Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Creative Encounters

The word encounter makes me think of extraterrestrials or those infamous groups of the soul baring sort from the '60's.  But I had an encounter the other evening that didn't involve aliens or confessions. It was a simple event at my own kitchen table where I hung out with some paper and a few drawing tools.  In the final chapter of "No More Second Hand Art", Peter London offers up 12 creative encounters and I chose one called "Going To The Infinite Well".  You peruse your home for an object that speaks to you, look at it until you feel acquainted with it and then draw it from memory in 60 seconds.  That's not too interesting is it, really?  But the interesting part is what happens next. You assemble another 59 sheets of paper, a timer and every 60 seconds you draw another picture, but always based on the previous drawing, not on your ideas about the object. It's a bit like riffing off the chords of the previous image.

It's a long, slightly tiring exercise (and London has a few more steps he does after this but I omitted them, partly because it was late by the time I'd finished this). During the drawing process London invites us to look at our reactions, both body and mind.  Did we run out of ideas, get stuck, feel frustrated, get a second wind, get fresh inspirations? When we examine our 60 drawings and look back at the process he asks: "did you uncover some very old ways of working? new ways of working? How did you handle fatigue? Did you make time into an enemy an ally, or an opportunity?" He invites us to look at the evolution of our work, did it get more or less detailed, more abstract?  What was our mood and attitude like?  So much richness to consider.  And as always how we work in our art-life is a lot like how we operate in our everyday life of the family and greater world.

This is an exercise to help us unearth some things we may not know about how we work and what we are drawn to to in terms of image and material.  We can make unexpected discoveries about our art and ourselves in a process that zips along quickly with its aims to disengage or tire the thinking mind.  And the thinking mind gets in the way of what we know somewhere deep inside, in some authentic way.  The thinking mind likes to play it safe and clever.  In art we aim for the eternal, that which comes from deep inside us and speaks to that same place in others. This is what makes great art great.

Now it's confession time.  In the instructions he asks the reader to assemble 100 sheets of paper.  So um, for the person who doesn't always read the, umm, instructions carefully, well they might have made 100 drawings.  So this imaginary person was pretty tired by the end of the not-so- imaginary 100 minutes.  But it was an insightful experience.  I found there were materials I preferred. The black conte crayon was the filthy hands down favourite.  And I found I liked the irregular marks made by using my non dominant hand. My body decided I should change hands when my left, dominant hand got sore.  I also resorted to larger sweeping movements when my back and arm felt fatigued.  So it was interesting to see how the body entered into the equation with its own suggestions which actually resulted in some of my favorite marks.

It also reinforced my feeling that both in paint and mark I don't like the predictable rounded or squared marks that I often choose with my head.  I like something that looks a bit freer, more haphazard than my tidy mind would often produce. The mind occasionally gave up, but mostly it was busy checking the timer, watching to see if anything interesting showed up on the page, always thinking that it didn't know what it was doing.  It's a tough customer that doesn't like to take a vacation on short notice. It seemed like midway some of the marks were more interesting, like a little crescendo, after the initial predictable marks and before tiredness set in.

So if you are curious, all it costs is 60 sheets of paper and an hour of your time.  You might discover some things you already knew about yourself or some that might surprise you.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Painting As Social Activity?

I started this little abstract at a painter's group I went to last Friday.  I was invited to join a little group at the community hall near where I live.  It's not a class, no instructor.  But painting as a group activity?  I couldn't quite imagine it.  To me it seems a solitary process. I usually scratch and scrape and wipe paint on and off.  I sit and look. Scrape some more. It's a messy, bumbling kind of process and often I haven't much to show for it at the end of the day.  It made me chuckle really, what would I take, what would I work on. I imagined myself looking a bit like a mad person with my sand paper and filthy paint rag, hands a moldy shade of green.

