knows creativity in herself, she knows how to nurture it in others.
Among Jane’s greatest strengths is her capacity to listen. If she poses a question, she does not let go until it has been answered truthfully, deeply, in a way that tells the story. She listens in the way some artists see: differently.
Exactly how Jane inspires me, or how she prompts my experience of inspiration, remains a mystery. But it involves her willingness to explore what lies behind the creative process. She looks for the emotional and spiritual content of my, or of anyone’s, art.
If I remember the feeling of an abandonment in my childhood, Jane will encourage me to go into that feeling, to bring out the child, to let my hands and eyes and brushes express the truth that I did not wither or die. I survived it, and now I can use it in my art.
Joy, excitement, love, boredom – all are worthy of being brought into our creativity, our art. It’s the constant lesson with which Jane inspires me.
For more information visit: www.janedunnewold.com
Gee’s Bend: Art as a Messenger
If you’ve never had an occasion to study a quilt produced by the remarkable community at Gee’s Bend, treat yourself to this pleasure soon. The story of the Gee’s Bend artists and their history is familiar to most quilters. It’s also a source of inspiration for my own work.
Gee’s Bend is a 700-person, rural African-American community surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. Settled by ex-slaves in the late 19th Century, the matriarchs of Gee’s Bend developed their own techniques for sewing and designing, and they created images and styles they’ve passed along from generation to generation.
Some quilts were said to bear encoded directions for slaves looking for the Underground Railroad that could take them to the North. Some are clearly inspired by the shapes and distinctive colours found along a meandering river or in the sagging fortunes of a forgotten Southern plantation. The patchwork patterns are often irregular. Symmetry is important because it accents asymmetrical lines and angles. Colours are bold. Whites feel empty. Blacks are used with intent.
The quilts of Gee’s Bend are strikingly beautiful. At one level, they represent ‘art for art’s sake’ without pretension. I remember when I first saw them, even before I knew their source or story. They were breathtaking. Even now, I sometimes see them billowing off a clothes line hung somewhere in my sleep. The quilts inspire me.
The women of Gee’s Bend are a treasure. Because of them, what might otherwise be a community of unremarkable rural poverty, Gee’s Bend is a collective of artists two, three and sometimes four generations deep.
They made art because they are artists, and they made it of what was available to them: worn-out work clothes, torn sheets, threadbare dresses, feed sacks and raw cotton. These women know that art and life are indivisible. If they carry the injustice and brutality of slavery into their quilts, they also deliver the tenderness of an infant’s cry. Their art tells the story of their lives.
Twenty-some years ago I was invited to have the first one-woman art exhibit in the Great Rotunda of the U.S. Senate. The AIDS epidemic was still raging. Everyone infected, including me, was dying. One of my sculptures installed in the exhibit invoked a line from a speech I had given, expressing the hope that we could find unity in life not only in death. Hours before it opened, the exhibit was cancelled. A Senator had been offended at my inclusion of references to death.
The artists of Gee’s Bend would have understood why I could not speak of life without speaking of death. In their fellowship, I am comforted. By their lives and their art, I am inspired.
For more information visit: www.soulsgrowndeep.org
Jan Beaney and Jean Littlejohn: All about Life
Some day there will be a Textile Artists Hall of Fame. The first two inductees are likely to be London’s Jan Beaney and Jean Littlejohn. They could come in together, as a pair. Or they may be inducted singly. Either way, when they arrive they’ll bring grace and joy to the exhibit.
Here are two women whose work profits from their differences. Jan was born to a family of recognised, professional artists; Jean says she comes from a family of ‘makers.’ Jan is the traveller whose work often mirrors the rounding of landscapes and the pastel of a fading sun. Jean is likely to be inspired by a nip of cloth found in the corner of her bedroom. Each is an artist. Each has her own power.
Most often, they work as a team. Together they represent a sort of two-person, roving artist’s community into which each of us is invited. On the way in, they’d like to hear you laugh. They take art seriously but take themselves, and all of us, with lovely, lilting amusement. Twenty years ago they created ‘Double Trouble’ in further awareness of and interest in embroidery. I imagine they did it with a twinkle in their eyes.
Sometimes I’m inspired to produce art. Sometimes I’m inspired to call a good friend and tell her I’ve missed her. Sometimes inspiration gives me an insight I lacked or a sense of direction I’d missed. In all these moments, inspiration tends to rise quietly, unseen, as a hunch or an instinct on a whim.
Jan and Jean bring something less subtle and often less quiet. They bring life. Chattering away as they teach, there’s no time to look away from them or lose track of their stories. They chronicle their most recent trip. They tease about losing the other in a fine button store.
Despite the delicate perfection of their own work, when they’re teaching a sophisticated technique one of them is likely to add:
Don’t worry if you don’t get it perfect. Nobody’ll know.
An ancient definition of inspiration is ‘breathing in the Divine.’ In their rollicking and sometimes gentle mentorships, Jan and Jean teach me to breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out.
They inspire me to be aware that I am here, now, alive, connected to something greater than myself. They inspire me with life.
For more information visit: www.doubletrouble-ent.com
Visual Details: Everyday Mindfulness
Over the past decade, I’ve lived in the American Southwest, amid the stunning red-rock cliffs of Sedona, Arizona, and in Southeastern Florida. I moved to Sedona for the setting. I returned to Florida for my ageing mother.
I mention these two settings because they are strikingly different. In Sedona, every day was introduced by the sweeping grandeur of a mountain sunrise. Throughout the day, colours blazed and faded, shadows moved across the landscapes, and all of it ended at nightfall’s inky, purple-black that’s hard to capture on a canvas.
