Fear is a big character when it comes to making art. I see it all the time – in myself as well as in those around me. Last week I received an email from someone who had come into my mom’s office while one of our group sessions was underway. She said she wanted to learn to paint but she wanted private lessons, as she felt intimidated by the work she saw us making. I hear this often – someone comes to get a calendar and tells me that she wants to do something “creative” but has to get over her fear of doing so. I meet someone at a festival who expresses the wish to be able to make work like mine. When I invite her to come give it a try, I can see her almost physically retreat from me. Then there was the customer who, when I delivered a piece of art she’d bought to her house, was so excited to show me her newly renovated “craft room.” My reaction was: This isn’t a craft room, it’s a studio! I completely understand her reticence, though – there is a certain audacity in calling what we are making art. When we sit with a blank piece of paper and begin to draw and then paint something of our own choosing, we are making our mark, we are revealing something of our self into what we are making. There is something in us that craves doing this – I often wonder about what this force is and I think it’s related to the very human need to share of ourselves – to be really seen – the idea of which is both thrilling and terrifying.Read More»
Last week at dinner with a couple of the artists in the Friday group, the subject of jury duty came up and I found myself recounting the experience I had when I sat on a jury several years ago. On trial was an undocumented woman from El Salvador, a mother of three who cleaned houses. The charges against her came from an incident in a courtroom when her husband was being remanded into custody. Sitting with her kids in the back of the courtroom, she ran up in protest when she saw him being brought to the ground – he was resisting arrest – and being restrained by several deputies. She ignored the judge telling her to take her seat, prompting several other deputies to physically restrain her too. She was forced to bend forward over the back of a courtroom seat, her head pushed so that her face was buried in the seat – with two more deputies holding each arm behind her back. The charges against her included: contempt of court, resisting arrest and assault of a police officer – in the struggle, one of the deputies, a woman, was bruised on her forearm.
I was amazed how easy it is to end up on a jury panel. If your name is called for you to come up to sit in the jury box and if there aren’t any questions the attorneys ask that would illicit an opportunity to reveal something they might object to, by default you are on the jury. I thought that each potential juror would have been questioned for at least a few minutes, but after stating my only name and what I did for a living, just like that, I was on the jury. The trial process was tedious and an inefficient use of the jurors’ time. We were there from 9am-5pm for something like three and a half days and were in the courtroom for maybe a total of 8 hours hearing the case. There were long lunch breaks and we were left for hours in the jury room while the judge tended to other matters. It was both fascinating and frustrating. But the most challenging for me was the deliberation process.
It was clear to me that this woman was not in any way a threat to society. She had an emotional and very human reaction to a frightening situation. Sure, there are people in her shoes who may have been able to restrain themselves, but what she did – in the scheme of all the crimes are put to a jury – seemed barely consequential. It was bad enough that she had been handled so roughly (we were shown photos of the many large bruises on her arms), then she had been put in custody not knowing what was happening with her children and then her husband was released from custody and left the country, leaving her to fend for herself and her kids. It incensed me that the precious resources of a jury trial were being used this way. I couldn’t imagine why the District Attorney had pursued the case against her!
When our foreperson asked us each to indicate where we were leaning on the charges I was the only one who expressed reservations in convicting her. Yes, we were instructed to make our judgment based on the facts as presented and the law as it was described to us. Based objectively upon that, I can see how the others came to their guilty conclusion – it was clear she made a big ruckus in the courtroom. But I could not help but look at the whole thing from a broader perspective and I saw no justice in convicting her. I hoped that I might be joined by others – but none of my fellow jurors – some of whom were mothers – shared my perspective. There were some tense moments as 11 other people looked at me, silently asking me if I was going to get in the way of having this whole thing be over with.
The resolution arose after one man brought up the idea of a “grand bargain.” He asked me if I might be willing to find her guilty on the two lesser charges and not-guilty on the more grave charge of assaulting a police officer. I sat with this for a minute or so, as they all waited on my response. I realized that given the spirit of compromise in his question, I didn’t have the guts to hold the deliberation up and I reluctantly agreed. After the trial was over I met with the woman and her attorney on a bench by the windows outside the courtroom. I asked why this case was even brought to trial. Her attorney told me that if she had been convicted of the assault charge, the deputies who arrested her would have been immune to any charge she might have brought against them for excessive use of force. The best defense is a good offence. As much as this made sense, it made me even sicker – and it made me feel used.
For a few days afterwards I felt bruised. I felt the injustice of a world that works to protect the powerful against the vulnerable. I felt the loneliness of holding a stance based upon my heart’s deepest knowing – within such a world. And I longed for the strength to have held my ground. I ask myself if I would have the strength now – I so want to believe that I would. I know that if I do ever find myself as a potential juror again, I won’t hesitate to speak up about this experience and the way it has eroded my faith in the criminal justice system in our county.
This is holy week in the Christian world – the week we commemorate the last week of the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth. Standing my ground in a trial of an undocumented woman is small potatoes compared to his standing before Pontius Pilate and the Roman Empire. He, in all his humanness, certainly had the courage to lead with love. He teaches us to love our enemies, to care most for the least of us, to turn the other cheek. We’ve heard this many times, but putting it into practice is a whole other thing. Take, say loving our enemies. Love those who gas their citizens? Love those on the opposite side of my politics? Even love the guy on the trail who doesn’t control his aggressive dog? Loving no matter what is hard! And to do so often goes against what we’d think would be better judgment. But love is anything but rational.
Leading with love – especially in some situations – can be a radical act. It takes courage, it takes having a well of self-love to draw from and it takes being connected to something greater than us, greater than the whole situation. It’s that third force I’ve been writing about lately – the one that delivers us to another dimension. And as I work this path of becoming more aware and conscious, I see that living this way allows us to be truly free. Not the kind of freedom that is provided by protective armies – or by any kind of armoring, but the freedom of an uncompromised heart. It’s a long-term project to live this way – one that I’m determined to continue to work on.
