Helene Wurlitzer Residency, Taos, New Mexico – Winter and Spring 2014

The HWF Residency in Taos offered space for a process of slowing right down, letting go and listening …very very closely…


Trust Trust Trust were the words that kept coming to me as I selected some essential personal and practical items for packing, and then peeled myself out of my home, away from my loved ones, into the car that was heading for Heathrow.

Actually, in truth, my packing process had taken me about 8 full weeks in total. Things kept going into the case or sitting close by, and then getting removed again. After all, what exactly would I need to take for my new life in Taos?

Let me rewind a little…In 2013 I was invited by the Helen Wurlitzer Foundation to live in an adobe casita on their seventeen acres of woodland for three months. The purpose would be to develop my art work in whatever way I saw fit. There would be no pressure for an outcome.  

It seemed like a wonderful opportunity. I felt honoured to have been chosen and was curious about the residency, so accepted gratefully, even though I didn’t’t really know what I was saying ‘yes’ to.

What I did know was that I would be there in the depths of winter, and would probably see the winter snows thaw, and bear witness the beginning of spring emerging. I knew also that I would be living at a high altitude and that this may cause breathing and moving problems. Another thing I knew, and was excited about, was that I would be living in very close proximity to the Native American Indian Pueblo and sacred mountains. I also knew there would be 9 other artists (including writers and composers) living and working on the residency too. Other than that I had no idea where this journey was going to take me. 

As it turned out, living 8,000 feet up a mountain in New Mexico was fascinating but trying to make video art and at the same time stepping into the unknown waters of writing (well unknown to me) would be harder than I expected. 

Having often changed art forms and written statements, blogs and academic papers to support that work, I thought I might try to write a screen play or a novel or something. I had felt I had a film inside me for years. The stories, mostly about love, loss and longing, and the transformation of form, needed to come out somehow and painting hadn’t’t been explicit enough for me, not for this particular topic.

In any event I would, and I was sure of this part, certainly manage to write some poetry whilst I was away.

All in all I was keen to let my creativity be free and be what ever it wanted to be. 

Writing turned out to be much harder than I imagined. As I struggled to hold and organise my ideas in my head, I gained increased respect for the people who choose this as their life’s work. Apart from the fact that it seemed to be an even more insular and solitary art form than most, I found it incredibly difficult to keep a hold of and sculpt together all of my ideas. I could see shapes emerging, but there were so many to choose from and I kept getting lost or confused.

Inviting pure creativity to flow freely inevitably meant my creative process took some unexpected turns. The result is that I came back home to England with lots of curious seeds, a number of bizarre experiments and some unfinished ideas.

Most of all I came home richer in my spirit.

Whilst I was away I was often terrified and at the same time I was often incredibly nourished. I learnt a lot on this trip and nothing could have been preconceived. In fact the events are difficult to explain to you, even now.

Firstly, wrenching myself away from my home in England to travel to a continent I had never been to before was a task in itself. Childhood experiences of extensive travel and various traumatic separations had impacted upon me profoundly. I seemed to have developed phobias, fears and aversions to travel. As I started packing, months in advance in order to prepare myself psychologically for the maneuver, I wondered why it is that I always seem to need to put myself well out of my comfort zone, apparently ‘for my art’.

After the two day journey, leaving from the rolling softness of the south downs in Sussex and arriving in the dramatic mountains and extensive arid plains of the desert in New Mexico, and after taking several modes of transport, 3 cars, 2 planes and a bus, mostly with strangers, who became less strange to me as we went along, I arrived in Sante Fe. 

I was sleep deprived and exhausted. I could hardly stand, let alone speak, and the effects of the altitude were hitting me harshly.

So when the 8 foot long conveyor belt for baggage reclaim at the airport showed no signs of my suitcase being on it, I thought it was because I was delirious. I soon discovered though, that my hold baggage had indeed gone astray. It had gotten lost during transfer at Dallas apparently, and no one knew where it had gone.

The fact that it contained all the important possessions that I thought I might need to get me through my three months stay in Taos, including valuables and personally precious things, made the loss quite distressing. I had been clinging on to the thought of those things in the absence of anything else familiar left in my life. 

Except for what was on my back I had been separated from what seemed at the time to be’my life’. All my clothes, art materials, cameras, books, and sentimental precious knickknacks were gone. Whilst I didn’t’t think of it at the time, on reflection I realised it probably also consisted of all the most important things that I actually own. 

