Entries from July 31st, 2014

Flowers (part 1)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

flowers 1

“Easy is right. Begin right and you are easy. Continue easy and you are right.
The right way to go easy is to forget the right way and forget that the going is easy.”
Chuang Tzu

After getting irritated and bored with the painting in Minutia post, I started this painting with the intention of maintaining interest and curiosity throughout the process.  For me, this means following the enigmatic advice from Chuang Tzu.

I love what Tzu suggests about the natural flow of life energy and the creative process, and about the need to let go of attachment the idea of “the natural flow of life energy.” I memorized this quote years ago, and I repeat it to myself during times on the path where things don’t feel easy, and I seem to have lost the “right” way. It usually helps me soften and find my footing again, find my energy to keep going.

I’ll post my work on this painting each day until it’s finished, using Tzu’s poem as a compass. Stay tuned if you’d like to see what happens.

Easy is right.

Becoming

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Becoming

“…remember that the light is within
if it is anywhere
and you must paint from the inside.”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti

“Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.”
Steven Pressfield, from The War of Art

I’d been painting less than a year when this woman, who looked a touch like me, showed up on my life-sized canvas with an open window and birds where her heart was. She looked at me unblinkingly, the light inside her almost too much to bear, and I knew with absolute certainty that, in painting, I was becoming who I already was. I also knew that I’d keep painting, that I’d never again let something within my control stop me from making art.

The image reminded me of the Coptic icons in the church of my youth, but instead of a religious painting, I’d created a secular icon.  The woman in the piece seemed okay with the nature of life, with love coming and going like the birds from her open, well-lit window of a soul. She was encased in a soothing blue that faded to black, the shape of a temple door, perhaps, or a coffin, indicating acceptance of impermanence and death. Yet the light was so strong, I sensed it would continue long after the mysterious darkness claimed her. I’d been afraid of death since the cancer scares in my teens and early twenties, and this painting seemed to say, “Don’t be afraid.”

I didn’t have to look for these meanings, they were just there, as clear and simple as her big unwavering eyes.

I hung the piece in my house, but it proved too intense for me. She overpowered any room I put her in. It just didn’t feel…appropriate.

I showed the piece and was relieved to sell it to a young woman in nursing school who said she needed to see the image every day.  A couple of months later, she sent a card with photos of her smiling next to the painting, which she’d hung centrally in her living room in an Atlanta apartment. I marveled that the two women shared a resemblance, and in their smiles had forged a private relationship, one I wouldn’t be privy to–an inspiring one, I hoped.

I was glad the painting had found a new life with someone else. I needed to pull my own gaze back and focus on the next canvas.

The Baby and the Market

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

the baby and the market

Recently, a therapist quoted me a line she attributed to Carl Jung, “Don’t take the baby to the market.” It reminded me of the question of when to share our creative initiatives, and when to protect them from outside influences. When we  first start making art (broadly defined), even if the ultimate goal is to share with others (and there’s nothing wrong with that–connection is why we’re here), there may be rightful time for incubation, a sacred phase in which we need to keep something safe in the womb, just for us, while it’s gathering strength for the outside world.

I wish I’d known this at 21, when I decided to share a series of intimate black and white drawings with a public audience. I was in college studying political science, and I had stumbled upon drawing during my part-time job at a telephone survey center. I had a lot of idle time on my hands waiting for people to answer the phone and reject me, so one day I dusted off an old high school sketchbook and took to doodling to pass the  hours. However, I soon realized that the images were anything but doodles; they arrived whole with their own style and seemed to carry messages about parts of myself that needed healing, parts I didn’t want to acknowledge and didn’t know how to consciously face.

Drawing at work felt way too exposing, so I started coming home from classes and work and drawing every night. I had no idea what would come; I was just so curious, so fascinated. I didn’t ask any questions about what the drawings meant. I worried that doing so would stop the magic portal that had somehow opened to my soul. Probably the more likely truth is that I just didn’t know how to deal–let alone heal–so I was afraid to recognize how hurt and fragmented I was. So I just came home and drew, and the images kept coming, and I suppose they were their own kind of healing, though I didn’t know it at the time.

