My heart is broken. 2016 has been a long year of heartbreaks, and this is the one that has brought me to my knees. I am not connected in an obvious way to the Ghost Ship community – or to any other of the many art/live/work warehouses spaces here in Oakland. Like so many others, I grieve for the lost lives, the terror of that night, for the families and loved ones of those lost to the fire. I am learning about those who perished one by one, mostly through social media, when friends and acquaintances share their grief, and share insights into the lives and passions of those now gone. I may be a few degrees from those most directly affected, but make no mistake: my heart has a shape like Ghost Ship. A labyrinthine cabinet of wonders. A place where the creative process reigns supreme, no matter how little society at large values that. A place where exorbitant costs of living, and the resulting culture of stress disappear for a time, and new art and music emerge. Where celebrations bring joy not only among people, but also in honor of creative expression and the importance of art in what makes us human (and what makes our culture healthy). I can’t speak to many layers and dimensions of the Ghost Ship family, but I can say this loss strikes deep into me. I write novels and I do that mostly in isolation. Even though I live and work in a more conventional setting than the Ghost Ship community did, the sacrifices made in my family so that I can pursue my work are real, and that’s something I struggle with all the time. We sacrifice and make compromises so we can survive with our passions intact. I am sorry for those who might judge the drive to create, to contribute to the river of stories, art, music that have enriched human civilization since pretty much its beginning, as frivolous or “selfish.” That leads to a marginalization of essential cultural knowledge and traditions. Here in Oakland, it’s so easy to see the way neighborhoods are drained of character, artistic expression, and vitality. Flipping houses is a big business. Most houses in my neighborhood are sold without even being publically listed. For all cash to flippers. Warehouses turn into condos. We all know the story. All I know is that sometimes it’s hard to keep creating, to keep going, and this is one of those times. No one wants to live in a society without artists, right? I hope I’m right.
I am thrilled to be co-teaching an open classroom (lively discussion and hands-on exercises) all about the creative rituals that empower and motivate us, and which we occasionally outgrow. Sponsored by the wonderful Storefront Institute. Join us this Sunday at Kaleidoscope Coffee in Point Richmond!
Since 2010, I’ve been writing a novel that has revealed itself over the years to be an uncanny love letter to the far north. In 2013, I was invited to participate in an expeditionary residency to Svalbard – which is where my novel takes place. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in my blog and to many in person, this trip via sailing ship up the west coast of Spitsbergen (the Svalbard archipelago’s largest island), was a life-changing event in many ways. Foremost was the chance to reconcile the imaginative Svalbard of my novel with the real place, and to glean new threads of the story to incorporate into the framework I’d already created. To engage in this process on board a ship full of equally awestruck artists and makers and an intrepid crew of sailors and wilderness guides, gave me an unprecedented chance to leap forward in my vision and craft.
Once I returned home to my normal life, I had trouble processing all I’d seen and felt. Everything in Svalbard had been over the top, from the ship and camaraderie to the ice/tundra/crags/continuous sunlight equation of Svalbard; an inevitable funk arose upon reentry to my life at home. I have been writing novels since I was twenty years old, so I have no problem working in isolation for long periods, but The Arctic Circle residency was an experience that pulled a group of artists together in a unique way, in a rugged and remote place, and that bond had so much meaning for me that for the first time in my artistic life I felt…lonely.
One evening shortly after my return, I went on The Arctic Circle’s website and looked through the names of program alumni. Clicking through the artists’ websites, I really got a sense of the body of work that is emerging from the residency – arctic landscapes and connections with climate change, the poetics of glaciers, and lone figures standing sentinel in the backgrounds of paintings and drawings – invocations of our wilderness guides during the trip, who watched for polar bears while we doodled and journaled on shore. I was just starting to feel the camaraderie again when I clicked on Cedra Wood’s name and found a video of her exquisite arctic journal (Svalbard begins at 04:40)
Even though I couldn’t actually read the writing, Cedra’s eloquent expressions of her Arctic Circle residency, paired with the soothing cadence of the page-turning itself (maybe it’s a writer thing) were a balm for the loneliness I felt post-arctic, and I began following her work via social media. I soon discovered that beyond the arctic connection, Cedra’s work inspired me on many levels. It is concerned with wild nature within and without, and her interest includes species commonly referred to as ‘invasive’ and she puts them in close relationship with humankind. Her work is vividly mythological and timeless, and leaves room for the viewer to distill different meanings. And perhaps the element that is most provocative and inspiring to me personally: many of her works are concerned with the creative process itself. She sews garments to be worn by models in her paintings; she uses video for performance art that also serves as painting fodder; her journals are cohesive artworks that express a creative journey. Above all, Cedra embodies artistic integrity and focus – two qualities I admire and to which I aspire.
