Saying "Hi" Brings Health...So Smile and Say Hello

A warm greeting is a very simple and basic gift that we should be giving often, everyday, even to strangers. Making eye contact with a stranger, smiling and saying hello as you pass one another on the street, is a gesture of kindness, an acknowledgment of your common humanity and can change the course of another person’s day, and your own.

Over the past few years my wife and I, walking in the city a great deal, have noticed, and had numerous discussions about, the alarming decline in the number of people who are willing to make eye contact and say hello when passing on a city sidewalk.

We have wondered about this withdrawal from one another, whether it is due to technology and a tendency to be plugged in at all times, almost defensively, with headphones/music blocking outside sound and phone/texting distracting us from our surroundings. But those technology distractions are only a small percentage of the population that we encounter. Perhaps it is a response to specific fears of danger due to media hype, and an overload of information making people need or want to not engage. Fear sells and people often buy it.

Having strangers ignore a greeting, actively avoid eye contact, look at us (two middle aged women) strangely for being friendly only makes a person feel more alienated, unsafe, more lonely in the midst of a city of people hungry for real connection. It is hard not to take it personally, but we don’t let it deter us in our warmth and outreach. Those who do respond do so with what feels like gratitude, acknowledgement of the positive impact in that moment.

Years ago, as a college art student with a paper route that took me into tall apartment buildings, I smiled and greeted a young man as I got on the elevator to ride up to the top floor where we both got off. He had smiled back but was clearly shy about talking further. When I left the elevator I told him to have a good day and he responded with similar positive wishes to me. Over time I saw him often in that building and began to get to know him. We became friends. He later confided in me that the day that I first greeted him he had decided to take his own life and was going home from work to his apartment to do that. But my simple gesture of warmth toward him was just enough to give him hope and made him change his mind and live. That story has stayed with me as a testament to the power of a simple warm greeting.

My wife Kim and I, have always been the “smile and say hello” types, but we have begun to really work to make sure to warmly greet everyone that we see, to really see them, to notice their beautiful eyes, their smiles, try to make sure that we are a part of the solution, part of a powerful sharing of humanity, of a building up of decency. And you know what? It makes me feel better to do that. As our friend Nina, an Iranian American artist says. In Iran, in Farsi, they have a “Saying “Hi” brings health”. Meaning that it brings health to the giver, to the receiver and to our community.

As a continuation of my wife Kim's Blessings Project, that has taken several forms over the past 20 years, we are working on a Keep MKE Warm Smile and Say Hello campaign that will have stickers, a website and other means of communicating/encouraging people to join us in building a warmer more connected community.

So, when someone is approaching you don’t actively avoid eye contact. Smile and say hello to your fellow humans people! Keep MKE Warm (and every community).

 

Letters

I have always been a letter writer. Real letters, preferably hand written and enclosed in an envelope with a carefully selected stamp, are to me some of the best gifts that a person can give. Real letters allow people to delve more deeply into their views about life. Real letters where people get to know aspects of each other in a thoughtful exchange, an unfolding (literally), a private conversation can reveal some of our deepest thoughts, reckless ponderings, memories, a sharing of information that might prove vital to who/what we are becoming as human beings.

Historically we often have only known the truth (or more of it) about women's lives through their letters as often the women in question were not included in the history books. They didn't make the evening news (not their good works, anyway). The biographies that I have read recently have been able to be written only because of the individual's letters which reveals to us their minds, their hearts, their intentions, their untold accomplishments and aspects of their relationships to others.

I read the book Firebrand and the First Lady this summer which was simultaneously the story of a written correspondence between two women, one very well known (Eleanor Roosevelt) and one lesser known to most (Pauli Murray) and it also served as a biography of Murray and her incredibly inspiring life and accomplishments. Murray, over the course of several decades helped to inform Eleanor Roosevelt's work, her national radio discussions, her influence during the Roosevelt Administrations, making her awareness more relevant and social justice oriented. I was so excited to learn about Pauli Murray and the incredible acts of bravery that she performed throughout her life, as well as her deeply spiritual explorations, her accomplishments as a published poet and writer, as a leader in law, as an organizer for various social justice causes including unfair labor practices, wrongful/racially motivated death row verdicts, segregation laws. She accomplished many firsts and should, by all rights, be a household name in America. But she was poor, African American and a lesbian so many of her accomplishments were not mainstream news. I highly recommend the book that will be out soon in paperback. If it were not for the letters between those two ladies her story may not have been told as completely as this book offered.

I have recently begun to write letters again, after a few years of letting that practice, that had been so important to me for several decades, slide. I want my young adult nieces and cousins to understand the power that they hold...a letter as a gift, as an opening, a document of their lives, their growth, their power.

