The Space Between ( )

There is a quote by Viktor Frankl that I often return to as I’m thinking about my work.  “Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”  

We make countless decisions every day.  Some of the choices enter the realm of deliberate consideration, and others are seemingly automatic.  There is the much publicized story of Mark Zuckerberg’s t-shirt, or President Obama’s navy suit that he wears daily, as evidence of making one less decision.  Decisions deplete energy.

While there is a ‘space’ in which we are able to choose our response, I often consider the filters that a stimulus goes through as we formulate a response.  Our accumulation of past experiences as well as our biological genetics both have a strong influence on that response.  Often it is easier to rely on these filters, than to utilize mental energy in considering our response. 

My circling of sensory perception has led me down several paths (trying to understand how the senses operate, as well as the consciousness that processes them).  Recently, I’ve focused my  attention in trying to understand the filter of memory.  Eric Kandel’s “In Search of Memory” has been helpful in contextualizing the history (and contemporary understanding) of the biological basis of memory.  Eric Kandel won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his lifetime of work in the field.  

Intellectual pursuit has been informing my intuition as I attempt to create an experience that is completed by the viewer.  The ‘thing-ness’ of my experience is still being crafted.  But the gravitational pull is coming from the creation of experience that is immersive and interactive.  An experience involving the physical properties of light and water to incite a simultaneous response of curiosity and reflection of the filters influencing our lives.  

Drew Wilson - Artist

With his 2D and 3D work, artist Drew Wilson seeks to reveal a situation of high contrast, and the lingering difficulty of reconciling its effect.  The paradox of living in a society in which a person’s love and intimacy is confronted with violence and aggression.   

As a classmate in the CCAD MFA program, Drew has explored themes of intimacy in gay relationships, and the psychological (and sometimes physical) violence that can occur from certain factions of society.   Quiet moments of beauty that clash with the bullhorn of intolerance.  

I sat down with Drew to discuss the direction of his work for the thesis show in April.  It is a work in progress, so we talked about the concept, as well as reviewed some of the pieces that were beginning to emerge.

Outside his studio is a large pedestal, with a molded bust (his cast face) covered in pages from a book.  Upon closer inspection, the title,  ‘A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality’ graces the area below the right nostril (taken from the book, “You Don’t Have to be Gay.”).  Drew informed me that the bust and pedestal are referred to as a ‘herm.’  In ancient Greece, a herm was a sculpted head (or torso) of a Greek divinity atop a square pedestal as one solid piece.  These pieces were placed in specific locations to denote a specific threshold (i.e. - street to sacred space).  They served as guardians of that space.  

Sitting on top of the head are the beginnings of a headdress, with two wires (one longer, one shorter) emanating from the piece.  These wires form the structure for the plumes that will be covered in thousands of hand-made feathers.  One side of the feather (facing out) will be covered in the previously mentioned book pages, with the reverse side covered in a brightly colored, jewel-toned glitter.  The headdress is a reference to a period in Drew’s life two decades earlier, when an Annie Lennox video provided evidence and refuge to a world more accepting than the one he was in.  

Drew is building two herms, which will be placed side by side, creating a walkway between them.  This threshold will lead to a space beyond that will be covered in drawings and mixed media work.  This work will shift in tone from the outer assault of ‘You Don’t Have to be Gay‘ to one of acceptance, freedom, and inner peace.  The herms will have been successful in their protection of the outer forces from infiltrating the inner space.  The scars of their defense evident from the pealing pages covering their form.  

What has always been striking with Drew’s work is his ability to infuse stationary objects with a charged energy.  There is often the simultaneous sense of swirling movement and a quiet stillness.  It can feel like you are in the eye of the hurricane.   

Ultimately, what Drew’s work says in resounding clarity, is the idea that the intimacy of touch (sexual or non-sexual) speaks to that connection much greater than ourselves (love).  The inverse of that which challenges it.   

Sensing and Perceiving


In the last year, sensory perception has become an important zone of reflection for my work.   While we often talk of sensory perception as a singular experience, closer inspection reveals two different actions  - sensing and perceiving.

I came across a story in my research that seems to illustrate this distinction.   Michael May was blinded in an accident involving a chemical explosion when he was three years old.  At the age of forty-six, he received cornea transplants that allowed him to regain his sense of sight.  While he was technically able to ‘see,’ his brain could not process the input.  It was a collection of colors, shapes, and images.  In his own words, “I was trying to latch onto images and make sense of the world.  It wasn’t as though I saw a face and said - ‘that’s a smile’ - automatically.  I had to intellectualize the whole process, dissect it, and then figure it out.”  

In our first nine years of existence, we learn how to see.  Our visual cortex (a region in the back of the brain with two million neurons that processes visual stimuli) develops over this time.  Since Michael’s brain was not fully allowed to develop this part of the brain, his visual vocabulary and spatial processing were fixed to his limited experience at three years of age.  His brain could not develop beyond that fixed point.  While he was able to enjoy the new experience of color and light, other challenges not previously considered while blind, became a part of his new world.

Ultimately, Michael talks about the ability to see as a different way of perceiving the world, and not necessarily better.

