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.

 

See The Present

photo-4From the stacks we pulled out every painting and considered it. A buyer, those rare and colorful birds that occasionally fly in unannounced, interested in my work generally, wanted a piece. He wanted a selection to choose from. The studio became a hodgepodge gallery organized around possibilities for purchase. I have digital images of every piece but our enthusiasm propelled us into the studio. It had been a long time since I’d spent time looking at the full body of my work.

“This one goes upstairs!” Kerri announced.

“Why?”

“It belongs in the Held-In-Grace series,” she replied.

The Held-In-Grace paintings are my newest series, each completed within the last 5 months. The painting she held was six years old. I told her it was old (obviously) and couldn’t possibly belong in a new series.”It belongs and it’s going upstairs,” she said, giving me ‘that look,’ saying only, “I think it is called PRAY NOW.” I know when I am bested. The old painting with a new name went upstairs to join the current series.

In its former life the painting was named JOHN’S SECRET. John framed all of my paintings during the Seattle years. He was one of those rare people that had no secrets. John was industrious, generous, practical, direct, and artistic. He was a collision of contradictions. He saved my artistic bacon more than once, showing up at just the right moment with just the right tool or just the right sentiment. He was as close to pure as a human can be. No pretense. No mask. No power game or hidden agenda. Just John. He was a rare ally, a consistent angel. I lost touch with him when I moved to the shores of Lake Michigan.

I named the painting JOHN’S SECRET to tease him. To tease me. “Someone’s whispering in your ear!” I quipped. “I’ll never tell,” he replied as he helped me fit the painting into the frame.

It is oddly appropriate that, at this time of my life, JOHN’S SECRET would be renamed PRAY NOW and join the HELD IN GRACE series. It has been too long since I spent time looking at my full body of work. I saw old pieces with new eyes. Some of the paintings deserve to step back into the light, to go upstairs and be seen. I found them surprisingly beautiful, something I would not have been able to admit a few short years ago.

a detail

The buyer, it turns out, was a scam. He was not interested in my work at all. It took two days of negotiations for me to catch on; I am sometimes slow in the uptake. Buyers, those rare birds, it turns out, are truly rare. For a few moments I wanted to cry (only for the amount of time it took me to drink a scotch – “Pa told me to pour you this,” Kerri said when she saw the crush of scam-realization hit my heart and show up in my face). I took my scotch and my wound into the studio to restock the paintings and realized that the scammer had done me an enormous favor. He helped me look at the long-body of my work. He helped me see with new eyes the beauty of my previous life’s work, something that I had not before been able to see. And, he helped me recognize the great good fortune that surrounds me in my present life. He helped JOHN’S SECRET find a path back into the light of day, a new life, renamed – or perhaps, at long last, finding its true identity.

a detail from my painting, John's Secret

 

 

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Cut A New Path

ComfortNow

The latest in my Held In Grace series. This is Comfort Now

It seems to me that most of our days on this earth are spent moving through patterns, conscious or unconscious. These patterns are the rituals of our lives. Some of the rituals are easy to see. For instance, what is the sequence of actions you perform before going to bed each night? What about your ritual of rising each day? The care and feeding of Tripper Dog-Dog-Dog and Babycat are central to my rising and retreating rituals each day. We move through the same actions every morning and evening and I delight in the warmth of the ritual.

Some of the rituals are not so easy to see. Researchers tell us that most of the thoughts we think every day are the same thoughts we had yesterday. We mostly think in patterns (it makes sense once you recognize that language is constructed of category and pattern). We talk to ourselves, cutting paths through the forest of our minds and, once we’ve established a trail, we like to stay on it. Easy is often unconscious. There’s nothing wrong with staying on the easy trail if the path you’ve cut, your repetitious thought-ritual, is self-loving. The rub: ritual paths of self-loathing and self-limitation are also easy, well-worn paths and that makes them both unconscious and hard to leave.

Cutting a new path through the mind forest begins with recognizing that new paths are always available. They just aren’t easy to establish. They require new practices. They require surrender and the first bit of surrender necessary for cutting a new path is the ritual giving-over of needing-to-know-anything; new paths, by definition are unknown.

New paths are not comfortable precisely because they require attention, consciousness.

My teachers taught me that all stories worth telling are stories of transformation. The main character or characters will know something at the end of the story that they did not know at the beginning and the new knowledge will be hard-won. That’s what makes the story worth engaging. Hamlet is a much different character in Act 5 than he was in Act 1. His peace was difficult to come by. He had to learn to surrender. To cut a new path he had to make a practice of peace.

The same ideal applies to the stories we live off the stage.

 

Be Held In Grace

Grace (noun): 1. Simple elegance or refinement of movement. 2. Unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification.

The first time it happened Kathleen, my landlady, stepped between me and the canvas shouting, “You can’t do it!” I was about to wipe off the image and start anew. “I love this one!” she said. “I love it.” Baffled by Kathleen’s wild-eyed heroics I granted the painting a stay of execution. I let it live. I faced the canvas to the wall so I couldn’t see it. After a few days I put it back on the easel. I saw it anew. I saw what Kathleen saw. It was a good painting and ultimately birthed an entire series of paintings.

