Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Roxanne Swentzell Sculpture Workshop - Abierta

"Let yourself be open and life will be easier.
A spoon of salt in a glass of water makes the water undrinkable.
A spoon of salt in a lake is almost unnoticed."
Jack Kornfield, Buddha's Little Instruction Book

Last week I attended a sculpture workshop in New Mexico led by the amazing sculptor, Roxanne Swentzell.  Roxanne Swentzell is one of my all time favorite artists.  She is a sculptor of incredibly expressive and curvy figures.  The first time I saw her work I think I literally gasped with delight.  The body positions and facial expressions of her figures are able to speak without words.  Even the perfectly-positioned fingers and toes hold a message.  You can see her amazing work on her website here.

The week before the trip I felt a little nervous because I hadn't touched clay in about 15 years.  And the last time I attempted a figure was probably in high school when I sculpted a runner that had oogly-googly arms that appeared to be made of jelly and have no bones.  But on the first day Roxanne adeptly guided us in the art of making a torso from coils.  Each day I frantically worked 8 hours...and slowly but surely "Abierta" came into being.  


"Abierta" means "open" in Spanish and I thought it was the perfect name for my sculpture for several reasons.  The first question that everyone asks when they see her is "Why does she have a hole in her middle?"  My original idea was that the hole would represent infertility.  I wanted a form that expressed acceptance of a condition that I struggled with for many years.  But as I worked on her I could feel that it was more than that.  I wanted to convey the idea of not just acceptance...but joy and abundance. 

"Sometimes the dark moment you're in is, in the end, actually a gift..." Cory Booker

The infertility set me on a whole different path than I imagined.  I became a student of suffering during that intense time of longing.  It lasted for years until one day I finally had to surrender.  It was a deep and visceral surrender and with it came the understanding that I don't control everything.  At some point I had the idea to study Buddhism because they know a lot about suffering and how to end it.  I voraciously began to consume Buddhist and spiritual texts.  And before I knew it I was off to my first meditation retreat.  The story of the retreat is more than I have room to write about here.  But in a nutshell I had a life-altering experience that showed me there is more to this world than meets the eye.  And when I look back now I can honestly say that my infertility was the greatest gift I could have been given.  I learned the value of remaining open to what comes to you.

The "hole" also represents the openness, or nothingness, or the void, that resides in the core of all of us.  When I told that to someone at the retreat they said..."How depressing!".  But it is actually quite the opposite because "everything" comes from "nothingness."  In a sense abundance and nothingness are two sides of a coin.  For example, my "lack" of child allowed me to have an abundance of time and experiences that would not have been possible otherwise.  I have traveled and meditated and explored graphic design, sculpture, illustration, watercolor, writing, book-making, interior design, photography, etc.  The following quote is one of my favorites of all time and sums it up perfectly.

"The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,
the more joy you can contain."

Kahlil Gibran

And I would say if you let it carve long enough, eventually you will find there is nothing but joy.

"We must let go of the life we have planned,
so as to accept the one that is waiting for us."
Joseph Campbell


The course lasted five days and took place in a wonderful studio owned by Roxanne's uncle.  The first day Roxanne showed us how to build our torso using coils.  Below you can see I am happily smoothing the inside of my "pot".

The next five days were spent building out the limbs and adding all the yummy details.  You can see that all of the limbs are hollow.

Roxanne was an amazing teacher.  One night I couldn't sleep because I knew I had made my head too big (step 5 above).  When I came in the next morning and told Roxanne, she swiftly got out her knife, cut an orange slice shape out of it and mushed it back together in less than 60 seconds. It would have taken much fretting and time for me to do it. Below is a video showing more of the process.

“We never know what is going to happen, do we? Life is always throwing us this way and that. That’s where the adventure is. Not knowing where you’ll end up or how you’ll fare. It’s all a mystery, and when we say any different, we’re just lying to ourselves. Tell me, when have you felt most alive?” Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child


The class was composed of 10 women and 2 men and I loved each and every one of them.  I have also never taken a class where everyone was as intense and serious about the work as I was.  I so enjoyed that we were all ardently working but able to chit chat at the same time.  There was such a lovely sense of comradery that I wish I could have at home.

Below you can see my eleven compadres and our sculptures.


I know I have already gushed about Roxanne's work, but I really cannot say enough.  There is such a tenderness and gentleness about her figures.  And I couldn't believe that she was able to sculpt this form so quickly.  She barely had twenty minutes each day in between helping us to make this whole figure.

And I am not even mentioning that her personality is every bit as beautiful as her figures.  She had a lovely, humble way of helping and pointing out when we were going astray.  She was always constantly monitoring us in case we were getting in a bind.  One day I needed help with my smile and had been struggling to get it just right.  I wanted it subtle but it was basically non-existent.  Roxanne came over and adeptly showed me how to push the corners of the mouth back in less than 10 seconds.  She knew exactly what I was going for.  I have never worked with someone before who is such a complete and utter master of their material.  If you ever get the chance to work with such a master, take it!

Notice the intricate way the fingers interact with the toes on this sculpture, not to mention the difficult body position!


Although I had to leave Abierta behind to dry and get fired, I will certainly bring home her spirit of openness. I have a tendency to try and control every little thing, but life keeps trying to show me how to relax my grip a bit.  During my voracious consumption of spiritual material I came across this story about "openings" that spoke straight to my heart:

"There is an ancient story from China that makes all this very clear.  It stems from the way traps were set for monkeys.  A coconut was hollowed out through an opening that was cut to the size of a monkey's open hand.  Rice was then placed in the carved-out fruit which was left in the path of the monkeys.  Sooner or later, a hungry monkey would smell the rice and reach its hand in.  But once fisting the rice, its hand could no longer fit back out through the opening.  The monkeys that were caught were those who would not let go of the rice.

As long as the monkey maintained its grip on the rice, it was a prisoner of its own making.  The trap worked because the monkey's hunger was the master of its reach.  The lesson for us is profound.  We need to always ask ourselves, What is our rice and what is keeping us from opening our grip and letting go?"
Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

"The purpose of life is not to be safe. It is to be open. To be dedicated to the truth, to the joy as it streams through your life. Because if you are not, then no matter what you have, you will always want more, you will be forever hungry. And if you are, than no matter what happens, you will one day discover that it is you who you have been hungering for. It has been you, not the food you eat, the clothes you buy, the people you love, the money you make. For lifetimes, for eons, for as long as it takes for a mountain to become a mountain, it has always been you. You are the feast. You."  Geneen Roth


Unknown said...

This is beautiful!

Nessy said...

Thank you Danielle! It was nice connecting with you on Instagram.

May and Jim said...

I absolutely loved reading about your experiences and seeing your sculpture. It is such a powerful and inspiring piece representing a journey of healing and acceptance. I love the way you present the woman and her womb here... "abierta," radiant, full of possibilities.

Angela Grimm said...

Thank you for sharing your journey so raw and real--so beautiful and open. I love reading about my friend who I knew at 12 who is now so wise in her 40's. You are truly a guide.