Artist Interview: Meredith Haggerty
We spoke with Meredith Haggerty about her practice and her guided meditation piece Tiny Retreat. Tiny Retreat is currently on view at Weinberg Newton as part of Rebuilding the Present, curated by Holly Cahill.
Using collage, storytelling, and performance, Meredith Haggerty explores the process and pedagogy of mindbody practices and ways they allow us to connect to our experience and frame it.
After completing an MFA in 2007, Haggerty worked for a decade at the University of Chicago to develop campuswide programming in mind-body medicine. Her programs explored the relations between art, wellness, education, and spirituality, helping participants develop life and work patterns that promote physical and emotional well-being. This included site-specific yoga and meditation classes in galleries, gyms, and campus chapels that addressed themes like resilience, inclusiveness and acceptance. Haggerty also worked clinically with students to relieve stress and pain and promote wellness. At the University of Chicago’s medical school, she collaborated with faculty to develop and teach a fourth-year Empathy class and mind-body curriculums in the first year symposium and family medicine rotation. In 2013, she was granted the Campus and Student Life Award for Outstanding Service to the Community. Haggerty currently makes picture book manuscripts, illustrations, and performances that emphasize deep listening and are rooted in Buddhist teachings, the fabulist tradition and somatic experience.
Presented in partnership with the David Lynch Foundation, Rebuilding the Present brings together artists whose works engage a spectrum of meditative practices. The paintings, objects, audio works, and performance documentation on view suggest that meditation can function as a tool of not only self-care but of social justice writ large, offering practitioners a sense of agency to cope in the ever-growing chaos of our world.
Click here to stream Meredith Haggerty's Tiny Retreat, a series of guided meditations made specially for Rebuilding the Present.
Rebuilding the Present is on view at Weinberg/Newton Gallery from January 18 – April 13th 2019.
Weinberg/Newton Gallery: Can you tell us how you developed Tiny Retreat, an album of audio tracks specifically produced for Rebuilding the Present? How did the process evolve through the collaborations and conversations you had with many of the artists in the exhibition?
Meredith Haggerty: Holly expressed early on that she wanted the show itself to invite people to slow down and observe. I was inspired by affinities between her ideas and time I’ve spent in walking meditation with my husband. When we lived in Chicago, we’d go to a retreat center called Windhorse in rural Wisconsin for self-guided meditation retreats. The center is in a beautiful area with lots of rolling hills, and between sittings, we’d take turns leading each other on silent walks. At dinner one night, we talked about how being guided through the landscape was such a highlight for each of us. It gave us a chance to actively observe a space unfolding without fully navigating things. It felt like watching a film or listening to music.
I’d been playing with the idea of recording guided meditations for some time, and Rebuilding The Present seemed like the right space to begin that work. As I began to compose instructions, it became clear that I wanted these meditations to respond to the Weinberg/Newton Gallery space and the works in it. But since I now live in Chapel Hill, I needed to find a way to do it from afar.
I researched the space and the artists, but felt the need for even more connection. I asked Holly if she and I and perhaps some of the artists in the show could talk about our studio practices and the work going into the show. I am so grateful for their engagement because those conversations shaped tiny retreat. We talked about life experiences that informed our studio practices, ways in which audience interaction with our work is meaningful to us and things we would like to see happen with our work. It felt right to me that guided meditations that invite close engagement with the show were inspired by heartfelt, thoughtful conversation with artists in the show.
WNG: You received your MFA from the University of Chicago and later worked there in mind-body medicine teaching and implementing campus-wide curriculum and programing over a 10 year period. Can you share more about your experience as an artist working in mind-body medicine and how it may have informed the guided meditations in the exhibition? Where do these tracks veer from your experiences in the field of medicine?
MH: It is important to include that besides visual arts, I also have training in mind-body medicine including massage therapy, yoga, somatics and meditation. All of these combined allowed me to develop such a program.