Love Letter

Is it crazy to say that it feels like much of my work is a love letter of some kind to Life?...to moments, to people,  to the parts of our spirit that knows more than we will ever understand? I know that it sounds perhaps a little foolish to say this. But lets face it... Love can make us appear a bit foolish...can make us take risks and have a devil-may-care attitude.  Love, after all, cannot be contained. It demands to be shared, will sneak out of every pore even when you try to contain it. It inhabits every part of us, heightens our senses, makes us more impulsive and expressive.

That is what love letters to life do.  They provide a pressure valve release to things that cannot be contained and in doing so, share these things with the world or whomever will engage; those who are open to such messages. I want to be clear that I am not speaking of just romantic love here. Though I am fortunate to have a beautiful, romantic relationship now in its 10th year. No, I am talking about things that bring us joy, things that teach us hard lessons, things that make us realize how amazing and miraculous it is that life happens, that our cells and organs all work together to give us this experience of breathing, thinking, feeling, experiencing beauty, pain, loss, longing. Some people go through life taking that for granted. But I try to be grateful each day, to try to understand all that I have and learn from it, share it, make good use of it. That is a love for life in all of its joys and sorrows, difficulties and learning moments...and to that I make work that brings together aspects of my experience, my love of learning, my humanity and my role on this earth as one of many species that live and work together.

When I work in the garden I am in awe of nature and small, wondrous beauties. Love.

When I visit my elderly mother and she smiles, has a moment of clarity and joy with me I feel intense gratitude for all that she has taught me about joy, love, gratitude, all that she is still teaching me everyday.

When I wonder that I have found someone with whom I share my life, its joys, its challenges, its potential, I wonder at how easily love has come to us together and deepened over time. I had thought love difficult before with others in shorter attempts at grown-up relationships---that were perhaps more about loneliness and safety...about learning something that I needed to learn, but not about deeper understanding...not the love that I ultimately needed. Now we are in our 10th year together and we have fun everyday. We make each other better people by our togetherness. We take care of each other and tend to our relationship. We have built a sense of home with each other that is deep and powerful.

My work is about many things...my memories, things that I have read, life, history difficulties and joys, mysteries of life, losses and gains. I have a deep reverence for life and am in a state of wonder at it. I create love letters without realizing it sometimes, it just comes out sometimes even when I think that I am making work about something more serious. But then, what is more serious (and also joyful) than love?

 

Wonder...

Josie Osborne -- Wonder…

I have often described myself as an optimistic pessimist, a contradiction in perspectives that allows for a simultaneous balance and tension in those two potentially conflicting views and life approaches. I have come to realize that balance and tension manifest themselves visually and physically in my art work.

The title Wonder… implies the childlike wonder of the optimist fueled by realizations about life, spiritual ponderings, natural world phenomena, beauty in all of its forms and the magic that happens in play. But there is also a sense of a different wonder-ing in a somewhat skeptical way about the more difficult aspects of our experience, the interruptions of the joyful wonder with cold reality, pain and an awareness of injustice in the world. We cannot afford to dwell too heavily in either of those two realities but must find a balance between them in order to live, love and find the more complex meaning in life.  This balance exists, even in the cycles of life, longing, love, loss and play. There are both the wonderful and the wondering experiences at work together.  

Working with assemblage and collage gives me an opportunity to filter my experiences, thoughts, memories, absurdity, complexity and poetry of life while joining aspects of those connections into objects. I have often described it as serious play as it lends itself to intuitive and whimsical juxtapositions, absurd transformations and all within an ordered and fairly serious space. Studio time and making art is a reflective and meditative practice for me, providing a balance to the hectic and often challenging outside world, while creating objects that, at least metaphorically, order it.

 

Note: This is the essay/statement from my solo exhibition Wonder... at Walkers Point Center for the Arts in Milwaukee Wisconsin. The show runs through July 9th, 2016

Quiet

 

Quiet – Walker’s Point Center for the Arts

Quiet. it’s a feeling, a sense, an experience that we cherish in different ways throughout our lives. Quiet is something that I personally find that I have to make space and opportunity for in my life as adult obligations, jobs, politics, technology and the multi-tasking nature of contemporary and urban life compete with it.

Quietude should never be confused with silence for they are most often quite different experiences with different effects upon an individual. It should also be said that, depending upon the individual, quiet can be found in myriad ways and places.

As a child I had secret places to which I would retreat alone, as many kids do, a clearing in the woods was a favorite where I could lay on my back and stare up at the opening between the branches of the huge old oak trees and the sky. I could hear the wind, the distant bullfrogs, the buzzing insects. I could feel and smell the mossy earth and leaves, could feel the grass beneath and around me and I could spend hours there thinking, looking and quietly pondering life. Even in winter I could go there, hearing my own breathing as I lay in the insulating snow around and beneath me.