After a weeks of a news fast, I’m back to reading the paper – carefully – trying not to take in too much rancor. I keep looking for anyone bringing in a broader, more loving perspective into the public discourse that I can hitch my hope to – There is a part of me looking for love to take the lead as it felt it would (for many of us) with the election of our last president. But I’m seeing the world entirely differently now. It appears that change must come from the ground up, rather than the top down. I feel the call for love to lead us from within. So, after my check-in with the world, I’m getting myself right back to making beauty – as art, as making space for others to create in, as caring for people, as meals I cook – in any way I can. It is when love leads that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
With my gratitude for the companionship of your love,
Brené Brown (no relation) is one of the heroines of my inner journey. Several years ago I watched her first two TEDs talks on vulnerability and shame and knew she was the real deal. I’ve read a couple of her books and have felt enormously supported by what she has to say. She’s since been on Oprah (two shows in a row at the start, because Oprah wanted more after the first one!) and she has become quite well known in the world. What she teaches is an antidote to much of the causes of inter-personal harm in our culture – as it helps people live whole-hearted lives. The perfectionist streak in me is tenacious and Brené Brown’s discoveries and teachings encourage me to lighten up on myself. Her latest book: “Rising Strong” has been waiting for me in my audio book library for a while. Last Saturday, after an unhappy exchange in the morning with my hubby, was the time to start listening to it. So, as I was working on finishing this painting above of apple blossoms and bees mixing the soft pastels of cobalt teal blue, quinacridone rose and hansa yellow medium, I heard her tell me about picking ourselves up after an emotional fall – and becoming stronger in the process.
One of the questions that she explores at length is: In any given moment, are people doing the best they can? It seems there are two pretty distinct camps. Those of us who tend to be hardest on ourselves, tend to be hard on others as well – and believe that people are absolutely not doing their best. Then there are those of us who see that everyone has their own story, their own capacities, injuries and experiences and that in any given situation, if they could do better they would. Though I continue at times to be pretty hard on myself, and to pass judgement on others – I sure was on my sweetheart on Saturday morning, I can easily find my way to the other camp. I see the wisdom – and the miracle of human interaction – that comes from giving someone the benefit of the doubt and not reacting as if there is something fundamentally wrong with them.
It’s funny how ideas tend to constellate and recur. This is a message I’ve heard in different forms before – some quite recently. I first heard it from Alison Armstrong. When she began her studies of how men and women interact, she asked herself these questions: What if nobody is misbehaving? And: What if there is a good reason for what they are doing? These two “what if’s” alone can be life-changing. Then just last week I was listening to a Krista Tippett conversation with Pádraig Ó Tuama who she describes as a poet, theologian, and extraordinary healer in Northern Ireland. Towards the end of their talk she quoted him as saying “most people do what seems reasonable to them at the time – most of the time.” She followed: “the people who may be so offending us and may seem frightening to us are actually doing what seems reasonable to them.” And there are certainly others in the world who might need to make room for me – when what I’m doing isn’t reasonable to them.
It’s a challenging idea. Brené Brown said that she calls herself the most likely person to be asked the question “even serial killers and terrorists?” Yes, even those who commit heinous acts are doing their best/doing what seems most reasonable to them/are not – in their minds misbehaving. This does not condone what they do, it does not mean that we don’t respond and protect others from them. But what it does is re-install their humanity. Though we may have the tendency to want to test the idea in these extreme cases, where it really can have impact is when we apply it to those closest to us.
I often read and listen to wisdom like this and think about all the people I love who I want to share it with – in order to bring greater peace and happiness to them. I’m so oriented towards those around me that I have to remind myself to consider it for myself – and to actually look inward first. Because, I can only offer the generosity of this perspective towards those around me if I’ve allowed that I’m doing my best too. It has become my tender desire – and intention to be as gentle with myself (beyond a wholesome discipline, says Desiderata). I am doing the best I can in any given moment.
From the stand point of the “other side” one could say that this is a slippery slope. You might protest by saying that we must be held accountable when we are not measuring up. Yes. We should. But the problem comes when the accountability-holding is cloaked in judgement and criticism (“you should have known better!”). When the response lacks any acknowledgment of our shared humanity, of our intention and our desire to do well, it shuts us down. Hard-liners don’t acknowledge that what we all want is to be heard, to contribute and to matter.
As a later-in-life teacher/guide to those who are discovering who they are as artists, I see how critical this idea is in the world of expressive and creative arts. I’ve heard many, many stories of those whose teachers did not come from the “doing the best we can” camp – who squashed spirits in response to tender sprouts of early art work. I have a few stories of my own – this is why after childhood it took until my 30’s to be brave enough to try my hand again at making art.
It’s the most important thing I do in the groups I lead – I create the container – a safe container – for the art to emerge from the artists. We are so vulnerable when we allow others to see the art we make – especially when we are first starting. I have had several people express interest in joining us, but feeling tentative about it because of the skill and capacities of the other artists in our group. It is hard – to imagine walking in with little experience or confidence, surrounded by these artists and their artwork. But every single one of us started one day and has a series of paintings that reveal the progression of our abilities. And, on top of that, if a new artist could hear the thoughts inside our heads as we paint – they’d realize that regardless of how the world gives accolades for what we are painting, we are often so lacking the inner-confidence one would imagine we’d have!
Life isn’t forever. We all will one day become incapacitated and die – and will no longer be able to pick up a brush and put color onto paper. So, as long as we bring a desire to express ourselves genuinely, what we do is precious. There is a note of grace in every impulse, every color choice, every dab of our brushes. We are doing our best in every minute. The miracle comes as we pay attention to the result we got and make adjustments for the next one. We learn and get better. It’s really that simple. It is my prayer to have the presence of mind hold this perspective as much as I possibly can. And when I can’t, to notice and adjust and grow.
With my love,
I spent the day last Tuesday sitting on the jury for this year’s Sausalito Art Festival. It’s a big honor – to be asked to review all the 2-dimensional artwork of those artists who applied to be in this year’s show. When I was first asked to do this several years ago I was very intimidated; a relative newbie to both making and showing art, I thought “what do I know about judging art?” It turns out it doesn’t take much special training or experience – responses to the art are pretty clear. The process involves clicking through four examples of the applicant’s work, plus one of their booth and reading a brief statement. It’s odd how this is – and I can’t explain exactly how it happens – but an impression arises readily. It’s amazing to me how much is conveyed about the artist by just five images and a few words.
