Trouble the Beauty

I’m glad July 2019 has happened, and I’m just as glad it is done. Feels like I put in five or more hours every night in heavy emotional weight-training at the “Know Thyself” YWCA. Felt like I’d be there forever, grunting & whimpering through gut crunches, then woke up this morning with a clear head, a well-scheduled way forward and a lighter backpack.

Good. Phew. Ready to move on.

New media, new messes. Non-Dominant hand drawings, con’text’ual explorations inspired by Klee. Stuff from the backpack.

To ‘trouble’ a thing is to shake it up, turn it upside down, backwards and forwards. The wind troubled the sea. Maybe like taking the idea of dyslexia and applying it consciously to an idea or a belief, or to self-understanding;  ?…fi neppah dulow thaW – I used this to apply words to drawings, inspired in part by Paul Klee .

non-dominant hand drawing; rhythmic. More stuff from the backpack.

A super-accurate description of process in studio work, or writing, or music making – to deliberately ‘trouble’ anything that feels not-right, out of place, incomplete, unfair (as in Trouble the hyphen between researcher — researched – Thank you, Hess, 2017). Through the resulting trouble-dance find a new, often radical way of appreciating what you observe.

a luncheon drawing involving five of us. Three rounds, in pairs, non dominant hand, look at your partner, not the paper. One round was backwards writing. 

July ‘troubled’ me, quite thoroughly. More like an ocean-floor earthquake than the wind on the surface, but then again I invited this, on purpose. Back from Europe, I looked at my work, and there was something .. not right about it – I think because my understanding of me and the world had shifted so radically in the previous six months. So I strapped myself in and (‘be careful what you…) asked for Trouble.

Was heard and answered, Thank you. It would have been far far worse if Trouble hadn’t come.


So now a new garden is planted for the months and years ahead, with a better understanding of the way this garden can and will grow. There’s more light in the dark forest I wander in, mostly blindly, and I have a deeper understanding of what ‘abundance’ actually is.

I’m in it. I am the epicentre of my abundance, actually; it doesn’t exist for me anywhere else. That’s the way it works.


I think each of us has an idea of beauty specific to our own experience. This tragic cultural imposition of what our lives are supposed to look like, according to what others’ lives look like, or according to a list of things ‘acquired’ (spouse, house, job, sex, degrees, money, invitations to parties, travel…. ) is a heartbreaking distraction from that personal, internal sense of what matters to us.

The threads of our own personal stories really are important. Our idea of what is meaningfully beautiful to us, matters. I suspect that this innate sense of meaningful beauty is the guide that ‘troubles’ us, in the way we are meant to be troubled. If we follow that guide, we can pick up the thread of our personal story, and trouble that, too.


The thread becomes a rope, becomes a path, becomes a lane. Or maybe a troubling drip that becomes a trickle, then a rivulet, then a stream, then a creek that leads to a lake where you can float your boat.

Who do you speak for? Who speaks for you, if you cannot or choose not to speak for yourself? Who is the author of your story, other than you?



My appearance belongs to you more than to me. This became clear through my work for #Selfie in 2014. It is a kind of negotiation – I choose my glasses, my haircut, my clothes, which are all clues about the way I would like to be perceived. You see these choices in living action in a way I never do, since mirrors and photographs don’t tell the whole story. You are better equipped to read the shifts and undercurrents of my external expressions than I can ever be.

The same applies in reverse: I can read more in your appearance than you can understand of your presentation of yourSelf. We all navigate our identity this way, learn about who we are through the responses of Other.


This is a complex negotiation, in every case, since what I see and what you see will always be subjective. Actually, the more I read and observe human and other-than-human nature the more I’ve come to believe that there is no such thing as objectivity – only degrees of awareness around what we project, onto whom, and why.

This applies academically too, in both arts and science, though culturally we still cling to this idea of rational, impartial, objective inquiry as the base requirement of measurable, reliable Truth. In a summer institute research course I attended two days ago the PhD prof said [I paraphrase here] …all research – quantitative, qualitative, is biased, always. 

I’ve thought a lot about this, and I still think research is a good thing. Just know thyself, and name the bias.


A corollary: if you made a drawing of me accurate to the finest detail, I would recognize more of you than mySelf – through the details you’ve noted and those you’ve disregarded, the respect and love you’ve invested in the drawing, the curve or the raggedness of the line you’ve used. Where you are confident, where not, etc.

You’ve learned the planes and lines of my face and body in the process of drawing me, I’ve learned about you from the choices and marks you’ve made. The drawing is in fact a map of the space where you and I connect. Also where we don’t connect. Interesting.


Subject, object, space between. Always subjective: Me and Other.

There’s a concept that has taken root in me in the past decade or two, that “.a person, or animal, can only experience the world as being a certain way if the whole person, or animal, can understand the world as being that way.” (found this pithy summary in Beaton, 2014).

In other words, we can only fully understand what we have known experience of. Beyond that, the non-experienced world is invisible, visible in an extremely threatening way, or visible yet utterly, laughably, terribly misinterpreted (to make it fit the known experience – witness colonialism, white nationalism, patriarchy…).

When applied to portraiture, this idea becomes a potential problem. Do I merely make use of this person I am depicting to describe my own world, then? Hmmm.


