Entries from August 27th, 2014

Artists are Real People

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Beauty is Embarrassing is one of my favorite documentaries; it’s about the artist Wayne White. My mom, who is also an artist, recommended the film. I’ve watched it three times, and could easily go back for a fourth.

I generally get antsy watching TV or movies; just ask my friends and family–they find this an annoying trait. I can’t help it, though; I feel the scant painting hours slipping away. I do, however, appreciate documentaries and movies about other artists, and whenever I lose steam in my own art practice, a good art documentary usually restores my energy and gives me a sense of connection to other artists.

Watching such movies, I listen for the ways the artists’ lives and art practices inter-relate. The therapist in me is as curious about who they are as what they make. I also pay attention to their fears, insecurities, and failures, and how they interact with patrons and critics. I notice when I start comparing my story to theirs and judging myself as less adequate, and I try to rest back into curiosity and connection. I’m drawn to artists who are open about who they are and share their creative process freely.

Which reminds me of something a therapy mentor said recently, “Real people are attractive people.” I’d have to agree.

And, if anyone is a real person, Wayne White is. Check him out.

The Next Right Step

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Next Right Step

Celebration
(Detail, unfinished)

Often in a painting, what I need to do next is the very thing I’ve been resisting. I got bored with Celebration well before I finished it. My painting style has changed since I started the piece several months ago. I keep setting the painting aside, making something else, and then returning to it in hopes that I’ll be able to finally reach a conclusion, but I still find it boring to work on. While working, I’ve heard a recurrent voice, “You might want to just wail on the canvas and see what happens. Also, try adding a bunch of lines to the trees, and use a smaller brush.”  I’ve dismissed those suggestions. “No way, that will take too much time! Leave me alone. I know what I’m doing.”  But indeed, to re-engage the painting, I’ve needed to listen to those suggestions–to roughen the surface with movement, texture, dimension, and line in the trees. I began this process on the left trees, and they’re not nearly done–this is just the beginning. But I come back to this again and again at the canvas: I have to risk and sacrifice the outdated image when it fails to reflect my integrity. This allows something more raw, organic, and honest to emerge.

In painting, I use a guiding principle I learned from my psychotherapy mentors: Notice boredom. I try to paint, teach, and do therapy in such a way that I’m not bored, and hopefully my students and clients aren’t bored either. There isn’t anything wrong with boredom per se, it simply may indicate being less than fully engaged.

 I need to experience energy as I paint. When I follow the energy where it leads and listen to what it asks of me, I re-engage in the process and am often happier with the results.

 Noticing and following the energy to a sense of completion is a hallmark of process in Gestalt therapy and other experiential modalities. Often, the way into a deeper, more energetic process is to acknowledge disengagement/boredom, which feels risky because it’s exposing. But the great thing is, when we do take risks to acknowledge where we are, even if we are bored, BAM! There’s suddenly energy again, and we’re off and running somewhere interesting.

I’ll keep you posted on how Celebration unfolds from here.

A Few From the Forest

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Few From The Forest

“Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now?”

William Stafford, from You Reading This, Be Ready

Cloud Mountains

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Cloud Mountains

On mornings in the Great Smokey Mountains, the peaks hold the clouds.

Doing What Works

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Doing What Works

 “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.”

Mary Oliver, “When Death Comes,” New and Selected Poems

I realized again why I don’t like sketching or painting live on scene. When I’m amidst beauty, I can’t draw or paint it. I feel totally overwhelmed, any skill I have rendered useless. I admire other artists who can work on-scene, but that capacity did not come standard on my operating equipment.

I tried yesterday, sitting on a smooth rock in the middle of the rushing Pigeon River. A man was fly fishing upstream, and children were swimming and squealing in the far distance. Late afternoon light was filtering through the trees, dappling the clear water and river-bottom stones. I attempted to sketch, but I couldn’t communicate even the smallest bit of that beauty to the page.  So I put away my journal and just sat, and watched, and eventually walked a ways.

When I got back to the cabin, though, I wanted to sketch. Then, making art felt as natural as emptying my pockets of acorns, seeds, and river rocks. Self-permission to discover and do what works for me is the best kind of freedom.

