An Artist Against the NEA, Part 1: The Case of Karen Finley

Karen Finley: This is what you get when art and politics mix

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“All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

-Benito Mussolini

The wailing commenced as soon as the numbers appeared. After decades of threatening noises from concerned conservatives and fiscal hawks, a Federal government budget was produced that eliminated funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

As an American artist, I think this is a wonderful development, long overdue.

Defenders of the NEA make the usual accusations, conflating being anti-government intervention in the arts with being anti-art. They justify the expense by pointing out how little the expenditures are out of a budget now reckoned in trillions. And they make the great leap to define withholding state funding of the arts as censorship. All of these assertions dodge accountability for results. How has the NEA improved the artistic life of America?

The NEA was the creation of the corrupt President Lydon Johnson in 1965. One quick measure of the program’s success is whether the visual arts are in better condition now than they were then.

On the contrary, contemporary art is undergoing a crisis of relevance, with hardly any interest and engagement from the public. I would suggest it’s the top-down direction of arts development encouraged by the NEA and its fellow traveler, grant-giving foundations which have helped cause this great alienation. Far from encouraging a vital, thriving culture in the United States, the handout and non-profit mentality is propping up a sick and decaying model of art as an elitist virtue signalling endeavor.

Make no mistake, the cultural institutions supported by such programs hold the values and founding principles of America in contempt. It’s key for acceptance. The long march was so successful that the entry to the establishment now requires allegiance with globalism, Post Modern relativism, and Cultural Marxist deconstruction. It’s the partisans of these ideologies that get the funding and support.

The art world has been warped by the priorities of the subsidizers. If you want their checks, better get on board with their agendas. Leftists have to taint everything with their politics, their own petty little version of God, and their fantasy of the all powerful state as a benefit dispensing Utopia. There’s no way I want anyone subject to such delusions in charge of recognizing artistic achievement.

Many years ago, I had my own special encounter with a NEA star, a typical example of what elitist culture has to offer.

She’s nothing but a historical footnote now, but in the early 1990s performer Karen Finley was big news. She was one of the so-called NEA Four. These controversial artists were up for the federal agency National Endowment for the Arts grants, and came under intense political criticism. The artists had their grants vetoed, although they eventually won a court case about it, and got paid.

However, as a result of the firestorm the NEA ultimately stopped funding individual artists. At least Finley can take credit for helping end that particular abuse of tax payer resources. But at the time I encountered her all the legal maneuverings were still in flux. When she came to speak in Richmond, at Virginia Commonwealth University’s  sculpture building, Finley was still notorious as a casualty of the Culture War.

Finley is a performance artist. Her claim to fame was hooting obscenities while smearing her naked body with yams. I wish this was a joke or an exaggeration, but it isn’t. Of course it was all about gender roles and social critique and whatnot, so that made it Serious Art.

We students didn’t know what to expect. Would we be spattered with tubers? Should we wear raincoats like we were going to see a Gallagher routine? Anticipation ran high.

As it turns out Finley kept her clothes on, and no vegetables were applied anywhere unusual. I suppose a group of mere students didn’t warrant the full Karen Finley experience.

She addressed the standing crowd gathered around her from a podium. I can’t tell you anything she actually said, as nothing she said was memorable. But we weren’t there for an insightful or intelligent lecture, we were there for a Serious Art Performance. And after her remarks, still standing behind her podium, Finley let us have it.

A Serious Art Performance, to Karen Finley, apparently meant yodeling, rolling her eyes and whipping her head around for a couple of minutes.

It was an annoying and mannered display. I felt the burning sensation of folly receiving the institutional stamp of approval. If that was art, then I’ve seen plenty of schizophrenic meth addicts hanging around convenience stores dumpsters that must be undiscovered geniuses.

Coming from her, it was all so phony. Her actions didn’t seem passionate or intense at all. It was clearly a ploy, a unconvincing simulation of being in a shamanistic frenzy.

My problem with Karen Finley’s art wasn’t because it was immoral; it was because it was stupid. There wasn’t an issue with obscenity, the issue was the failure to present a genuine and creditable work of art. And this is representative of the cultural experience our Washington elites wanted to throw money at.

As a bit of compensation for the dumb histrionics, Finley did show us a few nude video clips. She apparently liked to strip down in museums and pose next to actual art. That was kind of funny. The University was obviously putting all our student fees to good use, bringing in talent of such caliber.

During her fifteen minutes of fame, Finley got to play cultural martyr. She became a symbol, the fulfillment of the art world’s conceit of itself as an oppressed band of brave rebels.