As the drawings accumulated, I showed them to a few people who suggested I do a little art show. I was excited about this and scheduled an opening at a casual local venue. I invited friends and family; friends and family came. A few people were even kind enough to buy things; that made me feel good.  I drew some more, and did another show, and then another.  But by the third show, something was wrong.  Some people liked the drawings, but others were whispering that they were disturbing. They didn’t connect. They didn’t know what the pictures were about.

Neither, in fact, did I. The problem was that I hadn’t gotten enough distance to see the messages in the work, to know how deeply personal the pictures were. I showed them to an audience before I understood them, which was equivalent to revealing a wound to people before I even knew its dimensions. When people didn’t understand my drawings, I felt like they didn’t understand me. And because I didn’t understand me yet, I couldn’t clarify, couldn’t even find my own ground inside where it was enough that I understood myself.

So I shut down. I packed up all the art supplies and slid them under my bed. I felt what I now know was good old shame. In her book Daring Greatly, researcher Brene Brown describes shame as the warm wash that makes us want to hide away our vulnerable parts, because we’re afraid that we’ll be deemed unworthy of love and belonging if others see us so exposed.  I’d exposed myself; I’d taken my baby to the market before I even knew its name, and my baby had gotten bumped and bruised. At that time in my life, this was too much for me. I wasn’t ready to stand with my art on my own terms, or even with myself for that matter. Sure, I was courageous to share, but in retrospect, I shared too early.

The shame was so great, I didn’t touch art supplies again for several years, until I started painting.

Why I Paint Trees

Monday, July 28, 2014

Why I Paint The Trees

Yesterday, a colleague asked me why I paint trees. It’s a question I’ve rarely answered because it’s a long answer, and I never know how interested someone really is. So here it is, if you’re interested, as I know it to be: Why I paint the trees.

It has, like most true stories do, more than one beginning.

Years before I started painting, I was sitting on a surgeon’s examination table awaiting lab results. He’d operated on me to remove pre-cancer when I was eighteen. There was a chance it would come back. This was my first confrontation with my mortality, and I was terrified.

I scanned the windowless walls for images to comfort me–a forest, perhaps, or a tree losing its leaves–something natural to remind me that all living things are in transition, that I was not alone. But I found nothing of the sort–no paintings, no posters, no plants, no art, no color.  It was the first time I distinctly remember missing trees–the first time I needed them and they weren’t there.

The incident stuck with me as I went to other appointments, routine and non-routine check-ups in the years that followed. Very few medical offices seemed to take an interest in art, and what decorum was there–a dusty fake plant, an amateur sea-side painting rescued from a deceased grandmother’s attic, a Wal-Mart poster in a shiny plastic frame–these struck me as vapid as the elevator music playing in the background. Why was this, I wondered? What other places did people go frightened and alone, facing the great unknown horizons of their lives, without access to natural light, windows, breathing plants, and other helpful reminders of the natural world? What other places were people vulnerable and waiting without anything close by to remind them of the larger whole?

I thought of prisons and hospitals, of windowless offices and apartment buildings and cells where people lived without access to nature or without art in their lives. I thought of the art I’d grown up with–the elaborate icons along the front of the Coptic Orthodox church of my youth–how many hours I’d escaped into them while the service droned on in a foreign tongue and the incense and fasting made me nauseous. I thought of the time my parents bought a painting at an art festival and arranged to send the artist 50 dollars a month until we paid it off. We were poor but to my parents, that painting was survival; they needed it.

All this made me think about art as necessity rather than as luxury.  I thought of the museum exhibits I’d seen where ancient cultures adorned their everyday objects with extraordinary beauty, using whatever was available–shells, stones, feathers, gems, clay. They didn’t have to make these items so ornate–after all, they were “just” utensils, water vessels, clothes, shoes, blankets–but they did. To me, this pointed to a way of living in which the everyday was sacred, was worth noticing and imbuing with intention, craftsmanship, wonder, and love. Perhaps you, too, know the feeling, the way morning coffee or tea tastes better from a handmade mug.

That was the first beginning with the trees.

Then, early in graduate school, I bought my first original painting for 400 dollars. It was an oil painting by a self-taught Gainesville artist, a passionate and informal impression of purple pines in late peach light. I hung the piece over my couch and spent countless hours staring into it, imagining I was walking through the pines towards the sunset behind them. It was an extravagant purchase; I’d used my student loan money to buy it, and it cost me as much as a month’s rent. But I needed the painting, needed the window it opened over my couch, and ultimately needed the new horizon it opened in my life.  That was the second beginning, but I still hadn’t started painting.