It may seem a bit trivial, this loss, but the jet lag, sleep deprivation, culture shock and the effects of high altitude, had bundled themselves together with ‘lost life’ in the suitcase, apparently in an attempt to push me further to my emotional and physical edges.

As I struggled to breathe, orientate myself and settle myself it seemed as if I was pushing through treacle in slow motion.

A local artist who I had met on the Internet prior to my journey, and who had kindly offered to collect me at the airport explained “It’s New Mexico you know. New Mexico always seems to test us when we first arrive here.” She helped me fill out the relevant lost luggage paper work and the following day I look my small remaining bag, on the bus to Taos. 

My new hurdle was adjusting to having no phone, no car and no Internet. For some reason all my pre-existing securities were rapidly falling away from me. I was alone, on foot, and gripping on to my last remaining bag, my back pack, as if my life depended on it. Then with all the energy and determination I could muster, I eventually summonsed the courage to lie down, rest and let go.

I had no choice but to be fully present to the moment, to connect deeply to myself, my body, my creative voice and the immediate environment and to listen clearly.

Who would I be when I had nothing, knew no one and made nothing?

Like most of us in the Western world, I had come to rely on technology to link me up to my personal and professional support systems. Back in the UK I had used these technologies to keep ‘connected’ on line, via phone and in person and my car was more like an extension of my body than a separate device I used. It took a lot of adjustment for me to accept I would have to now work without these security blankets. 

Just as I felt I was doing quite well with making those necessary adjustments to being in the unknown flow of things I hit another edge. A few weeks in to the residency, having successfully made a short video and written about 30,000 words of a novel/screenplay, my computer completely crashed. It left me with a blank blue screen. Staring into this nothingness I wanted to cry and catch the first plane home. This felt like the final straw. I now had no access to word processing, calendars, contact lists, video files. Everything was gone.

After taking stock of the situation I began to consider how would it be to surrender more deeply to these tests, and simply ‘listen’ more acutely to my god, my creativity and my higher Self, the Great Universal Spirit, the something ‘other’, what ever that is, that indescribable, ‘unknown’ thing that seems to hold us from within and without. What would it be like to listen to that voice much much more than ever before and follow that force, that energy, follow it blindly, whatever, (and I really do mean WHATEVER) it was calling me to do and be?

I pondered this a while and then decided to step into the task with both feet.

By the time my watch battery died I was hardly fazed at all. I felt as if I had pretty much lost everything by that point. I was peeled back to basics, vulnerable, raw, naked. 

I left my ‘dead’ watch on my wrist as a comforting connection to my son who had gifted it to me on my fiftieth birthday. What ever happened I would have him with me. But I also knew in my heart of hearts that he was with me, watch or no watch. My grandmother used to say she wanted to be free of ‘things’. She didn’t’t want to have clutter around her and she knew she could hold love, and precious moments in her heart. I tried to remember this lesson she had taught me as I felt my loved ones within me and I continued on as ‘normal’. The abnormal unknown had in some ways, by this time, actually become the norm.

Once I had surrendered to the natural flow of all things, everything started to slip into place and make so much more sense. The process of listening and surrendering became like a meditation, a spiritual practice, a way of being, which I consciously returned to moment to moment. 

I was challenged time and time again as I was invited to manage extremely difficult emotional situations across the seas too. So far from home depression, anger, excitement and separation were all held across the oceans as I worked on keeping calm and letting things be fine, exactly as there were. I was of course powerless in this situation and the extent of my powerlessness was extreme. I could do little other than simply be.

Curiously, the more I surrendered, the more things came to me that I could never have imagined. And the more I was in the flow, the more incredible things happened.

I often found myself on difficult and demanding high wires, and all the time I kept listening and walking forwards. The more precarious the situation, the more depth of listening it required. 

I often noticed myself saying to myself, “now I am here doing this, and now I am here and its like this.” And the ‘this’ and the ‘that’ that I was doing were mostly things way beyond my wildest dreams and fantasies.

Presenting my art and process to 350 people at the Taos Film Festival and chatting with the audience as if I was sitting with a friend in my lounge was just one small example of a challenge and unexpected result that occurred there. As I walked across the stage telling myself to ‘stay in your body, stay in your body’, I found I was not only thoroughly in my body and relaxed but I also felt as if I could have stayed on stage with the mic and chatted there forever. This didn’t’t fit with the shy stage fright person I thought I was.

