“The deepest things in life dwell in lands that words cannot reach.1”
I ran across this assertion in historian Daniele Bolelli’s book, Create Your Own Religion. I am not sure if I believe it. I know too many wonderful writers to feel too comfortable with it. But exploring its possibilities is what draws me to painting. When I paint I am diligently trying to release myself into a place without words, a place where my conscious mind cannot take me.
A little background. I spent most of my adult life at Duke University, working as an academic administrator and teacher. In many ways, Duke was a difficult fit for me. I constantly felt intellectually intimidated, assaulted by words as it were. But I loved teaching, and I especially loved helping motivated seniors craft a clear and insightful piece of writing out of an often vague idea for a thesis. More words. But this time friendlier words. And I still love helping other people bring out the beauty in their ideas through writing. So I have a long and complicated relationship with words.
For many years, I have also been exploring meditation and Buddhist thought. This involves lots of reading, which means lots of engagement with words. Often words that are trying to conjure “lands that words cannot reach.” Words that strive to explore the relationship between form and the formless. Here’s an example, from meditation teacher Rodney Smith’s recent book, Awakening:
Since form needs our investment of words to sustain it, silence slowly dissolves form back into the formless. There is nothing we need to do except be willing to see without words2.
And for me painting seems to provide a way into seeing without words. It’s a paradox, I know. A contradiction. A tension. Because what is a painting if not form. But I also think art helps us to engage with mystery, which may be another way to invoke the formless. Perhaps to bring to the world something of what words cannot reach.
I recently read the poet Jane Hirshfield’s new book, Ten Windows, How Great Poems Transform the World. And found more words to help me better understand what I am groping towards:
Yet one of the reasons a poem—or any creative effort—is undertaken is precisely to surprise yourself by what you may find. Poems appear to come from the self only to those who do not write them. The maker experiences them as gift, implausibly won from the collaboration of individual with language, self with unconscious, personal association and concept with the world’s uncontrollable materials, weathers, events. Picasso said of his paintings, “I do not seek, I find.3
Yet poetry comes into being by the fracture of knowing and sureness—it begins not in understanding but in a willing, undefended meeting with whatever arrives.4
A work of art is not color knifed or brushed onto a canvas, not shaped rock or fired clay, a vibrating cello string, black ink on a page—it is our participatory, agile, and responsive collaboration with those forms, colors, symbols, and sounds.5
I want my paintings to surprise me, to be an act of discovery, a collaboration. Every time I start a painting I am faced with a clean slate. I almost never have an idea of what the finished painting should look like, and when I do it does not turn out well.
So how do I start? Sometimes just with mark-making. I take a piece of graphite or tube of paint to the canvas and let the stored energy in my arm direct the outcome. Sometimes I start with a process oriented direction. Often with the question “what happens if I do this?” when “this” might mean putting two colors together wet on the canvas. Or pouring liquid paint onto the canvas and physically tilting it to direct the flow. That’s how two paintings from 2013, “Betrothal” and “In the Grove,” got their start.
Once, when I was stuck, my teacher, Lisa Creed, encouraged me to deliberately add colors I rarely use (colors I don’t particularly like) to a canvas. That painting eventually became “It Won’t,” 2014.
All through the making of a painting there is a dance, a tension, between impatience and waiting. My brain is always ready to take over, to become the general, to get it done. And it is always better to wait for the painting to reveal what comes next if I can remember to do that. This is another place where words fail. I don’t have words to describe how this happens, how the painting communicates, even though the information usually does come in the form of words.
Last September I spent a lovely week at Pelican House, a retreat center on the North Carolina coast at a “Week of Quiet and Writing” sponsored by the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South. I mostly painted, and struggled, and in the process was gifted with a few guidelines for art-making. I’d like to close with those:
Don’t try to force things.
Make room for quiet to encourage ideas and impulses.
When they come, follow them.
Pause when the trail gets cold.
Don’t panic if it takes a long time for the next signal to arrive.
Don’t try to figure out what might be pleasing to others.
1 Daniele Bolelli, Create Your Own Religion, 263.
2 Rodney Smith, Awakening, 155.
3 Jane Hirshfield, Ten Windows, 189
4 Hirshfield, 125
5 Hirshfield, 182