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,
Two weeks ago four of us gathered at my mom’s office at the end of the day to take Hallelujah, my really big painting, out of the frame and into a huge shipping tube. Lissa Boles, my beloved coach, had claimed this one and the time had come to send Hallelujah on her way. I’m glad my intuition guided me to make an event out of it. A lot of emotion arose – tears even – at the reality of saying goodbye to this one. Lissa lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada – not exactly down the road – so it’s possible I’ll never see it again. Hallelujah was my first really big painting and it will hold a special place in the stream of art that is coming through me. We’ve had it gracing our painting space in my mom’s office for the better part of the five years since I painted it. Though I knew it was time for it to fly away – to bring light and color elsewhere – I also knew we will miss it terribly.
It was just a small group. Betsey, Virginie and Heather came. They heard me tell about how it came to be – how my heart started to beat fast when I happened up on the big sheets of paper at Perry’s Art Supplies, how the image came from my friend Brenda’s kitchen table. I shared how I guarded it from prospective buyers who didn’t “get” it – the way this big piece of art has been an anchor, a validation of something in me as artist. I told of people it has touched – especially Lissa. We had some nibbles and warm cups of tomato soup and then got to it. It took two of us to hoist it off the wall. Then we ripped away the paper backing and, one at each corner, started digging out the dozens of staples that were holding it in the frame. Big pieces of artwork are an order of magnitude greater to deal with – there are a lot of inches worth of staples and tape going all the way around them!
When we took it out of the frame and flipped it over, still mounted on its backing, I put my hand on it for the first time since taking it to the framer. These paintings are real things to me – I spend so many hours with them, with so much of my attention and focus – all the while my hands are all over them. Once framed, they transform – they become something more, but they also become less intimate to me, their creator. My creations and I are separated by the framing. There it was again – this thing I spent a very sweaty August on – I was bound and determined to finish in time for the Sausalito Art Festival on Labor Day weekend 2011. It took three of us to roll the big, heavy paper tightly enough to fit into the 8” tube. Not only was this a moment that my heart wanted to share, to mark intentionally, but I also really needed extra hands to do the job!
Entrusted to the care of the United States Postal Service and Canada Post, it took about a week to arrive safely in Lissa’s hands. We left the spot where Hallelujah was hanging bare for a week, but now the wall has been re-hung with other art. Its frame now awaits me to paint something else to put in it. I captured an image of Monet’s pond at Giverny two autumns ago. It is not so much about the lilies, but the blue-blue sky reflected in the water with the trees ablaze in fall colors around it. This one wants me to paint it – hopefully sometime this year. Moving on. In marking Hallelujah’s departure, I feel very palpably the flow of art coming through me and into the world.
When my friend Eleanor Harvey invited me to join her in showing my work at Marin Open Studios coming up on 10 years ago, my first reaction was “oh, this means I have to sell my work, right?” She gently said, “yes, my dear, this is the idea…” In that moment, I had my first sense of this flow. Somehow, I intuitively understood that if I wanted for art to continue to come through, I had to be willing let it go. Almost all just-starting-out artists hold their paintings very preciously. I did too. But after a while, especially if we paint consistently, and paintings begin to collect, there are at least some that we are happy to let go of.
I’ve encountered other kinds of artists along the way who seem to have little connection with their work, who have art stacked up and can’t wait be rid of it. Though there is a very healthy and alive part of me motivated for my art to sell, and is very happy when it does, there has not been one single original painting that has left my hands that has not tugged at my heart. It hasn’t become old hat – not one bit. I have to believe that this is related to the connection we have to these paintings of ours – and what of us we put into them. When paintings leave home, especially a big, important piece like Hallelujah, the space left behind has an energy, it’s a force. It’s said that nature abhors a vacuum – this space is a vacuum that our creative nature abhors. The energy is attractive – to re-fill itself.
