Community, News, Travelogue

Goodbye Byrdcliffe, Hello Positive Psychology!

I had a lovely time at the Woodstock Byrdcliffe residency. It was really an idyllic place to live and make art. A typical day for me:

Wake up to birdsong.
Run (including my first 10-mile).
Read and write in my sun-drenched studio—Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi’s thought-provoking Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990) and Alain de Botton’s beautiful The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (1998).
Work on drawings, collages, mixed media, or photo projects.
Eat and socialize in the large communal kitchen with the other AIRs, including some amazing, health-minded cooks. They inspire me to eat more whole grains and less meat, and cook more. You’d be inspired too, if you’d had Dan’s homemade pita bread, Tryn’s key lime pie, and Bob’s chilled carrot-coconut milk soup.

Sights around Byrdcliffe: a brilliant meadow, backlit leaves, turkey vulture, black bear.

Sights around Byrdcliffe: a brilliant meadow, backlit leaves, turkey vulture, black bear.

Chipmunks everywhere.

Chipmunks everywhere.

Julie, Mary, Robert, Tryn, and Dan hanging out in the kitchen after Mexican food night.

Julie, Mary, Robert, Tryn, and Dan hanging out in the kitchen after Mexican food night.

Outdoor sculpture show at White Pines. Really loved the architecture.

Outdoor sculpture show at White Pines. Really loved the architecture.

View from White Pines.

View from White Pines.

In addition I took a Machine Woodworking class with Paul Henderson, down at the Byrdcliffe Barn. Cutting dovetails, mortises, and tenons with Paul, we’d chat about tools and music (he’s a trumpeter in a funk band!). It was tons of fun, and it reminds me how nice it is to have access to a really nice woodshop….

Paul and Jessica in the woodshop. That day's lesson: using routers and jigs to machine dovetails.

Paul and Jessica in the woodshop. That day's lesson: using routers and jigs to machine dovetails.

The residency was very productive and re-energizing. I am so grateful I got to be part of the Byrdcliffe story, enjoy the amazing land, and meet the other AIRs and the hardworking Byrdcliffe staff. Thanks Byrdcliffe!

Artist in Residence Open Studios
Byrdcliffe Art Colony, Woodstock, NY

Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild Artist in Residence Open Studios, July 23rd. full text:

My 360º studio photo-collage was featured on Woodstock Byrdcliffe’s email announcement! The super smart and interesting Julie Perini will be screening her experimental film and video work in my studio. Photos of my projects are in the Villeta, however, I won’t be there because I’ll be at…

July 23–26
The International Positive Psychology Association’s Second World Congress of Positive Psychology

Philadelphia, PA

Among the speakers are Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose books inform my work, including, most directly, the Positive Signs series (a selection is now on view at Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco, CA). I’m really looking forward to hearing these authors speak, delving deeper into positive psychology, and thinking through how it relates to artmaking and art viewing experiences.

I am able to attend this gathering with the support of a Travel and Study Grant from the Jerome Foundation. I am so grateful to them for the support. Thank you Jerome Foundation!


Positive Psychology and Positive Thinking

In developing my exhibition, “Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors),” last spring, I studied positive psychology. During the closing dialogue, “As Is: Pop and Complicity” (read the transcript), I realized that the term positive psychology is easily confused with popular psychology—understandably, since the distinction is not entirely clear, when my readings of positive psychology take form in trade paperbacks—and positive thinking. Certainly, positive psychology is optimistic; through research-based cognitive behavior modification, it aims to increase happiness, and to engage in that kind of self-awareness and change is to embrace to possibility that one can positively change one’s attitudes. However, to mistake positive psychology for mere positive thinking is a mistake.

In “Power Lines: What’s behind Rhonda Byrne’s spiritual empire?” (New Yorker, September 13, 2010), Kelefa Sanneh reviews two recent books on positive thinking. He takes a critical look at Rhonda Byrne, the positive thinking guru and author of “The Secret” (2007) and “The Power” (2010), starting off with Byrne’s appearance on Oprah. Maybe I’m an elitist, sheltered in a ‘Bay Area Bubble’ unconcerned with such mass culture, but the phenomenon of “The Secret” remained a secret to me until now. Is this what people think I mean when I say positive psychology?

Sanneh contrasts Byrne’s quasi-but-un-religious, ultra-simplistic mysticism with Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America” (2009; also released with the more specific, less ‘sticky’ subtitle, “How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking is Undermining America”). When the leftist activist fired this shot, it alarmed me, but as Sanneh points out,

For Ehrenreich, the alternative to the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of justice—except you don’t have to choose…. She promises that we can find a deeper, richer form of happiness by ‘shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world.’

This, of course, brings to mind the three components, according to Paul Martin, author of “Sex, Drugs and Chocolate” (2008) of happiness: pleasure, the absence of displeasure, and satisfaction—becoming an agent, enacting one’s will in the world. Striving and accomplishing goals through acting in the world—not mere positive thinking—leads to deeper happiness? Yes, I’d agree with that. I am now more inclined to believe that Ehrenreich—whose undercover reports on working class struggle instantiated institutional privilege in America in “Nickel and Dimed” (2001) I enjoyed—is explicit in her aim at unthinking positive thinking, rather than all psychology concerned with happiness.