The third beginning had to do with a now-defunct place called the Gestalt Center of Gainesville, Inc. I was in training there for five years, in addition to the training I received in my graduate program. We had a joke around the Gestalt Center that school was the place you went to get licensed, but the Gestalt Center was where you learned to do therapy.  For me, that was the truth.

The Gestalt Center was run by my beloved mentor, the late Dr. Pat Korb, who was a contemporary of Fritz Perls. She was old when I met her, and very wise. On the chalk board at the Gestalt Center, the “rules” were written: 1) Show up. 2) Slow down. 3) When you speak, speak your truth. 4) Put your attention in the process, not the outcome.

I did a lot of my own personal work in those gestalt groups, and got to watch a masterful therapist work with many, many group members over the years. The mascot or symbol of the Center was a hand-drawn tree, with each of the roots symbolizing the theories and ways of being that support gestalt therapy, the trunk as the person-in-relation, and the branches as the skills and techniques available to a gestalt-oriented therapist.  The tree also represented a very important concept in gestalt therapy–that of holism, process, and the continual interaction between a living organism and its environment.  This was a different way of looking at myself and the life around me than the perfectionistic lens I’d been using. For me, trees came to represent a sort of vital acceptance–both of myself and of life as a process that could perhaps be trusted.

I started looking at the trees more intently, noticing their similarities and differences, learning their names. I also saw their scars, the places they’d been pruned or dropped branches in a storm. Places where they’d gotten a disease or suffered a bug infestation. Even the same kinds of trees were so different from each other. Their shape expressed something about their innate forms, but also their interactions with the environment.  I found in this metaphor permission to begin to accept myself. I could find no perfect tree, and no perfect me.  But I loved the trees for their differences, for their scars, for their ability to grow anyway, even if they weren’t quite getting the optimal resources. I began to love myself in this way, too.

When I felt the urge to paint, it was during one of these weekend gestalt groups. I actually got up in the middle of the group, left, and went to the art store right then. All these beginnings had gathered inside me enough to know and trust the urge. I’d wanted to paint for a while, and now it was time. I went home from the art store with my supplies and immediately started painting, trying to follow the same “rules” of process I’d learned at the gestalt center.  I wanted to just show up and paint my truth, and focus on the process rather than the result.  I wanted to allow whatever was inside me to emerge.

And then the trees just came.  They came as my first subjects, and though I painted (and still paint) other things, the trees keep coming. And they mean all these things to me, have all these beginnings, these possibilities for growth, for solace, for acceptance, for process.  I make my paintings thinking of those windowless rooms of my past, and those places in all our lives where we feel lost, frightened, and lose sight of how our story connects to a larger whole. I try to make the paintings I would have wanted to see in that surgeon’s room at 18, and the ones I still want to see today, when I’m waiting, when I’m worried, when I’m hurting, when I feel alone.  I want to bring the trees, and all they mean, inside, so I can be reminded, along with anyone else who needs the reminder, to show up, slow down, share our truth, and put our attention on the process of living.

Minutia

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Minutia

Pictured above is a small area of a much larger painting I hope to finish today. There’s a lot to do–all the branches and trunks need attention, need to be lightened and darkened, need texture and form. If you look closely, you can see places the branches don’t quite align as they pass under others, and black outlines that need slight thinning. Before I can sign it and move on to the next, I must address all areas of irritation.

Today is long work in the trenches, the concentrated minutia that will ultimately make the work shine. It’s also the tiresome work, because the composition is done, and part of me is already finished, too, impatient for the next yet-unknown arrival. I’ve worked on this painting for over three months, losing steam in the final character-building stage. But it’s also in the minutia that I learn commitment, learn to carry a labor of love all the way through.

While I prefer silence early in the painting process, during the minutia phase, I’ll listen to music and podcasts. Time in the trenches may be repetitive, but music and podcasts remind me that others are down there too.

Their signals help me keep at it.

The Bookshelf

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Bookshelf

I was raised with a wonderful bookshelf that reached so high I couldn’t access the top shelves until I was grown.  The bookshelf was the first thing my parents set up when we moved to a new house and the last thing they dismantled when we left.

