May 17, 2017 – Painting the truth

My tulip painting is coming along – I’m having fun with these colors!

Marin Open Studios 2017 has just passed, which means I spent the past two weekends hanging out at my mom’s real estate office in Larkspur, my artwork all over the walls, as people came in to see it. Witnessing the response to this art that I make from others – many of whom are complete strangers – is an interesting part of being an exhibiting artist.  I’ve come to realized that paintings – mine included – emanate a certain energy that some people can sense.  It’s like a radio station that is picked up by an inner receiver of that particular frequency.  But it’s curious to me – what is this transmission?  How is it that art and people have these connections?

It is certainly very individual.  There are plenty of people who either don’t even notice the art or, if they do, seem not at all interested.  My “studio” is a storefront space in a commercial district, giving my art the opportunity to be seen by passers-by who wouldn’t be walking by our house in a residential neighborhood in Fairfax.  People go by who are headed to the movie theater, the nail salon, the burrito place next door.  It is often assumed that I’d be busy all day with people seeing the art through the windows and wandering in, but even with a Marin Open Studios sign on the sidewalk inviting them in, not very many of those who weren’t already planning to, actually do.

Last Thursday, someone did.  It wasn’t even the official “open studio” time – it was during our painting group.  With nine or ten artists crammed into the space – lots of talking and activity, a woman walked in, almost in a trance.  Looking around she asked whose art is this? Someone pointed her to me.  She was on her way to a lunch at the Left Bank on the corner and was drawn in by my art.  It turns out she lives in London and was leaving town that evening.  She walked out having purchased three large prints of roses – completely unplanned.  She is one whose tuner picked up the frequency that Life in Full Color sends out, that’s for sure!

A new source of wisdom and inspiration has come into my life:  brainpickings.org – the site of Maria Popova, a Bulgarian-born Brooklynite.  She writes this beautiful and fascinating blog on culture, literature, art, history and other human endeavors, citing extensively from her sources.  I’ve just recently become a regular follower – and in the past few weeks every Sunday’s digest has provided me something that relates to this exploration of mine of what it means to be a human who makes art.  I bookmarked this post from a few weeks ago where she reveals Ursula K. Le Guinn’s take on art and its message – from the perspective of the art-maker and from its viewer.

Maria Popova begins with this statement:  “Art transforms us not with what it contains but with what it creates in us — the constellation of interpretations, revelations, and emotional truths illuminated – …” And then she quotes Ursula K. Le Guinn:

The kids ask me, “When you write a story, do you decide on the message first or do you begin with the story and put the message in it?”

No, I say, I don’t.  I don’t do messages.  I write stories and poems.  That’s all.  What the story or the poem means to you — its “message” to you — may be entirely different from what it means to me.

The kids are often disappointed, even shocked.  I think they see me as irresponsible.  I know their teachers do.

They may be right.  Maybe all writing, even literature, is not an end in itself but a means to an end other than itself.  But I couldn’t write stories or poetry if I thought the true and central value of my work was in a message it carried, or in providing information or reassurance, offering wisdom, giving hope.  Vast and noble as these goals are, they would decisively limit the scope of the work; they would interfere with its natural growth and cut it off from the mystery which is the deepest source of the vitality of art.

A poem or story consciously written to address a problem or bring about a specific result, no matter how powerful or beneficent, has abdicated its first duty and privilege, its responsibility to itself.  Its primary job is simply to find the words that give it its right, true shape.  That shape is its beauty and its truth.

She’s speaking about writing – as her medium – but I know this equally applies to visual art.  And I’d never considered this before – that there is a truth that our paintings hold.  We paint what we paint – for its own sake – for the sake of whatever we find worthy of our time and effort.  What happens next is out of our hands.  Ten years ago, my friend Vicki was one of the first buyers of my art.  She bought Paris Roses.  She told me that it took her to a place inside that she didn’t even know existed – a place that was both feminine and strong.  I had just painted roses that I thought were beautiful and Vicki received a message of truth.

Paris Roses – the painting that transported my friend Vicki

Several weeks ago I went to the reception for a show of watercolors by Paulette Engler, one of the original members of our Thursday group.  Paulette is amongst those who paints the most regularly and she shows more frequently than any of us – even me it seems!  Looking across the large room, one of her paintings jumped off the wall at me.  I said to myself that I wanted to have it in my life.  Though I had watched her paint it over a series of Thursdays, its transmission to me happened in that moment.

Paulette’s ‘Looking for Blue Skies’

She called it “Looking for Blue Skies” and painted it just after the presidential election last year – channeling her intense feelings into it.  I saw the largest of the pink flowers with its view blocked by the dark branches, yet I knew that inside that space it lived, pristine and un-marred by any darkness or chaos.  Paulette’s painting reveals a truth to me about light and dark and the un-broken, un-breakable-ness at center of all things.  I’d stake my life on it that Paulette had no intention to include this message as she was painting!

I love this idea that there are truths that are found, felt, seen, heard in works of art of all kinds – truths that the artist was unaware of until revealed by the receivers of the art.  Knowing this has me feel more deeply what it is I’m up to – what we are all up to.  But we also should not be over-conscious of it.  Ursula K. Le Guinn tells us to stay innocent to it.  She says to stay with our process, which for us is the specifics of pencil lines and brush strokes, and let whatever this magic is have its own life.  I hear a caution that if we become overly conscious of it we would get in the way of the “right, true shape” of our art.  These truths must find their own way, allowing the viewer to find their truth themselves – rather than hitting them between the eyes with our version of truth.

Going forward, as I paint, as I write my paintings’ stories, and as I give them names, I want to hold on to this innocence.  At the same time, I want to be ever more intimate with the spirit of my art.  Our paintings are our off-spring and I can see the parallels in parents’ relationships with their children.  We love them, shape them, support their way into the world.  But it’s not for us to say what they are here for, who they are here for.  That is up to them.  I end this post as I started it, curious as to the mystery of art and how it connects us.  I see that it is an enduring mystery – one we will never understand.  This feels – to me – just as it should be.

With my love,

Cara

One comment


  • Dear Cara,
    Again thanks for your inspiring and interesting post today.
    I know, it’s a while ago you wrote this but as I was cleaning up the clutter in my mailbox I came across this article of you and started reading again.
    So your inspiration keeps on going he?
    I paint myself and maybe creative people live another way, connecting with mind and soul and another “level” .
    Anyway, I just wanted to to send you my happy thoughts I received from you.
    Wishing you a happy day! And please go on writing, sharing and painting!
    XX

    September 8, 2017

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