Shadows and Light: The “Art” of Working at the Edges

As I face the Threshold of 2008 I am in a reflective mood. Here is a short essay I originally wrote to include in a scrapbook of reflections we are exchanging with our colleagues in the Canadian Organization Development Institute. I hope it will inspire you to reflect on your “art” too.

For me, “art” is about shadow and light. Whether it is painting, sculpting, writing, or performing music, its all about how we see, say, hear, taste and touch shadow and light. When I think about my “art-work” in complex change, I see that a lot of my focus is on discovering what is hiding between the shadows, carefully lifting the leaves and allowing a little brightness in. I try to show others where to find the beauty and strength that is dormant, buried, or shaded-out; where unvarnished truth is under-exposed, and taken for granted.

This art-work is also about seeing myself in new ways. Each time I show up in a system, I need to look hard within as well as without.

Renowned photographer Freeman Patterson says it this way:

“A camera always looks both ways. Like all serious photographers, I have to accept and deal with this fact – the reality that my images are as much a documentation and interpretation of myself as of the subject matter I choose.

Although on first viewing, an individual image, in and of itself, rarely acts as a signpost or marker of the stages of my personal development or growth, a collection of pictures provides an overview that tells the human story, and enables both myself and viewers to identify images that are representative of important changes or stages. When I am discarding old slides or negatives, I have to be careful not to throw out my life history.”



To work effectively in a field of various kinds of “actors”–people, organizations, systems, craft and consciousness matter. We must see and acknowledge what is understood, decided, weighed-out and tangible—strategic directions, profits and losses, the forming and shaping of what the system is intended to do or produce. We must also act as guides and leaders for our clients: taking them through dark passages, and lost places. In doing so we have learned to honor what exists and dwells outside the known, beyond the narrow and winding paths of everyday relationships. Even though it can be uncomfortable, and unsettling at times, there is power in exposing people and their systems of relationships to what is unmapped, strange lands and unforeseeable events. In this art-work we create “containers” where we can collectively and safely touch the shadows, and where we can learn to move beyond the habit, laziness and fear that conspires to keep us within the familiar.

Each time we take it; this journey requires me to move beyond my own fear and darkness as well.

In my complex change art-work I often feel I am slowly shuffling along a pitch-black hallway, feeling the walls, searching for the light switch. I am anxious: where is the unexpected wall, the unseen stairwell? My confidence ebbs, why didn’t I bring the flashlight? Is it safe for others to come with me here? The process of discovery and creation can feel confusing, chaotic, and frightening–an experience familiar to all artists. Consider the opening lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy:

“Midway on life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard—so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well
I’ll tell what I saw….” (trans. Robert Pinsky)

For me, the art of this work only begins as we travel together away from the tamed and familiar. Excitement rises in the invitation for others to accompany me beyond the narrow limits of what has already been put in motion. Joy finds us too from turn to turn in the co-creation of a new path which has difficulty and hardship, but which does not need to be disheartening or tragic…indeed it can be a fruitful enlightening dance, otherwise, what is the point?

At times I feel my work is to map out a detour that needs to be taken willingly, a surprising circuitous collaboration which allows for the revelation of vulnerabilities that we both desire and fear. These detours can challenge our choices—of path, of priorities, of co-travelers…perhaps of the very grounds we thought were solid…

Having spent a large portion of my life accumulating them, sometimes I think that my art will only mature as I empty myself of concepts. I find that my best work now requires me to admit my self-interest, to allow that my perspective is positioned between subjective and objective somewhere, weaving in and out of each. My “I,” my presence is simply one more presence in the relational dance. I may appear and disappear, I am unmoored, detached, temporarily roosting in a system which always has a divided understanding of itself, and which is continually unfolding. I am a temporary presence, connected for a mere moment. I perch, looking from the outside in, as this bird on the branch outside my window does. From this place I can offer views that bring objectivity, subjectivity, description, and which might stimulate imagination. I gather and convey narratives that inform the unfolding and transforming of the system within. I must see what is out there while attuned to what is within.

Robert Olen Butler, a gifted writer and essayist, writes about these inner and emotional dimensions of art:

“Henry James said that ‘landscape is character,’ and this could well be what he meant. Our personalities, our emotions, are expressed in response to the sensual cues around us. We look at the landscape and what we see is our inner emotional selves. This is at the heart of a work of art.”

Standing here between the shadows and light I am not doing this work to bless or to judge, but to offer another part of what is only dimly known, and sometimes to confront darkness and light without flinching.

“To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.”

-Akira Kurosawa

All noble causes are somewhat haunted, and the path of this particular cause requires those who work with me in this field to move into and through darkness and light, beyond uncertainty and without stinting our full and unwavering presence. In the practice of complex change art-work there are many dimensions, many mansions. For me the challenge is also a choice: Can I face the light while embracing the shadow? Am I strong enough, and able to welcome, embrace, confront and love the infinite stories telling themselves within us as well as between us? Can I honor the dreams that come with this work?

Good questions to gather and bring with me into 2008. Happy New Year from the Edge.