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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

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“Did you sell a lot?” The most boring question you can ask an artist

I have been a full-time artist for over 20 years. I’ve had periods in my career where I easily sold many, and I’ve had periods when sales were slow. And yes, like everyone else, I love getting well paid for what I do. But that’s never the reason I create my work. However, inevitably, after a show is over, I’m asked, “Did you sell a lot?” And no matter what the sales might have been, that question always makes me cringe because the answer never comes close to enlightening anyone about anything.

L’Éveil, acrylic on canvas

Katie Ohe, a very successful artist with a very long career, once wisely told me that “what defines an artist is the need to be an artist”. You become an artist because you need to create all the time. Because anything else you try to do feels insignificant and empty. Because not a day goes by where you don’t actively crave time to use your tools to add something new to the world – whether it’s by pencil, paper, paints, clay, computer, or power tools.”

Artists live in a world of creation and what interests us is what we can create next using the experiences we’ve accumulated through all we have created before. Most of us fantasize about hiding in our studios and having the luxury of selling our art only to support the creation of new artwork. Selling is never the ultimate goal; it’s a means to create more.

So, if someone asks me about a show or about my career, I’m always puzzled by “Did you sell a lot?” Did I sell a lot? Is that really what you’re interested in knowing? I realize that people wish me success and that, some times, that is where that questions is coming from. But my honest answer is that the question has no relevance. And the answer has nothing to do with me, or the world, and proves nothing about the quality of the work. It also closes the conversation. It tells me that you have no interest in the quality of the work itself. Your only interest is in its marketability. It ignores all the thoughtful considerations that went into creating it.

If the artist says, “Yes, I sell tonnes,” what does that mean? Does it mean she spent a lifetime getting her work out there and that it’s finally collectable? Does it mean it matches the colours that are trendy in this particular home-decorating era? Or maybe it means the subject is neutral enough that people feel comfortable hanging it in their homes.   If the artist says, “No, I didn’t sell much” what does that mean? Does it mean the work is no good? Does it mean the artist is poor at marketing? Does it mean his work is not yet understood or recognized? And frankly who gives a damn?

Selling a lot may only be a sign that the work somehow fits into the most common taste denominator where the artist is exhibiting. It may say that the economy is in good shape since artists, like cleaning ladies, are among the first to suffer when the economy tanks and the last to recover when the market improves. But one thing is for sure: sales don’t have anything to do with the quality of the work.

Rêves de jours paresseux, show at the CAVA gallery, photo creditJanet Sacille

When you look at the work, ask yourself the some questions. Is the work technically well executed? Is what the artist presenting profound? Does it move you emotionally? Has it enlightened you, excited you, encouraged you to wonder? Do you see that the collection is thoughtfully working toward a theme?

 

In a society that over values money, it’s easy to confuse selling with quality. I see a lot of poorly executed shallow artwork that sells, and a lot of magnificent inspired work that doesn’t sell. Personally, I prefer to create the latter and hope that people recognize its worth.

As Gail Gregg says in her blog, How to talk to an artist ,” if you are a person who appreciates art but doesn’t know much about what it means to create it, the first thing to do when you attend a show should be to stand quietly in front of a work, look carefully, and think about what you’re seeing. When you consider that it can take weeks, months—even years—to make an art object, looking hard is the respectful thing to do.” Once you have actually taken the time to look and feel the work, interesting questions will naturally come to you. You might ask:

  • What were you most excited about in this new series of work?
  • Did you have a clear intention when you started this series?
  • In what ways do you feel this work has progressed in comparison to the last series?
  • What are you trying to share with us?
  • Is there an artwork here you are most proud of? Why do you feel that way about this one?
  • How do you know when the work is finished?
  • What has inspired the work I see here?
  • Do you know where you might go from here in your next series?

 

Some of those questions I borrowed from “Asking artists questions” by Carrie Brummer, but I think Gaill Greeg put it best. “The best question would be one that helps me think more deeply about my work and makes me see connections I hadn’t, or puts it into a broader context.” Personally, I just wish to have a meaningful conversation about art and life. And, art being full of depth and meaning; it should not be too hard.

We all ask the wrong questions sometimes and we all forgive each other for that. If you have asked me about my sales in the past, don’t worry. I’ve heard it so many times I honestly won’t remember it was you asking. So come to my next show! Don’t feel embarrassed. Let me tell you more about the creative process, the thinking behind the work, and together I’m sure we’ll discover aspects of my work that neither of us at first imagined.

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