Do you ever long to make your mark? A sign, a signature, some kind of message that says with a flourish, “I was here! I did this! "
Have you ever made something, expressed a brilliant idea, shown your artistry in your vocation or other passionate pursuit and thought, “this is my legacy, this is what I leave behind, this shows I made a difference.” ?
15, 000 years ago, deep in a cave, filled with shadows broken by a small flickering light, a woman drew charcoal horses marked by large round dots. She loved to see these horses on the plains as the clan made its way to summer lodgings. The horse she drew is powerful, sacred because of what it provided the clan. We know very little about this artist. Was she a shaman in her clan? How did she find the cave? Why did she paint there in the dark? Was she alone? What we can see is that after she finished her art-making, she placed her hand on the cave wall and blew dark pigment around each finger to outline her hand, the artist’s hand. She made her mark on the damp limestone wall, for some unknown future visitor, to see and know of her life.
The cave was lost for millennia. Located in the southwest region of France known as the Lot, la Grotte du Pech Merle, with its drawings and intricate natural formations, was discovered again in 1922. It is one of the few remaining Paleolithic era caves where visitors still have access to the original paintings. Wandering through this beautiful limestone cave, I sometimes found myself within three feet of ancient markings. Lifting my eyes as I rounded a curved passageway, I actually gasped at the sight of the dotted horses. My eyes riveted on the outlined hands appearing above the horses, and I saw that the prints were about the size of my hands. I held my hand in the air in an echo of the gesture, as if I were about to paint a similar silhouette on the cave wall.
I thought of the woman who stood there millennia ago, and how, like me, she yearned to make her mark, to take note of this moment in time and her unique passage through it.
I like rusty things. Partly because of the color and texture changes, but mostly because this evidence of the passage of time stirs me, takes me on journeys of memory and imagining. With the details of color and shape and the stories implied, this collection of bicycles mounted on a wrought iron fence was attractive, satisfying, like a good meal.
I wondered who made this display, and how long it took them to find the bikes. I wondered about those finds, the stories and encounters that each bike represented, the laughs, the wheeling and dealing to obtain, the carting home, stuffed around kids or a dog or the groceries. I began to see a novel emerge. Why bicycles? How long has the project been in the making? What happened during this process? Who laughed, or said, "how silly!" or complained "enough, already!" Did the artist tire of this and move on, leaving the bikes rusting quietly in the summer humidity and rainy winters? Is she still keeping an eye out for old bikes?
I saw one like my big sister rode, that kind with a flat seat on the back fender, which was later passed down to me. When I first learned to ride a bike I could do everything but stop myself and dismount. So I would ride around all over the neighborhood with my friend Gary and when I was ready to come in, I would ride by my house or his, shouting "somebody come out and stop me!". This worked for some time, but then one day, it was raining and as Gary and I drove through his circular drive towards the carport I knew I had one chance or I would get soaked. Full of fear of a big crash, I flung myself off the bike at the last moment. I stopped myself! I didn't need help, now I could control the end of my journey. It was a grand moment.
What did you learn from riding a bike? Have you told anyone the story yet?
Think of your favorite painting. Is it a Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Rembrandt, O'Keefe, a piece in your city museum, an artist in a gallery near you? If money were no object, how much would you pay to own it? Why is it worth that to you?
Would you die to protect it?
Is there a piece of architecture that makes your heart sing or swell with joy? Would you die trying to protect it?
Recently I saw a documentary, "The Rape of Europa", about circumstances regarding art and architecture in World War II. Much art was stolen and moved from country to country. Many people took great risks to protect, hide and track the movements of their country's art from museums and dealers. The French emptied the Louvre. The stained glass windows in Chartres were removed and hidden.
There was a too-small team of American curators and archaeologists called "Monuments Men". They worked to identify and try to protect treasures as the army moved through Europe. Battle plans by both Allied and Axis forces were affected by decisions to protect or not protect historic places and art.
The filmmakers interviewed citizens who witnessed destruction and theft as well as heroic preservation efforts. These citizens described their mixed feelings and the impact on their lives then and now.
Why does art matter? Why does it seem painful to imagine bombing ancient monuments, or the permanent loss of paintings or works like the Camposanto frescoes in Pisa, or the destruction of the Hermitage in Moscow? Yet it is equally painful to know of lives lost to protect an ancient monastery in Italy----only to have it destroyed later with no impact on the battle.
Why would a shy French woman risk torture and death to chronicle the dispersion of art from Jewish art dealers in Paris? Why in the last 60 years has there been such intensive effort to return art works to rightful owners and national museums?
The great art of humanity means something to us. It is not just great beauty and history. Nor just about monetary value, although, for some, it is about acquisition of power, treasure, status. Art bears witness to the best in us, to resilience, creativity and transcendence. Art records our longings and seeking. Art speaks to and creates connection. It is about individuals and the collective. It is about worlds in the past we can no longer know except through art, monuments and stories passed down to us. Historical works of art make their way into the collective unconscious, informing not just present art, but the metaphors and meaning we make now.
Think about the art you encounter every day, or when you visit museums or travel. Centuries ago, millennia ago, artists made sculpture, structures, jewelry, pottery, murals. Did they imagine these things would last, be viewed lovingly and in wonder in a far distant future? And what about the commitment of the cathedral builders? Workers for generation after generation, for 200 years or more, constructed what they knew they would not see completed in a lifetime.
