My art practice is an attempt to blend meditation, the felt-sense and the visual.
To wake up!
I trust that coming back to this basic practice, of being present, of allowing what is, will lead into a more engaged or farther-reaching practice one day. Someone once said that art should break habits. I love that. There are so many; great big global habits and tiny little prickly habits, issues that affect us all.
For now, I have undertaken to be part of an exhibition about 'doors' at the Refinery Gallery in Nelson this August. We've been asked to interpret 'doors' in whichever way we choose. Straight away I thought of 'The Gateless Barrier', a way perhaps of describing 'awakening' in the Zen tradition. It suggests a form of doorway, an entry point of sorts. Although there is nothing to enter, and nowhere to go. Right there lie a habit or two.
Over there is the gateless barrier.
Each step towards it is a barrier. Each step I take.
Letting go the need to think it through and going through nonetheless, even when I am stuck.
I am struggling to find the starting point for this work. Where do you start when there is nowhere to go, nothing to step through? The stepping through is the gate. So for now, just taking a step in any direction is the right direction.
It brings to mind a passage from one of my children's favourite books,"Stumble trip, stumble trip, stumble trip. We can't go over it, We can't go under it, Oh No! We've got to go through it!"
So here's to stumbling and tripping... and to painting doors that lead right back home.
There is knowing what to do.
And then there is doing it.
There is also not knowing what to do.
And still there is doing it.
The rain just falls.
The plants are happy.
I have a childfree afternoon with deadline met.
A deep breathing out.
Doubting every step of the way. What is this?
Doubting. It's opposite might be knowing. Being sure. Being certain. Being clear.
Am I so sure? Are knowing and being clear the same thing? Or might doubting and being clear more readily coexist?
As I put the paintbrush onto the canvas (in so many ways in life), do I put it down with clarity and knowing? Luckily not. With clarity and doubt? If I'm lucky.
Right at the very tip of the paintbrush, does it know in which direction the paint will go? Only by doing. Only by being. And even then, not. Wonderfully unclear. Yet the paint is. Luminously white, mysteriously black, and then somewhere in-between.
Do we know where the next breath will take us? Right at the very tip of it? That disappearing point, the eye of the needle.
My personal life at the moment is full of doubt.
Doubt as a parent, doubt about where to live, and doubt within the painting.
Doubt. It's an edifying emotion, building walls all around me, blocking out my surroundings. Meanwhile I actually do live in pretty special surroundings. I do have a wonderful partner, two healthy boys and a shed to paint in that I love. And yet still, the doubt.
Twenty years ago a phrase stood out from Paul Baker's book, 'Monks, Minstrels and Milkmen'. About doubt he wrote. "It was a measure of growth, inadvertent subtle stretching in the light, that these real, deep-rooted doubts caused no panic".
More often than not I experience panic alongside doubt. Until I practice with it. Then it's OK to have doubt. I can be with it, not push it away, nor wallow in it. But without the practice it blinds me to my surroundings. Holds me hostage to my own fears. So how do I practice with this? How do I paint from this place of doubt?
I acknowledge its presence. Where does doubt sit in my body? I let go the stories about the doubt, and the doubter (this is the hard bit), and find what lies beneath. Physical unease. Pain. Fear. Then I lean into the experience just as it is, with no other intention than to let it be fully present.
Opening my eyes and ears I hear bird song, cows mooing, the smell of wax, the ache of my body, a muscle spasm, shallow breathing and a spider on the floor. What is the reality here? I have my doubts.
Trying to stay with this present moment awareness... why? Because behind the doubt there is just this. Just the bird song. My eyes opened wider. My awareness delving deeper. Can something within that level of awareness be captured in the wax?
Can the process of painting in doubt, bring doubt to its core? At core, there appears to be nothing.... just this. All of this. When doubt is allowed it gives way to just being... I don't know where the doubting goes but it does. Of course it comes back, although sometimes with less panic attached.
This seems to be my life for now. And that is what I have to paint with. Just this doubt. Exactly here.
What am I doing when I make art? Why do it at all?
A heart-felt pondering of life purpose, this question also has a practical edge; what is my focus - how do I get into gear - as I approach the shed?
The shed is my studio, but I prefer shed - it's a little more down to earth. I also love the idea of shedding things. We shed stuff so that other stuff can open up.
I once wrote that 'Art is a way of making meaning in our lives'. I still hold to that in some sense, but I might re-describe it as a way of making discoveries in our lives. Meaning is such a heavily laden word. A few years back I asked a visiting teacher: "Please do not laugh, but what is the meaning of life?" He laughed and said, "Does life have to have a meaning?".
These words are easy to misinterpret. Indeed they are still a deep mystery to me, but I do know they are not nihilistic. They point to an opening-up, a wide welcoming of all that life has to offer. In contrast, 'meaning' can sometimes close things down, shutting us off from the other or the offer. This is especially true for meaning we invest with great importance (often for ourselves).
People have asked, 'Does art have to have a meaning?' Those in the ‘art for art’s sake’ camp would argue against. Eco-Artists would argue for. Personally, I am not interested in an art world that only has reference to its own parameters - quite the opposite. But I would go as far as to say that art is better off with a purpose than a meaning.
