Up In Smoke

What is art? What is an artist?

Hello dear reader, from our forest cabin in Vermont’s wild and beautiful NE Kingdom,

I pray you are having the best summer. Me too. So good in fact, that I’ve been a poor correspondent.I promise to mend my ways. I’ve a number of things on my mind that I want to post about, so I reckon I have been thinking of stuff I want to share, just not writing it yet!

One of our recent adventures took us to the  “Storm King Art Center”, an amazing 500 acre sculpture garden in Mountainville, NY – loaded with tons (literally tons, actually) of astonishing and gorgeous pieces (some really huge) created and placed on their magnificent grounds by many world renowned artists. It’s only an hour or so north of NYC, so I totally recommend it.

So, one such piece (if you can call it that), is a wall (see pic) made out of stones meticulously piled up, meandering around trees and ending by going right into a pond. The work is breathtaking. It took 2 years to build and is 2278’ long.

It was created by Andy Goldsworthy, famous “environmental sculptor” and considered as the founder of modern rock balancing, who works in only natural materials (leaves, grasses, stones, wood, sand, clay, ice, snow and more). The transience of his work, mirroring the transience of nature, is the central theme of his message to us. He is totally unattached to his work in the sense that as soon as it’s completed, he lets it go:

“Do your work, then let go.

The only path to serenity.”

Lao Tzu

Says Goldsworthy:  “My touch looks into the heart of nature; most days I don’t even get close. These things are all part of a transient process that I cannot understand unless my touch is also transient… a lot of my work is like picking potatoes: you have to get into the rhythm of it.”

Meanwhile, back here on my very corner, lives my friend and neighbor Paul, a man for whom I have an enormous respect, and for lots of reasons.

Paul is an unbelievably hard worker. He is ALWAYS doing something, and one of the many things he does, is cut, split, stack and sell firewood. In my view, his wood lot is no less beautiful than that wall of Goldsworthy’s (look, see what I mean?)

More, I believe that the two of them – the “artist” and the “stacker of wood”  (or is it the stacker of stones and the artist) are in total sync – same natural materials, lovingly and meticulously treated, and just as transient – Paul’s more so actually, because after he does all of this, he delivers it, knowing that his work is soon going up in smoke pretty soon, AND keeping people warm – BONUS!

I’ve been admiring his work for 20 or 25 years, so, I asked myself, why did I need to go to Storm King in order to come back here and understand Paul’s lines of wood as a work of art? When does a “mundane” thing like a woodpile become a work of art? And… says who?

I’ve observed him at work: no rushing – just calm, steady, unhurried, ceaseless motion. Also, no “thinking”, in the sense of “now, where will I put this next log so that it will look right?” After stacking (maybe a million?) logs, the log seems to put itself down in exactly the “right” place – first time, every time.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi PHD, (yeah, that’s his real name, good luck pronouncing it), professor of social sciences at Claremont University, and a psychologist, thought up a name for this. He proposed the concept of “flow” (also known as “on the ball” and “in the zone”).

It’s a mental state of totally focused motivation, during an activity, and it’s rare. “The emotions are not only contained and channeled, but are positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. The hallmark of ‘flow’ is a feeling of spontaneous joy while performing a task.” It’s the kind of thing where for example, if you sit down and start something at say 6:00 PM, you suddenly look at your watch and it’s midnight. You’ve missed your dinner, forgot to go to the bathroom, and you say “Jeez…six hours? Where the heck did they go?” That’s flow.

The Taoists would call this “Wu Wei” – the practice of  “doing/not doing” – the work gets done effortlessly, by itself.

The Zensters like to describe this phenomenon as “the doer vanishing totally into the deed.”

So, is Paul a wood seller or an artist? I’m thinking that if I would ask him, or if he ever reads any of this stuff about Zen and Flow, he would just laugh (he doesn’t talk a lot – another thing I really admire about him). He would likely say something like “I just cut, split and stack wood, that’s all.”

Or, instead of my esoteric descriptions of “Zen” and “Flow”, he might offer me this old Vermont proverb: “When men are rightly occupied, their amusement grows out of their work.” Indeed.

Practice tip: At the end of each day, mentally scan through that day and ask yourself: “was there a part of my day, while I was doing something, that I lost track of time, that I ‘got lost’ in the thing I was doing”? Take note of those times, and those “tasks”, because there are some big clues in there about what you could be doing more of  (possibly even in your “day job”), to raise the “happiness/fulfillment level” in your life.

Finally, as always, please listen, and be kind, to yourself.



About Michael Scott

Michael Scott is a life coach, author and teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. After spending 35 years in business - coaching found him - and he's never looked back. Michael uses his coaching training and experience, in the service of his clients, as their constant and loving guide towards joyous, fulfilling lives which are genuinely their own. He lives with his dear wife in Sausalito, CA.

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