Creative Connect

Sheets of rain slice across the pond, while our thirty-eight resident Canada geese poke at their feathers or calmly stare. Human wellbeing often depends on being dry, out of the rain, but in those moments when I enjoy the geese, I also enjoy getting wet.

You might call such a moment being alive, but as an artist I call it being creative. For by creativity I mean the potential to connect with the world outside oneself, whether near to home—the geese in the rain, a field of wildflowers, or far from home—the terror of immigrant children separated from their parents.  

When I experience long periods without this creative energy rising, I don’t feel connected. I fall into an abyss of my own mind, a morass of thinking about myself. Creativity makes me feel connected to the world. We all share this experience; it is inherently human.

The opposite is also true. We can be in the most beautiful place and not appreciate it; we block the beauty from entering our marrow. We can be in the most loving relationship and not allow the love to enter. When we don’t connect, we don't belong. Caught in the rain, we fear our clothing is getting wet or ruined, and we make it a problem. We hurry, frown, hunch up, forget the larger picture.

This longing to be connected with a big 220 amp plug drives my art. Even when I am grieving or burdened, when the world appears deeply troubled and dysfunctional, I try to keep this connective amperage flowing. For I know life will continue to change like wood to ash or leaves to compost, and human creativity is recognizing and living with these transitions and using them. A friend sent me a link to an article about an artist's painting exhibit. The artist, Kelly Thorndike, is an Iraqi vet who was stationed at the horrific Abu Ghraib prison when a bomb went off. In the second before shrapnel hit and seriously wounded him, Thorndike saw a nearby inmate blown to pieces. It’s worth a read. Creative work can help us process events and feelings we store in our minds.

A few nights ago, I was finishing a new sculpture, a mandala of sorts, with a great hollow tree in the center, and small meditating figures surrounding it.

 Sculpture in process leaning on the wall.

Sculpture in process leaning on the wall.

I think the outer work is complete, but I have one part yet to finish. The Buddhas are sitting on wooden dowels, bobbins from an old textile mill in Lowell.

 Sculpture detail, LH

Sculpture detail, LH

They are hollow. I want to place a word, a prayer, a meditation for the world inside each of these wooden tubes. I cut up a watercolor and wrote single words on each one—compassion, wisdom, suffering .  .  .  but then didn’t feel this was exactly right. As I was putting tools away, I noticed a bag of leftover National Geographic maps from making the sculpture, The Teapot Explorer.

I pulled out one, ‘Peoples of the Mideast’, a map of Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan, with pictures of all the different ethnic groups from these areas—Bedouin, Qashqai, Armenian, Turk, Lur, Kurd among others. In one corner of the map there is a box describing the ethno-linguistic groups titled, An Awesome Human Mosaic. I thought of adding the names of indigenous people inside each bobbin in recognition of the depth of so much human diversity.

 Copyright 1972 National Geographic Society

Copyright 1972 National Geographic Society

Then I opened a second map, ‘Great Migrations’, depicting eighteen migration patterns around the globe—birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, amphibians, crustaceans, micro-organisms, and fish. I traced the Monarch’s multi-generational migration of 4000 miles. I followed the equally miraculous journey of the Loggerhead turtle 9000 miles from beginning to end, back to the very beach where it was born. Each of these creatures as unique as the indigenous people I admire.

I left the studio filled with awe.

Early the next morning on my way to the studio, I stopped to visit the geese. Some of the them were on the dam wetting their feet, others stood in the lawn alongside it. I appreciated  so much life right outside the door. Then I continued to my studio determined to write this blog. I’m not sure the blog is quite finished, and I don’t know how or when I will finish the sculpture, but as I look up from my page, startled at the sound of flapping wings, I see the geese practicing. It's flying-lesson time for the young.  