So to help me on my short walk from house to shed, I try to define what it is I do with my art practice. What is the purpose? Here is my current best shot:
For me, art is a way of opening up to life. It is the expression and exploration of a question, an open enquiry into the unknown. And these days I am less inclined to think it is my job to offer an answer.
Instead I hold the question and try to capture the felt-sense of the exploration, letting go the stories that loop in my mind and finding what lies beneath. What is that quality? How to stay present there and let this infuse my work?
From this space of open enquiry questions unfold. Some I am currently working on include: How to land a line on the page without meaning or tethering of any sort? How to shed all pretense, and paint from the gut? What is left when all else is shed?
Meanwhile the wax flows when hot then settles into stillness. I build up layers then quietly peal them back. The heat-gun squints what the scraper straightens and mistakes become discoveries.
Each step in the creative process involves an opening. Each layer becomes a koan in itself - something to be expressed. How can we open up to exactly this, shedding all else, encompassing all else?
My job is to stay open to the process and convey my experience, then invite the viewer to consider theirs in response.
Twenty years ago my art college tutor said to me, 'Try to make your work less narrative'.
I felt affronted at the notion that art should be devoid of meaning and merely present an aesthetically interesting form. I continued to lugg around my ideal of making meaning through art. But good advice has a way of morphing over time...
Aitken Roshi wrote, "Teaching in Zen Buddhism is a presentation. It is not merely a device intended to bring about a certain pedagogical result. .... Fundamentally the koan is a particular expression of Buddha nature and your koan work is simply a matter of making that expression clear to yourself and your teacher."
If I am trying to convince an audience through my work, then this is likely to be idea-based. The point about the koan work is that it is beyond mental construct. It requires cutting-off the mind road. And the presentation of the result is original and playful.
This is how I try to approach my work these days. Instead of communicating an idea, a narrative, I try to present an experience. The 'felt sense' of a moment in time.
Gently the mind settles into Mu
and Mu Mind opens.
This opening grows wider with each breath.
Mu at home in the boundless body
Going out to meet the raindrops
Returning to the aching fire.
How to present a fleeting glimpse of being at home in the boundless body?
How to be at home in the boundless body while presenting a fleeting glimpse?
A place of practice for me right now is the question of being verses becoming. I see being as a state in which we allow what is to be, without striving for something outside or somehow other. It holds within it words spoken as encouragement in the silent folds of Zen retreats: ‘just as you are’, ‘nowhere to go’, “no one special to be”, “right here right now”. It also reverberates within my own process of ‘embracing mediocrity’, a radical acceptance of the ‘not-quite-right universe’. Finding the paradoxical beauty of living dead centre in the muddy waters that make up a life, or as artist Ian Hunter says, “Not the micro, nor the macro, but the muckro”. Essentially, being is a way of dwelling in the heart of the matter; of welcoming all this.
Becoming speaks to me of the desire to change oneself, to manifest or co-create something different, to better the world. Noble goals without a doubt. And yet I do have doubts. Becoming has a sense of looking for something outside of our current self, somewhere beyond, around a corner, into a space that is separate. We run the risk of missing what is in front of us, missing subtleties in a situation, missing the opportunities found within them, or simply missing our moment-to-moment life. In being we become, and if in our being we are constantly striving to become, then constant striving is what we become.
A life of becoming is a life padded with good intentions, worthy causes and noble intent, but padded nonetheless. Can we live our life unpadded? Bare naked? Raw? And can we, from this place of raw attention, also attend to the needs of a world in crisis?
At a deeper level, within being there is becoming and vice versa. The world is both these things, simultaneously. There is nothing extraneous about either. As Zhaozhou would say, just stop picking and choosing between them. Drop below the ideas and be present to ‘how am I experiencing this situation right now?’ Bring this awareness to bear on the micro, the macro and the muckro.
My paintings are an exploration of being and becoming. So is my parenting. In both I suffer and make mistakes. And in both I am learning the art of listening with bare naked attention. No picking and choosing. No manifesting. No secret. Just this.
The practice path is not an easy path, nor is it easy to be the change you want to see. The crooked path of combining these two is a life work, no instant fixes in sight. So I take to heart the words I recently found embroidered on a pillow:
“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
Where am I right now?
Jo's thoughts on Transformative Art
1) Art wakes us up: To make art we must fully enter the present moment by becoming keenly aware through our senses. As we become present we can experience a state of ‘flow’ - the antidote to being 'stuck'.
2) Art welcomes us: It asks us to value ourselves and our work, not for being something special but for simply being wholeheartedly us. In so doing, it requires us to find a way to deal with our inner critic. Art is imperfection.
3) Art helps us to let go: The artistic process requires us to surrender. We learn that all creative acts are accompanied by anxiety; this is normal and to be welcomed. The healing and the art are found in managing this anxiety; in trusting the process. *
4) Art makes us whole: The combination of head, hand, heart and hara involved in creative play is integrative and thus healing. It is also joyful and full of beauty - which is good for us at any age.
5) Art moves us: Art creates a shift in the way we view ourselves and the issues that affect our lives. It reveals the inner world and engages the outer world. Art gives us a voice and makes us visible.
Above all, art connects us to our core, our life-sustaining energy. This present moment.
* This way of looking at anxiety I owe to a wonderful book: 'Fearless Creating', by Eric Maisel.
Here I am half way through building my new website. I'd love some feedback on how easy (or not) the website is to navigate and how long it takes to load, especially the photos. Cheers.