There are those whose work doesn’t seem to have gelled quite yet – looking as if the different pieces of art could have been made by different people. And there are those who have landed upon a subject – say dancers, books or doughnuts that has become their “thing,” causing their art to lean towards shtick. When there is something consistent about the work – the method, the perspective, the color palette, the kind of subjects or the abstract patterns they use, along with something ineffable – however hard it is to articulate it, a kind of light shines through. I’ve discovered it’s not difficult to see the sweet spot between un-developed and over-polished and between scattershot and repetitive.
At the end of the day I was left wondering about these artists – what their stories are, why they do what they do and what keeps them making art. “Why?” is a very potent question – one that is important to consider – and endeavor to answer – for anything we undertake, really. In looking at some of the applications, the clearest answer as to “why” that came to me was: “to make money.” This is a legitimate reason – artists need to make a living! And this is a very expensive festival to participate in. But unless “to make money” is accompanied by other why’s, it can lead us to make “product” – as in something to sell, rather than creating to express our soul. I watch “make-money” at play in me as well. It reins in my impulse to play and experiment very much. Making and selling art has become what I do and people have come to expect a certain kind of art from me. Yet, I feel a strong desire to keep evolving as an artist. It’s a tricky balance.
My real whys are much bigger. First off, I make art because I’m alive, because there are paintings in me and because I receive messages from things around me telling me to paint them. I make art to uphold beauty, life and light in the world. I also make art because I am a teacher and I cannot be in solidarity with those I accompany on their painting journeys unless I’m experiencing the often noisy inner-process of art-making alongside them. There is an I-must-make-art force in me that is energized by all of this.
A while ago Sue Rink sent me a Brain Pickings article by Maria Popova about Henry Miller’s book, “To Paint is to Love Again.” He is preaching to the choir in the title of the book alone, but when I finally got around to reading her article recently, I found it full of affirming snippets from his book. I appreciate his connecting painting with loving, with seeing and how he writes of being in relationship with our art:
“To paint is to love again, live again, see again. To get up at the crack of dawn in order to take a peek at the water colors one did the day before, or even a few hours before, is like stealing a look at the beloved while she sleeps. The thrill is even greater if one has first to draw back the curtains. How they glow in the cold light of early dawn!”
I paint a lot in the evenings after dinner. I stop when my body starts to wind down; I get chilly and lose my ability to focus – time to climb into bed. In the morning when I look at what I did the night before with fresh eyes, it’s almost always a delight – my labors transformed overnight. Henry Miller further speaks to our relationship to what we are painting – our subjects:
“The practice of any art demands more than mere savoir faire. One must not only be in love with what one does, one must also know how to make love. In love self is obliterated. Only the beloved counts. Whether the beloved be a bowl of fruit, a pastoral scene, or the interior of a bawdy house makes no difference. One must be in it and of it wholly. Before a subject can be transmuted aesthetically it must be devoured and absorbed. If it is a painting it must perspire with ecstasy.”
I contend that art reflects the consciousness of its maker. Iain McGilchrist says that it’s not only a reflection of our consciousness but it is our consciousness in another state – our art is the physical state of our consciousness. Everything that has ever been started as an idea. So, with love in the room – when we are making love with our materials, with our subjects, in response to the privilege of being able to make art – the resulting paintings shine with love’s light – they “perspire with ecstasy” in Henry Miller’s words. Yes, painting is challenging, but love and challenge often – maybe always – go hand in hand. The thing is if we are “phoning it in” it shows it in our art. There are a few paintings I’ve done over the years for less than “in-love-with” reasons. It’s no wonder they are still here, unclaimed.
It’s a mystery where our impulses to create come from. What impels us to do anything? Why do we fall in love with a person, why do we desire (to do, to make, to have) anything? But I also think it’s something to pay attention to. Our “why’s” live somewhere in there. This applies to not just making art, or even creating, but to all the ways we are compelled in life. I know for me, first becoming aware, and then getting very clear about why I do what I do has changed how I experience myself. It en-courages me to progressively allow more and more of my soul into my artwork.
I offer a workshop on color that I named “Get Intimate with Color.” A part of me thinks is a silly name for an art class, but when I reflect on what had me come up with that name, I realize I meant it literally. I believe in being intimate with our materials and subjects. Intimate’s Latin root means “in-most.” It requires the in-most parts of us. Our soul is reflected in what we create when it emanates from there. To me this is the whole enchilada. Intimacy is relationship; relationship is connection; connection is the sacred made manifest. It’s the God in me seeing the God in you – and vice-versa. When we make art we connect – we become intimate with those who see it. For me, there’s no better “why.”
With my love,
It’s all gotten to me lately – the state of the world, especially as depicted by the news media, the political situation, the divisiveness and outrage that seems to be everywhere. I’ve been finding myself uncharacteristically depressed, wondering what the point really is to life. Please don’t worry about me; I’m not in any danger. I’m not at all lost – my inner witness is alive and well and taking notice of all of it. But, still it’s been no fun inside me. I’ve always been a pretty up-beat person. For most of my life I’ve generally sought out the optimistic position. From that perspective, I’ve looked about to see what’s good and helpful about what is. But these times are challenging my sunny nature in a way that I’ve never experienced before. I’ve been reading about “highly sensitive people” and taken a couple of quizzes online. According to the results I’m not off-the-charts sensitive, but I am on the spectrum. So I’ve been asking myself how I need to best operate in light of this.
Betsey made mention in the last little while that she’s become scrupulous about what appears in her email inbox. Then I read an email written by a politician who I admire and greatly appreciate who said that all the appearances, letters and phone calls are working. To which I thought to myself “Great! People are showing up. And since they’ve got putting the pressure on covered, I am free to do what only I can, which is make my particular kind of beauty and be love in the world.” This was the impetus to do what Betsey has done with my inbox. All these messages telling me how broken the world is have been weighing down my heart. Even if I wasn’t reading the messages, the subject lines are getting into my brain before I could delete them.
