Helen Mirra walks Aspen in search of a half-smile
Helen Mirra is a walker in the city of Aspen.
The artist, hosted by the Aspen Art Museum, is in the midst of a three-week project, walking Aspen each morning, sometimes alone, though you’re always invited to join.
She has invited anyone who would like to join her to set out from the gazebo in Paepcke Park at 8:37 a.m. (except Thursdays, when she’s offering a “lazy day” option 90 minutes later). From there, participants will walk on their own for an agreed-upon length of time before meeting Mirra for lunch (the museum will pick up the check).
During the walks, Mirra and fellow amblers will pursue a “half-smile,” a concept developed by the Vietnamese Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hanh, who wrote: “We seem to move forward, but we don’t go anywhere; we are not drawn by a goal. Thus we smile while we are walking.”
You might equate the half-smile with “mindfulness,” but Mirra dislikes the word and how it’s currently being commodified in the culture. If she has to call it anything, she said, she prefers to describe the interior action on her aimless walks as “un-focusing” or “passive attention.”
The project, which began last week, is running in conjunction with the museum’s ongoing “Second Chances” group exhibition.
“The reason it was a great context is that it feels like a real turn in my practice,” Mirra said after a recent walk.
About seven years ago, she abandoned her studio practice for the outdoors, including mountain walks in Switzerland and Brazil, from which works in sound and paste-printmaking have emerged. Mirra isn’t planning an art project based on the local, half-smile walks, though they may inform her future work.
“Everything comes from everything that’s before it,” she said. “So I don’t know.”
She classifies the walks themselves as something between art and non-art.
Mirra undertook a similar walking project with companions in New York last year in conjunction with a gallery show there. While those walks also were open to anyone, she said, her companions ended up being mostly artists and art-world people who had heard about what she was up to. In Aspen, at the outset of offseason, as many locals have time on their hands, she may tap a more diverse pool of walkers.
In all weather, Mirra’s walks so far have taken her off concrete, heading, for example, up Hunter Creek or Independence Pass. But there’s a distinction between these half-smile walks and hiking, or the kind of exercise Aspenites often seek on the trail.
“The idea is that it’s effortless — it’s this relaxed thing,” she said. “And that seems like something we need to practice. … But it’s not better than going backcountry hiking at all. They cross-fertilize.”
Mirra will be walking and half-smiling daily through May 1.
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