“Confusion is not pathology, it is path. It provides something that clarity could never disclose. The nature of chaos is wisdom, but we must enter inside the sanctuary to receive that level of revelation.”
People use the sun to locate which direction is north when they find themselves adrift without a compass or map. That’s where I found myself two years ago at the end of a long marriage and with my beloved daughters launching independent lives far away. I hadn’t wanted a solo show in 30 years, but being granted one in the spring of 2018 was like being thrown a life jacket. Foundational identities of wife and mother were dissolving. Working toward this show allowed a focal point out on the horizon by which to orient myself. I opened to manifesting the chaos as well as the dreams into form.
The exhibition, “Using The Sun To Find North,” is on view at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, through November 15, 2020. I’ve distilled my experience into words for my own edification and to support others who also journey in these realms.
Creativity: The Integration of Reality and Imagination
Reality isn’t negotiable. It follows earthbound laws like physics. Imagination is the opposite; everything is negotiable. Creativity is the means by which these two things collaborate. We human beings are the conduit.
Dreaming is heaps of fun, but stopping there means I’ve only gone halfway to what’s possible. Taking dreams into form is where it gets dicey. Everything feels safe while it’s floating in the wide-open sky of possibilities. There’s an intoxicating inflation present in that. By bringing ideas to fruition, we risk technical learning curves and self-limiting thoughts like “I can’t” and “It doesn’t work.” We risk disappointment by bringing the sparkling, unlimited idea into the confines of three dimensions. Right there is the spot where all sorts of dreams die.
If we can learn to abide in the discomfort of confusion, allow the energies of disappointment and frustration without attaching a story to them, well that’s the practice. The spaciousness resulting from this practice reveals what’s next.
I’ve come to know this practice as kindness. It’s about meeting yourself where you are, rather than where you wish you were. In a world where doing is celebrated and doing nothing is frowned upon, the internal, unconscious pressure to “Do something . . . Anything!” can become very uncomfortable.
When there’s no clue of what that something might be, and the forceful urgency to DO dominates, that’s where self-doubt can flood in, which amps up the chaos and suffering. None of us are exempt from confusion, but it needn’t be made into an enemy. Making the decision to allow the not knowing is a counterintuitive game changer.
Back in 2018, with two whole years to prepare for the exhibition, the pressure was off. I carried on with my life, keeping a playful journal, jotting down inspiration as it came. All ideas were welcome.
Thoughts around impermanence and wayfinding bubbled up. The running hare flower-brick series that I developed explores impermanence. But the process of manifesting the illustrated plate series, titled Wayfinding, was far less familiar.
All I knew of this work was that it would be larger than my normal scale and expressed through series. Each unfamiliar aspect would foster growth, so I willingly entered the darkness. Awareness illuminates but requires patience. I learned that I only ever needed to know one step and that allowing the discomfort counted as a step (though overlooked as such by our culture).
Stillness is an Action Word
What to make? I didn’t know, so I became very still. I can’t overstate the importance of stillness in practice regarding creativity. Without it, none of my work would exist. It’s the portal to a deeper intelligence than the thinking mind.
Anyone who knows me will see me close my eyes freely and become quiet anytime I need to. I focus my attention on slow, full breathing and relax my body. This is an on-the-fly kind of stillness that allows the chattering mind to settle. Other methods I practice include meditation, walks in nature, cardio exercise, and Wim Hof breathwork. Anything that allows space to be felt is useful. Creativity, in my experience, isn’t transmitted through the thinking mind, rather from this place beyond it. The thinking mind is useful later.
The Seed of Inspiration
In the stillness, a legend was remembered:
A raptor, arriving at the midpoint of its life with feathers tattered, talons split, and beak dull, faced a choice: live out its life with compromised resources, coping as best as it can.
Or, risk flying to the tallest peak, pull out its damaged feathers and talons, smash its dull beak on the rocks and stand completely vulnerable and defenseless. In astonishment, this bird watches its feathers, talons, and beak grow back anew. It enters the second half of its life reborn with strength and wisdom.