The program at the University of Chicago began in Student Health. There, I worked alongside physicians and nurse practitioners to create complementary clinical care rooted in mind-body practices to help students manage stress and pain.
It was this work that led to yoga and meditation programs in campus chapels, galleries and conference rooms and then eventually to a curriculum at The Pritzker School of Medicine. I was constantly taking apart and reworking mind-body instructions and practice to fit into a variety of spaces and meet the needs of the particular group. It was lovely to work creatively with each space. The site-specific nature of that work kept me connected to my art practice even though there was this whole other career. It felt natural to continue working with those themes for Rebuilding the Present.
At University of Chicago I kept my work within the scope of the scientific literature on mind-body medicine. This happened naturally because I was reporting to physicians who understandably wanted this program based in science. It remains a great foundation for me. Rebuilding the Present was a permission to open things up and bring in themes as they were being explored by the artists with whom I spoke. Wander without moving and object holding pattern are meditations in tiny retreat that both incorporate moments of contemplation that, as far as I know, don’t have any literature suggesting they are tools for stress or pain management but are certainly rooted in awareness and agency and interwoven with instructions that do reflect the science of mind-body medicine.
WNG: It would be wonderful if you could walk us through one of the tracks you developed with an artist(s) in Rebuilding the Present and give us some insight into how their work influenced the recording? What do you hope that the visitors to the exhibition or the listeners on SoundCloud may take away from the album?
First settle in is a track that was inspired by all of the artists with whom I spoke. The instructions begin with an invitation to find a comfortable place and position and then bring attention to other immediate surroundings by looking around. These instructions were drawn from our shared interest in installing work and inviting others to spend time with objects or ideas with which we have spent time, physically manipulated and developed a relationship with.
Then I invite observers to close their eyes and scan their body for sensations from breath, posture and tension. This part of the exercise is about noticing things that we typically take for granted or ignore, which is another theme that came up in each conversation. All of us were interested in the kind of intimacy that allows us to notice nuance. Whether it’s a slight variance in color or texture or a shift in the use or appearance of an image or object, each of us is curious about how layers unfold in our work and ways of inviting the audience to process this.
We then open our eyes and return to looking practice. The meditation closes with a tactile practice, similar to the beginning and my hope is that the track offers an opportunity to connect with the space in a way that consciously deepens over time and includes some stuff going on internally.
WNG: These works pair art and meditation to form the work itself. How do you negotiate the relationship between the two? Is meditation an important part of your practice?
MH: They certainly overlap, but they are quite different practices. A practice in studio art is, at the end of the day, at least partly about production and assessing what you make. Meditation practice, while not passive, often includes stepping back and noticing our urges to produce or judge situations then sitting with those qualities or exploring them within their larger context.
In this way, just like any life practice paired with contemplative work, meditation and art-making can inform each other. If I try to boil down my own experience, each practice contains the opportunity to notice my habits and avoidance strategies. From there, I can choose to work in a space closer to my heart and move into the other practice from that sweet and tender space. For me, the practices in tandem are like a friendship where both parties can totally be themselves and that honesty, with all the expressed messiness, vulnerability and weakness, strengthens the friendship and supports the individuals.
There are some intersections where I cannot distinguish the practices so well. Both seem to be sensory-based platforms that connect us to our immediate space including our internal landscape. Both practices require presence and a willingness to stay and return even when things are boring, fruitless or failed. Also, sometimes people think about starting an art practice or a meditation practice but don’t do it. I imagine we’ve all done this many times. We have an idea for a book or some paintings or we’ve read that meditation can help with a work or health-related goal but we let it sit there as an idea, something for the future. There can be lovely creativity in thinking about making art or meditating, but only if it leads us to starting where we are with whatever we have. Any practitioner of either form will tell you that some irreplaceable, juicy stuff happens only when you start practicing and you have to keep diving in.
Also, I don’t know if it works this way for others, but for me, metaphors, stories and images arrive more easily and take on more significance when I make space for and listen to the landscape beyond my own constant chatter.