Sunday, February 21, 2010

Artist to Artist: Kara L.C. Jones

Artist to Artist is a regular feature for still life 365. Through a dialogue about the creative process, grief, loss and art, the idea is to learn more about the art you see on still life 365 and the mother, father or family member creating it. In turn, we hope you learn more about your own art, creative process and grief. Artist to Artist a regular feature of this blog space (every second Sunday). If you have an artist that you would like to learn more about, or interview, please email me.

This week, I interviewed Kara L.C. Jones, aka Mother Henna. Kara is the Radical Creative behind all things In 1999, after the death of their son Dakota, Kara and her partner Hawk co-founded Kota Press (KOTA: Knowing Ourselves Thru Art), an expressive arts outreach. Through their KOTA work and in partnership with the MISS Foundation, they have been mentoring other bereaved parents and caregivers around the world, offering creative perspectives on learning to life again after loss. As a coach to private clients, Kara facilitates the exploration of grief and creativity using many tools for alternative mind, body, spiritual health. Some of her specialties include henna art, heART-making, co-active coaching, Reiki, Tapping, asking the answerable questions and more. Kara keeps a radical creativity blog at Mother HennaKota Loss & Compassion Blog.Kara has been featured three times on still life 365 with her scrapbook page for her son Dakota, her poem Take-out Order, and her poem the After Life

To say that Kara is a force in the loss community is an understatement. She organizes and hosts blog fests and art swaps. She connects grieving artists. She hosts grief workshops. She comments and visits blogs of the newly bereaved as well as those who have been in the community for a long time. And she writes and talks extensively about grief and creativity. Her work and her perspective is always unique, beautiful, raw and important. 

Hi, Kara. I'm so glad to be talking to you about grief, creativity and art. You really are such an amazing influence and inspiration in the loss and the arts communities. Let's talk a little about your background. Did you always consider yourself an artist?

Thanks so much for your kindness, Angie. I'm really excited, too, to be talking with you about grief & creativity. This topic is the heart of my life, the thing that keeps me going. As to always considering myself an artist, HA! No way.

When I was in elementary school, we were given an assignment to make art that featured trees. I made all my trees blue and was so hyper-jazzed about what I did. Then the art "teacher" -- if you can call him that -- berated me, saying that trees are green and that we were suppose to replicate the sample he showed us at the start of class. I hung up my crayons right then.

Turned to journaling instead. I've kept a journal or diary since 4th grade. Words became my sanctuary. All the way through college where I studied literary & cultural theory, poetics, and early childhood development. In college, a friend did get me back to sketching, too. But honestly it was all very compartmentalized in that way that academics can do. You know, poetry was all critique group happening over here. Emotional landscape of childhood development was way over there. And sometimes in that far off space over there, I was being a very lousy artist.

Little did I know that the fire of grief would eventually burn down all the walls that separated these various parts of my heart.

I can totally relate to that image of grief burning down all the walls. Everything changed within and about me after the stillbirth of my daughter. I imagine it was the same for you. After the death of your son Dakota, how did your art and writing change? And conversely, how did your grief change through your art?

Yes, yes, definitely, everything completely changed for me after Kota's death. I was a different kind of mother, artist, partner, woman, friend, human being, all the way down to the cellular level. In fact, at the 2006 MISS Foundation Conference, Dr. Gutierrez confirmed this reality for me. Over dinner one night, he told me about Dr. Diana Bianchi's work where she discovered that in every pregnancy, a woman is given fully functional white blood cells from her child. Regardless of the outcome of the pregnancy, live or still, full term or miscarried, the mother is left with cells filled with the DNA of the child in her body. Cell that are fully functioning. Cells that show up first on site of infection or injury. Cells that work in the brain even! I was so honored that Dr. Gutierrez took the time to chat with me about this -- just because he remembered me talking about *feeling* different after my pregnancy, *feeling* like Kota was always with me. Maybe there's something scientific to "mother's intuition" after all!

Anyway, so yes, everything changed after Kota's death. As I said before, the fire of grief burned down all the containing walls that had separated my various ways of expressing my heART. I was no longer an academic poet, I didn't fit into critique circles, I stopped believing in competition and started investing in cooperation. My own artistic methods cooperating, one with the other. My own life becoming a network of support, one bereaved parent to another.

So for instance, after Kota's death, I wrote a lot. In my past life, I would have taken that work to critique circle, let others hammer on it to supposedly improve it. I would have sent the work out to editors and allowed them to tell me how best to present it. But this was all I had left of my baby. There was no way I was taking my baby into those arenas to let them all kill him again! And, so, yes that outcome of the art change, but probably it's more that the process of creativity changed for me.

