painting

Looking back, fully free

Painted when I was lost and then found, seven years ago.

Most of my psychic energy in the past two weeks has been spent on new and sub classes and leaving my class at Pengu Studio.  On October 1 I started teaching the 7 am class at Tranquil Space Dupont and will begin the 6:45 am class at the Arlington studio on October 16.  On weekends I try out sequences, trying to get the flow right. I worry incessantly, and occasionally in the past week, I’ve been right to worry!  For all my big talk about embracing beginner’s mind, I’m terrible at it. As my beautiful and wise daughter reminded me, everyone is perfectly imperfect. Get over it.

But I don’t want to turn away from the worry, because it has been a dense, rich soil for my creativity.  For example, this month’s asana Bharadvajasana has been an inspiration for me on so many levels.  The pose has so much going on it — part hero, part lotus, deep twist, bind.  As I try it out in my body, I think of Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World.  The autumnal colors and the fact that Christina turns away from the viewer gives the painting such a beautiful nostalgia.  But this feeling is balanced by the horizon — there is hopefulness of creation and the freedom of spaciousness.   This is exactly what Wyeth wanted us to take away.  Christina was a neighbor of Wyeth’s who was afflicted by polio, who “was limited physically but by no means spiritually.” Wyeth explained, “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.”  (From the MOMA website. It is part of the permanent collection.)

The pose also brings to mind the Zen teaching:  “The past is already past.  Don’t try to regain it.  The present does not stay.  Don’t try to touch it.  From moment to moment the future will not come.”

Our nature is to turn back, to look for meaning, to right things that went wrong, to revel in the good feelings or wallow in the bad.  And even when we aren’t looking back, the past comes looking for us.

Two Mondays ago was the seventh anniversary of my Mom’s passing.  I hate to admit that this was the first year that I didn’t feel the loss in the marrow of my bones as the day approached.  That evening I ran into one of Mom’s dearest friends at a work reception.  It was a coincidence that was a gift .  It reminded me about what is truly important about my past.  We chatted until way too late about Mom, and I drove home feeling enlivened by the old stories, even the hardest one to relive, that of her last few months.

The next day, I went looking through the past for more of that warm embrace from the past.  I flipped through her correspondence from Bangladesh in the 70s — hoping that there was a message.  Anything for me here?  Lots of talk about Dad’s job, my first Brownie uniform, how much weight my little brother had gained, the incessant monsoon rains, the fabric she used for upholstery on the drab government issued chairs.  Nothing.  Just the past.

Bharadvajasana is fully ground in the present.  The sit bones are ground into the earth, the deep twist coming from the ribcage.  Even though the heart pulls us into the past, our root is in the present.

This poem by Linji has helped me get to this sense of freedom from, in spite of, because of the past:

If you want to be free,

Get to know your real self

It has no form, no appearance

no root, no basis, no abode.

But is lively and buoyant

It responds with versatile facility

But its function cannot be located

Therefore, when you look for it,

You become further from it.

When you seek it, you turn away from it all the more.

Moments of incompetence

Dr. Lovett Weems told this story in his lazy Mississippi drawl:

A preaching professor at a seminary answered the phone late one night to hear one of his recent graduates in what could only be described as a panic.  The graduate explained that he had to prepare for a funeral the next day and needed help.  “I’m happy to help,” the professor explained, “but you learned this just last month.”  Instead of launching into the how-tos, the professor referred his student to the syllabus and to the scripture that might be helpful, hoping to encourage his student.  After he spoke, there was silence.  And then a wail at the end of the other line:  ” But you don’t understand!  This guy’s really dead!”

Dr. Weems explained that real learning happened in these moments of sheer incompetence. I guess I should be thankful that I keep finding myself in these moments, but right now it would be really nice to feel competent.

One way I’m feeling incompetent today is that I made the decision to reuse canvases that the art therapist at Iona was throwing away because they had huge acrylic splotches all over them.  I decided these would be just the thing to help me get over the blank canvas issues I was having at the time. The last two posts contain examples of the sense of freedom I felt at one time, splotches and all.  But the acrylic is beginning to be really annoying.  It is hard to draw a straight line.  The perspective in the Joy in Labor post was…labored.  Today, as I faced yet another one of these bumpy painting days, I decided that I couldn’t paint the way I usually do.  I would have to let the bumps have their way.

