Beauty inverted, leveled and carved from the same stone.

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A photograph is not an opinion. Or is it?” –Susan Sontag

Tim Arroyo’s Metamorphosis: The Inner Beauty Project exhibit examines beauty from a linear perspective. It’s on display at ArtStreet at the University of Dayton, Ohio. According to the exhibit description, the show is based on “an observation of the unwillingness to be photographed and shedding one’s outer layer to reveal a beauty from within.” I’d venture to say it’s also an obsessive look at beauty from a man who loves women and wants them to see the equanimity, evenness and equality in their physical features through one photographic process. The equality is not to say they are all the same, because the women, obviously are different—ages, races and ethnicities. However, there’s a reverence in the simplicity. The fact is that this particular approach does not detect make up with the exception of a small amount of black eyeliner (which a few women opted to use). I’ve seen him experiment with this approach for the last two years or so. The pupils look dilated and there’s a graying of the features no matter the skin tone of the subject. This blurring of identity creates a dramatic tension. The viewer is immediately drawn to the eyes and story behind the portrait of each woman staring directly out, in essence, proclaiming the universality of her beauty.  He elevates the idea of beauty with this focus on sight. There are stories I can invent just by looking at each woman.

I was asked to be a part of the project and agreed at first, but changed my mind when my grandmother passed away. I felt sad and vulnerable and didn’t want to be photographed as part of the exhibit. Why? Because the exposure, photographic and through the promise of an exhibit, created an emotional risk for me. And I didn’t want to be documented in such a raw way when I felt raw.

Vulnerability and Imperfection

That rawness and vulnerability is what’s explored in both of Brené Brown’s TED Talks on vulnerability and shame.  As I recently told a colleague who had not heard of her research, you need to watch the videos, just from a human being perspective. You’re life will be expanded, better.  Her class, The Gifts of Imperfection has generated a social media movement causing women to post “regular” photos of themselves with “I am imperfect and I am enough.” (As a side note, there’s also a powerful lesson in her talks about how women prevent men from being vulnerable. Recall if you’ve ever referred to a grown man as “being a baby” when he is ill. It’s that nurturing and wholehearted love that we all need.)

Seeing Tim’s work made me think of two expansive photography projects. The earlier, dates back to 1979 and is a follow-up project from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, titled: The Family of Woman, A Worldwide Photographic Perception of Female Life and Being. The other is, “Women” by Annie Leibovitz. I was blessed to see the latter in person at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in 1999. Susan Sontag wrote the essay to accompany the Leibovitz exhibit:

Any large scale picturing of women belongs to the ongoing story of how women are perceived, and how they are invited to think of themselves.”

Reverence Reinvented

I’ve observed Tim Arroyo’s work for close to eight years.  As a fellow photographer and a progressive woman, I’ve thought, “Man, this guy likes women. He likes women’s bodies. In all their shapes and forms. Everybody’s sexy.” He also has some rather bizarre shots of beautiful women, altered into what I would call Cyclops and other creatures from his imagination. I’ve been at exhibits and watched the reaction to some of his more unusual contortions of beauty. There’s a fascination by some viewers with the idea of how traditional beauty can be converted into something shocking that makes your head tilt sideways. Often, especially with his own eerie self-portraits, I have a tickling in my brain that reminds me of the work of Rene Magritte mixed with Picasso’s Cubist era and a big pot of Dali Surrealism.

And this has made me wonder, from a feminist perspective, is he objectifying women? Or am I being a prudish, despite all my proclamations of progressiveness? If you’ve read any earlier blog posts, you’ll notice that I’ve been a bit obsessive with Danielle LaPorte’s The Desire Map. Through that inverted approach to goal-setting, I’ve looked at core desired feelings to help guide how I want to feel every day.  And I’ve asked, what’s wrong with a mother in her forties also wanting to look sexy? I was raised in a diverse neighborhood dominated by liberals and intellectuals. Many folks looked down upon physical beauty and fashion as superficial. I’ve learned since climbing out of poor health after childbirth, that self-care from the inside out generates love and beauty. Sontag writes, “But in real life it’s still common to begrudge a woman who has both beauty and intellectual brilliance…” I’ve embraced the fact that external beauty and creative fashion can further my own artistic expression.

What’s wrong then, with a photographer who obsesses over images of all sorts of women in different shapes and sizes, with and without tattoos, with big bellies and thighs, with natural hair and hair full of product? What’s wrong with his bowing down to the power of their beauty, sensuality and rawness in this Metamorphosis exhibit? I’ll tell what’s wrong with it: nothing. That’s what I found through years of watching Tim’s work. It’s his work. Folks seek him out to document their moments in time. Even as some of his images are not to my taste and make me uncomfortable, they have prompted me to think about beauty, women and art. I’ve also reflected upon the physical body and how it can be manipulated to form beautiful and ugly images depending upon one’s perspective. One of my favorite people in the world doing great things for the image of women’s bodies is Taryn Brumfitt from Australia. She has started the Body Image Movement and has rocked the world in terms of being happy with her current state of normalness. This comes from a former fashion model. She has made me rethink beauty and the physical and so has Tim.