The impetus to paint is very alive in me right now. Joe and I are here on the island of Kauai for a couple of weeks. I’m working on a short and wide painting of pearly-colored plumeria flowers, just after a rain (the picture up at the top). It’s from an image I captured when we were here last year. I’m lost in the “fuzzy background” at the moment, giving myself the treat of painting the soft pearly colors for last. Even on Kauai, where I could spend my time doing plenty else, I feel the need to be with my painting every day.
Not everyone is bound, or even aspires, to sell their artwork. Painting for one’s own pleasure is a perfectly fine reason to spend the time doing so. But things can happen, can evolve. In the time I’ve spent with artists who have made painting a regular part of their lives – and have also taken advantage of the opportunity to show their work – I’ve witnessed this evolution. Along with the tug that comes with letting a piece of art go is the affirming joy that someone else wants to make our creation a part of their lives – especially when it is someone who doesn’t already know and love us! In this is an exchange of energy, of life, of inspiration and appreciation that is hard to describe. For me this feeling is so big and unexpected, even as it happens over and over, that I don’t know exactly where to put it inside me. It is my hope that this feeling also never grows old either.
It’s very gratifying to even just finish a painting – there is such a sense of accomplishment. But if and when we come to the place where we show our work, the amazing can happen: someone is touched by our work. They feel something when viewing our work that we often didn’t intend or weren’t even aware of. There is a transmission from us to them through our work. What that something is exactly may not be communicated, but whenever someone buys a painting, it is there.
Some of the 537 Magnolias have work in a new show at the Sausalito Presbyterian Church. I received word that a member of the church was touched enough to buy a painting. The first painting to sell was given the name “Heaven Sent” by the group – named by the group because it was Holly’s painting – our beautiful Holly who we lost last year. She finished this painting of red-pink tulips just weeks before she passed away. The person received her transmission even beyond her time here on earth. I’m pretty certain we are not conscious of this when first touching brush to our paper – and if we did, it wouldn’t be the same. We are just painting. But when we come to the time to let go, we step into the flow.
With my love,
“The Magnolias,” as Sue has dubbed our group of artists, are having a show at the Sausalito Presbyterian Church and in preparation, Marilee asked for help naming a painting of hers. It’s a somewhat abstract painting of leaves in a wonderful collection of colors – Marilee’s full-spectrum palette. My first hit was that I would not be descriptive and include the word “leaves.” There is a soft, gentle quality to it and, if it were my painting, I’d name it something more essential – a qualitative description. She came up with the title “Kindness” – something that we can certainly use more reminders of. Then on Sunday, during our Painting our Prayers time, Marilee’s painting’s title came up and Jan was asked why I said this. I loved being asked – it gave me a chance to pause and consider what is in the name of a painting, how we name them, whether to be literal or poetic, when and why.
What I saw was this: though the visual impression is primary and most important to the viewers of our art, the names we give to our paintings can broaden, deepen and enrich their experience. I also saw that the titles I’ve given to my paintings have undergone an evolution, just as my painting has. The shift in how I name my paintings has reflected my stepping into being an artist and a messenger in an even more intentional and overt – even public – way.
For the first years I gave my paintings mostly descriptive titles: Honey Bee and Rugosa Roses, Squash Blossom and Bee, Queen Anne Cherries. Often there was another element in the description besides the thing I painted, too. I included the weather or season to put the painting in a particular time: “Persimmon Rain,” “Persimmon Sun,” “Apricots in the Sun,” “Mid-summer Zin,” “Apple Blossom Spring,” “Rhododendron Raindrops.” The spirit of place plays a significant part in my art – so there are those titles: “Paris Roses,” “BJ – First Tahoe Swim,” “Tropical Peaches,” “Southside Lily Pond.” And, people in my life have inspired titles: “Nancy’s Rose,” “Roses for Annie,” “Twin Dahlias” (for my nieces, Nicole and Kiersten). There is one exception to this. In naming the painting I called “Blue Door” I could have included something about its place – a village in southwest France. But, that I didn’t turned out to be even better. The title didn’t interfere in the imaginations of the people who were drawn to the painting. I’ve heard different people say they see that blue door as a place in Mexico, Italy, France, Spain, Greece – Tunisia even!
