Honor All Perspectives

my latest painting. Hope asks, “What do you see?”

Hope Hughes, Kerri’s longtime assistant and voice of reason in all-things-business, passed through my studio and flung herself in front of the painting I was working on. “Stop!” she cried. “Don’t touch it! It’s finished!”

“Finished? I just started,” I whined. She laughed at the perplexed look on my face.

“Put down your brushes,” she smiled, “and listen for a minute.”

Over time I’ve learned to listen to Hope. She makes sense of the world through her feelings which comes in handy to an over-cerebral artist like me. She has no inner-editor in the early stages of communication so I’ve learned her heroics are pure. She sees something that I do not. This is not the first time Hope has thrust herself between me and the painting I am about to destroy, so when she asks me to ‘look’ there is usually a good reason. I set down my brushes, cross my arms, and huff as if to say, “I’m listening but make it fast.”

Each time she begs me to stop work on a painting, a great debate rages in the household. This time was no exception. I sit in my chair and listen to what she sees. It is always diametrically opposed to what I see so I pretend to pout (I secretly love this process because it is EXACTLY what I adore about art in general and painting in particular). She tries to get me to tell her what I intended to paint, coaxing me to talk about what I see but I refuse. As Joseph Campbell once said, “If an artist respects you, s/he will not tell you what a painting means. ” Art is always about a relationship between the piece and the viewer and the artist needs to stay out of the way. If the artist has no respect for you (or themself), s/he will tell you what the painting means to them. I respect Hope so I stay out of the way.

In this painting, Hope sees deep humility in dual fatherhood.

My refusal drags other people into the fray. She snaps a photo of the painting and then shares it with others, asking what they see in the painting, what descriptors they would use. As is always the case, the replies sometimes align with her perception and sometimes not which further fuels the debate. 20 had the misfortune of coming over for dinner and he was subjected to the photograph test.

In this painting, 20 sees grief and loss. In this aspect he agreed with Hope: the painting is finished.

When I first started showing paintings I would follow patrons through the gallery (they did not know I was the artist) and listen to their perceptions. They rarely saw what I intended but what they saw was marvelous – almost miraculous to me. It was an advanced course in understanding the futility of trying to determine what another person perceives. Art, I learned in those days, is a living relationship. Perception is personal. No one is a blank slate. Paintings evoke. The meaning is made between the patron and the painting.

I enter into the studio to drop out of my many descriptors and over-cerebral tendencies. I go to the studio to engage in a pure relationship with…my muse(?) I am never more alive than when I am painting. I am never more quiet than when I am painting. The images that emerge from my quiet are sometimes incidental, always surprising, and are sometimes just a map of a moment in the greater relationship of my life. Only a moment. I feel that I have never finished a painting because the paintings themselves are not distinct, separate from each other. They are living things. They change over time. They are moments, marks in the sand in a greater ongoing relationship in the long-body of my life.

What do I see in this painting? It is not important to know. Is it finished? For me, never. And, and for Hope, yes.

Every artist needs a Hope Hughes. Someone they trust, someone they respect to step in front of their work and without editor, tell them what they see. Hope reminds me that the true value/purpose of art is to create a commons capable of affording multiple perspectives and the rich opportunity to discuss the differences in what we perceive.

Attempt What Is Not Certain

Revelry

A painting from the archives. This one goes way back…

“Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.” Richard Diebenkorn, Notes To Myself On Beginning A Painting

Yesterday we went to Linda and Jim’s house to do some Irish dancing. They are terrific and dedicated dancers – with a dance floor in their basement – and thought it would be fun to teach their pals a waltz cotillon. It was, as they suspected, a riot of laughter, wrong-direction, toe-stepping and left-footed-entanglements. We drank wine, ate snacks, and found ourselves boldly waltz-stepping into the great unknown. 20 called it “an afternoon of happy insanity.”

