May You Shine…

 

A while ago I was quite moved by the line “We are more afraid of our light than the dark”. It inspired my piece Cast In Bronze, which I have just completed and posted here on the website.

Today I did a little bit of research and found the original source. It is a paragraph from the book A Return to Love by the American best-selling author, spiritual leader, and political activist Marianne Williamson:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It’s our Light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented or fabulous?

The material bronze came to my mind because it is on the one hand so strong but so easily tarnishes and becomes dull. Like we do when we are depressed. We feel tainted – shamed – and withdraw. But how easily is bronze polished to a lustrous gleam? Sometimes we just can’t seem to let that happen.

A new year lies ahead of us. May your light shine!

Photographer-unknown_Woman-holding-flame-in-cupped-hands

Frances-Livings_Have-an-electric-New-Year-2013-Pianokeys-Sparks-Champagne

Read the poem Cast In Bronze

 

Donating = Loving

Please support the arts! You can purchase my music and spoken word – which I hope you will. If you find joy and inspiration in my words, and would like to provide additional support, please be lovely and consider a donation of your choosing – from anywhere between a coffee and a nice dinner. It will be deeply appreciated.

 

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room abandoned building naked floorboards self-portrait

Eating the Darkness. Francesca Woodman’s Wallpaper

 

I was browsing through The New York Times when one article really grabbed my attention. It was on the American photographer, Francesca Woodman, whose work I had only recently discovered. Her oeuvre consists mainly of quite unusual self-portraits and one of her pictures, titled Vanishing Act had inspired me a while ago. It had actually helped me complete my song, Eating the Darkness that I recorded for my first solo album. I learned that over 120 of her works were being displayed at the prestigious Guggenheim in New York, which felt really exciting – because, in a way, it was actually quite personal.

I love art photography and can easily lose myself scouring the Internet, searching for interesting pictures and inspiration. That particular day I was compiling a collection of photos, mainly by female artists. A lot of them were in black and white, many with a surrealistic approach, and somewhat dramatic and staged effects. I didn’t have any specific motifs or topics in mind but just followed my instincts and mood. I downloaded quite a few pictures, whose meaning especially struck or touched me on a very visceral level.

 

Collecting Inspiration From Other Artists

It was the contemporary visual artist Christian Marclay who stated, in the context of creating his video collage The Clock:

If you make something good and interesting and [are] not ridiculing someone or being offensive, the creators of the original material will like it.

Not only is Marclay a collector of images himself, but for his acclaimed installation, which is 24-hours long, he collected thousands of film and television images of clocks film clips depicting time. He created a montage of, edited together so they show the actual time.

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Vanishing Act (Space2) 1976

These collections of images often trigger my own creativity by directing me towards a topic – a topic that has most likely already been slumbering in my sub-conscience. Images act for me like teasers or “dream catchers” or even as surfaces for my own emotional projections. Traditionally, this is actually known as Ekphrasis, which means “description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem, for instance, is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art – whereby the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. It is used to convey the deeper symbolism of the corporeal art form by means of a separate medium.

 

Conveying Feelings in Song Lyrics

In this particular situation, images, thoughts, and feelings must have all run together: I was both deeply touched and inspired by that photograph of Woodman. It not only helped me to get unstuck emotionally but ended up delivering a line for my song, Eating the Darkness.

I had been playing around on the piano – which is what my usual songwriting process looks like – and working on the song Eating the Darkness (click on the title to read the lyrics). I wanted to capture feelings of loneliness and despair, staged in the isolation of an apartment or a room. These are the first verses of the song:

 

I turn the key and stare into a
long, dark corridor
I see the furniture – untouched and cold,
the emptiness starts to unfold.

Dust has settled with no delay
upon my absence, during the day
while everything’s / just frozen in its place
from when I left at twenty past eight

Like with a lot of my songs I went through a strange process: There is an initial spark, the idea or inspiration but still a lot of work to be done. Some songs practically write themselves but with others its like being in labour with pains and horrible cramps burgeoning into anxiety. But when you finally summon up that energy and determination to push, you give birth to something that almost immediately takes on a magical life of its own. If you can’t activate that courage to face all of those feelings, the idea dies.

 

How to Convey  Feeling Invisible?

