Art for Life

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Public domain image from Pixabay

Music is a type of art that connects straight to the heart for me; something that all art should do. The musician interprets the markings on a page (and spaces in-between) and connects with the hearts of the listeners. Cellist Yo Yo Ma is one such musician.

I want to photograph what I see the way Yo Yo Ma plays his cello.

Recently, I watched the video below – a conversation between Yo Yo Ma and Damion Woetzel, director of at the Aspen Institute on the topic of “Art for Life’s Sake.”

Yo Yo Ma was artist-in-residence for the Aspen Institute in 2013, yet his work for this organization was not so much about being in residence as being out in the world, especially in schools. Here is what he says about being a “citizen artist.”

“I think Citizen Artists engage their communities by asking, ‘What is the largest challenge facing my neighborhood, city or country?’ and ‘How can I, as an artist, contribute to a solution?’” ~ Yo Yo Ma

Yo Yo Ma is a true ambassador for music, education, and art for life’s sake.

I recommend watching the entire (one hour) video if you have the time. Below are a few of my takeaways.

* Yo Yo Ma described how he became the most famous cellist in the world. It was by accident and through hard work.

He wanted to play the bass in school, but compromised with his parents on the cello. Receiving praise for his playing kept him going. Yo Yo Ma put in his 10,000 hours of practice and became very, very good. His love for music grew. But, he still wasn’t sure if playing music would be his life’s work.

He realized that what he loves most is people. Music affords him the opportunity to travel the world and meet lots of people.

* One goal of the arts program at the Aspen Institute is to reconsider the value of the arts in schools. They want to move from Stem (science, technology, engineering, math) to Steam – STEM + Arts = STEAM.

The arts are less testable; less measurable. Yet, in today’s world we need people who have collaborative skills, are flexible in their thinking, and who bring imagination to innovation – exactly what the arts teach.

* Artistic habits of mind involve having the same methodology (goal, vision, value) in everything you do. You keep addressing it, there’s always more, always a higher goal to achieve. You keep evolving, moving towards that grand vision, with everything you do in life.

And finally, this. Yo Yo Ma says,

“You were given a particular voice. Know it. Use it. And, most importantly, own it.”

See also: Sally G – Let it Shine.

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Thankful for the Details

P1140370Today, I’m wishing a very happy Thanksgiving to all of my U.S. friends and family.

As a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S., I get to celebrate twice, although there is no time that is not an opportunity to be thankful.

Today, I’m celebrating with my husband, my three U.S. based children, and our sister and brother-in-law. I’m thankful for them and for many other things, as I’m sure we all are.

But, I was inspired by Marie Forleo this week, when she said in her weekly video, “When it comes to gratitude, the dividends are in the details.”

So simple and brilliant.

And, this is just what we do with photography – pay closer attention and see details we often miss or gloss over, leading to greater appreciation.

So, here are a few details I’m thankful for.


* For the good news in the world that we often have to search for since bad news dominates the airwaves – like this article on the power of small kindnesses (and teachers). I truly believe that these stories are what keeps the world turning.

* For people who think about why they do what they do, instead of going along with the status quo. Like Gwen Seemel with her thoughts on copyright.

* For women’s voices, that seem to be rising at an ever-accelerating rate. This week, I was inspired by Lorde’s music, Julie Daley’s poetry, and Eve Ensler’s activism. These voices are much needed in the world today.

* For photography and sight, my tools for living an adventurous and contemplative life. This photograph in my Going Abstract group made me happy this week.

* And for you, the readers of this blog and those who participate in my workshops. You enrich my life in so many ways – with replies to my emails, comments on my blog, sharing your photographs and aha moments in workshops.

Today, I received an email from someone who attended my Star Island workshop. She was with a photo group, kind of bored, and contemplating the lessons learned from our workshop. She shared a photograph she took at that time. Another small kindness.

It’s so great to find a group of people who resonate with similar ideas, hopes and dreams.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.


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I’ve Looked at Clouds


Clouds’ Illusions

I’d originally planned for today’s post to be about a trip to Chicago this past weekend. And, although I took a few photographs in the windy city, it was the clouds outside the airplane window coming and going that really drew me in.

As you’ll see, the classic Joni Mitchell song, Both Sides Now (listen below) describes the experience beautifully.

