April 2018

Monday, September 29, 2014

My Painting Experience

My friend Steffany, who is a painter, convinced me to join her for Stewart Cubley's "The Painting Experience," which was in Seattle this past weekend. Steffany paints beautifully. In fact, an image of her painting "The Blue Iris", accompanied by Mary Oliver's poem "Praying," hangs in our bathroom, where I see it several times every day. Steffany sent my partner Ann and me the image with the poem when she heard about my first brain tumor. The poem and her image still give me solace:

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak

I do love silence, and am more often silent than speaking, but words interpret my world and my experience for me. Some, perhaps Mary Oliver, Stewart and Annie (another experienced facilitator), might suggest that my words clutter my mind, getting in the way of my experience of the moment and of God (and perhaps those are just different words for the same thing.)

Silence has been calling me lately: I'm reading the book Full Catastrophe Living, which is about meditation; I meditate each morning, sitting or lying silently and quieting my word-filled mind; I'll take a meditation class for people dealing with serious and chronic illnesses beginning Thursday; two of my professors have begun each class with a short meditation. 

A few weeks ago, in church, we said in a prayer: "We bring to you, in silence, prayers too deep for words." In the silence that followed, I remember thinking, "I do believe that there are prayers too deep for words, but I have no idea how to access them. How do I do that?"

This weekend's painting experience was about this life below the words. Steffany had told me that I didn't have to be a painter to participate. In fact, she said, "The Painting Experience" is not really about painting at all: it's about the process.

"What process?" I wondered. I thought, "Maybe it's like the writing process that I taught my high school freshman: First: Find a seed idea, a place to begin. Then collect ideas around that seed idea…and so on until finalizing and publishing. Maybe the painting process will be like that." (It wasn’t.)

Though we painted for ten hours or so across the three days, more than I have painted in the rest of my life combined, Steffany was right, and I began to glimpse the idea of what process it was that we were exploring. At first, however, I just noticed how talented some of the other painters in the room were, especially when I compared them to me.

At first ,when I was painting I looked around and noticed the beautiful works by the other painters, obviously more schooled and experienced than I am. I kept riffing on T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in my head: "Am not a painter, nor was meant to be."After a while, I gave up the refrain. Steffany was right. The experience was about the process, and I began to intuit what that process was. I don't have the words for it. Perhaps there are no words.

Here's how the day would begin: the twenty of us would sit in a circle in chairs, be welcomed and thanked for being on time. We would be told that we would not get direction. We would have a blank piece of drawing paper, some brushes, and a lot of paint. We were to paint, to engage ourselves in our work without being attached to product. We were not to comment on one anothers’ paintings. That's it. Then we would go paint for a couple of hours.

At some point in my painting, usually when I was stuck, Stewart or Annie would stop by and say something like, "Did you think of painting anything you haven't painted? Paint that," or "I see you've used the wide brushes. What would happen if you tried a smaller brush?"

So I would keep painting. I wanted to explain, and I think once I did, "I'm not a painter.” In fact, I participated in this experience because I am interested in using writing in therapy as a therapist and wanted to experience a medium in which I'm uncomfortable. Several participants introduced themselves as therapists, and the person near me told me that she came because her therapist had suggested it, so I thought that maybe I had come to the right place.

Sometimes, my writers may be uncomfortable with their writing like I was with my painting. The point, there too, won't be the product: it will be the access to the world beneath consciousness, beneath our current language for who we are and what we are experiencing. 

However, I wasn't just thinking about my future clients and my future career. I wanted to find that space in myself, to learn about the self beneath the words. So I painted.

My first painting was a chaos of yellow and red tones circling in the middle of a greater chaos of blues and greens. That's how it started. Then Annie suggested I try a small brush, and I brushed three characters in a diagonal line, each steady amidst the chaos in a different yoga pose.

The painting made sense to me: I see myself as one who lives in a chaos of time and emotion, and yoga and breathing bring me steadiness. When she returned and saw my new figures, Annie asked, "If you were going to paint something elsewhat would it be and where would it go?"

I painted roses in the only spots left. I don't know what those roses meant, but they were solid and steady, like the yoga figures, and they seemed right. Annie came again, and I said to her, "You're going to make me change it again, aren't you?" She laughed and let me begin a new piece of paper. I was trying to let go of my investment in the product (even though I don't see myself as a painter), but it was hard, so I kept singing Little Feet in my head:

You don't have to close your eyes 
You don't have to turn away 
You can't expect to take the right road every morning 
When you start to feel the words get in the way 
Listen to your heart 
And what it has to say.