This story mirrored my own unfolding, raw life. But how to translate it?
I envisioned illustrated plates for the wall though rendering in two dimensions challenged and triggered resistance in me. Time to become comfortable with discomfort.
I created a storyboard with index cards; two clear paths diverged from the raptor’s starting point. I questioned how they would be displayed. Would each run horizontally across the wall? No, that might infer a preference to the one on top. As the months shuffled by, the cards shuffled, too. I considered a top-down, family-tree configuration for the display, then a bottom-up empowered female V composition. Both implied separated paths, which seemed inaccurate. In my own unfolding experience, there simply wasn’t a right way and a wrong way. There was just the way. Me, doing my best. One day, finding the space to surrender; another, resting with familiar coping strategies.
I carried those index cards for a year, sharing them with friends and family who joined with me in the excitement and relatability of the story. Our combined reflections and insights continuously clarified. Shuffle the cards, discard, rearrange, reflect, share . . . repeat.
Discovering how best to display the plates has been its own creative process. A vesica piscis (6 feet high × 13 feet wide) painted on the gallery wall frames the plates. The originating plate hangs in the center (the almond-shaped vesica). The remaining 12 plates representing the two possible paths fill in the ellipses on either side of the vesica. This geometric form was chosen because it represents integration.
Beginning the Clay Work
I wanted to handbuild the plates to encourage irregular forms, which can be seen in Escape Air. Experience proved that my custom clay wouldn’t handle the tension of this particular handbuilding process. I attached a flat coil to the outer edge of punched-flat slabs, then pinched that coil out into a flange. There was a tension point where they met. Clay particles in pinched coils align differently than in punched-flat slabs. And then there were thermal tensions to consider: asking clay to remain flat as it dries challenges its nature. Plus, the temperature at the center of an electric kiln isn’t the same as at the wall, which meant the 25-inch-diameter plates had to handle that thermal differential without cracking. In place of my custom formula, I chose Miller 20G clay, as it matures at cone 4, and would allow more forgiveness in my cone-1 firings. Luckily, it worked well with my slip and glazes.
In the first firing, one plate succeeded. The other cracked. Losing a week’s work was a bummer, especially since there were too many variables to diagnose the exact cause. Tick-tock, the deadline approached.
Breaking My Rules
Handbuilding needed to yield to throwing, but throwing a 25-pound ball of clay wasn’t possible with these arms and this back. So contrary to my preconceived rule, I cut the 25-pound block into four parts, wedged them separately and formed two 12½-pound balls. I made both into low and wide mounds, attaching the first to the plaster bat on the wheel, then throwing the second down on it, careful not to trap air. Next, I beat that un-throwable lump of clay into an oversized hockey puck with a French rolling pin until it was more or less centered. This, I could throw.
Rendering images onto the plates, especially landscape-related imagery, brought resistance. But my commitment was to tell the story—not to become an expert painter. My paintings had only to be readable to further the narrative. Deep breathing to allow the discomfort was the first step. With sharpened clarity, I continued breaking my rules. YouTube tutorials on how to paint mountains helped. I would never have considered such support before. Now, all I could do was try to keep up with the story pouring out of me.
The more rules I broke, the more liberated I became and the more fun I had. By allowing the discomfort of not knowing, what emerged was just the next step. Dropping into stillness consistently revealed the way forward. Allowing, in all forms is a gatekeeper for creativity; stillness, a gatekeeper for allowing.
Thanks to Jennifer Zwilling and Jennifer Martin of The Clay Studio for saying yes to this show. It was the sun that allowed me to find north. Bringing these ideas into form has allowed me to let go of who I thought I was and begin getting on with who I am.
the author Lisa Naples runs a studio and classroom from her barn in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. She received an MFA from The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1988. Naples has exhibited, lectured, and given workshops across the US. In 2005, an NCECA-funded residency in Australia fundamentally changed her studio life. To learn more, visit www.LisaNaples.com. Special thanks to Jean Kuhn who assisted with editing the text.