Entries Tagged as 'fear'

Ponds

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Pond 3

I woke at 4am today and painted two ponds before my 8:30am yoga class at the beloved Searchlight Yoga. I didn’t use a source photo for these paintings, but I referenced my memory of a man-made pond at a retreat center in Micanopy, FL.

Traditionally, ponds have mystical, meditative connotations, yet man-made ponds strike me as a little too perfect–not entirely trustworthy. Perhaps the same is true of self-reflection. While important, self-reflection has its limits. I can easily over-simplify or distort what I see. Often, I see what I want to see, not what is really there. And besides, can I really know what is there, when the nature of life is transience?

Direct experience–of my body in yoga, of my hand on a brush thick with paint–is something knowable, at least in the moment, and through direct experience, I become more alive. In my current work, I’m trying to bypass my intellect and self-analysis.  This is meditation. I work quickly and spontaneously, with great feeling and little technical knowledge.

These ponds are places of not knowing. Life is full of such places. On the yoga mat and at the easel, I overhear myself thinking, “I don’t know.” Yet I keep showing up and entering these places, and where terror might be, often there is  joy.

Pond6

Sink and Source

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Sink and Source

Millhopper painting in process

Recently I’ve been feeling a little lethargic about painting, and earlier this week, I even heard the dementor voice in my head saying, “Maybe you’re all dried up and won’t ever paint again. Maybe that’s it for you and the painting thing.”

Thankfully, I’ve been reading a lot–from Lynda Barry to Mickey Singer to the Harry Potter series. All these books, the ideas and just spending time in the languaged worlds of other creative people, act as protective aids, so I can see what my mind is doing and step back from it, not buy into its fears and doubts. The truth is, I’ve just needed a little rest and time to gather the courage to show up and take the next risks in my work. When I’m risking, I’m playing. Then the energy just comes; I don’t have to force it, and the work seems sourced by something beyond me.

Really, I’ve found that whether I’m dancing or painting or writing or doing yoga, the trick is to move and create in such a way that I can bypass the mind, which is to say, prison break. I did this last night when I came home from the art opening at the Thomas Center for the wonderful new exhibit curated by artist Anne Gilroy, Beauty and the Beasts. It was late and I was tired (said my mind), but I turned on some music and began.  I lost track of time, and when I fell into bed, the painting was finished. Read More >

Exposure

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Exposure

I sat in Volta this morning with my nephew, sipping coffee and trying to read. Almost all the art I’ve made over the past two years currently hangs at the cafe, and I was distracted as I overheard several strangers pointing, commenting, and appreciating the work. A father and his young daughter came over and introduced themselves when they realized I was the artist; the daughter put a gleeful hand over her mouth as she registered her dad’s explanation that I was the person who’d painted the pictures she’d just been admiring.

These are warm moments for an artist, yet I’ve spent most of my shows trying to avoid them. For many years when I exhibited, I wouldn’t leave any contact information with my work, even though it was all for sale and I needed the money. People would have to hunt me down and inquire privately. I told myself I didn’t want to be identified because I was somehow “humble,” but the truth was, I didn’t want to be identified and rejected. I was worried that a critical response would impair my painting process and potentially my ability to paint. Even today, no matter how hard I try to maintain a psychic distance from my work–to see it as separate from me and not a reflection of me–I still experience my art as a deep part of me; it’s how I spend almost all my spare time, and whether I like it or not, when I sit amongst my paintings in public, I feel like there are pieces of my soul hanging all over the walls. Yikes.

