A Conspicuous, Artful Repair: How Mapping Our Relationships Can Teach Us About Love and Ourselves

In the Practice Studio with Shem Klein

It’s a little after 2:00 in the afternoon and a small group is assembled around two large wooden tables in the airy storefront that Makeshift Society, a small co-working space in San Francisco, calls home. Because we’re trying to really understand things from the participants’ perspective and because we’re all learners — even when we’re the teachers and the designers — Claire and I are sitting in on the Practice Studio that we’re offering as part of Storefront Institute’s day-long program. We know more than most assembled here about what to expect, but we’re curious to see what we’re really going to do and what we’ll take away from the experience.

Seated at the head of the table is a handsome, unassuming man named Shem Klein. He starts things off, speaking quietly about his work as an artist and an addiction counselor, and about how he has kept sketchbooks for the past fifteen years — filling the pages with notes, drawings, writings, and mapped connections about the things that matter in his life, the things he thinks about, the ideas and emotions that he works through on the page. Shem is backlit by Makeshift’s insanely colorful array of pillows in its cozy streetfront reading nooks. Sun is streaming in from the large bay window behind him and we listen while watching pedestrians negotiate the scaffolding on the sidewalk outside.

He flips through a thick leather-bound volume, heavy with text and intricate line drawings, and then has us take a minute to write down something about people who are important in our lives and a few words about why. Shem then pulls out large sheets of paper — black-and-white photocopies of nineteenth-century zoological illustrations — along with colored pencils, a motley assortment of scissors, glue sticks, and magic markers, and asks us to collage these relationships. Most of us probably haven’t done anything with materials like this since grade school, but we’ve all read a dozen articles about the serious work of play (either that or there are just a lot of good sports in this group), so we jump in.

We move around and riffle through the photocopies, each of us picking out images that speak to us about the people in our lives, assembling the cut-out animals into elaborate schemes, adding embellishments and coloring and creating relationships amongst the pictures we’ve chosen. The room is filled with paper scraps and quiet talk about coffee and schools, parenting and housing and work, and what it means to come back to ideas again and again and how we engage with what’s important to us. Shem cycles around the room, leaning over, sitting, kneeling beside us, talking with us about what we’re working on and why we’ve selected this or that particular animal, who it represents, what our relationship is with that person, what feelings or thoughts are bound up with the images and how we’ve used them. There’s no agenda in the conversation. He probes gently — observant and curious.

After working diligently in this way for an hour or so, Shem asks us to wrap up what we’re doing for now and explains that he’s going to have us shift gears: he wants us to write about what we’ve been making. It’s a tricky switch, and along with a couple of others in the room, I initially resist and have to remind myself that transitions can be difficult (fortunately I have a just-turned-six-year-old at home, and know from experience that what works to help little kids re-orient when you want them to make a switch often works just as well on myself — try it some time!). Shem waits while we adjust and then asks us to pose this question to ourselves, “Who am I in this project?” and spend ten minutes writing continuously in response. Afterward, we split up into pairs and read or talk with one another about what we wrote. Then Shem has us do it all again a second time.

It’s a helpful exercise. I’m the storyteller and the story I’m telling turns out to be something unexpected to me: I’ve mapped out all kinds of relationships and what I’ve created is like a web of life. It’s like the opposite of a food chain, where one animal devours the next. And don’t get me wrong, if you know me, you know I’ve got plenty of ambivalence and anger and sadness about some of the relationships in my life. I’m in the process of getting divorced for Christ’s sake. But the ecosystem that I had pieced together over the course of this afternoon turns out to be about my learning how to love, how to do love better, how to practice love — not easy things for me to talk about and I have to do a TMI mea culpa to the group when I see what it is I’ve been on about with this project.

I didn’t consciously decide at the outset not to include people who are important in my life but about whom I have conflicted or negative feelings, and I didn’t totally realize that I’d done that even as I was deciding how to organize and connect and color the images I’d chosen. But when I wrote about it, it became clear to me that I’d done something that was about what I’m learning about love and about myself. It wasn’t about heartbreak or punishing myself for all the places where things have gone wrong in relationships or all the things that are still unresolved — which are, of course, always still there and always changing — but at this moment, I’d created something that in a deeply personal way demonstrated to me what Teresita Fernández means when she says that “a conspicuous, artful repair actually adds value.” Although it probably wouldn’t be apparent to someone else, for me at this moment in time, this exploration and mapping of what I’m learning about love could only be a conspicuous repair, and it was immensely valuable to me at that moment in time to see that I was thinking about how and what I was learning about love.

There’s something magical about cutting and pasting and coloring, and I get all of that. It’s fun and it’s hands-on. Which is why we take workshops on how to do macramé, screenprinting, and make scrapbooks. It’s an easy way to get into Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famous flow state, where creativity and happiness and fulfillment are to be found. That’s what all those mindfulness coloring books are about. And it helps shift your state of mind from an intellectual place to a more expansive, playful one. Which is why it was hard, then, to go from that to writing. That would be enough, in a way. But Shem’s Practice Studio did a bit more for me, too. It gave me space and a project and some well-timed guidance — discussion and reflection — to help me see something I hadn’t been able to see clearly before, work on something that was real and personal (by which I mean, helpful in my life), and shift my mindset. And that’s so much better.

By Kate Griffin, Founder and Co-Director Storefront Institute, a new public space that provides the practical, social, and intellectual connections to open up new perspectives that help us better navigate our lives. Sign up for our newsletter to find out about our next sessions, practitioners and subjects.