The fact that what she called her art was a contrived, pathetic display was overlooked in the rush to the barricades. Her stated political agenda trumped any concerns about quality.

Finley has drifted into obscurity now, safely cloistered away  in New York City’s Tisch School of the Arts (annual undergrad tuition over $53,000.00), still trying to spark some interest in her sagging shock art. Museums are willing to throw her an occasional opportunity. In 2014 she did AA one better, and came up with a 13 step program for artists whose “lives have become unmanageable because of art.” Here’s a helpful hint: I wouldn’t blame art for the need to seek attention through grotesque displays.

Finley serves as a nice bit of trivia and nostalgia, a walking wounded veteran of the culture wars. The establishment takes care of its own. What they haven’t been taking care of is our society’s need for real art.

The NEA has failed in its mission. They’ve squandered their credibility. We will be better served by trying to find new ways to express an authentically American culture, one than the bureaucratic ideologues of the NEA never believed in.

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“It is quite clear to anyone of an uncluttered mental disposition that what is now put forward, quite seriously, as art by the ruling elite, is proof that a seemingly rational development of a body of ideas has gone seriously awry.”

-The Remodernism Manifesto

“I was not expected to be talented.”

Karen Finley

Update: Welcome Instapundit readers! Please see other articles here for more commentary on the state of the arts.

EXPLOITS: The 2017 48 Hour Create-A-Thon – Two Gardens

Richard Bledsoe “Two Gardens” acrylic on canvas 24″ x 30″

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It was that time again. For the last three years I’ve taken part in Camelback Bible Church‘s 48 Hour Create-A-Thon. Starting on Friday night February 24, a group of artists gathered at the church, where we were presented with our inspirational theme. By 4pm on Sunday February 26, we needed to have a completed artwork created on site, ready to share at a reception. Throughout the weekend, the public was invited to visit with us to see the artistic process unfold.

This year I had a different experience than how the 2016 Create-a-Thon started. For 2017 we had two juxtaposing inspirational passages: Genesis 2:8-17, the description of the Garden of Eden, and Matthew 26:36-46, the story of Jesus’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane,  where He prayed to escape his destiny if possible, but put himself in God’s hands.

This year, as soon as I heard the subject matter, the vision came. I saw the image in my mind; now I just had to bring it out so everyone else could see it.

I immediately laid in broad planes of textured colors. I don’t like working straight off a white canvas. In this shot I’ve actually flipped the canvas over to get better access to the blue area; in the completed work, it’s the upper right corner. I stayed until about 9 pm that night, just getting the under painting laid in.

A fast start

I was there around 9am the next morning, and stayed until almost 5pm, a good solid working day. I didn’t even take a break for lunch, as the church provided us lots of good snacks, and cup after cup of coffee.

No time to lose, had to get the drawing in right away

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The first thing I did Saturday was crudely block in my two essential elements: Christ and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Then, with wide swoops from the shoulder, I dragged loops of white paint over the blue, and gray over the yellow. These were the faint beginnings of Eden’s hazy atmosphere and Gethsemane’s tangled branches. The rest of my time spent on this painting was spent revising and refining these loose beginnings.

An action shot from the 48 Hour Create-A-Thon

My wife Michele Bledsoe was there for support. She wrote her own blog post about the experience, “Marathon Painting and the Art of Sitting on the Sidelines.” She spent her time drawing and taking pictures and videos. Michele spends a lot of time on her art. She jokes if there is ever a 480 Hour Create-A-Thon, she might take part.

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Finishing touches

By the time I came back Sunday morning, I was well positioned on the painting, and I spent time on all those little details and touches that can make or break a painting. One of my ongoing quotes about this stage is “That’s why painters go mad.” Anyone who has ever seriously engaged in painting has probably had that experience when the most minuscule adjustment or mark can make a work spring to life-or crush it into a mess. As an intuitive painter, I never know in advance what mark that may be. I have to discover it.

To see my art is to see me, performing my role as a conduit for something else 

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So the question for me becomes, if the Create-A-Thon shows I can complete a resolved and meaningful painting in really less than 48 hours, why do I normally work on them for months?

In that environment, in that experience, the Spirit really moved me, I suppose.

The Remodernist’s job is to bring God back into art but not as God was before. Remodernism is not a religion, but we uphold that it is essential to regain enthusiasm (from the Greek, en theos to be possessed by God).

-The Remodernism Manifesto

PAINTINGS: Versus

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Richard Bledsoe “Versus” acrylic on canvas 12″ x 16″

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I’ve written before on the connections between toys and art. In 2016 I participated in a show that gave me a chance to explore this fascinating synergy. The Firehouse Gallery was hosting “Toy Art 6.” I used the call for entries opportunity to work in a style unusual for me: still life.