For most of my childhood, I lived without TV, and the computer didn’t arrive until I started high school. The bookshelf was part entertainment and part oracle, and seemed to possess endless wisdom. My father stocked it with rotating classic fiction, poetry, art books, books on death and dying, philosophy, spirituality, political books, biographies and autobiographies. It housed visiting books as well, the loot from frequent family trips to the public library.

As a child with big questions about life, I would go to my dad and we’d talk for a while. Eventually he’d say, “You know, you might want to check out _____; it could be an interesting read for you right now.”  We’d walk to the bookshelf, scan it until we found the title, and then I’d head to my room and read. The book inevitably raised more questions which I’d bring to my dad, which inevitably led to more dialogue and another book recommendation.  This was perhaps the most consistent, positive, and formative aspect of my early development as a therapist, though I didn’t know it at the time. Back then I was just hungry, and the books were nourishment.

Today, my two oversized counseling chairs are flanked by adjacent bookshelves stocked with the titles that have helped me. Seeing them as I work with clients reminds me that we don’t necessarily have to be lonely as we traverse the hard passages of our lives. Others have gone before and left their remarkable notes and field guides. Sometimes learning, growing, changing, and even healing come from simply hearing another person’s report from the ground and recognizing in it a startling truth of our own.

In the tradition of my father, I often recommend books to my clients; some take me up on the suggestions, many do not. I personally can’t imagine navigating life without books, but I never expect clients to follow up; it’s their choice. When they do, however, we engage in the kinds of conversations that must have delighted my father when I’d come to him with dog-eared books in hand, to sit and wonder about what the books meant for my own unfolding story.

Below are a few titles that have kept me invaluable company on my creative journey; perhaps they might be good company for you, too.

Kids Know

Friday, July 25, 2014

Kids Know

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
Pablo Picasso

Another reason I didn’t want lessons: I believed Picasso. I wanted access to the spontaneous, natural quality of play that children bring to art-making. I’d lost it, and I wanted it back.

Today, some of my favorite studio visitors are my nephews and the neighborhood kids. They walk in and immediately want to get involved. They pick up my brushes and pallet knives and start poking at the piles of paint. They walk up to my canvas and slide their grubby hands across the surface, feeling for the wet parts. Of course I have to intervene, but I do this by acknowledging their curiosity and excitement, their desire to participate in the action. I grab a sketchbook and the jumbo box of crayons I keep for just these occasions. I lay them out on the floor and say, “Here, make something too. Let’s make stuff together.”

Their pictures amaze me. Usually, they’ve looked up at my painting for inspiration and made a simplified and highly creative interpretation of my composition. I look down at their work and think, “I wish I’d made that. I’m stealing that.” Their work is innocent yet sophisticated, confident without the slightest hint of ego. That’s the purity of children for you–and that’s art enough for me.

On Lessons, Part 1

Thursday, July 24, 2014

On Lessons

I was wary of lessons. I was wary because I’d been a dutiful, studious girl since I was five years old, and I had a lot more lessons ahead of me. I was twenty-five when I caught the painting bug (or it caught me), waste-deep in student loan debt rising all the time, and six years out from Phinally Done. I couldn’t escape the desire to paint and ultimately succumbed to the call, but the last thing I wanted was to take another lesson before I could do what I wanted to do.

This posed a bit of a problem, though, because I didn’t know how to paint, and everyone around me suggested, kindly enough, I suppose, that I take some lessons to get started. They had a point, after all: I’d spent my high school art classes shirking the still lifes and nudes for the potter’s wheel, and during undergrad, I’d studied political science. Between high school and grad school, I only made some personal, abstract, and frankly disturbing pen-and-ink drawings. I was neither talented nor skilled at realistic rendering; nor did I derive any enjoyment from it. To me, realistic art felt like copying.

The way I saw it, why try to paint realistically when I could just take a picture? I know, I know–the capacity to depict something realistically is supposedly one of the artist’s finest tools.  And if I’d had a whole life to lead alongside the one I was living, I’d have happily studied formal painting while dressed in a fine corset, big hat, and high-laced boots alongside beret-clad, bad-breathed flirty Frenchmen on the shores of the Seine. Only I didn’t have that other life, I just had the one that I was in, broke and busy and full to the brim with lessons and homework and rudiments and administrative hoops and boring lecture upon boring lecture.  I didn’t want to study painting. I wanted to paint.

