Meditation: COVID’s Gift to Me

What can I possibly say about the past year that has not already been said? I don’t know what the answers to life are for others, so I will just talk about my personal journey through this unprecedented experience.

COVID came one day, and it just was.  And we, the small and beautiful humans that we are, all had to look at it. In one way or another, we are all connected to COVID. In my lifetime, I don’t remember facing anything like this: this thing that is a part of all of our lives across the entire planet. When I try to imagine this globally, it takes a lot of effort, and even then I’m not satisfied with the image. The funny thing is that to deal with this gigantic thing, I’m having to reach for the finest part of myself.

In the end, this is what I’ve decided: I refuse to be consumed by fear, I refuse to just tolerate what is unfolding, and I refuse to lose hope and inner joy.

At least I try to refuse!  (I admit – it’s a daily re-commitment.)

So what have I learned so far this year? Well, because I’m scared, I’ve learned how to breathe. Because my body needs a break from my mind, I’ve learned to cherish small things that I would normally have overlooked. Because this time, the unsettledness feels so multifaceted and full, I am learning to dig deeper inside my soul. And that digging takes a lot of energy.

Did you sleep as much as I did this winter? I was exhausted. I am just coming out of it. And now it’s my husband’s turn. He comes home from work and has a nap every day. That’s a new thing in his life.

I met a woman in Salmon Arm a few years ago who went to a meditation retreat that lasted four months. She flew to Taxco, Mexico and attended an event assembled by The Bright Paths. When I asked her why she decided to do that, she answered: “Because my sanity is worth it.” I was so impressed with her answer! What a beautiful thing to do for yourself. Choose to find peace, choose to find calm, choose to find inner love.

In looking for that myself in the past few months, I’ve found a few answers. In all this in-depth digging, thinking and feeling, I’ve discovered that my mind is like a small child. I have to nudge it back on the path the whole freakin’ way. It is so much work! Seriously, every minute I have to remind my mind to shut up and listen. Listen to the wind, listen to the birds, listen to the muscles of my body, listen to my breathing, listen to the water that fills my cells. Sometimes now, I actually manage to quiet this undisciplined mind of mine.

I started meditating about a year ago. And honestly, I don’t know how I would have made it through this year without it. I think I would have had a tantrum of one kind or another. You know what I learned about meditation? You cannot do it wrong! That’s right, all you have to do is do it. Sit, lie down, just do it. Guided meditation, music meditation, affirmations meditation, storytelling meditation, self-guided meditation.  They all work in the sense that they all add up.

Our forest 30 x 30

Among my favorite YouTube channels that graciously share very well-made meditations for us to listen to are: Jason Stevenson, The Mindful Movement, The Honest guys and Pura Rasa. In all of them I look first for a soothing voice, and then for content that can keep my mind from wandering. That latter part can change from day to day, so I don’t fight it. If one meditation is not working that day, I move on to another. I also have good and bad waves with meditation. Some weeks I feel like I am going nowhere with it and don’t feel it’s of much benefit. On other weeks, I feel like I pass through a threshold. I lose myself and find a new connection. I feel the pulse that inhabits all of us. The irony is that in this most intimate space that opens up in meditation, what I reach envelops everything.

Fructify 30 x 30

I once read that our bodies are made up of mostly empty space. The space within our molecules is a void within us that is bigger than the matter, just like the space between the stars. That blew my mind and changed my perception of how I reside in the world. I am permeable! The world can seep into me and inhabit me.

And this is what COVID-19 is doing to all of us. In one way or another, physically, emotionally, socially, economically, it seeps into all of us and inhabits us. It does this because we are an integral part of the world we live in. It does this because we’re permeable. It does this because we are not separate.

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.

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.





Learning to be Afraid: becoming an artist

Broken, oil on canvas, 30″ x 24″

I recently saw a friend’s post on Instagram about being afraid and working through it, and since then I’ve been thinking about the time in my life 20 years ago when I had to overcome my own fear. But I’m pretty sure, that at some point in our lives, we all have to make difficult choices with uncertain outcomes, and that that process can be justifiably frightening. Sometimes, though, those fears can be overwhelming.

Life has been pretty peachy for me so far but, like everybody else, I have felt deep fear, and in some cases it felt like it was for no particular reason at all. Let’s face it: no lion has ever threatened to eat me! However, those nameless, faceless fears still find a way to bore into my head once in a while.

