Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thrown By The Wild Horse of Painting

11"x14" oil & cold wax  "As The Light Falls"
The instructions are "never judge your meditation session".  It's just a sit and good for you that you put your bum on the cushion.  Hmm, couldn't the same be said for doing your creative work, whatever that is.  No, sitting on your journal or canvas does not count. But how do we know what's good or bad anyway?  You know the Taoist story of the villager with a horse? One day his horse runs off.  The villagers tell him how bad this is.  Hmm, says the farmer.  A while later his horse returns leading a wild horse home. And the other villagers tell him how good this is. Hmmm, again from the farmer of few words. His son breaks his leg after being thrown by the wild horse.  The villagers are all over this one. And so on.  You're getting the gist, right?  Read the full story here.

Why then is it so second nature for me to have this very visceral sense that a painting session is good or bad? Human nature?  Habit?  Yes to both, but I think it's about trust.  It seems to me that you need to trust that what is happening is okay, whatever it is.  It's here, it's in your lap, then just say okay.  That's the recipe for non suffering. That's it.  You have no idea where your work is going, how it will turn out but you trust that what you did today is enough  It's not that I'm getting all new agey, woo woo or fatalistic on you.  It's just logic.  Think about it.  How could it be any other way?  That would be arguing with what is...  and you know where that gets you.  It's not like we lie there like the studio door mat, all limp and lifeless and covered with paint (though I have been known to do this).  We can adjust our course tomorrow.  We can learn from what transpired.  That is never negated by accepting what is. But what just happened is over, done, case closed, unless you want to get all quantum on me but that's a whole other subject.

Another thing I've known in my head but not in my paint brush is that you need to get the mind, the judging, evaluating one out of the way when you work. Sometimes I wish someone would just tell me how and put me out of my misery.  But it's not supposed to happen like that.  You have to figure it out for yourself or else it doesn't have any meat on the bones, just a dry stick to chew on.  And that's not very tasty or sustaining.
12"x12" cold wax & oil "A Day In The City"
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche talks about painting until the mind let's go and then you have a painting.  I did this quite by accident the other day when I painted the pieces above.  I had spent some studio time mucking about and I mean mucking.  I was feeling so discouraged that I got out the black paint and covered this piece which was originally light green and turquoise.  You will see small children do this with art work and for them it is exploration.  For me it was more like a tantrum, an "I'm done here." And then some stuff started to happen on the canvas that felt pretty exciting. There was some recognition of something new and authentic looking back at me. I left the studio feeling like I'd had an aha moment.  It was  an accidental experience of letting go.  It was more like giving up, there was nothing left to gain or loose.

On a foot note I felt pretty inspired to get back to the studio to explore.   But after a bit I noticed old mind sniffing and slinking around trying to recreate the same experience (more good, please, easy, nice, thank-you).  And you know how that turns out.  But  there is a little trust there now where only wanting used to live.  And its resting on the fact that everything is fine as it is and anything can happen at any time.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Blood And Bones Of Art

The Archeology of Clouds
If part of an athlete's success resides in the realm of the mind, then an aspect of our art practice must rest on how we use our minds when we do our art, no? This makes a lot of sense to me and my mind and yet the pull of habit is strong, that unconscious part made up of synapses and neural pathways, transmitters and receptors. Somewhere inside I know better but here's the pattern I fall into.  I look at work I love and feel inspired. It feels like pointing myself in the right direction to immerse myself in what I find beautiful, what I'd like to create, right?

Well it's not working for me.  It never has, really.  In looking at my frustration and how things are going I realize it's not this pre-painting activity that's the problem, it's what my mind does with it.   It's like the car isn't the problem when you get a speeding ticket, it's the driver. Somehow the focus for me becomes (perhaps always has been) on the outcome of the painting process.  I am looking for something; something that resonates, something that fits my idea of pleasing.  And that very act of wanting stands in the way of actually getting what I'm looking for, if that makes any sense.  It's like building a wall when you want a doorway and then wondering why you can't get out of that dark little room. It's a good thing I'm not a building contractor.

Imagining The Wind 12"x12"
And it's not that I haven't heard the part about focusing on the "process".  My friend Jeane, of ART IT embodies this idea of learning from your painting, of diving deeply into "just working", of finding it exciting and exploratory. She discovers whole continents of interest and delight in her studio. To spend time with her, as I did last year (here's the blog post I wrote about that) is not only a joy but an education for the heart.  But then there's the return to habit.

