Love is perhaps the single most important quality we experience. Love is what animates us and makes everything else not only possible but desirable. When our thoughts and actions spring from love, they are more powerful than anything else. Conversely, thoughts and actions which exclude love are deemed to fail or fall flat.
The heart has a mysterious side to it. Some feel that the heart has its own kind of intuitive brain that speaks a language on the level of vibration. Even long ago, the French philosopher, Pascal, wrote that “the heart has reason the mind knows not of.” Tuning into this heart intelligence is how we can know what our greatest good is. It is on this level too where we can meet others and the world with compassion and empathy.
In this image, the heart is lit from within, not for any particular reason or for another person, but simply because the heart is full of love. A heart that is full of love feels love always and demonstrates love in all directions. The heart reveals itself to the world. The curtains of the stage are opened and the heart is humble but fearless because it has love within, which makes all else possible.
Rejuvenation is the act of invigorating or of making fresh again. We all have many daily rituals centered around this idea, and our daily hygiene is an outward show of the meaning of rejuvenation.
In this image the woman in the mirror at a sink full of water alludes to the idea that she is cleansing her image of herself not just outwardly but mentally, too, in her attitudes and thoughts about life and about herself.
The round shape of the mirror and the sink has an egg-like quality, and the robin’s egg blue color adds to this affect. The act of cleansing is a kind of rebirth like spring.
I think of this image in times of novel Coronavirus as a reminder to wash our hands! But I hope we can wash our minds, too, as the world is in need of a fresh, mental start, as well as diligent physical care. I had originally called this image “ablution” but no one knew what that meant. It means a kind of spiritual cleansing and I love that concept. None of these images are meant to align with any particular religious denomination, yet nearly all systems of religious practice have some kind of cleansing ritual like this. It is an important rite of passage, to let go of the past, free ourselves from the burden of feeling soiled and spent. We can start fresh again all the time, and especially now.
Creativity is the quality that allows us to bring something into being that did not previously exist; to make, or to originate. The truth is that we are always doing this whether or not we are aware of the creative power we hold. All of our thoughts and actions are constantly creating the world around us. When we become conscious of this, we can create what we desire and what we find beautiful, pleasing, and good to us.
In this image, the objects on the table represent the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. The spectacles signify our acute vision in the creative process, and the scissors signify that each creative act has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The purple ribbon is the web of energy flowing through everything, and the “helping hands” represent our innate ability to be in the creative process, our human ingenuity. Out the window, the sun and moon are the balance of active and passive forces, and the bird represents the soul’s wisdom that guides the process.
In this time of staying home during the global pandemic, we can harness our creativity to make all that we desire. We can use this time to do the one most decadent thing that we almost never allow ourselves to do when we are controlled by our demand for productivity: we can experiment, which is essential to creativity. We can leave the maps behind and begin anew. We can create a new world from the wreckage of this time, a better world, and we can do it now.
Anyone who has ever planted a seed in the ground understands the concept of faith. Even if you have never planted a seed, you can understand that to do so requires faith. A tiny seed looks nothing like the plant that it will grow into. With faith in the outcome, growing a plant of some kind, we prepare the soil, choose a spot in the ground with the right amount of sun for the plant we intend to grow, then we water the seed and nurture it until it becomes what we believed it would become.
Every act we take in life is similar to this process. We have a mental picture of the outcome that our action will bring. Depending on our mental picture, we go about our actions according to what we imagine the results will be. If we are confident in a certain result, we act one way, if we have doubts in the results, we act a different way.
Learning how to change our mental picture of what the results of our actions will be has enormous power. We become more conscious of what actions will produce what results. We become confident that whatever results we seek in life, there is a course of action to create that.
What is written above is from the book I wrote about a year or so ago about this series. Today I am sharing this work on Facebook and on my site because we are having a global pandemic and it is my hope that these images will help people to calm themselves and to make choices for the future that are good.
I almost didn’t post today because I was busy working in the yard, and baking. Spring in Vermont is a glorious thing, coming as a welcome reprieve from the harsh winter, and a promise of the utter glory we know that happens in summer, when everything is blooming and prolific with flowers and fruit. Nature still does not disappoint us in her beauty and bounty.