I also get a sense of quiet when in the studio I lose track of time in that magical combination of both play and work, fueled by intuition, curiosity, repeated action, intense focus and the joy of making.

I find myself drawn to work that is quiet in its power. The experience of sitting in a room of Agnes Martin paintings or Cy Twombly sculptures has given me that sense of quiet power.

All three of the artists in this exhibition rely on quiet or quietude as a source of power in their work. All three artists offer the viewer an opportunity for a contemplative experience far from the madness of the world outside. Not running from it, but offering a refueling so that we might more easily work within it.

Tyler Meuninck’s paintings and drawings rely on the sense of solitude that one feels even in urban environments looking out at spaces not inhabited by other human beings. His palette, mark-making and compositions enhance the experience with their textural blurred focus, as though starring in a relaxed way at something while simultaneously being lost in thought about other things, letting one’s mind wander in a way that creative, and hopefully all minds do.

Kevin Giese’s sculptural work responds directly to and uses materials found in nature, trees, stones, goose down, algae and grasses. His work creates objects that seem to reference landscape, totemic and religious fetish forms and process as well as a reverence for the natural world with his own connection to it that is simultaneously secular and sacred. It also references aspects of his life and experiences, abstracting memories into visually poetic forms that express his connection to and understanding of the natural materials and their source.

Melanie Pankau creates large scale drawings in graphite on mylar that require a great deal of repeated action, mark making, repeated and layered forms creating images that seem to quietly undulate, like breath, in and out. Pankau’s works are influenced by her meditative yoga practice. Her drawings feel at times weightless and other times weighted, and often imply both movement and stillness, light, air, repetition, earthy forms and a sort of spiritual uplifting.

All three artists have an interest in a stillness and quietude, a meditative experience that is not silent or still at all, but actually quite alive and life affirming. It is both a response to and a break from contemporary culture. It is a refueling and regenerating opportunity. Enjoy.

-- Josie Osborne, Curator

 

Exhibition essay from Quiet at Walker's Point Center for the Arts, July, 2011

Yeats' Turning Gyres and Strange Coincidences

Strange coincidences happen to me with some frequency. They probably happen to all people and, if we are paying attention, we are aware of it. A year or so ago, I made an assemblage box in response to, while thinking about, Yeats' poem The Second Coming written in 1919-20. I did nothing more than reread the poem, which I had first read and dissected in a college English class in 1979. At the time I had not thought that I liked it, a little bit put off by its cynicism perhaps, and not seeing it as relevant to my life at the time...pushing away from all things biblical in my rebellion to my upbringing. I do remember being intrigued and troubled by my young English teacher's enthusiastic interpretation of the chaos and the darkness of the vision in the poem. It had both religious references and strangely secular imagery and I do remember that the vision described by the poet was intense and palpable. None the less, the imagery and language has stayed with me over the years, occasionally coming to mind as poetry does.

More recently I had a discussion with an artist friend, Greg Martens, about literary references to the apocalypse and I brought up the Yeatsian vision. In that conversation I realized that some ofthe imagery and some of the lines of that poem have begun to ring true. "Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer". That spinning metaphorical gyre does seem to be widening and intensifying as things heat up in our world politically, with regard to religious fervor, climate change and climate justice issues growing, socio-economic gaps growing and the urgency around all of these front lines causing even the most engaged and empathetic to have to combat a sense of being overwhelmed and shutdown, cynical beyond action.

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity"  made me think of the political climate with radical fundamentalism of all of the bigger religions becoming heated and powerfully divisive, attracting more and more thoughtless people in search of easy answers like snowflakes to a snowball rolling downhill, picking up steam and intensity as it goes. Those who know better are often complacent, overwhelmed perhaps by too many emergency issues of human rights, social justice, climate justice....or perhaps feeling like speaking out would be somehow dangerous to their own safety, family, well-being. I have heard some caring people say "That is not my issue." When an injustice did not directly affect their family (or so they told themselves). This all gave me pause to think about what the poem meant to me and do some little drawings in response to it at the time. The drawings that I made and included in the assemblage box were almost mechanical, diagrammatic images of two conical forms lined by a spiral, one going up and one going down that popped into my head while I was reading the words that had been written almost 100 years ago, published in both the Chicago Dial and the Nation in 1920. I had kind of laughed at myself at the time for turning this emotionally charged, dark image into a rather anesthetic, diagram.