The second time I faced a blank piece of paper, I used browns and greys to paint a giant sand dollar. A wave's ending, white and brown, kissed the sand dollar's edge, and to the side was a lavender and white scallop shell. A glimpse of the green and blue water sparkled with white and red and purple.  The corner of a red towel showed in the upper corner, as did part of the upside of a child's yellow shovel. The sand all around sparkled with browns, reds, purples, and greens, as the sand does when you look at it up close. A brown footprint was partially evident at the top of the page, and I thought, "This painting is about how beautiful even the sand is." I knew I needed to put the dark imprint that my cane makes everywhere I go in the sand, but the logical place would be towards the sand dollar's middle, and that wouldn't be beautiful, so I painted my cane's imprint at the shell's upper right, partly convincing myself that I might walk that way. I sat back, looked at it a while, then painted a break in the perfectly formed shell. 

Annie came by. "What's this?" she asked, pointing to the break. When I answered that the shell had been broken by my cane, she nodded, pointed to the cane's imprint, and asked, "What's this?" I told her that it was my cane's imprint, but she was clearly confused. After all, the imprint wasn't on the shell. She sort of nodded. "My cane breaks things everywhere I go," I said. "It's sad but it's just how it is." She asked, "What's your feeling in this painting," and I said, "Sadness." She told me to paint that sadness, patted me on the shoulder, and walked away.

So I moved the cane mark onto the shell and covered the painting in blue tear drops, large and small. When she came back again, I was exhausted: "It's more authentic now," I told her. "I'm exhausted. I'm going to rest."

Touching that sadness is hard for me. I am so thankful for my life and so grateful to see the beauty around me, and I tend to live in that joyful place. My painting took me to a different place, perhaps a deeper place (but perhaps not), a place of sadness that I don't yet honor as I will one day. I had painted a beach scene, a sand dollar, perfect and whole. Then the cane fell: broken sand dollar. Tears, big and small, trite but true. That's the place I don't want to go, to that place of pain. I seek wholeness and joy and peace, and I don't want to feel that large crack in my heart, even if Leonard Cohen was right:

There's cracks.
Cracks in everything.
That's how the light gets in.

I rested deeply Saturday night, and Sunday morning I began again with a clean white piece of paper. I returned to the theme of brokenness and painted the scene from inside my car after the accident that happened on the last day I drove: June 12, 2012. 

There was the solidness of the door and the confusing shatter of glass: rain dripping from the sky as the firemen cut the roof off my car to get me out. The sky lit with the siren's rotating red light. The fireman at my window: "Are you alright, ma'am?" and me, "I think I'm fine, but I can't get out of the car." His double-take as he noticed my crossed eye and somewhat paralyzed face: "I'm okay. My face is like this because I had brain surgery." My glasses had flown from my head. Where were they? My body felt insubstantial, vulnerable. Remembering, I painted a ghostly hand, not solid, not even in its outline, apparently unconnected to anything--or anyone.

I sat back from my painting, breathing slowly and deeply. Stewart asked the story behind the painting. I told him the story and that the painting didn't feel done, but I wasn't sure why. He suggested that I fill in the hand. No, that wasn't it. I know what it is. I painted, upside down and in the far right corner, my glasses: the most solid image in the car. 

Then I went to my zero gravity chair and took a nap. In the afternoon, I painted with bright colors and big strokes: flowers, a wheel, a black bird, and a vine through it all. The vine reminded me of photographs I took before my surgery of rusting cars in meadows. The return to a time before this intensity gave me a much-needed break. 

I went to my chair to nap again, and found another painter in my chair. Apparently, I wasn't the only worn-out painter. She said it was awfully comfortable but relinquished her spot so that I might take my rightful place. After resting, I rose to sit in a circle with the leaders and the other painters for closure. Only there would be no closure. "It's over," said Stewart, "so let's not talk about it." 

In the morning, when I had asked him why not talking about the art was so important, he had said, "The less you know about what you are doing, the more authentic it is…. The process is about unconsciousness, where the painting and the painter aren't separate, and words bring back consciousness." His words reminded me of Eugen Herrigel’s Zen and the Art of Archery, a small and important book that I haven’t read for 25 years: “Be the arrow. Be the target.” "What the heck did that mean?" I wondered at the time. I have been exploring that question for a quarter of a century.

Though consciousness is not the point, perhaps consciousness of unconsciousness is at some point appropriate, and so, for now I write, the words spilling from me like wet paint from a brush. 

Perhaps someday I'll be beyond the words, but that time has not yet come. So for now I write. 

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