Where are the desire lines in your life? Where do they connect? Where do they lead?
I first learned the term “desire lines” at a conference on photography education in Cincinnati, Ohio in the year 2000. I was working as an art coach in schools and attended a presentation by artists working in schools for the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies. One of the stories was of an architect working with students to photograph their community around the theme of desire lines. These were defined as paths worn or created in the landscape that weren’t planned but reflected the travels and explorations of people who lived there, the places people wanted to go, where they made their own paths. An example shown was a curved rut in a patch of grass bordered by perpendicular paved sidewalks. The path was narrow packed earth, worn by kids biking to school.
I loved this term and was fascinated by the project and the metaphors it offered. I received a booklet about the presentation and looked forward to reading more. However, later, I found that this particular example was not included in the booklet. When I searched the phrase, “desire line,” I came up empty; no one else seemed familiar with it. I wondered if I had misheard and felt frustrated to not be able to explore this idea further.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago when a friend sent me a beautiful article from the New York Times Magazine titled, Cecilia Vicuña's Desire Lines. Looking at the images in the article, I initially assumed the desire lines referred to the many examples of threads, fiber and and lines in the landscape that appear in work by this Chilean poet, visual and performing artist. However, as I read, one of the stories told of Vicuña digging under a fence to reach the Hudson River, hidden from view by a junk yard but close by in her TriBeCa neighborhood of New York City. She had just arrived in the city from Chile and needed a relationship with the river and its flow. The article goes on to describe how others in the neighborhood soon followed her desire line. The title of the article referred both to the threads and connections in her work and to this definition of desire line as an informal path created by a desire for access in a landscape.
Lines and threads weave through the landscape and the gallery in Cecilia Vicuña’s work, suggesting connections, boundaries, loss, memory, a deep connection to the land, and to indigenous ways of knowing. Some of her pieces reference an ancient Andean writing and accounting system using knots that formed objects called quipus. Vicuña has explored this ancestry of knotted strings as a form of communication in creating quipus from found objects; she installs these in the landscape as ephemeral and site specific works.
So much came together for me in reading about and seeing this work. It felt like finding something lost to rediscover the idea of desire lines. I’m drawn to desire lines the rich metaphors they offer, both as paths worn by longing and in imagining the lines and threads that weave connections through our lives.
The connection between writing, meaning making and lines of cord and thread felt powerful. My main creative practice this summer has been crochet. I’ve been counting stitches and following patterns, delighting in the colors and textures of yarn. Summer days were filled with transitions and travel so my crochet work offered a meditative quiet that fit in between other events or occupied my time on car and airplane rides. I enjoyed the restful nature of this work and a bit of a break for the summer. This time of rest was also a way of preparing and nurturing a growing desire to put my creativity toward writing this fall. In small ways, I have been making space for that to happen while also doing my best to be patient with the extra time transitions often take.
Thinking now about my crochet work, I realize the creation of a form from a single thread has been a good metaphor for preparing me to write. Sometimes the yarn tangles or I miscount stitches and I have to let them loose and try again. Other times, I find myself unsure of where a pattern is leading and having to trust the beginning stages until a form starts to emerge. These things can happen in writing too.
For me, crochet has become a welcome form of active meditation and a way to quiet my mind to simply be present to a task at hand.
And the metaphor of desire lines has been rich these last few weeks as I begin a routine to support a writing practice this fall.
From writing about theory and practice in college and graduate school, to my practice of blogging learning stories in my work at Art at the Center, writing has been a thread through my practice for many years. I’ve kept a journal of some sort for most of my adult life. Reading and writing reflections on creative practice have been central to my work as a maker and as a facilitator of studio spaces and practices. Writing about creative practice has woven through many stages of my creative work and growth.
Recently, I’ve been rereading a creative process journal I kept over a semester as an undergraduate student studying creativity for a class called “Creativity and Problem Solving.” I’ve also been reviewing interviews I conducted that year with friends and relatives about their thoughts on creative process. It has been a rich revisiting and feels encouraging to see threads that connect and weave through my early studies and toward my professional work as an artist, author and teacher.
I’d be curious to hear what the theme of desire lines brings up for you?
Does it remind you of travels and adventures in your neighborhood or school yard as a young child?
Can you think of places you’ve noticed paths in the landscape worn by love and connection?
What about when you think of the threads of interest in your life?
Are there lines of connection that seem to resurface repeatedly through different roles and interests, times and settings in your life?
Is there an activity or interest you have let go that you might like to pick up that thread again and see where it leads, where it brings you new connections?
I’d love to hear from you – you can respond to this email or comment on this post.
On that note, one practice for me is trying a new format for this newsletter. Substack is geared toward writers, so, in keeping with my new intention for fall, I’m trying a new format. I like that it has a place for comments and forming of community around written ideas. I welcome your feedback on this new platform.
Once I started thinking about desire lines, the connection between threads and the contemplative nature of handwork with textiles, it seemed like I found connections all around me.
I love Kelly Barnhill’s books for young adults and her new novel, When Women Were Dragons, includes fascinating magic that includes crocheted and knotted patterns offered by a mother to nurture her home and garden and keep her daughters safe. The connection between knots and mathematics was also introduced to me in this book; if you are curious about this field, you can read more at this link.
Finally, the novel South of the Buttonwood Tree by Heather Webber continually references the shimmer of a silver thread as characters discover deeper connections among them than they originally realized.
And I will leave you with this beautiful poem by William Stafford from the poetry collection of the same name.
“The Way It Is”
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
I look forward to sharing more as I continue following the threads of my research and reflection and invite you to share your creative stories and connections.
Thank you for reading and being part of creative community through this newsletter. I’ve missed you and it’s good to be back.
With a grateful heart,