This story, and others (such as my previous work inspired by Temple Grandin and Naoki Higashida) speak to my continued exploration into the experience of sensing and perceiving.  I’m reaching for a goal of creating an experience that fully considers sensing and perceiving separately, while presenting them seamlessly.  


Interview with Michael May on NPR:

I Like Old Stuff

I was eight years old when my grandmother gave me a patchwork dinosaur that she had made from some of my grandfather’s suits and work clothes.  My grandfather had died ten years before I was born, so I hadn’t known him.  And really, I had wanted a He-man action figure.  I was a little disappointed. 

My relationship to that object changed as I grew older.  My dad would often make the comment, “you are just like your grandfather” as I was in the middle of building a hovercraft, or a soldering a radio transmitter.  I began to feel a connection with someone I had never met.  The dinosaur was a tangible object that represented that connection to the past.

This appreciation for objects with a history intensified as I grew older.  But from this interest emerged a counterbalance.  An entire room of old objects felt familiar, but also heavy and sad - a sort of maudlin posture of always looking back.  During interviews for his most recent film, Woody Allen alludes to this posture - “Nostalgia is a trap.  It’s a pleasant, sticky substance, like honey, that you fall into.”

To keep myself from falling into this trap, I often think of the analogy of driving.  While driving, you spend most of the time paying attention to the space directly around the car.  But you also will glance in the rear view mirror, as well as further down the road ahead.  It becomes a continuously shifting perspective.

I was in a studio visit with a visiting artist last year, and after surveying the mix of objects in my studio, she made the comment, “Wow, you really do like this old stuff.  I thought you were being ironic.”  


The Red Line

I stepped into the L train on my way from The Art Institute of Chicago to my brother’s house in Roger’s Park neighborhood, and was immediately greeted with a pungent odor.  It was the recognizable smell of stale urine and body odor.  I’m normally not bothered by odors, especially when they are expected on public transportation or cramped elevators.  But this was unusually strong.

The source of the smell became evident when I turned to see a man in tattered clothing hunched over three seats, with plastic bags of his possessions surrounding him.  The man looked to be about mid sixties in age, with a long grey beard, and eyes closed.  

As soon as the train began to pull away from the stop, he began to shriek at the top of his lungs.  The words were unintelligible, and the tone was aggressive and unsettling.  The other passengers in the car practiced the learned etiquette of handling public disturbance such as this - face forward, and pretend not to notice.

His screaming escalated until there was a moment of eerie silence.  The period seemed to linger, a volatile pause that was building up to the next explosion.   After about a minute, he released a primal scream, and in a clear voice, yelled - 


Something that would generally be considered the utterance of someone battling severe mental illness, seemed to immediately take hold and stay with me.  I turned these words over and over in my head.  

There was something about his exclamation that seemed familiar.

I began to realize that the spirit behind those words is what propels me forward each day.    In each moment, each struggle, each act of creation is that very statement.  I didn’t immediately recognize it, because it usually takes the form of it’s more pleasant cousin - “I am alive.”  

The man on the red line has become invisible to most people.  And I too pretended not to see him.  But that did not prevent his message from finding a way in.

Second semester is halfway complete. WHAT?

There have been quite a few moments in the past month that have helped to shape my direction of exploration for the semester.  Here are a few of the fragments:

-  My mentor (Susan Li O'Connor*** ) had recommended the Mattress Factory Museum in Pittsburgh.  Brian and I took a little trip to Pittsburgh this weekend, found the permanent and rotating collection of work at the MF to be engaging and unexpected.  The museum had a floor of James Turrell's work.  It was my first time experiencing a Turrell piece in person.  The quiet tone and visual vibration of the Turrell work will inform how I approach my semester project.

-  In my studio visit with Ric, he had mentioned that "art is not about making the ordinary, extraordinary - it's about making the ordinary, infinite."  My cerebral cortex glowed upon hearing.  I now have the phrase tattooed on my ankle.

-  My studio visit with Malcolm Cochran was robust, with some keen insight on how to approach my work.  Malcolm is a natural teacher, and challenges in a manner that is constructive, and with the intent for growth.  He had mentioned that my work is about the 'fugitive.'  I'm hoping he's talking about the fleeting moments that are just out of reach - and not the warrant for my unpaid parking tickets.

-  I was late for class, and I was stuck behind two older ladies in a mid-size sedan.  The car had a bumper sticker - "Don't Believe Everything You Think."  I was thinking they needed to speed up, but then realized this might be wrong.

-  I met with Danielle Julian-Norton and she talked about 'letting the mess show.'  She referred to the work of David Lynch, and his ability to sustain mystery by creating a narrative with a hole.  I have watched both seasons of Twin Peaks over the past few weekends, and have a better understanding of the concept.  

The remainder of my semester will be spent working with the sensory elements of sight, sound,  smell, and touch.  I will be exploring ways these elements can speak to the ephemeral and liminal experience. 


Sensory Science - OSU

I had the privilege of meeting Christopher Simons, a professor of sensory science in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the Ohio State University.  