That’s right. The epic confrontation depicted above is actually a very literal depiction of my toy Godzilla, and my wife Michele Bledsoe ‘s wind up pressed tin panda bear, on a table top. They tell such a story by simply being placed together.

I usually work intuitively. How different to be able to see the thing I was trying to recreate in paint. It takes me back to my student days, when I worked from observation. It was important to learn to control the medium: to make a painting capture something of the essential nature of what I was observing.

Later, I started trying to make my paintings capture something of the essential nature of my inner world. It’s a fascinating task, trying to evoke the subtlety  of thought into a visible form.

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“It should be noted that technique is dictated by, and only necessary to the extent to which it is commensurate with, the vision of the artist.”

-Billy Childish and Charles Thomson, The Remodernism Manifesto

COMMENTARY: Establishment Art’s Ingrained Indoctrination and the Postmodern Manifesto

 

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Maurizio Cattelan “L.O.V.E.” marble, 36′

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“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?'”

-David Foster Wallace, Postmodern novelist

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The quote above does a good job converting the rhetorical question “Does a fish know it is is wet?” into a lightly amusing anecdote, a brief fable which delivers its twist ending of wisdom as if it were the punchline for a joke. What’s not so funny is the truth that the story demonstrates, and its implications for the state of our civilization today.

To understand the crisis we find ourselves in, it’s instructive to look at the cultural assumptions and preferences of our so-called ruling classes. Their presumptions can be tracked based on the visual art they collude to promote and subsidize. The contemporary art market is another weapon in their arsenal, a way they can inflict their will on society in the form of punishment, disorder, degradation, divisiveness, and heavy handed instruction.

In the recent past George Orwell was able to advance an accurate definition: “Liberal: a power worshipper without power.” But what happened in the meantime was the forces of liberalism/progressivism/Marxism/whatever-they’re-calling-themselves-now-ism managed to drag the cultural focus onto favorable terrain for themselves. Our would-be masters have woven a make-believe world where their particular skill sets dominate; for decades their influence has metastasized throughout our institutions. Art just happens to be a field where it’s easy to see the damage they’ve caused. We are enmeshed in the Matrix-like reign of a toxic philosophy which can referred to by the ambiguous term Postmodernism.

It seems so simple, just a description for what happened after the Modern age. Even though many people still refer to any recent baffling example of artistic excess as Modern art, the underlying principles that made art (and by extension our culture) Modern have been dead since the 1960s. Postmodernist thought started in academia, but has since bled out so its dogma now dominates our politics, media, and especially the arts.

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Barbara Kruger “Belief & Doubt” installation, The Hirshhorn Gallery, Washington D.C.

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I’ve written before on how elitists push this ideology because it makes an effective tool of oppression. To be Postmodern is to be relativistic, cynical, narcissistic, and conformist. For those who might question such an interpretation, we are fortunate to have a document found posthumously among the papers of one of the leading advocates of this world view,  French writer Jacques Derrida (July 15, 1930 – October 9, 2004). Hugely influential amongst those susceptible to such pedantic banter, he pretty much summed up his accomplishments with this quote: “I’m no good for anything except taking the world apart and putting it together again (and I manage the latter less and less frequently).”

Derrida left behind a statement that bluntly summarizes the intentions of Postmodernism. I would suggest these days his ideas are like the water that we fish are ignorant of; propaganda so widely disbursed and unquestioned it’s invisible to us, even as we move through it, and are carried along by its flow.

Here is Derrida’s manifesto of Postmodernism: read it, and weep. Afterwards I give my thoughts on some of its precepts, and how I see us getting out of this mess.

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1. The art of the past is past. What was true of art yesterday is false today.

2. The Postmodern art of today is defined and determined, not by artists, but by a new generation of curators, philosophers and intellectuals ignorant of the past and able to ignore it.

3. Postmodernism is a political undertaking, Marxist and Freudian.

4. Postmodernism is a new cultural condition.

5. Postmodernism is democratic and allied to popular culture.

6. Postmodernism denies the possibility of High Art.

7. Postmodernism deconstructs works of High Art to undermine them.

8. Postmodernism is subversive, seditiously resembling the precedents it mimics.

9. Postmodern art is pastiche, parody, irony, ironic conflict and paradox.

10. Postmodern art is self-consciously shallow, stylistically hybrid, ambiguous, provocative and endlessly repeatable.

11. Postmodern art is anti-elitist, but must protect its own elitism.

12. To the Postmodernist every work of art is a text, even if it employs no words and has no title, to be curatorially interpreted. Art cannot exist before it is interpreted.

