Monthly Archives: June 2019

Retrospective, Part I

I had an invitation from an art docent group to speak about my work a few weeks ago. Since I’m a narrative artist, the subject was art as a form of storytelling. Their preferred method was a PowerPoint presentation — a format I hadn’t used in decades — with real life examples displayed so they could encounter them up close and personal.

How to best represent my art? Going back 35 years, long before it became a conscious outcome, each of my pieces had a story behind them. They came from my experiences. Initially, they centered on villages I’d wandered through and trails I’d followed through forests, particularly in Europe.

CarlaPtgEarly1

The Florist. Oil on canvas, 1988. ©Carla Woody.

Later, it was more about what came from sacred sites, ceremonies and people who populated Indigenous lands where I returned over and over, conveying in some way what had touched and changed me, deepened my understanding of what matters in this life.

Carla-MayaPrayers-low

Maya Prayers Oil on canvas, 2011. ©Carla Woody.

I’m quite clear about my personal evolution over the years — changes I chose that placed me on another track entirely — but I hadn’t realized how it affected my artwork as well. How could I have missed that? I’m like anyone else. I’d gotten so immersed in the day-to-day I hadn’t realized what was evident. Creating that presentation became a gift. It caused me to stand back and pinpoint how I got from there to here. In that moment, I became the observer, not the artist. Each of those pieces were part of a history that generated a visual story. I used the same strategy on myself — in the context of art — that I facilitate with others who want to consciously create a transition in their life.

In being our own witness, rather than being in it, things become apparent. It helps us make decisions. It serves as momentum to veer off a beaten path, to move through a threshold with intent. It naturally gathers energy that provides courage and reinforcement.

So that was my first decision. If these folks really wanted me to relay how art could tell a story, they were going to get a retrospective peppered liberally with how I’d progressed as an artist, what influenced me, and finally what was behind each image in the PowerPoint.

That decision took me to another level. I became aware that, over the last decade, creating art had become integral to my spiritual practice. For me, that means there’s an excavation of sorts that occurs in the process of creation. My intent is to express something deeper than a surface level image and initiate an evocative response from the viewer. To do so, I require myself to go deeper.

During my talk prep, I came across a quote from the writer James Baldwin.

The purpose of art is to lay bare the question hidden by the answers.

 I’d written and taught of this before, although I hadn’t considered art when I did.

…Like an unconscious mantra held in the mind, we ask a question in any given moment. In asking the question, the answer naturally comes to us. Therefore, in holding the thought, we ask the answer. This is the paradox that guides our lives.

We cannot ask a question for which there is no answer. Our minds can’t conceive of such…Through some fluke of determination when our minds can conceive of a wider reality, or at least have some inkling of acceptance, that conception will generate answers beyond the questions. This opening will then move us into new experiences through the wider framework of the mind—and we wonder how we got there.

—Excerpted fromStanding Stark: The Willingness to Engage

I noticed there was increased depth in my art when I made a simple adjustment about five years ago. I sit in the same place every morning when I do my early morning meditation practice. I learned long ago that energy builds up in a physical space when I return to it over and over with such intent. It becomes a natural segue, an anchor or portal through which I easily enter a meditative state. Energy lingers there—like a booster rocket—the same as when I close my eyes in a certain way, signaling readiness for a shift from ordinary reality, a surrender to non-ordinary reality.

The simple adjustment I made was this. I began to bring whatever piece of art I had in process and placed it within direct viewing distance from my meditation spot. Then when I opened my eyes, still in a deeper state of being, a communication started to occur. A communion of sorts. No, I didn’t experience discourse with my ordinary ears or eyes. But something happened. I formed a much greater connection and knowing. The artwork came to life and had its own expression. The piece itself became my guide in how to express its deeper nature.

Of course, you can do the same for any context you wish to explore…whether you place a physical object as I did…or project some representation—via visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory manner—of what you wish to consider.

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Next month, I’ll share what else I learned in this process. Stay tuned for Retrospective, Part II.

Categories: Creativity Strategies, Meditation, Visual Arts | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The Fierce Devotion of Noor Inayat Khan

For nearly a decade I was involved in the local Sufi community. I studied the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan who first brought Sufism to the West in 1910 – directed to do so by his own Sufi teacher in India. I attended zikr, a devotional chanting practice, regularly and, in the late 1990s, went to India with a group led by Pir Shabda Kahn, now spiritual director of the the Sufi Ruhaniat International in San Francisco. In Delhi, we paid our respects at the dargah of Hazrat Inayat Khan and, encircling his grave, raised our voices in zikr. The vibrations of this dogma-free Path of the Heart remain with me.