All my life I’ve been fascinated at what happens to (and for) people when they open themselves to new experiences. Generosity rises. When people allow themselves to step outside of their safe-place, challenge their need to control and open to the new, they come alive. I mean that literally. They come into the present moment, out of their obsession with replaying the past and fearing/manipulating the future, and into the place where life actually happens. Now. It is the artist’s job to open the door to the place where life happens. It is the door Linda and Jim opened for us yesterday.

Krishnamurti wrote, “Have you ever noticed that when you respond to something totally, with all your heart, there is very little memory?” Horatio and I have an ongoing conversation about art and artistry. Lately, we’ve been discussing how completely we disappear when working on a canvas. Hours go by and it feels like minutes. And, more to the point, we don’t disappear, we become present. We show up. We experience the fullness of life at the burning point. Time, that grand master of illusion, disappears.

After our dancing, standing in the kitchen with a glass of wine, I heard, “Where did the time go?” We were revitalized and giddy, compatriots and survivors of a journey into the surprises of the unknown. I smiled when there rose a rowdy chorus of, “When can we do it again?” Life had burst through – as it wants to do – and left its charge.

Begin

my studio and all of my current messes-in-progress

“Where I create I am true, and I want to find the strength to build my life wholly upon this truth, this infinite simplicity and joy that is sometimes given me… But how shall I begin…?” Rainier Maria Rilke

But how shall I begin? It is a great and ubiquitous question. I have, in my life, worked with many, many people who passionately and at last created beautiful studios for themselves and then, in horror, sat frozen in their dream creative space blankly staring at a canvas. Or a blank sheet of paper. Or an incessant cursor on an all-white screen. Or an instrument. Their first question for me (for themselves): but how shall I begin?

A friend once told me that artists’ studios can sometimes be terrifying places. “You have to show up,” he said. “And what if, when I show up, I find I have nothing of value in me? What if I have nothing to say?” Ah. There’s the rub. Inner judges delight in confusing creative spaces with torture chambers. No one, in their right mind, will willingly step into a torture chamber. Even the hardiest creative impulse goes into hiding when judgment is on the menu.

In the category of things you can say to friends but not to clients: What if you have lots to say but are simply too afraid to say it? What if within you lives an entire universe of unique perspectives and you have created a monster at the door to ensure your silence? Who’s this judge that you fear?

Rilke wrote, “Where I create I am true….” Truth is not a frozen, fixed thing. It is alive and dynamic. Artistry is an exploration into truth (personal truth), not an answer. It is a living dynamic process, not a finished product. This same sentiment applies to all of life.

my favorite recent spontaneous art installation by 20

Tom had a mantra: a writer writes and a painter paints. He might have answered the question this way: begin. Simply show up. Begin. Make messes. Make offers. Make strong offers. See what happens. Learn. Choose. Make mistakes. Make big mistakes. Decide. Fall down. Go too far. Rip it up. Stop too soon. Use the torn pages. Learn. Play. Surprise yourself. Bore yourself. Learn. Play. Choose. No judge, inner or outer, can survive in such a vibrant creative truth-space.

An actual studio is nothing more than an expression of an artist’s internal life. How do you begin? Value your truth. Allow it to live. Knowing how to begin requires an understanding of why you stopped in the first place.

And then, as someone wise once said to me: make all the world your studio.

 

Live According To Your Necessity

a detail of a painting I did in honor of Dawson's arrival on earth

a detail of a painting I did in honor of Dawson’s arrival on earth

“Depending upon the lens you look through, I have been a miserable failure at everything I’ve ever done,” I said. Arnie protested but we both knew it was, to a certain extent, true. And, since our conversation I have been gazing through that certain lens and feeling my failure acutely.

This lens is not new to me. I visit it each year as my birthday rolls around. It is a lens that most artists visit from time to time. To their peril. Recently, Chris, one of the most talented and hardworking actors I know, told me that now that he is far down the road of his career, no longer a beginner, he has surrendered the idea, imperative or illusion of economic success. “I work because I have to,” he said. It makes no sense and is impossible to explain to someone who does not have “that” impossible intrinsic driver. The incentives are internal. The rewards are internal. The achievements are mastery landmarks and not monetary rewards. It looks like insanity through the lens of a profit/loss, money=morality society.