Clouds are endlessly fascinating and especially so from an airplane, where we see them from a different perspective. They’re constantly moving and changing, and so are we. New compositions appear every second.

Going to Chicago on Thursday morning, the view was one of blue skies above fluffy clouds that looked like cotton balls. It felt as if we were bouncing all the way to Chicago, in anticipation of a fun weekend ahead. I felt carefree and relaxed.

“Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere,
I’ve looked at clouds that way.”

Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now

Coming home mid-afternoon on a snowy Sunday, the clouds looked very different, quite mysterious in fact. They were mostly blocking the sun and the blue sky, not fluffy like cotton balls, but more like a soft, snowy landscape.

Amazingly, the second stanza in Both Sides Now fit perfectly.

“But now they only block the sun,
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done,
But clouds got in my way.”

Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now

As we began our descent, down through the clouds and back to reality, I felt as though the clouds were slowly enveloping me (and the airplane). It was time to get my head out of the clouds and start thinking about the practicalities of the week ahead.

Again, Joni speaks to me.

“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all”

Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now

Joni Mitchell wrote this song as a young, twenty-something woman on the edge of stardom. In this interesting article by Brad Wheeler for the Globe and Mail, he quotes singer-songwriter Catherine MacLellan.

“Both Sides, Now is, at first, a meditation on clouds, the whimsical way a child sees them, as “ice-cream castles in the air,” but there are two sides to everything, and as we mature, we stop seeing clouds for their simple beauty, but as a sign of rain or bad weather. It is like that with all things that seem at first so simple and beautiful, such as love and life. We start out with such natural optimism as children, and then as adults we tend to learn a bitter pessimism or brutal honesty, seeing clouds/life/love for what they are.” – Catherine MacLellan, PEI singer-songwriter

It’s best to be able to see both sides. Listen below.


Related Reading

Cloud Symbolism

Alfred Stieglitz – Clouds as Equivalents

A Short Film Reflection on Clouds from The School of Life


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The Power of Pairs

Last week, I listened to an interview at Jonathan Field’s Good Life Project, with Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of a provocative new book called Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs.

In the book (which I’m now reading), he explores well known creative partnerships such as Lennon and McCartney, Marie and Pierre Curie, and Jobs and Wozniak. The interview got me thinking about all kinds of partnerships – marriages, friendships, rivalries, etc. – and how people become a part of us, even if they’re no longer physically in our lives.

It also happens that I’m exploring a new partnership, co-creating a workshop with Sally Gentle Drew, which is a whole new area for me, after working on my own for several years now.

Pairs of Wood Knots

But, the reason I’m writing this post is because the other day as I walked on my treadmill in the basement, and looked outside to the window wells framed in wood, I began to see all kinds of pairs of wood knots.

Earlier in the summer, I became fascinated with wood knots on a fence during my daily walk. When I looked back to that photo session, all of the images were of single knots. This time, I was seeing pairs.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that what we see often mirrors something going on inside of us.
What I love about wood knots is how they radiate outwards, affecting their environment. Wood knots are considered imperfections. They show where branches grew from the tree.

The pairs of wood knots that I was seeing were in close proximity, yet each radiated separately. Their rings would overlap or connect in places and sometimes these connections formed a new shape – the essence of creativity.

Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor

The synchronicity continued, when in the process of writing this post, I watched a documentary about photographer, Dorothea Lange (known mostly for her iconic “Migrant Mother” image).

During that film, I learned of her meeting her second husband, Paul Taylor, an agricultural economist. Both had children and were in long-term marriages.

Taylor hired Lange as a photographer for his research on the working conditions of California farm workers. They went into the field together, each bringing very different talents. Paul would interview the workers, trying to get to the heart of their experience. Lange would observe the interviews and bring the words to life through her photographs.

“It was a match made in heaven. because Paul’s work needed this kind of visualization. It allowed Paul to make a much bigger social impact. As for Lange, her understanding of what she was photographing expanded through working with Paul. It was not just individuals she was photographing, but a part of a larger view of American society.”

Taylor and Lange divorced their spouses and married each other. They were together 30 years until her death in 1965 from cancer. Her husband reported that her last words were, “Isn’t it a miracle that it comes at the right time?” His response was that it was the greatest thing in his personal life to live 30 years with a woman like that.