Today there are artists everywhere driven by those some creative urges and longings that made our ancestors paint on cave walls. Know any local artists? Write them a thank-you note for keeping our pathways lit up with beauty, discovery, truth telling and joy.
From across the valley, the cool breeze carries the undertones of mud, hay and smoke. The crisp October air is easy to breathe in deeply. Drawn to the sunlight and shadows on a grassy area bounded by trees and an earthen wall, I remember other meadows, other dances of light.
I pull out the tripod first and set it in the still squishy pasture, made uneven by the hooves of sheep and deer. I unpack the easel, canvas panels and brushes. I screw on the palette extension, hang the brushholder, weight the tripod, fill a cup with water, add cleaner to the brush washer. As I assemble and arrange, I look frequently at those bright contrasts of lights and darks, squinting to see variations in value.
Each step of the preparation is done more slowly and with increasing anticipation. Now comes the pleasure of laying out the fat juicy worms of color from the tubes. The last step, mixing the palette for this moment, is playful but requires patience. Today I mix three tones of green, two of blue, two of yellow, four of brown. Each of these will lead to multiple hues on the palette and canvas.
For me, the preparation for painting has become a sacrament, a holy rite of mind, body and spirit. This sacrament allows a gradual narrowing of focus and purpose, a movement out of linear time, an opening in the heart, a deepening in the soul.
I plant my feet on whatever ground holds me. My senses awake to the orchestra of sights, smells and sounds of a particular place in the universe, of the intersection of this inner with this outer. My skin vibrates with the movement of air around me, the softness of fabric around my neck, the warmth of the hat.
Mixing the paint makes me feel like an un-selfconscious child, wondering what will happen when I do this , or that? And I paint best when I hold onto that curiosity.
We humans love our rituals. Our most important ones are designed to connect, renew, remember, embrace, recreate. Whatever we enter into mindfully has potential for a sacramental celebration.
Which rituals matter the most to you? Are they still fresh, meaningful? What practices create openings for you?
What I find is that there is a different ritual when the painting is finished or the light fades. There is a moment of fullness, a change in breathing. Satisfied or not with the outcome, the process has served to shift time and perspective and I am different than when I set up the tripod, more whole than when I first looked at white canvas. I clean the palette and brushes, put everything in the backpack, and walk gently into the long shadows crisscrossing the meadow.
"Color directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one or another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul." -- Kandinsky
The four-year olds were creating sky by tearing white construction paper into cloud shapes and gluing them to a sheet of blue. As I wandered around I peered over the shoulder of one little girl who had made a story by adding a tree, a figure, other details. It was wonderful. Just then the teacher came up. "Oh, no, dear, you’ve done it wrong. You’re only supposed to put the white clouds on your paper. Here, I’ll take that and give your more paper so you can do it again and do it right."
I don’t know about you, but I was so dismayed I felt physical pain. Think about this exchange, and how many times it happens to children every day, starting at very early ages. Maybe it happened to you. What do you think that four- year old learned that day? How much harder will it be for her tomorrow, to do something different, to see the world from her unique point of view?
There is a very common test, the Guilford Alternative Uses Test, designed to identify people who are creative. Did you ever encounter this? "Name all the uses for" a brick, paperclip, etc. In the past I was terrible at answering questions like this, and thus confirmed in my suspicion that I was not creative.
Recently I was asked by my writing coach Sandy Wright to choose an object and write about it . I chose my old nemesis, a paperclip. But this time I looked at it and thought, " what could a paperclip be? What else has this shape?"
Once again I was struck by the power of changing the question. Let me show you the results of 10 minutes of viewing a paperclip and wondering what it could be…..
Silver spiral galaxy fits in my hand.
A journey passing the same towns coming and going.
Labyrinth walk full of opening
Binding what belongs together.
Unfold. Make straight the pathway of the Lord.
Stone walls encircle the city to keep it safe.
Winding river glinting in the sun.
Bent out of shape, formless, without purpose or pattern.
The right question. Or, at least, a better question, one that opens instead of closes, one that leads to more rather than less, to more creativity, to more spaciousness of spirit.
Are you stuck, going round and round about something in your life? Change the question. Find a question that is more useful to you. One approach is to change the question into a "being" rather than a "doing" question. And what happens if you state it in the present time, instead of the past or future?
Our exhibit, “Listening to Life: Psychologists create”, was a new project for our organization, reflecting a relatively new and growing area of research in psychology. The research is not only teaching us more about creativity as a trait and/or a process, but highlighting how creativity contributes to wellbeing, learning, business, science, you name it.
So I was excited to find this CBC report on research* at Harvard Medical School regarding medical students taking art classes. By learning how to look closely at faces, bodies, they improved their powers of observation. The result? Better diagnostic skills in comparison to their colleagues who elected not to take the art classes.
This is pretty cool, isn’t it? The researchers found that, in developing this “visual literacy”, even studying abstract art is helpful, because it enhances pattern recognition skills. Besides the additional medical skills enhanced by art studies, there has been a side benefit ---- some doctors pick up art-making as an avocation. Which we know, from other research, will serve them well.
Paying attention, deep listening, seeing more clearly, flexibility.. All these skills, so important to science, innovation, creative thinking, and successful relationships, are key aspects of making art.
Vision is the Physician
Art is the Prescription” --- Fred Babb
So why have arts programs in schools been sidelined or even cut out entirely? What is being lost or diminished, and for what purpose? Why are we still treating art-making with such ambivalence, as if we cannot figure out its function once we get out of pre-school?
*Thanks to About.com:Painting for bringing this article to my attention.