Back in the Pleistocene Era, when I first started blogging, there was a cute convention used to explain extended absences. The structure was a vague apology acknowledging the unusual reticence, then reassuring readers the author was back and had a good reason for being otherwise occupied, followed by an image of an ultrasound, a brand new baby, a new pet, a surprise wedding photo, or in less optimistic cases, a broken appendage / natural disaster.
So let’s see if I remember how it’s done.
Hello, lovely blog readers. I’m sorry I’ve been away so long, but I am back! You see, I had a pretty good reason for my absence…
I was just having one of my all-time greatest dreams come true.
Last month my first solo exhibition of paintings opened in Manhattan, The Nature of Being, presented by chashama in a pop-up gallery on Madison Avenue. Despite being in the gallery every day for the run of the show, I still can’t believe this is an actual reality and not just some elaborate, exquisitely beautiful dream.
Chashama is an amazing non-profit organization that partners with the building owners of unused or under-used spaces to give artists places to create and present new work. I am the second artist to show in the storefront gallery on Madison Avenue, which I believe used to be a men’s suit store that moved across town. I love the initiative of inserting art into publicly-accessible places, bringing art to the community, and giving artists the freedom to present their work however they’d like. It has been incredible to work with such a nurturing, supportive organization, and I am simply thrilled to have had this opportunity.
I will be writing more here or on my studio blog about the overall process, conceiving and proposing the exhibit, what I learned about myself as an artist and a person through this experience, and what an encouraging and wonderful time it has been meeting people, getting feedback on my work, and letting my paintings finally communicate with the public the way I want them to. Spoiler alert: pretty much dream come true across the board.
One of the biggest things I want to keep in my heart is what it has meant to have such astronomically supportive friends and family throughout this process. I literally never could have made the paintings, trusted myself enough as an artist to even apply, gotten through the exhibit planning, organized the opening reception, or honestly, even tried to share my art with the world without such extraordinary people believing in me and doing everything they could to help me, push me along, and come by to see the exhibit and say hello. I have a tendency to retreat from the world and into my own mind, where it’s easy to feel alone and isolated from other people, and the past few months have shown me with abundant clarity how important it is to reach out, trust people, and share experiences with an open heart.
This whole experience has made me so optimistic about the future and so confident in the path I am setting on it’s a little overwhelming. I keep tearing up with gratitude.
We’ll talk much more about all these things soon, but in the meantime there are still three more days of the exhibit if you’d like to come by to see what I’m talking about in person. And I have the drafts of about a hundred other posts going in my mind, so we’ll get to sorting out the rest of the world too.
Two weeks ago I accepted a spontaneous invitation to meet a friend for a long weekend in Chicago. Whether intentionally or not (I don’t want to accuse him of anything) the invitation as communicated was quite different from the situation I found when I arrived. On the first night I was texting a friend back home about the weirdness, and I felt myself falling into the same negative thought traps I usually do.
– This is all my fault – I am so stupid and naïve for believing a guy would just want to spend time with me as a friend.
– I always do this kind of thing, where I only see the best in people and then end up in super awkward and potentially dangerous situations.
– Way to go, Bridget, you’ve gotten yourself into an after-school special at age 34, have you honestly learned nothing about life?!
And so on. My friend back home talked me off the ledge (thank God for true friends), and we reviewed some of the discussions and precautions I’d taken before leaving. I was incredibly relieved that in what little last-minute planning I did the night I was packing to leave, I connected with a few friends on Facebook, whom I’d forgotten or never knew lived in Chicago. Everyone gave great suggestions for things to see and do, and a few friends said they’d be in town. It immediately became clear that I would need to plan another trip soon, and I was intent to salvage this one.
I met up with a very dear friend whom I’ve known since I was in high school (who happens to have dated my brother for several years when they were kids). We had lunch and drinks, and she very generously showed me around downtown Chicago. I joked with her, as she repeated the offer of a safe place to stay if things kept getting weirder with my host, that I was genuinely glad I made such a foolish and impulsive trip because it gave me the chance to catch up with her. There aren’t many people in the world who have known both my grandmothers and my aunt Elise, who knows the goofy guys I sometimes ate lunch with in high school (when my boyfriend and I were on-again) on a first-name basis, or who has been a friend to me and my brother for so long. She’s also just an all-around awesome, good-hearted person and great company, so it was a real treat.
