My daughter, Fiona, has just finished a school project on space, studying the solar system. Fiona's best friend, Caitlin, and another friend and classmate, Bronique, are showing off their new found knowledge at the end of a playdate recently, gazing at the stars, and trying to point out the constellations, with great debate as to whether it is Venus or Mars or
Jupiter that is appearing so close and bright as they stare heavenward.
The children's enthusiasm for the subject sparks a more grown up conversation later in the evening, when it becomes apparent that a passion for becoming more deeply acquainted with the names and locations of those twinkling nightly lights doesn't stop in grade school.
We want to learn more about the stars. And we start wondering what we will need besides our eyes and a place where street lights don't mask the glow of those tiny sparkles in the night sky.
“Do you have a book on the constellations? And a flashlight that we could carry to the beach tomorrow night to learn more?”
“Yes. Yes I do ...” I reply
I am impressed to realize that I DO have everything I need for this little learning adventure at the ready. Despite a flashlight being a common household item, it is generally not easily found in my creatively (ahem)arranged spaces (although fresh from post-hurricane season and frequent power outages, this one is!). I am also impressed that a book on stars and constellations that was added to the bookshelf long ago, but not acted on with an actual astronomy beach outing, also rests waiting to be read more thoroughly under a blanket of stars. I am impressed and struck by how simply refocusing my attention, I find that I already have at hand everything I need to satisfy my learning wish, and I am doubly impressed that this is so often the case with the making of art as well!
I think about how most of my art work is created by things that I have bought, stuff abandoned by others, or stuff I have accumulated by default. I confess I have a deep perverse satisfaction from using these things and finding solutions to design needs or simply ‘needs’ with the stuff I possess already. (Yes, the best omelet is made with the leftovers in the fridge!)
Christmas, and with it the chaos and stress of buying more things for people, so called "presents". But I wonder, as we stand in shops and discuss the economy, I wonder how much stress the gift giving causes to our bottom line, to the lines on our faces, to the "presence" in our lives.
On the other hand, there are bargains galore right now, and what a great time to try and boost the economy! A friend emails me disheartened that she may succumb to her child's ardent wish for a Wii for Christmas. Though we balk at the commercialism of stuff, we still reach for the bright and shiny to make wishes come true, with a deep desire to put smiles on the faces of the people we love.
I am not opposed to spending money happily and freely and acknowledging the joy it can bring, but I am even more artfully enamored at the moment with exploring the many other ways it's possible to put gleaming stars in our eyes.
I watched a man yesterday as I was leaving the marketplace, somewhat overwhelmed by shopping lists and a diminished wallet. Near where I had parked, he cycled up to a skip (that's called a dumpster in some parts of the world!). Without a look at me or any embarrassment in his demeanor, he started to forage in the skip. I don’t know what he was looking for, but I confess to being struck by his confidence, or at least lack of caring what, I, a passerby, might think.
He might be surprised to know that I felt deep admiration. Here are the rest of us, buying things that are often designed to break, so that we will be good consumers and buy again in 6 months!
I heard an alarming statistic recently: in the US, six months after a purchase, only 1% of goods remain in use; the rest are dumped! Is that not HORRIFYING? Never mind what it costs our environment to make, the accumulation of trash alone is extremely detrimental to our world.
SO, my admiration was with this man, who – in the midst of our most shiny consumer season – is truly living a life with a small eco footprint. Seeing this man, someone who is traditionally reviled by society by rooting in a skip, but who is unabashedly trying to find what he needs without any obvious stress, while just nearby I am in my car with packaged presents, a near-empty wallet, and the ensuing barely hidden hustle-bustle shopping frown.
I am working through a book called “
A Course in Miracles”. My lesson today is, “I will not value what is valueless, and only what has value do I seek, for only that do I desire to find”. It makes me wonder about the value placed on ‘new’ and the value placed on ‘used’, and the value in society of the people that make those choices.
So bringing this back to art — other than a tenuous thread linked to my personal preference of working with ‘found’ objects – this was started by a movement of art that is nowadays well established, though was shocking in its debut in the early 1900's. Ironically, the art world itself is the biggest example of ‘valuable’ commodities ...I believe this is a reason why most people despise contemporary art for the apparently over inflated prices it can command. In another irony, it’s the generally the most obscure contemporary/conceptual work that will often command a six figure sum, when much of conceptual art’s ethos is anti-establishment and anti-commercialism. The artists in this
art movement work from a premise of creating pieces that ‘need’ to be created because of an idea, ideal, feeling, or message, rather than with an eye to filling the coffers or satisfying the latest trend.
The connection? For me, working with materials that I have already to fulfill a concept/design need (even if it requires a stretching of my original idea) is symbolic of another premise, an idea that everything I need, materially and emotionally and spiritually, I already have. IS that not true wealth? Is that not value? IS that not AWESOME??
So today ART LIFE is a bit more about LIFE rather than art.
One of the best Christmas presents ever given to myself and the kids a few years ago, was a friend’s suggestion to picnic under the
Christmas lights on the big sea grape tree that used be in the center of the roundabout at Seahorse. My children, Fiona and Dylan, and I dodged the racing Christmas traffic and sat on a tartan rug eating our grand picnic of KFC under the bright lights — an oasis of peace in the midst of the rushing.
He gave us, by his suggestion, a moment and a memory that the kids and I still treasure.
And like a search through my studio and house for the right objects to create my next piece of art, is it not crucial for us all to find those tiny sparkling moments that sear through the dull fabric of everyday existence, yet are always there to be enjoyed? To search through the ‘stuff’ of ourselves and our lives to find what we need and find something of true value.
Julia Margaret Cameron in “The Artists Way” demands a creative exercise in listing 10 things that bring you joy that are free. On my list are singing, dancing, skipping, swimming, walking the beach and picnics under Christmas lights!
It reminds me of a story I heard of a child taking things in his home – things like cups and saucers - and wrapping them up to give to his family at Christmas. I love that – through a child’s naiveté we are reminded to truly re-cycle by seeing our world around us anew and finding gifts in everything we have.
And though this all smatters of over-sentimentality, it becomes cloying only when it is twisted as a tool to make us buy more, to fill the hungry discontent that seems to keep us awake at night, but asleep in our souls. The discontent that might be filled if we knew that we already had everything we need.
So with a bit of glittering vision and the timeless tinsel of imagination, and packaged in a mind open to creative solutions and found-again treasures ... My ArtLife Christmas gift to you comes as a re-wrapped idea with a glossy red bow of recognition, to remind you that maybe we already have ‘everything that we need’.
About the author:
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Susan Moir Mackay is a professional artist with a B.A. (Hons) in Art and Design from Edinburgh College of Art. She is an impassioned advocate of art and has a deep abiding belief that art benefits individuals and communities. Susan has travelled extensively, observing art in all its forms and has invested much of her time to art education projects, as well as developing her own art works and exhibitions.
Susan currently lives in Freeport with her two children, Fiona and Dylan. She can be reached at