Sunday, August 29, 2010

Catching the Heart Off Guard: Teaching and Art Making

Gate. Graveyard at Sant'Anna in Camprena
Last summer I traveled to Tuscany to learn with photographer, Doug Beasley who "taught" a Zen and Photography course. There were 8 of us in the course and we stayed along with 20 other artists at Sant'Anna in Camprena Monastery in Pienza, Italy. I was fascinated by the cemetery at Sant' Anna and spent a lot of time making images, such as Gate, Crosses, and What is Written. I was captivated by something there and through the camera lens sought to have it speak to me.
Crosses.  Graveyard at Sant'Anna at Camprena.
In the year since, I have made many other images and along the way have misplaced the primacy of the spiritual. Photographing in the Badlands overwhelmed me. Working as an administrator instead of a professor has sapped my energy. I felt drunk on the drama of these landscapes, removed from what matters most. As I have written in other blogs, returning home left me without sight or will to lift my camera and shoot. This afternoon I watched a wonderful documentary film about Doug Beasley that I found inspirational and it rekindled the belief that making art is seeking the spiritual. In the film Doug says:
Photography isn't about finding the most spectacular place or photographing places that haven't been seen is more how we approach our subject matter and where that comes from is our internal space. Emotionally where we're at. Spiritually where we're at. To me that is more interesting to investigate that space than to always be trying to find a new destination.

I have been thinking a lot about what Doug had to say about internal spaces from the perspective of an artist and a progressive educator.  In many ways, the internal landscape that guides what I privilege has been obfuscated by the bombardment of false idols, both in art making and in teaching.  Instead of listening, I've been talking.  Instead of being patient, I have dismissed the ordinary. Instead of being the stillness I seek, I have been overly busy.

What is Written. Sant'Anna at Camprena

What I have forgotten is that every artwork I have made as a teacher or an artist has required an exchange of energy. This is why programs and national standards cannot work as they displace the idiosyncratic practice and the passion of the teacher with a prepackaged certainty.  So too, do consuming photography how-to books that offer photoshop tricks misdirect vision making, or partaking in a steady diet of postcard destinations. In each case, the external object becomes a substitution for seeing and reduces the need to feel and think in novel ways.  They are epic constructs with predictable, if not certain, outcomes that have been made elsewhere and arrive or are chosen with the expectation that the teacher or artist will enact as directed. Over time I wonder if the teacher/artist doesn't reach for these, not as substitution but as mistaken senses of self. At best, they are lifeless and terrible distractions. 

The works that speak most clearly to me, even after the passage of time, are ones that surprised me, unsettled me, confused me, and found me.  Teaching and art making are a lot  like the closing lines of Seamus Heaney's lovely poem, "Postscript".  He writes:
...Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
Yes, that is what it means to make art as a photographer and as a teacher--to open to that which comes at you and in doing so to find yourself surprised, your heart caught off guard and blown open.


  1. I love the line "And catch the heart off guard and blow it open" and am also struck by how it applies to teaching. It is sometimes harder to make those day to day connections when you don't see students regularly but the possibility is there always so we do need to be open to it.

  2. I love that line, too, Debbie. Mary Ann, Gate and Crosses so beautifully expresses what I felt at Sant' Anna in Comprena. I was there about two months before you, and, like you, was entranced by that cemetery. But it was in an olive grove near that monastery my "heart was caught off guard and blown open". Yes, I've had the privilege of experiencing that often while living in Italy, but mostly by what's ordinary there during the times of stillness you seek.

  3. Deb just read this. And yes yes yes the olive trees were sublime.


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