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Greg Minah’s exhibition at Goucher College beautifully showcases the development of his work and artistic process from a pivotal residency at Joshua Tree Highlands Artist Residency in 2008 through the present, most recent work.  Doreen Bolger, Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, writes in the catalog for this exhibition, “To fully appreciate the beautiful works that follow from his time at Joshua Tree National Park, you need to understand exactly how they are created. His work emerges from a fascinating working process – it borders on performance – and from his active and intentional exploitation of the possibilities of his materials, specifically acrylic paint, which is water soluble but becomes water resistant when dry… Minah works on two or three paintings at a time, creating images that can stand singly, in pairs, or in series… As he progresses in his work on these stretched canvases, they stand side-by-side on a narrow wooden shelf (a self-created easel), above a 10-foot-long gutter that catches the dripping paint or water he later uses to wash away areas of color.  Each surface is built up in layers, with reiterative pours.”

Detail image of Greg Minah's "the scaffolding to remain" (2011) exhibited at Goucher College

Detail image of Greg Minah’s “the scaffolding to remain” (2011) exhibited at Goucher College

Greg Minah's "the scaffolding to remain" (2011) in Shifting Ground exhibition at Goucher College

Greg Minah’s “the scaffolding to remain” (2011) in Shifting Ground exhibition at Goucher College

Circular lace-like shapes layered on top of each other blend in vibrant hues of blue, lavender, pink, and red.  Just below the surface darker shadows tangle together, deepening the pool of colors.  In the earlier 2010 series, the thicker lacing of darker and lighter layers push the central shapes forward in a “slow-motion film” effect.  There’s a sense of flowing movement that evokes an imaginary sea-creature as the flow of water creates movement in the tendrils of color.

Greg Minah's Shifting Ground exhibition at Goucher College.  "almost axiomatic" (2010) on the left.

Greg Minah’s Shifting Ground exhibition at Goucher College. “almost axiomatic” (2010) on the left.

The earliest works in the exhibition show canvas surfaces with less textured spaces with central lattice-like areas of dripped paint and spherical and circular shapes and curves of washed, muted color.  In “similar prejudices” (2008), the grid-like effect of the green dripped paint lines also includes scratched black lines that connect downwards into the shadowed spheres gathering at the bottom of the canvas.

Greg Minah's Shifting Ground exhibition at Goucher College. Works from 2008.

Greg Minah’s Shifting Ground exhibition at Goucher College. Works from 2008.

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Detail image of Greg Minah's "similar prejudices" (2008) exhibited at Goucher College

Detail image of Greg Minah’s “similar prejudices” (2008) exhibited at Goucher College

If you know my own crazy use of color in my fiber art work, it should be no surprise that I love the saturated vibrant colors of Minah’s 2012 series.  The scale of these canvases is also a factor in my appreciation for the depth and intricate details across such a wide surface.  I especially liked the “traditional factors” (2012) which is 70″ x 70″ with exquisite pools of lavender, greens, and blues that are surrounded by these thread-like curls of electric orange and fiery pink-red hues that make the entire piece glow.

Detail image Greg Minah's "traditional factors" (2012) exhibited at Goucher College

Detail image Greg Minah’s “traditional factors” (2012) exhibited at Goucher College

Greg Minah's Shifting Ground exhibition at Goucher College's Rosenberg Gallery

Greg Minah’s Shifting Ground exhibition at Goucher College’s Rosenberg Gallery

There’s a lightness in the most recent work that is achieved by the multiple layers and delicate lines.  The dripping pathways now outlines of absent color, removed in the process, and overall textural details are now like catching glimpses of specific patterns in enormity of a snowstorm or in the movement of leaves.  The individual details move together in the greater patterns of swirling shapes and waves of motion.

Detail image of Greg Minah's "a priori unities" (2014) exhibited in Shifting Ground at Goucher College

Detail image of Greg Minah’s “a priori unities” (2014) exhibited in Shifting Ground at Goucher College

 

 

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Cautionary Tale: Targeting Artists

I was recently the victim of a fraud/scam specifically targeting artists.  It began at the end of January when I was contacted via my website from a potential “buyer” interested in two specific pieces of art.  Unknowingly, I was the target of a very elaborate fraud and having my first encounter with the very well-crafted persona, “Sofia Parker,” of a con artist.  We exchanged a series of emails, and “Sofia” selected a medium-priced work of mine to “purchase.” I’ve sold work online before, cautiously, and I thought I’d been doing pretty well handling the professional growth of my art practice including the business aspects of my art.

