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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Six


Prayer Flags



Do something. Start with pleasure. Make a list of all the things that are pleasurable in your life and then make an art form out of one of them. And if you're courageous, make a list of all the things that are difficult in your life and make an art form out of one of them. 


 --Paulus Berensohn, a dancer who "pivoted" to pottery. He was Kaete Brittin Shaw's mentor at Swarthmore, founded by the Quakers.


Never forget that we are artists, every one of us, creating and sustaining a life out of this pandemic wilderness, our connection to others, the new challenges we face every day—joys, sorrows, ups and downs. We digest and enjoy one another's stories, in whatever medium they are rendered: culinary, sculptural, written, or photographic. Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' Water Dancer this week, a gift from my daughter, I am in another time and place, transported by Hiram, a first person intimate narrator. I've only known Coates as a polemicist and essayist, and now this novel, not quite arrived but of interest nonetheless. Perhaps his next book will be better. And I try to touch in with visual art and visual artists as often as I can, too, even if I can't get to museums and galleries these days. The "arts & culture" app on Google helps, so, too, the occasional interview with an artist when I have been inspired or consoled by the work. This week: the ceramicist and colorist, Kaete Brittin Shaw.

I had first met Kaete at the Unison Arts gallery in New Paltz where I have taught a couple of workshops, but it was an acquaintanceship in passing until this summer when a mutual friend suggested I contact her to ask if I could buddy up for a long distance swim at Lake Minnewaska at the non-life-guarded beach, exclusively for those who have passed a test. Much as I would normally--and in normal times-- resist an exclusive club, mea culpa, I joined this one. I was already on Kaete's mailing list and was paying attention to her work. Then about ten-days ago, exhausted from a hack on my dedicated Virus Without Borders blog book site-- the realization that we'd have to take it down, the sadness of that-- I went up to the Unison Arts sculpture garden for respite.

It was a beautiful, soft, mellow day. The light dappled through the trees onto a simple wooden stage that had recently been built for outdoor, distanced performances. Interesting installations all around, weather ready, solid yet ethereal. I turned to my right and there were Kaete's prayer flags strung between the trees. I hadn't expected to see them there catching the light. My agitated spirit stilled.

I am always interested in an artist's choice of medium, analogous to a writer's choice of genre. Kaete only works with porcelain. Why porcelain? "Because of its whiteness," she explained during a telephone interview. "I'm a colorist and other clays absorb the color too much." For the prayer flags, she's added a layered screen. I'm not sure what this is exactly and look forward to examining them more closely when I'm next in the sculpture garden, or visiting Kaete's studio. That day will be a celebration.

When I asked Kaete about the inspiration for the flags, I assumed she was Buddhist, or had a meditation practice of some sort, but her inspiration was unexpected: she was raised Quaker. I have attended Quaker meetings and know that the long silences, though strange at times, nurture self-reflection and the solitude of artistic endeavor, not unlike Buddhist meditation practice. Indeed, silence is good for artists and writers, whenever and however we can find it. It allows the work to surface. Oddly, we've had too much silence and isolation during the pandemic, the gesture of touching expunged, our voices muffled by masks. Life out of balance.

"I have stalled on a major work," Kaete told me. I could relate as my plan to begin a new book project this summer never happened. I don't think anyone I know anticipated the long haul, the months of struggle, containment, uncertainty and anxiety for ourselves, our friends, our colleagues. our families, the world, an election looming. Who will have a job at the end of all this? When will we be able to travel, or walk into the grocery store without masks?

What has raised your spirits during this difficult time? I asked Kaete. "Biking and swimming," she said without hesitation. "Just floating on the lake, looking at the clouds and the cliffs. That helps." I know the feeling. All troubles drift away.

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