What Happens When Artists Rule?

There's a school of thought that says when making and then selling something, people don't care about how or why you make it the way you do--they just want you to answer the question, What's in it for me? It's likely true for some people, probably a personality thing, but I am a values-oriented person and I can't imagine I'm alone in this. The how and the why matter immensely to me--it's why I buy organic and free range and free roaming food and support farms with humane practices. I pay more money for these items, and not just for their superior flavor and nutritional content. There is a kind of work in the world I believe in supporting, other values-oriented people I believe in sustaining.

Maybe this is why each time a new release draws near, I'm always compelled to pull the curtain back and let you see a glimpse of how we do things and why we do them that way. The curious among us can read on.

Almost everything we make has official and unofficial titles. For instance, something that might be called, say, The Gift of This Moment may have an unofficial or working title like, How to Feel Less Fucked Up and Alone. Maybe we'd sell more if we just stuck with those unofficial titles, I don't know, but I do know that they help us keep our eye on the ball during the making. To remember what we're up to and why. 

Similarly, the official tagline you'll see on a Jen Lee Productions banner right now reads, Hold the possibilities in your hands. And that is part of what we stand for, for sure. But an unofficial tagline has been keeping things clear behind the scenes in the making: Artists rule.

Like many things we create, I started down this path of independent media production because I was frustrated--frustrated with the ways we have undervalued wisdom and allowed systems to flourish that diminish creators and wisdom-keepers. I dreamed of a way to make things that would pay artists more than mere cents for the culmination of years of living and cultivating and researching and developing. A world where authors would get to name their own books and get to be a part of the process of making and shaping and designing their work, where they don't lose creative control to vetoes from the marketing department or a big-name bookstore that threatens not to carry their work unless they change the title.

We all know that what we really respond to are authentic voices, but I don't believe projects we run through such severe interference emerge with that authenticity intact.

What's the remedy? Letting artists rule. The work is the way the work should be, even if we're hours from going to press and we decide no, those interior photos really don't work in black and white. If they must be in color to retain their power and beauty, then in color they shall be.

Some content is well-suited for book form, and in those cases it becomes a book. But the concern and consideration that most drives me is transformation. I'm not asking, What will people buy? I'm asking, What way of interacting with this content will be the most transformative? The greatest shortcoming of books is that we are passive in our posture towards them. We generally hope that they will do something to us: entertain us, inspire us, give us the magic recipe we've been missing to have the life of our dreams.

But my journey has been more heavily influenced by a deeper kind of work--one in which I am interacting with the material and really reflecting and seeing things that I can no longer not see, things that change everything forever. It was while doing a writing exercise in The Artist's Way--not while reading it--that I had a realization that ultimately culminated in our move to New York City. It changed the direction of my work and our lives. A few months after arriving, someone was visiting me and saw the book near my bed. Oh, I read that book once, she said. I think I'll go back and 'do it' after I retire.

I almost had to sit down. What if I had just read that book, like it was any other? What if I had waited until retirement to take the time to listen to myself and hear what I most want? She had read a book and thought, That's nice. I had really interacted with it in a way that shifted my life's trajectory.

This story is not ever far from my mind when I'm writing home study courses: work that is active and invites you in to play with it, to experiment, to wrestle with the more difficult parts. The same ethos drives the home retreat kits. Yes, being in person, presence-with-presence is the most transformational way to interact with the material. But what if the logistics of that are out of reach? What's the next best thing?

When we began talking about Liz Lamoreux's new project, we quickly learned that the solitary nature of some of her practices for reflective living were not well-suited to the group format of a live retreat. At first I thought we would make a binder and CDs, as we had for Finding Your Voice and Telling Your Story. Our companions for the journey had powerful, rich experiences with them, and we knew how to make them--it would be a breeze.

But we weren't far into our discussions before I could hear that the binder would not be a good fit for this project. What we needed instead was a meditation journal, a separate poetry collection, and a field journal and photo album. We needed an audio CD with Liz's teaching and stories to walk our companions through the practices, and some audio meditations would be helpful, too. And that is how we build a project, piece by piece, form following function and not the other way around.