The Power of Two - an article by Joshua Wolf Shenk in The Atlantic

Dorothea Lange – Grab a Hunk of Lightning (PBS)

A New Workshop on Visual Journaling (if you’d like to explore how your images mirror what’s inside of you)

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Inspiring People – John Carr

This is the third post where I feature some of the wonderful participants in my workshops – to show you their work, and allow them to tell their photography story.

Meet John Carr


John has taken three of my online workshops and recently made the trek from his home in New York State to my weekend workshop at Bethany Spring. It was a pleasure to meet him in person and he brought his very spiritual perspective to contemplative photography, as you’ll see below.

How and when did you get started in photography and what drew you to this medium?

I equate my start in photography with a “spiritual awakening.” A number of years ago, I found myself on a journey searching for a deeper spiritual purpose and existence. Then, one day, I saw some artistic photographs by a friend of mine. I said to myself, “Why can’t I express myself that way?”

I was very impressed and moved by his ability to express himself so creatively. At the time, I didn’t know how or in what form photography would lead me to a spiritual discovery, but I was moved to the point where I knew I had to pay attention to this medium.


Describe your evolution as a photographer, leading to contemplative photography. Who are your mentors?

While in college, I sensed my Creator calling me to some form of ministry. So, for a number of years, I served as a parish pastor and later, a hospital chaplain in New York City. My thought process and beliefs were very religious and theological but my daily walk was not very spiritual or contemplative. For years, I searched for a spiritual path.

After seeing my friend’s images, photography and contemplation came together in my spiritual journey. That’s when my spiritual path led me to contemplatives such as Chogyam Trungpa and Thomas Merton, who both engaged in the medium of contemplative photography.

I also discovered and studied some of the greatest practitioners in the medium; Stieglitz, Strand, Evans, Weston, and Cartier-Bresson.


Why do you photograph and what types of subjects are your favorites?

For me, the camera is a meditative tool: an extension of what I see and experience, (regardless of the subject) in the present moment. When I photograph, I try to mirror the divinity in the image which awakens my sacred imagination.

I believe that if you change the way you see things, the things you see change! Paul wrote in II Corinthians 4:18, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen but what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen, is eternal.” I seek to produce images which allow the viewer to contemplate their journey with the divine.

I also believe that all creation is meant to thrive, and that not thriving is a violation of the Spirit. I approach contemplative photography as a path for inner reflection: being in the present moment, creating a sacred space to receive the image, and letting go in order to capture the “unseen” thus revealing a sacred divinity in the ordinary.

Tell us about your work with ACTS and how you bring contemplative photography into this work.

The Newark Acts is a group of young adults (ages 23-30) who serve in various inner city ministries for the Episcopal Church. I provide spiritual direction and conduct weekend retreats. I encourage the interns to use their visual and creative energies while engaging in the practice of contemplative photography.

JesuscompositeAn example of this is when I broke them into small groups (communities) where they pieced together a composite portrait. This exercise taught them to work and communicate as a team in order to achieve a common goal. Using iPhones, they came up with the portraits you see here.


Where can we find your work online?

Although I’m in the beginning stages of my website, you can see my work there:

On a personal note, I would like to thank Kim for allowing me the opportunity to share some of my story. I would highly recommend Kim’s online classes and workshops. I always learn something new from her. Kim is truly an inspiration!

Thank you, John. You inspire me too.

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More than a Rock


From Newfoundland, an island of rock

One of my favourite writers (and photographers) is Guy Tal.

Tal lives and works in the desert southwest and his photographs are inspired by wildness and his intimate connection with nature. He has a deep grounding in visual elements and aesthetics, which allow him to express personal meaning.

Guy Tal’s blog essays are always well written and thought provoking. Recently, he came out with an e-book called More than a Rock, a collection of his blog posts organized by subject. And, the cost? Only $4.99!

I must admit the title drew me in, as I recently wrote about my own obsession with rocks.

These essays are quite philosophical in nature – on photography, art, and creativity. For a couple of weeks, these were my morning reading, and I wrote pages and pages of notes. Here is a sampling of my favourite quotes, ideas, and takeaways. All quotes are by Guy Tal, unless otherwise noted.

