Breathing art


Jan 31st 2012

“…I depend most on my inner self and the actual process of painting. I think everything one experiences, feels, dreams, hears, and sees in a day comes out in your art somehow.” Helen Frankenthaler, in After “Mountains and Sea,” 34

Not long ago I worked on two 36 x 36 landscapes. I did not set out to paint landscapes, just followed an impulse to take large canvases to class even though carting them around is a pain. The first painting came fast, from start to finish over the course of one two and a half hour session. There were already other paintings underneath, a crude self-portrait that I did last summer with pink skin and yellow hair, which I later covered with thick black circles and a red and orange wash. One eye still showed through the layers and that felt significant. I thought I might build the new painting around that eye. But when I got to class I just started painting and followed some unknown rhythm. The colors I chose worked, and the composition came together with a little help from my teacher’s discerning eye. It was such a good experience that the next day I ordered three more large canvases.

The week before I had been working on three 6 x 6 pieces and the difference in embodied experience really struck me when I started on the larger piece. With a small canvas you’re working mostly with the wrist and fingers. I was going to say with precision, but that’s never my forté; in small works you just can’t make big gestures. With large canvases you paint with the whole body and the energy flows. I think this energy provides the conduit for what Frankenthaler is talking about; it is through this flow of energy that the stuff of your experience shows up on the canvas. At least that’s the way it works for me. And that’s what happened on that first three-foot canvas.

The next week I took a pristine white canvas to class, still in its wrapping. I think I was trying to replicate what had happened the week before, though I wasn’t aware of this at the time. After years practicing meditation you’d think I would know better, but I didn’t. I worked on this second canvas for three straight classes and still it didn’t work. Was it because there was no history underneath, no hidden eye? Was it that there was nothing for the new paint to rub up against? Or was it that I was trying too hard, thinking too much? At the time I didn’t even notice that I was thinking. But now looking at this second painting propped against a bookshelf, I feel a tightness, an absence of air, of prana, the breath of life. So, something stopped the flow, something prevented my experience, my life, from showing up on that canvas.

One week a moment of grace. Followed the next by a reminder not to take it for granted. But also, a reminder that with persistence grace may yet come. That second canvas is not dead; it waits for life to breathe through me again.