My little ego would have been happy to stay home, so in direct contravention to it's self protective desires I packed up a little box, secured it with a bungey chord and headed for the hall. I took a book I'd picked up on painting abstracts by Rolina van Vliet (Painting Abstracts) and some canvas paper that I ripped into small squares. I took some sunflower seed pate (not for rubbing on the canvas) but for the eat, drink and be merry part of the afternoon that happens before the paint comes out.  At a certain point in the afternoon, chatting naturally subsided and everyone worked. It was interesting to be in silence in a group of people (not sitting meditation). Occasionally  someone would ask for input. It was a relaxed, supportive atmosphere, comfortable and pleasant. After 3 hours I had two tiny paintings to finish up in front of the fire the next evening. I am happy to report that snacks were tasty and the company convivial. One aspect of the group is social but also members seem to appreciate that mapped out time to sit down and work, no house tidying or avoidance activity.

As you can see from this second little paint creature I'm still street fighting with composition but I attach hope to Malcolm Gladwell's idea that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. And I've got a lot of hours left!  A couple of weeks ago I found two second hand books Rolina VanVliet on abstract painting, a great score for $15.  There are lots of exercises for exploring materials and composition.  I like the composition exercises best, and sometimes it's just nice to come at something from another angle.  Jeane over at Art It has a great post on how she reconstructs a painting she's not happy with.  I love the way she continually turns the canvas.  Why didn't I think of that? Always new things to learn!  That's what makes me jump out of bed in the morning!

More on the painting front-- Last week I received a 2 1/2 hr video of Peter London painting.  My daughter and I poured a glass of wine (each, no sharing!) and sat down to watch.  The video appealed to the voyeur that lurks in all of us.  Have you ever wished you could just watch an artist paint and hear their thoughts as they work, that it might offer some clues or just satisfy some curiosity? To  this end, Henry Ganzler filmed London from start to finish as he creates a painting. For me the video fulfilled the wish to be  the fly on the studio wall. It was fun to watch his calm approach to the whole process, his reverence for his materials, his measured way of working and his personal, quirky way of using materials.  I felt the long hours of his studio work in the confident way he approached the whole process. He talked about where his idea for the work came from and it was great to see how he made his choices at different turning points along the way.  When he encountered "a problem area" that he said was going to "come back to haunt him", it was so interesting to see how he approached it.  He didn't ruminate on it, like I do.  He didn't rush in to try and "fix" it.  He worked another part of the paper and came back to it later.  He appeared to have faith that there would be a successful resolution to the "problem" area.  He took a break when he was tired which seems like a no brainer, but I often keep working, hoping to resolve some paint issue and get myself in trouble. He talked about not doing the predictable "cute" thing on the paper which is important in keeping the element of surprise and freshness in our work. I often find that my urge to create balance and harmony can create predictability and a boring end result. It was great to just see someone with years of experience at work.  You don't get this in a class, where someone is instructing and talking, not just working at their own craft.  Undoubtedly I will watch it a number of times and new things will pop out for me each time.

And what of the schedule I wrote about in early January?  Gone the way of large prehistoric creatures or tired new year's resolutions? Not really, but it has evolved.  It started with blocks of time alloted to certain activities.  It had 2 work periods and an exercise time as it's main components.   The schedule and I have adapted to each other.  I think someone in the discussion of schedules on the earlier blog post said, "it's really about intention." I think that "intention" is more like what I have ended up with than a schedule.  The schedule has I been thrown in a pot and boiled down to it's essential ingredients which seem quite tasty and nourishing and it has been energizing and rewarding for me.  It has evolved into  4 hrs of work each day (writing and/or painting).  This seems comfortable and possible.  It's the exercise that has eluded me, that requires some tweaking.  But I find I am getting more work done that I have for a long time.  It is partly the season which hold no garden work, but it is definitely the intention and the awareness of that intention that the "schedule" has given me.

So happy creating to you in this season of indoor time!  May your intentions manifest and bring you joy!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Freedom of Schedules

So we've tucked the first week of the new year under our belt and if we ate too many Christmas goodies that belt may be bulging a bit (but who wants to talk about that?).  I want to talk schedules. What do you think about schedules? Yeah me too. I've never been a scheduley sort of person.  But I thought, new year, try something new, right?  I have some projects I want to actually happen, time that seems to have slipped deftly through my fingers and toes.  It's easy to suffer from this little syndrome that Fran Leibowitz describes here: "When I'm supposed to be writing, I clean my apartment, take my clothes to the laundry, get organized, make lists, do the dishes. I would never do a dish if I didn't have to write."