13. Postmodernist interpretation depends on coining new words unknown and unknowable to the masses, on developing a critical jargon of impenetrable profundity, and on a quagmire of theory with which to reinforce endowed significance. Vive le Néologisme!

Long live the new word-ism? No thanks. we’ve had more than enough.

Some comments:

“The art of the past is past. What was true of art yesterday is false today.”

Says who? No one I recognize as any kind of authority.

“The Postmodern art of today is defined and determined, not by artists, but by a new generation of curators, philosophers and intellectuals ignorant of the past and able to ignore it.”

This plays into the Leftist conceit of the New Class: that in the Utopia to come, Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others, and they get to call the shots. It is the dream of every progressive to join this most favored status clique.

To deny history is to deny any accountability for their achievements, any objective measure of their performance. So self-serving.

“Postmodernism is a political undertaking, Marxist and Freudian.”

Of course it is. The culture must be sacrificed to avenge their feelings of envy and inadequacy.

“Postmodernism denies the possibility of High Art.”

They deny it because they lack the means to accomplish it. Sour grapes.

“Postmodern art is self-consciously shallow, stylistically hybrid, ambiguous, provocative and endlessly repeatable.”

Real art is deep enough to support extended contemplation. It makes a definitive presence. Ambiguity is wishy washy compared to evoking enduring Mystery. To provoke is a minor reaction compared to inspiring. There is a magic inherent in the unique object made by human hands, heart, and mind working in conjunction each other.

Post modern art basically fails to actually function as art in every significant way.

“Postmodern art is anti-elitist, but must protect its own elitism.”

Postmodernists attempt to deny judgement, ratings of quality and effectiveness, because their own offerings are so feeble. The elitism they draw upon is the status in the herd, the correct observations of the obligatory declarations of loyalty and subservience to the hive mind, and the opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of their controllers.

“Postmodernist interpretation depends on coining new words unknown and unknowable to the masses, on developing a critical jargon of impenetrable profundity, and on a quagmire of theory with which to reinforce endowed significance…”

Real intelligence actually communicates very clearly and concisely. What the Postmodernist suggests is like mumbling to hide the fact you don’t know the answers. This world of sophistry and distraction is crumbling. The elitists are panicking, and attempting to convert their minions into shock troops to protect the status quo hierarchy.

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From Banksy, the anonymous millionaire creator of half-baked editorial cartoons 

The perpetrators of Postmodernism have gone beyond parody with their ridiculous posing, but it’s no longer harmless. From on high, the supplicants of the art world are receiving their orders: the culture must stop changing so the current power brokers remain in charge.

The obedient little fishes synchronize swim down the polluted stream issuing from practically every channel, doing the bidding of smug social media giants, partisan networks, repressive universities, biased newspapers, establishment politicians, empty headed celebrities, corrupt Hollywood, despotic foreign governments, and compromised corporations.

At the same time the little fishes flatter themselves that they are brave rebels, fighting the power. That’s what their masters are telling them that they are.

That disconnect takes an especially determined kind of ignorance.

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Exhibit A: Shia Lebeouf, being divisive

There is already a sound artistic philosophy ready to take the place of the defeated dead end of Postmodernism.

Remodernism is a reboot of the culture. It takes the energy, vitality and exuberance of the Modern era and integrates art back into the mainstream. Remodernism reverences art as a means to bring communion and connection. Billy Childish and Charles Thomson created an open source art movement which is in perfect sync with this new era of renewal.

Come on in, the water’s fine.

 “Remodernism discards and replaces Post-Modernism because of its failure to answer or address any important issues of being a human being.”

-Billy Childsh and Charles Thomson, The Remodernist Manifesto

UPDATE: Welcome Instapundit readers! Please visit other posts for more commentary on the state of the arts.

STUDIO: The Mirror Test

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Mirror mirror on the wall:

A tool for self critique

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No matter how cleverly you sneak up on a mirror, your reflection always looks you straight in the eye.

-Louis Cyphre, Angel Heart

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The image above is not me; it is my reflection in our bathroom mirror. Michele Bledsoe snapped it while I was contemplating one of my works in progress.

It’s a problematic piece, one I’ve been working on for a long time without resolution. That is why it’s getting the mirror test.