I could have called “Full Circle,” one of my earliest paintings, “Roses in a Jar.” But this one holds a special place in my body of work (it’s the only one so far that I’m certain I don’t want to ever sell) – it needed a title that would reveal this. The name “Full Circle” is a cue to read the underlying story of how that glass jar had come into my life and what the painting symbolized to me. Others that followed in this vein were inspired by: a song (“Touched by the Sun”), an election (“Blossoming Hope,” and by my favorite color (“A Celebration of Pink”).
When I gave a painting the title “Grace” it started what has become a “thing” for me – to find a single word that isn’t necessarily literally descriptive, which points to something beyond the visual image. Out came: “Awakening,” “Radiance,” “Faith” and “Hallelujah.” I have had help from those in my life – the paintings “Dazzling,” “Ripe,” and “Luscious” were their exclamations when seeing those just-finished paintings. These single-word titles are hard for people to connect to my paintings, but these names honor what these paintings are to me. We are generally teasing when we say these paintings are “my babies.” They are not living, breathing things, but they all have meaning to me – I don’t paint anything that I cannot write a story about. And it is my experience that they are my off-spring – as they do go on to have their own lives. Also, they each carry a particular energy, which is due an appropriate name. In that vein, I’m glad we are given names that have meanings and that I was named Cara, (which means both dear and friend) and not “Late-autumn Dark-Haired Female.”
About five years ago I decided to challenge myself to single-word names, not just when it worked, but with every painting. Restrictions spark creativity, so this has led to some made-up words. (This isn’t Scrabble, so I can do that!) As I stretch myself with these names, made up and not, I frequently feel a bit shy about the name – it can seem presumptuous or audacious. Even so, I’m both uncertain about the name and sure that this name is the one. After hearing it come out of others’ mouths a few times and it settles in. The painting becomes its name to me. “Zinoasis” was awkward at first, now this painting is an oasis of Zinfandel and there is no other name for it.
We expose ourselves when we dare to name our work like this. People could roll their eyes or criticize, but that’s always a risk when putting ourselves out there, revealing our deeper selves to the world. The thing is to both protect ourselves from it (don’t listen) and to develop an inner structure that is strong enough to operate in the face of the risk. It helps to hold the point of view that feedback is 100% about the giver of it, rather than about our work.
I finished a painting a few days ago. The title came to me when I saw the image, before I even started painting it. I’m calling it “Beatitude,” which I learned means “supremely blessed.” Alluding to part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount seems like a whole lot to put on to one of my paintings. I’ve tried to shrink back from it, as it seems like the most audacious and lofty title I’ve ever given to a painting. I shared it with Sandy Roos in yesterday’s painting group and she loved it and encouraged me to go with it. So, I signed it and wrote “Beatitude, copyright 2017” on the back side of the paper. It is off to be scanned and framed – no changing it now! I’ll share the full story behind the title when I write about the painting for the gallery on my website, but the main message is that even when things are past their prime and beaten up a bit, they are very beautiful – even supremely blessed. All this said, I’m still shaky about this lofty name!
Straight-forward, descriptive titles are fine. Even “Untitled” is fine. Not every one of us is called to be a messenger – or has the interest in seeing the meaning our art carries. Regardless, there is an in-escapable essence that emanates from our souls, which is conveyed in all that we do. This essence, as expressed in our paintings, is our visual voice. In consciously looking “underneath the rock” for what we might be saying with this voice, we become more aware of what we are up to. It just might show us what it is that compels us to make this art, why we spend all these hours with our brushes and paints.