Playing with form and color

I’ve never felt competent with abstraction, but today the negative space beckoned.  I grabbed a sharpie and started.  An hour later, this is where I am.  Stepping back from the canvas, I was reminded of another painting I did a long time ago.

The very first painting I did was on a piece of board from the basement with five tubes of acrylic paint and one paint brush.  I really can’t remember what made me want to paint — perhaps it was that the kids were growing up and they didn’t need me so much in the evening.  I remember wanting to get this image out. See the black lines?  The blue?  This must be the way I find my way out of a problem.  Black lines and blue.

…and blue. Always blue.

In the practice of yoga, we are reminded that a beginner’s mind is something to be cultivated and valued.  The beginner’s mind has the wisdom of not knowing.  Nothing to say “you can’t do this,” or “don’t even try.”  A beginner’s mind hasn’t started to puff up about what it can do or do well.  It just is ready for the learning.

My take on these similarities is that the black lines allow my mind to focus — to see the form that is calling to me.  The blue is like the sky — open, vast, infinite.  Not a bad place to start to learn something new.  Finding form and sensing the freedom that wisdom brings.

Here’s the passage that I’m playing with as I get ready for tomorrow’s class:

Prevent trouble before it arises.  Put things in order before they exist.  The giant pine tree grows from a tiny sprout.  The journey of 1,000 miles begins beneath your feet.  Rushing into action, you fail.  Trying to grasp things, you lose them.  Forcing a project to completion, you ruin what was almost ripe.  Therefore, the Master takes action by letting things take their corse.  He remains calm at the end as at the beginning.  He has nothing thus has nothing to lose.  What he desires is non-desire.  What he learns is to unlearn.  He simply reminds people of who they have always been.  He cares about nothing by the Tao.  Thus he can care for all things.  

-Lao Tzu

On Being Precious or Being Precise

The Renwick Gallery has an amazing new exhibition of 40 artists under 40 years old who are changing the face of art and craft.  The work exhibited there is transformative for anyone who is interested in creativity, inspiration and the artistic process.  I marvelled at the concepts they played with in their work and level of precision and craft that each artist has achieved in his or her own piece.  See a slide show of their work here.

One of the most important lessons for me to learn and relearn as a recovering creative has been to be honest about being precious and being precise about my work.  I had a wonderful painting teacher at the Corcoran named Tom Xenakis who would stand behind me in a painting class and say (in a very unjudgemental way):  “You are being precious.” He didn’t mean cute or funny.  He meant that I was being fastidious and affected in my work.  It is a challenge about the practice of art.  Tom’s lesson has stayed with me, although it usually doesn’t come to me the moment I need it, before I have painted a canvas into a muddy mess.  Or when I look at something I’ve worked very hard on but it won’t sing.  There’s just paint, no heart.

Like all good art teachers, Tom taught working the entire canvas, leaving something and returning to it, trusting the process of making art.  In other words — get the hell out of your own way.  Let it flow.  Stop thinking so much.   Look, focus, see and paint.

The practice of mindfulness — of being in the moment and getting yourself out of the way — is important to painting, to yoga practice, to life.  Precision happens in mindful moments.  It is when we really see the shape of an eye — it isn’t shaped like an almond, the pupil isn’t really round, the iris catches the light here and darkens there.  In asana practice, precision happens when we can turn off the noise in our minds to tune into the sensations of our bodies, allowing us to take flight into bakasana or come up into our first headstand.  Indeed, mindfulness allows us to be precise with the people we love.  It allows us  look into their eyes and be present, to empathize, to listen and to love.

In Re-Entry I posted the painting of my husband’s hand.  I’ve added to the canvas a portrait of my daughter and the crook of his elbow, where she used to swing from as a toddler.  It is still unfinished, but I’m happy with it because I enjoyed every moment of the painting process.  I stopped being precious and just let the emotions carry me through.

Again I’ve learned the truth to the  Zen paradigm:  Stop thinking and talking about it and there is nothing that you will not be able to know.

A Storm of a Process

Madras curtains

Madras

Week ten as a recovering creative and I’ve slipped big time.  I’ve taken a hold of every “deadly” there is to creativity — alcohol, white sugar, a big bed in an air-conditioned room with full and complete control of the TV remote.  My body feels about as heavy as my spirit. I beat myself up about it, and just as I was lifting a leg to get back on the horse, I was toppled again — this time by a storm.   We became pioneer people this weekend, helping a neighbor take down a fallen tree and washing out unmentionables in a bucket on the back porch.  No time for my little corner studio.