I understand all this in my head about process vs product and that often is the very first place we understand things, in the head. But as my old Zen teacher used to say, "we need to understand it in our blood and bones", whatever it is, to really integrate it at a functional level.  It's become so painfully obvious to me lately that I am heading off to the blood and bones department right now.  I am setting my "intention", a big word in Buddhist circles.  I am turning this sinking ship and paint brush around. I am choosing to turn my mind in the direction of process and learning from the painting, of having a conversation with the work.  I have witnesses now.  You heard me, didn't you?

The Secret Life of Moss 11"x14"
I do a lot of "imposing" on the canvas, rather than conversing "with".  In fact I'm quite surprised my canvases haven't filed for divorce or just walked out on me.  But they're a patient lot.  My old Zen teacher used to say another thing, "the eternal can wait for as long as you need, how long can you wait?"  I used to hate that word eternal, so churchy, but I forgive the cleric language now.  Whatever it is you need to do, whatever change you want to make in your life, the universe is patient, like my canvas. It just stands there looking at you without judgment, "did you get that?" I won't say it's never rude or harsh, but it always just stands by waiting for us to get the message.  If not, the message will be broadcast again, perhaps at louder volume or closer intervals.

So here I am, all bloody and boney, standing at the temple door of life (or is that a wall?) in the company of some of my estranged canvases (oh, oh I hear the call to the lawyer going out now).  I'll keep you posted on how it all works out for me.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Throwing Out The Emotional Barometer

36"x36"  Mixed media " Across The See"
It's always interesting to me what comes up on my radar for examination.  Last week after a couple of social interactions I became aware of the subtle (or not so subtle) measuring that was going on inside me.  What was this strange barometer thing constantly scanning the internal air pressure?  This interaction left me feeling good, that one made me feel slightly unsettled. And then I could see how these feelings lingered and flavoured the the day.  At the end of the week I could see how truly unpleasant all this unconscious measuring really was, how the sheer movement of the scales made me feel a bit internally seasick.

Rather than just being with whatever was I was using my experience in the world to determine something, using my emotional life as some sort of guiding compass. This underground current that I suspect stirs in all of us wants to weigh and measure and tot up a score.  How am I doing?  We may only notice the measuring by the feeling it leaves.  It goes on at Olympic speed, mostly under the radar.
24"x24" mixed media "Travel Plans"
If I don't notice the process, then I use the feelings generated to navigate my world by.  Hmmm, seems a pretty shaky basis to steer the old ship by.  At a deeper level if I want to simplify it, I want life to make me feel good.  I believe somehow that my internal state is determined by the outer world  and what goes on there. I keep track of how that's all going with my barometer.  Sheesh, I'm tired just thinking about the craziness of my internal life! But weighing and measuring tools in the slippery hands of the ego are never a good thing.  Given the Western mind's relationship with itself and the nature of scales I am never going to come out pounds ahead.  And to digress, is this crazy world a good place to get our sanity from?

 In his book "The Tibetan Yogas of Dream And Sleep" Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche tells us that these emotional reactions I'm thinking about arise from "karmic traces". He says, "All moods, thoughts, emotions, mental images, perceptions, instinctive reactions are governed by the workings of karma" (karma simply meaning for every action there is a reaction).  Act with anger once, the seeds of karma for future anger are sown.  And ditto for everything else.

His explanation offers me information on where these "emotional" responses of mine come from, feelings that feel so puzzling sometimes. Their arising is based in past action and contains no conscious intention for how I might want to live my current or future life.  In a way, if I don't consider this I am held hostage by my past (both from this life and past ones, if you care to see it that way).

So as the week wound down I realized that it was unlikely that I could cart this barometer off to a thrift store and get rid of it.  But what I could do was see it for what it was, a very unreliable measuring tool that I could simply see and choose not to use as a barometer. Maybe it's more like a laugh meter or an alarm button or a kitchen timer reminding me to wake up?  How about you?  What's in your internal measuring chest?

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Value of the Open Road

reworked piece from last post 24"x24"
There is something about road trips. You are in this compartment like thing, hurtling down a concrete path, the world continually coming at you.  It's kind of like a mini version of life in a strange way.  Here we are, travelers just passing through, why not enjoy the ride?  For some reason as the big prairie sky flattened our strip of highway that analogy parked itself in my brain.