Loss and Life

Monday, August 18, 2014

Loss and Life

Yesterday I took a long, solitary hike to a waterfall, where I saw, among other brilliant trees, this towering specimen. The rugged beauty of this bare old-growth pine silhouetted in grayish light moved me to a silent stupor.

This time last year, I painted a similar tree from memory after hiking in the Appalachian mountains and returning home to heartbreak. The painting was about the prickly quality of loss, that utterly naked yet defensive state where we want to draw inward and lash out, where we want run away and give up, yet by some sardonic miracle, we’re still standing, stripped to bone, left to begin again.

As a person and a therapist, I find the starkness of nature reassuring. Even dead trees contain myriad life; the barest branches hold the birds.

Impressions

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Impressions

“Seeing. One could say that the whole of life lies in seeing –
if not ultimately, at least essentially.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ

I wound my way through the Great Smoky Mountains at dusk yesterday, after 10 hours of dizzying driving. Back-lit clouds had formed over the peaks, as puffy and intricate as the tree-covered behemoths below. I had only seconds to glance at the spectacle before attending to the twisting road, this place as new to me as I to it. Waking today in a Tennessee creek-side cabin on retreat, I sketched my impressions from the drive.

I didn’t bring acrylics or canvas on this trip; I’ve come here to write and hike, and perhaps through osmosis, gather inspiration for more paintings. From each cabin window is a paint-worthy view, but again, that’s not my mission right now. When I’m amidst great beauty but unable to paint, I have to trust that I’ll gather the impressions I need, whether or not I physically document them. Sometimes, the best material for new work arrives when I stop and just witness. Later, when the time is ripe, I can scribble my wonderment.

The Teacher

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

the teacher

The Teacher
(Pen and India Ink)

* * * * *

“Life in the classroom is real, adventuresome, thrilling, and demanding. How do we get ourselves out in the open? How do we wake up?…Let us acknowledge that a school is more than a place or a staff or a student body; it is a process: of bringing to birth, of awakening.”

–excerpts from Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, & the Person, by M.C. Richards

* * * * *

Ninth grade was a difficult year for me, as it is for so many ninth graders. I’d started a new school, my parents were divorcing, and that thing called adolescence was underway. But it was also the year I met someone who forever changed me, the year I took my first art class with Dr. Dianne Skye.

Dianne was the art teacher at P. K. Yonge Developmental Research School for many years, and I recently attended her retirement celebration. She was a tireless instructor, a strong artist and potter, and also had trained in the same counselor education program from which I later received my PhD. Other teachers had loved me before, but Dianne was the first who loved me openly, without apology. While I believe that she loved all of her students, I know that her love saved me.

Sometimes I’d arrive at school unable to compose myself. The divorce was painful, and I engaged in a good bit of uncontrollable sobbing. I’d stumble into Dianne’s classroom before the first bell and take refuge in her tiny office, where she’d light a candle, position tissue, and quietly close the door before leading students through home room. She didn’t ask a lot of questions, but we gradually became close.

Later that year, Dianne gave me The Artist’s Way, a book that has since become very popular. At thirteen, though, I’d never seen anything like it, and I was profoundly impacted. Dianne had inscribed kind words on the inside cover and signed her name, “Love, Dianne.” Those gifts, the book and her love, are still with me today.

I devoured the first chapter and immediately committed myself to Morning Pages–three pages of stream-of-consciousness long-hand writing every morning, first thing in the morning, without fail. On weekdays, this required waking up at 5:30am, which I did.

I filled hundreds of pages while I worked my way through the book. It’s a big undertaking, and not necessarily one I’d opt for at this age or stage of life. But back then, the book meant survival. I’d always kept a journal, but writing each morning formed a lifeline, a way to consistently put overwhelming, chaotic life experiences in a safe container. My journal became my own candlelit office, my own refuge. I wrote Morning Pages for the next fifteen years, and I still revive the practice when I need new direction and guidance.

 I took art classes with Dianne until I left for college, most of which I spent in the potter’s studio throwing pots. Sitting at the wheel and centering clay, I learned to center myself, too. Periodically, Dianne would check on me, give me a few tips if I needed them, and then return to teaching her classes. When I’d leave for the day, she’d hug me and tell me she loved me.

