The Cuckoo is My Spirit Animal, or How Penland Brought My Mojo Back

The "Road to Nowhere," near Lake Fontana, NC

The “Road to Nowhere,” near Lake Fontana, NC

I can’t believe I haven’t written here since July. It appears I have gone down a serious rabbit hole–one that involved working 7 days a week at two very different jobs. But hey, you have to make hay while the sun shines, right? And when I got a call about working at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there was only one possible answer I could give. I mean, really, who says no to being a park ranger? Even when you already have a part time job at a B and B…

 
More on that later. I learned a lot about people in the last six months. Let me just say…it was enlightening. Don’t worry. I took notes. Lots of ’em. In a little waterproof ranger’s notebook.
 
But what also happened during my fall down the rabbit hole was a lack of making. My creative self had to make way for the practical wage-earner let’s-pay-all-these-bills self, and that meant a vacation from art-making. “Vacation” isn’t a fair term though, because there was definitely more longing than what occurs on a typical vacation. There was a lot of “I’d really rather be pulling some prints than scheduling these guests’ massages right now.” But I made this deal with myself that I’d work these two seasonal jobs at the same time, never have a day off until November, try not to complain about it, and then take my winter hiatus to let my creative self take the reins again. 
 
So giddyup already. That’s what I’ve been saying for the last two weeks. But it’s been harder than I expected. I figured I’d sit down with a pencil and a sketchbook, maybe some Castle reruns, and jump right back in and start drawing and everything would be great. 
 
calligraphy
thank goodness for calligraphy…it’s drawing without the stress
But the ideas aren’t coming. It’s like they were pushed aside for so long they stopped trying to surface. I practiced some calligraphy just to keep my hands moving and try to channel the elusive creative spirit. 
 
I browsed dozens of artists’ websites, read some articles that popped up in the ol’ news feed (yes, I procrastinated THAT way), looked at Etsy until I was seeing little felted animals in my dreams. But I was still coming up dry. (I should also mention that I had a proposal due for an exhibit I was invited to participate in next summer, and this crisis was making it difficult to come up with an idea that seemed worthy of the invitation. So there’s that.)
 
I joined some teams on Etsy (no artist is an island) and realized I should add some new items to the shop. That led me to a stack of prints that I’d shelved several months after taking a class at Penland last March. And that’s when I realized that this problem is cyclical. Now Penland is a magical place–anyone who’s ever been there will tell you that. It’s not news. But here’s why it was the antidote for my funk last spring: I’d recently moved back to North Carolina after a particularly trying period of time that part of me would like to forget. I had no job, tons of bills, a drive to finally build a life on making art, and a serious feeling that that would never happen. March had been the worst in a string of bad months, and I think it’s safe to say I felt worse than I had in my entire life. So bad in fact, that I very nearly called to withdraw from the class I’d registered for at Penland. 
 
penland studio
snow at Penland was an added surprise
But the class was a crash course in etching and aquatint, taught by my pal Emily Arthur, who is an amazing artist. I’d been wanting to work with her for a long time, and I’d already arranged to stay with my friend Gina, who is one of the strongest women I know. 
 
My birthday was that week, so I decided not to withdraw–this would be my birthday present to myself. I owed it to myself to get over this fear of what was coming. 
So I showed up knowing nothing about etching with exactly zero ideas in my head. No drawings. No thoughts of drawings. No glimmers of inspiration. Zilch. A void. 
 
I spent the night at Gina’s, and I’m sure I bent her ear about way too much of this. I went to bed thinking I’d look like an idiot in this class because I had zero creative thoughts. And to be fair, I had about zero motivation as well. 
 
Then I had this crazy dream. There was a strange black and white bird talking to me from the limb of a tree. It made calls I didn’t recognize, and it talked to me. Somewhere I wrote down what it said, because I remembered it when I woke–not that it made any sense. But a quick Google search taught me it was a cuckoo–I’ve never seen a cuckoo in real life, and didn’t even know what they looked like. But this was it–no mistake. 
 
I told Gina about it, and she said with that undeniable mountain wisdom that she has, “Girl, that was a spirit animal dream if I ever heard one. You better listen to that shit.”
 
Thanks to Google, I learned that certain folklore connects the cuckoo to yearning and thirst. And yes, there was quite a bit of that happening in my world. I was yearning for a different kind of life. I had a thirst for meaning and understanding. Why had everything been so impossible lately? Why did the universe seem bent on destroying me? There was some talk of ’empty vessels,’ and I’ll leave that one alone, but suffice it to say that the cuckoo and I had some common demons.
cuckoo
behold, the Spirit Animal
So I sat at my desk the first day at Penland and drew some cuckoos. In suits. In leopard skin pillbox hats. Staring longingly at each other. Looking like wallflowers at parties with little empty glasses floating around them. And I learned all about that magical chemical process that is etching via acid baths. Something about the acid eating away to reveal what lay beneath was mesmerizing and comforting.
 
I got fascinated all over again, inspired by Emily’s work, and quit freaking out about not being able to draw. I stopped panicking about how my life seemed to be falling apart a little more every day, like an avalanche of the heart, and just drew some cuckoos that looked like they could intervene and offer some spiritual guidance to gal in distress. Just the act of making some things l liked, learning a new process, and being around a bunch of friendly, supportive artists turned things around for me that week. In a big way. 
 
For those of you who like lists, that experience drove home a few points for me. 
 
1. You never know who you are inspiring just by being yourself (Y’all helped me more than you’ll ever know for those few days in March). So get out there and interact with folks, and be a positive force in some people’s lives. 
 
2. That idea that “you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with”? I think that’s true. It also shifts, based on who you’re closest to during any time of heartache or moment of strength.
 
3. Your true friends will always support you, and no amount of distance (be it time or geography) can change that. That bond is not easily broken, and all it takes is one beer and a late night talk to reinforce that. 
 
4. Emily is a fantastic teacher. She has some lucky students. (Thanks, Emily, for doing that class. It was a game-changer.) It’s true that you cross paths with people when you need to. 
 
5. You really do need to do good things for yourself. Even when you feel like you don’t deserve it–actually, especially when you feel that way.  
 
etchings
Here’s the part where I become smitten with aquatint.

So that brings me back to these cyclical doldrums that seem to happen more often than I would like. Sifting through these cuckoo etchings, I remembered what March really felt like–and thought about how much has changed since then. I pulled out my weathered Audubon guide to birds and started drawing some goofy little songbirds, just to get the pencil moving again, training some muscles that have obviously atrophied. I decided it’s a bit like working out–you stop going to the gym for a couple of months, and then it takes a while to get back to where you were. Your body has to remember. 
 
I guess it’s the same with the ol’ creative muscles. They have to remember, too, and I have to remember how to relax and let the creative self take over again. I’ll keep it up, drawing just to have fun during my winter hiatus from the park. I’ll do some maker’s cross-training, and I’ll stop freaking out over not having ideas. I’ll make time for drawing every day, and I’ll look forward to next March, when I’ll be at Penland again–hopefully paying it forward.
For more information about my upcoming Letterpress class at Penland, check out their course offerings. They have tons of amazing classes happening–including an all-star line-up during the Spring Concentration. The deadline for spring scholarships is November 28th, so get thee to the mailbox. Hope to see you there!
 
 
 
 
 
 

2 Comments

  1. Cinderella sang, “A dream is a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep.”
    Maybe that’s why, when problems arise, we’re constantly reminded “to sleep on it.”
    Whatever the reason it definitely worked for you. Loved the story and the little cuckoo etchings.

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