It's not inexpensive to make exquisite things in small batches, compared to what it costs to manufacture something you see for sale in Starbucks or Barnes and Noble. But in our case you know that your funds support the artists directly, that they receive more than mere cents from your purchase. Much of the work we offer is free, but every now and then we come up with a way that we can give you the best of what we have to offer in a form that allows you to give your support in exchange. We have not produced a resource yet that was not years in the making--years that we would not have had to pioneer these frontiers and then be your guides along the way if our financial circumstances did not and do not continue to allow it.

What happens when artists rule? Dreams come true. Next week (6.13.12) we release our latest project featuring the warmth and wisdom of artist, author and teacher Liz Lamoreux. We're in the dreams coming true business for artists and visionaries, and we hope you'll celebrate this one with us.

Spring 2012: New Work by Amazing Artists

Indie artists play at Pike Place Market in Seattle

It was this time last year when the dream of producing other artists' work began.

I was feeling moved and inspired by work I was seeing around me, but also noticing how traditional channels could alter it beyond recognition. You know that saying about trying to fit a square peg in a round hole? Clearly what we needed were some square holes.

At first I didn't take it or myself too seriously, the way we so often don't. Then I said it out loud. Mistakenly (or not) to a friend who takes me quite seriously. He said yes absolutely I should do it. I scoffed.

"Yeah, maybe someday when I have my own independent media company."

"Correct me if I'm wrong, Jen," he said, "but I think you already do."

(Long pause. I feel in this beat that this is not one of those ideas that will let me off the hook.)

I consulted some trusted advisors to see what they thought. I really didn't want the job if it wasn't my assignment from the universe, so to speak. I didn't want to just run down a rabbit trail as a distraction from doing my own work (which often begs for distraction).

"It would be really good for you," they said. "It would be social, for one thing." They know I have a tendency toward isolation.

So I just said a quiet Yes one afternoon in the middle of my kitchen with the afternoon sun my only witness.

And that's how it began. In the weeks to come, I'll tell some of the stories about how the partners and projects I have since held in my hands and in my heart came to me and came to be. But for today, I'm so happy to begin the story and share that this spring I am delighted and honored to produce new work by amazing artists: Caren McLellan Gazley, Andrea Corona Jenkins, Jolie Guillebeau and Liz Lamoreux, all with the help of my partner-in-crime, Liz Kalloch.

(Here's a sneak peek at what's coming in April: now available for pre-order.)

All I Wished For

Almost four years to the day after I wrote it, I was cleaning my studio and I found a list of wishes in an old blank book from 2007. Four years ago I was home all day caring for a baby and a three-year-old. I was just emerging from the hunting and gathering phase of our new life in Brooklyn (that Phyllis promised me would not last forever; as always, she was right) and I was starting to get the last of the boxes cleared out of the apartment.

Four years ago I didn't know many people in New York, and I didn't have much social energy to spare. Four years ago I had a dream of writing, but no assurance that I was on the right track at all or that writing was even worth doing. No idea if anything beyond half-filled journals would come of it.

This old blank book seems to have been forgotten, aside from some knitting notes from a Debbie Bliss workshop I attended back in Colorado and this exercise in which I was to list ten wishes in six categories of my life. Just reading through them was like suddenly having a time capsule in my hands, and I had that strange sensation in which one feels the past and the present coming together and meeting.

My lists had items like:

Wear good shoes.

Be well rested.

Go to the Met without the kids.

There were also a few like these:

Write things that make other people feel less alone.

Start conversations that make a difference in the world.

The last page was the most interesting of all.

Someday get a sense that my journey is heading somewhere.

And just like that, I could feel that place four years ago. The hiddenness, the unknowing, the stumbling through a thick fog with only these sonar-like intuitive pings to guide me.

Learn to live like it's not all up to me.

When I read this one I slammed back to the present, and I thought, That's what's happening. Right. Now.