So, starting last week, I’ve been systematically unsubscribing myself from anything that doesn’t lift my spirits. Anything. I’ve overridden the voices that have told me that I should stay informed and have removed myself from all organizations that are working to “right the wrongs” of the world: political, environmental and human rights. Then there are all those who want to help me become a huge success selling my art – since I’m not doing all the things they recommend, these messages beat me with a stick – gone! Those run of the mill retailers wanting to sell me stuff of any kind – they are gone too. When asked why I’m unsubscribing, I’m telling them I just need a rest. I figure they will wriggle their way back in eventually. But for now, I want to hear nothing from any of them.
On top of this, I’ve not cracked open the newspaper, except to read the review of “Beauty and the Beast” on Friday, and the Food and Pink sections of the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday. I’ve not been listening to NPR in the car, but rather music on Pandora or an audiobook. I’m already noticing a lightness dawning in me – especially when I open my inbox. For starters, there are far fewer emails – reducing my overwhelm!
Since nature abhors a vacuum, it’s not surprising that something else has already crept into the space in my consciousness – a piece of writing I first read more than thirty years ago. I took French and a class in Greek and Latin word derivations (which woke up the word-nerd in me!) from Guerard Piffard at San Diego State. At the end of each semester he gave each of his students a copy of Desiderata beautifully printed on parchment paper in a calligraphy type with colored illuminations. Though this copy said it was from a church in Baltimore dated 1592, Desiderata was written in 1927 by a writer-poet, Max Ehrmann who lived in Terre Haute, Indiana. It became well known in the 70’s when it was published as an inspirational poster.
I put the Desiderata Prof. Piffard gave me in a frame that sat on a little table in the entry way of my first house, in my first marriage. At his request, I left it behind for my ex-husband when we split up. Though I don’t have my professor’s gift anymore, I do have Max Ehrmann’s words in me. Something in the last few days told me to look it up again and I’m working on learning it by heart.
If read through a cynical mind, one could attribute its popularity to the burgeoning new age when it came into the mainstream and read it as trite and Pollyanna. It doesn’t help that people have written versions of it for lovers of cats, dogs, horses and babies. But, the way I see it, the consciousness of the collective caught up to Max Ehrmann’s and people resonated with it. Regardless of how they’ve been watered down and made commonplace, these words written 90 years ago are a salve to my soul – especially these: “And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
As I mentioned last week, I’m also reading about the law of three and the Christian Trinity, which figures in here. The law of three says that when there are two opposing forces (affirming and denying), a third force (reconciling) arises to bring a fourth state in a new dimension. I’m called to be – I’m called to live as a third force person – neither affirming nor denying, but reconciling. And I’m trusting that the conflict has its purpose – it’s just that I’m not one to take part in the back and forth of it – at least not at this point.
You could say I’m rationalizing burying my head in the sand, but I’m certain that I am not. The law of three tells us that intensity of the conflict means we are headed for a whole new world that will ultimately be better for all of us. And my intuition tells me that we won’t take a linear path as we head there and along the way it will continue to be rough-going – it will likely get even worse before it gets better. The necessary reconciling third force must come from somewhere, so there’s a need for some of us to stay out of the fray – emotional and otherwise – and faithfully hold out hope for the future. As a sensitive, I cannot do this taking in a steady diet of all the conflict.
When I was in despair last week, I told my Sister Mary that if the world were devoid of beauty, I’d not want to keep on living. She reminded me that this is my job – I’m on the beauty beat. I know I’m not alone – my guess is many of you are too. If your soul is asking you to back away from the fray, I invite you to join me and keep yourself from the non-stop info machines. I’m certain that if there’s something we really need to know, some way we are really needed to show up, someone will let us know.
Desiderata in Latin means “things desired.” I’m pretty certain that a better world is what everyone, everywhere wants. And regardless of which of the three forces someone operates from, Desiderata, these “things desired” are supportive. Thank you, Max Ehrmann, for the life you lived, the words you wrote and how these words continue to bring us strength and hope.
With my love,
Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
In January I took this picture of a succulent growing in our neighbor Adrienne’s front planting bed. It was moist with dew with the light catching the edges just so. I cropped it square and posted it on Instagram. Two different artists who I know and love saw the picture and said they wanted to paint it. I’m not particularly interested in painting succulents, so I said “sure!” Last week as Bo and I were walking up the last stretch of street on our way to the dirt fire road we hike on, I glanced down at that same cluster of succulents and had this thought: “if Robin and/or Sue make a painting from the photo I took, it would be fun for me to have them visit so I could show them the very succulent they painted.” In my next thought I noticed how personal I’m inclined to be – even with a succulent that someone else may paint!
It’s not just any succulent that they’d paint; it is this one – growing right here in Adrienne’s garden. It’s not anonymous to me; of all the succulents in the world, I know specifically which one it is. Romance languages have two words for “to know” – one pertains to facts, to knowledge – this one is “savoir” in French. The other is used for people and places; it means “to be familiar with” – to know as family. The French word for this is “connaitre” – though I’ve read it is not the word’s actual root, I see it broken apart as con-naitre, “born-with” – which is just how it occurs to me. I know the things I paint in this way.
I don’t paint from random images – say those I might find on the internet. Besides there being copyright issues, there’s no way I can have a relationship with the subjects in these images – I can’t know what I’m painting. In the 13 or so years that I’ve been painting in earnest, I’ve painted from someone else’s image only a few times – mostly commissions. However, I just recently painted “Reverence” from an image taken by Paulette, an artist in our Thursday group. I think this worked for me because I know Paulette very well and I have visited her garden – so there is the familiarity I need. Plus she captured the light and a sense of intimacy in that image that just seduced me. Apart from this, I work strictly from my own images. I need to have experienced the flower or fruit or whatever I am painting, in its surroundings – in that moment. The camera saves the visual information, but I have the direct experience in my body.
When I was preparing for my first Marin Open Studios in 2007, I put together a scrapbook – in an old-school, sticky page photo album – of the images I used to make my paintings from, along with a little story I wrote about each one. I have no idea what compelled me to write these first stories, but it’s become a thing – I write a story for each painting as it goes up on my website. This has further become a test for whether or not I paint something. If there’s no story I can tell about it, I can’t imagine painting it.