Two years after I did those drawings I discovered that Yeats had also made diagrammatic drawings that were strangely similar to those that I had created for my box. What a coincidence, right? I had never been aware of his drawings...which also represented two conical forms with spirals lining each. Weird...a bit haunting, actually. I need to pay attention to more of this kind of thing.

Here is the poem in its entirety:

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight; somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?  

---William Butler Yeats, 1919
 

 

Winter

I have been thinking about the past a lot recently. Perhaps it is the time of year. Winter in Wisconsin brings long shadows, dwindling cool light and the quietude of snow covered days where we hear the crunch of boots in snow, the sound of our own breathing into scarves and feel the burn of dry cold air in our nostrils and lungs. The landscape becomes monochromatic vast swathes of white, gray, pale blue and brown. In adult life this season seems to lends itself to, or even demand, introspection.

Perhaps it is the lack of stimuli in the long dark winter months that drives us inward like starving beings living on stored fat. In this bleaker time we too live on stored experiences where distant past seems to come forward, intermingled with the most insignificant current-life trigger. Our conscious mind rolls in and out of being present, past, pulled back to present and then buried in past again.

Sometimes I use this time to plan for the future gardens, trips, house projects. Planning for the future keeps memory from taking over...memory brings with it a tumultuous mixture of joys, loss, break through experiences, periods of foggy nothing and occasionally powerful moments disconnected by powerful visual, auditory, sensory memory and poetic connections. All of this floats through my consciousness invading and undermining my attempts at being present. I do try to be present and am successful, but only for short periods at a time.

Perhaps too it is the fact that during that darkness and cold of winter I often take on projects that involve going through boxes of old things, sorting, organizing and even purging (always the goal). In doing so I come across pictures that make me think about things differently, old letters, memorabilia or objects that are like puzzle pieces to the larger picture of the past. Often they are parts from what seems like lifetimes ago or even someone else's life. How can objects from our past feel so foreign sometimes?

In this purging I opened a box that had been stored away for years...correspondence and artwork from a past relationship that broke my heart some fifteen years ago. It was so strange to sift through the layers of letters remembering the feelings, both good and bad, but also in doing so to try to reconcile the fact that we are now total strangers; nine hundred miles away and not having seen each other in 8 years despite the fact that I go to the city where she lives often. She had told me that if our relationship ever ended she would cut off all contact with me. I had thought she was joking at the time, incapable of imagining such an extreme step. But she was true to her word. We meant a great deal to each other for a few formative years during which both of us grew in significant ways. I now keep this sizeable box of correspondence as a document of who I was then with her. Letters as witness to a period in our lives. Letters to help me remember in a more balanced way both the good and the problematic aspects of that time together. That time brought me to where I am now and for that I am grateful. While there are no bright blossoms or sweet smells lingering in the evening air, winter brings us gifts in unexpected packages.

Memory Lost and Memory Saved

 Memory...something that I have been thinking more about lately as I visit mom, whose memory of recent events has dramatically diminished and whose memory of distant past has crept into the present with little separation between the two. Past and present have become one for her. But the past is dominant, alive, current, devouring the less powerful present, subsuming it. I try to be present with mom in the time that we have together, not too worried about what the near future will bring for her. Not anticipating and experiencing loss before it happens.

My artwork has relied on distant memories mixed with present moments for years now. Though in saying that, as I address those current moments in my works they become recent past and then more distant. Time cannot afterall be captured and preserved in a shadow box. But the ideas, fleeting images or impressions can.

I have noticed another change in my work now that I have something to lose, that I willfully fight off fear or uncertainty about future loss. When making work in the studio, when spending time with my mother or with my wife or dear friends, I need to work to be present, joyful, grateful for the time that we have together. We can acknowledge that our time here is fleeting in the big picture. But gratitude for having even a fleeting moment is the appropriate response to such realizations.

Responding to the Collage Impulse

Responding to the Collage Impulse…

Solace, quiet contemplation and creative play provide an antidote to our busy, noisy and increasingly mediated day-to-day experiences. When engaging in these quieter activities, we seek a balance between fast-paced lives and that rich interior existence that brings together memory, imagination, emotions, and the sensory and poetic awareness of the complex layers of experience that make up our identity and our understanding of the world.

That is what making art does for me. Working with collage and assemblage helps me to understand and synthesize my life experience, to make the intangible physical. It also helps me to transform the difficult side of life into beauty.

I often look to the written word, found text and poetry as important stepping-off points for my work that both directly reflects my own life experience and the world around me.  In my assemblage pieces and collages the elements used and the organization or treatment of space often references dreams, memories, experiences, architectural spaces (especially a stage structure) and a modernist influenced language of color, shape, line and diagrammatic mark-making.