I decided to become a full time artist more than 20 years ago, when my first child was about two years old, when I started a day-home simply because I couldn’t imagine having to drag my own children to daycare every day. (Please know that I have tremendous respect for all the parents out there that have maintained a ‘real’ job while having babies. It’s not an easy task; it just wasn’t for me.)

Once the boys became less demanding, I figured that becoming a full time artist would allow me to keep working from home. But, above all, it was what I had always dreamed of for myself. At first, I was incredibly excited! I was going to embark on my lifelong dream and spend my time creating works of art. But a couple weeks into it – just about the time my former self would have been expecting that first paycheque for a ‘real’ job well done – fear arrived and made itself at home.  I was terrified.  I had no idea what I was doing, how to go about it, or what decisions to make that would at least generate an income that could pay for paint and canvases. Yeah, I know. Poor planning.

The colour of fear, oil on canvas, 24″ x 36″

But in my defence, I really felt that if I didn’t jump into it, I’d never make it happen. Nevertheless, as I realized the magnitude of the uncertainty I had created for myself, I started having daily panic attacks. They would always come in the evenings as I was getting tired, when I knew I had to make a decision. Then a very clever old lady told me, “No matter what you do, one morning you will open your eyes and it will be your 40th birthday. You can wake up as an artist or as something else you don’t really want to be. It’s up to you.” Clearly I had only two options. I could give up my dream and go back to a steady pay cheque with a predictable work path, or, I could stick with it and find a way through the anxiety.

Somehow I knew then I had to push through those panic attacks, so I thought I would organize myself around them. I stopped fighting, and instead welcomed them every day.  I made sure I was set up comfortably on the couch with a blanket, a glass of water and whatever I thought I would need, so I wouldn’t have to move. I tried to focus entirely on the panic attack. And when the waves of shivers and worries came over me, I sank deep into them.  I tried to feel them moment by moment, in every part of my body. I observed them, even if it was uncomfortable.  And, eventually, I came to love them.  

Diffusion, oil on board, 48″ x 48″

It felt that the more I relaxed into the fear, and surrendered to all the physical sensations that came with it, the more I felt a deep connection to the world.  Sometimes, flashes of clarity would appear unexpectedly.  Those felt like precious tidbits of knowledge I needed at that moment – precious life lessons I could put to use right away in my work and in my personal life.

Eventually, as I found a routine with my work, and the first stable sources of income came out of the work I did, I grew out of the panic attacks. With the help of my husband, who is a pro at organizing work and immensely supportive of what I do, I created a structure for my work, some goals, and a way of working that brought enough peace to keep me going. Since then, things have come together nicely and my work is largely fear free. Now I can use whatever fear that creeps back into my life as a source of inspiration for my artworks.

Today, those early anxiety attacks are all a distant memory. But my young friend’s instagram post encouraged me to remember and share my early experiences after I published last week’s blog “Naively Optimistic”. Maybe I wasn’t so naïve after all. Maybe I had a sense that being an artist would be more than a job; that it would become my life’s journey because none of the work we do as artists is done on the surface. It demands deep introspection and recognition of what life presents us.

More change will come in my life. I’m certain of that. In fact it’s just about the only thing that I am certain of! My hope is, that in the face of uncertainty to come, I will have enough wisdom to surrender to it once again, and to make the most of it, using the energy it will stir to create meaningful artwork.



Making Art: an antidote for today’s anxiety epidemic

Everybody’s talking about it these days. It seems that everyone I know feels anxious or is living with someone who struggles with anxiety.

My zen cell phone cover

In the blog The Anxiety Epidemic, they report that the American National Institute of Mental Health says “… 38 percent of teenage girls and 26 percent of teenage boys have an anxiety disorder.” And they go on to explain that “… this is partly due to incessant smartphone use in general and more specifically, their use for communication purposes.” And I’m now convinced that many grown-ups, like me for example, are equally susceptible to this electronic epidemic because just yesterday my dog, Cisco, made that abundantly obvious.

Cisco keeps me company in my studio every day. He sleeps under foot where I’m working and early yesterday morning I was interrupted by several text messages.   Each time my phone made a text sound, Cisco jumped up from his nap and rushed toward me as if saying “Hey! Grab your phone – it’s calling you!” After about the third text, I realized that Cisco and I both have been trained too well. Pavlov, I’m sure, would be delighted. I can imagine him bragging, “See! She’s almost as well conditioned as her dog!” 

