I’ve been reading the June/July issue of Art in America (my only contact with the art world when I am at home on Orcas), and it has provoked me, shaken me up a bit, and confused me about the art I choose to make. The theme of the issue is “Resistance” and it not about my style of resisting, meaning something that I don’t want to do or to look at in my own life. No, it centers on artists who are making strong socio-political statements with their art. Many of the artists live in countries with repressive governments and are making these sometimes very public statements at great personal risk. They are truly heroes, making difficult yet relevant art.
There have always been artists doing this kind of strong, issue-oriented work, and it never bothered me. My art has always been so personal to me, arising from my own inner need to create and exorcise my own demons. I study contemporary art and am passionate about knowing what is current, but have known and felt comfortable with the idea that my own work was not so cutting edge. Challenging in its own way. But not political. More spiritual than anything else in a kind of abstract, contemporary way. Not necessarily classically beautiful, but not unpleasant to look at either.
And I have kept at it for well over forty years which is an achievement in itself. But these are strange and significant times we are living through, and reading about some of this work is stirring something deep within me. Making me feel obsolete and a little guilty, causing me to feel that there is something else I could be doing other than signing endless petitions over the internet and donating a little money to several different environmental and human rights causes over the year.
But what would it be? It’s not that I want to be famous! I need to remember that my form of activism is done on a different scale. As a healer and a Reiki teacher, I can influence one person at a time, helping them to realize their own potential to become calmer and maybe a bit happier. My paintings can introduce people to other worlds, to my inner life, and perhaps to give them a glimpse into their own. My mandala art, with its one-word titles, is designed for meditation and contemplation because that’s what I need as I am making them. The one pictured below is titled Hope.
So I’ll keep reading and learning. My challenge is to care about humanity and the future of the world in my own way. To keep caring and to keep making the art I love to make because it’s how I keep myself sane and healthy. I do know that somehow it makes a difference, even if it’s only to create me as a better person.
I spend a large part of my day looking.
In the morning, I look at the screen on my computer.
In the afternoon, I spend time outside. I look at the minute details of my garden, checking each flower and each vegetable for signs of growth, or slug damage, or readiness to be picked, pruned or harvested. I look at the whole vegetable garden (I regret that I got such a late start this year, and I trust that there will be more to eat very soon). I look at each flower bed, and try to manage the weeds that all this rain is bringing. I look at the sky and the water and the mountains in the distance. I see the sun gleaming or the clouds moving or the rain glistening. I notice the other houses near where I live. I take in the trees swaying in the breeze. I love it all. I breathe.
Then it’s time to go into the studio. I take the time to look at what I’ve been working on before going on to the next step, the next stroke the next layer. Then I paint and I look while I’m painting. And I look again, and paint again.
But all the looking is a prelude for feeling. If I am painting an abstract composition, I need to explore what is moving me in the moment, knowing that painting it will change the feeling or the emotion into something else. If I am creating a mandala, I take the word that I am associating with it and feel deeply into what it means for me. If I am prompted to paint my version of a landscape, I am not representing anything actual. I am feeling into everything I have seen, everything I have been looking at, and making a semblance of the real world as it has been filtered through my mind and heart.
The three small paintings on paper which are pictured above are those kind of landscapes.
Each of these small wooden circles measures only one and a half inches in diameter. Yet in each one, there is a lot going on. Some definitely are more simple than others. They just came together with ease, and felt finished. Others are more worked, and that is because they didn’t flow as well initially. A color may have been wrong. Or my hand slipped as I applied the enamel paint, so that a cover up became essential. Some of those become my favorites because they have more history. Enamel paint is fun to work with because it dries very quickly and is opaque, making layering possible.
Each one has a magnet attached to the back, so they are useful items to have.
I love making them for several reasons. It is fun to work with a water-based paint instead of oil. It is really fun and challenging to work that small. It takes concentration to do them. I need to keep breathing as I work or something inevitably goes wrong. I get a lot of information from doing so many of them at once. It is liberating to think of them as functional. Getting an energetic brushstroke with a tiny little brush is not easy for me. And doing them gives me a lot of information for doing my other paintings. Frees the hand, informs the eye, engages the brain.
Several months ago I moved some of my basket-making material down to my studio. It was kind of an experiment to see if I would work more on the baskets in the privacy and quiet of the room that had been just for painting. For a while, it all just sat there in a kind of disorganized heap, and it looked like the experiment was going to be a failure.
Then not too long ago, I started looking over what I had brought down. I took some time to sort through the material, and then I started playing with it. And I have to say that it is feeling really good to be working on baskets right there in my studio. Different somehow than working in the house where I am always distracted with this and that, or sitting down to weave while I watch a movie or talk with friends. Different even than gathering with our basket group once a month. Very different than taking a class.
Because in the studio, I am both the student and the teacher. I think about everything that I’m doing and allow myself the time to do it right. I am not thinking about finishing the basket anymore than I am thinking about finishing a painting. It is all about the process, and so much less about the product. Although ultimately, with both painting and basket making, a product would be nice at some point along the way.
So now in addition to the six unfinished paintings on paper that are tacked on the wall, there are six unfinished baskets. It all makes me happy in ways that I can’t quite explain. Holding the baskets, molding their shapes, and working with them so closely. They become such a part of me. Then turning to paint, holding the brush, feeling connected to the surface it touches. Listening to what they are all trying to teach me.
Last weekend I took yet another workshop and learned yet another new thing that I am excited about making. This time, I went off to San Juan Island and spent a beautiful day outdoors making concrete leaves. It is a really fun process and wonderfully tactile, even though rubber gloves are essential. It starts with making a mound of sand, then laying the leaf on top of that. The really fun part is mixing the concrete and then laying it on the leaf. It is earthy and sensual to feel the cool, mushy concrete as it gets molded onto the leaf, moving it and shaping it to the desired thickness with the right contour.
There is a lot of potential for these leaves. They are fun to make and fun to paint. And I could see getting really wild with colors and shapes that have nothing to do with the natural world. A purple leaf with yellow dots for instance. We’ll see.
I keep learning new things that I want to do, and then feeling panic when I don’t have enough time to do them. Or to do them justice. Or to do them at all. Somewhere along the line, it has to stop. Yes?
For now, this leaf looks right at home in my garden. At home in my garden, outside my house where my cats and lover live, near my studio where I want to be. When I’m not off taking more workshops, that is. Oh you mean like the wonderful mini wire basket that I’m going to learn this weekend?
But after this, I swear I’m staying home!