creativity and spirituality, part one
This Sunday, I'm presenting a talk at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Eau Claire (Wisconsin) on the topic of spirituality and creativity. With such a broad topic, I thought of a number of interesting approaches, but in the end I decided to start with the text from a similar talk I gave at the same church back in 2006. When I looked over my old speech, I realized that the intervening years had given me plenty to add and clarify, but that the basic ideas still held true. Not that rewriting and tweaking were easy--I have spent quite a few hours revising the original in the past week. It's a bit long, so what you will read below is just the first part.
CREATIVITY AND SPIRITUALITY
I would like to say first that I regard creativity as an essential human quality. Defined broadly, we all create in order to live. There is no aspect of life into which creativity doesn't enter in some way-the necessity to order and structure and to problem-solve, the urge to make more beautiful or more efficient is universal. Creativity manifests in each of us, in our relationships, in our vocations and avocations, and in how we meet the challenges of daily life.
I believe the same thing is true about spirituality, that it is an essential human quality, however we each define it. Whether we believe in God (in any of God’s many manifestations) or in a universal life force or energy, or in only the concrete and definable; whether mysteries and questions are at our centers, or strong core beliefs. All are individual expressions of spirituality. The ways in which these basic attributes of creativity and spirituality intersect and flow together are as unique in each of us as any other combination of characteristics in our human souls.
Those of us who work in the arts have a special focus on the meeting of creativity and spirituality, since we are intent on creating things of meaning and beauty with which we hope to connect with other people. Most of us seek not a superficial connection, but one that evokes emotions, recognition, memories, associations, and experiences beyond words. Our ideas come from deep within our own experiences and memories, and to express these is an act of faith that others will understand and respond. A professor of art once told me, the more personal your work is, the more universal it will be, and this gets to the heart of the artist’s quest for self-expression as a path to communicate with others and to find common ground.
What I want to talk about today is first, a little about my work, both the paintings themselves and my process. And also how my work intersects with, arises from, and contributes to my spirituality. I am very grateful to have painting in my life as a means of self-discovery, which includes spiritual discovery. Some of the most important lessons I have learned have come through my work, and they are continually reinforced and deepened by it.
I offer all of this in the hope that there are parallels to your own creative and spiritual endeavors, whatever they may be, and to encourage you to explore creative expression if you feel, but have resisted the urge.
I would like to begin with the paintings themselves. First, they are abstract in style, a way of working that for me offers the greatest range of self-expression and depth. An abstract artist develops a personal vocabulary of marks, colors, compositions and textures that can be endlessly manipulated, and draws upon subjective material from personal experience, as well as from what is observed in the visual world. I have gravitated to abstraction because for me it is the most inclusive expression of life, encompassing both inner and outer aspects of perception. In my case, my work has evolved from painting the landscape, which I did in a more realistic way for years, in combination with many other sources of ideas, and aspects of pure abstraction such as color fields and geometric divisions.
My paintings are carefully worked, multi-layered, and dense with subtle texture and color shifts. Built up through numerous layers of oil paint and wax medium, the surfaces are subtle and nuanced, yet complex. The end result is work that I hope and believe has a calming, peaceful presence for the viewer. I want these to be the kind of paintings that over time, reveal more of themselves, rather than ones that can be taken in at a glance. So, my aim for the paintings themselves is to bring some aspect of spirituality into the environment in which they hang. I hope that they inspire contemplation, a pause to look deeply, to clear the mind, and to offer relief from daily concerns.
Interestingly enough, the act of painting itself creates a kind of meditative or spiritual state of mind for me, and perhaps this comes through in the work. When I paint, I'm both inside and outside of my work—I’m aware that it comes from deep in my consciousness, and feel connected with its very personal roots--but I also know that others will view it without access to this understanding, and see it through the filters of their own perception. So I am an observer of my paintings even as I create them, aware of their source but also slightly detached from them as I imagine viewing them from another’s perspective. This non-attachment and observation of the self has the effect of bringing and keeping one in the present moment, since there is a necessary detachment from ego and daily mind. When I am painting, I can be absolutely present in the moment for long stretches of time. The ordinary mind in which events and conversations are rehashed, to-do lists are created and various speculations and emotions are given free reign, is often transcended. In this way, painting can be very much a state of meditation.
Being present in the moment is basic to a wide range of spiritual beliefs and practices, beyond the scope of this talk or my own knowledge. I will simply say that this state of mind is calming and centering, and it is part of my life almost every day.