Cisco dozing off under my studio table

Yes, I know, I know. Smartphones are here to stay. They’re practical little tools that make life a lot easier. But, as the blog goes on to say, “… they are having a deleterious effect on our mental and emotional functioning. People who use them a lot (and that is most of us) cannot seem to stay away from them and the research is pretty clear that one major cause is anxiety… we know that some form of anxiety is driving us to check in constantly with our technology.”

But what Cisco taught me yesterday was that we both need a break. He needs his nap at least as much as I need my art. That’s when I can be totally immersed for hours at a time, and emerge completely invigorated by the creative process. I finally realized that when I’m interrupted by my phone, my anxiety kicks in, so that when I try to get back to work it takes a while for the creative process to re-engage. Obviously, I need to turn the phone off when I’m working.

The blog Stress-related Hormone Cortisol Lowers Significantly After Just 45 Minutes of Art Creation offers a solution: Make art, it will lower the level of stress hormones in your body. It shares the results of a new Drexel University study, and quotes Girija Kaimal, EdD who is an Assistant Professor of Creative Arts Therapies at Drexel University. She says that the study results where not,“…surprising because that’s the core idea in art therapy: everyone is creative and can be expressive in the visual arts when working in a supportive setting.”

I feel that every day I work. It’s incredibly calming to put brush to canvas, pencil to paper, or hands in modelling clay. I can also see it in my students. Adults, teenagers and kids alike show up at my studio, many of them wound up tight from whatever is going on in their lives. And then, within 20 minutes of shifting their focus to making art, their demeanour changes. They relax their shoulders, they breathe more slowly, and they look and feel better. They’ve given themselves an antidote to anxiety.

Try it! Turn off your phone. Pick up a pencil or a paint brush or a lump of clay and go for it. I promise you’ll be doing yourself a favour.

In the Moon Again: the power of daydreaming

As my young students were finishing their art lesson last Wednesday, one of the moms arrived at my studio to pick up her daughter. We chatted as the kids collected their belongings and trickled out the door but, as her daughter stayed focused on her artwork, I could hear the impatience in her voice when she said “Can you please pick up the pace a bit?” She laughingly explained, “No matter what the occasion, my daughter is always the last one ready to leave.”

Photo credit Jean Wallace

Yes, I thought, this kid really does live in her head and she’s perfectly happy there. But she’s also one of my most focused and clear minded students when it comes to painting with intention and finishing her artwork. Watching her at that moment, however, reminded me of my own childhood, and I could hear my mom saying “t’es encore dans la lune”!  You’re in the moon again – a poetic French expression perfectly describing that peaceful daydreaming state of mind. I must confess I was very good at it.


But then, of course, I grew up. I learned to ‘make the most of my waking hours’, and put my brain to ‘useful tasks’. Now though, I wonder. Am I really doing myself a favour? What if daydreaming offers powers of its own? Shouldn’t I tap into that?

Business Insider, in their blog called Here’s How To Daydream Your Way To Success, say that “History is full of high-achieving daydreamers: Einstein, Newton, and the Bronte sisters all lived much of their lives in their imaginations.” But there are right and wrong ways to daydream. They go on to explain the different styles of daydreaming as defined by Scott Barry Kaufman in “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined” at Psychology Today:

First style: “Poor attention control daydreaming. It’s characterized by easy distractibility and difficulty concentrating on either the external environment or an ongoing train of thought,”

Second style: “Guilty-dysphoric daydreaming. It features unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, guilt, fear of failure, and obsessive, hostile, and aggressive fantasies about others.”

Neither of those styles is constructive, and both can have serious negative impacts in most aspects of one’s life.

Third style: “The best kind of daydreaming is Positive-constructive daydreaming. It’s associated with openness to experience and reflects a drive to explore ideas, imagination, feelings, and sensations. Good daydreaming is linked to happiness, success and creativity.”

Daydreaming, as long as it’s done right, is a place where we can rehearse scenarios about our lives without any real consequences. But one must have a clear goal in mind, make sure to focus on positive thoughts, and brush away the obsessive and negative thoughts.”