I just felt that in the chorus there was still a strong image missing, which is why I kept getting stuck. Even playing the melody over and over again wasn’t helping. I felt that the song per se was strong and authentic. It had emerged very out of the depth of my guts like from a deep-sea cavern. But I wanted to explore and express a feeling of hopelessness, set in the isolation of a room. How could I convey that gnawing and devastating emotion of not feeling relevant, of feeling invisible? Suddenly this photograph entered my mind. It just presented itself. So I opened up my laptop and fished it out of my pictures folder.

The photograph, Vanishing Act from 1976, partially shows the torso of a nude standing on broken, wooden floorboards, in front of the wall of an obviously derelict building. The anonymous, faceless woman is half-covering her body with large sections of the peeling wallpaper – with which she seems to be almost merging. 

“Fading into the wallpaper”, I thought. And suddenly the chorus was complete:

 

And I sit here eating the darkness
and the darkness eats at me
I am fading into the wallpaper
on the second floor apartment number two-o-three

 

Who Is Francesca Woodman?

Prior to finding that photograph I hadn’t heard of the artist Francesca Woodman before. Of course, her name, derived from the same source as mine, caught my attention. But it was after having completed the song lyrics that I suddenly wondered, where and in which stage of her life would I find her? I set out to contact her. Not only did I want to thank her for the inspiration but I also wanted to share my work once the song was recorded…

It only took a few seconds on Google and I was staring at the ugly word – suicide.

Unexpectedly, I just hit the wall. No pun intended.

Suicide is usually the result of deep and dark depression, of being in a place of utter hopelessness. Maybe my highly sensitive side, also my dark side had intuitively picked up on the tragedy of her death through that very picture. Was that why ultimately, my writing had become fluent again? At the same time, questions started rolling in…

Had she perhaps felt that she had exhausted her artistic reservoir with nothing left to say? Had she lived “too fast”? Was she able to channel these feelings so well, because she also suffered in such an intense way? Was this why the photograph had had such a deep impact on me?

But did I really want to speculate about her reason to end her life?

No. I decided to distance myself. I suddenly felt eerily close, almost intrusive upon her life, like a voyeur. So I refocused on my song and recorded it.

 

Images Full of Self-expression, Texture, and Sense of Composition

I didn’t go back to look at more of Woodman’s work until weeks later. A lot of it I still hadn’t seen and I was still very curious about it. What I really appreciate about her photographs is her self-expression, the use of textural elements, and her sense of composition. Her open and almost Victorian sense of Romanticism may be “girlish” as some critics say, but it is also very self-exposing. Some of the pictures are in a square vintage style format, reminding me of Instagram. I find many of Woodman’s pictures playful as well as incredibly mature. To think that, at 22, she left an extensive catalogue of over 800 photographs behind is admirable.

For decades, photography was still thought to fall below painting in the hierarchy of mediums in art. It wasn’t accepted as fine art until the 1940s in the United States and the 1960s worldwide. But especially for women artists, it was an important medium because it granted a mode that was relatively free from the heavy, male-dominated history of the painted canvas.

There’s an anecdote that Woodman was asked by a friend, why she obsessively photographed herself. Her friend may have found it oddly narcissistic and simply still unusual. Because we mustn’t forget that Woodman created all of these self-portraits in the mid and late seventies – so long before the selfie developed as a medium of self-reflection and self-representation. Woodman replied, simply saying:

I am always available.

Woodman exclusively used herself as a model, which made me think of other female photographers, especially of another American photographer and filmmaker: Cindy Sherman. Sherman’s work consists primarily of photographic self-portraits, in many different settings, with wigs, make-up, and props to create various imagined female characters. Another famous self-portraitist is Vivian Maier, considered the queen of street photography, who created many iconic pictures of her reflection in shop windows. There are many more of course, like Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971) who focused on an exceptionally singular demographic – the marginalized. She captured the images of dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers, and many other surreal personas that captured her attention. She is often considered the Sylvia Plath (1932–1963) of photography because of her work as well as her early suicide.

 

© Diane Arbus, Untitled 1970-71
© Vivian Maier, Self-Portrait, 1954
© Vivian Maier, Untitled, undated

The British art historian, Frances Borzello, who specializes in the social history of art, wrote a book on female self-portraits and female nudes. It is titled Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self Portraits. I found it most relevant, that she notes: The singular importance of this particular genre, the self-portrait is for women a “way to present a story about herself for public consumption,” a rare break from the typical objectification of the female form as depicted by the male artist.