I was incredibly grateful to get to know such a wonderful new city because it turns out, I seriously love Chicago. The architecture and art is amazing, the way the city is laid out is extraordinarily pedestrian-friendly with loads of things to see and do, I finally experienced true Midwestern manners and kindness, the food was delightful, I fell head over heels in love with Lake Michigan (seriously, I am certain the color will haunt my dreams all my life), and I discovered a lot about myself on this trip (more on that in a moment). I met up with a friend from college whom I haven’t seen in 15 years and his spectacularly lovely fiancée for deep dish pizza and sundaes on my last night, and I admitted that I felt like I was babbling about a new crush with how much I loved Chicago and my time with them. From what I understand, it’s pretty common to fall in love with Chicago, even – or especially – if you’re a New Yorker.
One of the most profound things that happened for me was at the Art Institute of Chicago, which is one of the loveliest museums I’ve ever visited and the place I most wanted to see besides Lake Michigan. I have a sometimes embarrassing tendency to burst into tears when I see works of art that are particularly meaningful to me (Michelangelo’s David, the Monets at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cypresses etc.). Sometimes I’m able to keep it together in an academic sense, as in the Sistine Chapel, when I was able to take a step back and really look at the imagery that I’d written about for a semester in a Michelangelo seminar, but as an artist who has been in love with painting as long as I can remember, my heart usually takes over.
This little painting by Georgia O’Keeffe called Blue and Green Music has been one of my favorites my whole life. It is one of the pivotal works that opened my eyes to abstraction as a child thumbing through books, and it has remained a touchstone in my mind for the power of what simple painting can do emotionally. Seeing it in person was more intense than I even would have predicted (a real tear-sprayer, honestly) and it was deeply significant to me because I saw, yet again, there was not any particular wizardry going on, even in what I consider one of the most magical paintings in the world. O’Keeffe is one of my all-time favorite artists because she captures the elegance and simplicity of nature in her painting without gimmickry, pretense, or affectation. It is her own style, but it is faithful to nature’s style, and it may be the most perfect organic abstraction yet achieved. I also saw this painting was not made through any esoteric inaccessible technical skill or method beyond my grasp – it was her clarity of thought and vision made tangible, and that’s exactly why it was so beautiful and powerful.
Later that afternoon, walking along the lakefront in intermittent rain, I realized that all my life, whether I wanted it or not, I’ve been an artist and I can’t stop being one. I can paint with the same clarity and emotions as O’Keeffe, and maybe if I handle my career the right way, my work can have the same genuine, emotional impact on other people that this painting made on me. I also had this rush of exhilaration that finally, I am pursuing art for real, setting up my business full-time instead of wishing that someday I could get it going, and I am putting my whole heart into it. I truly believe it is the right time, and my experience in Chicago showed me that repeatedly.
A few years ago, I would have succumbed to the part of myself that apologizes too much, allows myself to be mistreated and literally shoved around for my lack of assertiveness, lets my time get wasted, watches people try to manipulate me and stays silent, and generally, acts as my own worst enemy. On this trip, I found myself able to speak up, assert myself while remaining pleasant and keeping things friendly, change plans when they were not okay, and make sure that I got to have the experience I wanted out of Chicago. I saw so many incredible things, spent so much time walking around the city and being outside in alternating sunshine and sideways snow, proved Frank Sinatra correct that the El is a piece of cake after NYC subways, saw species of birds I’ve never seen in person before, and reconnected with beautiful, kind people in wonderful ways. In the past, I probably would have been too shy to accept their invitations or felt obliged to stay with my host when he kept turning his nose up at plans. I’m so happy I’m not that person anymore, and that I trusted myself enough to be myself instead.