Details from Longing for lazy days. Acrylic painting

As an artist, I believe that daydreaming is an important part of the process. It’s a place where I can plan a work of art without wasting materials. I can imagine new ideas. I can move subjects around in my mind. I can effortlessly visualize colours and movements. I can make changes without spending a dime.   And best of all, I have access to this tool anywhere and almost any time. I can daydream as I walk my dog, or when I’m in a boring meeting, or loading the dishwasher, or shovelling the walkway. It is my most powerful, portable and accessible creative tool and I use it as much as possible.

Detail from recently finished work

The subconscious mind is willing to go where our controlled thinking refuses to. While daydreaming, I can turn my project over to my subconscious brain and let it do its creative work. When I relinquish control and let my mind wander, suddenly the answer to whatever was blocking the process just shows up and all that’s left to do is to run with it.

This is what Brain Pickings, in their blog called A 5 Step Technique for Producing Ideas, call the “seemingly serendipitous A-ha! Moment. Out of nowhere the idea will appear. It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night. But for this moment to occur, the stage has to have been set up during daydreaming.”

“T’es encore dans la lune?” Good for you!

Fancy Art People, Fancy Talk

How do you reconcile your need to push the reflection onto the artwork with the need to stay connected to your society?

Rêves d’été/Summer dream, oil on canvas, @Patricia Lortie

Last night I had a strange dream. I was at a fancy art dinner, filled with fancy people wearing fancy cloths and talking fancy talk that made no sense. My sister was there with me and she was just as lost. “What is this dinner all about anyway?” she asked. The other people gathered around her and whispered nonsense answers about what they though we were all doing there. But once again, it made no sense to me and the whispering thing was just so weird.

I woke up with a smile, thinking that was a strange dream! But I know very well that dreams come from our subconscious brains trying to make sense of the things that are troubling us, the things we experience during our waking hours.

A few years ago, I read a wonderful book called Your Sleeping Genius by Dr Gale Delanay. She explains, “Many dreams come in the form of sophisticated metaphorical thinking and problem solving. The dreamer wakes to remember powerful stories filled with symbols that seem to make little sense to the conscious mind and are often soon forgotten… but you can learn how to make good use of what your dreaming brain is trying to tell you.” At the time, I had followed her dream interpretation technique for a few months and it had been a very enlightening experience. It helped me to identify things that scared me and to recognize my own metaphors, most of them fished out of childhood experiences. In light of last night’s dream, though, I think I need to read that book again!

But let’s attempt to make sense of this: the fancy art people with the fancy nonsense talk. In real life, my experience of art people is not that at all. Okay, maybe there are a few snobs here and there, but for the most part art people are wonderful. They’re generous, welcoming, interesting and humble, so it seems like the dream wasn’t so much about the people. Maybe the dream is more about me. I might be worrying about getting lost as I try to explain the work I do. And maybe it’s also about my strong desire to stay connected to people.


Repos/The rest, oil on canvas, @Patricia Lortie

Let’s start with ‘explaining what I do’. Today, artists have to write about their work in depth, and preparing an artist statement requires deep reflection on ‘why I do the work I do’. This has never been a problem for me. In fact I quite enjoy the process when I think and write about the meaning of my work. But I often wonder how far I want to push this reflection. Too often that process becomes so abstract that it only makes sense to the artist who writes it. When does it become ‘art speak’

In the blog called What The ??? is Art Speak?, there is mention of an essay titled “International Art English” by David Levine and Alix Rule where they attempt to scientifically prove that the internationalized art world relies on a unique language which “…has everything to do with English, but is emphatically not English.” One of their conclusions is that International Art English, (which is what they call art speak), is used by proponents to both identify each other and signal their insider status in the rarefied world of the elite.”

I know I really don’t want to be a part of that rarefied art world. I’m more than happy to push the reflection on my art; I know I need it for my own professional development. But I really just want to create art and be in the moment when I do it.

Chasseur de rêve/Dream Chasser, oil on canvas, @Patricia Lortie

And ‘my desire to stay connected to people’? Although I enjoy being alone most of the time, those who know me well realize that I’m a people person. Not in the sense that I need people around me a lot, but in the sense that I love interacting with them and that I do appreciate and respect who they are. One of my mentors, Serge Murphy, once told me that as an artist evolves in his practice he becomes more and more isolated, simply because pushing the reflection on his own work creates a greater and greater gap between what he does and what people instinctively understand about art. I don’t really know how to reconcile those two motivations. I only know that, as an artist, I need to keep reflecting on my work. But I also know that I have no desire to feel separated from the society I live in, regardless of whether people understand what I do.

