Dogen on painted cakes and hunger. Again.

 
A recent online conversation with a friend brought up our observations of the way so many folk in the ‘spiritual field’ feel that it’s somehow wrong to have a passion to create, or be interested in, art. He commented, “They’ve internalized teachings that say that artistic expression is a lie, that it is too sensuous, too rajasic, too much of a distraction from “higher” things. I’m reminded of Plato wanting to expel poets and musicians from his Republic!”

The mainstream art world is a minefield for artists and artisans whose practice is fuelled by the impulse to express from the wonderment and awe that is their authentic experience. On the one hand we have the denial by its curators and critics of anything that whiffs of ‘the spiritual’ in contemporary art (see the daylighting has begun), and on the other we are rebuked by the high priests, teachers and purveyors of (so-called) “higher” things themselves! I have had first-hand experience of this on my journey – I was associated for a while with teachings that regarded all creative expression as potential ego-reinforcement. It was a liberation for me to abandon such a separative misconception and embrace the full monty of the creative life; to meet and work with new teachers who themselves were artists and who considered creative practice to be an essential aspect of awakening to the Real.

My friend finished by saying that many of these people have “suppressed creative, esthetic, blissful, sensitive, compassionate and divinely universal parts of themselves by rejecting the aesthetic aspect of life.”

It made me think back to this post – originally written and published in 2009 – and prompted me to put it up again. Lest we forget.


 

Zen saying: painted cakes do not satisfy hunger

 

Wonderingmind Studio: Wayne Thiebaud - Boston Cremes, 1962

 

Meaning: painted cakes aren’t the real thing, they only describe the real thing. Implying that for the serious seeker of Truth, creative work is a vanity, a distraction, a pointless pursuit.

It is true that the tendency to identify with one’s creative expressions can cause the ego to inflate, with all the suffering that comes by default. But identification with any human activity carries this danger.

The question:  What is the self that expresses in self-expression? is our lifeboat in these dangerous waters.

The monk Dogen saw the bigger picture.
He said:  Painted cakes do satisfy hunger.

Aside from painted cakes, there is no way to satisfy hunger.
Aside from the painted cakes we make,
artists and writers and educators and web builders
have no way to express their ideas and inspirations.

Aside from the process of making painted cakes
we have no insight into our creativity
and what fosters it or sabotages it.

Aside from the painted cakes we perceive,
what so-called Reality is there?

If Reality is REAL, it must be whole and undivided.  Our painted cakes are therefore nondual expressions of the truth – whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not.  The ten thousand things are painted cakes awaiting the glance of an awakened wondering mind.  This vast and all-embracing perspective lifts our creative work into the realm of sacred practice, something many artisans – including this one – are very conscious of and deeply committed to.  Our works are ‘painted cakes’ and amazingly, they do satisfy hunger.


Gratitude to John Daido Loori, Sensei, for inspiration and teachings.


Painting by Wayne Thiebaud – Boston Cremes, 1962


If this topic interests you, do pop over to my other website theawakenedeye.com and have a look around. 


how was it for you?

 

I’ve been reading a great post from Maria Popova at brainpickings about the moment we recognise we are fated to become artists.

“How does one become an artist — not in a practical sense, not by some external measure, but by an invisible and intimate surrender to the creative impulse? It often happens in a single moment of recognition — a point of contact with some aspect of the miraculous in some aspect of the mundane, catalyzing an overwhelming sense of the unity of things and an uncontainable desire to emanate that sense outwardly; to share it, in some form, with others — whose otherness is suddenly dissipated by the very impulse.”

The article is about Patti Smith and her memory of this momentous recognition. It’s inspiring and wondrous. But it left me thinking, well, what was my big moment of recognition? How was it for me? Was it a single moment or did it unfold over time?

 

Wonderingmind Studio - Michael Leunig: Song

 

In my case, it was both. From tinyhood there was always an urge to be engaged in making for its own sake; I simply loved the way the world (and me as well) would melt into a timeless joy when I was ‘making things.’ In that innocent play I felt totally at home, totally ‘right’, fully fulfilled. (Years later I would realise that I’d always been driven by a mix of curiosity and wonderment – and that this mix had also driven the lifelong urge to understand that ineffable state.)