Wild Wisdom and the Artful Arc of Aging

One other element that pleased me mightily about Metamorphosis, is that it shifts perceptions on aging. Sontag wrote, “…women are punished more than men are by the changes brought about by aging. Ideals of appearance such as youthfulness and slimness are in large part now created and enforced by photographic images.” Some of my favorite images in the show are of the women advanced in age. For more than a decade, I’ve had the privilege of working with women ten to forty years my senior, and they are some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met.  Like the great Dr. Maya Angelou wrote in her poem, Phenomenal Woman excerpted here:

Men themselves have wondered

What they see in me

They try so much

But they can’t touch

My inner mystery,

When I try to show them

They say they still can’t see.

I say

It’s in the arch of my back

The sun of my smile

The ride of my breasts

The grace of my style.

I’m a woman

Phenomenally

Phenomenal woman

That’s me.

You can listen to Dr. Angelou recite the full poem here.

Tim Arroyo

Story of Origin

As with many visual artists, Tim thrives on images, not words. I know this because he doesn’t talk that much. He has worked for years with maternity photography hashing out life before life comes. This stems from a man with a thriving family, who has also seen his share of loss. He is the father of two beautiful girls and married to a wildly feminist woman who doesn’t stop.

Tim has done some very interesting studies on smoke, nature and botany, which can also be very sensual, beautiful and ugly in an aesthetically pleasing way. (I’m a huge fan of object photography and fascinated by work like Irving Penn’s studies of trash on the sidewalk.) Some of my favorite works are Tim’s objects, particularly his portals series.

It’s clear that Tim has a number of talents as a professor and as a photographer. As any artist or entrepreneur knows, art and ideas can create conversation and controversy. That’s when we’ve done our job to make you think, feel and react.  Seth Godin wrote a wonderfully short post this year about the humility of the artist. It may seem arrogant to say, “Perhaps this isn’t for you.” In actuality, he argues, it’s arrogant to think that your work could appeal to all. “Finding the humility to happily walk away from those that don’t get it unlocks our ability to do great work.” To connect with Tim Arroyo, check out his website or like him on Facebook.

Tim Arroyo Metamorphosis

Climbing Heart, A Love Letter to the Vulnerable

This is my love letter to you a day when your heart sits quivering on your sleeve glimpsing Polaroids past shoeboxes cut with kitchen knives a slit for secret admirers see-through envelopes taped with spit my note tells you a … Continue reading

Wine, Women and Divine Noticing

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This red dress fits like a glove. And these shoes are so comfortable. I feel fantastic. I am in awe. It’s like I’m floating. Wait, guess what, there’s no red dress, no shoes–but there may be flying.

I was just driving to the grocery store so that I could sit and write to you. I was trying to find a way to explain and understand my own spiritual transformation.

I don’t know how to explain how good I feel, how in awe I am of what it’s been to let go and trust. I came up with the red dress analogy. You know when you are confident, in your zone, dressed to the nines, healthy and on your game? Or say you are about to step on the field or the court and everything flows. You are in perfect symmetry with your teammates. I feel that way in my spirit now.

For the purposes of this post, I may use the word God. You can substitute that for Spirit, Universe, Buddha, Yemaya, Penelope or Fred, whatever works for you.

I’ve been in a state of seeking that’s been confusing lately. I was raised [not strict] Catholic, studied Buddhism, was educated by Quakers, schooled by Jews and befriended by Muslims and Christians. It’s been stimulating, exciting and distracting.

Recently, I went to my first ever Georgetown University alumni event (was shocked to realize I’m nearing my 25th reunion) called “Wine and Women, Reflections on Life and Faith.” I took the bus far north on a very dark and freezing Thursday night to listen to Jesuit Father Brian Paulson talk about faith. Father Paulson was forthcoming about his own fallibility as a human being. This made for a collective sigh of relief in the room. You could feel the overachievers (myself included) relax. His talk really hinged on the art of noticing. Being in a divine state and noticing little things all of the time. That, in many ways, is prayer.