This feeling isn’t new or unique, though; being creative in any endeavor is inherently vulnerable territory. Makers of all kinds put ourselves out in ways that are risky and therefore courageous. Artists battle myriad internal struggles to birth works of art, and then face “the public” to share beyond controlled studio environments. Maybe this is why many of the highly creative people I’ve known seem to hover just above or beyond the social fray, giving off an air of what seems at first sniff to be snobbery or elitism. Of course these aren’t ideal qualities–“too cool for school” vibes are exclusionary and unkind. But perhaps at the heart of this external thickening of the personality is simply a well-intentioned form of preservation, a way some artists have learned to navigate the uncertain world and still inhabit and converse with exquisitely sensitive inner lives. Maybe I’ve unwittingly come across to others as “too cool for school” as well, when really, I just felt tiny, frightened of rejection, and overwhelmed with the desire to curl up and disappear.

But then there are little girls and their fathers, pointing and smiling, and taking the uncomfortable social step to say hi and make themselves known to me because I was willing to make myself known to them.  I keep learning from these sorts of encounters, receiving gifts from the connections that come from openly identifying myself as the person who made the art. Maybe I’ll never find this part of it easy, but as I continue to paint regardless of shows or sales or public interest, I’m starting to believe it’s also worth it to stop treating the inherent vulnerability of art-making as a valid reason to stay hidden, unidentified, and socially aloof.

Filters

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

I haven’t painted since I finished this piece ten days ago, which in my world is far too long. Last week, I was at a conference in Tampa. Fancy hotels, fake smells, and sculpted landscapes tire me, and I had to work hard to find inspiration in that scenery. Sometimes I can relax into the strangeness of concrete towers and leaf blowers, but usually I activate my filter to pay attention to signs of the natural world still unfolding, however trimmed and tucked it might be. On my walks around the Hillsborough River, I did manage to gather a few snapshots of flowers and early greens on the trees, and to touch the delicate, velvety bushes that thrive near the water. Perhaps the time out from my studio will prove productive in the end…

For me, staying inspired is a tricky business. I do best with the usuals–being rested, getting walks and exercise, eating well, and not worrying. The latter can be trying, because ask anyone close to me–I worry. But when I’m rested, present, and connected to my body, I can see nature with feeling, and it’s this feeling sight that I draw upon for my paintings.

Maybe it’s because I’m a therapist, but the felt, inner world is as important to me as the external world. No matter how hard we try to take rational, objective positions, it seems that we are bound to relate to life, to each other, and to ourselves through our personal experiences, through our filters. While realist painters aspire to strip away these filters and see “clearly,” I prefer to paint in ways that celebrate the filters as veils through which my relationship with my subjects, my materials, my limitations, and my feeling senses can be reflected.

In order to stay inspired, I often have to engage another filter, one that keeps discouraging messages at bay. The other day, for example, I scrolled down Facebook on my lunch break and saw a well-known artist quoted for a PBS special. The artist said something like, “If you want to make good work, you must be in your studio all day, every day. There’s no other way.”  I was in my office at the university when I read this, and overheard myself thinking, “Oh gosh, so I’m not a real artist, because I work full-time at a different job, and painting full-time simply isn’t possible for me.” The artist in me slumped. I had to filter out this message by remembering that it was just one artist’s comments that reflected her own experience–what’s worked for her–but presented as truth for all artists. I’ve found that many artists do this, however unintentionally. Maybe because there’s so much ambiguity about being an artist, and so much uncertainty about what makes for “good” art, that when an artist does have a chance to be in the limelight, he or she unknowingly presents personal revelations as universal laws. (If you notice me doing this, message me privately, or gently kick me in the shins next time you see me.)

Life and art can both be hard; why be anything but encouraging?

Recently, I encountered another discouraging message in a book I otherwise enjoyed,  Art and Fear. I connected with many of the authors’ points, but I had to activate my filter when they argued that most of the work artists make will be crap, and that artists have to make a lot of work that isn’t good to make their tiny amount of transcendent work. Okay, this may be a realistic view, but I can’t adopt it. If I go into my studio every weekend with the little spare time I have, thinking, “Probably this is going to be crap, but I will keep on painting so I can, if I’m lucky, make a few great paintings in my lifetime,” then I won’t keep painting. Add on the message, “Real artists work all day, every day, on their work,” and forget it–I’m done. Since we all have filters, I’d rather use a filter that works for me, one that keeps me inspired or at least keeps out the junk that could easily “inspire” me to quit.