 

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper fireplace empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, House #4 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman polka dot dress peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Polka Dots 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman body print black shoes woman floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Untitled 1976

Eating the Darkness. Desolate & Abandoned Interiors

What strikes me most is the textural quality of the settings, in which Woodman stages her photographs. Frequently, the interiors are empty, decaying rooms, with peeling wallpaper, cracked plaster, broken floorboards, and flaking paintwork. In their roughness, they are diametrically opposed to the smoothness of her young and flawless body. On the other hand, in many of her photographs, she seems to merge with her environment, which gives them a haunting quality.

The photographer, Victoria O’Rourke had similar thoughts about Woodman’s integration and depiction of wallpaper:

 

The wallpaper also puts the identity of Woodman in a state of flux in two ways – by physically hiding her and by forcing into your mind the very literal and paradigmatic image of a second skin. It joins neatly with the idea of a shifting identity, rather than Woodman presenting herself as a whole. She transforms before us, not into another human being or character, but simply into the wall. ~ Victoria O’Rourke, photographer

 

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house woman self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, 1976

These rooms look desolate and possess a strong notion of abandonment. They are very similar to the atmosphere of space I wanted to create in my song without using lengthy descriptions.

 

Wandering rooms like in quarantine

I’m starring at the clock, on elasticated time

brain waves flickering, mercury mind

like a black’n white TV in 1969

 

Losing my mind, losing my mind…

“Losing my mind…” maybe we are all afraid of that sometimes, which is exactly why I had distanced myself from the artist after the initial encounter. I had peeped in but knew I had to protect myself and very quickly slam the book shut again. After learning about her suicide, it was painful to see her pale and vulnerable body in contrast with the diminishing interior. Moreover, it was a fearless easiness and eagerness; revealing a form of self-exploration, that stood out against the derelict environment.

But another sensation that arose much later was gratitude. Suddenly, I felt fortunate that I had connected with this picture – and ultimately, with another creative force through my own art. The connection wasn’t formed through a biographical prism – or even the dramatic notion of an artist’s suicide. Because it can sometimes be difficult to push past layers of fragmented knowledge and prejudice, a sense of sensationalism even… especially in an era of information overload, or fake news, and constant accessibility per Dr. Google.

 

Only when “absorbing” art in an almost meditative state, is it possible to retrieve what lies beneath these layers and connect with our own authentic thoughts and feelings. – Frances Livings

This is exactly what I feel she did in her work. She tried to expose herself and be literally, as naked as possible. We will never know whether this specific image, the wallpaper was created to express a loss of self-worth. That may have been what I personally projected onto it. I am grateful that a fellow artist gave me something to connect with, almost like a piece of her soul. Because isn’t that what every person who creates seeks to achieve? We want to touch or inspire someone and almost live on through our work. Francesca Woodman definitely hasn’t faded into the wallpaper. And I am fighting not to either…

 

Thank you for reading!

You are welcome to share any thoughts in the comment box below.

– Frances Livings

 

Buy your copy of Eating The Darkness here:

 

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Watch The Documentary The Woodmans here:

Livings In Los Angeles. Public Parks and Gardens and their Impact on Mental Health and the Creative Mind

 

The title of my poem Evaporated may not suggest it, but I drew its imagery draws the different contrasting botanical areas at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino. It has been one of my favourite places to visit ever since I first came to Southern California in 2005. The 207 acres of space, of which 120 acres are landscaped parks and gardens, showcase a variety of botanical areas. One of the most fascinating ones – probably for any European or East-coaster – is the ten-acre large desert garden which features more than 5,000 species of succulents and desert plants.

Barrel cacti and Agave at The Huntington Desert Gardens, San Marino, CA

Succulents have always fascinated me, their shapes and characteristics and their ability to survive on so little and yet be able to bloom and flourish in the most extraordinary ways. As a teenager, I had a small collection of cacti: My room faced South so out of thin planks of wood I constructed swing-like benches for the large window for them to sit on and relish the sun rays. They were small and very common species but they sometimes even bloomed. But never did I expect to see such alien monstrosities or small insect-like clusters of cacti like I did at the Huntington gardens years later.