When I look through the failure lens I’ve learned I need to visit Rainier Maria Rilke. I need to seek the advice of a master. “Nobody can counsel you or help you. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would die if it were denied you to write. This above all – ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And, if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity;….”

...closer in

…closer in

My life is built upon this necessity. No amount of comparing it to others is useful. No other lens is healthy. Since moving to Kenosha from Seattle, I am fond of telling people that in my move I committed economic suicide. That is a statement made looking through the wrong lens. Here is the truth: Since my move I have published my book, The Seer. I produced and performed in what I thought was the greatest heart-project of my life, The Lost Boy. It played to sold out houses and fulfilled a decade long journey and commitment to Tom. Two months later I did what I now think was the the greatest heart-project of my life when I illustrated and Kerri and I published Beaky’s books, The Shayne Trilogy. Beaky had an author’s reading a mere two weeks before her passing. Last year I authored drew and submitted with Kerri over 25 cartoon proposals to syndicates. We are completing work on our next play, The Road Trip. And, in the middle of it all, I’ve done arguably the best paintings of my life. I am meeting my question with a simple and strong “I must.”

What is failure? What is success? They are lenses and they matter not.

I am living and building my life “according to this necessity.”

The whole painting.

The whole painting.

 

FIND ENDURING TRUTHS

a detail of an unnamed painting

a detail of an unnamed painting

Skip is in NYC and spent some time at MOMA and The Guggenheim. He sent a cascade of photographs of the great paintings he encountered. I thanked him for the uplift, the reminder of what is enduring and true in this time of post-truth-politics. He wrote, “Trying to fill my head with art and beauty and not full of fears and lies.”

My dear friend came to visit. We have generally stood on opposite sides of the political aisle though have always been able to discuss our differing points of view. We’ve always been capable, at least for a moment, to stand in each other’s shoes and identify common ground. During this latest visit, the other’s shoes were nowhere to be found. I told him that our conversations were like the particle-wave duality: he is looking at the political world and seeing a particle and I am looking at the same world but can only see a wave. Common ground was nowhere to be found. We learned that our friendship is much greater and more enduring than our politics. We went to a play, filled our heads with art that inspired intense conversation. It turns out that there was plenty of common ground available when peering at our world through a rich art-lens. Perhaps our leaders need a better grasp of the power and purpose of art.

I'm experimenting with my meditation drawings. A detail from a work-in-progress

I’m experimenting with my meditation drawings. A detail from a work-in-progress

Kerri asked me if I wanted to see something beautiful and I said, “YES!” She was standing in the kitchen looking out the window through binoculars. “It’s the fox,” she said, handing me the binoculars. About a hundred yards away, nestled into a pile of leaves, the fox was soaking in the sun. While this world seems so out of joint, teeming with discord, I found great solace on this cold winter day watching a fox curl up for a nap in a rare sliver of sun. It filled my heart with beauty and the comfort of an enduring cycle.

I’ve always appreciated the work of Neil Postman. His writing was a North Star for me when I was sailing the choppy waters of education and corporate dysfunction. Today I think he was a prophet. A few months ago I reread portions of his book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, published in 1984. This morning, after reading the news, I shook my head and read again the Forward of his book:

“…Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

another detail

another detail

As I find myself drowning in a sea of irrelevance (post truth, alternative fact, crowd size infatuations), I am, like Skip, reaching into the one place where I have always found unshakable truth. When so many are working so hard to fill our minds with fear and fable, a walk through a museum can be salve for the soul. Time in the studio can be a re-grounding in truth, reorienting to the solid realities beyond those smoky deceptions fed to us as fact. It seems to me that intentionally filling our heads and hearts with beauty (not to escape but to feed on substance rather than ingesting so much sugar) is healthy and necessary in an effort not to become like the thing we resist.