We covered a lot of ground in 10 days for island dwellers. We camped in the mountains, played a Tibetan drum by a green lake, ate out with friends at a place called The High Level Diner, drank strong, dark coffee in Nelson, wandered the only desert in Canada and popped cherries into our mouths straight from the tree.

Life is surprising if you let it be.  Often when I return home I feel a little lost, like "what do I do here again?"  Sometimes I feel like a period at the end of a sentence that wants to keep on going.  But this time was different. I noticed how quiet my piece of earth is; no sounds of air brakes or trains or the hum of refrigeration units.  There was the joy of garden and paint, the air warm like a tepid bath, a deer browsing the weeds in the lawn, a tiny bunny feeding, the quail having a dust bath in the flower bed.

reworked 12"x24"
I must say that at least once while looking at wonderful art on my trip I asked myself "why do I paint?" And I asked this not in the nicest of ways. You know how we can be to ourselves, like the meanest of sisters.  But once I got home an art conversation with a dear friend welcomed me and there was an air of excitement in getting to work.

Our conversation was about simplicity and complexity and how I love work that is simple and spare  but that isn't what comes out of me when I paint.  I realized that I spit out the word "complexity" as if it is an insult.  I don't seek complexity in my work but it finds me.  Her wise comment was something like, "isn't that neat how the painting is so honest?"  News flash: it's not about what I want but it's about something less defined, more ethereal, it's about what's in me that wants to be said.  It's not about someone else's painting I love with my name on it. The painting process bypasses the thinking mind which can be maddening to control freaks who think they know what they want.  You can argue with the canvas and paint if you like.  But be prepared to be frustrated. I speak from experience (the frustrated part, I mean).  So it was freeing to finally be open to what came out on to the canvas without wanting it to be some particular way, to embrace complexity even.  There was an energy to that openness that doesn't come from wanting something in particular.

So the value of hurtling down the highway, heading always towards home in a round about way, is that if you are lucky home will look completely different than you imagined when you get there.  If you're lucky you will have a friend waiting there with some wise words.

Oh yeah and that's the thing that we love about the open road.  It's open.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Full Contact Sudoku & Other Family Games

36"x36" mixed media with cold wax
I'm not going to mention any names or anything but I really think someone should send me a tee shirt that says, "I survived sudoku".  I mean full contact sudoku, where I am pinned in a corner by a nonagenarian with a sharp pencil and hard pink eraser, annoyance cranking up to about  7 on my richter scale.  Now this is what I call good practice.  Not that I ever had any illusions about my proximity to enlightenment, but you know that saying, "if you think you're enlightened, go spend some time with your family" (blood related or otherwise). In this particular scenario I managed to dial down the richter scale and  have fun learning about sudoku which I had previously regarded as a close relative to arsenic.

I didn't just whip over the provinicial border into all-beef-Alberta to get some coconut bacon (though that is always a good excuse for a road trip).  I did it so I could find  the specific places where my practice needs some serious tweaking (oh, and spend some time with the fam)  I remember being at a retreat where a mother of 2 small children said something like, "I get up every morning with the best of intentions, but in a few minutes I hear myself saying things I feel bad about." Her comment came to mind this week,  because I arrived for a family visit all starry eyed with good intentions to take on the family pain and mishigas (which means craziness in Yiddish) with skill and compassion. It didn't take long to find myself wondering why I agreed to this trip and when can I leave.  I learned how quickly  good intentions can turn to ethereal puffs of dust and how short the lit fuse of patience can be.

12"x24" mixed media with cold wax
When I had a peek into the internal combustion engine of emotion I could see that my annoyance was really "wishing things were other than they were" It was me saying to myself, "I don't like this, it should stop." Apparently the perpetrators of sudoku and other petty crimes didn't see it quite that way.  They carried on without notice while I wondered, "do I have to listen to this story again?  How do I escape this relative's angry rant?  Why do I feel like an inconvenience because I prefer lunch that has never had a face?

I could see the urge to take things personally, rather than accept them at face value. "Are you insinuating I'm weird when you ask about my chia seed and hemp milk breakfast?" You might be, but I don't know that for sure and I only aggravate myself with this assumption.  It's a story of my own making, based on what I think you think, based on your tone of voice, the look on your face and our past history.  The petri dish of misunderstandings.  Everything in this pot is simmering below the surface. Why can't I simply process the question without an emotional charge?  Truth is, sometimes a question feels like just a question and sometimes it feels like an innuendo.  To see that was helpful.  To see that my irritation was based in my thoughts often formed at lightning speed, concocted out of my own defensiveness and self protection was humbling.