After having completed the poem I started to think about how, throughout my life, the experience of different landscapes and topographies has influenced my perception and awareness of my surroundings. Especially when living in a city, visits to gardens and urban parks have not only sometimes saved my sanity but also influenced my work as an artist and writer. The following piece for instance, which I recorded on my first solo album, I wrote after a visit to the beach in Santa Barbara. It’s short and melancholic, almost like a tone poem:

Listen to Pebbles in my Hand here:

My personal experience is that nature, even in contrived areas like in parks and gardens, can evoke emotions in us that are often not released otherwise. And it is a widespread and well-researched fact that nature leads to increased mental health and psychological development.

It was only after I had moved to Los Angeles that I became aware of how vastly different not only cityscapes but also landscapes can be, how much the climate can hinder or support certain activities. On the whole, I realized, I had been lucky to have spent the first three decades of my life in very green, fertile, and geographically non-threatening environments – no black widow spiders, earthquakes, mudslides, or mountain lions. But I can also see that not everyone in this city is able to make these choices and therefore experiences.

In most parts of the city of Los Angeles, there is no alternative to street culture. The city has paid little attention to small urban green spaces that should be available for all members of society, either within walking distance or at all times fully accessible by public transportation and an integral part of daily life. Some studies even show that “there is an obvious correlation between poverty, food access and lack of open space” like stated in a blog entry posing the question “Is the lack of recreational space making us fatter?”.

 

Parks and Gardens in Northern Europe

Having grown up in England as a child, the long history and culture of the English garden and park and my family’s interest in their natural surroundings influenced my relationship with and awareness for nature, whether in a natural or a contrived state. With my parents, we visited some of the most interesting estates, strange sculpture gardens, and vast parks, like the famous Hyde Park in London. My Nanna was a passionate gardener and cook, who made jam from her home-grown black currants and pies from her apples and even managed to grow some figs and tobacco on her large allotment in Suffolk.

After I was literally “deported” to Germany as a pre-teen, I felt that the flat and boring landscape, dotted with stoic, grass-munching cows, was a hard contrast to the hilly and lush countryside of East Anglia. I have tried to convey some of these emotions in a yet unfinished piece ‘Wasteland’, playing with these landscape features as synonyms for my interior landscapes. Nevertheless, nature was accessible and if it hadn’t been for the trauma of being moved away from my family, it would have been a theoretically non-threatening experience.

As a student, I then moved to the city of Hamburg. Perhaps it was a mere coincidence that Hamburg ranks as one of the top ten greenest cities in Germany and was awarded The by the European commission in 2011. But I truly enjoyed the fact that even though it rains a lot of the time (which can be depressing on another level and obviously helps the vegetation to flourish) there are so many green spaces, rivers, and canals accessible from all parts of town, mostly in walking distance.

 

Los Angeles’ National Parks

During my time here in Los Angeles I have therefore sought out many of the parks the County has to offer, like Griffith Park, situated in the Eastern Santa Monica Mountain range, in the northeastern part of the city.

Native Oak Trees in Griffith Park, CA, photo: Donna Grayson

With over 4,210 acres of both natural Chaparral-covered terrain and landscaped parkland and picnic areas, it is the largest municipal park with urban wilderness area in the United States. Two famous landmarks are the recently restored observatory, opened to the public in 1935, and the Greek theatre, the famous music venue.

Represented in Griffith Park – in a similar way to Topanga State Park in Pacific Palisades – are California native plants and in small quantities, even some threatened species.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had already seen the health benefits of national parks and became an energetic supporter as president. He wrote:

There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and the wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of the great human principle.

He obviously also had a strong nationalistic agenda: Even in the midst of the Depression, national parks were being dramatically improved by Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps and highly publicized and therefore politicized. I doubt whether the city of Los Angeles is currently really interested in designing and financing green urban spaces in low-income zones.

King’s Road Park in West Hollywood, CA, photo: Frances Livings

In middle-class neighbourhoods, like West Hollywood public parks, if existent, are tiny and still rare – like a small oasis nearby our home on King’s Road (very much the opposite of King’s Road in London…).

It features a beautiful small waterfall (I doubt whether from a natural water source), a Gingko tree, and tropical shrubbery, like banana plants and Bird of Paradise. It would, at the most, hold 50 people, tightly seated attending a one-woman flute concert. But on my almost daily dog walks it is a small oasis where I often sit down on one of the park benches, switch my iPod off, and can find tranquility.

