Friday, August 26, 2011

New-born Brain Cells Make Us Happy

Most of the time while I work in my studio, I listen to audiobooks. Good stories help keep me motivated and, especially when my hands are busy on a tedious or repetitive part of the process like smoothing surfaces, applying sprigs, impressing textures or underglazing, my mind can focus on the ideas or action of the book.

Certain books and stories keep me better motivated than others. This summer, in particular, my listening seems to be divided between books that keep me in the studio hour after hour and books that encourage me to take long, distracted breaks. I can generally tell that a book isn't right for me when I find myself happily folding laundry instead of finishing projects started earlier in the week.

This summer's major dud was "David Copperfield" though I've also struggled with "Water for Elephants" and "The Constant Princess."  The latter two I've only recently traded for something else and I might still get back to them. They weren't exhilarating but, unlike David, they didn't drive me from the studio.  I made it halfway through the Dickens "masterpiece" before I gave it up.  I wasn't just bored, I was angry at the characters for failing to grow, change or move the story forward.

My favorite audiobooks for the studio are the Harry Potter series. I devoured the books in print (and waited in Border's lines at midnight for the last few) but Jim Dale's reading makes them a joy to hear over and over again. Any Harry Potter book, but especially the third or fifth can get me out of a rut in the studio. I feel happier when I listen to them and, apparently the fact that I know what will happen (I have whole sections memorized) doesn't hinder their functionality as studio soundtrack. The Harry Potter books have action and adventure but one of my favorite things about the series is seeing the characters change and grow. Rowling illustrates distinct change and growth in the skill, feelings and maturity of her characters. I find it especially pleasing to see a secondary character like Neville become more confident and develop into a leader.

I listen to at least 3 or 4 of the Harry Potter audiobooks every summer. My studio spirits can usually be buoyed by "Pride and Prejudice" or "Emma" as well. Even after many readings, I like to follow the characters as their point of view changes and misunderstandings are rectified.

For the rest of my working hours, I am usually try new things. I have an Audible subscription to supplement the Yakima library's relatively sparse offerings. I usually have the best luck with non-fiction, particularly books pertaining to biology or history.  This summer I enjoyed "Remarkable Creatures" (thanks Yakima Valley library!), "Empire of Liberty," "The Big Burn" and "Devil in the White City."  I also enjoyed reading "1491," "1421," (I like numbers, I guess) and "Monkeys are Made of Chocolate." Not surprisingly several other favorites this year were historical fiction--novels that dealt with real places and real times ("Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" and "Fall of Giants").

I round out my listening list with an assortment of Terry Pratchett (excellent books but the audio versions are of uneven quality), Christoper Moore (the vampire books are excellent, the rest, so-so), Jasper Fforde and whatever happens to be on the shelf or recently recommended to me.

This summer, as I look for more audiobooks (I go through them pretty quickly; so far this summer I've finished 23 and not-finished 4 more), I have been trying to categorize what it is that makes for a good studio audiobook. Last fall I won a book from the local independent bookstore. They asked what I liked so they could pick for me based on that. I told them I liked Harry Potter, Jane Austen and Terry Pratchett. They gave me "In the Skin of a Lion" by Michael Ondaatje (who also wrote "The English Patient").  Let me tell you, I loathed that book. But it left me wondering, why would they recommend that book for me? (Maybe they just ignored what I said)

A few days ago I was listening to "Proust was a Neuroscientist" (which is excellent, by the way), and I got thinking about change. I started wondering if change was a thread running through most, if not all, of the stories I liked to hear while working. Of course I mentioned the change and evolution of Harry Potter characters and Pride and Prejudice is all about the characters changing both their behavior and their opinions. With histories, I think it is natural to focus on a time of great change: wars or the lead-up to wars, Columbus' discovery of America, the development of the forest service or a new way of thinking about a nation. But this summer some of my favorite histories have also focused on a changing way of viewing a time of great change. "1491" and "1421" both put forth a "new" or different way of thinking about the Americas at the time of Columbus.

Another category of books that I usually enjoy is books focused loosely on evolution. "Remarkable Creatures" deals specifically with evolution but other books, like "Monkeys are Made of Chocolate," talk about evolutionary adaptations of animals and plants in a specific ecosystem (i.e. the rainforest of Costa Rica).

Of course, the stories I listen to in the studio are separate from the work. I am not sculpting animals or installations that address themes of war or magic. But I have been wondering if change is a more constant (hee hee) element of my work nonetheless. In at least one previous show, I illustrated evolution in form by showing step-by-step changes in similar objects. And there is always an evolution (or should be) in a body of work from earlier ideas and processes to later ones.

My daughter and husband brought a slug into the house the other day to...well, I guess to have a mini-science class on the kitchen floor. My daughter brought it in (in a box) and put it in my lap. My husband took it out and let it crawl on his (gloved) hand while she squealed. Though perhaps not the prettiest creature, I thought it was fascinating how the slug stretched and squeezed from a fat blob to a long skinny line.

I have always been interested in natural forms that change from one extreme to another, slugs (or sea slugs) not the least of these. Flowers bloom and petals seem to come from no space at all then are suddenly huge and wide and curving outward. Seed pods grow from small blips on a stem or a branch into large swellings and stretchings that contain bits inside that look nothing like the exterior of the pod. Rough, dark milkweed pods split sending bright white bits of fluff sailing across a field. These natural changes and contrasts influence the forms and surfaces of my studio work.

Clay itself is one of these changeable phenomena. Everything about the medium must go through changes, from wet to dry, or recycled clay to fired ceramic. To form something with clay we stretch it on the wheel or squish coils together or squeeze it through an extruder. Paintings tend to be flat and rectangular but clay can be any shape. Wood can only be cut or carved so many times, but clay can be formed one way and then completely reshaped without leaving a visible record of the change.

One of my favorite chapters in "Proust was a Neuroscientist" had to do with changing brains. I believe it was the second chapter which focused on George Eliot and on the scientific discovery that our brain makes new cells. "For some reason new-born brain cells make us happy," explains the author. I just love this idea of the new, of the potential and real change that is happening everyday in our minds. I like the idea of starting each day with thoughts and ideas and bits that were there yesterday but also with new bits full of potential, like clay that was molded yesterday but can be changed into something completely (or only a little) different today.

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