Process as Teacher

                                                                    Sketch of my pup Captain.

                                                                    Sketch of my pup Captain.

This week's BLOG post is a public talk I gave recently at The Shambhala Meditation Center in Providence, RI.

Process vs Product is an age-old dance.

Process is the journey and Product is the destination. Many artists train to build their skill sets with a destination in mind. Often young art students want foundation skills so that they can achieve a sort of mastery and make what they envision. There is a long history of academic art training and I believe this rigorous structure is important. 

It has taken me 2 decades to loosen the product driven art making I was trained to do in graduate school. I studied painting and drawing in the French Academic tradition, studying artistic anatomy in NYC. My work was held to a strict historical standard of measurement and anatomical accuracy. I had some sense that the confidence of this foundation would act as a springboard and liberate me to work more intuitively in the future. But how many of us are willing to take the leap?

Are we willing to surrender to process, to not knowing, not controlling what the creative product will ultimately be? Journey without destination. I realize now that the best lessons at The Academy were the hundreds of quick gesture drawings. It was a relentless process of success and failure…building my resiliency for what came ahead as an artist. Despite all of the finished rendering we were trained in, I learned that unless you feel the pose and get the essential gesture down with intuitive immediacy, drawings will feel lifeless and boring. 

The best training for SEEING is attempting to catch the gesture in physical phenomenon. It is a workout that builds strength and stamina. Genuine growth happens here. I learned through this gestural process about longing… longing to capture a moment before it is gone forever. Impermanence can fuel passion and ignite action. 

Children are inherently process driven. It is a liberating reminder to witness children’s unencumbered creativity. They have a tactile need to feel the materials and throw themselves into the projects without self-consciousness. How beautiful. How do we become separated from this confidence? This purity? The intellectual, analytical mind can kill freshness. Our training messes with our flow. If you take yourself too seriously, too tightly, you narrow your view and the breathtaking tangential directions…abstract passages… aren’t allowed a chance to flourish. One must be playful. It is a constant dance of balancing precision and openness. 

The practice is being present with whatever is. This is how authentic work is generated. This is hard. Our process often crescendos to an ultimate image after searching, editing, recomposing, redrawing, destroying, building…Sometimes this process can get heated and frustrating. Trust the grit.  Making authentic work is a continuous cycle of inspiration, effort, failure, chaos/fear and then the bravery to try again. The most potent image is often somewhere in the fall out of this cycle. You might be surprised to find that what you pre-conceived is much less exciting than the accidental remnants of your effort. If you pay attention, process can be a potent teacher if you let it.

After graduate school I took my tool belt and asked now what? I traveled and lived in faraway places. I started to be inspired by the land. I began painting outdoors. I was humbled again and again by the lack of systems and the fleeting light. I was trained never to work from photographs and so I would stand with my French easel on cliff tops, in marshes and dunes painting as quickly as I could, trying to capture something fleeting that I couldn’t hold on to. I had to be out of my mind. This was the secret…being out of my mind. No time to think. Just do.

The process of making these plein air oil studies was fresh and unencumbered. Sometimes I would just have to stop before it was finished because the light would have changed too much. Any kind of goal was often thrown out in the face of the reality of the moment. I was a sensorial filter for my surroundings. My studio now included the temperature of the sun on my skin, the smell of the salt air, the sight of the changing colors and the sound of the wind and birds above me. I began to embody a more holistic process including a physical connection to the earth as I hiked the land, waiting to be sparked by a view. 

So the journey or process of the work began to trump any sort of plan. Sure I had my art training to support this but somehow this sort of work felt more and more authentic. It was reshaping my whole approach to making. How terrifying it was to throw away the anatomical measurement systems and the highly controlled studio lighting. It was a sort of surrender to what is. Beauty in the moment. Fleetingness as teacher.

This surrender sparked a curiosity in me. Could I approach other aspects of my creative life with this same sort of open-ended investigation? About 4 years ago, I had a career change. My 10-year commute to teach at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston was coming to a close. This coincided with deepening my meditation practice. Slowing down to see that even the most mundane aspects everyday life could be inspiring revealed that I had been running at an aggressive pace for too long: balancing 3 jobs, a young child, a marriage and the challenges of finding time to make work. 

It is funny how a simple walk from the commuter rail at Ruggles Station to the old painting studio where I spent 100s of hours helping students see could become poignant. I wanted to document the last few weeks of this walk.

I had taken this walk for granted. It had become slick in its repetition. Now however, I felt it had to be recorded. So, one morning, getting off the train I stuck a big piece of graphite in my front pants pocket under my jacket. I held my sketchbook against the graphite, against the movement of my hip, as I walked. I did this every day that I took this journey those last few weeks. Upon arriving at the studio, I’d pull the sketchbook out to reveal a hip drawing. They felt childlike and exciting. Like little secrets born from friction and movement. It was a different sort of figure drawing…one that I couldn’t control. It was liberating. It was a ritual with a temporal and spatial system.

Working in a ritual series with a numerical or temporal parameter became more and more interesting. It took the onus off creating one masterpiece. It was a record of an investigation over time of multiple pieces that would speak to each other and have a relationship. This relationship revealed how my process was evolving. 