By the time my early-morning flight home got cancelled and I accidentally bought a ticket out of Milwaukee, I wasn’t even flustered. The gate agent assured me that I had time to take a bus and check in for my flight, and I trusted her, even though it meant running at a full-sprint through the Chicago airport because I misheard the departure time as 6:25 instead of 6:45 (whoops). The Milwaukee airport was unbelievably pleasant (it’s a toss-up for most charming details: the sign after security for the Recombobulation Area or the dishes of candy at the gates), I had the incomparable pleasure of hearing a TSA agent say in a thick Midwestern accent, “Hey look, there’s a piece of pizza in this bag!” about my Lou Malnati’s leftovers, and I took the sign from the universe that I was supposed to use the opportunity to buy a wheel of Wisconsin Cheddar as a souvenir.
I was intent on getting back in time to meet with my beloved cousin Desireé for dinner and drinks on her last night in New York, and we stayed out talking and laughing late enough to shut down a speakeasy on a Monday night. I kept thinking how much more accurately this version of my life fit with what I truly care about and value than previous times when I had to cut things short to get home to fret about work, or when I’d say I loved my job (because I thought I did) and friends knew I was just putting a good face on a situation that was making me deeply unhappy. I am done with regrets now, I am spending my time with kind people who have beautiful hearts, and I am already planning my next trip(s).
The wonderful thing about travel is that beyond experiencing a new place, it lets us see our daily lives through a fresh lens. I stepped out of my patterns and tendencies and acted spontaneously and flexibly instead. I stopped making decisions out of fear or insecurity and just did what I wanted to do. I remembered the joy of living life the way I mean to, instead of the way I think I’m supposed to, and I came back to New York refreshed, empowered, and excited for all the big things coming up this spring. I didn’t need to go all the way back to India for another life-changing experience, just a few hours away in my own country. For a long weekend, that’s quite a lot to be thankful for.
I have always been elaborately, intricately, head-over-heels in love and obsessed with music. I am at my happiest when my calendar stacks up with dates at the opera, ballet, concerts, and especially the New York Philharmonic because hearing music live lights up parts of my mind and spirit that sometimes get neglected or undernourished and opens up new parts I didn’t know I had. I never realize how much I need to hear music performed until I am in the moment, a warmth spreading through my chest and flushing my cheeks, filling every cell of my being with some profound sense of right-here-and-now-ness and love.
I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about music lately with my brother, who is taking a world music class, and it’s given me the opportunity to examine what music means to me in a spiritual and philosophical sense.
This past summer in India (yep, here I go again about India) music played a massive part in the spiritual awakening I experienced. (By the way, an adorable friend from India asked super casually about my time on the Ganges in Varanasi, “And did you have a spiritual awakening?” the same way I’d ask, “Did you get to see the Colosseum?” to a friend visiting Rome, and it felt perfectly natural to say, “Yes, actually, I did,” completely unselfconsciously because that’s just what one does in India.) A lot of what I’m calling “music” isn’t structured like Western music, in that it’s often chanting in Sanskrit accompanied by drumming and percussion, but it feels incredibly musical in the way it transports the mind and carries the spirit with it.
The Ganga Aarti, the daily evening prayer performed at sunset on the Dashashwamedh Ghat on the Ganges in Varanasi is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced, with seven priests making dedications, swinging around fire, and chanting gorgeous versus that I desperately want to find in translation. Candle offerings in floating cups surrounded by flowers are released into the Ganges to carry prayers or wishes (there is a lovely description and photos here). Something about the way the drums echo the gentle lapping of the water between boats and the seemingly lackadaisical current makes the moment truly magical and transformative. I felt intensely connected with a fundamentally benevolent universe, hopeful and full of a pure love for mankind, overwhelmed with what beauty and kindness we are capable of feeling and giving to the world.
In a small and very religious village called Orchha, which was one of my favorite places we visited, loudspeakers project the chanting and music from the Hindu temple throughout the town. At first I thought it must be oppressive and exhausting, as Christian hymns or a constant recitation of Bible verses in a small American town would get real old real quick, but our group leader said actually the chanting was primarily in Sanskrit and archaic language only recognizable to scholars, so it sort of washed over people in the town the same way it did for Westerners, surrounding you as you went about your day.