A week or so passed, after I responded with more details about the piece including cost and shipping options.  “Sofia” replied with an apology and claimed she’d just returned from her sister’s wedding. Her emails were designed to deepen the fictional story while building trust. Additional explanations she shared would later mask important components of the scam; she claimed to be was moving into a new condo while her husband remained in their previous home.  They could arrange to have the work delivered.  Her husband would have his assistant take care of the details and send payment.

In hindsight, her writing showed syntax errors and contradictions in narrative.  But the persona actually covered and excused some of these irregularities; the character I was responding to behaved in ways that made “sense.”  Here was a kooky art buyer, maybe an international woman, decorating the second home while her husband paid for her art purchases.  Multiple emails exchanged with the odd “Sofia” seemed very real. Of course, she was working my own belief against me:  I wanted to believe my work was being purchased because of the work I had done to increase my visibility as an artist.  I realize now that if she’d selected a more expensive work I would have required phone conversations and done additional fact-checking.  

There was another delay, followed by a very polite check-in to see whether the check had arrived, and more apologies for the confusion “the move was causing.” Almost a month of exchanges reached the turning point in the scam with well-prepared ground.  The check arrived from a “business” with a rather significant overpayment..  I wrote immediately and asked how to proceed. My instinct was to rip up the check and ask for another sent with the appropriate price.  “Sofia” blamed the error on her husband, suggested I deposit the check, deduct the cost of the shipping to the condo in Saratoga Springs, New York, and refund the overpayment.

It was a crazy week at work, and in the intense midst of “too many things” I thought, “At least I can get this work shipped and make an important sale.”  I deposited the check, and the next day called my bank to verify that the check had cleared. I took the piece to fed ex and shipped it to the address she’d provided.  “Sofia” then asked me to refund the overpayment to her husband’s assistant and provided an address in Minneapolis.  “Sofia” recommended several Western Union options in my area.  In hindsight, clear fraud techniques were being utilized in these key steps: 1. Overpayment to get the target to “refund” what is actually personal finances 2. Payment from one person and address different from the person the communication.

I believed I was being careful, I’d called the bank, and the money was in my account.  Despite the hassles, and my unease, I transferred the money via Western Union.  I called and left a voice mail message on “Sofia’s” number, realizing we’d never actually spoken on the phone, and she responded with the following email: “Thanks for taking care of everything. I’ll make sure I send photos of the art piece as soon as I have it installed on my wall.”

The next day, my bank withdrew the deposit.  The check had a valid routing number but was not a real account.  I called, confused, and the nice person from the bank clarified that checks clear as a courtesy, on the assumption that it is a valid check, but the actual money can take several more days to be verified. I knew immediately what had happened, and fortunately, the money transfer had not been picked up in Minneapolis. Western Union was incredibly helpful, and my money was returned to me.  I don’t know went wrong in their operation, but a clear twenty-four window was missed, fortunately for me. Next, I tried to track down my art, which Fed Ex delivered two days ahead of schedule. The Saratoga Springs police were able to connect me with the apartment manager of the building.  In addition to my art, a painting from an artist in Arizona had also recently arrived, and another by an artist from Boston, too. The police officer explained that over the last two years, this empty apartment address was given to multiple artists all being scammed with the same story.  Details like “sister’s wedding” and the overpayment from the “husband” were details used in each fraud.  Though the gmail addresses and names differ with each target, the narrative is a variation of the story I was told.

I learned an incredibly important lesson, and I am relieved that it wasn’t more costly.  I share my experience here in hopes that other artists won’t fall victim to criminals using similar techniques.  And there is some very specific criminal targeting artists across the country with quite a successful, professional operation.  I don’t understand the cruelty of such behavior, and I don’t want to dwell on the culprits involved.  I want to end this narrative with gratitude – for the bank and Western Union employees, the Saratoga Springs police officer, and the kind building manager who protected my work.  All these individuals shared concern for my well-being and helped me to prioritize each of the action steps after I realized I was the victim of a crime.  Though there were plenty of places I made mistakes, these helpful individuals never made any judgmental comments, but they did teach me what I needed to learn to be more prepared and protected.

