Entries Tagged as 'painting'

Notes on recent painting and living

Friday, December 7, 2018

In the past month, I’ve been reading The path of least resistance: Principles for creating what you want to create by Robert Fritz, a composer and organizational consultant who was popular in the eighties. It’s an older book, but the concepts struck me as timeless. Fritz talks about how we tend to limit our creativity (and our lives) by considering the process of how we are going to do something or how we will get there, before we allow ourselves to imagine what we want to create or where we truly want to go. He cites artists of all persuasions who’ve discovered that the secret to life-long creativity is allowing ourselves to think and imagine the results we want to obtain first, and then develop the process to get there.  Using the example of famous inventors, he argues that when we rely only on what we currently know, we can’t create something new.  We must envision what we really want, take an accurate assessment of where we are now, and then head out in the direction of what we want to create. I had this experience when I first started painting. I had no idea what I was doing, but I set out to paint. I learned on the job and the innovations just kept coming.

But for most of this year, I’ve been stuck in a painting rut. I found myself essentially painting the same things in the same ways. Bleh. This takes the joy out of it, and the risk, too. But I didn’t know how to get out of the rut. I told myself that each new painting would be different, but then I’d find myself traveling down the same worn path.

After reading this book, I looked through my photos of Sweetwater Wetlands Park. I’m still drawn to painting it, but the landscape is so complicated I figured any success I’ve had before was just a fluke. Still, I suspended that self-limiting belief and chose a source photo that challenged me.

I decided to start on the painting and figure out how to paint it as I went along, like I did when I was first painting. Here’s how it went:

 

Final painting, 30 x 40″

A few things happened. One, I painted much quickly than I usually do; I completed this piece in just a day. Two, I had a lot of fun. Three, my finished product is a satisfying interpretation (for me, anyway), of the original photo. By focusing on the result I wanted–to create a tribute to these forms I love at Sweetwater–I managed to get out of my own way. My limits (“but I don’t know how to paint water, to shade…”) ceased to be barriers and became interesting challenges when I focused on where I wanted to go.

***

While it’s really cool to experience this in painting, the truth is that this year I’ve encountered plenty of limits, and almost everyone I know at any real depth is also struggling. We see limits every time we look at the news. We watch our hair lines recede and our bellies protrude. We lose people too early and too beloved to be gone forever. The oceans continue to rise, pushing against the limits of our technology and our willingness to adapt. This is not an easy world.

All this led me to reach out to my counseling mentor in an email last week.

“11/27/18

Hi Marshall,

It’s been too long. I still think of you all the time, but today I just wanted to send you a note to say thank you for teaching me that the things in my life most worth having were also going to be hard. I learned this from you when I was struggling to stay in school, and I learned this from you about the challenges of doing good therapy, and knowing myself, and being in a long-term committed relationship. You never trivialized the fact that being adults who take responsibility for our choices in the face of much we can’t control is fucking hard.
I carry this lesson with me in my own life as well as try to validate the hard work I see my clients–college students who are partly still kids–doing. It’s hard being responsible. It’s hard to keep showing up. We must learn to decide which commitments are worth it even when our feelings fluctuate. Truly most things in my life worth having and keeping take work. You never minimized this or suggested there was something wrong with me for finding it hard. You let me know you found a fair bit of it hard as well, and that a good deal of it was worth it to you.
Anyway, thank you for this lesson. I’ll never forget it. You helped me bridge myself from childhood to adulthood. I think I can finally say that at 38, though of course that doesn’t make it easy.
I hope you are well.
Love,
Sara”
***

Speaking of hard, as the year’s end approaches, I find myself in a state of forced patience. My husband Thomas and I have been living with his kind and generous father and brother for the past nine months during our new home construction, and while we’re very grateful to his family, we’re ready to have our own space again. Our contractor tells us any week now, but the closer we get to moving in, the longer a week–even a day–feels.

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors shared a Zen koan with the class that, until recently, always puzzled me. It went something like, “When you’ve gone 90 miles in a 100 mile journey, you’re still only halfway there.” I never freakin’ understood this. The math just didn’t add up. If you’ve gone 90 miles in a 100 mile journey, you’re 90% of the way there, not 50%.  I don’t know if my current flash of insight about this koan is how the wizened ones would see it, but here’s what I’m experiencing as I travel those last 10 miles. Each mile feels enormous. Each moment is a moment where everything is still happening. There’s no speeding this up, no rushing to the finish. It takes the time it takes, and time can stretch like an accordion. In fact, from where I am now, the 90 miles I traveled to get here don’t exist anymore. There’s only the 10 miles, the current mile, the current moment.  Everything is still happening, and anything could happen. I’m still only halfway there.