I never tired of hearing those words, and I carry her influence inside me. She’s there when I teach, when I open my office as a refuge,  when I encourage my students and clients to write or paint or otherwise express their overwhelming experiences in the safe container of creativity. In this way, her love continues to multiply.

Perhaps at the heart of every great teacher is love.

On Lessons, Part 2

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On Lessons 2

My First Mentor

 “Anything good you’ve ever been given is yours forever.”
Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, from Kitchen Table Wisdom, Stories that Heal

Previously, I wrote about my reluctance to take lessons when I started painting. Here’s the second half of that story.

After I’d painted steadily for a year and exhibited several times, I ran into an acquaintance from high school who’d studied painting in college. I was excited about my painting practice, and I thought that perhaps she was the right person to give me some additional painting tools, without upsetting my painting style or growing self-trust. I shared my fears that lessons would change how I approached painting, that I would lose my intuitive and permissive way.  She seemed to understand my concerns, and we agreed to start informal bi-weekly lessons. The only condition, she said, was that I’d have to switch from acrylics to oil paints.  She said she knew how to use oil paints, and that they were more versatile than acrylics, and possibly more respectable, too.

I did what I was told. I became a good student.

In terms of painting methods, I learned some useful things. She reminded me about the perspective basics–to make background objects look distant, make them blurrier than foreground objects.  She encouraged me to make studies, small quick paintings of tree parts I loved–bark, roots, leaves. She got me thinking about paint texture and brush strokes, whereas before, my painting surface was smooth, simple, and clean.  She suggested I consider scale and showed me good brushes to buy. She helped me set up a painting station with a glass pallet and an industrial paint scraper, an arrangement I’ve found endlessly useful. I’m grateful to the ways she expanded my understanding of paint.

There were, however, some problems, and ones I write about here in case a budding artist is considering the question of lessons.

* * * * *

 In my mind, I’d hired this my painting teacher as a consultant, so going into the lessons, I felt in charge. I wanted help with the tools of painting–with the how–not with what or why to paint it. She assisted with the how, but, in retrospect, it was a setup for us both. I was her first student, so she was learning about teaching painting as much as I was learning about studying painting. I came into the relationship feeling empowered, strong about my own paintings, but the shift to oil paints immediately disoriented me. I was out of my native language, scrambling to learn hers. There was no way to retain my original impulses as I followed to my teacher’s instructions to use the slow drying, toxic, foul-smelling, mushy paint. Nothing worked the way it had before. Nothing was intuitive. From this place, I had to submit to her knowledge, her way of doing things. It was the only way to move forward with the lessons. I complied.

Eventually, things got complicated, and we dissolved the relationship. I got the sense that no matter how well I painted in her eyes, or how many of my paintings sold, she would always be the teacher, always be the “better” artist. There are few relationships in which this kind of rigid top-down dynamic truly benefits both parties.

I went my own way artistically and socially, abandoning oil paints and returning to acrylics with joy and relief. I set about re-learning a way to paint that was authentically my own. But I struggled. There seemed to be no going back. I couldn’t pick up a brush without hearing my former teacher’s commentary in my head. She was full of rules and suggestions, full of judgments. When it came down to it, she was better than me; I was not really an artist but a student, an amateur, a hobbyist. In her eyes, I still had much to learn from her, and I’d given up. These were the messages that played in my head when I approached the canvas. It was hard; I wasn’t free.

I had to accept that whether I liked it or not, the lessons had changed me. Painting would never be the same.  I would have to find a way forward, a way to take the useful things I’d gathered and leave the rest behind. Eventually, I found my way, and those lessons and my memories around them have softened over the years. I learned as much from that teacher about what kind of teacher I don’t want to be as about what is helpful, and both learnings have been invaluable.

Recently, after a big exhibition downtown, I ran into her at the grocery store. We hugged, exchanged niceties, and she said she’d seen my recent show. “I was pleased to see that my little pupil is still painting,” she said. My skin crawled. It all came back in a flash. I wanted to defend myself and run away. I just stood there, feeling small and angry. The truth is, I was painting well before her, and haven’t stopped painting in the many years since. She was not responsible for my art, then or now. Sadly, I don’t think she realized how condescending her statement was; such a notion just came naturally to her. I let it pass without comment, and we said goodbye.