And, yes, of course, because the process of creativity changed for me, the kind of creative life I was living now -- this new life -- was changing my grief experience. I think it is partly that grief like this is so overwhelming. It is too much to look at straight on because it was just crushing me. So it took a creative way, a side ways look, a looking askew at everything to begin processing. Art -- in all the various mediums -- was a way for me to take that side ways look and begin to find my way again.

I have always been so impressed by the wide range of media you explore--from painting to craft to paper arts to writing. Do you have one medium that you gravitate towards?

No, I really don't. I see all the various media options as tools. On a particular day, some thing might be up with me that I feel compelled to address visually. On another day, I might turn to words. It's as if, not only is the outcome of my art mixed-media, but the entire process of my heART-life is mixed-media, if that makes sense.

The other thing that happens by staying practiced in all the various media is that a spark in one area can lead to creating in another area. For instance, I woke one night from a dream with the clip of a line in my head, "the ghosts of Kabuki." (A page is shown at the right.) I ended up researching Kabuki tradition and discovering lots of things. From this, I wrote a mythical sort of fairy tale involving O-Iwa-San and Jizo. Then I did a series of sketches. And eventually a series of canvas and art journal paintings and mixed media pieces.

It's sort of like the wide range of options for expression allows me to explore any spark of the heART from the top down, inside out, upside down, all the way around.

I understand after you and your partner Hawk started KOTA (Know Ourselves Through Art) Press after Dakota's death. Can you talk about what you do with KOTA press?

Yes, well, the press really started originally, precisely because I did not want to take my writing to critique circle and send out to editors. I had began attending a writing circle that was more akin to poetry therapy than critique. And all these writings about our experience with Kota's life and death were just pouring from me. Several of the people in the group were experienced at self publishing. Not just zone, or xerox copied chapbooks, but full layout, ISBN assignments, professional binding for the covers. So Carol Jo Horn of CJInk and Shelley Tucker of Write from the Source, both shared generously with me about these kinds of processes. And Hawk, my partner, finally just said, "Why bother sending your writings away to others? Lets just do it ourselves!"

A few days later when we came up with the name KotaPress, it just all seemed perfect. And as online technologies developed and print-on-demand options came available and more turn-key, well, it just made sense for us to keep going. We published my books Mrs. Duck & the Woman, Flash Of Life, and Father Son Holy Ghost. We recently published a small collection called Woodmont Ave, too.

We also began publishing a journal online at the main Kota site and then eventually the KOTA blog which is more regularly updated than the main site. As the word spread about what we were doing, others began sharing their work with us, began offering submissions to things like "The Dictionary of Loss" or poetry or art for the blog. As various grief related issues hit my radar, I would write articles to raise awareness or to posit questions about outdated ways of looking at grief experiences. It organically grew to become a home, a safe and sacred space for all of us exploring the heART of grief, learning to live life again after the death of a child.

I love the concept of heART and heART-making. What is it and what does that mean to you?

Well, it's just that my partner and I also do commercial art via the press, too. Many of those commercial projects are what makes the ends meet month to month, you know. But there is such a huge difference between a commercial art project we are hired to do and creating a piece of my own original heART-work. I needed a way to differentiate these worlds. Maybe it is just another artificial compartmentalization signifying the art I love doing and the art that has been more commercially viable as we try to make a living? But for me the processes of the two feel very different.

When I am heART-making in a small group with other seeking artists, other bereaved parents, we are exploring the very heart of being alive. We are finding reasons to get out of bed the day after a child had died. It is imperative. It is meaningful. It is not about meeting a July deadline so that a product can be on the market in time for Christmas sales, you know?

In 2007, I began an apprenticeship with Sherene Zolno, studying The Hero's Journey, and discovered that the Journey is an apt metaphor for living heART-Fully. So heART-making and heART-being are about finding the strength of my heroic self, facing the many demons that come out of the closet every day (fear, loneliness, sadness, jealousy, envy, etc), and learning how to dialogue between the two. Learning to channel the strength of the hero thru the energy of the demon to feel I am fully functioning. Really, this is what I instinctively did after Kota died anyway. I took the demon, fire, energy of grief and channelled it through my writing and learning to self-publish, and reach out to others, and create a website and learn to blog, and on and on.(Shown at left, Kara's jizo)

That is how I came back to something that approaches fully-functioning again after cremating my child! I don't claim it is a cure-all, quick-fix by any means. There is no end-point here at which it all becomes perfect. It is about a continual process of living in and being guided by my heART. Allowing the full range of life, grief & joy, living & losing, all of it, to play out without assigning "good" and "bad" to any of it.