I'm learning to live like it's not all up to me, to treat the limits of my capacities with gentleness instead of with scorn. I'm learning to ask for the kind of partnerships I dream of, and how to wait patiently until they find me. How to recognize them when they are given like sweet gifts of providence. I'm learning how to let go, to do less, to lay down and stare at the ceiling and to sit down and stare out the window. I'm learning how to listen, how to ask and how to receive. I'm learning gratitude for the earth that supports me and all the arms that happily link inside of mine.

And it is all I wished that it would be.

The Magical Bottomless Barrel

Just a few more hours to work before I pick up the girls and we begin our summer holiday together. I'm tying up some loose ends on the second print project I've done this month (remember those good things coming this fall?) and eating my oatmeal.

I've been thinking about the way we perceive time and what gets done. Caren says that the downside of being wired to see future possibilities all the time is that it's like the carrot dangling out there that you can never catch. Even if you accomplish or make the thing you see, by the time you do you'll be able to see what's next after that and feel the gap between there and where you are.

I'm making peace with the fact that I can always forecast out about 12-18 months in my mind. Learning how to sit with seeing what's to come even when it isn't yet time to be in action or execute anything, to let future possibilities shimmer a little, like tantalizing daydreams, instead of bearing down on me as if the Universe is tapping her loud foot in the background. I'm practicing acknowledgement for all that's been done behind me--ripping that carrot off, sitting on the stoop and eating that sucker, savoring every crunchy bite.

It's like I finally figured out that it's not just a carrot on the end of that line, it's a magical bottomless barrel of them.

It's a paradigm shift to realize that enough-ness lives in the realm of declaration. That we could declare at any time that there's plenty of time in the world--really we have nothing but time as long as we are alive. That everything that really matters to us gets done. That what has been done already is not only enough, but is often worthy of celebration, satisfaction and pride.

Here's to summer, to long stretches of time. To the things that really matter getting done, and no more. Here's to it all being beautifully, perfectly enough.

Good Things







Mati and me, photo by Kelly Rae Roberts; Ali Edwards and Brené Brown, PhD

While I'm hard at work on a new project, my friends are serving up good things that you won't want to miss:

If you've dreamed of exploring painting or learning from amazing artists, it's time to Get Your Paint On with Mati Rose McDonough and Lisa Congdon.

Ali Edward's One Little Word workshop is a great way to weave a thread of intention through your new year, and it's not too late to join her.  Registration will be open all year, though who wants to wait any longer?

And starting today, Brené Brown partners with Mondo Beyondo for a special Winter Dream Lab: The Gifts of Imperfection.  Check it out!

Memories of Summer and Autumn Dreams

School doesn't really get into full-swing over here for nearly two more weeks, but it's the first day of September, which has me thinking about summer and the dear memories from these last months that I'm still holding close:

  • Flying all night to be with my friend, Tim.
  • Sitting shiva with Susan and Jill.
  • Making music with Peter. It's like being held, in the best way.
  • Meeting Rose Polenzani.
  • A surprise from Jonatha.
  • Watching my girls play at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.
  • Seeing North by Northwest on the big screen. The crowd applauded all through the opening credits and Hitchcock's cameo, and the gentleman behind me told stories about seeing it the first time around.
  • Being with my whole family at The Swell Season concert in Prospect Park, and with Andy and Colleen, who are like family.  Laying on the blanket with Lucy and looking up at the trees and the night sky.
  • Watching my friends jump behind the mike at a hot dog stand concert that brought us to our feet.
  • A magical hike that led to what felt like the edge of the world.
  • Road-tripping to New Hampshire with my sister and seeing our aunt and cousin on the way home.
  • Bonus time with Hula, which is always so good. Like if time could be the yummiest ice cream flavor ever--that's how time with her is. 
  • A swimming hole that felt like something out of a movie, rope swing and all.

All the summer rest and play has filled me with all kinds of possibilities and dreams for the fall.  For me, after sowing and planting and tending and lots of lots of waiting, fall is always the time for harvest.  For gathering the fruits of our patience and sinking our teeth into them.

What memories of summer are you carrying with you into the coming months? Share them in the comments below. And if you have dreams you're ready to sink your teeth into, it's not too late to join Mondo Beyondo's fall session and create a harvest all your own. 