I’m hoping we learn from this pandemic to revere nature’s ways more, and to have more faith that nature’s ways are the best for us, and we are at our best when we align ourselves with nature’s power. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “there lives the dearest freshness, deep down things.” Yes. Refresh. Us. Now.
These are flowers in my front yard, but I have a nice big plot in the back where I am going to plant vegetables and herbs. Food from the earth is our greatest asset and power. To be able to grow ones own food is a tremendous power. I am starting seeds indoors for the first time, even though I have had many fabulous gardens in the past. I am excited to participate in the whole process from seed to meal, having faith in the great good of it all along the way.
Resourcefulness is the ability to find and to utilize supplies in intelligent ways. As the old adage states: “necessity is the mother of invention” which means that we create or find what we need most once we recognize that we have a need for it. Our needs change through various situations, and resourcefulness is the skill to make adaptations to meet our needs according to the availability of materials.
In this image, various sources of energy are pictured. The elements of fire, wind, water, and earth are all different manifestations of energy, and our skills at using these various sources of energy allow us to meet our needs in more and more complex and efficient ways. In addition to the sources of energy in the world around us, we have myriad sources of our own, internal energy. We can utilize our own power by turning within as in meditation, or by following our heart’s desires, or through our abilities to act, to make, to do, as well as to think more cogently and to communicate with each other.
There is a sense of openness in being resourceful, a sense that new resources are constantly coming into being to meet new needs. When we are resourceful, we are poised in such a way as to be willing to try new ways of doing things. This sense of openness comes from keeping ourselves focused on the present moment rather than being stuck in outdated modes of being, or constantly waiting for a better future. When one is using resourcefulness, one is fully engaged in making things work as best as possible with all that is available now.
Every morning that the sun rises is cause for new hope. Nothing stays the same forever, but is always becoming new again with each day and each new moment.
When we hope for something, we can have the same feeling of confidence that we have in the knowledge that the sun rises every morning. We may not “get” everything we hope for, but if we start to change our way of feeling about being hopeful from one of yearning to one of trust and confident knowledge that whatever we could possibly hope for does exist on some level, then we can relax and enjoy all that each new day and moment brings to us. We can offer our song to the morning along with the birds and all of creation.
I wrote the above a few years ago, as a calming meditation about hope. It is a rather idealistic and simplistic perspective in the current world, us looking out our windows because we are being ordered to stay at home due to a global pandemic. It is a time of anxiety as well as hope.
Hope is a complex thing. As evidence I offer this little anecdote that happened to me: The Mile Hi Church of Religious Science in Denver, which practices New Thought Spirituality, used to buy my plaques to sell in their gift shop. When the purchasing agent saw “Hope” in my samples, she said that they did not practice “hope” because it implies a sense of doubt. To hope for something confirms that the thing isn’t present now. In the New Thought tradition, as far as I understand, one affirms the truth of something by saying that it already exists in consciousness. So,rather than focus on something as-yet-to-come which places the sense of desire perpetually in the future, i.e. never in the present, the fact that the mind can conceive of the hoped-for-thing, means that the thing is now present.
These are fine lines, but relevant to us as we hope to be on the other side of the projected curve of this pandemic. We hope for something that we are not even sure what it will be. We hope to have normal life back again, but we know it will never be the same as it was before, so we can hope for better. T. S. Eliot says in East Coker, after a bleak assessment of present conditions in 1943:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope For hope would be hope for the wrong thing
But Rebecca Solnit offers a much more nuanced and hopeful analysis of hope itself in her book Hope In the Dark from 2016: “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”
Change is rarely straightforward… Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds.” –end R.S. quote
During this time when we must stay home, inside, our actions are the seeds of hope for the future. Our thoughts are actions, too. We have the choice to sow the ones we want. We can do the hidden, behind-the-scenes work of deep thought that is full with reflection, rest, rejuvenation, hope. And the sun will continue to come up, and spring will bring summer and it’s okay that we don’t know the rest.
