Skip The Handbook

We walked some great beaches this summer. In this post are my three most recent paintings. Kerri calls them the start of my Beach Series. This one is called, They Draw The Sunset In The Sand

I just made myself laugh out loud. “Lol!” I’d have texted to myself had I not been breathless from my guffaw. No one can accuse me of needing to be entertained.

I was writing about my history with curators, galleries and their consistent criticism of my work: I am stylistically all over the map. And, it’s a valid criticism! I am stylistically schizophrenic. I was overcome with laughter by what I wrote after using the words ‘stylistically schizophrenic:’ If I didn’t know myself (and, most of the time I am the last person to see in myself what is obvious to all – so it is a solid argument to make that I do not know myself)…. Wow. I might have made a good lawyer had I not been so dedicated to seeing things from multiple points of view. My paintings reflect my dedication (as it should be).

When I was younger I tried repeatedly to squeeze myself into a stylistic box. I thought that the advice and feedback I was receiving from gallery representatives meant that I was somehow lacking or out of control. In the handbook of real artists it must say in bold print something about possessing a consistent style. The youthful me looked all over creation for a copy of the handbook but could find it nowhere. How could I call myself an artist if I had not first read the handbook?

This one is titled, A Day At The Beach

My attempts ‘to fit’ into the single style rule made me miserable and, worse, made my work stale. In my mind, achieving real-artist-status meant I must learn to contort myself yet the price of contortion was very high. Twice in my life I took a year long hiatus because my attempt to fit into a single-style-box left me with deep aches and no creative fire. Once, so burdened was I by the pain of my contortion, I burned most of my paintings.

Fire is cleansing. Creative fire is clarifying. I have learned through my fire that the real handbook is internal and uniquely personal. As John once said to me, “Your job is to paint the paintings not to determine how or where they fit.” The painters I admire and feel a kinship with are stylistic pantheists. They are more visual explorers than technical geniuses.

There is a bridge that every artist must cross. It comes in the moment when the inner compass is no longer at odds with the necessities of learning technique, when the well-meaning comments of teachers and mentors and agents and representatives are just that: well-meaning comments. The compass, your internal rulebook, will let you know without doubt whether the comment needs to be considered or discarded. Growth happens either way.

This one is untitled at the moment…

visit www.davidrobinsoncreative.com to see the full extent of my stylistic pantheism.

 

 

 

Be A Nart

My latest: A Day At The Beach

John inadvertently coined my favorite word of the week. We were sipping wine, watching the fire burn in the chiminea, and he was telling us about a recent trip to the Milwaukee Art Museum. It was his first visit and he was thrilled by it. In a moment of brilliant thought collision, he said, “I’m a Nart.” His eyebrows knit and eyes crossed at the force of the collision. “What I meant to say,” he said, shaking his head, “is that I am not very well versed in the arts.” We laughed heartily. A new word was born.

Nart (noun) – a person not well versed in the arts.

When people talk with me and Kerri about their encounters with the arts they often include a disclaimer as if we are, as artists, universal experts (and critics) of all artistic experiences. I told John that, even as an artist, I feel that I, too, am a Nart. I’ve studied it, experienced it, practiced it, rejected it, claimed it, been lost in it, found in it, baffled by it, thrilled by it, transported, disappointed, confused, bored, energized, fed and starved by it. The longer I do it, the deeper into it I walk, the less I am able to put my arms around it.

It is impossible to contain. It is impossible to plumb the depths of it.

In my younger years I was intimidated by this vastness. I thought my job was to grasp it. It was – and is – a calling and I felt inadequate to the call. Now, I understand that my job is not to grasp or contain or to know. My job is to experience it. And, to relate what I experience. I will never be able to express all that is living within me. I will never have enough life to find its (my) edges.

Art is intimate and public, deeply person and intrinsically communal. It can heal or destroy. I have never been more lonely than when standing empty in front of a canvas. I have never been more fulfilled that standing before a finished canvas wondering where the past few days went.

Roger once told me that, where the arts are concerned, there are levels of sophistication. Shakespeare, like fine wine, is not immediately accessible. It takes time for black-and-white thinkers to develop a socket for metaphor to plug into. Art, after all, is not a thing. It is a relationship. The more time you give it, the more experiences you have with it, the more rich and complex it becomes. It opens. You open. If you are lucky, it is a yoga (a practice) that is necessarily personal in a never ending pursuit of greater range and flexibility.

Greater range and flexibility can only be found when you are a Nart. Relationships are made vital in not-knowing. Those who think they know have stopped seeking. They have stopped relating. To believe you know, is to stagnate.

Although I didn’t say it, it would have made John re-knit his brow, but he is lucky to be a Nart. I hope that will always be so.

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?”