 

Los Angeles’ Historic Parks and Gardens

Other communities that have long histories of parks surround Pasadena, a small college city about twenty miles north-west of Los Angeles that is famous for the annual Rose Parade, its craftsman houses, like the Gamble house by the architects Greene and Greene and the Millard house by Frank Lloyd Wright from 1923.

Nearby, in La Canada Flintridge are the Descanso Gardens which are well worth a visit throughout the year, but especially in January and February when the Camellias are in bloom.

The Arboretum in Arcadia, CA, photo: Frances Livings

Located in the city of Arcadia, the Arboretum is home to plant collections from all over the world, including many rare and endangered species. The Arboretum also houses some interesting outdoor historical landmarks, like a Victorian Queen Anne cottage, representative of the major phases of California history. And like mentioned above the Huntington in San Marino whose desert gardens I am so fascinated by.

But unless you live in San Marino, ranked by Forbes Magazine as the 63rd most expensive area to live in the United States and where the median list price of a single-family home is almost 2 million US dollars you will always require private transportation to these places (unless you can afford a taxi).

These national parks and historical gardens are exclusive and exclude suburban oases. There is no train and hardly any busses. The entrance fee per adult (without an annual membership) is at the Huntington’s a staggering $20. So especially with a family these trips involve a steep budget, planning well ahead, and/or making reservations for the one free day of the week.

 

“It Never Rains in California”

Most people tend to perceive the Southern Californian climate as extremely friendly. They think of the beaches, of blonde and bronzed surfer dudes, of a place where it never rains. How often do you see tourists in an open tour bus without sunscreen and a hat – we all know that they’ll be close to a sunstroke by the time they’ve passed the 28th villa in Beverly Hills in which Barbara Streisand is supposed to have lived.

‘Sun Screen’ (c) Mark Boster printed in the L.A. Times, Sep. 9, 2011

Being here all year round has made me realize that the sun can be very cruel and relentless. In August and September, I find it almost impossible to walk anywhere – it is the desert sun.

Unlike residential areas close to places like Griffith Park or the Huntington Gardens, the poorer parts of the city, like Compton or Torrance, offer hardly any escape from the desert-hot sun or relief from everyday problems and anxieties in a rejuvenating environment.

Not only green areas, like parks and gardens are missing but a large part of Los Angeles’ inner cityscape doesn’t even deliver much shade. Partly because a lot of areas lack trees with foliage (palm trees grow best) and, because of earthquake danger, the buildings are mainly low-rise complexes and strip malls. The wide streets are barren and dry, dusty and often excruciatingly un-embracing, uninspiring and insular.

 

The Problem with Urban Heat Islands

Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles

When the sun most violently smacks down on the dark asphalt and heats up its environment up to four degrees Fahrenheit more than in green areas, so-called urban heat islands are created.

Urban heat islands not only decrease the air quality but have an impact on nearby water bodies. But not only does Los Angeles lack public green areas that could be integrated into our daily lives and routines, but sources of water.

The only canals I know of are in Venice beach, surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate. The L.A. River is less picturesque with its concrete beds which act as water basins for melting snow gushing down the mountains in the spring. In the hot summer months, they are mostly dry.

Unlike in places like London with the River Thames or Paris with the romantic Seine, these areas are also not offered as spaces of contemplation or restoration in the middle of the city, mainly because they completely lack natural vegetation or wildlife.

It is a known fact that enclosing shrubbery and the foliage of trees in parks can foster crime, which is why some city planners have argued against them. Central Park in New York has (perhaps falsely) become a synonym for heinous acts of crime – like those often depicted on TV. But studies have also proven the opposite: Next to the urban study departments of many Universities, the APA, the American Planning Association, an independent, educational non-profit organization has conducted research programmes that show:

Time spent in natural surroundings relieves mental fatigue, which in turn relieves inattentiveness, irritability, and impulsivity, recognized by psychologists as precursors to violence. Green spaces also support frequent, casual contact among neighbors. This leads to the formation of neighborhood social ties, the building blocks of strong, secure neighborhoods where people tend to support, care about, and protect one another.

(c) Frances Livings 2011. All Rights Reserved.

 

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