Here are a few highlights:

  1. Take a question to the pool, the garden, the car, or in my case, the kitchen. We can be in conversation with God anywhere. Father Paulson, an avid swimmer, takes a question to the pool and converses with God lap after lap. I often feel a magic while cooking. Lots of folks do it while driving, he even urged people to just sit in the silence without music during a drive. Sometimes, though, music can lift you to a place of higher spirit whether it’s Israel and the New Breed, Pink, Grandmaster Flash or in my case on the bus ride home that evening, George Winston. I listened to his December album and remembered being eighteen years old at the Kennedy Center and sneaking back stage after the concert. Mr. Winston played for about twelve of us until almost 1:00am. The music brought me back to 1987. When a young woman was ready to invent a spy story to sneak back and be a little closer to a man whose music had brought her so much peace and solace. Revisiting that moment, while flying down Lake Shore on the the #147, brought me closer to God.
  1. Work the Triangle. There are three places where we meet God: in written form (as a Catholic, I’m less familiar with the Bible than many other religions, he suggested spending time with the Pslams); in prayer (swimming, gardening, driving, etc.); and communal prayer. This is Church. Now as I indicated in an earlier blog post titled, Faith, Boredom and Desire, I’m not always the best at going to church. Last weekend, I thought of Father Brian and went by myself, late and hit it just in time for the homily when the priest basically gives a summary of what’s been read and links it to life, global and historical events. We happen to have a rockin’ cool and self-aware priest named Father Jerry Boland. He was connecting Harriet Tubman’s journey with the creation of the Underground Railroad and her signature lantern, to finding light on your journey. Luckily, I was sitting towards the back and for the rest of the mass on and off, I felt overwrought with joy. I was crying quietly into my handkerchief (yes, I carry one) and was wondering why it smelled like soft pretzels. I realized there were so many salty tears pouring out of me. I wasn’t embarrassed, but I was confused. Was I crying because I was so happy or because I was lifting up premature baby Jaxon in prayer? Because I was remembering Jaxon’s grandmother and her prayer warriors who had prayed for my son through three operations when he was a toddler? Those women, whom I don’t know, held me up in their hands, hearts and souls. They prayed for guidance for the medical professionals helping my son. They prayed for my sanity. Or was it because I was carrying the joy of the sister of my heart who had lost so many loved ones that she is finding it hard to carry hers right now? I was keeping the joy for her, carrying it until she could open her eyes again and see the sun. Or was it the giant light burning inside of me that I felt worthy to carry every single day? A fellow parishioner came to see me while I was crying and I told her, “I’m okay, I’m just releasing.” And she understood.  So work that triangle baby, in solitude, with written inspiration and in communion with others, in whatever way works for you.
  1. Deal with your appetites. Catholics don’t have a monopoly on guilt, but we are so good at it. Father Brian talked about his love of golf. And how if he played golf as much as he wanted to, he would not do funerals and weddings and that would make him a bad priest. It seems obvious that I cannot stay home and paint, write and create all day…for now. I have to go to work, help at home, raise my child, nurture my marriage. I can however, still indulge in those appetites and being the boisterous, spontaneous and energetic person that I am…get this, I need to indulge in moderation. Extreme fun and extreme art can still be had. And I can still do the laundry, the dishes and pay the bills. The latter may not whet my appetites but they keep systems in place so that I can indulge in the appetites that I so enjoy.

Father Brian and the women whom I spoke to after the event, made me feel like I belonged to another tribe. Another circle to connect to my evolving venn diagram of relationships and support. I am so grateful to my alma mater for inviting me. And to spirit for plucking something in me to attend. Before I end this post, I want to thank you for reading, listening and responding. In the poem in the previous post, I wrote “your mind knows not\let your soul tell it so.” This poem came to me at the edge of sleep in the morning because I’ve been wrestling with understanding intellectually how I can feel so at peace. You, dear readers, have been a part of my spiritual transformation just by reading. It helps me to show up and unravel and figure things out. And also, to stop figuring things out in the mind, and let my soul tell me what’s what. Thank you!

There’s more to share my friends, but for now, I’m leaving you with those three ponderings.  And wishing that you embrace the divine in yourself, find that place of quiet conversation, a community that embraces you and some words to wrap your soul in the light of that perfect moment. From my lit-up heart to yours, I send you love and moments of divine noticing.

ecomamamusings

With gratitude to artist Meriah Jacobs-Frost for the inspiring photo above where she wrote “No matter what you perceive as ‘god’, even if it’s ‘just’ that divine within you, I believe this so SO much. Let your light shine!”

A Girl Undone by Firelight

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A girl undone by firelight

walks to the edge of the floor

Reading verse of a faith so pious

prayers sweat blood from her pores

cerebellum searching

answers

explanations

a man called Ignatius

Why does this red dress feel so good?

This hat measure 22 3/4?

When did I learn flamenco?

Flying was a dream along the shoreline

racing seagulls in miniature

Baby Jaxon hears me sing this little light of mine

Sister sees healing in the alphabet

sent through Dixie cups

a string

rhythm flows

from the edge of sleep

your mind knows not

let your soul tell it so