Robert Genn’s post on The Painter’s Key’s yesterday added another piece to this. He wrote of the two spirits in each painting – that of the subject, the mountains, the person, the plant – “Nature’s spirit” he called it. And then there’s the spirit of the artist and the artist’s interpretation of the subject. We must be present with our subjects – have a feeling about them – in order to paint them with impact. This speaks exactly to my experience. I have had direct contact with my subjects, some kind of spark arose – the “paint me” I hear them say to me. And then there’s my own inclinations that come in – I crop it a certain way, accentuate the color, paint in large scale. I bring it through as a painting in my way.
There is a third spirit that Robert Genn didn’t identify – that of our materials. We also have a relationship with our medium, our paints, brushes, and the surfaces we paint on. I love watercolor paper – specifically Arches 300 lb. cold press. I’ve tried another brand but it’s not the same. And I love this medium – fluid, transparent, textured – watercolor has me. I’ve heard similarly about artists’ love of oil painting and chalk pastel artists who need the directness of holding the color in their hand. Certainly, there are artists who experiment and even create regularly in several media – but it’s got to be just fine to be happily devoted to one medium. Regardless, our materials have an essence that comes into play as we create.
After spending a certain amount of time painting, what I’m up to – and how I’m up to it – has been revealed. I sit solidly in the center of my work – I paint from images I take of colorful growing things – mostly flowers and fruit, where there is some emotional resonance – both in my desire to paint it, and as a result in the finished painting – for those it is meant for. This is – at least so far – how art is made through me. Though your way may be similar, it won’t be exactly like mine. On Sunday I was speaking to someone who had never made art before. He wondered if art students would all end up painting exactly like their teacher. When I told him that how we put paint down onto watercolor paper is akin to our handwriting, he got how this isn’t possible. No one else can make the art that is in us.
My sense is that coming home to who we are as artists is a process. As we are learning we experiment and try on a variety of subjects and materials. The thing to notice is what sparks your imagination, where your curiosity is, where your motivation to take action is. This is the discipline to adhere to – in heeding your desires and preferences for your subjects and materials. Over time we develop a greater capacity for intimacy with these things – when we can really see them, when we come to really know – in that familiar-with way – our subjects, our colors and materials.
In an email I read this morning, Cynthia Bourgeault used the metaphor of a braid for how three things come together to make a forth thing in a new dimension. Our paintings are this fourth thing – the result of the intertwining of the spirits of our subjects, our materials and ourselves. When we allow ourselves to touch and be touched – to get very, very personal with our subjects and materials, we make art. This art moves and inspires and has its own spirit as it goes into the world. Whether or not we realize it, we are participating in making new life. Here’s the thing – getting personal means we have to sit down and do it – we must paint! Simply being in possession of a bunch of images and art supplies does not make art! Devoting the time is an ongoing struggle that I’m familiar with too. One way that supports me to sit and paint is by supporting you – let me know how I can.
To your art!
I’ve become a new fan of the singer-songwriter Sara Barielles, after hearing her gorgeous and soulful version of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” An evening last week I was looking for something to listen to while painting and I came upon an hour and a half concert on YouTube of Sara singing songs from a new musical called “Waitress” based on an indie film from 2007 about an unhappy waitress and pie baker. Sara Barielles has written the words and music for all the songs. About halfway through this concert she sang a song from “Waitress” that I’ve not been able to stop playing – both in my mind and on my electronic devices.
“She Used to Be Mine” is the main character’s emotional anthem. I hear in the words and feel in the music something of every feminine-oriented being’s story (female or not). To me it reveals what it is like to be someone who finds their worth and safety in being an accommodator, a pleaser in a world that isn’t built for them – a world where being vulnerable and uncertain of oneself comes at a cost. The song mostly speaks a former version of me – when I was in my 30’s and facing that my life wasn’t going to go as I’d dreamed it would, even though I thought I had done everything right. That it didn’t lead to my growth, transformation and set me on my spiritual path. So, from the vantage point of today I’m not wishing that it had gone any differently. But I don’t remember ever feeling so met in the loneliness that part of me felt. Even today, my experience is that our culture doesn’t have much room for people with my sensibilities. There is something in this song that recognizes this too.
Me being me – living my life out loud – I’ve been sharing this song and my experience of it with the women in my life – including my three watercolor groups. The response to the song has ranged from much like mine, feeling like it changed something inside, to a simple appreciation for her strong and beautiful voice. The two artists in our Thursday evening group were both so moved that they asked that we not play any other music for a while. We ended up listening to the song five times – and nothing else – all evening. Ok, so it’s not just me. But my dear friend Vicki – not so much. She gently asked: “ok, so what exactly is it about this song that touches you?” I had to laugh. There’s hardly anyone I share with more deeply and unguardedly and she’s not one of us who this song was written for! This has had me thinking about art and how it impacts us – in a couple of ways.
First we must give ourselves permission to create what is in us. If Sara Barielles were to edit herself and only write songs that were edgy and irreverent – avoiding writing a “sentimental ballad” (as this song was described in Wikipedia) such as this song, then those of us who were so touched by it would not have had the experience of feeling so met and seen. To us this song is an enormous gift. I have been given this advice – to edit myself. It’s been suggested that I paint for the “market”: more abstract, in oil on canvas, more textured, pet portraiture – in order to make a commercial success of my art-making. This is what Steven Pressfield calls being a “hack.” As true artists, we follow our muses and trust that there will be someone, somewhere who we’ve painted this for. In my own work, I took an in-progress painting that had been cast aside, hanging out in my studio for a couple of years, and by changing the colors and composition so they really pleased me, it became the painting I named “Firelight.” When my coach Lissa saw it on her computer screen it triggered her to weep – for 20 straight minutes. When she lost her beloved husband a year earlier, she also lost her connection to desire. Something in “Firelight” reconnected her – her tears were tears of relief. Vicki saw in “Paris Roses” a feminine strength; Carol sees her two children in “Twin Dahlias.” There is this magic with art in how it connects artist to those who it is created for – and we artists cannot know the impact our work will have.
