'hedge', 42" x 52", ink and gouache on stretched paper
This week's Guest Blogger is Mindy Bray, a local Denver artist whose work I have admired since first becoming acquainted with it the winter before last. Mindy has shared a lot about her process, inspiration and influences of late, writing;
"As an artist, you have to be really nice to yourself."
Robert Irwin said this at a lecture I attended this spring in LA, and I furiously wrote it in my journal, and smiled in relief. I had always had a hunch that was the case, but the image of the tortured American artist a’ la Jackson Pollack runs strong in our culture. In addition to making art, I also practice and teach yoga. I tell my students, as I’ve been told, that we, as practitioners, should not “push” ourselves into the pose, but rather go to the place that is comfortably available, without judging or reacting. This is easier said than done. Currently, I’m in the midst of a self-proclaimed sabbatical of sorts; I took the summer and fall off from teaching (I’ve been an adjunct in Drawing at Metro State College for the past two years) in order to focus on my work, and to do a 10 week residency at Anderson Ranch in Snowmass, CO this fall. On the outset, that great expanse of time seemed just that – expansive. But, the more I began to work, the more pressure I put on myself to be productive within the time allotted, and the shorter this time period seemed. In other words, I began to push. And, in so doing, I’ve learned a valuable lesson about creating a sustainable and dynamic studio practice that has the ability to transform and grow – that I need to be nice to myself, and take a break.
This past spring I read the book The Gift by Lewis Hyde, which is one of those books that seems to have grown on me since having read it, and I find myself flipping to the pages I have dog-eared to re-read sections. One of these dog-eared paragraphs says,
"The moral is this: the gift is lost in self-consciousness. To count, measure, reckon value, or seek the cause of a thing is to step outside the circle…with the flow of gifts and become, instead, one part of the whole reflecting upon another part. We participate in the esemplastic power of a gift by way of a particular kind of unconsciousness then: unanalytic, undialectical consciousness."
For Hyde, art (both the product and the making of it) is a gift. He makes this point in all sorts of ways, including financially, culturally and spiritually. But, what stuck with me was the sense that in order to receive the gift of art (for him, inspiration and imagination is a gift), one must be empty and ready to accept it. To be empty means to be un-self-consciousness. As artists, I think we all know this place. It is the dreamy sort of space in which ideas, images and words run quickly, and they all seem new, original, and good. Perhaps you are on the beach, on the couch, on a walk, or in the shower. I think that the exciting lessons of The Gift, yoga, and Robert Irwin (I hope he doesn’t mind being grouped with these) is that these moments do not need to be completely random events, but rather, we can cultivate them, and create an important space for them in our studio practice.
The other phrase I love in this section is the warning not to seek the cause of a thing. In the art world, we are constantly asked to defend our choices. Another book I’ve been reading on and off is 7 Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton. In a chapter about a crit at CalArts, she asks the Thomas Lawson, a painter and dean of the school about why they do not have a painting staff or promote the practice. He says,
"I’m a painter and I know that painting is not about talking. The issues of skill and mistake are very close. You can do things that to some eyes look horrible and to others look brilliant. It’s very curious – and difficult to defend."
In graduate school, I dabbled in a lot of new media work including video, performance and installation. I was constantly on the search for a piece that was wholly defendable. Yet, I finally returned to drawing and painting. Why? I think that my inability to answer that question is exactly what continues to draw me back. To an analytic brain it seems absurd to spend the day filling in hundreds of small shapes with the same color ink, and yet, it is compelling. I find the same thing to be true about the practice of yoga. The quality that Lawson described as curious and I might call mysterious. I am drawn to a good mystery, and am interested in dwelling there, rather than solving it. It is humbling to know that there is at least one thing in my world that cannot be entirely explained.
To return to Irwin, I once heard a story about him, which I’m really not sure is true, but love as a metaphor anyway (in fact, if any of you know if this is true or not, let me know). According to the story, he was a young artist making abstract paintings, and new that it was time for his work to change, but was unsure exactly how. So, he went to Mallorca, an island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain, and did absolutely nothing for a period of years. Then, he returned, and resumed his art practice, beginning to make the light and space work we know. Although I don’t think many of us want or need to spend years on an island to open ourselves up, I think we can each find our own method to do so, and do so actively and with intention. And so, I spent the day today practicing yoga and baking a cherry pie with a handmade crust rather than going downstairs to my studio. I know that when I return, I’ll be refreshed, and be in a more receptive place to continue work on my painting.