I’m afraid that dream did nothing to provide me with answers. I still have to learn to reconcile those two needs. But maybe that dream was just the beginning of my subconscious reflection. I can hardly wait for my sleeping brain to figure it out!

The Big De-clutter: What do artists do with their unsold paintings?

I spent a few hours this fall helping friends empty their house, and that was totally traumatized!

It was an immense task, and I was forced to admit that emptying a big house of its unnecessary possessions has been waiting for me in my own home for longer than I care to admit. All of a sudden, the weight of my stuff became unbearable. So, rather than getting ahead in my marketing and painting work over the Christmas break as I had intended, I embarked on a massive and obsessive de-cluttering.

I went through every room, every drawer, and every closet and either gave or chucked away everything that we no longer used or that no longer make me happy. This, naturally, was pretty stressful for my husband and my sons. (I think my husband wondered if he was in line for the dumpster!) But soon, we all got into the process and everyone offered some of their personal possessions to dispose of. It was a gruelling process that took a lot of hours, and every new drawer I tackled made me want to take a break. But I pushed through and am glad I did.

Today I feel lighter and more optimistic. Our home feels under control and somehow, so does my state of mind. As Bustle says in his blog, 6 Benefits of De-cluttering Your Life, According To Science, “It’s good to know there is a connection between junk and other problems. We can all feel it when our desks are messy, or our kitchens out of sorts. It’s unsettling, and can hold you back from getting stuff done in life.”

Although I already feel the benefits of our de-cluttering, I still want to get rid of more things. Is this a symptom of my mind needing even more space and freedom? It could very well be. What is stopping me then, other than the fact that I have to get some work done now? I’m wondering that myself. I can certainly get rid of a lot more in my closet, but what about my studio and my sculpture shop? That is a lot more challenging.

Supply shelves in my studio

All of us who are artsy and handy know the joy of having exactly what you need close at hand when you are working on a project. Unless an artist works strictly on his computer, he needs plenty of studio materials. Having a stock of various supplies available in-house saves a lot of time and allows for the creative process to flow without interruptions. So as a visual artist, there will always be a limit to how much I can de-clutter those spaces if I want to keep productive.

However, when it comes to finished work, unsold stock is a much more difficult issue. Even the most popular artists accumulate impressive amounts of unsold work; it’s an unavoidable issue. I have an artist friend who started working on paper rather than canvass because she couldn’t stand the accumulated stock of unsold paintings. She turned to paper because it takes a lot less space.

My stock of unsold paintings, for now!

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who, at the time, was working for Alberta Foundation for the Arts. Part of his responsibility involved visiting aging artists’ studios to look through their inventories. The older an artist is, the more stock he has, and my friend told me that in some cases, there were many rooms stockpiled with paintings, despite the fact they reported that they had resorted to burning much of it. At first, I was shocked. It seemed like an extreme measure but, upon reflection, I realized it makes a lot of sense. Out of respect for the collectors who own some of their work, it may be a good idea to make sure that the market isn’t flooded with work at the time of the artist’s death. And, out of self-respect, it’s probably a good idea to destroy work that no longer makes you feel proud.

In light of this, I added a new rule to my professional practice. Every two years or so, I shred or burn any unsold work that I am not really proud of. (And no, you can’t have it for free!) The whole point is to make sure that whatever I leave behind after I die is a legacy that I’m entirely proud of, even if it’s only for my children to cherish. I want the work that remains in the world after my passing to represent what I was trying to create in the best light. My hope is that I will leave beauty behind, confident that through the years it will never be considered clutter by whomever owns it.

Artists out there, what do you do with your unsold paintings?

The Psychology of Painting:  what, exactly, are we scared of?

Yesterday I started my Adult Painting fall-session class.  Within that group, I had three students who were completely new to painting.  Although this makes my life easy because there is so much I can teach them technically, the process comes with an undeniable hurdle.  Somehow I have to find a way to help them overcome their terror of putting paint to paper. Adults, many adults, are scared absolutely rigid.  You can see it in their body language.  Their shoulders tense up, they sigh, they apologize for taking up my time, they actually say they’re terrified.

It’s just paint we are talking about here.  There are absolutely no consequences if you try and fail.  It’s just a little paint and a canvas.  No big deal.  Let’s try it again.

The cliff, photo credit Josée raymondWhat, exactly, are we scared of?