Soil Redemption Song

Michael Phillips, author of The Apple Grower and The Holistic Orchard, now has a new book, Mycorrhizal Planet, just published by Chelsea Green Publishing. There was some disagreement between Phillips and the publisher about the title for the book, so he conducted a poll asking friends for input. A cattle rancher, a regional publisher, a permaculture guru, a biodynamic herbalist, an academic, and an orchardist/artist, among others, all weighed in on which of three titles they preferred. I voted without hesitation for Mycorrhizal Alchemy, but Chelsea Green decided to go with Mycorrhizal Planet (Mycorrhizal Pathways was the other choice). Alchemy suggests transformation, mystery, and ancient practices, all of which I am drawn towards. It’s a little like taking old found objects and making them into art.

 Linda Hoffman (left) and Madeleine Lord working on Belle the Bird in Hoffman's Studio, 2009

Linda Hoffman (left) and Madeleine Lord working on Belle the Bird in Hoffman's Studio, 2009

In the painting, The Alchemist by Cornelis Bega, a hunched figure sits in a cave-like room, intent on what is happening inside a glass jar. Books, notebooks, and earthenware pots surround him, suggesting a lifetime of mixing substances and studying their reactions. The alchemist is grounded and humble in Bega’s depiction. It’s a lonely art, much maligned as a materialistic quest to turn ore into gold; when, in fact, alchemists made considerable contributions to early science. 

   The Alchemist  , Cornelis Bega

The Alchemist, Cornelis Bega

I think of Michael Phillips like this alchemist, studying the threads of life in the soil, appreciating them, and sharing their magic. Mycorrhizal fungi form a fibrous network stretching throughout the soil, attaching to roots, and connecting plant roots to each other. These fungi process minerals and feed them up to the plants, sending up just what is required. They will even provide storage for a plant’s bounty until leaner times, or pass on needed nutrients to other plants. It's a hidden world that scientists are only beginning to explore.

 Photo courtesy of Larry Petersen, University of Guelph

Photo courtesy of Larry Petersen, University of Guelph

“Each and every Mycorrhizal pulsating with nutrient flow, [is] making our lives possible,” Phillips writes. I consider Phillip’s passion to understand soil devotional.

Interestingly, Buddhism conceives of our world as one in which everything is interrelated and interdependent; nothing is separate in all of existence (or non-existence). Buddhism uses the analogy of the jeweled Net of Indra to describe this global interconnectedness. Imagine a vast net spreading out infinitely in all directions. At every crossing point in the net is a reflective jewel, and each jewel contains the reflection of every other jewel. If I were to put a mark on one gemstone, it would appear on every other one. How we treat one person ripples across the entire world.  

The world under our feet is no different. Trees even share nutrients through Mycorrhizal fungi attached to their roots with trees of different species. It’s a little mind blowing — this network of fungi in the soil supporting the cosmic connection between all beings throughout space and time.

Phillips told me that he actually wanted the title to be Soil Redemption Song, inspired by Bob Marley’s haunting Redemption Song.

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
'Cause all I ever have
Redemption songs
Redemption songs

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
'Cause none of them can stop the time
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look? Ooh
Some say it's just a part of it
We've got to fulfill the Book

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
'Cause all I ever have
Redemption songs
Redemption songs
Redemption songs

Michael told me that as he pondered the lyrics of this song, he wrote, “Healthy plant metabolism begins with a molecule of water, a breath of carbon, and light energy from our nearest star. The tangible science behind all this unlocks the righteous way to farm and garden, give honor to trees, and plain do right by this earth. Nothing has ever excited me more.”

Mycorrhizal Planet provides practical information for the farmer, gardener, orchardist, and forester, as well as inspiration for all of us who have temporarily lost heart from following the daily news. If you’d like to order the book please go to Phillips’ website. He’ll sign a copy and send it to you.

Listen closely when you next walk among the trees. You might just hear the great alchemist Bob Marley singing — transforming our pain with his courage. Listen!

Where is Eden?