And so I learned that I needed breaks and walks to renew my intentions to be kind, compassionate and open hearted. I needed to toss some of that compassion  in my own general direction.  The stuff that felt annoying was simply a collision of their pain and my pain, of their habits and my differing ones. When our habits coincided we were all fine. What irritates me might not irritate you.  Sometimes I could quickly catch myself and reorient and renew my intention to be kind, maybe even curious. "What is that person really saying, what is that all about?  Why are they only interested in the past?  Why do strangers frighten them?  Why does my strange food bother them?  Can I just listen with an open heart without needing to respond?  Can I simply enjoy this person's company? Can I simply enjoy this moment?  Can I simply be with what is?

And so the teaching and the practice continued; in fits and starts, me rushing into the jousting ring in full armour or completely naked, getting poked and running for cover, sometimes laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing, sometimes grumbling to myself like a disgruntled 5 year old.  In the end I can say I learned that it's about renewing my intention each time I get pushed off course, of cutting myself some slack, of cutting others some slack and sometimes having a good laugh about the absurdity of the whole human predicament.  It is about remembering to look at the sky or listen to the raucous call of a magpie or simply appreciate the dharma practice of being in a family.

PS, I bought 2 sudoku books, and one of them is for me which is solid proof that if you are open, you never know what will happen.




Friday, April 18, 2014

Art Is Not For Control Freaks

Kimono Threads 11"x 14" Cold Wax on Panel
For a long time my painting life operated on the Ira Glass principle which you can read about here.  I can't say it any better than he did so I won't bother to try.  Okay, I lied I'll sum it up in case you don't feel like following the link.  Basically Glass says that early in our artistic life our standards are higher than our artistic outcomes and so we feel frustrated. We are kabobed on a skewer between our own good taste and our unskilled hand.

 Along with this I wonder how much "belief" plays a role in this perceived distance between what we love and aspire to and what we create. A study I read years ago suggested that the only variable that set creative people apart from non creative people was (get this) that the creative people believed they were creative. Another study  suggests that "belief" is such an important aspect of mind that it can influence whether food acts as if it has lots of calories or few calories when it hits our metabolic system.  So what beliefs do you hold about your work, your process, your life?  How do they influence (unconsciously or consciously) how you work and what shows up in your work (or life)?  Don't get me wrong, I am a big believer in the fact that sustained practice or the repeated engagement with our medium, whatever it is, pulls us forward in our work.  I think it was Picasso that said "inspiration finds us working." But what is the role of trust and faith in ourselves and our process?

The Secret Life of Dirt 10"x 10"

These questions interest me because I have experienced a lot of frustration with my process.  I think in part it was because I wanted something that wasn't showing up on my canvas (commonly known in Buddhist circles as rejecting what is and recognized as a source of suffering). But curiously that frustration seems to have burned itself up, for reasons I don't fully understand.  It mostly is just not present anymore.  Maybe it was a state I just had to pass through after sustained hours, like the seemingly endless fields of Montana, but I digress into geographical insults.

As I look back on this state of frustration I realize that there is an aspect of "pride" in it.  When I am beseiged by the unconscious thought, "I am better than this ugly painting in front of me, I should be able to create something more pleasing than this" I am not only rejecting what is, but claiming superiority over it.  Ouch.

A Body of Thought 10"x10"

There were many times I thought of just packing it all up and taking those art supplies to the thrift store, kind of like a friend of mine who threw his golf clubs in the lake after a really bad game and never golfed again.  But there is something that keeps me going, a sense that I am looking for something, and that something is just around the corner, kind of like tracking an animal or fishing, to use a carnivorous analogy.  I used to joke with my Zen teacher that there was something very pure in pursuing a goal that I felt I was not very good at.  William Vollman says it this way, " The most important and enjoyable thing in life is doing something that's a complicated, tricky problem that you don't know how to solve."  Wendell Berry says "it's the impeded stream that knows how to sing." (full poem here)

How To Read The News 10"x10"


I am reading "Free Play" by Stephen Nachmanovitch.  He's a musician but his exploration of the creative process spills over into all of life, because isn't life the ultimate creative pursuit?  I like what he has to say about our relationship with our work. This is the growing edge I am exploring these days. "We arrive at this effortless way not by mastering the instrument but by playing with it as a living partner. If I think of the ... paintbrush ...as an object to be controlled then by definition it is outside of me... Unless I surrender my identity, the instrument's identity and the illusion of control, I can never become one with my own process, and the blocks will remain.  Without surrender and trust -- nothing."