Still, I can find myself questioning that the art I’m making isn’t “different” enough. There is a strong message in our culture that we must be inventive, we must do something that has never been done for our art to be of merit. In this vein there is some really outrageous work made in the name of “art.” Modern art museums are full of it. There is nothing that can stop innovation – it is evolution – but I’m all for not losing soul in the process. IIain McGilchrist says this: “We confuse novelty with newness. No one ever decided not to fall in love because it’s been done before, or because its expressions are banal. They are both as old as the hills and completely fresh in every case of genuine love.” Flowers, beauty – the subjects I’ve been drawn to paint have been painted millions of times before, but never by this artist, who is living – who is alive – in this moment. If we bring ourselves genuinely to our creating, the art we make is just as fresh.
The next thing is that for each of us our audience is particular. In addition to those who love and are moved by our work, we must expect that there will be those who are lukewarm to what we do and those who will criticize it. A Wikipedia contributor called “She Used to Be Mine” “sentimental” – which I read as dismissive – while others were stopped in their tracks by it – see some of the comments below the YouTube video. As I’ve learned from Tara Sophia Mohr, it’s useful to view feedback as 100% about the giver of it. Though we yearn for and even need to have some kind of acceptance of what we make, there is this peculiar paradox: our work is a reflection of us and it also has its own life. Just like a child – who can look like her parents, but she is not an extension of them, she is separate and has her own soul and life force.
I’m discovering the path is to both embrace our sensitivity and develop the courage to risk revealing ourselves – our souls. It is how I’ve been able to not just take my art from plastic bags under my bed and show it to the whole world, but also to recover from paralyzing stage fright and step up in the face of my fear that I had no idea how to be a teacher or leader. This song is not uplifting – it doesn’t have a happy ending. Its singer is still lost. But it’s my experience that once I’ve let myself really be lost, something else – previously unimaginable – emerges. I left a destructive marriage freeing me to accept an opportunity to live in Paris. I felt my childless grief, propelling me to find another way to make a life that mattered. My way is the way of beauty, my Sister Mary told me last week. If you are here with me, it is likely yours too – whether you make art or not. We make our art – we do our work – for those who are there to receive it and the rest is really none of our business. Makes it easy, doesn’t it?
In beauty – and with my love,
I’ve just past the second weekend in a row when I didn’t pick up a paintbrush. Not once during the four days did I do what I love to do – sit alone with my work and bring something to life with paint on paper. Many times – I walked by my studio, glanced at my painting and felt disconnected from it. These pristine plumeria blossoms in the painting I started on our lovely vacation were waiting for me. Maybe it’s that we’re back home to winter, it’s colder, wetter and a bit darker. Maybe I’m responding to the season and weather. I also ended up catching yet another head cold – which did not help my energy level. The first weekend I was navigating through some rough waters in an important relationship – always consuming for me. Regardless of the reason, after painting nearly every day last year, I’m finding myself worrying when I spend too much time away from it. Did I set a “new normal” last year and am I off track, or is everything just fine?
I know that I drive myself pretty hard – at least on the inside. I expect a lot from myself – or those who love me tell me it’s a lot, anyway. What exactly is “a lot” is very subjective. But, when I find myself here – talking to myself like I’m “misbehaving,” if I can remember to, I step back. Perspective is always instructive.
I’ve looked at my activity – my time spent painting over the nearly 25 years since I was first introduced to watercolor. From 1992 when I took that first class with my mom until 2003 I painted very little and very sporadically. From 2004 – 2006 it was a few paintings each year. Then, in 2007 – when I first had an audience, a compelling reason to paint – I finished eight (!) paintings. The nine years since I’ve painted 75 more. So there is evidence of some consistency here — says she to the part of her who is afraid she’s starting to slack off!
Looking at the months in which I finished these paintings, I see something else – until I started leading watercolor groups in 2011 I took a months-long break from painting every winter. So it’s natural for me to hibernate. Leading groups year-round has provided me the structure to stay engaged with my painting life without taking long breaks. But has it made me more productive?
I’m a numbers geek and my inner-techie dug further. (This part of me just can’t help itself!) Yesterday I created a timeline which includes all the paintings I’ve done since 2000, including size of the painting, giving me a more complete idea how much I’ve painted these past years – beyond the simple number of paintings. Though some paintings are more detailed than others and thus take longer to paint, in general size is an indication of time spent painting. I’ve calculated the total number of square feet of paper I’ve covered with paint. (Yes, I’ve actually done this – I’ve reduced my paintings to square footage!) Here’s the chart:
What does this tell me? (Other than that I should watch myself so I don’t get lost in Excel spreadsheets when my paintings are not calling to me!) I see that taking long breaks didn’t mean I painted any less. If anything the last three or so years I didn’t paint as much as some years when I took time to rest my brushes. There are other factors too – I started writing these journal posts every week in late 2014 for one. And I planned and held two special events – Healdsburg and Paris in 2014 and 2015 – which took time and creative cycles.
My intuition says that it’s more the creative cycles than the actual clock time. We aren’t machines that can keep cranking out art like widgets. Painting to make something come alive on paper – and now I’ve experienced this with writing too – requires focus and brain power. This isn’t the same as doing something more task-oriented, something that can become rote in time. No matter how long we do this, if we are alive and present it demands of us something more.
This said, I am still a good student of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. I know the perils of not being aware of when Resistance is in play. But as much as I love, love, love this book and have been supported and emboldened by his writing, there is a macho element that doesn’t work for my feminine sensibilities. Maybe it is that men aren’t ever pregnant – and thus aren’t built for the experience of gestation – that he doesn’t speak to the rhythms of creative life so much. I do understand that if I don’t ever show up at my painting table or Microsoft Word on my laptop, that nothing will ever get painted or written. But there is a season for everything – it’s the way of life on earth.
The regular artists who paint with me on Thursdays and Fridays have a range of rhythms to their creative lives. Many paint only when in Larkspur, a small group paint throughout the week and the rest are somewhere in between. I’ve heard some of them express the desire to paint more (no one wants to paint less!).