“Way to the East, at the source of four rivers” it says in the Bible. But this description doesn’t really help. The Tigris and the Euphrates are two locator rivers for Eden, but they have different sources, and there is no confluence of four rivers nearby. Medieval cartographers placed Eden on the far edge of their maps, beyond Asia, as if in unexplored territory. They often drew a walled garden and a naked little man and woman to mark the location.

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   Beatus Map, locating Garden of Eden (1109)

Beatus Map, locating Garden of Eden (1109)

For centuries, Eden was considered a real place and it belonged on any map of the world, but no one quite knew exactly where to locate it. When coordinate mapping began in the 15th century, Eden was placed at 0 degrees latitude and 180 degrees longitude — until it became apparent that the coordinates pointed to an area in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Today, we don’t try to put Eden on the map — but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to find it.

What is Eden, after all, but getting what we want, when we want it? That’s what the Buddha understood 2500 years and built the foundation of his teaching from his understanding that we all suffer because of our desires. When things go our way, we are happy, and when they don’t, we suffer. Eden is that lovely place where every desire is satisfied: the world is our oyster. The Buddha taught that the way out from this suffering was to understand that satisfying our cravings will never bring happiness, because all of life is impermanent. When we think we have it — whatever it is — something shifts — and once again we are looking for the next rosy apple.  

Eden and Paradise are often used synonymously. To the Persians, Paradise meant a walled garden, while to the Hebrews it was an orchard. Indeed, I would agree that an orchard is as close as it comes to Eden. Trees that grow and produce sweet fruit year after year are really quite miraculous. There is so much about fruit trees that is astonishing — even simple apple branches — those irregular shaped, pruned and grafted, sculpted limbs, bewitching with their freedom and artistry.

Thus we have the genesis of the exhibit, After Apple Pruning. Using apple branches pruned from dormant trees and a few grafted roots from young trees that died, and with the help of good friends, Lynn Horsky and Gabrielle White, and my daughter, Ariel Matisse, we have created an Eden of apple orchard related sculpture for The Gallery at Villageworks in Acton, Massachusetts. We populated many of the branches with bronze figures that I first sculpted in wax — Adam and Eve, serpents, people sitting, bending, kneeling, reading, mediating, resting, as well as hanging from trees, tempting a snake, or embracing.

A few days ago, in anticipation of the installation, I became almost hysterical with worry. Two large wall panels took most of one day to figure out how to hang, including three trips to the hardware store and two consultations with my neighbor, a retired engineer (No nails in the walls was a gallery restriction). I didn’t want to rent and drive a 15’ truck and the forecast was solid rain for installation day. Moving so many very delicate branches was frightening, because one never knows when reassembling a piece if it will come together the way it did before. I watched as my mind went into a tail spin. I was struggling outside the garden walls.

The installation was smoother than expected; though one small, but important branch broke and caused a small panic. Blase, my partner, helped enormously. Clearly my prior distress was for naught. Today, we no longer look for Eden on a map, but I would place it for the next three months, a little to the east, in Acton. I simply love to be in the gallery space among all of the art. My Eden has been the pleasure of working with Lynn and Gabi, and seeing my daughter fully engage a challenging project.  Eden is inside the mind, always nearby, no farther than our next thought. 

  From One Seed , Linda Hoffman & Gabrielle White

From One Seed, Linda Hoffman & Gabrielle White

Please join us!
Opening Reception for the Artists
Sunday, January 15 from 3-5 pm at 525 Massachusetts Ave, Acton, MA.

Exhibition dates: January 6 – March 30, 2017
Gallery hours: M-F 9-5.

Artist Hours in the Gallery
Fridays, Feb 3, 10, 24; March 10, 24; noon to 2pm

Poetry Reading in the Gallery
Celebrating the publication of "Before We Were Birds"
By Susan Edwards Richmond
Sunday, March 12 at 3pm

 Grafting a Life (Left Wall) Linda Hoffman & Ariel Matisse

Grafting a Life (Left Wall) Linda Hoffman & Ariel Matisse