Delayed Gifts

Friday, August 21, 2015

“There is a sympathy outside ourselves that knows, carries, and protects a message sometimes long enough for it to be delivered successfully.”

Annie Rogers, from one of my favorite books, A Shining Affliction

10 years ago, my friend Christy gave me a Koi travel watercolor set. I felt intimidated by watercolors, and I didn’t consider myself an artist.

I didn’t use the gift for a long time.

9 years, actually.

But good friends have a way of knowing what we need before we do, and recently I’ve fallen in love with her gift.

The paints dry quickly in my small square sketchbook. I draw the lines with a Pilot rolling ball pen.

The three items together–paints, pens, and a sketchbook–make a great gift for a friend.

Even if that friend is as dense I am.

Even if that friend is yourself.

Thank you, Christy.

Rock Cairns 1

A Mighty Kindness

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Place in process

Been a week of hard rain in Gainesville, FL. The sun is back today, and I’m in the process of re-purposing this painting I never loved for the sun, the hills, and the trees, which I love again after a hard week and hard rain of my own.

Last night I watched a beautiful movie about grief and love, The Song of the Sea, and later sobbed myself to sleep–waves breaking after recent experiences that touched old, deep, tender places of pain.

In the midst of the sobbing, I felt my heart grow very warm with the sensation of blood rushing back to a sleeping limb. I kept crying, but slowly the tears turned from grief to relief, release, and grace. Perhaps you’ve felt this kind of grace, too, when you were able to re-inhabit a painful place that once overwhelmed you, once left you little choice but to shut down and not feel, but also left you less alive.

This morning, I put on my typical work attire–dark pants, dark shirt, dark shoes. Then, as I headed for the door, I noticed my pink blouse on my dresser. Without a thought, I changed into the blouse, along with a pink sweater, pink earrings, a turquoise necklace, and pale green shoes.

As I pedaled into the office, the sun poured through the trees and  turned the moisture into moving strips of light. For the first time this week, I could see the trees, the sun, feel the hills under my bike. I passed walkers, joggers, folks moving into the day, and found myself smiling without effort, opening my hand in a wave, speaking a “good morning” greeting.

In this place, everyone was my friend.

Especially me.

IMG_7267

Zero Circle

(By Rumi, 13th century Persian poet and mystic; books available here).

Be helpless, dumbfounded,
Unable to say yes or no.
Then a stretcher will come from grace
to gather us up.
We are too dull-eyed to see that beauty.
If we say we can, we’re lying.
If we say No, we don’t see it,
That No will behead us
And shut tight our window onto spirit.
So let us rather not be sure of anything,
Beside ourselves, and only that, so
Miraculous beings come running to help.
Crazed, lying in a zero circle, mute,
We shall be saying finally,
With tremendous eloquence, Lead us.
When we have totally surrendered to that beauty,
We shall be a mighty kindness.

 

Message from Rosemary

Friday, July 10, 2015

I was trying to decide if I should send the check for the trip to Cuba. Traveling has never been my thing. I think of it as a luxury reserved for those with means, and I grew up in a family that lacked such means. A simple day-trip to the beach could and often did end in financial and emotional disaster. To this day, I get heart palpitations when I think about spontaneously going to the springs or the coast, despite the distance that now separates me from my childhood and the relative accessibility of those watery destinations. I’ve only been overseas once ten years ago, and I still feel terrified when I click the “Purchase Now” button on airline tickets to visit dear friends in domestic cities I love. What if the apocalypse strikes just after I purchase the flight?

But I’m working on this. Breathing helps, and relaxing does, too. And perhaps even, a kind of fledgling trust, a willingness to just experience what comes up. If I’m willing to make myself uncomfortable, perhaps my fears and doubts and discomforts will gradually lose their power to inhibit a more expansive relationship with life.

To this end, this summer I have a list on my refrigerator that contains the following items: Do yoga, dance, paint, write, cook, travel.  These are, of course, all things that are good for me. To varying degrees, these activities make me uncomfortable and are easy to avoid.  But I’ve been implementing the list, and in the next two months, provided calamity doesn’t strike, I’m going to the Tennessee mountains, to San Francisco, and to…Cuba.

The Cuban Tropics, to be exact.

But this isn’t really about Cuba.  It’s about Rosemary.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a yoga class at the gym. The practice room was large and smelled of dirty feet and sweat. The sandy floor quickly filled with members, each angling to get their ideal spot in the room, not too close to other people but not so far from the neighboring mats that latecomers could scoot in and take away those extra inches of space.

I’d found a spot by the window, coveted not only for its natural light source in the fading dusk but for its sense of privacy–people surrounded me on only three sides instead of four. Class started, and I settled in for the opening postures, noting the window on my left and the slightly risky open space to my right. It’s too small for another mat, I thought reassuringly, as the door opened several times to admit latecomers who inserted themselves awkwardly in several remaining spaces. Not my space, I thought, and relaxed a little more.