It felt a lot like having one’s own soundtrack, walking around town with seriously excellent drum and bass going at times. Despite the generally terrible quality of my video above, I hope you can understand how I felt I only needed Adrien Brody to show up to make my reenactment of a scene out of The Darjeeling Limited complete. Curiously, I found my body moved differently in Orchha, as I felt a rhythm and a connectedness every time I was in the street. It was occasionally surreal, like what I imagine it would be to have a music video spontaneously erupt around you, as so many people picture when wearing headphones walking through a city. This music became like an ether, enveloping and surrounding us, inflecting everything we did, and I noticed the people in Orccha also had an infectious happiness, a gentleness with each other, and a welcoming kindness that felt somehow connected to literally everyone moving on the same wavelength in harmony.
Maybe over time I would have gotten tired of it or tuned it out into background noise, but in the moment, I felt like I understood something fundamental about being human that dated back for centuries. Later I remembered a section of this wonderful BBC documentary series called The Story of India where the narrator visits Brahmins in Kerala who were chanting Vedic verses that preserve Bronze Age linguistic sounds that more closely resemble bird song than any human vocalizations we know today. This link with our super-ancient past was kept intact because Kerala has remained relatively peaceful, its traditions guarded and protected from invaders for thousands of years. The unique method of repeating syllables backwards and forwards (explored marvelously here) gives great fidelity to an oral tradition that might otherwise have been lost.
All these ideas about music and spirituality coalesced in another illuminating moment at the Rubin Museum in New York, which my mother and I visited for the excellent Steve McCurry: India photography exhibit (cannot recommend highly enough). The Rubin has some of the best exhibition pedagogy I’ve ever seen in their explanation of tantric imagery, materials, and techniques (I put some photos here). In one brief little wall text, I got one of the more perfect and concise explanations of tantric philosophy I’ve ever read:
Tantric deities are the focus of esoteric religious practices (tantras) that aim to radically transform conventional understandings of reality… Female and male deities in sexual embrace represent the unity of wisdom (understanding of reality) and method (compassionate action), two aspects of the enlightened mind.
I was genuinely taken aback by the simplicity of the concept, transforming one’s understanding of reality by uniting understanding with compassionate action in the mind. It all came home when I read another description of implements used in tantric rituals, specifically the bell symbolizing wisdom (the feminine aspect of enlightenment) and the hand drum, which when paired with the bell, “represents the male aspect of enlightenment and its drumming is the sound of the bliss of realizing the true nature of reality.” These implements (which I am inclined to think of as instruments) are used in the Tibetan practice of “cutting the ego” or Chöd, resounding with impermanence.
And there it was. Music has always been a tantric force for me, transforming my conventional understanding of reality by freeing me from the ego and time. By overwhelming and immersing me in the present, I actually am as connected with the past and future of humanity as I feel. The deep peace and love, that warmth in my cheeks and catch in my heart, are a profound bliss of realizing the true nature of reality in an ego-less state, which is, not surprisingly, a call to compassionate action and a flood of gratitude.
This may be the kind of piecing together of the universe that only I find relevant or important, but my mind was absolutely blown.
With this realization, coupled with a reluctance to listen to a lot of my Spotify playlists that are way too steeped in memories and associations, I’ve found myself getting obsessed with ragas, an Indian classical music mode derived from the word for “color” or “hue,” associated with different times of the day or season. The idea of the raga structure is to attach color, in the emotional and spiritual sense, to a moment, often stretching into long improvisational sections similar to jazz. I met a really sweet (and quite handsome) sitar player in India who taught me a few basics of how to play (permanent life philosophy: if someone offers you a sitar lesson, take it). He concluded, “The most important part is feeling. You have to use your heart to make a raga.”
I joked with him that I thought it would take a lot of practice before I made anything worth listening to, and he took my hand sincerely and said, “But your heart is good, I can see that.” (Indian guys are nothing if not charming.)
I always listen to music when I paint, and as I’ve been listening to ragas more and more, I feel my mind going to these incredibly open and expansive places, vast terrains of pure freedom. I believe this opening up or escape from the mind / ego is a positive and important part of making art, and I feel an incredible lightness of spirit, like I’m actually painting from the heart. I’m so excited to share what comes out of it soon.