When your heart first opens

Yesterday, as I was staining new baseboards for my home, I finished listening to an audio book titled The Roots of Buddhist Psychology by Jack Kornfield. “Art allows you to rediscover those moments when your heart first opened”, said Kornfield, and almost immediately I realized that he was describing precisely what I’d been endeavouring to do as an artist.

In his profoundly peaceful book, Kornfield speaks of approaching life with the eyes of a small child. For a toddler, every moment of every day is filled with the excitement of discovery. That child is absolutely devoted to that moment and she is completely present for it, ready to discover what it means and how it fits in her little world. As adults, we should strive to replicate those flashes of wonder, and pause to marvel at them long enough to discover what they might share with us.

Creating artwork is very conductive to that state of mind. Each moment spent painting, sculpting or creating an installation for a community project is exactly that; a moment of discovery and of presence.

For most of us, the very act of creating art is naturally conducive to presence and discovery. It just happens! You might start a painting feeling frazzled or distracted, but before you notice, three hours have past. And at the end, you’re surprised to find yourself calm and grounded. No matter what you manage to accomplish on the canvas, even though not every painting may turn out well, your mind has benefited from the act of creating. Your heart has opened up for that moment.

When you start your practice as an artist, you read and are told all sorts of things. “Know who you are and what you are talking about in your work,” “Have a recognizable style.” “Your work must be true.” I could go on and on, but none of this means anything until you, the artist, spends years of your life working. The work ends up telling you who you are; the work affirms what is true to you. You can’t guide your work into meaning; it guides you!

The collection of work that I’ve been creating for the past two years can fall under the title of “Longing for Lazy Days”. And now, after many, many years, I realize that each piece I’ve created is an attempt to recapture those days in my childhood when my heart first opened to those moments of wonder. In my blog, Longing for Lazy Days, I recall some of those happy experiences.

Today, I am simply grateful that my work has, over the years, guided me to towards this realization that what I need to strive for is the ability to be present and to maintain that sense of discovery that comes with an open heart.


This is my friend, she is an artist!

I’m always surprised when someone introduces me as: “This is my friend Patsy; she’s an artist”. No one introduces their friend as: “This is John; he’s an accountant”. It’s as though when one is an artist, the person and what he does for a living are inseparable.

Me at work

I understand why the artist herself would feel like her identity is profoundly linked to her work. After all, she’s on journey that forces her to figure out who she is so she can one day contribute original, personal work to the world. As authors David Bayles and Ted Orland attest in their wonderful book Art and Fear, “…becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.” And of course, as an artist, one is always on the clock, because everything she looks at and experiences is material for creativity.

But here’s what puzzles me: why would other people feel that my work and my name must be linked and announced at the first introduction? Not that I really care, mind you. I love talking about my work. In fact I’m a little ashamed to admit that I often do it until I notice that people around me are looking for a way out of the artsy conversation. But it’s intriguing that others feel my identity revolves around my work. After all, artists are ordinary people with ordinary concerns and ordinary lives. Aren’t they?

Me at work

This may be a sign of our times, and related to a general cultural view of what it means to be an artist. As Bayles and Orland go on to say, “… in the past few centuries Western art has moved from unsigned tableaus of religious scenes to one-person displays of personal cosmologies.” It used to be that the artist who created the work was irrelevant. Art existed long before human beings managed to over value their sense of self. I can’t imagine a cave dweller drawing an animal on a stone wall and exclaiming, “This is my work; it represents who I am and no one else.” Now, though, ‘artist’ has become a form of identity.

I’m convinced that our society has over inflated the importance of the ‘self’, the ‘me’, and the ‘I’. Social media reminds us of that fact daily. In reality, none of us really matters other than to the people who love us. And although I agree that the only way to create meaningful work as an artist is through finding your own self-expression, it’s never truly new or personal. And that’s simply because all of us are shaped by the world we live in. I doubt that any one of us can claim to be the only human being to have ever felt a certain emotion or experienced a certain thing. So, as an artist, whatever we create is always a result of a shared experience relevant to the time we live in, nothing more and nothing less. Maybe we manage to represent life in a way that is new enough to reach people at a deeper level, but that is as much as we can hope to achieve, and it’s good enough to be worth spending a lifetime working at it. Whatever recognition that may or may not come from the work we do is irrelevant and stands separate from the work itself. Personally though, I hope that time will prove that my work has been more important than I am.

Artists are flawed human beings aspiring to create pure work. Unfortunately, fear is often a major setback when one links one’s self to their work. “Consider that if artist equals self, then when (inevitably) you make flawed art, you are a flawed person, and when you make no art, you are no person at all!” So from an artist’s perspective, it’s better to not feel that “I am my own work” even though we work all the time.