In Florida, I’m an urban dweller who can see the ocean from my balcony. My city holds the shriek of sirens and waves from the deck of a passing yacht. I’m as likely to hear the jarring sound of jackhammers as a riff of jazz from a nearby Cuban bar.
But these are the grand things of our neighbourhoods and countrysides, the big things, the differences we all notice. These are what tourist guides report.
What I recognised some time ago is that, much as I appreciate all that is massive and grand in my environment, I tend to be inspired by fractions of things: tiny pieces, little bits, details that hide inside the beauty of something larger and more forceful. Someone else sees the muscular power of a growing skyscraper; I see the incredible beauty in the small fragment of concrete that fell from the collapsed wall.
This morning I studied the bent blade of grass that refused to die in a sidewalk crack. Yesterday, I was obsessed with the freckle on a child’s cheek.
When economists and others reveal their analyses and make their pronouncements, they often remind us that things are complex and ‘the devil’s in the details.’ Perhaps.
But I prefer an earlier version of that saying, a version that explains why details actually inspire me. The older, original saying? ‘God is in the details.’
I think the original version had it right. It’s in the details that She inspires me.
Louise Nevelson: Glimpse into Another Creative Mind
All art is unique. But the work Louise Nevelson created is staggeringly different and comes from a magnificent mind.
The daughter of Russian immigrant parents, Nevelson’s earliest years were spent in the cold remoteness of a Maine forest where her father, still learning to speak English, supported his family by cutting wood and often carving it, and by running a private junk yard. There we see the makings of Louise Nevelson’s art: carved wood and reclaimed junk.
When my mother passed away almost a year ago, a series of grief-invoked feelings led me to realise that I have long been drawn to brokenness. Since late in 2016, when the world itself seems bent on breaking under the weight of racism and sexism, rejection of the immigrant and brutality toward the vulnerable, my own art has begun to show the evidence of brokenness. My soul takes in the culture around me and brings out expressions that are whole pieces of broken parts.
Even before this past year, I’ve long had a special connection to Louise Nevelson and her art. We never met but I feel as though I know her. I understand what she saw in the crooked screw that she mounted in a breaking wall. I know why she chose the piece that was rusted instead of the piece that was polished. I get it. I get her. I feel as though my soul is mystically connected to hers.
When I feel that connection most strongly, I do not tell others. It seems too strange. Still, it is true. This woman I did not know but have always known, kindles a spirit of invention within me. She inspires me.
For more information visit: www.tate.org.uk
Degas’ Dancers: Artworks
When I lived in France as a young woman, just beginning to imagine what it might mean to be an artist, not yet really believing, I was drawn to the work of the great Impressionists: Manet, Pissarro, Cezanne, Cassatt, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Monet. In their lives and their art, they were striking out in new directions untested by the marketplace and generally unappreciated by the critics.
Among the pieces that captured my imagination most consistently were the dancers drawn, painted and sculpted by Edgar Degas. His classical training and meticulous attention to detail gave life and emotion to each piece. Each of his dancers was distinct.
When, for example, you study his Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer, her lithe but still immature body posed awkwardly, the bend of her neck and position of her hands fully adolescent, you know why Degas once said that art is ‘not what you see, but what you make others see.’ What Degas makes us see is uncanny.
I have always loved dance. Decades ago I spent a day in the company of the incomparable Gregory Hines. We were all by ourselves in my studio, the result of a story I’d happily tell. Over the course of our hours together he exhausted me with movements I’d never before tried. My muscles ached. But I was so enthralled by him that I wanted the hours never to end.
What I see in Degas’ dancers is what I experienced with Gregory Hines. I’m moved by the power, the raw strength that is expressed through beauty and grace. Here is art that breathes. I can feel their muscles flex and burn. I can sense the imperfect balance of the human body forced to stand on one slippered toe. Everything here is one-of-a-kind. Everything here inspires my soul to dance.
For more information visit: www.edgar-degas.org
Women of Africa: Synergy
I was still dying of AIDS when I was first invited to visit Africa.
The time of the antiretroviral ‘cocktail’ had just arrived and the long-term efficacy was not yet known. The American AIDS community was sceptical. For all we knew, protease inhibitors were just the latest version of AZT and other promises that did not work out.
I was still a mother of school-aged children. On one hand, I needed to see to the ordinary business of raising two sons. I couldn’t afford to spend my days thinking about dying. On the other hand, it’s hard not to think about dying when you are.
My initial visit was as part of an official U.S. delegation. At the first few stops, I was kept with the American delegation and had no time alone with the women who were speaking to us. They were African and I was a Yankee; they were as Black as I was White, as poor as I was privileged. We came from different worlds.
But what became clear when we were off, alone together, was that these were women like me. Our colours and accents did not divide us. We were each one of us, a woman with AIDS, a woman with children, a woman with stories of broken trust and violated bodies, a woman who was dying.
In ways obvious and subtle, my art has changed since I was first welcomed into the community of the women with AIDS in Africa. The stories told of their suffering and their resilience are inspiring. The courage they exhibit in speaking out despite the risks of physical abuse and community judgment is contagious. But what is most astounding, at least to me, is their unbridled joy.
I went to Africa a tragic woman with AIDS. But when I joined the line of sisters with AIDS, imitating their swaying hips and dancing under the African stars, my sadness lifted. In the singing of songs and the bonding of hugs, I gave up hopelessness. In the laughter of those moments, I learned to laugh again.
The experience of community is itself powerful. Experiencing that community with other women, and women whose futures so resemble my own is doubly-potent. Being surrounded and held by a group of African women with AIDS has never failed to inspire me.
For more information visit: www.maryfisher.com
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