Our greatest good comes to us by relaxation and nurture in balance to our effort and work. When we take the time to comfort and relax ourselves, great ideas and unforeseen good comes from our state of still and soft pleasure.
In this image the figure is resting in a tub of water. Water is the source of all life, and being in a tub mimics our unborn state in the womb. Here we can let our efforts be still for a time so that life can be restored to a condition of vitality and health. All that is necessary for our healing is available somewhere. The apothecary jars symbolize the various things that can serve as healthful tonics for us, each in its turn and in the way that feels best to us.
Here the figure is contained, warmed, cleansed, and relaxed. The candle signifies intuition, or the knowledge of what is most nurturing to us at particular times in our lives. This intuition is echoed in the scene out the window of night, the time to rest and to allow ourselves to be passive like the moon and to simply receive the gifts that are there for us.
I wrote those words a couple of years ago, and painted the image many years earlier. I sold it as a print online and a man in Brazil saw it and commissioned me to paint a larger, original for him, which I did, not too large, about 9″x 12″ on a wooden panel and I shipped it to him in Brazil. I changed the figure to be a portrait of him, and he was pleased by it. I can’t find a photo unfortunately.
A lot of people have seen this figure as a man, though it was meant to be me with my red hair. In all these little paintings, the gender, race, and particulars of the figures are meant to be aspects of my own psyche, as characters you might have in dreams but that you identify as manifestations of your own impressions of those characters, and therefore images of yourself. That is why this body of work is not multicultural or utterly inclusive– these are my projections, my self-portrait characters. You can use them to imagine your own.
In these times of novel corona virus, I hope everyone nurtures themselves and takes time to cleanse, relax, rest, and rejuvenate. One thought I have about health and healing is that I have faith that the universe produces or contains a cure for every ill. As some old adage has it: the gods never give us more than we are equipped to handle. If we are open and in tune with the earth and nature, there are innate balances and antidotes that become known and available. I mean this mostly symbolically. (I’m not advocating self-remedies!) Yet, I have learned from organic gardening how bringing everything into balance creates a harmonious whole wherein nothing noxious takes over but is held in check by the natural order of the healthy environment. There is a balance point at which everything flourishes. I’m hoping our world can readjust to that state of balance and health after this episode. Stay well and nurture yourselves, each other, and our world. A garden grows by taking care of tender things tenderly.
The word “solace” means comfort or the easing of any burden or grief. It holds the root “sol” which means “sun” and also “solo” or singular, alone. The image represents the times in life when we are comforted by our own company, by being alone and resting in order to regenerate our spirits. As the sun is the center of the solar system, we can remember our own center sometimes more easily when we are alone for a time.
Here the woman is enjoying time in nature, although in close proximity to the comfort of her home. She has her cat next to her, grounding her in her body and showing her how to relax as only a cat can. She has books, knitting, some tea, and chocolate to delight and satisfy her. She has found a way to rest and to put away the cares of the workaday world.
When I painted this image several years ago, I never thought it would be as relevant as it is today in our time of quarantine over the novel corona virus. I like to be alone and thrive on it but I know it is not the natural way for many people who are more extroverted. Still, maybe we can all use this time to be less productive and to just allow ourselves to really rest, indulge our simple pleasures, and soak up some sunshine if we are lucky enough to have it where we live. I did read that sunshine is effective to help heal if you are ill or to prevent illness, as the sun helps the body make vitamin D. I know we all have many concerns now, but maybe we can just take solace in rest for now. Keeping ourselves healthy is a great service to all.
To trust is to be reliant or confident that all is well. When we trust, we believe in the firmness and soundness of something. In some cases we develop trust because we have a history of positive experiences that leads us to believe that because something or someone has always been reliable in the past, it is safe to assume the same will be true in the future. Other times we must practice blind trust, meaning without any guarantee of a certain outcome.
In this image the man trusts that the bridge is sound and that he can safely pass over the canyon on it. Many times in life we have no proof that something is trustworthy, and we are forced to carry on anyway if we want to go forward.