My filter weeds out discouraging or elitist messages about art-making from viewers, critics, and artists themselves. When I had just started teaching myself to paint, I overheard a prominent local artist say, “I don’t believe in self-taught artists.” The comment flattened me, until I realized I could filter it out. Each time I hear something that threatens to get between me and my committment to art-making, I refine the filter a little more. Increasingly, my filter champions everyone’s right to make art, and loves work that is created with honest feeling, no matter how unstudied. That filter values the infusion of art into everyday life, and takes the position that art need not be considered “masterful” or bring in thousands of dollars to enrich the person who made it and the environment it later inhabits. My filter loves process as much as outcome, and while making my art can involve some struggle, frustration, and uncertainty, in my filter, creative risks can be trusted.

Filters can perform several functions. At the darker end, filters can obscure content with the intent to manipulate. On the lighter side, they can enhance the beauty by limiting some elements and boosting others, such as in post-production photography. Filters can also purify by removing harmful contaminants, as in purification of drinking water.

Sometimes filters both obscure and purify at the same time. In my case, my paintings both reflect my filters and wouldn’t exist without them.

Cursed Canvases

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Cursed Canvas

Okay, so sometimes my painting efforts flop completely. Every so often, a canvas comes along that just seems cursed. Much like those sad locations in town that host one failed business venture after another, these canvases hold legacies of misery. This cursed canvas has been hanging around awhile, luring me into attempting various bad paintings on its surface, and here it is today, before I foolishly start working on it again. You can see the previous painting, which was also awful, behind the current layer. And even from a distance, the textured brush strokes from the prior image come through like tacky panty lines. This canvas is a Bermuda Triangle for my artistic confidence; any sense of creative self-esteem disappears the moment I start working on it again.

I should definitely throw it away, but over the years I’ve made a commitment to seeing every painting through, somehow, to an image I can live with. So, I won’t let it go. I feel certain it has something to offer me, teach me, something it will reveal, if only I keep revisiting it now and then, saying hi, and painting badly on its pockmarked surface. Since failure is inevitable, I am free to paint clumsily, weirdly, without caution. I can paint through funky energy, grit, despair, and desperation. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t found a lot of places in life to safely and freely express these energies, especially as a “professional adult.” I guess there’s always loud music and moshing, but that’s not my thing.  There just aren’t many places we are free to flail and fail.

My continued attempts here are like reserving a seat at the table for failure, for what is ugly and deeply flawed. I’m a recovering perfectionist, so this is a practice; I really didn’t want to show this to you. But who knows? Maybe eventually I can transform this canvas into something ugly but loved, worth hanging onto and possibly hanging up–not because it is a great painting, but because it bears the inevitable stories and scars behind a commitment to process.

On Uncertainty

Thursday, January 22, 2015

On Uncertainty

“When we’re hard on ourselves, it’s because we have a very rigid sense of what we’re supposed to be doing. We run from doubt because we feel we should know. Ironically, people want choice yet are afraid of uncertainty. But the truth is, If there is no doubt, there is no choice.”

Ellen Langer, from On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity (p.65)

I’m stuck in this painting. It’s an abstraction of the prairie and not going well. I like certain elements, some of the shapes, mainly, but I know the colors are wrong, and when I consider working on it, I feel uncertain, lost. When I’m home in the studio and a painting is not going well, this lost, uncertain feeling can change the whole quality of my day; I sulk about the house, make more coffee, engage in a little emotional eating, leave my brushes in water too long. I peek back into the studio at the mess on the canvas, and wonder who I think I am, painting. I feel guilty–wasted time, wasted paint, wasted energy. Shouldn’t I be cleaning some river somewhere, or feeding orphans?

