Several years ago, my best friend from college built a spectacular cabin on Beaver Lake in Benton County, Arkansas, not far from where we went to school. When I say “built,” I mean designed and physically constructed it, albeit with help from family, friends, and a really good concrete company. Now that I live in Louisiana, her invitation to the Ozark Mountains was a welcomed respite from this summer's oppressive heat and humidity, so last month we loaded up the car and headed 10 hours north to what we all affectionately call the “treehouse.” Floor to ceiling glass windows frame a view of the lake totally obscured by lush green trees. Our six glorious days and five beautiful evenings spent swimming and skipping rocks were punctuated by several deer sightings and one terrific thunderstorm.
As we packed up to begin the trek south again, we decided to soften our re-entry with a stop at nearby Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The impressive buildings were designed to integrate into their lush green habitat, part of the museum’s mission “to welcome all to celebrate the American spirit in a setting that unites the power of art with the beauty of nature.” Arkansas is The Natural State, after all.
One of Crystal Bridges’s jewels is the Bachman-Wilson House, a Frank Lloyd Wright design that was originally constructed in New Jersey in 1956. In 2015, the entire building was taken apart and each component was labeled, packed, and moved to the museum grounds where it was reconstructed. It’s fitting they would choose a Frank Lloyd Wright house. His concepts of art, nature, beauty, aesthetics, form, function, and all of their intersections are at once both timeless and revolutionary.
“In organic architecture then, it is quite impossible to consider the building as one thing, its furnishings another and its setting and environment still another,” he concluded. “The spirit in which these buildings are conceived sees all these together at work as one thing.” To that end, Wright designed furniture, rugs, fabrics, art glass, lighting, dinnerware, and graphic arts… He believed that every man, woman and child had the right to live a beautiful life in beautiful circumstances and he sought to create an affordable architecture that served that aspiration. (franklloydwright.org)
Coincidentally, I had been contemplating Wright for several weeks, since I began a study of living life artfully. I found a quote he used to clarify a theory popularized by his mentor, Louis Sullivan. “Form follows function — that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”
So how do we create that spiritual union in our own lives? How do we exercise our right to live a beautiful life in beautiful circumstances? How and when do we consciously make decisions to surround ourselves with those items, activities, people we find beautiful? When do we subconsciously deny ourselves those same indulgences? How can we deepen, enrich our tapestry by weaving in more color, more texture… more silk, more linen, more leather? If you are the artist, the artisan, how can you use your life, your letters, your legacies as your medium?
I have always adhered to the notion of functional art:
Occupying that tenuous space between fine art and the everyday, functional art refers to aesthetic objects that serve utilitarian purposes. The genre is remarkably inclusive: it encompasses everything from furniture and lighting to dishes and even books. (Alex Allenchey of Artspace)
It’s the blue-green glazed pottery coffee mug I use to warm my hands every morning. It’s the hand-turned walnut candle stick my grandfather made when he was still alive and well enough to patiently putter around his wood shop. It’s the soft, worn leather backpack I scored from an old girlfriend twenty five years ago that still carries my journal and a fountain pen, now along with my iPad. It’s the stained glass my best friend made in college, long before she built a cabin on Beaver Lake.
I’ll venture to say it’s also a careful curation of souls with all of their unique stories. I generally encounter these delightful little masterpieces when I least expect them. Truly, it’s one of my favorite parts of traveling, which for me, can mean getting lost in my own backyard; an unexpected conversation, a gracious invitation, a profound insight I would have never entertained if I had stayed inside my own insular bubble.
Back to living a life as the ultimate expression of functional art. Back to the Ozarks. William Joseph (Joe) Nieters is freelance photographer in central Missouri, just a bit northeast of our vacation retreat. He offers this definition of art:
Art is something we do, a verb. Art is an expression of our thoughts, emotions, intuitions, and desires, but it is even more personal than that: it’s about sharing the way we experience the world, which for many is an extension of personality. It is the communication of intimate concepts that cannot be faithfully portrayed by words alone. And because words alone are not enough, we must find some other vehicle to carry our intent. But the content that we instill on or in our chosen media is not in itself the art. Art is to be found in how the media is used, the way in which the content is expressed.
Art is a verb. So is love in my dictionary. Both express our most intimate experiences, our profound and formative perceptions of the world as we understand it. Both require a level of self-awareness and a desire to engage that self with something outside of our own skin. Both mean making thoughtful decisions to see what is around us, what is available to us. Both demand we seek the beauty in our surroundings and find ways to communicate what we see, share what we’ve discovered.
