Spaces In Between
“There is a separation that has taken place between us and nature. The result is a spiritual fragmentation.”
Linda Hogan (Dwellings, pg. 52)
When asked to embark on an aesthetic inquiry based on place, my impulses immediately drew me to nature. Breathing in fresh air, walking among the trees, and feeling sand and dirt between my toes inspires a sense of wholeness and peace that I don’t often get to dwell in. This place-based inquiry project was an invitation to acknowledge that constant longing in my heart to be in the natural world (even for only a moment). Being outdoors awakens a part of my spirit that is so very rarely given the time to play and create. This aesthetic inquiry was my chance to indulge in nature once again!
At the beginning of my creative process, I had a vision of continuing my in-progress dance work called “Stewards of Creation.” In this work, nature, faith and embodiment are united. The movement is inspired by the Parables of Jesus, particularly those that refer to ideas and images from nature. For example, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree, the Parable of the Birds of Heaven and the Lilies of the Field to name a few. It was a project that I had put on pause for a few years as life’s responsibilities, events, and priories took over. I have been meaning to continue this work as it so deeply resonates with my purpose both as a dance artist and a person of faith.
I had high expectations for this project as I was already so invested in the idea, conceptually. If I choose to continue this work, I had to find a place that would fit within the context and structure of these nature inspired parables.
After digging up all of my previous research and rehearsal videos, I was again faced with the complexities of every day life and the logistics of creating a high production value dance film. I feared that the demands of full time teaching would interfere with the time and energy it would take to bring this project into completion. I was already overwhelmed with my current circumstances in my first year at a continuing contract at a new school while also juggling an intensive rehearsal schedule working with two professional dance companies. It seemed as though I had my life booked to the minute in places to be and things to do. Would I realistically have the time and creative energy to do this work justice? I wanted to say yes but I knew in my heart the answer was no.
Determined to find a solution, I was reminded of the Parable of the Growing Seed. Even in the small cracks of the pavement, a seed that is planted on fertile soil can break through toughest barriers. From my grand ideas, I was able to take it right back down to reality. Inspired by the growing seed, I turned to urban parks which are human developments or “preservation” of nature that city developers have sprouted in-between buildings and residential areas. These urban parks are a little bit a nature surrounded by human disturbances. They are sprouts of nature in between the cracks of urbanization. This is where my next Stewardship of Creation video would take place.
The urban park of choice was Robertson Drive Park which is just a few minute walk from my home. I took the time to dwell in this place for several weeks. I was expecting that ideas and inspiration would all come naturally in the same way it had before. I walked, photographed, sketched and day dreamed. I spent hours dwelling in that space hoping that it would be fertile soil to create movement. I was hoping that I would be able to use this place to plant the seed of my next dance creation. However, weeks passed by and I was still left uninspired, cold, and wet. My grand ideas were slipping away. I found that I was so desperately trying to force creativity that each step forward resulted two steps back.
“The developing artist, however, needs time to explore, to just be in a particular environment, to “feel the vibes” while looking and moving around and about a field of interesting subject matter and strong formal possibilities. This means being ready for the unexpected while framing images through the view finder until without forcing, things ‘click’ or fall into place. Most often they do not.”
Stuart Richmond (Landscapes, pg. 87)
It just wasn’t working. In my gut, I knew I had to let it all go. I knew I had to let my expectations go. I had to loose the expectations that I had for myself and the expectations that I had for this place go in order to listen - listen deeply. Bringing such a heavy suitcase of conceptual ideas hindered me from truly listening to the lessons that this place was trying to teach me.
“I am reminded that I need to continue to let go of how I think I will encounter aesthetic experience. Perhaps at times I need to be jolted so I can be more imaginative about the way I encounter beauty. Beauty comes to us in expected ways - while waiting for the bus, folding the laundry, meeting a parent, exchanging a glace with a student, delighting in a word off the roll of our tongues. The meaning of the word aesthetic is the opposite of anesthetic; it is our invitation to deepen our connection to our senses and the artfulness of our selves in the world.”
Celeste Snowber (Landscapes, pg. 68)
After weeks of dwelling, I felt defeated and unmotivated. Reluctantly, I returned to my place one last time feeling creatively broken and empty. I was hoping to find something - anything that would spark an aesthetic experience. With my winter jacket and umbrella in tow, I meandered through the park walk ways in complete surrender to the place and the down pour of rain. For the first time, my mind was silent enough to listen.
Frustrated and angry, I started to walk back home. Walking with my head down trying to avoid the puddles of water steadily accumulating on the side walk. Half a block away from the park, I found an interesting looking leaf. It was filled with holes as if it was eaten by several caterpillars. In spite of it’s brokenness and it’s fragility - I found it oddly beautiful. It was beautiful and it wasn’t alone. I picked it up and a few its friends. They ended up in my journal the next day.
