A few years ago I wrote an artist statement on process that said: "when painting I'm brought back to simplicities, back to my senses, and in a way, back to life." I called painting an "act of simplification...and devotion," a "trust fall of sorts... that dissolves the excess in my psyche and leaves me clearer in mind and heart." As I recently read through this, everything rang true and yet something substantial felt lost in the neatness and romance. Everything felt a little too certain. A little too well-manicured. Painting, like love and life, is also work – hard, uncertain, and surprising work.
As much as painting is revealing and inspiring, it is also rife with miscues, distractions, frustration, quiet defeats, and outright failures. There is the mucking about of it. The grumbling effort of it. The discomfort of regularly extending beyond one’s safety zone into the unknown; of being ground down and humbled. Or the suffering when one resists inspiration’s invitation, and in so doing, loses the thread of what is vital and pulsing. These often aren't "pretty" moments to look in on. Personal demons and ego and triggers rise and shout from the hidden nooks and crannies. Fear and worry wiggle about in it all.
Yet sometimes I remember, too, that I owe a debt of gratitude to the creatures of the muck when they reveal themselves. They show me a fuller, more truthful version of who I am – not to the exclusion of the brighter and more ascendant things, but certainly right along side them. The muck brings me home to reconcile that which I frequently refuse, the things about myself or a painting that I would rather avoid acknowledging. When moving between the highs and lows, between the mucking about and the soaring, I have the chance to witness all that doesn't serve the highest good.
And as a wonderful teacher of mine says, it isn't that the overwhelming, fear-filled, or messy parts are things to dispense with on the way to a "better place;" they are the key to the better place here, now. In the muddied, painful, or misled passage is the reality of my action and the state of a painting. If I try to skip over or avoid it, usually a painting (or day) suffers from the avoidance; the process falls prey to the illusions of belief and perception that led to the problem in the first place. I lose out on the transformative potential embedded in my misperceptions. But when I instead start from the reality of temporary “failure" – the admission that I’ve again been defeated, that I’ll have to again consent to be remade – and go slow enough to allow things to unfurl and reveal themselves, the seeds of positive change begin to grow.
It's why almost invariably something remarkable develops after I admit I've missed the mark. At this moment I still have to come back to the canvas with a fierce commitment to quite literally see the light in that which has defeated me. And I also have to be willing to dispense with my previous investments (often $100s of materials), to for a while just be a bumbling fool stumbling along. But when I surrender to reality and renew my commitment, and scrape down a passage and try again, I indeed do better. I've returned to the problem spot, acknowledged it, internalized some of its lessons, and committed to application of the new learning. Growth has happened. It's frustrating, scary, uncertain, and inevitable.
And in making the effort to notice that which would prevent my awareness of this joyful, bountiful moment, I find myself asking this: In what do you place your trust, your love, and your devotion? For what, in the end, do you stand – in a painting, in a day, in a year, in a life?
In painting, it's the truest, wildest, most alive, most insightful, most skillful expression of a given moment. And this commitment trains my attention onto what seems to be a powerful and important choice. I can choose in moments large and small to look more deeply – while painting, in love, in life – to return to the simplicities rather than the trumped-up stories, to find my deepest and most alive inspirations and do everything possible to support them. And I either choose to trust this unpredictable unfolding – what is real and here and ripe with all manner of sensation that pays little head to my preferences – or I refuse it. But when I refuse, it’s sufferful. It’s physically and mentally unnerving. I’m lost in incomplete comprehension, resistant to that which has arrived, and exiled from that which is real and true. So, when I'm fortunate enough to remember, I instead choose what is alive, real, and eminently uncontrollable. I choose to feel and acknowledge what has arrived, Mana from the Gods, unappealing as it might be to reconcile myself and my painting with it.
The relieving part is that all I really have to "do" is notice – slowly, deliberately, unwaveringly – what shows up and then be patient enough to let it unfold. What parts of the composition am I avoiding? Where am I trying to wash over things? Where am I fussing? Where am I "fixing" rather than painting inspiration? What seems "risky"? How am I feeling? Am I breathing? Am I here, now, aware of my surroundings and my feet on the ground? Do I hear the birds, the water, the wind? And what, really, is most appealing, most intriguing, most enjoyable in the scene before me? What is sensual, colorful, lush, abundant, full, exciting? What feels palpable, solid, whole? Where is the meat of it?
From this practice of turning towards what my body, wonderful sensing tool that it is, feels and notices, the most inventive and insightful things start to evolve seemingly of their own volition. New information becomes apparent. That which was frightening can dissolve. I remember flexibility, playfulness, and awe-filled adoration of colors, forms, and simple sensuous perception. These things all strengthen resolve and help me make better decisions. I suddenly am able to move with speed and finesse. If a worry doesn't serve to mobilize insightful action, then probably the worry should be left behind. If a color is wrong, it needs to go. If the paint needs to be thin, then let it be thin; if thick, then let it be thick; if slow, then let it be slow. In the good moments when fortune and persistence intersect, I get to surrender the internal dialogue and the predetermined script. I feel this body here and now, and flow with a wave of inspiration and perception as it travels through a day. I stop trying to control the outcome and start following the breadcrumbs. Vital morsels. I have yet to meet an artist committed to the process who knows with certainty what will come of it, and nonetheless, repeatedly, cloaked in mystery, something arrives from our very own hands.
So here are a few other questions that have risen in the time since I last wrote a statement about process: Will you trust your joy? Will you wake up in the dark and on a hunch drive for two hours to start a painting in the sunrise light? Do you have the courage to try? What about the courage to fail? Are you willing to change your plans at the drop of a hat, to follow the scent until you arrive at the right spot – no matter where it takes you? Where is your breaking point? Do you know when enough is enough, when you need to take a break, when you need to relax? Can you accept that you aren't always going to produce? Can you abide the days when absolutely nothing satisfying develops? Can you trust the process anew and be steadfastly patient even when the rewards aren't apparent? Do you have the grit to turn, again and again, towards a delicate flower – even as it defeats your every attempt to paint it? And do you have the suppleness and willingness to surrender everything you “know," put down all the grit and effort, and actually just witness that beautiful flower?
What a relief it is to find the willingness to abandon action fueled by unresolved fear and anxiety – which usually seems to originate from a struggle to know the outcomes of unknowable processes, to exercise control over the uncontrollable – and instead follow a gentle call into unexpected, unpredictable, alive, and vital territory! If we can fly in the face of all the mentation, worry, and struggle that would wear us down, all the fears that would have us believe the end is nigh, then maybe we get to appreciate the simple miracle of breathing – let alone the infinitely symphonic life in which we play a small part. It seems to me that I encounter fewer problems when starting from these inspirations, and also that I'm much more limber, inventive, and playful within the inevitably challenging process as it unfolds.
There are moments painting when one is entirely overcome with joy – to the point of song and dance, or even tears. They’re utterly gleeful times filled with awe of this paradoxical world and the unpredictable magic that can coalesce in the things we undertake. Painting’s hard-earned gift – the focused chance to be even a little more aware amidst things so miraculous, to ride a wave of direct feeling and inspiration – illuminates and fills one's innermost recesses. It’s a crazy labor of love, and it really does have the potential to bring us back to life. It's just that it's also messy, chaotic, and a lot less controllable than one might like to believe.
Here is a link to my shorter explanation of the process – the one upon which this post builds – from 2013, but still true as of today!