As my yogi friend, Mekosun, once told me, "It's a practice, not a perfect!"

The first time we virtually met was through your workshop Grief: Finding Your Way. It really changed the way I was using and creating art after the death of my daughter. I think it was the first time I gave myself permission not to "heal" or grieve in a specific way. Can you talk a little about your workshops and what kind of topics your explore?

Sure. The workshops are offered through my site and are about sharing ways we can each get creative with our lives and learning to live again after the death of child or other great loss -- or even just the every day losses we all face like aging, the passing of linear time.

My partner and I offer these kinds of workshops and presentations in person whenever we can. But I didn't want the materials we created to just sit on a shelf in-between our live gigs. So we have adapted materials to host online and allow people to take part from anywhere in the world.

There are Home Workshops now, which are self-paced, open enrollment, that people can take any time they like. These workshops were created and offered online as 6 or 8 week blocks of materials -- but again, you can go at your own pace. Participants get PDF workbooks with creative prompts, art examples, ideas for exploring each week. They also get MP3 recordings. Some of the recordings are presentations with prompts at the end. Some are guided meditations that can be used within the context of workshop or any time. All the materials are available for download, so you get to keep the recordings forever and use as often as you like.

We also offer a similar format a couple times a year, but in a small group format. Like we have a "You Have Permission!" group coming up soon. So in the eight week format, we'll meet as a group on the phone once a week, and we'll have a private blog available 24/7, in addition to the workbook and recordings. So we'll work through the materials as group. We'll use the time on the phone to talk with heARTists who are practicing Permission and we'll have group discussion about whatever we are each working through at the moment. It is another way of trying to translate the live workshops into a format where people can participate from anywhere.

And, yes, I do think there is a theme running through all our offerings that is precisely about giving ourselves permission to grieve as we need to do instead of in ways that are prescribed by society! I'm so glad you got that permission for yourself out of the Finding Our Way session!!

When I talked with Ines, we both mentioned your art swap as a point of connecting with other artists who were grieving. I just wanted to hear your thoughts on art swaps and connecting with other artists.

I absolutely adore doing heARTist swaps and collaborations! When Kota first died, I met other bereaved parents online at the old version of Nervousness which was hosting lots of mail art exchanges. We began creating Artist Trading Cards (ATCs) for each other when our children's birth/death days came around each year. We mailed around a book and took turns altering it -- you can see photos of that first book in this post. And so I just never stopped swapping. When we created the site and I began blogging at, it seemed the perfect place to bring my swapping love home as it were! I think the swap you and Ines were talking about was probably the Day of the Dead 2009 one and I have to say that was one of the most meaningful exchanges we've hosted yet! I just love having artists become aware of one another. It can be a great way to jump start your juju for making heART by being given some guidelines like, "Make 3 cards of such-and-such size on the theme of such-and-such." People are so inventive and generous in what they create and share. And with a topic like Day of the Dead, it is bound to attract only those who have a real heART investment in exploring life and death, continuing bonds of love, honoring those who have died. It is just very meaningful to me to have these kinds of consciously created, highly intentional exchanges with others. I always post upcoming swaps and blog fests on the blog and on the calendar at the main Mother Henna site.

The next one will probably be for Summer Solstice, but I haven't dreamed it up yet, so more to come on that soon.

Oh, Summer Solstice, I am so in. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about this. Thank you, Kara.

Absolutely my pleasure, Angie! So honored to be part of all you are doing with still life 365!!


  1. Dear Kara and Angie,

    This conversation was so incredibly inspiring. It has lifted my spirits today which is so what I needed. Thank you.

    I so look forward to learning more about you Kara and exploring all the wonderful things you have created for this community.

    Thank you very much again for this. For years I painted. Since my children came into my life I have said that I don't have the time to paint anymore. I think I will make that time now :)

    Love and peace,

    Carly x

  2. Thank you for sharing your story with us, Kara. It's great to read about how you started it all, what you did and do. And it is wonderful, what you do! I'm eternally grateful to you for your part in waking up my creativity.

    love to you both

    xx ines

  3. Angie & Kara, thanks for this inspiring article. Art was what made me get up in the mornings after Sky died. Art was what allowed me to get my feelings out.

    And since I dicovered the pleasure of heART-swaps, I could go on doing this in a weekly basis... :)

    Happy heARTing!


  4. Thanks Carly, Valerie, Ines, and Petra! My whole heart to each of you -- in many many thanks for your own heART-works and your reading eyeballs :) and just being in community here! And of course many thanks to Angie, too, for having this conversation with me -- and hosting this space for us all!
    zillion trillion miracles to each of you! k-


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