And then I heard it. On my back with my eyes closed: little feet gently walking. Sound coming closer. Closer. Yoga mat unfurling. No! But yes, a presence. Someone on my right. The open space was gone. Damn.

The teacher called us out of our meditation, and we rose to our feet. I looked at my intruder, and she looked up at me. A slight, hunched woman, older than anyone I’d personally seen practicing yoga,  smiled at me with bright, mischievous eyes and whispered “Sorry” with a little shrug of her frail shoulders. I smiled back. I couldn’t help myself. I adored her immediately.

Over the next hour and a half, she moved through difficult postures with the studied grace of a professional dancer, her hands and feet moving like bird wings in slow, intentional flight. I was deeply moved. A number of times the instructor called our attention to the front of the class, where she was demonstrating a pose. The woman on my right shot me apologetic looks for blocking my view.  In fact, I could see around her easily, but I didn’t want to.  She was my teacher.

Class ended and we rolled up our mats. “I really enjoyed practicing with you,” I said, smiling again. She said, “Oh, me too with you, honey,” and touched my arm with her long fingers. “Your practice is beautiful,” I said, feeling clumsy but wanting to tell her how inspired I felt being next to her, seeing her body’s strong elegance in the presence of significant age. “Are you a dancer?” I asked. “A long time ago,” she said, smiling and thanking me graciously.  She was, of course, still dancing.

So moved by this experience, that night I posted about it on Facebook. A friend and fellow yoga practitioner wrote me privately and said, “I think that’s Rosemary you’re talking about.” Apparently, my friend had also connected with this sparkly woman.

The next night, I was running late to yoga. This class, much harder than the previous class, was a 30 minute drive through traffic, and I got unexpectedly delayed. As I anxiously dashed in just before the opening pose, I saw that my usual spot in the back, next to another window, was somehow still open. I ran to it and unrolled my mat, relieved. Then I looked up. Just in front to my left was the old woman. And, to her right, an open space. Not much, but enough. I looked at my window, at the luxurious space around me–my comfort zone. I looked in front of me, at the small but adequate space next to my new friend. Shyly, I nudged my mat into the space beside her. She smiled and moved her mat to make a little more room for me. “Hi,” she said, “what a treat to practice with you again.” At the end of class, I asked her name. “Rosemary, my dear,” she said, “It’s so nice to meet you.”

A few days after these encounters with the woman called Rosemary, I was going back and forth in my head about the Cuba trip. “It’s expensive. Your GI just put you on a restrictive diet. You’re already taking trips. What if your car dies and you really need that money? What if it’s dangerous there? Plus, the planes will be cramped and you’ll have to share a room with a woman you don’t know.”  The other voice simply said, “Cuba.”

I went into my studio and started to paint. By then, I’d written the check and addressed the envelope for the Cuba trip, but I couldn’t bring myself to put in my mailbox. I finished the painting and almost immediately heard the title arise, “Message from Rosemary.”  At first, I didn’t know what the title meant, I just knew that was the painting’s name.

And then, I got it.

I put the check in my mailbox and raised the red flag.

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 >

Flowering Grasses

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Flowering Grasses

When I started my blog, I’d accumulated years of stories about painting. The posts came easily, as if I was emptying an over-stuffed attic. I didn’t anticipate that eventually the attic would be empty, and the blog would catch up to my life in present-tense.  But that’s what happened, and here I am with the blog on my heals, as insistent as my cat clawing me to be petted. There’s no other way to move forward: If I want to keep the blog, I must draw from what’s happening now.

What’s happening now is that I’m in transition in both life and painting, and these transitions bear the marks of messiness and uncertainty, grasping and letting go, finding balance in the back-and-forth lurch and lull of emergence. Since May, I’ve been setttling into a new rental house and painting in a new studio.  Posts and paintings are coming more slowly, and patience has never been among my virtues.

During this transition, I’ve been painting grasses. I started several grasses paintings just before I moved out of my old house. I loved the old house and didn’t want to leave it; the owners had to sell it and I wasn’t ready to buy. I lived in the house for three months as it sold, showing it to prospective owners and watching as its quirks and kinks were exposed, inspected, and gradually repaired or accepted for what they were.  My friend Emi remarked that this was the first time she’d known me to stay in a situation that required a protracted goodbye, and she was right.  Read More >

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.

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.

Prairie with Lotus

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Prairie with Lotus
40″ x 60″

The prairie is a wild landscape, complex and ever-changing. Lately I’ve been walking it barefoot. These are the shapes and colors it gave me on a recent visit. I don’t know if other people will connect to this painting, but strange as it is, I like it.

The important thing is to keep walking.

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.

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