In counterpoint to the conceptualism theory is the Jungian idea of ‘collective unconscious’. That we know far far more than we are conscious of knowing. 

A flash of insight, an epiphany, a dawning awareness that comes always (eventually), when we sit at the great blank walls that mark the boundaries of our experience and ask difficult questions. A gut feeling, an unexplained irritation, a magnetic pull that draws us off the known path, and inevitably, to that border-fence of understanding with the questions we’ve hunter-gathered.

To draw them there, on the wall. To turn the wall into something else.

Maybe a doorway.


The tug of curiosity as I walk along the rich, verdant summer streets of this new-to-me place. So many trees here, six or seven times my age. A cat who crosses the street just to talk with me. A seed caught on my clothing.

As the starling does, peering in at me in my morning routine, first one eye then the other, beak clacking – did the seed catch my dress out of a similar curiosity?

What would happen if I planted this curiosity somewhere wholesome? If I approached the possibility with healthy, Gaia-inspired intention, and watered it, tended it, painted it, made it into music, this seed I know nothing about?


I look out of my incredible, brave body from behind my eyes and skin, from inside my ears and lungs, at the known and unknown world. If there is a tug of curiosity felt and answered in even a small way by me or by anOther, a connection occurs that transcends body shape, adornment, smell and sound, and also celebrates difference, insight, challenge to our known worlds.

I have an idea that this has nothing at all to do with gender, race, roles or power, which have been such a source of projection, trauma and abuse for so long. There is, however, a powerful, planet-sized archetype that we could learn a great deal from as we grow beyond that old, tired, experiential harness. This is the direction I’m tugged in.


We can collaborate, respectfully, playfully, on the space between us. Human and other-than-human, inclusively. Is this where love lives.

Always subjective. Me and Other.

Ask difficult questions, know thyself. Me in Other. Me as Other.



The piano room is the only space I’ve yet to spend decent working time in, these past three months. It calls me today, teasing out some soundtrack to the observations, the tectonic shifts of spring 2019.

Gulliver, pinned – on a walk to Old Dublin. There was a narrative series of these set into the wall of a new-ish building along the way.

I’ve spent the last three days going through two months of correspondence I’ve not had time to properly respond to. It feels good to take time for this.

I find myself Printing out photos, too – how strange a thing, now! – of the Ireland chapter, the Lyon Chapter, Tuscany, Florence, Edinburgh.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.


Transitional moments as well – the wing of each plane I flew in, dipping into sunlight or through cloud; mountains, fields and neighbourhoods through train windows; the great metal sweep of airports – one (Brussels) with its hallway grand piano, open and waiting to be played.


For an abundance of reasons I want the memories of this trip to become tactile. I learned this from my artist friend Wes Ryan, who has taught himself to consciously keep the memories he needs to keep alive after a serious concussion made it necessary to do so.

Do I claim an awareness of my own deliberately displaced self, this way, I wonder. Is this a philosophical act. Is this research and preparation for the 2014 painting that awaits transformation into the world of now, in my patient studio? I felt so, when I was there two days ago. I’ll go again this evening.

en route to Ha’penny Bridge, Dublin

Inner travel while unmoored from the familiar took me farther into uncharted territory than I knew was possible. 19 days gone was just enough for me to see the possibility for still more discovery in a longer trip, with the potential to turn my known world inside-out.

I’m still coming home.

Garden in Montelupo, Tuscany. We trained it into Florence from there.

I took luggage – a masters completed, rich notes from my generous panel to digest; my father’s dignified, graceful passing and all that he taught me in the last hours we spent alone together; a book mostly written; a talk about the book forming itself out of five months of momentum; some deadlines in the comforting future

…questions about why and how art in this time, where are the resonances that will speak in a bell-tone, what is a good portrait; curiosity about solo travel after 10 years of staying put, geographically speaking. All of this was packed, then unpacked and laid out, then re-packed. Some I used, all I carried. I did find answers, but also more good questions.

I’m still unpacking, will be for years to come.

Entrance to The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. A great gallery, full of questions like this one.

Music has the tenderest of beginnings. I’m much better trained to hold fragile visuals in place until I can play with them on paper than to catch the ascending pattern of a new, humming thought. For this little project though, I’m doing what I can to hold a safe and welcoming space for the shy notes to enter.

Am I compelled to this because through all the old and layered of UK and Europe that I saw, there was so little live music? A band of young and old guys playing american dixieland in a city square. A young guitarist playing pop tunes in a Lyon street. The silent grand piano in Brussels Airport.

One of the astonishing mosaics in Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon.

Thankfully, blessedly, some amazing jams and performances in three Edinburgh pubs that nourished my soul and made me wish I had my cello. (A young cellist did offer me his to play but by that time I’d had three pints). Thank you so very much for this, O Generous Soul, outlaw cousin Nick T!

(the vid below features Nick himself and musician Doug Downie, who later sent me an excellent song he wrote by email – great lyrics, a haunting tune. I’ll make a Canadian version of it & send it back to him)


There was the invisible young man singing softly beneath the vaulted ceilings that hold up 13th Century Palazzo Vecchio, Oh my love, my darling… I need your love… Perfect notes that traveled like whispers along the arches.

We all heard him, the harried tourists, the tired shop keepers, guides, security guards and ticket sellers. I swear even the stone lions smiled.