Monday, June 4, 2012

Our Real Work

Forest Buddha 14"x18"

It is raining again. I am always amazed at how much the human mood is tied to the weather. Go into town on a sunny day and everyone is all smiles and chat. Today there is a dark calm, an even light that the white sky casts over the landscape. Every shade of Spring green is available to the eye.  There is a calm, contemplative feel to the day. Still my little self calls out for sunshine. The energy inspired by bright sun waits somewhere out of sight. The hum of the heater reminds me of how cool the air is outside. A sagging pine branch just outside the window dangles in the breeze. Even the hummingbirds zing about with less ferocity.

I have spent the last few days getting ready for the summer art show here on Salt Spring. I count myself in with the slackers and stragglers who will submit their inventories at the very last minute of the call, today at 3pm. I have my excuses. We all do. And reason tells me they are true. My heart tells me they are not important.

I have been painting in a new way so not really producing much finished work; lots of thrashing about and the occasional piece that escapes the gesso wand of thick white goo, marking it for repaint.  I am frustrated when I produce a painting I like and then go for days before another hits the mark. Yesterday I joined the "Painting Rescue  Society" in the effort to safe a few old pieces. I implore you not to join their ranks if they come knocking at your door, with their tatty little membership forms. This I learned is pretty much a waste of time but it took me a good part of yesterday to realize my efforts to rework old pieces were not panning out. I learned that the brew mixed up by hope and delusion is rather bitter and best poured down the sink.

In the end I always stand back and ask if I would be happy with my name on a piece. It is about some internal integrity that gets stronger the more I work. It's like the dharma, isn't it: the clearer we get, the less we feel okay settling for the lazy, "good enough" effort?  We get to know the tricksters that haunt our craniums. There is so much to learn standing in front of a canvas. I might have said standing in front of a "blank" canvas, but in this case the learning comes from standing in front of an old canvas.

Painting, I was going to say, is like practice but actually it would be more accurate to say it is practice. I have learned a lot by my thrashing about this last 6 months, by venturing out into new paint ground. I work with a new eye, new faith in the process and a sense of "it's all okay". That's been a big lesson for me, to work for days, months and have little to show for it. It's sobering and honest making. You get to see what you're all about. In looking at what I accept as presentable work this weekend, I can see that there has been some movement, there has been something going on underground.

I also learned that I don't work well under pressure, actually I know that, but the weekend was a sturdy reminder. As much as I told myself I would not go into the studio with grim determination to "produce", the old habit became my shadow. It hovered and lurked, sucking all the fun from a painting afternoon. I learned that the process for me is a mysterious one, sometime a painting emerges and sometimes there are just paint rags on the floor and a whole mess of dirty brushes. I learned that I have become better at leaving the failures behind when I leave the studio, not to come into the kitchen filled with the glumness of an empty hand.

And so that was my weekend, one new painting and lots of inner etchings.

I will end with this quote I found on tumblr that speaks eloquently to where I am now:
"It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings."
—Wendell Berry

22 comments:

  1. Carole, my dear Island girl, I know how you feel.

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    1. greyness abounds out there and the road is into the fog!

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  2. Me, too. The riches are in the process itself. For me painting is zazen. There are those moments of wondering why am I "sitting/painting" here all crazy with thoughts!? And I have to put down the brush. But the beauty of zazen is in coming back again and again to the heart of things. My critical mind can fuss all it wants— I just keep movin' back into the stillness that holds it all, again and again. It's all I can do... this moment is precious. And I love painting. The hardest part for me is dancing around with guilt about being able to do what I love, in the middle of a world of suffering.

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    1. I know this last part too, it feels indulgent and yet...

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  3. Your posts are always so moving, Carole, you have a wonderful way with words. I love the quote from Wendell, such a poet he is. In my artistic process, I venture forth into something, just begin to get my feet wet, then hit a wall of overwhelm because there are so many ways to go and it's too hard to choose -- even just one thing a day, or a week -- to focus on.

    I finally gave up trying to overwork ugly fabric, it just got uglier and I wasted supplies. So now I toss that stuff out after a couple go-rounds at it. At least with painting, you can go back to a blank canvas, or make it virtually blank again, and start over.