Upon reading Leonard Koren’s book Wabi-Sabi, I realized why I was so captivated by these broken and incomplete nuggets of nature. By accident, I was surprised by their imperfection at a time that my creative progress was also broken and incomplete. These holes created such intricate and delicate designs and patterns. Each design and each leaf was unique. Much like snowflakes and finger prints, no two leaves were exactly alike.
“Wabi-Sabi is the quintessential Japanese aesthetic. It is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional...”
I was so drawn to the visual elements of the spaces in between and was delighted to witness nature’s design - the beauty that emerges from imperfection. It was like walking into natures gallery of wabi-sabi, just a few steps away from the park - again, in the spaces in between.
These leaves were a visual and physical metaphor of the brokenness and emptiness of my creative process that day. Finding and collecting these leaves was my first step in truly listening. These leaves had something to tell me about aesthetics, about art, and about life.
“In these in-between spaces, we surrender into the ecstatic, where are are rushed into a kind of beauty, where we not only create art, but art creates us.”
Celeste Snowber and Barbara Bickle (Art’s Based Contemplative Practices, pg. 67)
Having abandoned ship form my original idea of creating a dance film, I was ecstatic to finally find a point of inspiration to spring me into a new creative journey! Over the next few visits to the park, I collected several case of leaves and began to play.
While working with the these leaves, I listened carefully the lessons they were teaching me about their material qualities. Like people, leaves have a back bone that support their structure and allows for movement. Like people, leaves have a natural life cycle and return back to the earth. Like people, leaves come in all shapes, sizes, and colors - while they are visibly different they are all still the same.
Among the various lessons I learned, four of these lessons really resonates with me.
- You are not alone. Like these leaves, you are not the only one who has fallen. There have been people before you and there will be more people after you. Like leaves, you are not the only one who will have holes and imperfections in your life. These holes are what make you beautiful, resilient and creative.
- In life and in art, there must be a balance of both positive and negative space. To create a visually interesting artwork, the principles of design suggest that both positive and negative space exist. The task of the artist is to play with the arrangement of these spaces and to acknowledge how negative spaces frame positive ones.
- Make your own space. The holes in these leaves are like the pauses, detours, distractions and imperfections that naturally occur within the fabric of your life. At times however, it is also important to understand that we have the power to purposefully create these pauses, distractions and imperfections in our own lives. In doing this, we create time, space and energy to reflect and be (w)hole. To be whole in these spaces is to gather yourself and settle yourself from the business of life. And to be hole (without the w) is to rest contently in that moment of nothingness with no to-do's or agendas. Take a break, book sick or mental health days when you need it without any guilt attached, go on a vacation, pause to chat and have coffee with a friend, spend time with your grand mother - pause. Make your own holes or order to be whole.
- Stay Hydrated. Like these leaves, people need water as it is necessary life force. Dried out and dehydrated leaves are difficult to mold and transform. When going through life's positive and negative spaces - stay hydrated always.
“It is the discipline of knowing when to go with an artistic impulse and when not to go with it. You do not always know where a piece of art will lead you”
Stuart Richmond (Landscapes, pg. 97)
After getting to know the material, I was able to play and experiment more with various designs and patterns - pushing beyond what is in front of me and discovering new possibilities. These holes and in-between spaces both natural and self-made became windows of opportunities for the leaves to assume new forms.
A leaf with no holes stays static and maintains its form - it remains within the factory made “status quo.” A leaf with holes and imperfections has a unique opportunity to move, twist and weave through itself - the design goes beyond it’s factory made mold into something far more interesting and beautiful.
“I planned the course, yet the course planned me; a detour, a curve, an invitation to watch the green moss caress the tree, to delight in the bringing the body to the practice of teaching, ultimately the practice of engaging life. What do the recurring detours have to teach me?”
Celeste Snowber (Landscapes of Aesthetic Education, pg 122).
Through this creative process I was invited to let go of my preconceived expectations of myself as an artist. While identifying so deeply as a dancer and mover, I was ignoring the visual beauty that was literally at my feet. I was so fixated on producing a particular product that that I was blocking the possibilities of an alternative material and creative process (which turned out being far more meaningful that I had imagined). I was too focused the idea of engaging in one aesthetic form that I forgot about other ways of seeing.
“It is in listening to part of us which may be difficult that we have the opportunities to receive deep knowledge; in fact, brokenness can lead us to being in a receptive space.” - Celeste Snober (Landscapes, pg. 32)
I was presented with the challenge of honoring imperfections and therefore discovering an alternative perspective to beauty and aesthetics. In my creative process, it was an absolutely necessary step for me in order to become receptive to new ideas. Similarly, life’s negative spaces (such as being sick, getting into an argument at work or having an injury) are turning points that redirect, refocus and realign our values. In some cases, these “spaces in between” occur naturally and in other cases we must be brave enough to create them ourselves.
In a way, my creative process went full circle. From my desire to embody the Parable of the Growing Seed, I found the these (w)holy leaves at my feet. These leaves where found at the base of a tree that was planted in an in-between space, between the park and my home. A non-space. A space of passing and transition. The holes in these leaves became a metaphor for my life and creative growth. Working with these leaves taught be lessons of perseverance, balance and (w)holeness.