Nothing was the same now and these heightened experiences of being fully present were becoming more and more incredible and indescribable. 

By the time spring came, having lived like this for several months, I understood in my body, something about life that I had previously only known in my mind before.

Ofcourse I had encountered flavours of this on some occasions, sometimes, but I had never before embodied it so deeply and for such an extended period of time. I had lived this way for three months. It had been a long meditation practice.

It’s difficult to explain where this brings my art practice to now. In many ways I am still processing the experience and am waiting to see what happens next. I so hope it was deeply and permanently embedded within me; that it wasn’t’t something or somewhere you get in Taos, that fades after you leave. Time will tell of course. Only time will tell.

It’s my task now to keep being here, present right now and to trust and not to worry. 

In this culture, climate and existence, its not as easy as on retreat in Taos, ….and I am working on it.

I don’t know how this experience will impact on my art, work, or life but what I do know is that my ability to trust now is far greater than it was before. I can somehow accept more easily that we are all transitory, part of a greater whole and that we have no control and can’t ever really know what will happen next. 

I have an experience myself working without a formal project to work, not producing in a conventional sense., and when everything about me has fallen away, and I am raw, naked and exposed. 

As a result of this experience my relationship to my existence, the existence of all things, and to existential tension, seems to have changed. 

I came home with a piece of experimental writing that incorporates script for a screen play, memoir, novel, dialogue with my psychotherapist and poetry. Its written in layers and time isn’t’t a liner thing. It jolts and jumps between moments, life times, and experiences and it seems to me, is like one of my layer paintings. All being well it will for a chapter in a book about psycho-spiritual psychology, about to be published later this year and I will work on it more to created a larger piece of work in the future, perhaps the screen play I dream of. 

For now though, I want to simply give thanks for the feeling of peace I have gained and my acceptance of what is. I am now able to watch and wondering without struggle or need to direct and work things out.

I am looking forwards too, in a new ways…

I have a solo show opening in R-Space Gallery, Belfast, Northern Ireland at the end of this week. It opens on Saturday 24th May and continues through to 21st June.

This is a very exciting opportunity for me. Its the first time my video work will be given such priority over my other work. My video, ‘I Cannot Help How My Heart Feels’ will be shown as the main piece in the exhibition and will be presented as an experiential installation as it is projected  on two adjacent gallery walls.

Examples of my other work such as wood turning, fibre work, ceramics and earth sculpture, live art, performance and painting will also be represented in this show. I am thinking of it as a sort of mini retrospective – showing work made since 1973 through to 2014. I have committed my life to art and now, aged fifty five, I feel it’s an important time to reflect upon where I have been, evaluate what I have done, and consider where I am going and what it has all been for. 

I will be flying over to Belfast to deliver a talk and workshop on Saturday 14th June and the subject open for discussion and exploration there will be ‘Deep listening’.

I believe passionately that art can change the world and that when we reposition it within our individual lives and our society, it can support us to lead healthier, happier and more fulfilling lives.

My time in Taos has helped me renew my energy around this belief and I am now newly focused on my mission to get art repositioned in our daily lives.

One starting point for this is to get my own art work out into the world more, and to share it and my ideas with others where ever I can.

I am currently creating a new web page which will be live on my website soon. It’s called SHOP and will have works for sale clearly identified there. With SHOP and galleries selling my original paintings and multiple print runs, all of various sizes, and public galleries such as R-Space Belfast, exhibiting my work, I hope to be able to make my art work more accessible to everyone from now on. 

Beyond that I am currently meeting with a variety of clients working in interior design and architecture too, and supporting all that, I am writing about my ideas on art from a psycho-spiritual perspective.

Hopefully there are always going to be changes in how we see the world and how we respond. I believe art can play an important role in that process because of how it can invite and challenge us to change our perspectives, to re-look, and be open to new and otherwise unimaginable possibilities.

What has changed most for me in this recent trip is the way that I view listening. I now listen and respond to my sixth sense with more confidence and I notice too, (perhaps as a result of this new found confidence) that my ego has settled down a bit more, and that even my ‘I’ is resting back too. 

It seems to be another place within or beyond my self that comes forwards now and chooses where I am pointing. As I listen carefully to this new directing power, I notice how my mantra comes more easily now… trust, trust, trust.





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