Last month, I took the train from Emeryville, CA to Reno, NV to visit Cedra and her partner, comics artist/painter Christopher Baldwin, and to see Cedra’s solo exhibit, A Residency on Earth, at the Nevada Museum of Art where she is a fellow at the Center for Art and the Environment. Each of the gallery walls of her exhibit show work from places Cedra has traveled: Australia, Svalbard, and the American Southwest. Cedra gave an artist’s talk while I was there, and graciously gave me permission to reprint some of what she discussed. Excerpts from Cedra’s notes are italicized.
My parents are not storytellers, but once they told me about the invention of my name. In their courtship, they were riding my dad’s motorcycle, brainstorming the names of their potential future children (as one does). My dad being a forest ranger at the time and very interested in trees, his surname being Wood, and both of them evidently feeling whimsical, they settled on the name of their firstborn girl child as a pun: Cedra (Cedar) Wood. (My dad joked, “It could have been worse. we almost named you Sandal.”) I loved this story because this conceiving of my name (1) links me with the natural world. (2) The very idea of me was born in motion, going down the highway. And (3) it’s playful. I can’t think of three characteristics that I’d rather embody.
The series below was created in southern Utah, where Cedra considered the fleeting yet extreme ecosystem of ephemeral pools. These pools are naturally occurring sandstone basins that collect rainwater and windblown sediments and organisms. Cedra focused her process on one such organism, the tadpole shrimp (!). In an attempt to emulate the shrimp’s lifestyle and make art along the way, Cedra buried herself in the dry pool, leaving only her carapace and caudal rami exposed.
I find that the right odd moments,–juxtaposed–complete and compliment and complicate each other, begin to harmonize into a composition, like a bunch of dissonant sounds suddenly resolving into a chord.
Cedra’s painting is on the left in the photo above, and the three photographs on the right were taken by the artist Lauren Greenwald.
Transplants, 2014. For this work, Cedra made two costumes out of burlap, linen, cotton, yucca fiber, cottonwood fluff, juniper berries, velvet grass, sunflower leaves, and leafy spurge. You can see from the images behind the costume that models wore the clothing in sketches for eventual paintings. The costumes were made in Ucross, Wyoming, and the landscape that appears in the backdrop of the draft drawing is Mount Edith Cavell, in Jasper NP (Alberta).
The ranch [at Ucross] supports efforts that are agricultural and economical, narrative and aesthetic, observational and analytical; but one seemingly central element was the abundant plant life…fodder for conversation as well as cattle.With this in mind, I referenced clothing patterns from the late 1800s to create homesteading-era costumes, covering the garments with hand-gathered plant materials.
These pants are made out of sunflower leaves!
Not long after I got my MFA, I went with a small band of Land Arts alumni to Australia. I was a sort of bashful ambassador in an exchange of ideas with the field studies program at the Australian National University. I had never been out of the country before.
As before, found myself in completely alien surroundings. To find my bearings, I found myself thinking of the field expeditions as a game. A game that there are hundreds of ways to win…all you have to do is learn something…and the only way to lose is to have a really, irredeemably bad time.
The trick was to land in the middle of things and not to panic. I gave myself permission not to try to leap to solutions or goals or conclusions, or worry whether I could immediately produce a work of genius–but to trust that over time, the things that stood out would prove their significance later. The idea of invasive species was something that kept coming up over and over in AU—that some introduced plant or bird or animal would thrive at the expense of biodiversity by outcompeting or exterminating its fellow species. Even dingos weren’t free from this controversy, despite having been there for several thousand years.