$1,175.00

L’éveil, Acrylic on canvas

My experience also tells me that the artist’s ego too often gets in the way of the creative process. The best way to create is to remove all preconceived ideas, controlling forces, and grand aspirations from the process and to put yourself at the service of the work. You need to be, as much as possible, an anonymous servant to the art so it will emerge and guide you where it wants to go. Your own natural inclinations and the effects of your experiences will emerge naturally without having to forcefully push them through.

Maybe some acquaintances feel that having an artist in their social group is cool and it improves their social status. In my case, though, I’m pretty sure that my friends don’t really care what I do. I’ve known them a very long time and they’re not that shallow. They just love me – no matter what I do. So they’re free to introduce me as they please – just as long as they’re willing to put up with me talking about my work.

 


Painting walls; not the same as painting works of art!

I often tell my students that, if they feel they’re frantically trying to finish a painting, they need to stop! “Wash your brushes and get back to it when that sense of urgency passes.” This month, I’m afraid I’m being challenged to follow my own advice. Life is reminding me that being patient and at peace with how long things take can be frustrating, but sometimes you just have to put your head down and allow things to unfold at their own pace.

details of a new painting titled Flow

This summer we’re redoing the floors in our home. My world is in chaos. Furniture and boxes packed with ‘stuff’ have been stored in my studio for 10 days, but now it’s even worse. I’ve had to completely empty the space and won’t be able to get back into it for another two weeks! Honestly, I didn’t anticipate how unsettling this would be. I knew I’d feel inconvenienced, but it’s way more than that. It’s chaos; I feel like I can’t find myself! I have an endless list of things to move, to do and to plan. It’s like I’ve stepped on an ant’s nest. My husband, who’s usually the one to react to change, has become totally zen-like this month. “You need to surrender to the process,” he gently reminds me. I’m trying, I’m trying, but it feels like I can’t get a handle on it.

I went through a stage of ‘Honestly, I just want this done and over with’ to ‘It will never, ever end!’ I could feel myself losing my grip, so I started painting all the walls while the floors were off. After ten gallons of paint, I was no less frazzled. However, on the plus side, while I was wearing myself – and three paintbrushes – out, I was listening to a very interesting book titled In The Heart of the Sea, about the true story of The Essex, the whaling ship that inspired the novel Moby Dick. Yes, I know. Even I realized I was beginning to exhibit an alarming number of crazy Captain Ahab’s symptoms. His whale: my floors. I desperately need to paint works of art. Not walls.

So why does creating art play such an important role in making the most of life? It is what keeps me sane. It deletes chaos. It connects me to the world. There’s nothing else that can bring me total contentment like the act of painting, sculpting or drawing. Verywellmind, in the blog titled Art Therapy: Relieve Stress By Being Creative, lists a number of reasons why art making is a stress relief tool. My favourite is ‘flow’: “There’s a certain quality of being called ‘flow’ that experts say is very beneficial for us. This refers to a state of being completely engaged in something to the point of being in a near-meditative state. It carries many of the benefits of meditation, leaving you much less stressed when you’re done. You can experience ‘flow’ when you’re doing creative activities like writing and even gardening. You can also get it from drawing.”

It’s been 20 days… I’m missing my flow!

A flowing day on Lower Kananaskis lake, Alberta

I was discussing this with a friend who always has such profound insights about life and he pointed out that, perhaps, this renovation isn’t permitting me to be who I want to be. “It’s an identity crisis.” I think he’s right. When I can’t get to my work I feel agitated, as if I’m wasting my life by not doing what I’m meant to be doing; not being who I want to be.

But the timing of this renovation has caused an additional frustration because it’s happening in the middle of summer. Summers here are so short; it’s an incredibly precious time. There’s a measure of freedom that doesn’t exist the rest of the year. Things slow down, I don’t teach, and I can usually find more freedom to create following a natural, seasonal rhythm. I can take walks in the forest any time of the day. I can let my thoughts go where they choose without deadlines to meet. I just can’t bear to waste my summer catering to contractors and renovations. So, contrary to the advice I give my students, I’ve pushed hard, very hard, to get it all done before I leave for my mountain adventure in a few days. With any luck, I’ll succeed.

En route towards Rae Glacier, Kananaskis, Alberta

When I get back from six days in our beautiful Rockies, my studio will be ready to welcome me again. The mountains will have once again revealed my creative space. I’ll come back to my work with fresh eyes and a calm mind, ready to enjoy the rest of the summer.