Skip and I are not the only ones. George Orwell’s 1984 is selling like hot cakes. Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World deserves a serious look. When truth is hard to find amidst the ranting fiction, sometimes we must turn to fiction (art) to find the enduring truths.

art prints/bags/cards/pillows/cool stuff

Kerri told me that the orchestration in this piece, Bridge, is perfect for this post: Orwellian, a bridge between truth and untruth.

BRIDGE on ITunes: Kerri Sherwood track 15 on AS IT IS

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Let Life Come Through

a sketch: Dancing At Crab Meadow

a sketch: Dancing At Crab Meadow

Kerri works on her “un-cantata.” She plays a short section from a piece and it captures my attention. I put down my pencil, close my eyes, and listen. I am inking a cartoon, preparing a proposal. It is mechanical work, rote. I have learned to use this stage of the process as a kind of pay-attention-exercise. It is only tedious if I slip into the illusion that I’ve drawn this line before; I have not, just as I have not lived this moment before.

Artistry is often like laying bricks. Repetition is rarely sexy but beautiful creations come from it. I know that in my repetition I am “putting the lines in my body,” building muscle memory.

I have not heard Kerri play this piece and I find myself savoring it. I love it when she plays. The first time she played for me I was stunned into silence. “Something came through you,” I tell her. “It was enormous.” I often tell her the story of the first time I heard her play. I tell her the story so she will play more. I tell her because I know that music wants to come through her like images want to come through me. “You have to go to the piano,” I say. “Let it come through you.” She responds, “Let’s take a walk.” And we walk. Life comes through.

Neither of us spends as much time in the studio as we ought. Our walks, however, are extraordinary.

We went to a funeral on Saturday. We will attend another funeral tomorrow. There have been many, many in the past few years. I suspect that we are of the age that funerals become common. I have been paying attention to the eulogies with some fascination. They have become life-giving or at least revealing of what actually gives life (and what does not). In the many eulogies I’ve heard, the lives recounted, I’ve yet to hear about the big house, the luxury car that was bought, the clothes or jewelry that the deceased strove to possess. I never hear about the accumulations, the stuff or achievements. I hear warm stories of relationship. I hear of family dinners, trips to the lake, walks in the woods, laughter and lessons. I hear stories of life’s repetitions, the holiday feasts, the coffee sitting, the small moments, the messy moments that amount to time spent together. The walks.

Life comes through.

Learn To Question

My best place for asking questions

My best place for asking questions

20 (aka John) tells me that his coworker, Amy, aged 22, will have answered all of life’s questions within the next three years. He assures me that she will share her answers when she has them. “We just need to hang on for another three years,” he quips, “…and it’ll all make sense!”

The admitting nurse at the surgery center feels like a threshold guardian. She said, “People who pass through here learn just how little they actually control in life. Surgery is humbling. I’m here when their illusion of control bursts. That moment is hard.” She was quiet for a moment and added, “What gets me is all these people in the world who think they have all the answers – and they think their answer has to be the answer for everybody. All these rules made up by all these people who think they have the right answer for everybody! That’s why people are killing people everywhere.”

“It sounds like more people ought to have surgery!” I tease.

“You got that right,” she said, handing me my gown, hairnet and blue booties. “Put one of these on and you realize how little control you actually have; in this place none of your answers matter and none of your rules apply!”

It should be a mantra for educators and the only argument necessary to dismantle a test-driven system: Life is always found in the direction of the question. At best, answers are relative – and the best answers, if understood, are simply doors to more questions. Learn to question.

The best art follows the same mantra. It steps into big questions, wanders into unknowns and complexities. It tests and tries, explores and experiments. It leads us to explode our answers and like a good trickster does not allow us to hold our gods too tightly. It begs us to question.

“Shall we tell Amy that there are no answers?” I ask 20.

“Nah. Why spoil the surprise.”

From the archives. This one often calls to me

From the archives. This one often calls to me

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