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 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.