Giving my paintings meaningful titles is a form of respect for what I’m up to in this life. It has me take my art and myself more seriously. These names are my attempt to call attention to the energy and essence in my paintings, which might increase the impact they can make. My coach Lissa said last week she just read a book entitled “Beauty Will Save the World.” Whether I read this book or not, today just that title is enough. It supports how vital it is that we re-orient towards beauty as a response to what is happening in the world. Look, see if you can see what are you saying in your work? What flavor of beauty are you orienting towards? It’s why you are here.
With my love,
Listen to this post:
My commitment to show up here at my computer, open up Word and start writing every Tuesday morning has shifted the way I operate the rest of the week. As I do the rest of my life there is now an observer in me, a part of me that is always on the lookout for what I might explore or even wrestle with on a future Tuesday. So, while reading the paper on Sunday, my writer-observer noticed a connection between two things I read – one in a restaurant review and the other in a reply to a question about a film. I saw a link between them as well as to a broader theme that has been burbling in me since the beginning of last year. Making these connections reinforces for me why Iain McGilchrist is so fervent in making his case for resurrecting and supporting our right brained way of thinking. I see that he is not exaggerating his claim that the future of our society depends upon it.
Here’s are the pieces I read in the San Francisco Chronicle this past weekend:
The title of Michael Bauer’s review of Motze called it more of a “food lab” than a restaurant. He had a cup of “bay laurel, roasted to approximate the taste of hot cocoa, topped with a small dollop of kefir.” He continued: “While it was interesting to discuss how it had a chocolate-like quality, in reality it couldn’t stand up to the real thing.” The review ending was what really grabbed me: “In the end, dinner at Motze left me full, but wanting; its food may be forward thinking, but is not particularly uplifting for the spirit.”
Then, in response to a question about a film that used technology to bring back the actor Peter Cushing from the dead, film critic Mick Lasalle said this: “It’s like killing him all over again … in the sense that it re-enacts the separation the soul from the body. And it’s an insult on top of that, because the very act of resurrecting his body without his soul suggests that we never had any use for his soul to begin with. So, I think the practice is creepy, morally sick and obviously the wave of the future.”
These two pieces brought to mind something else that recently came to me – another gift from Krista Tippett: her interview of Anil Dash on “tech’s moral reckoning.” Anil Dash is a tech-entrepreneur who was one of the earliest bloggers. He suggests that we all can contribute to the humane potential of technology: “We’re still sounding our way through this incorporation of technology into our lives. And it always does come down to — what are our values? And what do we care about? And what are the things we think are meaningful? And then using that as a filter to understand and control and make decisions around these new technologies. And that’s part of the reckoning I’d ask everybody who’s not in technology to have, is to raise that flag.”
I’m wondering if there isn’t a clue here in the divide that our society suffers from in this moment. There is a contingent that thrives on the division between us in its fomenting of hate. Our new President’s rise to power came in part by his exploiting these intense emotions, but we must not lose sight of the fact that he is spot on when he says there are good people in our country who have been left behind. The most material and important way they have been left behind is economic – which is big and complex and likely won’t change quickly. But I see the possibility that there is also a cultural divide that might be related to the extent to which the kind of “forward thinking” I read about in the Sunday paper can be de-humanizing – and is leaving people with the sense that they can no longer relate to this world. I know it does me.
I’m not suggesting that we go back – I don’t think that it’s even possible, we can’t un-know anything we know. Conveniences we enjoy are near impossible to turn away from. And technology has also connected us in potent ways. It’s all in how we use it. This brings me back to what I’m learning about the left and right brain ways of thinking. It might be worth a re-read of the comparison of traits in my post from last year to get a better sense, but basically the left brain has narrow focus, sees discrete parts and is more fixed. The right brain sees the whole, sees more broadly and is more open. Can you see how it appears that a lot of people on the more entrenched sides of both divisions are operating in their left-brains?