There are other spiritual benefits in the process of painting. For example, my thoughts and emotions are always focused on the journey itself, the search for the next step as the painting is created, not on the end result. This focus enables me to let go of piece after piece of my personal history as my paintings go out into the world, because once the process is complete, I feel that my part is done and I am ready to move on. This resonates with universal spiritual teachings that advise against attachment to the past and to material objects. There is a continual letting go, releasing, and putting aside of the past inherent in the process.
(To be continued...)
I’ve returned to winter in Wisconsin after a warm, green week in Naples and Delray Beach, Florida. My time included a bit of travel followed by teaching a three day Oil & Wax workshop at the Delray Beach Center for the Arts
It was a wonderful class, and the most geographically diverse I have ever taught—including artists from Brazil, Sweden, Canada, the Netherlands, New Jersey, and Florida. Supporting each person through the struggles, questions and successes that unfold during a workshop is for me a very rewarding (and very exhausting) experience. There are no short cuts to either teaching or working through the process, and I am always impressed with the energy and commitment each person brings to class (while calling upon my own energy reserves, which can run low after days of being “on.”) I love hearing people describe various moments during class when something clicked in their understanding, or insights into how the work in class relates to the intentions in their own work.
I was especially impressed with the variety of work produced in this class—it was more typical of an upper level workshop in the individuality of expression. The strong distinctions from one person to the next were especially noticeable as we did our final wrap-up session (a time at the end of class for the artists to receive feedback from the class, and to say whatever they wish about their paintings, such as what worked for them, what direction they would like to explore next, and any problems they encountered.) The work ranged from very subtle textures and color fields, to bold designs and unusual mark making. And as always, the feeling within the group was generous and engaging, and we all parted as friends with the hope of meeting again in some future class.
During the few days before the workshop, I had time to walk on a few beaches, get together with friends, spend time in several studios, and to visit some galleries. While many Florida galleries are aimed at the tourist trade, there are exceptions, showing strong contemporary work. Three of these that I enjoyed visiting are Allyn Gallup Gallery
in Sarasota, Gardner Colby Gallery
in Naples, and Addison Gallery
in Delray Beach--where I caught the opening of Madeline Denaro
’s excellent exhibit.
It's good to be home again, but I'm only here a short time. In just over two weeks, I head for Atlanta and my residency at AIR Serenbe
. (There are still openings in the Oil&Wax Workshop scheduled for March 9-12 at Agnes Scott College, in Decatur Georgia, just outside Atlanta--please email me at email@example.com if you are interested in joining the class.)
thoughts on medium
Cold wax medium looms large in my art life--I use it by the gallon, teach it, talk about it, answer questions about it, and have recently launched a website
devoted to information about it. Obviously, I love the stuff. And over the past ten years or so, I've built upon my knowledge of it and acquired expertise in its use. But I have a problem with being defined by any one medium or set of techniques. In fact, although I most often use oils and cold wax, I work occasionally in watercolor and also with water based mixed media such as acrylics, acrylic mediums, pastel and charcoal. Given the opportunity I would happily make monotypes or etchings, and when I travel, I like to sit in the landscape and draw with pen and ink.
While going through some of my works on paper today, I happened to notice the similar textures, format and overall feeling of the two paintings below as they lay in proximity on my work table:
The top painting is done with cold wax medium, oil, and some additives like sand and powdered pigment. The bottom painting is acrylic, acrylic medium, graphite and drawing materials. Their similarities arise from a consistent vision for my work, their differences from the qualities of each particular media. My cold wax work usually ends up looking refined and subdued, while water-based mixed media has a rougher energy. When I work in these differing materials I find that what I learn in one influences the other. For example, I use many of the same techniques in the water-based work that I have developed for cold wax to create rich texture and color, and the fast and spontaneous nature of the quicker drying acrylics and watercolors helps me loosen up with cold wax.
I used to say that I didn't care for working with acrylics, but with time and practice, I have changed my attitude and now I find them very satisfying. Of course, I only have so much time and work space, and painting in cold wax and oils remains my main focus. But my work is not primarily about the materials I use. Given the interplay of form and content, materials do suggest ideas and direction, and process-oriented work especially depends upon materials to assert their unique qualities. But it is vision, practice, control and careful editing that shape the materials into paintings and create bodies of work that explore particular ideas in depth.