One of the great paradoxes of being a visual artist is to lose sight en route to seeing. Becoming mired in the thoughts of the painting blinds an artist to the painting. Stare at anything long enough and you will stop seeing it (you will only see what you think about it). The only antidote is to turn it around. Forget about it so you can see it anew.

A few weeks ago it happened again. Kerri was coming down the stairs to the studio just as I was about the wipe an image off the canvas. It wasn’t working for me. Like Kathleen a decade earlier, Kerri threw herself over the painting and pleaded for its life. This time I asked her to tell me what she saw that I clearly was not seeing. I asked her to make a case for clemency. She saw something new. She saw Grace. And, she convinced me that I was blind to the painting. I took it off the easel and turned it to face the wall.

I’m learning again lessons that were pounded into me when I was younger but am now finding deeper levels. Step away. Forget. Clear your vision by looking away. Tom called this “closing the building for a spell.” Understand that seeing and thinking are intertwined. It is a sword with two edges that can illuminate or limit. The skill is never found in the thinking, the interpretation. The great skill is to see beyond the thinking. To see. Artistry happens when thought serves sight and not the other way around. The mastery of art and the mastery of life are, after all, one and the same thing.

When I turned the painting around I saw it anew. And, like the reprieved painting of a decade ago, this one, too, is inspiring a series. In a fit of intentional spontaneity (one of my new favorite descriptions of artistry), the second in the series jumped off my brush. I’m preparing surfaces for the third, fourth, and fifth. They are asking me to follow them – no thought required. They are asking me to take a walk with Grace.

 

Create A Purpose

photo-2In the sixteenth hour of our drive to the mountains, to keep us awake, Kerri and I began a rousing game of This-or-That. “Frosted Flakes or Lucky Charms?” Frosted Flakes all the way; those little marshmallow things get wonky in the milk. It’s amazing what you learn about yourself and others when the world of infinite possibilities is reduced to two choices. The game soon escalated to the impossible with pairings like “Coffee or Chocolate?” Real life penetrates the game when the only possible answers are, “It depends!” or “Both!”

Since our drive to the mountains I’ve been paying attention to how often people unwittingly play the This-or-That game, pretending that there are only two choices and, further, pretending that the choices are distinct and knowable. Democrat or Republican? Communities collapse when they forget that the important stuff is unanswerable. The important stuff is a moving target and requires conversation, debate, and comes along with multiple points of view. Two sizes do not fit all bodies.

I’ve also been playing my own inner game of This-or-That, purposefully choosing impossible pairings. Order or Chaos? It seems like a no-brainer until you dive in a bit deeper.

My favorite version so far is the Purpose-of-Life category. I picked a most lofty purpose: Illumination – and matched it with the utter absence of purpose. And, of course, I came to, “It depends!” or “Both!” I sprang my line of reasoning on Kerri (she thought we were going to talk about what to make for breakfast. She’s grown quite used to my surprise topics so she rolled her eyes, sipped coffee, and listened, knowing that no breakfast choice would be possible until after I unpacked my game).

No matter which spiritual tradition I read, the final point seems to be presence (living fully – aware of your moments). And in practice, presence becomes possible when thought is either transcended (meditation) or focused (prayer). Meditation and prayer are both purpose-full. Thought needs transcending and/or focus because it is mostly a babbling brook of nonsense or, better, a brook of babbling nonsense. It’s a lot of made up stuff that often takes the form of a game called This-or-That (I win/I lose, I’m right/I’m wrong, Us/Them). The game, as is true of all forms of interpretation, gets in the way of direct experience. It interrupts presence.

Detach from the babble. Meditate. Or recognize that it’s all made up and focus what’s made up. Pray. In either case presence comes through the recognition that it is all made up. The hitch: every notion of purpose, then, is also made up. There isn’t one. But, having a purpose is required to come to the recognition that there is no purpose. It’s a loop. It’s all creativity. It’s all imagination.

Spectrums and polarities are often cycles in disguise. They are both/and. They are yin and yang (not Yin or Yang). Illumination or Purposelessness? It depends. Both. Order needs chaos just as much as chaos needs order. The question is, what do we want to create? Why, a purpose, of course! So, let’s see what’s needed and decide to address it.

“My imagined purpose is breakfast,” Kerri sighed at the end of my rambling dissertation. “Pancakes or an egg scramble?”

 

Make Art So.

at one time even this was considered a new technology

at one time even this was considered new technology. numbers, too!

Chet said, “But where’s the human in all of it?” His question took me by surprise. It is a question that often puzzles me. I was telling him about my recent inner earthquake, the moment that the train of technology jumped the tracks and collided with my art engine. Both exploded.