It is the right brain that is interested in what is new. Though we don’t think of technology this way, our right brains think “outside the box” and they are what bring us the ideas for technological innovation – that the left brain then sorts out how to make work. But then these innovations must be applied in a holistic, human-centered way or they end up being like the bay laurel “hot chocolate” or a soulless actor brought partially back from the dead. Or – even more critically – make it easier to de-humanize someone we only experience through the characters they’ve typed, as they appear in our electronic device.
I heard a song this weekend that has not stopped playing in my head. I’d heard it before – but it’s stirring in me now because it’s a shining example of the opposite. Sara Bareilles has taken Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and creatively breathed fresh, new life in it. She retains his song’s original spirit as she reveals her own soul in her version. It’s so worth a listen. I loved hearing Elton John give her his blessing in another video. He said: “I was so blown away by the version of Yellow Brick Road. I’ve never heard anyone sing any one of my songs like that – ever. I can’t thank you enough for giving your time – and blowing my mind with that version because when someone sings your song, they usually copy you – she made it her own. That’s brilliant.”
Fresh and new are a given, we are evolving beings, our consciousness is constantly expanding. We are pushing the envelope of what we mean by gender, and family and community – in what and how we eat, work and communicate. This is all good and I’m all behind it – it’s foolish and even squanders our energy to fight it. Where I want to chime in, where I see we need to pay attention, is that we aim to start from and end with our humanity, our shared humanness, that we keep at least a bit of our awareness tuned into the fact that every single one of us has a human soul. Every one. And when we forget, to help ourselves remember.
There is a significant, important role for art in this remembering. If there is a gift in the uncertainty so many of us feel, it is that the conviction to bring forth our souls – to bring forth all in us that supports life, to re-orient every day towards that which we find beautiful. And then we must resist anything that separates us from life – including misused technology. There is an invitation here to take our creative selves much more seriously. I feel it. Do you? We must live our love and paint on.
With my love,
Listen to this post:
The last couple of weeks in our regular groups I’ve spent time with several disconcerted artists who were at a bit of a loss about what to paint next.
There are a few things I notice about what I’ve just written: First I see that it is obvious (to us) that there is a next – another on the continuum of paintings which are coming through us. To an artist, finishing a painting creates a space that wants for the next one to pour ourselves into. Then, I see that the possibilities of what we could paint are literally endless – but, not just anything will do. There must be a certain something that meets us. It is actually registered by an instrument at the center of us whose purpose it is to recognize “our work.” It knows whether or not this particular arrangement of shapes, colors and contrasts is worthy of spending our time on. Lastly, we are happiest when we are working on something that does it for us. Left wondering whether or not there is another “something” – and our artist-selves are uneasy.
Art-making is a force that takes us over. It has its own ideas and is most satisfied when it is engaged with something that it finds inspiring, challenging or interesting. I keep a folder on my Dropbox called “candidates.” It’s an always-changing collection of images that my instrument saw as possibilities. I peruse this folder when wondering what’s next. Sometimes I feel like there are images for paintings waiting in line. Where is the time to paint them all? But sometimes a scan through this folder leaves me wanting for something else. Then, it might be time to turn to my larger collection of photos and Photoshop.
In preparation for a class I’m planning on modifying photos for our paintings using Photoshop, I found dozens of Photoshop files on my computer. These files reveal the tracks of my creative play, working to bring out the potential of an image. I saw the hours and hours I’ve spent cutting pasting, lightening, saturating, and combining parts of multiple files. Digital collaging has become an integral part of my process. The traditional art world teaches students to make thumbnail sketches and black and white studies. Though I see the value in doing this, I can’t bring myself to when I have the power of Photoshop at my disposal.
When I promised to paint every day last year, I drew a rose on a 15”x15” piece of paper and painted it using only a tiny palette with a few paints and a printed image (not looking at any electronic device). I did this so I could work on it anytime and just about anywhere – alternating with working on my bigger paintings. When this rose was done, I missed having a small one to work on, so I started the lavender rhododendron that I just finished last Friday. I’m again wanting a “little” painting, so over the weekend I went on a hunt. What follows is what came next.