Nachmanovitch winds down the chapter on surrender by saying " Unconditional surrender comes when I fully realize -- not in my brain but in my bones -- that what my life or art has handed me is bigger than my hands, bigger than any conscious understanding I can have of it, bigger than any capacity that is mine alone."  Apparently art is not for control freaks.  Or is it that art, if we let it, slowly works away at dissolving the control freak in us?  Really it's all about the mystery of the process, the mystery of life, just the mystery, really.





Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Waxing & Waning Of The Inner Landscape

10"x10" cold wax on panel

Almost a week has passed since I loaded the last wet painting into my car at the end of the week long workshop I attended with Rebecca Crowell.  I was drawn to the quiet strength of Rebecca's work when I saw it in Santa Fe four years ago. So to find her not far from home ( Vancouver Island Art Workshops) seemed an opportunity.  The days were long but structured well between painting and presentations. I love the ability of cold wax to deliver texture and surprise through the use of built up layers. It was fun to watch the different ways each of the 12 artists manipulated the same material, from bold graphic work to soft and ethereal.  There was an open invitation to work until 9 pm each evening. I knew ahead of time I wouldn't do this, given the restraints of both body and mind.  We had tons of workspace which was great considering that we worked on multiple, slow drying panels.  If you were stuck on one, you could turn your eye to another. Experiment was encouraged and we were reminded that finished work was not the goal, though the mind often wandered from this. I think I might have needed a flashing neon sign over my work tables to keep me on top of those.


There were lots of take-aways from the week about materials and process and points of contemplation.  And  I expect things will continue to slowly seep and settle into the blood and bones of me and my paintings.  At least I hope so. It is always so interesting to see what we absorb and internalize from any teaching.  It has everything to do with where we are in our life and work and what rings in our ear afterwards and how we synthesize it.  I will continue to explore questions like "what inspires me", "what do I hope to express in my work".

As painting is such a solitary practice it was nice to paint in the company of others for a change, to share a laugh or an observation.  Participants were generous and open. The atmosphere was supportive but with a strong focus on work. Kind of like a silent retreat in some respects, you appreciate the energy of others while focusing internally.

Cold wax and charcoal on terra skin

I am an incurable people watcher. It's so much fun to watch human nature unfold before you (your own and others).   I found myself equally interested in how people expressed their personal energy and shared it with others.  How did we manage our needs, our frustrations, our stress, how did our habitual reactions play out?  There were parallel teachings going on for me, always the art, and always the dharma. We are such a curious bunch, us humans.  I watched myself make a conscious effort to be who I am: quiet, quirky but friendly. Not always, but sometimes I can see my own inclinations to chat or engage as slightly needy (we want to be part of the tribe, a respected member, even).  I decided to check this need at the door (as much as possible) in the interest of work and experiment with how that felt. It was fun to watch this impulse arise and subside and to just be, to just work.

I watched my own human inclination to enjoy praise but reminded myself what a false wind this is, being constantly tossed about in the opinions of others.  I have learned that outer acceptance is a pale friend compared with my own inner acceptance of whatever is.  This has been such an important lesson for me over the years.  My strong inclination to feel frustrated with what I achieve and then to fall into mucking and discouragement came to visit. Sometimes it took a good while to catch myself and redirect.

More Cold wax & charcoal on terra skin

The one on one exchanges with Rebecca were helpful. In my search for "form" in my work she suggested the question to toss about, "what shapes out there in the world do I like?" To my surprise I was initially stumped by this question. And perhaps a search for form might better be thought of as an evolution of detail?  I am thinking it also has to do with variation in value?


And after my hours of painting I returned each evening to the charming home of artist, Carole Reid and our lovely feline host Isabelle.  I have never met a friendlier cat. She looked forward to me sitting on the couch each evening so she could purr and sleep and I could let the day's work steep and percolate.  It was a great house swap that Carole wrote about here and here.

I don't know if I had any expectations going into the workshop. Perhaps not overtly, but I think there are always hidden ones simmering below the surface.  I feel fortunate to have been part of this richly textured week and look forward to following the tendrils and threads as they spread themselves out into my work.