Tuesday, December 20, 2016


Frightened by the loss of our familiar mooring places, shall we become 
paralyzed and cover our inaction with apathy? If we do those things, we will 
have surrendered our chance to participate in forming the future... Or shall 
we seize the courage necessary to preserve our sensitivity, awareness and 
responsibility in the face of radical change?  -Rollo May

Rollo wrote that in The Courage to Create in 1972. I just picked it up again, having felt a distinct lack of courage lately, for creating included. 

I'm usually labeled the Pollyanna of any situation. I can almost always figure out a way of seeing how "bad things" can have "good" consequences, and vice versa. Like the zen parable of the farmer and his son. Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows? 

Sometimes it's more of a challenge. It's felt like we've all been traveling on the dark side of the moon, these days. Luckily a couple of more experienced artist friends gave me a good kick in the pants. "It's time to get to work," they said. "This is what artists were made for."  

I started by looking at art from other times of flux in our history. Especially appealing were wartime posters, and of those especially the ones calling women to work. And this one in particular by artist Adolph Treidler for the United War Work Campaign and the YWCA in 1918:

Not just because of her rocking overalls with the ample pockets for doing things that take serious tools, but her posture of steely determination, victory, and with one foot forward as if to say, "I'm moving on ahead, no matter what is happening." 

As is my usual process, I let these things sink in to my subconscious while I occupy my mind with something else, like the incessant cleaning of my work space. Then I get cozy and quite somewhere and let my hands do the thinking. I try to keep my thoughts out of it and see what comes. 

The star came in conversation with the former blue "Y" triangle, and the year appeared unexpectedly. The heroine arose with more of an expression of hope and joy than I anticipated. Which was encouraging-- to find out I had some of that still somewhere inside.

I watercoloured her directly in my brown paper sketchbook, then scanned her into photoshop to work out some color ideas. I went back to water media to finish the background from my tiny mobile studio box that I've been working out of in the zen center cabin. (I'm getting used to this downsizing.)

I scanned it back in, and took out some of the paper buckling shadows via stamp tool. I adjusted the lettering a bit, but not too much. I'm not after slick graphics anymore. Showing the hand-done-ness of things is important. 

I worked on her in between traveling and my zen duties for three weeks. During the process I came to the idea that our work as artists now isn't to convince the public that we are a crucial part of any society, but instead reminding each other that we are a crucial part of every society; to the strengthen the conviction we need to do the work in a world chilly to our efforts.

Courage 2017 is the new print this week in my Polly Sonic Etsy shop. They've been selling out as fast as I can make them, but I will keep making them. Find it here. 

Forty years forward, Rollo's words are still is required reading for anyone trying to make anything new, or shape a different sort of life, or speak what feels important and unpopular. Again and again and again. Most recommended for keeping a copy on hand at all times right now.

Friday, November 25, 2016


"Venture out of your comfort zone. Our ability to grow is directly proportional 
to our ability to entertain the uncomfortable. "
-Twyla Tharp

I've moved to central New York for the winter, to be a resident artist at a zen center, hidden in the pines and golden rods off a dirt road near a pond inhabited only by beavers and geese.

I've been coming to this quite sanctuary since 2011, it's been the well that watered the gardening work I was doing in New Haven. This year I detected that my service of sixteen years in that complicated city was complete and it was time to return to the piney wood hills of the north full time. But I find myself in limbo, wondering-- what am I in service to now? And what form will it take?

Like just about every other artist, I'm plagued at times with road blocks; not from a lack of ideas, but rather too many, which is as good as none if they are left in a heap of competing demands for one's attention. Too many interests, too many fascinating leads, too much beauty to respond to.

Wondering if we are all suffering more of this due to the over-stimulation of our see-everything-from-anywhere-at-any-time age, I've become interested in filters and self-imposed limited conditions. This spring, I did an experiment-- for two weeks I resisted looking at art online, I only looked at art in person in museums and art shows. Instead of scrolling through hundreds of images the way I might eat a can of pringles, I stood in front of the real evidence of human effort and inspiration for what seemed like eternity, relatively. I saw that I can be moved to tears by a painting I'm in the same room with, in a way I've never been when looking through a computer screen. I saw I required more from a painting than attractive colour and composition if I were to truly be with it.

True to the title of this blog (which has been going for eleven years) my quest is still antinomian as I define it- to live with the knowledge that apparently opposite things can all exist as truth at the same time. I superimpose this on my work to mean that there must be some way to synthesize all these seemingly disassociated passions. I just have to figure it out. It's a puzzle that engages me every day.