The Sacred Pause: Working with Time as Ally and Muse (Part Two)

Grandmother Spiderwoman Mask by Michael Sylvan Robinson (2004)

Grandmother Spiderwoman Mask by Michael Sylvan Robinson (2004)

Through the sacred art of pausing, we develop the capacity to stop hiding, to stop running away from our experience.  We begin to trust in our natural intelligence, in our naturally wise heart, in our capacity to open to whatever arises.” ~ Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

“I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date… No time to say ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye,’ I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!” Though I’ve always been more of a Mad Hatter, the iconic White Rabbit would be an excellent reminder about being too busy to really be living in the moment. My mother says that I have always been this way, this desire to do too many things for the amount of time in the schedule. She claims that as a child I would say something to the effect of: “If I skip soccer this week I can go to band practice, and the auditions for the play aren’t until next week – so there will only be a two or three week overlap in soccer and rehearsals.” Several decades later, my grownup life sounds a lot like that younger me: “If I go to the gym today than tomorrow night could be dinner with a friend followed by an hour or so of time in the studio, and the next night I’ve got rehearsal at school, but if I try to get to the chiropractor between the end of the teaching day, and the start of rehearsals I might be able to…”

“But much of our driven pace and habitual controlling in daily life does not serve surviving, and certainly not thriving. It arises from a free-floating anxiety about something being wrong or not enough.  Even when our fear arises in the face of actual failure, loss or …death, our instinctual tensing and striving are often ineffectual and unwise.” ~ Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

A friend once recommended that nothing should be added into the schedule unless something else was removed. I find that balance of addition and subtraction very hard to hold to when the work sphere trends to more and more events, and then the only place to subtract falls into the areas I most want to prioritize: home, community/friendships, art. I’m in the midst of tech week for a production at school, and the final rehearsals and production tasks are complicated by the seasonal winter weather (that hasn’t been so seasonal the last several years until this one!); underneath the long hours, the challenges of self-care become more apparent, and old patterns reveal themselves like fault lines.  I found myself suddenly reawakened by anger, then fear, and finally, to varying degrees, a kind of letting go, a more detached perspective that helped me ease back into the rollercoaster of the weather, the work, my own projections, and in the space I took away from being reactive, to accept what was really in front of me.  The winter weather was one of the challenges reminding me that I couldn’t be in control of the circumstances, only my own reactions.

“Taking our hands off the controls and pausing is an opportunity to clearly see the wants and fears that are driving us. During the moments of a pause, we become conscious of how the feeling that something is missing or wrong keeps us leaning into the future, on our way somewhere else.  This gives us a fundamental choice in how we respond: We can continue our futile attempts at managing our experience, or we can meet our vulnerability with the wisdom of Radical Acceptance… Often the moment we most need to pause is exactly when it feels most intolerable to do so.  Pausing in the fit of anger, or when overwhelmed by sorrow or filled with desire, may be the last thing we want to do…” ~ Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

Many years ago, when I began my MFA in Interdisciplinary Art at Goddard College, one of my first advisors described my art practice as scattered.  This, of course, was a real trigger word for me, one that reminded me of the comments of high school teachers, my parents, but her challenge helped me see the interdisciplinary nature of my art-making.  It took longer to achieve mastery in certain discipline areas because I aimed to acquire so many practices: performance, dance, costume design, playwriting, critical and creative writing, sculpture, and fiber art. I saw that all these investigations blended together into my artwork beyond the limits of disciplines, and that my commitment to research included extensive queer and gender studies; these realizations anchored my art, and influence what I chose to make, exhibit, and invest my time. Scattered was a surface layer assessment, but examined with a wider view, it is clear that I manifest an impressive amount of artistry every year.  It is true that a lot of it is job specific, and I need to remember to be grateful for a job that provides me so much creative work!  I do a reasonably good job making my own personal art, and I am also grateful for the opportunities to exhibit and learn better the business skills of being a professional artist.