I took this photo in the spring of 2015 when a bunch of us went up to the Russian River Rose Company in Healdsburg. With all the pictures I took of showy, colorful roses and the way I love color, I’d not guess I’d have this soft, quiet rose call to me, but there it was – that “something.” (The original image is on the left, below) I wanted another square composition, but I’d lose parts I liked if I just cropped around the rose. The leaf cluster from the bottom, right corner came up and tucked under the rose. And the upper left corner with sky and leaves peeking through, came down. You can see these two parts duplicated in the right image:
Then it was ready to be cropped (below, left). And me being me, I had to bring out the color (right). I saturated the whole image, then I brought out the red (pink) and blue some more:
Next I realized that the vertical part of the rose arbor wasn’t actually vertical (about a third in from the left). It took a bit of work to rotate it and still keep the background parts in I wanted – I had to back-track to the uncropped version and make just the rose a bit bigger. Rotating it also had the rose hanging down more, which I liked. The result is below, left. Finally, I wanted to bring out some of the detail in the darks. Especially since I am going to paint this from a printed image – darks are always darker in a printed photo. The final image is below, right.
I am so very grateful to Steve Kimball and the time I worked for him at Light Rain. Not only did he pass along to me the valuable knowledge of how artwork is reproduced, but he taught me how to edit photos in Photoshop – which I now could not do without. When I first started painting I collaged images for my paintings the old fashioned way – with printed photos, scissors and tape! I go to Photoshop regularly, not only in my own work, but I often make simple changes to the images for artists in my groups. Hence, the upcoming class – we all want to be self-sufficient in our creativity.
Two recent examples of changes made under the art direction of two artists who had been at a loss as to “what’s next” (original photos on the left):
We carry around in our psyches ideas that using technology in this way is somehow “cheating.” But the way I hold it is that we each have a line – our limit in the use of technology. People now make art entirely with technical tools. Using special hardware tablets and styluses and art-making programs with different brush sizes and styles, incredible art is being made – all in the digital realm. Doing this does not really call to me – not seriously. I want real paper and real brushes, water and paint.
When I was working for Steve, he suggested that I could use a filter to identify just the edges of my image and then send my watercolor paper through the printer to print the contours of my image, saving me the time of projecting it and using a pencil to make the drawing. I appreciate being offered this idea – as it pointed out to me my own limit. There is an element of “cheating” for me if I don’t make the drawing with graphite myself. Besides, graphite is erasable, printer ink is not! But if this idea appeals to someone else, I say go for it! We get to choose what combination of using art materials that have been around for centuries and brand new technology we use.
There are only three rules that have occurred to me – at least so far – in our regular groups. 1 – Only watercolor paint because it’s relatively low impact and we are in my mom’s carpeted offices, not in an ok-to-get-messy art studio. 2 – No one can disparage anyone’s artwork, hopefully even their own. 3 – The music (which is necessary) can’t make anyone crazy – you can’t paint if the music makes you nuts! Beyond this, anything goes. Really, anything – especially when it comes to making art. Just because I don’t use masking fluid very much or I don’t like black paint, neutral tint or Payne’s gray doesn’t mean anyone else can’t use them!
I found myself saying last week that I see my job as doing anything within my capacity to support those who come to me with a desire to paint, in bringing forth their art. This means passing along watercolor skills (of course) and using technology in any way I know how. Also not insignificant is to support of their minds, hearts and spirits through the often bumpy inner experience of making art – especially at the start. Eventually we realize that, though it does get easier, it’s always going to be hard in some way.
I’m going out on a limb to say that for all of us, landing on something to paint and then applying ourselves to see it through to completion is just about the most rewarding thing we now do with our lives. We can trust that our art-making force is strong enough to get us through, as long as we give it the time and space – and then get out of its way!
Here’s to what’s next!