From a spiritual perspective, we can begin to trust that no matter what happens to us, even if the bridge did give way, literally or symbolically in some enterprise in our life, we will still be okay. With trust we know that all paths lead us where we are meant to be, and sometimes the hardest ones lead us to the best places. We are always safely returning to our source.
I wrote those words about trust a few years ago. They seem particularly relevant in these times of crisis when all of us are being forced to trust that others do their best. We are continually reminded how much we are interconnected and dependent on each other. Did the bridge builders do their best? Did they test their work to ensure the materials would withstand heat, rain, time? We are never completely in control. And often we find ourselves completely alone on our journey, having to trust others whom we have never even met. Still, we can focus our minds on “trust” knowing that we will be capable of meeting whatever may come to pass on our journey.
In presenting this project publicly as I am now and writing about it for the first time really in all the years I have made these images, I want to emphasize that my life was anything but easy during these times. I had a lot of privilege going to art school and graduate school at a prestigious and expensive place, but I was always unsure of my life in so many ways. I had experienced trauma as a child and I was not at all rich; I just somehow knew I had to have certain experiences in my life because I had lessons I needed to learn from them. So, I went after things that some people might have thought were well beyond my grasp. I trusted that the path was going where I needed and most wanted to go. Naming and envisioning one’s truest heart desire is the crux of this whole project.
Part of it has to do with repetition, and I made these images over and over again. The repetition part is like prayer; it has a kind of magical effect which I find hard to explain. I think it has to do with getting back the same that you put out into the world, and by putting out a positive message over and over again, it somehow magically came back to me.
The photo above of the larger paintings in my studio is evidence of how following my path led me to where I wanted to end up. The paintings are the commissioned pieces I made for Children’s Hospital, Colorado that I spoke of in my earlier post above. During the course of making them, my life took a turn and I ended up returning to Vermont in the middle of making these paintings. This photo is from my studio in Arlington, VT where I finished them and shipped them back to Colorado.
Also, in 2003, a man from Chicago bought one version of this image of “Trust” and wrote the following card to me. It was returned the first time he sent it as I had moved, but he persisted by sending it to the store in Denver where he had bought my plaque, and I am so glad he did. I am honored and delighted by his words. I had lost his card when I moved back to Vermont, but recently found it again, and was again delighted by it.
“Hello, I purchased a small piece of art that you made, one entitled “Trust”, and wanted to share with you my reason for the purchase and why I was so touched by your work. I am Jewish and deeply spiritual. There is a beautiful little song by Rabbi Nachmon– a rabbi from the old world, a world that sprang from the mystical world of Hassidam– which goes something like: ‘All the world is just a narrow bridge, just a narrow bridge, just a narrow bridge, and above all, and above all, is not to fear, is not to fear at all, and above all is not to fear at all.’ These words and the melody that goes with have often been a powerful source of strength for me. It is a reminder that we all suffer and this crazy, wonderful world we live in is so precious, and so very fragile. Seeing your piece on trust gave me that same sense of vulnerability and strength that can only be wrought through a deep faith in what is beyond our seeing, and at times beyond our knowing. So this is all a long winded way of saying thank you– for your art work truly touched me & is something I will cherish. (Added later after it was initially returned:) I leave you with a prayer from Kundalini yoga tradition which is actually a Sufi chant: May the long time sun shine upon you, All the love surround you, And the pure light within guide your way home.”
This note is one of my most cherished awards for my work. It shows me that someone understood me across a great divide, without even knowing me, because of our shared human experience. And by my putting myself and my work into the world, despite feeling that perhaps the work was not smart enough, I was rewarded a hundredfold by this note.
Also, it should be noted that I am deathly afraid of heights. That is why to me the image of this bridge portrayed the greatest instance of trust, because heights are naturally frightening to me. Growing up in Colorado, I nearly fainted on mountain roads or on the Rio Grande bridge in New Mexico where I traveled with my family as a kid. So, to me trust means going ahead anyway despite ones fears. Or as this great Jewish song says, trust “Above all is not to fear at all, not to fear at all.”
May you trust that all is well despite these troubled times, and that you are safely returning home always, in one way or another.
