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.

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.

 

Wait For The Flow

The Weeping Man

The Weeping Man

The Weeping Man is finished.

Sometimes the process of painting feels like wrestling with an angel: It will not release me. I will not let it go. We wrangle and discover the truth in each other. It is, as Quinn used to say of all relationships: “corrections as refinements”.

Sometimes a painting follows you for years and chooses its day. It chooses its time and simply steps into the light. It announces itself: “I am here now.” The Weeping Man was like that.

In my life I have painted hundreds of paintings and I can count a handful that are like The Weeping Man. Pure. In laying it out, I corrected one line. I added another. There are relatively few unnecessary brush strokes.

Flow is like that.

Open Your Eyes

a detail from the painting on the chopping block. It's called "The Stillness Must Be Immense."

a detail from the painting on the chopping block. It’s called “The Stillness Must Be Immense.”

There is a debate raging in my house. Yesterday I was about to wipe a painting off my canvas and begin anew when Kerri intervened. “I love it!” she declared. “I hate it,” I replied. “Truly,” she said, “I love it.” When I wrinkled my brow she restated, “I love it.”

Many years ago I was stepping toward a canvas to wipe it clean. The painting wasn’t working for me and I’d given up. I wanted to start anew. My landlady, Kathleen, came into the studio at just that moment and hurled herself in front of the canvas. “You can’t erase it!” she declared! “This is one of my favorites!” She had the look of a desperate woman begging for the life of her child. I relented. I couldn’t wipe it clean. She confessed to coming into the studio the previous evening and admiring the painting. “I spent a long time with it!” I made a deal with her. I promised to show the painting – to include it in one show – and let the public decide. If it was roundly reviled, as I KNEW it would be (as I was actively roundly reviling it), I’d paint over it without drama or interference. If it was appreciated by anyone, by a single person, Kathleen could say, “I told you so,” and I’d never paint over it.

the painting Kathleen saved

the painting Kathleen saved.

A few months later I hung the painting in my solo show at Rock/Dement studio gallery in

Seattle. At the opening a woman came into the gallery, stood before the painting, and burst into tears. She looked at me with tears rolling down her face and said, “I love it.” Kathleen waited a few days before allowing words to break through her smug smile, “Well,” she sighed, “I told you so.”

That painting is the reason I made the same deal with Kerri yesterday. I will let it remain long enough to show one time. If it is roundly reviled and ignored, then I will paint over the canvas without protest. If a single person likes it or expresses appreciation for it, she can bury me in a mountain of, “I told you so,” and the painting will live on long after I’m gone.

The Stillness Must Be Immense.

The Stillness Must Be Immense.

This morning I posted an image, a print that reads, “CROSS THE BOUNDARY OF ELEMENTS.” In the short blurb associated with the image I wrote that sometimes we have to stand in other people’s shoes. We have to see what they see. I am an artist and am convinced that artistry is all about opening new visions for others. It is about helping people see what is there, not what they think is there – and I’m certain that I fall into a thought eddy while painting. It is, perhaps impossible for me to see what others see in my paintings. What I judge to be worthless has often proven to be magnetic to others. And so, I am willing to make this bet, I delight in the moments when my understanding of life turns back on me, flings itself in front of me and screams, “Open your eyes!”

another detail of the painting.

another detail of the painting.

Dance Without Effort

my mud-slog

my mud-slog

Last night I painted badly and I did it intentionally. I went down into the cool of the basement studio to escape the heat and humidity. A new canvas was stapled to the wall, gessoed and ready to go. I picked up my brushes, squeezed paint onto the palette and began working.

Many years ago I made the switch from oils to acrylics because the fumes were making me ill. It was a happy accident. Acrylics required me to work fast and fast meant I had no time to think. I learned by default that I am a much better artist when I’m not laboring over the details. Sometimes the process feels like an invocation. Sometimes the process feels like a rolling mess that morphs and morphs until the final moment when, like focusing a telescope, the image becomes crystal clear.

My paintings are generally big. They demand a full-body engagement, painting-as-dance. I know I am working well when I lose track of time, when the dance overtakes me, and the line between painting and painter disappears. It is pure magic: a place free of thought-obstacles.

Last night there was no magic. When I was younger the slog sessions would depress me. I believed I had to have magic all of the time and felt despair when, instead of magic, I danced knee-deep in mud. It took a long time for me to appreciate the necessity of the mud dances. Painting badly is, of course, necessary to paint well. In fact, I now know that there is no such thing as painting badly just as there is no such thing as perfection. Saying more with less is a life-long learning process for all artists. Freedom of expression is a yoga, a practice. It has as much to do with muscles as it does with minds. It is a yoga of brevity. It is as efficient as breath. It is a paradox of stepping out of the way so that you can fully step forward.

