Entries Tagged as 'gestalt'

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 But I come back to this again and again at the canvas: I have to risk and sacrifice the outdated image when it fails to reflect my integrity.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.

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.

Flowers 2

Friday, August 1, 2014

flowers 2

Flowers. I’m painting flowers. Why am I painting flowers?

 I should be wary of flowers; lots of people have painted flowers.

Besides, I never much liked paintings of flowers; most flower paintings are boring.

 I’m intimidated by flower paintings that aren’t boring.

 So, why paint flowers?

 Why paint trees? Why paint people, water, clouds, birds, cars, hills, malls, or…?

 Indeed, why paint at all?

 My training in Gestalt therapy urged me away from “Why?” questions.

 “Why?” puts the soul on guard.

 Gestalt taught me to ask questions about what and how and where.

 What are flowers?

 How do I experience the flowers?

 Where are my favorite flowers?

 What do flowers mean to me?

 How do I feel about flowers?

 Where do I feel the flowers growing inside me?

 Painting, however, brings out my fatalist–the one who has heard the news.

 The news, my friends, is not good, and it isn’t getting better.

 Painting brings out the why bothers; painting is a triumph over the why bothers.

 Painting is the what, the how, the where; painting is the now.

 Painting is doing it anyway, doing it while the news drops hard and the bombs drop harder.

 Painting brings out the flowers.

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.

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