Noor Inayat KhanYet never did I hear of his daughter Noor Inayat Khan in all that time I was so immersed in Sufi practice and study. Somehow, I came across a reference to her on the Internet. Curious because of her name, I did some research and was baffled by what I found.  The source said this first-born child of Hazrat Inayat Khan had been an agent for the Secret Operations Executive (SOE), an espionage agency known as “Churchill’s Secret Army.” I thought to myself, how could a young woman raised within that sacred lineage become a British spy? I delved more deeply and could clearly see what drove her.

Noor’s father — descendant of Indian nobility, Indian classical musician, Sufi mystic — met her mother Amina Begum né Ora Ray Baker — niece to a US Senator, cousin to Mary Baker Eddy who founded the Christian Science Church — at a public lecture he gave in San Francisco. Their love came quickly, but their courtship and prospective marriage were unacceptable to their families. They left the US and married in London. Four children quickly came along.

The family moved frequently and was largely dependent upon the generosity of followers. Her father traveled widely much of the time introducing Sufism to the West and forming centers. The family finally found a home in 1922 in Suresnes, close to Paris center, purchased for them by a wealthy Dutch devotee. Fazal Manzil, meaning House of Blessings, became their home and, for three months each summer, a Sufi school that overflowed with followers. There Noor grew up surrounded by family and community steeped in Sufi mysticism. She was a musician who played traditional Indian instruments and a singer of ragas, taught by her father. She was a poet and writer of children’s stories. Noor was consistently described as gentle, dreamy and shy even into adulthood. In some ways, it was an idyllic, if insular, upbringing. But her life changed dramatically when her father passed in 1927 while in India. Then in 1940 even more so when the family was forced to flee to London as the Germans advanced.

That was the significant point of departure from her former life. This introverted young woman, a practicing Sufi, was set on doing something to defend France. She volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and was randomly chosen to train as a wireless operator. Noor was noticed by the SOE and subsequently invited for an interview, then offered a position.

At times she gave her superiors fits for she refused to lie, that necessary tool of a secret agent. They had to reframe the requirements of the job and relanguage things she would need to say in order for it to be palatable for her sensibilities. However, she wasn’t tricked into what she was about to encounter.

Radio operators had about a six-week survival rate in German-occupied territory. Their job of tapping out coded messages back to England made them prime targets by the enemy. Noor was the first woman to be dropped into occupied France, making her way to Paris. She had to move frequently to avoid detection, and faced danger continually. The radio had to be carried in a clunky briefcase, readily noticeable and an instant giveaway if cracked open.

The SOE espionage networks fell apart. One agent after another was caught, interrogated, jailed, executed or, worse, shipped off to concentration camps. Finally, she was the only remaining radio operator. Noor was alone. She was told to evacuate by her superiors back in England. She refused and persisted radioing coded missals on her frequency, Poste Madeleine.

How she remained calm in the middle of terrible danger can only be due to the great spiritual strength she carried. She steadily gave the Gestapo the slip until she didn’t. Enduring lengthy interrogation and torture, she gave away nothing. Dachau was the final stop.

She called out one word in the split second before her execution. Liberté!

Noor is a sacred Sufi word meaning light.

***

There is much to this story not mentioned here. Although posthumously awarded the honors, the George Cross by Britain and the Croix de Guerre by France, Noor’s incredible bravery and all the lives she saved by such fierce devotion went otherwise unsung for years. She was in the company of many equally as courageous but outside mainstream. She wasn’t a white man.

But over the last 15 years she is being given her due. The Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust was founded in London to “promote the message of peace, non-violence and religious and racial harmony, the principles Noor Inayat Khan stood for.” And her memorial was unveiled in 2012 in Gordon Square by Princess Anne.

The 2013 film Enemy of the Reich gives a good overview of her war years. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime.

If you really want to understand how this unlikely young woman was so inspired, risked her life and maintained her unshakeable courage to the very end, read the 2006 book Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu. Available in the public library and wherever books are sold.

Categories: Book Review, Film, Sacred Reciprocity, Sufism | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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