I’ve written before on painting as being a process of seeing and judging, and the various ways I have to tweak the way I ponder on my unfinished paintings so I can see them with fresh eyes. I look at them upside down or sideways; I put them near completed paintings for comparison. Even moving them to different locations, like outside on the front porch, lets me break out of the tunnel vision that can develop while a work is being created.

As an intuitive painter, you have to be own worst critic. Since you are creating a world out of your own unique vision, only you will understand where that world fails to conform to its own principles, where the spell is broken. You must fearlessly identify the flaws and weak spots of the image. All these variations on looking break the limiting habits you fall into while staring for so long at the art being created.

The mirror test involves looking at the image in the mirror, and seeing it all reversed. Michele says it’s a great way to identify drawing issues. I look for ill defined passages, places that lack the dramatic interplay and balance that every good painting distributes across its entire surface.

Just like looking at ourselves, looking at our art in the mirror is a ruthless means for self knowledge.

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“Spirituality is the journey of the soul on earth. Its first principle is a declaration of intent to face the truth. Truth is what it is, regardless of what we want it to be. Being a spiritual artist means addressing unflinchingly our projections, good and bad, the attractive and the grotesque, our strengths as well as our delusions, in order to know ourselves and thereby our true relationship with others and our connection to the divine.”

-The Remodernist Manifesto

PAINTINGS: My First Completed Work of 2017-Son of Skunk Ape

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Richard Bledsoe “Son of Skunk Ape” acrylic on canvas 30″ x 40″

Starting 2017 off with an epic painting three months in the making. “Son of Skunk Ape” derives its title from the traditional Floridian name for Bigfoot. It’s well known to cryptozoologists  that sasquatch sightings are often accompanied by descriptions of a bad odor; I can only image the smell is worse if the being in question lives in a swamp.

Being a product of Florida myself, I can only assume the vision that came upon me that led to this painting is wrapped up in my heritage. What triggered the vision was a comment about our cat running wild after a trip to the litter box. I called him a skunk ape, and the next thing I knew a new world had unfolded in my mind. You never know where inspiration might come from.

So many of my paintings depict weird Americana. They are natural extensions of who I am and what my interests are.

“Being a spiritual artist means addressing unflinchingly our projections, good and bad, the attractive and the grotesque, our strengths as well as our delusions, in order to know ourselves and thereby our true relationship with others and our connection to the divine.”

The Remodernism Manifesto

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An early stage of the painting

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Developing

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A sense of scale

COMMENTARY: Art and the Heart of Darkness

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Richard Bledsoe “This Man Has Enlarged My Mind” acrylic on canvas 14″ x 11″

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“All great and beautiful work has come of first gazing without shrinking into the darkness.”

-John Ruskin

Darkness exists not only externally as a physical absence of light, but also references the state of mystery that abides inside every person. Part of the task of the artist is to go into that inner darkness and bring its contents to light. To reveal the hidden lets us know ourselves, and each other, better.
Visionary analyst Carl Jung referred to this as the Shadow Aspect of ourselves. Darkness does not necessarily equal evil, but evil is part of the terrain we must navigate in there. There is something in us all that remains primitive and covetous, the old animal nature, snarling over its prey.
In one of my favorite books, Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad took his own particular experiences working in the Belgian Congo and translated them into a universal exploration of the corruption of power.
His character of Kurtz was a great man gone wrong. He went into the jungle thinking he would bring enlightenment to the  savages. But like many a Classical playwright could have warned him, overestimation of one’s capacities leads to tragedy.  Hubris made Kurtz into the worst savage of all, a demon god demanding worship and tribute.
I’m very comfortable in my own shadowy depths. I see the dangers of it, but also the wonders contained therein. There is great vitality stored in there, forces beyond my own limited resources. It’s exhilarating.  In the Conrad book a ragged, youthful sailor  gushes about Kurtz, “This man has enlarged  my mind,” ignoring the poles festooned with severed heads of Kurtz’s victims all around him. Carried away with enthusiasm, he has lost all perspective.
But Kurtz himself, who unleashed those great capacities, who tried to live like he was above good and evil, can not avoid acknowledging the consequences of his own choices. He is left murmuring about “The horror” with his dying breaths, a confession of the life he sees flashing before his eyes-an admission of his ultimate failure.
Good intentions are not enough.
The ends do not justify the means.
I am humbled in the presence of the Shadow. I don’t make the mistake of believing its power is my own. I can accept the flaws it shows me I have. And as a artist, I can translate its secrets into a shared experience.
“Spiritual art is not about fairyland. It is about taking hold of the rough texture of life. It is about addressing the shadow and making friends with wild dogs. Spirituality is the awareness that everything in life is for a higher purpose.”