Chris' work centers around how context can shape perception - specifically in regards to the sense of taste.  He works with food and beverage companies to test flavors before they are rolled out into the marketplace.  You might have seen the Speedway commercial regarding their improved coffee flavor developed in conjunction with the OSU lab.  

Chris describes his approach to taste as a triangle.  The three points are made of expectation, experience, and consolidated memory.  For example, when you open a Coca-Cola, there is an expectation of what you are about to drink, from a previous experience (assuming you've had one), which has been consolidated into a memory.  

The lab is investigating how environment (or context) can shape the expectation and experience of a flavor.  Previously, they were presenting various food and drink test items to taste test participants in a small room lit with only a red light.  The red light was suppose to minimize the influence of the visual of the food by making all items in the test the same color.  

Chris is now creating a testing room that is surrounded with large video screens with footage of a particular environment (for example, a coffee shop if the test is about coffee).  Additionally, he is adding an olfactory component to this immersive environment.  If using the coffee shop example above, he would pump the smell of cinnamon rolls into the room.  Chris believes that this environment will be reflect a truer experience for testing food and drink flavors.

Chris also talked about the relationship between taste and smell.  This brought up the concepts of orthonasal and retronasal.  Experiencing a smell orthonasaly is through the nose.  Experience a smell (and taste) through the mouth is retronasaly.  A way to test the concept of retronasal is by holding your nose while sucking on a Jolly Rancher.  You will only taste a sweetness.  Once you release your nose, you will experience the flavor of the Jolly Rancher, and not just the sweetness.  We've all had the experience of food tasting different when our nose is congested.  This highlights taste's dependency on smell to fully function.  

He also talked about the olfactory being the only sense that goes directly into the limbic system.  The limbic system is the portion of the brain that also manages emotions and long term memory.  This explains the strong connection between scent and memory.   

It was a fascinating conversation, and one I hope to continue during another visit.  

So what is your focus?

When I tell family and friends that I'm in grad school, the first question I receive is, "What is your focus?"  Inevitably, the follow-up question is, "What do you want to do after?"  While I do not have a firm answer for the latter, the former has been a question that has been at the forefront of my mind since the first day of class.

Fourteen years in my previous career provided me with an experience that was rich, but with a narrow field of vision.  I was ready to broaden my creative horizon beyond what was familiar and comfortable.

My intention has been to be open and explore as many ideas as possible in my first semester.  See what resonates.  This curiosity has led me down some unintended paths, and I've tried to keep one foot planted in my initial inspiration (Robert Frost's poem, For Once, Then, Something) as my pivot point for this exploration.

This open-ended process eventually funneled itself into a soft focus.  I began to see patterns.  Repetition created a sense of inertia.  

My exploration (and connection to the Frost poem), seems to be revolve around the physical and symbolic qualities of water.  And within this idea emerged four additional arteries for exploration (also physical and symbolic) - reflection, perspective, distortion, and limen.  

These ideas could consume a lifetime's work to consider.  They shift and blend and branch out into other areas - such as time, memory, life, and death.  

The ghost of career past has been haunting me.  The impulse to close the loop, and move onto the next task exists.  But the last few months have revealed a different approach.  It's about questions that lead to other questions.  And this approach does not have an end.   

Natasha Tretheway

I had the privilege of being a part of a group that had lunch with Natasha Trethewey (the Poet Laureate for the United States).  As you would expect, she was extremely thoughtful and eloquent.  But also candid about some of the painful moments in her life and it's influence on her work.

I'm always interested in an artist's approach to their discipline, so I asked Ms. Trethewey how her poems were conceptualized  - whether it was initiated by a memory, a feeling, a word.   She responded that her poems usually began with a strong image - either from art or from her memory.  This image would trigger a question that would lead to intense reading and research to stoke the fire of this image.  Her poems might be historically referent, but she explained that they are very much about the present. 

She also talked about using imitation of other poetry as a way to 'unlock her ideas.' She was open about utilizing the structure of Claudia Emerson's "Aftermath" in the development of her poem "Elegy".  She mentioned that the cadence of another poet's thought can add clarity to her own.  

I asked her about her poem, "Limen."  The poem deals with a woodpecker "hard at his task" on a tree outside of her childhood window as her mother is hanging up wet sheets to dry.  I found this poem ignited a similar response that I had to Robert Frost's "For Once, Then, Something" (which is a jumping off point for my semester project).  I had looked up the definition of the word limen prior to our meeting, to learn that it meant  "the minimum amount of stimulus or nerve-excitation required to produce a sensation;  also called threshold."  Ms. Threthewey mentioned that the title was added at the end, as she searched the OED for words that captured the essence of the poem.

In "For Once, Then, Something," Frost talks about looking beyond and below the surface of a water well.  "I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture, Through the picture, a something white, uncertain" and then the final lines of the poems, "What was that whiteness?  Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something."  He could have ended his poem with "For once, then, nothing," but instead he chose the word "something." Barely perceptible - but something.

Yesterday's meeting brought into tighter focus a central idea that I'm exploring - this idea of limen - of threshold of perception.  Feeling the gravitational pull of 'something,' and then illuminating it's essence through the screen of abstraction.