“It is these moments of aesthetic dailiness that bring me to attention, to rediscover the art in life and the life in art.” - Celeste Snober (Landscapes, pg. 74)
The collection and manipulation these leaf designs encouraged me to better understand the fabric of my own life. What do I choose to fill my life with? How many scheduled appointments, part time jobs, commitments, rehearsals, events and projects do I enroll myself in? How full is too full? How often to I leave spaces in between? What are my spaces in between? Which of these spaces in between are caused naturally? Which of these spaces in between have I carved out for myself?
In reflection of the beauty I found in these leaves, I have also found such beauty within my own daily life. In between the classes, meetings, to-do lists, and scheduled activities these are a few of my spaces in between:
- Freestyle Fridays - A space in between the business of making choreography for stage. My students and I are able to improvise free movement and tap into our free expressive selves.
- Impromptu dinner dates with my Life Partner - A space in between his home and mine, where we get to spend quality time together to reconnect and dream about our future.
- Time with Lola - A space in between my work and my scheduled rehearsals where my grandmother and I can walk slowly, enjoy a show together, and practice speaking in English and Tagalog.
- Casual Conversations with my Students at Lunch Time - A space in between classes and lessons where I get to know and they get to know me as humans and dreamers.
- Sketch-of-the-Day with my Grade 8 Art Class - A space in between classes and lessons where I get to learn about their favorite foods, their greatest fears, or their idea of a perfect winter day to name a few.
- Car talk therapy sessions with my teaching partner - A space in between the sky train and our work place, where we get to ask for and exchange life and work advice.
- Spending time at Home - A space in between all of the demands of the outside world where I get to pause for a moment, collect my thoughts, have a cup of tea, reflect on my life, eat and clean.
These spaces in between are so rich and valuable to my (w)holeness as human being. These spaces in between are decorative and flavourful pieces of my life that add so much value to my daily aesthetic experience. But how often are these space in between over looked, cut short, taken for granted or even skipped over all together?
The “final” form of my aesthetic inquiry are a series of leaf design home decor. Outside of the arts and crafts that I created as a elementary school student - I have not engaged in decorative arts as it has been labelled by my art school professors as “crafty” and “lacking in depth.” However, I feel the opposite about these pieces. For me, home is a space in between. These pieces serve a decorative purpose so that they are appreciated at home during a time of pause and rest - a “hole” in my life. These pieces where created to remind me of the balance that is necessary to create and maintain a sense of (w)holeness with in the fabric of my own life. They where created as a symbol of daily aesthetic living. They where created to remind me of the importance of decorating my life with spaces in between.
“The hallmark of aesthetic is perhaps best known by contrast with its opposite, the anesthetic. An anesthetic suppresses feeling; it dulls the senses. It renders you numb to feeling. What is aesthetic heightens feeling. What is aesthetic is pervaded by an emotional tone made possible by the process of being engaged in a work of art. The phrase “work of art” can have two meanings. It can refer to the work of art, or it can refer to the work of art. The former refers to the product created, the latter to the process of creating it. Aesthetic experience can be secured at each location.”
Elliot W. Eisner (The Arts and the Creation of Mind, pg. 81)
My personal philosophy of living aesthetically is informed by the creative artistic process of my place-based inquiry and can be described in contrast to living anesthetically.
Living anesthetically is to be blinded by an endpoint or agenda without being receptive to the journey in between. Living anesthetcialy is to plainly go through the motions in order to achieve a task or outcome. Living anesthetically is to skim through the spaces in between, literally interpreting them as “negative spaces” that are meant to be filled. Living anesthetically is going through one experience and moving on to the next - never stopping to reflect and appreciate what was and what wasn’t. living anesthetically is investing in doing versus being.
Conversely, living aesthetically means letting go. Letting go of the expectations that I have for myself, my life and my art in order to allow for the pieces to fall as they may. Live aesthetically is to listen carefully to the spaces in between and appreciate both what is and what isn’t. Living aesthetically is to expect and invite surprises, the tug-on-your-sleeve, and happy accidents to inform my journey instead of destroying it. Living aesthetically is to re-frame imperfections as opportunities for new possibilities instead of viewing them as tragedies. Living aesthetically is to indulge in and actively create spaces in between that encourage and support my development as a (w)hole human being.
Eisner, E. W. (2011). The Arts and the Creation of Mind. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.
Hogan, L. (2007). Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World. New York: W.W. Norton.
Koren, L. (2008). Wabi-Sabi for artists, designers, poets & philosophers. Point Reyes, CA: Imperfect Publishing.
Richmond, S., & Snowber, C. (2011). Landscapes of aesthetic education. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Walsh, S., Bickel, B., & Leggo, C. (2015). Arts-based and contemplative practices in research and teaching: Honoring presence. New York: Routledge/ Taylor & Francis Group.