Though the desire to paint more can be long held, more time spent painting doesn’t easily just happen. For me it took a life-change. Not having kids left a hole in me that eventually led to my jumping into doing art shows regularly and selling my work. It took this for me to spend so much more time and energy on my creative work. (2004 was when I realized I’d never have children – see the spike in my work in the graph above in 2005.) Other life changes I’ve seen catalyze the increase in creative output include: retirement, death, infertility, and burnout. All of these have in common that a space has been created or must be created for the survival of the soul.
You may think I’m contradicting myself – that on one hand I’m saying that we can only create so much and on the other that we have to work against Resistance to create at all – on top of this – to create more requires some major life upheaval – grief even. I’m saying it’s all true. If you’ve not been creating, it takes something shifting in your life and your self for you to devote real time to it. Having a regular commitment, like our weekly groups helps, but it won’t create the time the other 6 days of the week. It takes being aware of how Resistance can get in the way – because it will. But then – and this is especially for those of us who have spent considerable time in our creative work – to care for ourselves, our souls, and our creative spirits, we have to allow time to rest.
There is another thought that has come to me. This one is directed exactly at my self. It may be that what I need isn’t so much a rest from painting, but to spend time experimenting, playing with my materials – just for the pure joy of it. As an artist whose work is for sale, there is an element of commerce in what I do. Don’t get me wrong – I love what I paint and I paint what I love, but I still require of myself that the output be in line with my other saleable work. I’m not just goofing off — and goof off time with color sounds so fun right now!
See? Given the attention and curiosity I discovered something. I could use some play. So where are you? Are you harboring a desire to paint more? What might you need to say no to? Is there something in the world pulling at your energies that you can consciously shield yourself from? Are you like me a little tired at this time of year and need some play? Or is it that all is going along nicely? Step inside to listen to what you are telling yourself. Impulses, reactions, irritations, longings – they are all purposeful. They all point you to your own pace and rhythm in doing your work. They are part of our creative-life-health-care-system and I believe that not only can we trust them – but that if we are serious about bringing out the art that is in us, we must.
With my love,
A few days into this new year I decided I’d post a photo of something that I found beautiful on Instagram every day for the remainder of the year. We’re not yet two months in and I’m not doing very well at the daily part. I’m over a week behind today and most days since I last posted I’ve not taken any pictures of beautiful things. What’s more I’ve not even thought about my Instagram promise. Packing up, cleaning the house, traveling and getting into the groove of life back at home have all taken my attention away. While trying not to make myself wrong, I’m thinking about what it takes to integrate a new practice, a new way of being, and make it part of us.
I’ve heard of those who take on a practice for a year – a painting a day, a poem a day, running x miles every day, meditating every day – I heard of a restaurant reviewer in the Southwest who took on eating in a different taco shop every day in the space of a year. I wonder if these people are naturally iron-willed, able to carve out space and time for their commitment – for themselves – in a way that I just wasn’t born with. I am so easily drawn away from my priorities by just about anything and anyone. When I look at it from this direction, I’m impressed I accomplish all that I do!
I’ve finished something close to 100 large-scale paintings, I’ve faithfully written and published these posts every week for almost two and a half years, I can get stuff done. Maybe it’s the daily part that’s my challenge? Last year it was my commitment to paint every single day. It took both the presence of mind and the will to overcome inertia to paint all but a handful of days. There’s also the power of public commitment. Knowing someone is paying attention – and that you will see me if I fail to show up – keeps me on track. This is all useful in keeping a commitment – but I’m wondering if there isn’t a gentler, more integral way that we can shift our habits, how we spend our time.
On vacation I started reading a book called “The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible” by Charles Eisenstein. I told someone that I was reading this book and the response I got was “that sounds like a book you would read.” I get it. The title containing the word “beautiful” does seem to make it right up my alley. But what Charles Eisenstein means when he uses the word “beautiful” is beyond what people associate with me and what I do. He’s talking about living inside an entirely new story that holds every part of modern life differently. A beautiful world is not simply one with physical beauty for our eyes to take in, but is filled with generosity, forgiveness, kindness and humor – which we see with our hearts rather than our eyes. It is also a world that is in harmony with the planet and with each other – beyond scarcity, starvation and war.
It’s hard to put into words the depth of the impact this book has had on me – and I’m not even completely finished with it yet. I can’t think of another book I’ve ever read that has spoken to me as deeply and powerfully as this one has. I’m finding in this book a reflection of something I’ve longed to be true – which is giving me the capacity to find a kind of peace with – a way to hold more powerfully – the accelerating chaos of our world. I’ve always been naturally optimistic and am now a creator and purveyor of beauty, so if I don’t have another way to hold the breakdown happening all around us, I’m sunk.
Besides the overall idea and message, there are two things that I really appreciate in the book: the first is that he includes what his critics are saying about his ideas – and then answers them. This helps not only my own skepticism, but more importantly it helps the tender part of me that so much wants to step into this more beautiful world’s story, but is afraid that to do so is naïve – that I am a misguided Pollyanna if I do. The other thing I appreciate is that he holds that getting to – that living – this more beautiful world is a process. It’s a process that begins within me – and you. The part of me that aches to do something, anything, is calmed by reading that until we know exactly what to do, doing nothing is what most serves. There’s no “making this happen” as a force of will. In fact, attempting to do so is living the “story of separation” as he calls it.
So what if using willpower to force myself to do something I committed to – and fearing that I’ll be judged if I don’t – are both part of the story of separation Charles Eisenstein is describing? He writes about the role of pleasure in the more beautiful world – and how pleasure can be defined as the experience of having a need met. If the need is deep and true, the experience of meeting it is intense and potent. I see that I’ve been holding my daily post on Instagram as a box I need to check. But when I look at the need it fills, I recall the days so far this year I went out with my camera wondering what might catch my eye that I’d want to share. It’s one of the things I do that is the most me. It is in doing this that I encounter the seeds that germinate into my paintings. Immersed like this, I forget time, food, email and other distracting impulses – and I find it intensely pleasurable.