So each of us becomes an artist. Our life, then, becomes our body of work. Some pieces will be better than others. Some relationships, careers, decades will be better than others. But there is beauty in each of them, whether it’s a gritty depiction of harsh reality or an ethereal study of light and shadow. We learn, hone our craft, use new media, choose different tools. We feed our curiosity. We grow in our expression and develop our authenticity.
This is how our voice emerges, that particular essence that characterizes our work. When we choose love over fear. When we choose clarity over obscurity. When we choose elegance over crudeness. When we cling to courage in the face of adversity. When we follow what feels good and right in our very core instead of generally accepted consensus. When we allow ourselves to play. When we permit ourselves to fail without shame or judgment so we can move on to success and fulfillment.
The blue-green coffee mug breaks and is replaced with iridescent raku. The written memory of my grandfather’s thick and heavy hand becoming so nimble replaces the candle stick that was lost in a cross country move. Stained glass windows give way to buildings that offer refuge to weary spirits in need of a lake.
But I’m never letting go of that backpack.
One of the most useful tools development coaches employ is a personal manifesto. I’ve researched the methodology as a device for my clients who are searching for direction, clarity. The first step in the process is reflection, an assessment of values and priorities. I decided to revisit my handwritten journals that have sporadically chronicled the last thirty of my forty nine years, and discovered that I had unwittingly crafted my own manifesto about ten years ago. At least the beginning of one.
I was tired of reading other people’s truths, other people’s insights, that only partially addressed the questions I was asking. I have always been a seeker — of knowledge, of wisdom (two very different things), of beauty, of joy. Always thirsty, always hungry. By the time I reached forty, I was beginning to understand that while many rites of passage are universal, everyone’s experience is unique. Each individual’s environment, geography, situation, circumstance, cast of characters, all inform their perceptions — what and how they remember that experience.
This is the art of living. The colors, textures, flavors, fragrances, melodies that become who we are; become what we carry with us; become, when taken as a whole, integral to our very identity. This is what enamors our friends, enchants our lovers, and emboldens our demons.
I want to discuss the different elements of this piece over the next few weeks, but here it is in its entirety. As always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback.
Dignity and respect. I picked it up from an old job and it stuck. Treating others, including other aspects of yourself, with dignity and respect sums up the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” If you don’t treat yourself well, the premise makes no sense. If you do, you have the underpinnings of almost every religion. Perhaps a universal spirituality. Moreover, it applies to a natural law of behavior towards everything in our world. Spirit, soul, essence, yes. But also living creatures, resources, relationships, opportunities. The list is innumerable.
Live in communion. Another phrase that stuck; “There is no other.” Understand that you are a part of of everything and everyone. See the invisible thread of connection. Share… who you are, what you have. Perceive your privilege and employ your empathy. Act mercifully and forgive graciously. Meet your fellow travelers always with benevolence.
Know that you need air, water, and, at times, a little food. Everything else, everyone else, is a gift. Travel light. Cherish what is precious, let go of the rest. Learn how to distinguish. Keep it simple.
Open your eyes to what is around you. Not only the beauty, but the less apparent beauty in strife, pain, chaos. A trial weathered or a wound healed produces incredible wisdom, sometimes encased in scar tissue. Open your mind to new ideas, new perceptions of old ideas. Open your heart so as to act in love, from love, not fear.
Buy into creativity. Dig in the dirt and feel the visceral connection to earth, to the fundamental elements of life. Watch plants grow and bloom. Recognize it is the same energy that infuses a symphony, a painting, a ballet. All are physical manifestations of a holy creative source. Feel it, channel it, allow yourself to be an instrument.
Surrender. Not in defeat, but in trust. When fearful, believe. Surrender to death so that you may live life fully. Breathe. Enjoy the peace that comes when a struggle has ended. Stop kicking, and be still. Listen to the quiet and hear the divine.
Honor all that has gone before you. The shoulders on which you stand. Pay attention to the stories, learn the lessons. Carry them with you. But remember that people move, places shift. Lives begin and end, relationships begin and end, both forever altering in between. Change is constant and heartbreak is sure. While pain is inevitable, suffering is not. Grieve, but don’t stay there too long. Make way for resurrection, rebirth. By your choice or not, a new adventure awaits.