April 19, 2017 – Art springs eternal
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.
We are afraid of being judged harshly – for good reason – it can be devastating. I also hear the stories of how something said – often by an art teacher – to a budding artist about her artwork has shut down her capacity to make art for years – decades even. “Why would you do that?”, “You don’t have a real style.” “This is trite.” “Are you going to paint another pink flower?” “You have no talent.” It’s like a tender, fresh, green sprout, just coming up to see the first light of sunshine is stepped on and crushed by a big heavy boot. Just as we cheer our babies’ first tentative steps – we don’t judge them for not being able to run already – the first attempts at making art are precious and are to be celebrated. It’s more complicated with us grown-ups, though. Babies lack our self-awareness and generally don’t compare their walking to those around them and then give up trying. It’s noisier in our heads.
When I first began leading groups I had no idea what I was up to. It was because of my own fears of teaching, that I didn’t know what I was doing, that the first gatherings of artists were just that – gatherings. Now I see that the most important thing I do is create an environment that fosters both the sprouting of fresh, new art and the continuous growth and exploration of those who are beyond the seedling stage. My self-assigned job description is to do anything within my abilities to help you bring forth the art that is in you. Part of this is demonstrating, describing and coaching the skills of handling the paint and water. Based on my experience and preferences, I can recommend certain kinds of materials. I can help you with composing your images in ways that please you; and I help you problem solve all along the way. But what is most impactful is who I am for you when you come to paint – and who and what you and your art are to me.
The famous Martha Graham quote illustrates this: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.” It is not lost on me that as your “art teacher” I have the capacity to support this energy coming through you – as well what I say to you can shut you down even more readily.
But I have come to see that what’s really happening isn’t so much that I am teaching you anything – what’s really happening is that you are learning. Teaching is active – an attempt at a me-to-you transmission. But no teacher can make any student learn anything. Learning is passive, it just happens – and often without the teacher doing anything! For learning to happen we must be open and receptive. Then there’s attention and awareness – when we carefully observe what happens when we have more or less water, or when we mix two colors – we gain experience that grows us.
Yesterday’s “Painter’s Keys” post quoted Winston Churchill: “I have a naturally curious mind. I like to learn things but I do not like to be taught.” Reading this, I saw myself – I saw how I’ve never liked to be given activities by teachers that I found pointless, boring or uninteresting. I didn’t want to play with the flash cards when I was on Romper Room, I wanted to play with the dolls; I knew what I liked at age 4. This has done two things to who I am as “teacher:” First, I won’t give assignments – I want to encourage the part of you that I’m convinced does know what you want to paint. Then I stay out of the way as much as I can. I say all the time “if this were my painting, I’d…” because I have no clue what the art that is in you looks like – and how it is to be done. I love it when artists in my groups decline my suggestions. This is their sovereignty – I endeavor to never forget whose painting this really is!
It’s springtime and after all the rain we’ve had (and are still having), green is coming up out of the earth like we’ve not seen in many years. It’s exhilarating to be out surrounded by it – after the years of drought we’ve had. Art-making is like this. Just as the potential for all the green grass and wild flowers has always existed in the ground, awaiting plenty of water, the desire to make art, once in us, is available for the right time and conditions for it to pour out of us too. Like the earth our lives have seasons and times of drought and deluge. Art doesn’t seem to come when we are taken up with work, caring for loved-ones, moving from one home to a next. It comes mostly when a space arises, when things quiet enough to hear the voice that says “I want to create.” Though sometimes – and I see this a lot on Thursday evenings and Saturdays, the desire to create won’t bear the wait. It is a privilege to be able to support those pushing back on all that pulls at them to make the time to paint. Even if there are just a few who come, I have to keep these groups going!
Fear is a form of resistance that makes taking action to overcome it a victory. Regardless of the result when we put brush to paint to paper we are victorious over the fear that would stop us. The desire to make art is that force, that quickening. And it has the capacity to overcome being crushed by criticism as well as to survive the droughts of time away. With the right kind of nourishment, it will sprout again. I feel it with every new painting – the thrill of beginning. We here are having an amazing spring – is something sprouting in you too? If it is a watercolor-painting-sprout, I’m here to shine light on it. Let me know!
With my love,