Horizon Perfekt, Lomo 400 35mm film

I'm cooking up a feast of good things over here in my creative kitchen, doing my best not to drown in the minutiae of it all.  My head is full of things I don't know how to talk about yet, and I'm working my to-do lists with steady precision.  Holding onto my friends like rocks in a river.

I wish I had more words for you today.  In the meantime, I'm minding these pots and dreaming of the days when I'll get to dish all this goodness out.

"Marching Orders" and A Voice Recovery Revolution

Central Park at Sunset, Diana Instant+, mulitple exposures

Dusk in The Mall, Central Park, Diana Instant+

Here are a couple pics from a beautiful little date we had in the park last night.  And a podcast to start your morning and your week.  I'm talking about receiving "marching orders" and holding big dreams.  (I mention this book.) Being bold enough to say it out loud has power, so the comments are open for you to tell us the marching orders you're currently following, the ludicrous assignments you're still regarding with suspicion, or the big dreams that make you gape and stare.

I went first. You can do it, too:

(Click on the link to listen in your browser, or right-click to download.)

If I wrote you a song

Carriage in Central Park, Diana+It was a few weeks ago when I was trying to wriggle out of the work unfolding before me, and I was having a really hard, fragile-feeling day.  I went into Manhattan for a story slam, and realized once I got there that I was there on the wrong day.  It was Tuesday, and the show wasn't until Thursday.  On the subway ride back home, I watched the sun set behind the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty.  The sky was glowing with color and light, and the water below the bridge was a mirror next to the flame.

I was listening to one of Jonatha Brooke's songs on my iPod, and thinking how magic it would be if she was there right that minute.  If she could take one look at me and write the song I needed to hear.  What would that song be, I wondered. And I came home and jotted down these lines.  Then I forgot about them until this morning when I was thinking about a friend. 

If I wrote you a song, it might be something like this.  Because maybe at the end of the day, we are asking the same kinds of questions, trying to work out a truce with the same kinds of fears. I think we all have less frightening lives that woo us from time to time (the coffee shop barista apron beckons me more than you can know).  But I've never regretted being brave.  If you've been thankful, even once, for another person's courage, use that memory to help you believe that someone will be thankful and loving you on the other end of yours.

Love Me This Big (or Song I Wrote for Myself on a Shitty Day)

Can you look in my eyes
and see all that I carry
set it to a sweet tune
so it won't sound so scary
Will you write a lyric about dreaming
and another one about fears
Something that will make sense of
this laughter and these tears

Will you love me this big
will you love me this small
hold my power and passion
and my fear that I will fall
Do you see me on the mountaintop
and crying in my bed
Will you love me this big
will you love me this small

If you say what I need to hear
but put it in a rhyme
it will sneak up on me
when I'm having a good time
Tell me to come out of hiding
because it's not all about me
others are counting on me to speak
so they can also be free

Will you love me this big
will you love me this small
hold my power and passion
and my fear that I will fall
Do you see me on the mountaintop
and crying in my bed
Will you love me this big
will you love me this small

Brooklyn, Brooklyn, Take Me In

the day the furniture and boxes arrived

One of the best parts of being at Squam was getting to share in more detail about my journey.  In one class, a hand went up as a student tried to pull the timeline together. "How long ago was this?"

"Let's see," I counted.  "Two and a half years ago."

Two and a half years ago, I completed a home-based business I'd been doing for eight years.  I had a three-year-old and a three-month-old.  I thought I wanted to write, though I had no idea really what I would write. Maybe I'd finish my practice novel.

Two and a half years ago, we said yes to the part of us that wanted to live in New York City. Even though we'd never been here in person. I watched You've Got Mail so many times back then, internalizing the conversation about how closing the store is brave, and how it takes a lot of courage to imagine a new life for yourself. 

And that's just what we did.  If I told you about our life, just four years ago, you would not even recognize huge swaths of it. Some things are the same, like our love and the friendships that remain.  But it is a new life, and all the people I've met and places I've gone since then, were only wild, unlikely dreams.