These are prickly paddy melons [photo below, on right], which were growing in abundance near Calperum Research Station in South Australia. As further articulated, the objective of the fieldwork game is to absorb an experience of a place fully by any means available to me, and later articulate the significance of that experience. So my first move was to blindly follow impulses toward things I wanted to understand better. Like what it meant to feel overwhelmed or oppressed by an excess of something. Or, the flip side of that coin, what it could mean to have a really personal, maybe significant, interaction with a bounty of something that has value on its own merits.
Once, when I was a kid helping my mom clear the garden, I asked my mom what the difference between a flower and a weed was. She said, ‘a weed is a flower that grows where it’s not wanted.’ The large and global story of invasiveness, migration, and the subjectiveness of being wanted or unwanted, hit home for me personally too in Australia, as I was in a strange place, an invader whose amplified social anxieties led me to place myself firmly in the invasive category.
My immediate goal was just to keep track of everything that surprised me. Seek out the tensions. Keep an eye out for symbols. Listen to the themes that emerge in conversation.
During her residency onboard the tall ship Antigua, Cedra Wood and the artist Christy Georg braided Cedra’s hair into the rigging. Another example of what could be called performance art that later became fodder for a breathtaking painting (not done justice in the photo below).
[While onboard] I had decided I wanted to make myself a part of the ship. It was quickly evident how much we depended on the ship for survival (food, warmth, companionship, etc). Wanting to be as useful to it as it was to me. Fruitless of course. I just finished—last night, truly—the painting that’s the culmination of this performance.
This photo shows the painting being hung up for the exhibit. I had the good fortune to be hanging around with Cedra while she finished it the night before in her small hotel room in Reno.
As I hone in on finishing my novel-in-progress, Cedra’s work has provided a deep level not only of inspiration, but also insight into another artist’s process, interests, and vision.
Oh, and while I was in Nevada, Cedra and Christopher took me to Pyramid Lake at sunset. Sadly, we didn’t see any Cui uis, but the land- and lake-scape were sublime.
What a delight to share the spotlight with Ian Weir and his newly published novel, Will Starling. Our mini-tour concluded last night at Book Passage, Corte Madera, and it was such a pleasure to read from Among the Wonderful and discuss all things novel-ish, from research and inspiration during the writing process, to grave-robbing, taxidermy, cabinets of wonder (and horror!), nineteenth-century spectacles, and more. Last week we read together at the venerable Annie Bloom’s Books in Portland. The good booksellers there live-tweeted the event, and my high-school principal showed up (and asked fantastic questions during the Q&A)! We also read at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, my ancestral bookstore. Thank you to the gracious and inspiring Ian Weir, and to the wonderful booksellers at these great brick-and-mortar literary hubs. Onward!
During February and March, I have the great pleasure of joining Ian Weir for three book events in support of his newly released (in the US) novel, Will Starling. I jumped at the chance to participate – as a reader, interviewer, general raconteur…Weir’s book captivated me completely, and I have so many questions about the writing of it. Join us in Seattle 2/24 at Elliott Bay Book Company, 2/25 in Portland at Annie Bloom’s Books, and 3/5 at Book Passage, Corte Madera. Click the links for details, and please join us!
My trip with Signal Fire is coming up in just over two months and I could not be more delighted. Signal Fire is an arts organization out of Portland, Ore., that connects artists to the natural world in a spirit of collaboration and reverence. Each year, they produce a variety of opportunities for artists to engage with each other in wild nature. This July, I’ll travel to the Wallowa Mountains (the Eagle Cap Wilderness, to be exact) of eastern Oregon for seven days to backpack with twelve other artists in this incredible, wild land. Right now I am savoring all the unknowns, from weather to terrain to the distinct chemistry that arises among a group immersed together in the wild. I plan to write (longhand, gasp!) and explore the parallel threads of my own journey on foot with that of one of the main characters in The Gyre, my novel-in-progress. Thank you, Signal Fire!
Earlier this month, I was delighted to read from my work-in-progress at Ohmega Salvage, a Berkeley, CA, institution that has recently started a Sunday afternoon reading and music series. Ohmega is a vintage architectural salvage and home decor treasure trove. It’s a wonderful place to browse and they’ve created a magical venue to share fiction, poetry, music and art with the community. Check out their web site to learn about their amazing literary history and their amazing collection of vintage goods.