For weeks I’d been looking forward to a full day of exploration at the Chicago Art Expo. Hundreds of contemporary galleries from around the world assembled in one place, each showing their premiere work. As an artist these events have always fed my soul. This time, with the exception of a few older masters (a Chagall, a Picasso), a Hockney that made me smile, and few pieces from The San Francisco Figurative painters, I was unmoved. Worse, I was uninterested. As I wandered through the exhibits I listened to curators over and over again working hard to give context to the art. The viewers had no immediate access to it. They (like me) needed an explanation to access its relevance. I felt as if I was watching art-priests interpreting god for parishioners who had no expectation of direct access to the divine. The art needed a middleman. It required an explanation.

Just before going to the Expo, Skip shared a link with me. It was a video of animator Glen Keane drawing in virtual space. He was literally drawing from within the image. It took my breath away. Glen Keane called the technology a new tool but, like many new tools – so many new technologies, this one has the capacity to change our relationship with life and, therefore, with art because it could change our relationship with time and space. At one point in time, electric light was a new technology. The automobile, the airplane, the telephone, the camera and the phonograph were once new technologies. Each changed our relationship with sound, light, distance, the planet…each other. They changed how we see and experience possibilities. And, at the time of their invention, the community, at first, did not understand the power being introduced into their lives. They, like we, were stepping into the future with their eyes in the rearview mirror. What we know as art changed with the introduction of each of these technologies.

I couldn’t help but see the work at the Expo through the lens of this most contemporary tool. My eyes, for a moment, were wrenched from the rearview mirror and forced to look straight ahead through the windshield. Relative to the tool, the work at the Expo seemed abstract to the point of inaccessibility. It felt academic and I felt distant from it (lots of head, little heart). The tool although incomprehensible, was exhilarating, approachable, and inspiring. It made me want to play. It made me want to create. With this tool, Jackson Pollock would have danced and splashed in 3-D space. Picasso would have explored Cubism from within the cube. And, with this tool, I could see them doing it; I could sit in the same space and get paint on my face. In the video, Glen Keane says, “When an artist makes a line, it is a seismograph to their soul.” This tool, this technology, is a 4 dimensional seismograph.

Eve Ensler wrote, “Art has the power to explode the heart and open up other energetic capacities to re-perceive it. It defies boundaries and leaps tall buildings. It transports, it translates, it transcends. Transcendence is so important right now because our lives are so mechanized, controlled, and commodified; art has the capacity to open our souls and could be our revolutionary, evolutionary salvation.”

Yes. And, yes again. I can draw in the dirt with a stick. I can draw in virtual space. The verb remains the same. The access to others – the reach of the art – changes.

To Chet I wanted to say that humans create technology. And, in turn, technology informs humans and, therefore, art. Our very short attention spans are the result of our relationship with technology –  800 word blog posts are now too long, and 140 character tweets are desirable. Much of the Expo was digital photography or digitally altered images. It was mental and cold and abstract – certainly expressions of our time – expediency allows for little depth of experience. The technology did not make it cold; the way it is wielded by human beings makes it so.

Meditate On Mistakes

taking advantage of my mistakes: a detail of my latest painting in progress called Weeping Man

taking advantage of my mistakes: a detail of my latest painting in progress called Weeping Man

A meditation on mistakes:

Actors know. In performance, when they forget their line, they come alive. The exhilaration of forgetting shocks them into presence. The mistake achieves the essential thing: presence. The audience may not be aware of the lost line but they cannot help but come into presence when the actor does. That’s how it works. Presence begets presence. Actors also know that, in such a moment, tension is their enemy. Panic is counterproductive. Relaxation is the only path back to their play.

Mistakes wake us up.

Many years ago, I produced a summer theatre company. In the middle of a performance, a storm blew out the power to the theatre. The performance stopped. The emergency lights came on. The actors looked at the audience and the audience looked at the actors. And then, in the ghostly blue-white light, the actors continued their play. It was the one and only time that the play was riveting. Actors and audience alike became invested. They were together in an experience that was unique. It was, as are all true mistakes, unrepeatable.

the under painting and sketch.

the under painting and sketch.

The playwright John Guare wrote that a writer must write ten bad pages to arrive at the one good page. The writer must value the ten bad pages for the single good page to be possible. The ten bad pages, what educators, locked into testing regimens, might call mistakes, are necessary. Up front expectations of perfection are guarantees of mediocrity. No process is perfect – and that’s the point. Perfection, like happiness, comes after the fact. It is the blossom of a rich process. It ensues and only becomes available when mistakes are valued, when exploration is encouraged. A rich process is alive with trial and error, with strong offers that may or may not work. The strength of the offer, the capacity to make a grand mistake, learn, adjust and boldly offer again – is a great definition of freedom. It is otherwise known as vitality.

It’s what artists understand. When nothing seems to be working, when the most powerful offers fall flat, when paintings turn to mud, relaxation is the only path forward. There is comfort in knowing that the single good page is out there somewhere if only you keep making grand, luscious, brilliant mistakes.