I once saw an exhibit of the hundreds of sketches and studies John Singer Sergeant did before painting El Jaleo. I loved it. He drew the same thing over and over again. He painted again and again the smallest detail. He was putting the image into his body. He was teaching his muscles to flow without tension. The finished painting (the last thing in the exhibit) was thrilling. It is a celebration of brevity, free motion without mental intervention. It made me dizzy. It made me cry because I knew how devoted he was to his practice to say so much with so little. I knew how many hours of effort it took for him to dance so effortlessly.

 

 

Walk With Your Ally

another painting in the Yoga series

the latest painting in the Yoga series

David is among my chief muses. He was the first person I met in my spontaneous-no-plan-move-to-Seattle over 15 years ago. We sat next to each other at a conference and he asked me if I wanted to be in a play. When I said yes he said, “Great. Can you be at rehearsal tonight?” Like me, he is a painter as well as a theatre artist. He steps through life with his eyes firmly focused on the possibilities. He reminds me that obstacles are nothing more than interesting process steps. When I wander through museums or galleries David goes with me whether he is there or not. When I see a play that inspires me, I wish that he might see it, too, so we might talk about it.

Recently, he sent this quote: “My intention has been, often, to say what I had to say in a way that would exemplify it; that would, conceivably, permit the listener to experience what I had to say rather than just hear about it.” – John Cage, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists.

When I was in college studying acting I had a professor who would say, “You will always know a good play from a bad play because a bad play wants to tell you what happens. A good play wants to include you in what happens.” He also used this rule to define good acting from bad acting. His shorthand phrase was, “Show me, don’t tell me.” It is the artistic equivalent of, “Give a man a fish and he will have a meal; teach a man to fish and he will eat forever.” Art, regardless of the form it takes, is meant to teach people to fish.

Art is not a “thing,” it is a relationship. It is a dynamic orientation to life. It is an experience (not a possession). My interpretation of my professor’s rule goes something like this: a good play/performance/painting includes; a bad play/performance/painting excludes. Vital art reaches for others. Empty art rejects or attempts to elevate itself above others.

The best artists I know have learned to get out of their own way. They have essentially, let go of all investment in self-importance. They serve the art and, so, are not terribly invested in whether a critic or a friend likes or dislikes their work. They have grown beyond attempting to control the perceptions of others (control is an act of exclusion); they are attempting to reach the soul of the matter, touch the soul of the other.

finally finished: May You Be

finally finished: May You Be

It is also true that great artists are constantly learning. And, since growth is always in the direction of the unknown, it is terribly important to have allies to walk with you. Stepping into the unknown is best done in the company of others, those special few wanderers who you can turn to and say, “Whoa! Did you just see that?” David, who is always there with me, laughs in response to my awe, and says, “Tell me! What did you see?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seek Solitude

from my Yoga series of paintings

from my Yoga series of paintings

It is easier to sail many thousands of miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone. ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I remember watching a documentary of the painter Lucien Freud. He said he couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to be a painter because the choice meant living a solitary life. His comment struck me as odd because, for me, solitude was necessary for the muse to come through. I often yearned for solitude. I always looked forward to my time with the muse.

More than twenty years ago, for a period of time, I was painting exclusively. I had an abundance of solitude. Each evening my dear friend Albert would show up at my door, force me out of the studio and take me to a coffeehouse. He told me that he feared my isolation, that without human contact and conversation, I might twist. His fear, although probably valid, also struck me as odd.

A solitary life can be quiet, prayerful; it can be full. A solitary life can also be lonely and empty. The difference, of course, is in the presence of a relationship. Most painters that I know, most artists, feel as if they are a “channel to something bigger.” Something comes through and it is in the solitary moments that the channel opens. It is in the solitary moments that the relationship becomes available. The relationship with the muse can be full, rich, and three-dimensional. I imagine monks, nuns and ascetics of all spiritual traditions know this relationship, too. Solitary need not be lonely just as, paradoxically, the loneliest place on earth can be in the middle of city teeming with people.

The exploration of the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being is the province of the artist. The relationship with “something bigger,” with the muse, is the seed from which all art forms grow. The seed is visible in the adornments found in pyramids, in the harp of Orpheus, and in the paintings of Marc Chagall. It is present when children with gusto run their fingers through paint or dance all alone in the grass just because it feels good.