The cool marble of the Corcoran Gallery of Art beckoned to me Sunday with the beautiful Ocean Park paintings by Richard Diebenkorn. I know that my creative recovery stipulates that I am to do artist’s dates by myself, but I took pity on my 17 year old and took her too.  As we sat contemplating a monumental canvas in the series, we were in a peaceful, light-filled, sacred space.  The cigar box paintings, lovingly crafted and given to friends and family, are full of joy, wisdom and personality — like a blessing at wedding by a favorite rabbi or pastor.

But it is what I learned about Deibenkorn’s artistic process that is really a gift to me as I struggle to make sense of what I am to be doing artistically.  He said “I can never accomplish what I want — only what I would have wanted had I thought about it beforehand.”  And all at once I was ashamed that I had spent not just the last week, but indeed weeks and weeks beforehand planning, scheming, thinking too much about what I am to do, rather than just doing it and sitting with it and being with it.

A few Sundays ago I had experimented with water-soluble oil pastels — I had never liked them in class, but I just wanted to feel and use color for a moment before I had to start my week.  The doodles of bright squares reminded me of the madras curtains my mother hung in my room in Bangladesh.  After seeing the Deibenkorns, I wanted to add layers and light to these doodles and see where they would lead me. Another Diebenkorn thought propels me:  the artistic process is intention, intuition and improvisation. Discover something about layers, light.  Follow my gut.  Play.

On being a recovering creative

ImageI had lost my artistic mojo.  After a burst of creativity, sitting down to paint had been almost painful.  Nothing flowed.  I was just grasping for ideas that would fade before the paint reached the canvas.  Occasionally I made myself complete a painting but eventually I didn’t even bother squeezing the paint on the palette, since I would lose interest and waste the paint.  But I had my yoga, my family life, things to do.  I was as empty as these dried seed pods.  (I completed this painting during this time — it took me, no kidding, a YEAR.  Every time I look at this painting, I’m amazed at how tortured it was for me.)

On the advice of some very wise people at Tranquil Space, I picked up Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way:  A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, (Penguin/Putnam, 1992) and I am now recovering the joy and spontaneity that my creative life had been until I got in the way of myself.

Practicing art and practicing yoga demand that you turn yourself off — get yourself out of your own way.  My art had become all about ME.  What did I think?  What did I want to say in this painting?  What did I think was interesting?  It’s just like how a pose becomes all the more difficult when I find myself thinking about what I look like or how much better I am at this pose now than I was in the past. The lesson is just to do art, not think art.  Just practice.  Be like a transistor radio.

So I get up and do art.  I let the ideas flow from somewhere else.  I just transcribe them. Thanks to friends at the studio and Julia Cameron, I am a recovering creative.

Yes, Cricket, you can be lost AND found

The Garden Gate

I painted these two pictures — the one on the banner and the one in this post — during a time in my life when I was terribly lost.  So I found myself in front of a canvas.  Then I found myself on the yoga mat.  Eventually, I found myself engaging in life in a whole new and joyful way, despite the fact that I was hopelessly lost then and that there will be other lost times ahead of me.

There should be a map for these times in life that says “I don’t know.  Try a left?  Then perhaps a U-turn?”  That’s what I hope my site is for you:

A map with no discernible direction.

I’m tired of strategic plans and goal setting.  I just want to be.  To let things happen.  To do some yoga and create some art. To go for a journey.  So join me.

This is a good reading to start with, from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki (Tuttle Publishing, 1985).  (Shout out to Rebecca Bell Curlin for the great grad gift!)

Zen Dialogue

Zen teachers train their young pupils to express themselves.  Two Zen temples each had a child protegé.  One child, going to obtain vegetables each morning, would meet the other on the way.  

Where are you going?” asked the one.

“I am going wherever my feet go,” the other responded.

This reply puzzled the first child who went to his teacher for help. “Tomorrow morning,” the teacher told him, “when you meet that little fellow, ask him the same question.  He will give you the same answer, and then you ask him: ‘Suppose you have no feet, then where are you going?’ That will fix him.”

The children met again the following morning.

“Where are you going?” asked the first child.

“I am going wherever the wind blows,” answered the other.

This again nonplussed the youngster, who took his defeat to his teacher.

“Ask him where he is going if there is no wind,” suggested the teacher.

The next day, the children met for a third time.

“Where are you going?” asked the first child.

“I am going to the market to buy vegetables,” the other replied.