I knew from prior exposure that even beloved trailblazing artists were deemed more respectable because they’d birthed realistic art babies before they abandoned them.  This notion, however, sounded rather like hazing to me. Why spend years trying to acquire skills that my favorite artists had gleefully abandoned? Besides, I didn’t particularly like realistic art. The finest realistic stuff I’d seen in the museums wasn’t art I’d actually want to live with, work under, or even gaze at while recovering from a serious illness. I could certainly appreciate the Renaissance masters, marvel at how uncannily life-like their depictions were, to say nothing of how much time that must have taken, but those paintings, drawings, and sculptures didn’t move me. There was almost a chilly quality to that kind of precision, an absence of the soul, save for subtle distinctions in brush strokes, pigment quality, lighting, blah, blah, blah…

It was all so…safe.

I much preferred the wild, off-kilter work in which the artists had broken free of their formal training (if they had any to begin with). Those artists seemed to have gone off shrieking naked through the fields to get to new places where they found themselves reborn and brought us back the same tired world through their glowing never-to-be-alive-again eyes. That art wasn’t safe. That art made me want to rise, wiggle and shake. That art moved, and I moved with it.

I wanted to do that, too. I wanted to move and be moved by my own paintings.

Which brings me back to the matter of lessons. I was clear I didn’t want them, and equally clear that I wanted, possibly needed, to paint. What to do?

The first thing I did was buy some paints and canvases from the local art store with a little of that wonderful student loan money I keep mentioning. The second thing was to sit down on my floor, spread it all out, and put some paint on a brush and then on the canvas. The third thing was to keep going when I made work I didn’t want to live with, and the fourth thing was to accept that if I wasn’t going to take lessons, I would have to make my peace with learning on the job.

Making my peace with learning on the job meant that I had to define what success meant to me, since I wasn’t going to be defining my work against the work of others or assessing its merits according to other people’s standards. And if I wasn’t comparing my work to other people’s standards, how could I know if my paintings were any good? Indeed, without this external frame of reference, how could I even know if I liked my own paintings or not?

How I sorted this out could fill another dissertation, but I promise I won’t do that to either of us. I will write a little more on this later, but for now, suffice it to say that I did, gradually, stake my claim to a self-directed creative life. The liberation involved me stepping, one by one, through a substantial array of stinky piles, piles I didn’t even know existed until I was in them, piles I didn’t smell until I was learning to paint, learning to trust myself, and learning to clean my shoes.

When I Get Stuck (part 2)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

When I Get Stuck 2

This is the painting that came out after I applied the “just for me” treatment. I loved it. Then I sold it. So I guess it wasn’t just for me after all. But I did get to keep what the painting taught me; those lessons weren’t just for me, either, but they were–and are–certainly mine to use.

When I Get Stuck (part 1)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

When I Get Stuck 1

When I get stuck or feel lost in a painting (like when I snapped this photo), I tell myself that the painting is just for me, that I never have to show it to anyone else. I tell myself this again and again–a salve for that nervous, self-conscious part of me that’s hovering over my right shoulder, whispering encouraging things like, “Abandon all hope” and, “The dumpster is only a short walk up the street; no one will see you if you go under the cover of darkness to discard this abomination.”

Also, friends help. Friends have happened by just in time to save paintings I’d placed on the curb. They hang these paintings in their homes, and tell their visitors that I’m the artist who made them. I don’t like this. Friends have stopped in when I’m so frustrated that I’m threatening the garbage. “Don’t give up!” they say. “It’s got potential. Stay with it. Or give it a rest and come back to it. But please don’t throw it away.”

What I do then is a sort of mental dump. I imagine myself throwing the painting away, and then I give myself permission to be as wild and raw with the remaining surface as I want to be. I decide it’s no longer precious; there’s nothing to preserve. I wail. And usually, those are the ones I wind up loving the most. So there’s that.

Because of this, I do try to finish every painting I start, try to wrestle my way to the end and live with the consequences of what’s emerged. Almost always, telling myself that a piece is just for me frees me up to paint more fearlessly, which in and of itself is a kind of triumph. And often, by the time I’m done, I may not have made my all-time favorite piece, but I’ve succeeded in giving myself to it fully. Then, I can’t help but love the painting for what we’ve been through together, and for where we’ve come out just by coming through.

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