Maybe it’s all about facing the unknown.  A blank canvas can be intimidating.  I’ve been painting for years and yes, sometimes starting a new canvas is akin to jumping off a cliff.  There’s always the possibility of failure and, on the way there, of feeling completely inadequate.  But with experience comes the excitement that maybe this one will perfectly realize the idea I had for it, and that it will convey exactly what I hope.

Sometimes it does!  Sometimes it doesn’t.  But the world doesn’t end either way because there is always more paint and another canvas… and another idea.

The kids I teach, especially the little ones, don’t pay attention to those fears.  I suppose they know very well that anything worth doing is worth a few bumps and bruises along the way.  My youngest son, Joshua, was so desperate to play with his older brothers that even before he learned to walk he learned to climb up onto the back of the family room couch so he could launch himself through the air into the thick of their wrestling. Fear was never an obstacle.

My little students are just as gutsy about trying art.  They just assume they can do anything they try – so they do.  And, by the time they’re 13 or 14, they’re competent enough to feel reasonably confident.  They’re not trapped in fear so it doesn’t take a lot of convincing to set them free to let go of expectations and just play.

Skinny Artist talks about this in his blog 11 Things That Scare Creative Artists (and what to do about it)  He says, “When we were children we heard praise about our creations all the time. People are encouraging when we are children. People make us believe we can do anything. People don’t expect children to draw or paint a perfect picture. They’re supportive and realize that the kid’s skills need time to develop.”

Art is one of those things that requires a long-term commitment in order to develop the physical and intellectual abilities necessary to get the results we aspire to.  So, when we become adults, if we haven’t invested the time to become a great painter, then we are not.  A new painter is pretty much guaranteed failure, frustration and road blocks.  He can’t see his way through by himself.

So what does a painter do about fear?  Here’s what I’ve learned over the years:

  1. Accept that you will fail and embrace the growth opportunities that come with that. Making the wrong colour and painting a really ugly cloud teaches you what not to do and puts you on the road to knowing how to correct it. As Dan, from Art Business Advice says in his blog  Overcoming the Fear of Failure: a Guide for Artists, “Failure is not an endpoint, folks, it’s the mid-point. It’s life’s educational tool, and we need it. Many of us have simply forgotten that fact in our transition from kids to adults.”
  1. Ask for help. But not from people who don’t know the first thing about painting.  A good painter can quickly guide you out of a dead end.  But your neighbor who has never painted will most likely lead you astray, discourage you and dismiss your inner voice.  I’ve had so many students show up to class completely discouraged after having consulted people around them about how to ‘fix’ their paintings.  Art loving non-artists somehow know when a painting works; it’s a natural instinct that most people have.  But when a painting doesn’t work, they have no idea how to fix it, so don’t ask them.
  1. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to a child who’s just learning to paint. Avoid self-deprecating speeches, both inwardly and out loud. Laugh at your mistakes; a bad painting is usually really funny.  And pat yourself on the back when you have done well – even if it’s only a small thing.
  1. Throw your expectations out the window. They will be of no help in your learning process and only make you feel like you have not met them.  At the risk of repeating myself, if you are a new painter, you will not meet your own expectations.  That is guaranteed.
  1. Let go of perfection. I am very, very uncomfortable with the concept of perfection. In a world in a constant state of change, how can anything ever be perfect? It’s an unrealistic concept that can paralyze the most capable of us.
  1. Breathe! Many of my new students actually hold their breath when they paint. It should feel sort of like meditating or yoga.  The better you breathe, the better you paint.
  1. Watch your posture. Keep your back straight and your shoulders relaxed.  Keeping your body in a naturally comfortable and relaxed position will keep your mind in a naturally comfortable and relaxed state.  And that is the number one ingredient in a good painting.
  2. Give it time. Becoming a good painter is a long journey. It requires you to form new neurons and new physical abilities.  Your hand has to learn to respond to your brain in new ways.  Your muscles need to develop the stamina to hold and move the brush freely.  Your mind has to learn how to look at the world, and how to look at every painting with the eyes of a painter.  It takes countless hours of practice.
  1. Above all: don’t be discouraged.  It’s a journey that will feed your soul at every step.  Painting is a powerful act.  It will stop time for you.  In life, with its constant disproportionate pressure to perform, we all need time to pause once in a while.  Painting will do that for you.

Above all, ENJOY!