Usually, I need to get some distance and perspective, which I’ve been getting this week being back at work, to catch the energy again. Or, I need to do something radical to the canvas, like smear it with magenta stripes, just to break out of my funk and stop taking it all so seriously. What’s the real risk? It’s just a canvas, after all, not my entire life on the line. Yet at that precipice of creation, when I’m lost, I feel my life on the line. To move forward into the unknown, even just on the canvas, I feel I’m risking everything.

It’s helpful for me to pay attention to what I do when I feel uncertain–about an artistic direction, a professional issue, or a personal matter. Life is full of uncertainty, and uncertainty is inherently vulnerable. It’s tempting to deny or avoid experiencing the discomfort of uncertainty, and there are endless ways to distract.

Hanging out with uncertainty is of course an option, too, and perhaps the hardest, though potentially the most fruitful. As Wendell Barry wrote, “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.” Similarly, the poet David Whyte speaks about sacred terrains of transition–that we need to cultivate an appreciation for times of deep uncertainty, where we are changing profoundly, but the new place hasn’t yet revealed itself. Pema Chodron writes about getting comfortable with uncertainty–trying to keep things loose and open when we’re feeling vulnerable about the unknown. My counseling mentor used to tell me that if I designed my life around feeling comfortable, I wouldn’t have a very interesting or rewarding life. He encouraged me to lean into uncertainty, and to accept the presence of doubt even in my greatest commitments.  “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” he’d ask, and then, “Can you be afraid and do that thing, anyway?”

As a counselor, I sit with people during their times of uncertainty and transition; I try to befriend the part of them that wants to know, but doesn’t know yet, the part that may need to retreat from risk, or venture boldly into it, or wait, uncomfortably, for a clear sense of direction. It’s easier to befriend this place, its discomforts and possibilities, in another than to befriend it in myself.

Painting, or any creative discipline, is a relatively safe way to play out these themes. But the larger arena of life carries the same themes and struggles, with far more at stake. I appreciate the way painting and life feed back into each other, until they become each other’s teachers, and I sit at their feet, watching and taking notes, uncomfortably learning to cultivate patience and acceptance while I wait for a glimpse of my next direction.

Awake

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Awake

Awake awhile.

It does not have to be
Forever,
Right now.

Awake, my dear.
Be kind to your sleeping heart.

Take it out into the vast fields of Light
And let it breathe.

–Hafiz, from I Heard God Laughing – Renderings of Hafiz, Daniel Ladinsky

Days go by. I forget to paint. I forget to open my journal and scribble in my soul’s native language. I forget that the walk to work can be as sacred as my partner’s eyes, and the weekdays as filled with wonder as my heart when my nephew says, “I love you.”

This morning, though, a Wednesday and quite early, the sky was filled with plump pink clouds illuminated like floating ships of light. An old woman in office dress and heels scrambled across the street and jumped smiling to the curb as my car passed; instead of our differences, I saw myself in her, if I’m lucky, 40 years from now, still showing up to something meaningful–I hope–and smiling.

Two-and-a-half years into a very full-time job as a psychotherapist to people in significant pain and distress, I’m learning the value of refueling my own reserves, so I can be present for others from a place of groundedness and inspiration. Refueling in a busy work week takes more intentionality than I realized, and has required a commitment to questioning the frantic voice in my head that says there’s not enough time for me; there’s not enough time to be–there’s not even enough time to fully breathe.

Sometimes painting refuels me, but if I’m not careful, painting can become just another way of keeping busy, of producing a product, and of trying to prove myself.  So I have to make space to just doodle, journal, walk, and sit around, which isn’t easy for me to do. Not easy, but simple, and necessary. Paradoxically though, this unstructured time, with no agendas, can actually yield the richest fruit: Contacting life afresh, with its sweetness and profound uncertainties and difficulties. When I’m in that place, open and letting life reach me, I’m listening, I’m watching, I’m awake. Then painting or not painting, working or not working, doing or not doing: I am being.

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.

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.

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