    One of the biggest issues for me is staying motivated and inspired. I think it was you who recommended The Zen of Creativity, which I'm reading and loving. I continue to wrestle with making art for itself, not because I'm trying to get anywhere or become something. And I keep shoulding on myself in many ways.

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    1. I know the space of overwhelm which for me is exacerbated by the feeling I might ruin the piece. This is a hard spot.

      "ugly" now there's a word that made me laugh when I read it! Yes I can see with fabric the even greater fear of ruin. This is our work, learning to be fearless or to work in spite of the fear, to learn how to work with the fear.

      I do like Loori's book, though this "waiting" of his always puzzles me a bit. Also like Peter London. There are so many great art books.

      I am a wrestler too but if I look I see I wrestle all over my life, so the studio is a great place to get familiar with the wrestling match!

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  4. Lovely post... I love how you share your process of "inner etchings," allowing the underground to be revealed, allowing it all to be what it is, whatever emerges. Good timing for me to hear that today! Although I'm not an artist your sharing of how you approach your art is such a good reminder for me in life, when the clarity of life starts to get out of focus. (As well as Kris' comment about coming back again and again to the heart of things, into the stillness...) And the Forest Buddha... A self-portrait in serenity? ;)

    I'll gladly send some of our heat (90's) and sunshine your way :) Good luck with your Art Show!

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    1. It's true, Christine, what applies in the studio flows into all parts of life.

      Accepting all offers of heat and sun! Can forward rain, clouds and down vests in return.

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  5. Wendell! Great summation quote to a fine essay. All is process, right including the point where you force yourself to put down the brush or pen. I work mainly on bound sketchbook paper right now so my "incompletes" as I call them, the unrescuables, become notes pages for buddhist quotations or whatever I am reading that seems best to preserve for later contemplation. So while they don't "have my name on them" they become something else useful at least, and part of the larger book. Scanning and running finished artwork through photoshop, that's where the urge to improve or meddle gets sticky. Irresistable because you can always "undo." Try the watercolor filter on a watercolor? Why not...and yet that authenticity issue rears its head (does that make me a luddite?). Working in stone...that's the medium where there are often no takebacks for a bad strike, you have to keep working with what's left until it is something pasable. Only once have I wound up with ashtrays/ paperweights. They're very nice alabaster paperweights.

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    1. I forget Wendell Berry until I see some fine quote of his. I think I need to get me one of his books!

      Now the impulse to rip out what I don't like in a sketch book is strong for me! And I do it because I use those coil bound sketch books. But I like your idea of the quotes.

      I am such a luddite I haven't crossed over to the other side.

      I think I might end up with a house full of paperweights! I can see it now, starting with a foot tall piece, ending up with a pebble ....but a nice pebble.

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  6. love the quote.. I also saw it at Tumblr. and we are having just as much rain as you are.. the best place to be on days like that is in the studio.. where you are.. getting some painting done.. yay!

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    1. this quote is so strong! yeah, we're in the same rain belt or is that cloud belt. I actually watered the garden today.

      it's true, good studio weather, though I do love to go out into the garden, even in this weather to recharge.

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  7. I agree - great summation quote to a fine essay. Good luck with the art show!

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  8. Thanks, David. Opens June 15th. Lots of amazing goodies. Check it out when you're on the island.

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  9. The quote is the best and wraps up your description of studio work.
    We had rain, sun, rain and sun all day...perfect studio day of working with light and then not so much light!

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    1. it's true, isn't it, always heading out into the unknown, but sometimes I'm not singing like the stream he mentions!

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  10. Such a lovely description of what it means to be an artist...or perhaps an explorer!

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    1. yes, that's it, an explorer, a wonderful way to traverse this lovely planet!

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  11. the Berry quote is epic and just so right on!!! love the title of your post and what you write is most likely, at least for myself, what we all feel - it is so relatable (if that is even a word)thank you again Carole for a thoughtful and thought provoking post, xo

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    1. thanks, Jeane, looking forward to todays broadcast from the shed! yeah, that Berry quote...

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