My artwork is a practice of time, and I don’t mean for that to be confused with time-based art, which is a topic for another entry, perhaps.  My fiber work is based in hand-stitching and beading, covering the entire surface of a large piece of patterned fabric with intricate details.  My larger pieces are up to 5’, and I also work on life-sized sculptural work, and these pieces can take more than a year to complete.  At times, there can be the feeling that the piece will never finish, that no matter how many layers of work I’ve completed, there are still so many places left to pay attention to, to bring my unique embellishment skills, and so I try to remain in the “doing.” Just put an hour into the background beading of the black beads and buttons.  Put an hour or so of attaching anything that still has pins in it… That kind of targeted goal setting helps build consistency for the physical act of showing up for my art, for the embodied movement that brings the threaded needle in and out of the fabric hung from my studio wall, it brings a stillness to my life.  There is a patience that I enact with this practice.  Prior to tech week, I’d reconnected in greater consistency to my sitting practice, and I know that I’ll get back into being more connected to my body, being better about what foods I eat, at the same time that I stop being “so busy,” which is, of course, one of the ways I am distracted from my own authentic presence. When I listen to the many stories of Grandmother Spiderwoman, I hear the challenges of her advice: leave space in the center of the weaving, like the open spaces of the spider’s web.  The breathing into the center, opening space around the old stories and patterns, is key to the increased freedom and wellness.

Through the sacred art of pausing, we develop the capacity to stop hiding, to stop running away from our experience.  We begin to trust in our natural intelligence, in our naturally wise heart, in our capacity to open to whatever arises.” ~ Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

"Eye of Time (Peacock God Feather)" - fiber art / mixed media by Michael Sylvan Robinson (2010)

“Eye of Time (Peacock God Feather)” – fiber art / mixed media by Michael Sylvan Robinson (2010)

The Hourglass Collection: Working with Time as an Ally and a Muse (Part One)

I will admit to binge-watching new Dr. Who episodes as a reward for handling the pressures of schedule and commitments. It might be a bit of stretch to refer to those viewing sessions as “working with Time as an ally,” but I don’t actually do enough restorative activities, often turning my spiritual and artistic practices into the same kind of pressured tasks as my job responsibilities.  So I’m experimenting with time at home, time with others, and time that is unstructured, and though I don’t own a television, mixing in some viewing sessions of favorite shows, can add an ingredient of being more at ease, when done carefully.  But like many “distracting” activities, even too much Dr. Who leaves me feeling lethargic and not refreshed as I’d hoped.  Time objects hold meaning for me in this practice of mindfulness. I keep a collection of hour glasses on the desk in my office.  When I feel the pressures of too-many-deadlines, I turn one of the hourglasses over and whisper, “There is plenty of time.” Reminding myself to slow down, to put the brakes on the instinct to rush, to not succumb to the “I have to do more, get it all done, take on more…”

But, of course, on the other hand, there isn’t “plenty of time,” in that way that is always true, that as a living being there will be a point in time when I am no longer living, and prior to that, some trauma or illness that will bring this particular body (and life) to a finish.  I am a gay man of a generation that feared we would all die before we even saw our thirties, and when I lived in New York City during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, there was plenty of evidence all around me that this fear was not unwarranted.  AIDS was killing young men around me, and it felt like a war zone marked by the losses of friends and lovers.  For many of us, grief fueled activism and changed the way queerness would be lived.  Society seemed only too willing to let us die, and we learned to care for each other, advocate for our lives, in ways that could never really have predicted the actual acceptance that many homosexuals feel today.

A friend died a little more than ninety days ago, a man younger than I am.  The time I spent with him in the final weeks of his life humbled me.  A practioner of Buddhism, he was so deeply present for himself during many, many months of fighting, and when it was time to let go, he did so surrounded by loved ones.  It had been a very long time since I’d sat at the bedside of a dying man younger than me, and now, in my middle age, the realities of life’s uncertain length were once more immediately clear.