It's so easy for the days to morph into weeks and merge with the months; project lists remaining as large and unfinished as ever.  When my friend the Zen monk asked about what I've done with my writing and I mumbled something about working on it this winter in the long evenings, she gently said, "you know if you don't slot in the time, it's not going to happen."  Those words have been wandering around my head, occasionally tripping over the empty canvases on the studio floor.

 So with my daughter home for a bit and both of us with projects in mind we sat down to create schedules.  We identified things we wanted to do on one list and then created a loose daily schedule that involved meditation first thing, a couple of 2 hour work blocks where I slotted in painting and writing, an exercise slot and the evening for sketching, listening to Dharma talks and whatever.  I have never really worked by a schedule.  Perhaps I have made some weak attempts on occasion but somehow that tricky customer slipped quietly out into the winter fog.  And before you take me for a total slacker, let me clarify, I'm only a partial slacker.  If I become obsessed with something the hours can pass without much else happening.  I can get on track, it's getting off the track before the train comes that can be a problem. A day of painting can easily end without a walk.  That's another issue I hope a schedule might address.

So scheduling seemed a good way to help me move from one activity to another, also a way of ensuring a particular activity got started.  I'm visualizing my schedule like one of those cute little shelves with compartments that I can pop things into; like the ones I've noticed on tumblr (whoops, that's not in the schedule, is it?). In the past I thought of schedules as way too bossy (kind of like those automatic check-outs  at the big box stores that shout "put your item in the bag"), too left brained, too business oriented, nothing an artsy sort would want or need.  Just the thought of a schedule would make my face screw up like I'd just tasted a cup of wormwood tea.

So when I asked myself "what is the essence of a schedule, why would I want to do this?"  It's about discipline, about holding and containing, about bringing order.   And if I think about Buddhist practice I see that mindfulness is simply discipline for the mind?  Instead of letting the mind roam wildly over whatever craziness strikes it, we attempt over and over to bring it back to the present moment.  As RM Jiyu Kennet Of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives used to say, "the mind makes a good servant but not a very good master."  So really what am I doing with my schedule but trying to take charge of my time, it's discipline for the parameter of time.  Dogen, in his sobering way reminds us, "Quickly the body passes away. In a moment life is gone."  Not to be morbid, but just a good reminder to us to get on with it.

And how is my schedule going, you ask with a sly grin?  Pretty well to my surprise.  The exercise right after lunch part isn't working out too well.  In fact the exercise thing in general requires some attention.  And I forgot to schedule in a sleep in morning (my body decided that was today).  But so far I have actually started work on a little e-book that's in the future plans and have managed to get in some serious painting time.  A little sketching project is underway.  And we have built in a day for reassessing the schedule and adjusting it as needed.  That will happen Tuesday.

As always there is some Dharma in it all.  About midweek I could see some grimness creeping in, some feeling that I was being chased around by my "schedule".  My mind starting singing a little song that went, "this schedule is taking the joy out of everything."  And when I looked at this I could see it had nothing to do with "the schedule" but everything to do with my attitude, how my mind was regarding the schedule.  I could look at it as a jailer or a liberator, or perhaps I don't even have to think about it at all?  In a great little book I picked up second hand "The Art of Abstract Painting", by Rolina van Vliet she say in a section called "Freedom in restraint, "Limits encourage more intensive exploration.   ... direction and limitation activate our creativity more than does superficially wandering about among an overabundance of alternatives." She is specifically addressing the learning phase of a task. I think this is not the whole truth or always the truth, but for me, at this point, the schedule is "the restraint" and within it I can choose freedom, the freedom to get done what my heart ultimately longs to do but my wandery mind and  fearful ego shy away from.