I was good at academic subjects, and at High School that meant focusing on language, math and science. But I was already seduced by the subjects deemed less worthy – by art and  craft and embroidery. I wanted to make, and to make art in particular, even though I didn’t really know what art was.

As a concession, I was allowed to take Art and Design as a ‘failing subject’ for my School Certificate (= O Levels) exams. What that meant was that if I failed in it, it wouldn’t matter because the other four ‘real’ subjects, which I would do well in, would carry me through. Since we had no proper instruction in Art or Design at my academically focussed school, I was set up to fail – I didn’t even know how to read the exam questions. And so it came to pass.

I was knocked back on my failure to answer the questions correctly. And that was my ‘tingle’ moment – that was when I raised my 15 year-old finger to the high priests of the art world and said stuff you. I didn’t have a clue what art was, I was ignorant of art history and criticism, I was a peasant kid in a tiny city at the bottom of the earth. But I knew what stirred my juice. It was the wonder of colour and the magic of making.

Yet even with that early recognition, it took decades for my via creativa to deliver me to full commitment to visual language as my mode of expression: to ‘out’ me as an artist. On the way I tried my hand at some amazing alternatives. Yet like an insidious addiction, the makings continued. And the hunger to be fully engaged in ‘art without apology’ was insatiable.

Eventually that hunger was satiated. There was no delivery to fame, although mini-fame fluttered for a while. I simply made my way by making, and by helping others know the joy of expressing with their own authentic voice.

It’s a long way back to that “stuff you” moment, the moment when that adolescent intuited that she would spend her life busy at an activity that for most of her friends and family (and society at large) would be both incomprehensible and worthless. Yet here I am, now in my 70s, and I wouldn’t change a thing. For me, making things turned out to be my holy pathless path, my Guru, and my gratitude is inexpressible.

I’d love to hear your own reflections: how was it for you?

 


Image: Michael Leunig, Song. I chose this image because it expresses so well the sense of wonder, fulfilment and sweetness that accompanies the visit of the muse (the little bird?)
http://www.leunig.com.au


True art does not look like art.
– Lao Tzu


no artist is pleased
creativity and autonomy


just DO!

 
I belong in the age group that witnessed the rise and the too-short shining of the star that was Eva Hesse.

She was w-a-y outside the box right from the start.

If Paul Cézanne was the “father of us all” according to Picasso, Hesse was the mother of us all. According to me.

The images I’ve chosen are lesser known examples of her work that particularly appeal to me; the quotes come from correspondence between Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt.


 

I think art is a total thing. A total person giving a contribution.
It is an essence, a soul..
In my inner soul art and life are inseparable.

 

Wonderingmind Studio: Eva Hesse - collage

 

Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping …  Stop it and just DO!

 

Wonderingmind Studio: Eva Hesse, Right After, 1969. Silver gouache and pencil on paper, 22-1⁄4 x 15 inches

 

Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool.  Make your own, your own world.

If you fear, make it work for you – draw & paint your fear and anxiety …

 

Wonderingmind Studio: Eva Hesse, No Title, 1969. Gouache, watercolor, silver and bronze paint on paper, 21-3⁄4 x 17-1⁄4 inches

 

You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty.  Then you will be able to DO!

Try to do some BAD work – the worst you can think of, and see what happens, but mainly relax and let everything go to hell – you are not responsible for the world – you are only responsible for your work – so DO IT.  And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be …

 

Wonderingmind Studio: Eva Hesse, No Title, 1967. Ink on graph paper, 10-7⁄8 x 8-1⁄2 inches

 

I know that you (or anyone) can only work so much and the rest of the time you are left with your thoughts.  But when you work or before your work you have to empty you [sic] mind and concentrate on what you are doing.  After you do something it is done and that’s that.  After a while you can see some are better than others but also you can see what direction you are going.  I’m sure you know all that.  

You also must know that you don’t have to justify your work – not even to yourself.