So while the terminology may overlap, along with the general optimistic outlook and “woo woo” self-improvement vibe, positive psychology and positive thinking are very different. For the latter, read Byrne and watch Oprah. For the former, read psychologists and researchers like Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalvi.

Citizenship, Community, Research

Things are grim, but I can’t stop thinking about happiness.

Where my mind’s been at:

Positive psychology — a relatively new field of evidence-based self-help for being happier. Think of it like the shift in medicine from treating illness to increasing wellness. As Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, writes in Happier, pretty much everything we want in life ultimately leads back to happiness.

The idea is to increase happiness in daily life, rather than dealing with unhappiness only during moments of crisis.

[See also Dr. Martin Seligman, Prof. Philip Zimbardo and Dr. Walter Mischel (whose research was the subject of a great article by Jonah Lehrer recently in the New Yorker Magazine).]

Practicing gratitude is one of the oft-cited methods of increasing happiness.

I’m tremendously grateful for friends helping friends. I know, I know, everyone’s hurting now financially. But a lot of artists are freelancers, and while freelancing is typically like riding a roller coaster, it seems like a lot of my peers are feeling lost in a free fall. These are bright, hardworking people doing everything from graphic design, to interactive art direction, to preparator/installation to cooking.

The financial safety nets are being strained, but it seems like social bonds are staying strong… Artists helping artists. Freelancers helping freelancers. I’m so grateful to be in an art community, in which, even in lean times, can exhibit generosity instead of competition.

If you can support the arts in these times, for goodness’ sake, here’s how (and where and when!):

travis meinholf art
Formerly San Francisco-based, now Berlin-based artist Travis Meinolf is in the unenviable position of raising funds for a matching grant (good luck!) for his kind of hilarious but also strangely innovative practice of action-weaving. Like his healthy ‘stache, Travis’ participatory weaving seems impossibly sincere (his last project resulted in 12 volunteer-made blankets being donated to a women’s shelter). He’s a good guy and a hard worker and I wish him the best of luck in sowing his weaving projects ’round the world… Contact Jennifer McCabe, director of the Museum of Craft and Folk Art at to make a contribution towards Meinolf’s exhibition. (Image source:

(In case you missed it, I mentioned Scott Oliver’s totally fund-able project about my beloved Lake Merritt in a previous post.)

This Saturday night is Pop Noir, an auction to benefit Southern Exposure, an alternative art space that’s consistently invested in local artists, community engagement, and excellence in contemporary art. This female-led organization has always pushed the envelope, and I’m very proud to donate a pair of text-based drawings to support their work. Over a hundred and fifty other local artists have donated work too. Countless volunteers are contributing time. But it’s all for naught without buyers. So come on down—with auction prices starting at a fraction of the retail price, the price is right. Look for some really nice pieces by Weston Teruya, The Thing Quarterly by Allora and Callzadia, Michael Hall, Laurie Reid, Jeff Canham, Jamie Vasta, Edgar Arcenaux, Dustin Fosnot, and yours truly (pictured as follows).
weston teruya artThe Thing Quarterlymichael hall artlaurie reid artjeff canham artjamie vasta artedgar arcenaux artdustin fosnot artchristine wong yap art
(Image sources: Southern Exposure’s Pop Noir Auction Artists

Pop Noir will be held at the gorgeous galleries at Electric Works at 8th and Mission Streets in San Francisco. Tix, more info, pics of the auction lots, and absentee bidding details here. Hope to see you there.

Stephani Martinez, Daily Cakes - Extra Fancy, 2009, Variable, Doilies, Plaster, Gold Leaf
(Image: Stephani Martinez, Daily Cakes – Extra Fancy, 2009, Variable, Doilies, Plaster, Gold Leaf. Image source: Intersection for the Arts’ 2009 Benefit Art Auction.)
Of course the other amazing alternative art space in San Francisco is Intersection for the Arts, who is well-respected for the rigor of their programming, and renown for making miracles on a shoestring. Like many non-profits, the downturn is hitting their typically lean infrastructure hard. Intersection’s auction comes up next weekend, on the following Saturday, June 13.

Daniel Tierny, Double Jump, 2009, Tape on lambda print, 23 x 33 in., Courtesy of the Artist and Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco.
(Image: Daniel Tierny, Double Jump, 2009, Tape on lambda print, 23 x 33 in., Courtesy of the Artist and Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco. Image source: Headlands 2009 Benefit Auction, Artists, Daniel Tierney.)
Wednesday, June 10, the Headlands Center for the Arts holds their auction at the Herbst International Exhibition Hall in the Presidio. I’ve been an Affiliate Artist at the Headlands for a year and a half. The Headlands is an amazing locus for an international and local art community. When I think about relocating, few places compare with the quality of the Bay Area arts scene, partly because of the Headlands’ role in drawing international artists in residence to the area.

So there you go. Support an artist directly, or support the organizations who support the artists. And take home some artwork!