On Art

“At an early stage it is worth trying to articulate the concept in actual words. This helps bridge the gap between the spoken language, which most of us are taught to communicate effectively in, and the visual language. This may be the equivalent of learning how to translate simple expressions from your native tongue to one you are not as fluent in. Still, it is worth keeping in mind that, like any language, the visual language also has its own expressions and nuances that may not be expressible in others.” ~ The Concept

Like Tal, I believe that knowing why you photograph what you do and what emotional responses your subjects evoke is an important step in uncovering your artistic vision. Being able to talk about your photographs – beyond “I liked it” or “it was interesting.” These phrases tell us nothing.

In the first selection of essays from the book, Tal focuses on what it means to be an artist, especially one whose medium is photography. Art comes from our emotional response (or relationship) with a subject or place.

We need not worry about certain subjects being “done before” because each of us brings our own unique sensibilities and meaning to what we photograph. We must trust that what draws us is worthy. Our art (photography) will flow from that trust.

“What makes an artist? Not education, what other’s think, or even what they produce. What identifies an artist is passion, creativity and philosophy. By philosophy, I mean it becomes a metaphor for life. We begin to see and interpret and engage with the world through it; it is not something we do at random times andplaces between other activities. It is a constant in the way we experience the world everywhere, all the time.”


On Craft

Tal begins this section of the book by talking about teaching. He teaches workshops in the desert southwest, where he also lives.

“Teaching creativity, inspiration and personal expression are especially challenging. There are no formulas. The way to finding your artistic vision is to search your own mind. It’s not easy. Progress requires personal investment. There are no shortcuts.”

As someone who teaches workshops in seeing, I know that we first have to go within. What are we seeing, hearing, feeling? And, why is that important to me?

Craft is about more than learning composition or having the right equipment. It’s about learning how to communicate. It requires presence and deep looking, as well as self-awareness – of resistance, judgment, attitudes, emotions, ideas, concepts. It requires visualization and storytelling.

“A concept has significance – a message, emotion, a statement, a metaphor, a story. Many photographers never consider the need for a concept. Instead, they set out in search of aesthetically pleasing subjects and compositions, without considering any greater meaning.”

Be confident and truthful about who you are and what you want to explore and share.

On Experiences

In this section, Tal encourages us to be clear, deliberate, and passionate about how we live our lives and experience each moment. He left a corporate career to live on his own terms.

He posits that the experience or process of photography is its own reward. How do we measure this type of reward?

“These experiences are another kind of retirement savings – the moments and memories I will some day look back upon with the same bittersweet joy and immense gratitude as I did when experiencing them, and know that I had truly lived.”

The life of an artist is counter-cultural and not easy. Yet, it can lead to appreciation and gratitude for life. It can lead to a new definition of happiness.

“I’m not interested in any outcome. I’m not interested in any achievement. I’m not trying to get somewhere. I’m not trying to succeed in my life. My life is not about success. It’s about self-realization and fulfillment.” ~ Satish Kumar

With regards to photography, Tal encourages creating photographs that reflect our experience, not just the aesthetics of the scene. Rather than focusing on how to make an image, focus first on the why.

Guy Tal has a love for wild places and their preservation, which is reflected in some of the essays in this section. He says that preservation is not just for recreational use; that the experience of being in these wild places is good for the soul. And, we can photograph these places in a way that reflects their mystery.


The final section of the book contains meditations on life, art, and meaning … and how they’re intertwined. I thoroughly enjoyed his meditation on the significance of rock.

“It is hard to argue with a rock, and harder still to argue with a rock that used to be a living being, that has seen the rise and fall of species no longer in existence, and the feeble and fleeting lives of humans like ourselves. The rock is the great equalizer and the great liberator, the great reminder, the great setter or priorities and the great debunker of illusions, dissonance and delusions of grandeur.”

These meditations remind me that a meaningful life is about following your own hero’s journey and resisting the pull of conformity. Be your ordinary self, without concern of what others will think. Experience each moment of your life. Follow and trust your own discoveries, inspirations, ideas, and experiences. Learn focused attention. Be grateful and humble.

There is so much more where this came from. If you enjoyed these excerpts, I think you will find the essays as inspiring as I did.

Are you interested in learning more about photographs as metaphors? Sally Gentle Drew and I are co-creating a new online workshop on that topic that will include visual journaling. You can add your name to our interest list here.
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