In Comfortable with Uncertainty, Pema Chödrön writes, “We know that all is impermanent; we know that everything wears out.  Although we can buy this truth intellectually, emotionally we have deep-rooted aversion to it.  We want permanence; we expect permanence. Our natural tendency is to seek security; we believe we can find it.  We experience impermanence at the everyday level as frustration.  We use our daily activity as a shield against the fundamental ambiguity of our situation, expending tremendous energy trying to ward off impermanence and death.”  There have been a number of deaths, some prolonged and some shockingly sudden, in the web of friendships around me over the past several months.  Death is a real teacher, reminding us that our time together is not a measurable commodity.  In the days that I sat by my friend’s side, the seasons changed; summer became autumn, and once he was moved to hospice, he was able to experience the beauty of the gardens after many months of watching the days through the windows of the hospital.  Each day was so important and fleeting.  I still light a candle for my friend, thanking him for sharing his life with me, and I remember the lessons I learned by showing up, in being present, being a witness for a loved one’s passing.

Chödrön continues, “The Buddhist teachings aspire to set us free from this limited way of relating to impermanence.  They encourage us to relax gradually and wholeheartedly into the ordinary and obvious truth of change.  Acknowledging this truth doesn’t mean that we’re looking at the dark side.  What it means is that we begin to understand that we’re not the only one who can’t keep it all together.  We no longer believe that there are people who have managed to avoid uncertainty.”

Work in Progress: Michael Sylvan Robinson's "Guardian in the Garden of Delight"

Work in Progress: Michael Sylvan Robinson’s “Guardian in the Garden of Delight”

Starting here, and as I thought of what to title this new writing space, I turned to Walt Whitman, to lines I’ve read and reread over so many years:

“A noiseless patient spider, / I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated, / Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding, / It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, / Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them. // And you O my soul where you stand, / Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, / Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them, / Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, / Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.”

Whitman’s two stanzas directly compare the seeking of his soul to the work of the spider he observes.  “Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, / Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.” I’m opening this new space, standing here in this present, musing on art and spiritual practice, the times in which we live, and the circles of community; I am asking the questions of patience, opening a place for deeper contemplation, developing and sharing the tools of communication.

I’ve drawn inspiration from myths and stories working with spider as an ally, as a symbol, as well as observing the beautiful weavers as I encounter them (and their webs). I’ve heard stories of Grandmother Spiderwoman in which she counsels that sanity must be found by leaving an opening in the center of the web, a place for breath to expand.  I know the cautionary tale of Arachne’s competition with Athena, but I’ve also been fascinated by the Arachne-Transformed, her spider skills an inheritance for all her little eight-legged sisters.

In Starhawk’s The Empowerment Manual she describes “spidering” as a role in group dynamics, “Spiders sit in the center of their webs, and from that position they can feel any movement in any part of the pattern.  In groups, Spiders are the central connectors who watch the group’s communications.” This role of the Spider as the organizer-presence who gathers the ideas of different voices, as well as being the one whose hands touch all the various components, is one role I often find myself.  And yet, as we know, the actual spider’s web is built by one solitary spider (there are some spiders that share their webs) to feed.  When I find myself surrounded by a web filled with too many community needs and responsibilities, this awakening challenges me to define better what my own sustainable practices must be, and in doing so, I learn better to ask what nourishes my own life and wellness in this work.  I hear the challenge of patience in the anchored presence of Whitman’s spider, though I note that I don’t claim the “noiseless” in this title, the practice of silence is certainly part of the journey. I’ve been reading a lot of Pema Chödrön and Tara Brach; I’ve been immersed in their teachings of Buddhism and find their wisdom on the practice of letting go, opening to the present, really calls to me from some deep inner place within my busy life.  In Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, Pema Chödrön writes, “Awakening is not a process of building ourselves up but a process of letting go. It’s a process of relaxing in the middle – the paradoxical, ambiguous middle, full of potential, full of new ways of thinking and seeing – with absolutely no money-back guarantee of what will happen next.”

As a fiber artist, my work is built from the countless repeated movements of hand stitching and beading; my larger pieces can take more than a year to complete.  There is a patience within such a process of craft. My handwork is as distinctive as fingerprints, the stitches so clearly mine. The interweaving of patterns, color, textures a specific voice.  My work brings together all these small components in an intricate surface detail that is also part of a larger conceptual structure.  Listening to the play of the materials brings my hands and eyes together in the realization of new techniques and ongoing investigations of imagery and stories.

And so I spin my words here, anchored in my home, sending out these threads of curiosity and mindfulness, seeking connections in a wider web that we share.

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