A rural zen farm seems like the best possible place to boil down all the many aspects of my work into their rawest forms and find what connects them. At the same time, doing this to the many aspects of my self. I suspect at the heart of this is bringing my contemplative meditation practice together with my art practice, as they've been on trajectories to converge for quite a while.

I clean out the old basement sheepskin shop the zen center has offered me for a studio (which is just around the bend in path in the photo above) and become homesick. My house and the attic studio that had come to feel like an extension of my own body is now a phantom limb. My network of freelance jobs is daringly left behind, and my community is reduced to digital blips. It feels like a risk to step out of the momentum of everything I know. It could be a mid-life crisis, but I prefer to call it the start of my rumspringa, the year the Amish give their young people to go out and be in the world. Some go back in, some go outward. Neither is considered right or wrong.

As part of that simplifying, I'm coming back to this blog as my central communication. It's a better place to write honestly than social media. If you are reading I'll know we're connecting, and this post is not another pringle in your can. I have to offer less opinions, but lots of questions I'll never answer right, mostly about creativity and spirituality. I'd love to hear your unanswerable questions, too.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

stay in touch

A certain social media platform seduced me away from this blog for a while. I drank of the sugary instant gratification of easy feedback, and was left with a malnourished connection to my community and a scattered, inaccessible record of the history of my work. 

If you and I have been communicating over there, I hope you'll come with me back to the creator-controlled back-alleys and dim, abandoned lots of the internet. It takes a little more effort, of course. But it also causes us make more thoughtful choices about what we engage with. And our time is most precious. 

You can sign up for my infrequent newsletter, right over there ---> on that little MailChimp widget in the right column, that'll remind you one or two times a month to check the blog here. Newsletters always have discount codes for my Etsy shop, which is stocked up again. 

If you have a blog, there's some way we can follow each other. (I'll have to remember all this old fashioned technology.) My Instagram is still streaming pictures of work in progress, exhibitions, and regular everyday inspiration. 

If you use a non-algorithm controlled social network that you are happy with, I'd love to hear about it. Leave a message in the comments or email me at merfire(at)gmail.com.

image above: The Letter Writers, wood cut window display for ArtFish42
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Friday, November 11, 2016

you may be an artist if...

...you notice your perspective is wildly different from the majority of the population around you.

You might have felt this way for a long time and didn't realize it could mean you are an artist. Or, you might be feeling this way (in a big way) for the first time.

Luckily, there is endless advice to be found from the legacy of artists who navigated this terrain before us, people whose inner world was drastically different from the outer world they found themselves in. They made art to make the outer world look a little more like their inner world, in an instinctual desperate need to align the two in order to make sense of anything.

A nudge to those just finding this out about themselves: begin with a rediscovery of yourself, both the bright and the shady places. Pick yourself apart daily, bit by bit. Turn the pieces over, inspect them gently. Be ready to be surprised by what you find, both pleasantly and terrifyingly. Without this self-inspection, the rest will be much harder, so do this hardest part first. Then you'll be more ready (though never completely ready) to spiral back outward into the absurd and gorgeous world.

"Be interested in what disturbs you. Rebel against your inclinations. Find beauty in the imperfect. Interrupt yourself. Disorder and chaos will serve you if you direct them. Cultivate elasticity, expand. Dismember the expected. I believe in the unbelievable." 

(-selected from Philippe Petit's Creativity: the Perfect Crime)

(Photo from Rise Up and Shine, Butterfly: Chrysalis Sky Funeral, Linda Wingerter)

Sunday, February 28, 2016

it's got legs

There's been a flurry of calls for "puppet legs" with the popularity of two musicals making their way around the high school theater scene like wildfire: Shrek and Addams Family. I'm getting the hang of making and rigging these up to adventurous students. Here's the most recent set resting in the audience, for Uncle Fester's love song to the moon in Valley Regional High School's Addams Family.


They're a lauan plywood frame under carved insulation foam, knees hinged with cord, and secured to a belt over a black apron the actor wears over his biological legs. Two puppeteers operate the fake legs with rods, with the right lighting giving the effect he is floating in the sky. It's pretty simple, practical theatrical fun. Here's the test maquette: 

And the final legs in progress. I love this electric turkey carver! 

The tricky part was making hinged rods so the legs could be operated from above or below. These are PVC pipes wired into a pivoting joint inside the calves.