UnLearning 101

Image 1 - Version 2

This is a wonderful drawing by Aimee, in response to a conversation about things I’d like to achieve during my six months. I love it!  At first, I was going to try to answer it with a list of relatively facetious observations like, “Live a long time.”  In all seriousness, what I’m trying is to be sure to do at least one thing daily that brings me unabashed joy (and / or satisfaction) and when I wake, to have the first thing I think about be the joyous thing I will do that day.

That seems so simple, yes? Yet, during the days, there’s already been an occasional struggle; it’s difficult to abandon the ingrained impulse to push (even while I always have been, at best, rather lackadaisical at it).  Artists are relentlessly taught that sustaining a constant push is the only way to ‘succeed’. For many years, I have been no different, haven’t questioned those parameters, even though I knew I mostly only felt fully present during residencies (where, in fact, my current wake-up goal happens every single day).  When we buy into the academic paradigm (where the word ‘joy’ is something to sneer at), success is defined in rigid terms, all granted by external sources: funding, exhibitions, teaching jobs. Not that I expect to find an answer in six months, only to explore, but: what happens if success can mean something else entirely, something infinitely richer?

My current self-appointed task is to let go of decades of conditioning, to acknowledge but overcome uneasiness at not choosing external events to catalyze the time between them. In fact, to studiously un-learn (yes: even things I’ve taught) and re-learn. To quell the onset of one bit of discomfort, I returned to Annie Dillard for a dose of perspective. I’m starting from here: “How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives.”


And, with grand timing, yesterday I read this excellent article (thanks again to Tony Fitzpatrick).  If I were still teaching in academe, it would be required reading. Good portions of it resonate completely with the thinking I’ve been doing; and, in my wee brain, with another significantly simple Dillard observation: “…beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”


I’ve begun 2013 by playing / experimenting in the studio with some well-beaten abaca (9 hours), using pulp only, not (yet) making sheets, in ways I haven’t tried before and exploring some I’ve only skimmed. Yesterday, I cooked the dogbane bast indoors, trying out an incredibly simple new solution for fume dispersal. It worked great! I added in a small batch of seed hair fiber (with seed), isolated in a mesh bag. It was fun and funny to strip the narrow, exploding dogbane pods; even though I quickly learned to immediately dunk them into the bucket, there are stubborn escapees delicately wafting about the studio, where they’ll probably keep me company for months. The fiber is partially translucent dry, turns shiny and opaque wet, and cooking it with the bast (or the seeds themselves) has now dyed it a yellow-gold. It and the bast will be beaten shortly; they may or may not have something to tell me. Either outcome is good: time well spent.


Seed fiber, top left; bast, bottom right…


7 thoughts on “UnLearning 101

  1. thanks for these ponderings melissa. i remember dillard’s words, and i remember discovering her right after pilgrim won the pulitzer. i was so young, yet i devoured her words. and speaking of devouring, despite being in the midst of flu, that dogbane pulp looks good enough to eat.

  2. unlearning is so much harder but SO much more rewarding. i looove the dogbane play and can’t wait to see how it all turns out. any time with fiber is time well spent.

  3. To joy. And to “we can always do our best with what we’ve got”. Gotta say last couple decades much art has left it’s heart behind for the Almighty Concept too many galleries worship. Art without heart is a mind fart.

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