I started to look for other places where a ritual in a time frame in a particular place might feel inspiring. One morning I woke up and was struck by how beautiful my bed sheets looked in the morning light. So, I documented my bed, unmade, for an entire month, taking 31 photos from the same angle each morning. It slowly became a diaristic project about relationship and sleep. It took me many months of experimentation to know how these images would manifest beyond photographic data. 

I tried sewn drawings, pencil sketches, paint…through the experimental process which involved much trial and error, I arrived at combining three new materials for the first time. I am drawing the beds on frosted mylar with a blue fountain pen. I dissolve the pen lines with iridescent ink, which has subtle hints of pink from different angles. The process, the doing, taught me what this needed to be. These new materials are coalescing, transforming the images in ways I never expected and telling a story that expands beyond what I set out to say. The beds are somewhat ambiguous and feel like glaciers melting into the sea. The idea clarified through process. I had been making plein air painting landscapes for years and here they were emerging in my more conceptual work. 

Returning to a potent ritual again and again was creating a new momentum with my creative habit. This structure of ritual and a time frame resonated with my meditation practice. I realized what could arise from gentle discipline. I started to feel like having some sort of temporal container for each body of work was like a percolator, deepening the flavor of the practice. 

I wondered if there was a way to introduce this to my plein air painting outdoors. Up until now I had had a rather romantic process with these. A heavy easel, filled with paint, wet canvases balanced while hiking over dunes and rock cliffs. I wasn’t able to get out to paint in this way as much as I wanted. How could I do it more, with more ease and gentleness? I decided that I would try and create 108 small gouache studies, each would be a meditation. Most are tiny, (3"x4") and I can do multiple studies in a day. Sometimes, if the weather is bad, I just work from the dashboard of my van. These studies are playful and also include ballpoint pen drawing.

I can do them wherever I go. This is a portable, easy process. Slowing down and folding more ease and gentleness into my process allowed me see the places I had habitually taken for granted in a new light. In my Pawtucket neighborhood, I have gradually become captivated by little spaces between houses, flowering trees, everyday spaces that I was moving too quickly to appreciate before. My everyday life has taken on a new dimensionality. 

In the studio, these studies are translating into larger paintings based on memory and the incidental painterly effects that happen when working quickly outdoors in water-based media. I never photograph the location. I only take away my impression in paint. Having a photo of the site and referring to it knocks the wind out of the memory, encapsulating it into some sort of truth. Paint contains mystery and room for improvisation. 

This improvisation has allowed me to loosen my process and work more abstractly. Disengaging the anchor of recognition can evoke the spiritual, sensorial experience of being surrounded by nature. This abstraction invites the viewer to meet the work in a place that is beyond specific physical boundaries connecting to unseen realms. The viewer is encouraged to think about themselves and their relationship to nature in new ways. 

I hope that landscape painting can be a catalyst for reconnecting people with a spirit of place and reawakening enthusiasm for their physical environment, presenting a vision of the environment that transcends its physical appearance and communicates the unity of nature and the human spirit. 

Although making the larger oil paintings from the gouache studies was an initial idea, I began to be captivated by small sections. These paintings were showing me where to go next, these colorful abstract passages were incubators for the next paintings. 

Working on these abstracts feels physical and authentic. They are speaking to each other in the studio and teaching me, through the process of their simultaneous creation, about my evolution as a painter.

Lastly, I want to touch on communication and interconnectivity. Being an artist can be terribly isolating. Maybe that’s why I love teaching so much…sharing ideas. Two of my most recent creative rituals have established momentum and relationships in new ways. 

At the beginning of 2015, I made a resolution to write a BLOG once a week in a series called “Meanderings on Process and Creativity”.  It is an offering. I have now hit the quarter-year mark with nearly 20 BLOGS. Writing these weekly reflections is an incredibly clarifying process. I didn’t realize I enjoyed writing so much beyond haikus. This writing process has deepened my perspective on art making and living a creative life mindfully. My subscribers give me great feedback and encouragement weekly. 

The last creative ritual I want to mention is the #100DayProject connected with MOMA. On April 6th, 10s of thousands of creative people around the world committed to a creative act a day. I am drawing my dog, Captain. Each day people support each other in posting these images on Instagram, instigating and supporting each other’s creative practice. How incredible that a young art student in Japan can follow my quick sketches of my dog and I can follow my sisters beautiful daily collages in California. It is amazingly inspiring and I am held accountable for 100 drawings. Thank goodness my pup likes to lounge a lot.

What I’ve learned over the past 4 years about my creative practice and my meditation practice is that there is no distinction. Meditation helps me integrate and generate a more panoramic view of my humanity. Both practices weave together and give me the courage to let process be my greatest teacher. Starting where I am in any given moment. The practice is beautifully gritty and I just have to keep coming back to it like coming back to my breath.

Being an artist is not romantic or extraordinary…perhaps artists have a heightened sensitivity, a porousness that filters and manifests their experience. Art is energetic sensorial communication…waking up the senses. Perhaps that is the purpose of the artist. Reawakening. If art comes from a true place, a place we find by taking time to center and be mindful of what we really love, and then we have a masterpiece. Maybe, like a single drop of rain falling into a vernal pool, the work can create a vibration, emanating out into the world. Maybe it can hold the attention of someone, even for a moment…helping them transcend the hectic, distraction of our world. 

Until next time...CREATE.


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