I began making the images shown above over 25 years ago. I had just finished my Master of Fine Arts degree at Bennington College in Vermont where I had learned to make sculpture. Bennington required graduate students to select a second discipline and painting had been my primary one so I chose sculpture as my second. Soon, I fell in love with sculpture more than painting and ended up making a show that was predominantly sculpture for my thesis work. It consisted of huge welded steel pieces that I covered in concrete, wax, pigment, and other materials. Here are some photos:
When I graduated shortly after the show came down, my sculpture teacher and the sculpture technician convinced me that I would probably never show this work again and that it would be very difficult to store, so they destroyed it. It was heart-breaking to me, something I still feel misgivings about, yet it was a significant reason I began the series of tiny paintings I now call “Illuminations.”
I moved to New York City right after graduate school and no longer had the facilities to make large sculpture. I was disillusioned by the prospect of breaking into the art world, disheartened that my graduate education had not led to something more solid as far as a career, devastated by having lost all the work I had spent the past year making, and unenthused by much of the work I was seeing in New York galleries.
These tiny paintings were my reaction. They were an attempt to strip away everything I had learned in school, which I began to feel had suffocated my own voice and had confused my intentions about why I was making art in the first place.
Well, one thing led to another, and these little miniature paintings have become perhaps the most important work I have yet accomplished. They became a cottage industry for me, morphing through several different transformations in format and materials, becoming a variety of different products from plaques to tiles, to prints, to cards, and books.
All along this journey, I have had a strange relationship to this project, feeling at times that it was too mainstream for my more esoteric artistic tastes, or thinking it to be too sweet and inspirational to be considered serious art. Yet, over the years I have probably made and sold more than 30,000 of these images. Numerous people have sent me letters thanking me for making work that struck a chord for them, and many people collected all the images I made, sometimes over the course of years.
I have received numerous commissions for versions of this series, including a hallway lined with a larger version of these images at the adolescent psychiatric ward of Children’s Hospital, Colorado. It was a great honor to make work that might brighten the world of a kid in that place and I was greatly touched and humbled to visit there as the commission unfolded.
Robert Redford bought my little plaques, many others have copied them (the highest form of flattery according to my mother), and making them allowed me to be a stay-at-home single mom to my daughter for many years. At one time I supplied these little plaques to over fifty retail outlets across the country.
All of the images I made for this series were consciously chosen as qualities that I identified as “good” because that was my way of changing what seemed so negative in most art that I saw and the conditions I struggled with in my own life. They became a kind of self portrait wherein I put myself into the situations that I wanted. Now I can see that they did in fact help me to realize my dreams.
One of the greatest of those dreams was to return to Vermont, and now that I live in Vermont again, after 25 years away, I see that these little pictures helped me on my journey to create the life I wanted and considered to be good.
So, my story is one of turning lemons into lemonade, or of finding ones way through a difficult time by focusing on solutions rather than problems, and keeping the vision of those solutions firmly in mind.
I have written a great deal more about this process, which I believe has become muddied in the collective mind by seeing the so-called “positive thinking” movement as an irresponsible way of avoiding misery or problems. In the book I have written about this journey I discuss my experience and explain the line of reasoning that I found helpful in my quest to better myself and my world. My book can be pre-ordered here: Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds: Illuminations of the Good Life
Because of the recent pandemic, I am planning to share my work on this blog with anyone who might enjoy it. I am going to post one image a day for the first week or so, with accompanying text, then possibly stretch that out to one image a week, depending on the response.
Please respect my work by not printing it in any form and if you share it digitally please make sure you credit me. This is a gratuitous offering, but any support is greatly appreciated. You can purchase prints, notebooks, plaques, and my other handmade wares here: Kate McPhee Studio You may also donate to this project via PayPal to email@example.com All your patronage is greatly appreciated.
Here is a preview of the first nine images so you can see what’s coming. Each day I will post text to accompany the image meant to inspire your own thoughts about the quality being presented. These are meant to remind– or illumine– qualities that are available to our human experience. These blessings already are, they simply await our recognition. Tomorrow I will post some suggestions for how to keep the thought of these positive qualities in your mind as we all come together to heal our world and ourselves.