And it only took saying yes to one wild dream to set us on this course.  I didn't know what was going to happen back then, and I still don't know what's going to happen today.  But I'm slowing learning to trust my dreams and those intuitive ways of knowing, and more and more I'm practicing being brave.

I'm so thankful for Stacy, who heard my story at Squam, and then sent me this song yesterday. I'm posting it here, for everyone who has even one wild dream calling her right now, for anyone hoping that following her intuition really will lead her someplace good in the end:


The Truest Thing About Us

So, I've been having this vessel for the work conversation with lots of my friends lately.  About a week ago, I asked one of my friends, What vessel are you dreaming of for your work?  And she pulled out her dream. The big one. The one about which she's been holding out on me. And suddenly I could see her so clearly--so much more accurately than I had before.

It was in that moment I realized: our biggest dream is the truest thing about us.

A Vessel for the work

from BAM Rose CInemasI saw the documentary, The September Issue, weeks ago at BAM Rose Cinemas.  I was really intrigued by the BAM website's decription of the film, which said it followed Vogue's editor and its Creative Director during the creation of the 2007 fall fashion issue, and that it was a story about the relationship between curator and creator.  The film did not disappoint me.  The journeys of both women are intriguing, and the work relationship they've crafted over the last twenty years together gives the impression of a fragile tension, held together by vision and commitment.  One of my favorite parts is near the end, when the Creative Director is talking about how hard it is to make work that gets cut from the issue, time and again.  But then she says something like (I'm doing this from memory here, so it's probably paraphrased), But the work needs a vessel.  It's the vessel that gives the work its validity.

My thoughts ever since keep creeping back to the relationship between creative work and the vessels that deliver it to the world.  The ways in which a well-designed vessel can turn the volume of its art up in the world's conversation, draw an audience, or even give it an opportunity to be created at all.

A few weeks ago I was in the woods of New Hampshire, awake early in the morning and watching the light creep into my room.  It was my first day teaching, and I thought about how long I had dreamed of creating the conversation and experience that my students and I would travel through that day.  All I've ever wanted is to participate in people's healing, I thought, and that is going to happen today.

And then I realized that Squam Art Workshops were the vessel for this creative work I've longed for and not yet done: creating classes.  And Elizabeth was my curator.  I felt that partnership to my toes.

The picture broadens now, as I turn my focus from simply making good work to also looking for how to pair the right work with the right vessel, and how to create vessels for other artists.  How to elevate and validate the work that is waiting to be introduced or showcased, or even made in a live moment.  And I'm letting myself dream, freely and big.

What vessels are you dreaming of for your work?

New Futures are Made in Such Moments

With Jonatha Brooke, by Susannah ConwayI remember worrying that I wouldn't find it in my little town--the cassette my aunt got me hooked on while she was visiting.  The Angel in the House.  It was a good album, but the first song in particular stayed with me like a dream you don't want to forget.  It was being with my aunt, it was playing together, it was all the things happening to me at that age that I didn't understand.  And like most things that wrap up some truth in a way you can swallow, it stayed with me and became a part of me. It traveled with me along the way.

I did find the cassette in my town, and when I found the mp3 a decade later, I found that both my sisters remembered it fondly, as well.  So Much Mine, the opening song, was a coming of age signpost for all of us. It lives on every mix CD we've made each other since.

All of this was with me last week, as I sat in front of campfire by a lake in New Hampshire, just a few feet away from Jonatha Brooke when she started singing this song.  My aunt, my sisters, my mother, my teenage self who felt so off the beaten path that she had a hard time believing she'd really find the things in life she longed for.  I held my presence there, in the flying embers and the blowing smoke as something rearranged beneath me. Or was it within me?

Moments like this, in which pieces of our past or our truest longings wrap around and find us in this present place, build my belief that there really is a future that wants me.  Not the kind of future that is manufactured, but the kind that is dreamed.  Not a future I make, but one I receive.

New futures are made in such moments, when we allow ourselves to reach out and embrace the people and places that have been calling to us all along.  When we believe, this moment is for me.  When we say to the future that is wanting us, Yes, I will receive.