We live in a pervasive story that says we have no time for filling our soul’s real needs. It’s a story of money, of busy, of information, of not enough – and too much – at the same time. And it’s a story that perpetuates itself. It’s so pervasive that even when we do have the circumstances to fill these needs – say when we retire – or like me when I became blessed to make it my livelihood – we can still be resistant to spending time this way. It takes courage for me to place these needs at the top of my priorities. I might have taken just five minutes out of each day this past week to wander, open to being astonished by beauty. It was easy on vacation, but back in the “real world” doing so is hindered by the habit of rushing, thinking I have so little time. Here’s the thing, I can’t will away the rushing habit either.
I ended last week’s post with this:
It seems to me that one of the gifts of this time we are living in is that we are being given the impetus to decide what our priorities are and to get real about them. I’ve never been more certain that seeing, capturing, making beauty – and supporting others to do the same – is what I’m here to do. There is a beautiful world to save.
Isn’t it amazing that I wrote those words and then catapulted myself into a week where I didn’t live them? Reading these words today as if someone outside me is delivering to me this message, and I realize living this more beautiful world is a process that requires great patience and faithfulness. The idea of this world comes long before the living of it. But the living of it cannot happen until the thought takes up residence in us.
There is purpose in commitment and purpose in failing to keep it – as long as there is some part of us that is awake enough to notice that we’ve fallen asleep. In teaching about centering prayer – a form of meditation – Cynthia Bourgeault told of a woman who complained to Fr. Thomas Keating that during the 20 minute meditation she must have had to return to her sacred work 10,000 times because her mind kept drifting. Fr. Keating said to her what a wonderful blessing for her to be able to return to God 10,000 times!
This brings me to two thoughts: one is that we must be engaged with our soul’s needs and desires – like my need for beauty – we must start by paying attention to ourselves. The second is that we are supported by each other – especially those of us who are oriented around being in relationship. The shift comes when we are listening to our souls – and leaning into each other. This is how we return to beauty those 10,000 times.
With my love,
Sometime in the past few weeks I heard my coach Lissa say that she just read a book called “Beauty Will Save the World.” These words – just the title of the book – entered me and they’ve been not far from my consciousness since. Without even considering how this might be, I so want this to be true. Maybe it’s just a wish – a wistful fantasy: that we would all orient towards beauty and all the troubles of the world would evaporate. A cynic would scoff at this, and remind us of all the ugliness, greed, self-serving-ness at work in the world – causing so much pain and suffering. There’s so much darkness. Yes, there is. Then there is the whole question of what does it actually mean to save the world? It is a big question.
The next thought is that, of course this would appeal to me – a simple glance at the art that comes through me and you can easily see the stock I take in beauty. So, naturally I’m all for the possibility that my painting – and writing – contribute to something as great as saving the world. We all want what we do to be validated, to have its place. So, what about this idea of beauty saving the world? I had to know more.
Digging into it I found that it’s an often-quoted phrase from Dostoyevsky; he gave the line to a character in the novel “The Idiot.” Google reveals two books (one of which Lissa read) with this phrase as their titles and several articles. I’ve got pretty much zero literary background, so that this is, is all new to me. But, it’s an idea people have been giving lots of thought to for a while. One article pulled from Dostoyevsky’s book that it is beauty with suffering that is the world-changing formula. Our own suffering transforms our capacity for mercy – without it we cannot see another as ourselves. I’ve written before on suffering – and the wisdom in cultivating our capacity for it – ours and others. So, I am all on board with this idea. But is a world of just suffering worth saving? We need beauty too – beauty gives us the reason to save it.
The nugget that Lissa pulled from the book she read was this (from an email she sent me): “…in whatever is felt to be beautiful is a connection to the divine. In other words, our relationship with what’s beautiful to us is an unwitting relationship with the divine, and the deeper that relationship becomes, the more room there becomes for the divine to move/work through us in the world, thus the ‘saving’.”
Having the kind of consciousness that can experience beauty is part of what makes us human. I read somewhere that humans are the only animals that gawk – that experience awe and wonder. Being presented with beauty can wake us up, bringing us to an altered, transcendent place. I’m coming home today from a two-week trip to Kauai. Of all the places I’ve visited so far on here on our Earth, this is the one where I feel surrounded by beauty the most. Largely it’s in plant life – especially vibrant flowers. But it’s also the color of the sea, the mountain shapes, the sky, the ever changing clouds. There’s also felt beauty in the balmy air brushing against my skin and the feeling of being immersed in the just-cool-enough salt water and bobbing with the wave swell, warm sun on my face. The other senses – sound, smell and taste are offered beautiful experiences too. Being here is a beauty immersion.
We make a ritual here most evenings of watching the sun go down. One afternoon last week we stayed at the beach until it was nearly time. We packed up our things to walk around the point to get a better view from a spot on the grass. It’s one of the things that I love most about being here – we are more connected to the rhythms of the natural world. It feels instinctive. I looked beside and behind us, and before too long there was a whole crowd of people who had gathered – locals and tourists all together – facing the ocean. Simply our proximity to a western horizon over a large body of water draws us to witness – we watch the color and light change in the clouds and on the water as we rotate away from the sun, ending the day. We are drawn to beauty.
The change in our world has catalyzed a lot of action – people are talking about resistance and doing the important work of speaking up and showing up to support our democracy and protect the vulnerable. In the face of this, it can sometimes seem like what we artists are doing is simply making pretty pictures – one could say we are re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. I mused about this to my friend Vicki who said, that we must keep creating beauty – without it we are sunk. All you have to do is imagine a world without beauty: grey and lifeless – bleak, like some post-apocalyptic world out of a movie. The fear of a world like this is alive in many of us right now. This fear is part of the suffering that we are building our capacity for.
And – there is still beauty. As long as there are human hearts beating to experience it, there’s great hope. An encounter with it does something to us – connects us to something deep and primal. We will arise to preserve it – and we must continue to create it in whatever way we are called to. Art can capture and transmit an experience of beauty that endures beyond the artist’s lifetime. I’m coming home with a whole bunch more images in my contribution to this ocean of beauty. It seems to me that one of the gifts of this time we are living in is that we are being given the impetus to decide what our priorities are and to get real about them. I’ve never been more certain that seeing, capturing, making beauty – and supporting others to do the same – is what I’m here to do. There is a beautiful world to save.
With my love,