Thursday, September 8, 2011

It's All About the Practice

As storms dissolve our roads and bridges and chaos dissolves our sense of an orderly life, the obstacles to creativity are dissolving too. This is a theme that has surfaced in conversations with a number of friends lately. This is a good thing, right? Things that have before seemed difficult or out of reach are flowing with ease. The time between stating a clear intention and having it manifest is becoming shorter and shorter. An example from my experience is a show of works I made this summer that currently hangs in the Farmer and the Cook, an Ojai, CA cafe. I decided to follow the advice I give others and go into my studio every day and just make work. For some time I had been collecting phrases from the daily newspaper that struck me. No criteria except that visceral 'hit' that a combination of words taken out of context can sometimes deliver, a sort of found poetry or enigmatic fragment. I wrote these down on index cards without a plan. In the studio it occurred to me to paint the words onto colored backgrounds just really as an exercise, something to do. I love mixing colors and painting them over old canvases or over failed watercolors on heavy Arches paper, paper too good to throw away. In a sense it was all a recycling project. Collecting bits of text, discarding the sense or meaning, covering over old tentative marks, lining up the index cards to see which ones still gave me that 'hit.' These elements constitute art making as practice. It doesn't matter exactly what the actions are, it matters that actions are performed regulary. Like warm-up stretches for dancers or scales played by musicians, art practice is done out of faith in the process of creativity. Practice is relational, it is about showing up to play with the Creative Source. Then at some point, pleasure happens, that thrilling moment when the mark is simply exquisite and what was rote reveals beauty. Beauty causes sensation to reverberate in the body, it echoes up and down the spine, it sends a tingle in the hands, the feet, the groin, sometimes even a tear to the eye. Such a moment is sublime and it is dangerous. Most of us are unschooled in how to appreciate pleasure. Pleasure rocks the boat. The mind which had been lulled into quiet by the repetitive action of the practice is suddenly roused and feels compelled to name that sensation. Oh the mind, the dear, dear mind! It doesn't matter what name the mind assigns: "success", "fluke", "breakthrough", "accident", the pleasure of the bodily sensation has fled, replaced by a feeling of disorientation that many of us quell by reaching for substances: food, drink, drugs or distractions of phone, internet, email. I told my friend Jon today when we were discussing these weighty issues that the thing to do in those moments of grace when art happens is to stop and say thank you. The Jews, as always, have a special blessing for such things called the Shehekianu, which blesses the Divine for bringing us to this particular moment of existence, but a simple, heartfelt "Thank you" can do the trick. Then, sit and breathe, in and out until the sensation, that thrill of discovery or shiver of brilliance, is fully distributed throughout your whole being. Relax into it, breathe in deeply this tonic because that is how we evolve in complexity and beauty, how we become skilled and disciplined in our art. We are building our tolerance for pleasure.
So those word paintings I made? I made enough of them that they felt like they constituted a body of work (which for me means there were enough so some were edited out of the final group). I thought, "Gee, it might be nice to actually show them." Having practiced at receiving pleasure with grace I was able to accept the offer to show them without my mind forming endless objections ("They aren't that good", "There aren't enough pieces", "What if nobody likes them"). Breath in, breath out, make the work, show the work, see the mind, quiet the mind, feel the body, hear the body. Work, play, say thank you. Enjoy. Repeat.