* * * * *

 I’ve been a teacher for awhile now, too–over a decade teaching in college classrooms.  The roles of teacher and therapist are sacred to me, and ask me to hold a particular intention. That intention is to help my students and clients awaken to their own inner guidance, wisdom, and authority, at which point they no longer need me. I’m a humanist by nature, which means I believe people  know what’s best for them better than I know what they need. My job is to help remove barriers and tangles. Once that’s done, people are off and running on their own, in ways that surprise and even amaze me. What they need to live and thrive may have nothing to do  with what I imagine they need. It’s humbling, in the best possible way.

Teaching and therapy are, for me, positions of service, not of superiority. In fact, I measure my effectiveness by how quickly I can make myself obsolete. I want my students and clients to outgrow me and teach others what they have learned and know from their own lives. Then, learning and growth are truly mutual and lifelong.

All of my best therapists, teachers, and mentors have worked with me in this way. They’ve given me what they had to offer with great love, and without asking for acknowledgement or credit. Their pleasure came from watching me begin to thrive. Both then and now, I am not their little pupils carrying on their wonderful influence, but rather a fellow sojourner in touch with a greater life force that is guiding me along my path.

* * * * *

At the Gestalt Center of Gainesville, Inc., my mentor, the late Dr. Pat Korb, would mail readings on Gestalt theory to participants before a weekend intensive process group. When group started, we’d gather in a circle and check in. She’d say a few things about Gestalt theory and practice, and then take questions. Folks would bring up theoretical concepts they found confusing. Pat would explain a little, shift in her chair, maybe even yawn. Then she’d say, “You know, we need just enough theory to get into the process. That’s all we ever need from theory–just enough to get us to the process. So, who has something coming up right now  you’d like to explore?”  Pat loved theory, but only to the extent that it supported the process. The latter was where the magic happened, where people transformed into more alive,  honest beings right before her eyes. When I hired my painting teacher, I guess I wanted her to be like Pat. But she wasn’t Pat, and she wasn’t a therapist, and she hadn’t even been a teacher before. So I cut her, and myself, lots of slack about the way that all went down.

In the Gestalt group, when Pat asked who had some personal work to do, my hand inevitably shot up.  I was carrying around a lot of stuff from childhood, a lot of restrictive “shoulds” and shames that had little to do with who I really was. Pat would expertly guide me to the feelings and sensations in my body until we’d arrive at my own knowings, my own truths. There’d be no judgment, no superiority, just profound respect in her eyes.

Each time I’d leave the group, I’d be a little more untangled. I could listen more closely to myself, and learn from the teacher who really mattered, the one who really knew. It’s that teacher to whom I try to reconnect my students and clients, the one who lives inside them already. Then, I enjoy watching them head off to grow into who they already are, people whose development I could no more take credit for than I could claim credit for the growth instinct of life itself.

The Survivors

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Survivors

The Survivors, 36″ x 60″

“We must admit there will be music despite everything.”
(from A Brief for the Defense, by Jack Gilbert)

I was considering painting sunflowers when I checked the news late one Saturday night. A passenger jet was shot down over the sunflower fields of the Ukraine. Hundreds of civilians; no survivors.

I could not get the images from my mind, and that night I dreamt of smoke, bodies, families, friends, relief workers, soldiers, and politicians who were now inextricably part of the same tragic story.

And the flowers, waving over it all with an insolent, indecent joy. By morning, I did not want to paint sunflowers anymore.

As I followed the headlines throughout the week, the violence escalated in the Middle East. More innocents dead. And bleary-eyed young people were coming into my office talking about these events, people with family and friends overseas, people who woke each day to the body count and then managed to show up for a physics final.

I work with survivors, with people who have endured unspeakable traumas. They somehow speak anyway, and then, remarkably, go on living. In therapy, they show me their own ravaged fields, where I walk in awe. Amidst so much pain, loss, and injustice, they have survived. Often, there are flowers.

When my energy returned, I painted this for the survivors who touch me with their courage not only to live but, against all odds, to blossom.

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