 


For more information about Hesse:
http://www.theartstory.org/artist-hesse-eva.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eva_Hesse

And my sincere thanks to Marcie Begleiter for sending this link to a wonderful article about the correspondence between Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt:
Sol LeWitt’s Advice To Eva Hesse Is What Every Creative Person Needs To Hear
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/eva-hesse-letters-sol-lewitt_562f79ede4b00aa54a4b18d8

Marcie Begleiter is the director of the documentary film Eva Hesse, which premiered in May this year at the Whitney Museum of American Art. You can read more about it here:
http://www.evahessedoc.com
and here:
http://hyperallergic.com/207327/finally-a-documentary-about-eva-hesses-life-and-work/


Images sourced from the public domain.


immaculate imperfection

 

Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.
– Salvador Dali

Kintsugi Bowl named Seppo

 

The Kintsugi Cup

At the juncture of Perfection and imperfection,
Lays Immaculate Imperfection.

There, even the wounded and broken,
Emanate Blessings to all.

There, even those crushed in sorrow,
Are breathless with Bliss.

There, even those moving in desire,
Breathe Fullness and Completion.

There, even those grasping endlessly,
Know Surrender and Grace.

There, even those not yet perfected,
Live beyond the Hell of perfect and imperfect.

This can only be grasped,
If you stand…

Where Heaven and Earth Embrace,
And Perfect Love imbues Imperfection,

Like a kintsugi cup,
Shattered and broken,

Imperfections… not hidden,
But Illumined.

Ineffable Sublimity,
Immaculate Imperfection.

– Chuck Surface

 


Chuck Surface has a cyber-oasis of poems at gardenofthebeloved.com


Kintsugi: The Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with a lacquer resin sprinkled with powdered gold.

The tea bowl above, made by Hon’ Ami Koetsu (1558-1637), is called Seppo, which means Snow-capped Mountain. One of the most outstanding Japanese artists of the early 17th century, Koetsu was famous for his tea aesthetics, landscape gardening, poetry, lacquering and pottery.

This very famous tea bowl was repaired with gold varnish. The cracks in the bowl were filled with a type of resin, then lacquered and covered with gold powder. The repairs were given the poetic interpretation of melting snow and streaming water, hence the name ‘Seppo’.

Collection: Hatakeyama Memorial Museum of Fine Art, Japan.

Beauty in the art of repair – an informative article about traditional Kintsugi repair.


salmon-mind and stream-ing

 

Reflections on creativity, flow, and the not-always-gentle art of unlearning.

Ohara Koson: Leaping Salmon in a Rapid, Ukiyo-e

Invitations – via courses, retreats and workshops – to “learn how to be in creative flow” are as ubiquitous as those promising “breakthrough experiences of awakening”.  I’ve been around both ballparks long enough to have become very sceptical of these claims and promises.  Red herrings are strong swimmers and prolific breeders. Especially when their favourite tucker – yummy money – is flowing.

Can creativity be taught?  Can “awakening” ever be an experience?  These questions are intimately related but I’ll focus on the first one, since this blog is primarily about art and creativity.

My experience, both within my own practice and as a teacher of visual language, constantly confirms that genuine creativity can unfold only when there’s an abandonment of everything one has learned about it.

I am trying to check my habits of seeing,
to counter them for the sake of greater freshness.
I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing.
– John Cage

It seems to me there are two types of “flow”, but only one is truly creative.  One occurs when I’ve slipped into an eddy of old patterns and processes – those that brought me pleasure and profit in the past.  I know where I’m going; it’s easy.  It might even make me feel satisfied that I’ve had a good day in the studio – for a while.  I call this type “phony-flow” for obvious reasons.

Then there’s the other kind of “flow”, the kind that’s hard to write about because you weren’t there when it was underway.  It involves encounters and experiences with the Unknown, and a kind of gracious movement that is closer to stream-ing. When you look at what was created during the movement – whatever your mode of expression might be – what you see astonishes you.  You know without a shadow of doubt that you didn’t do it.  And yet you recognize that this is your most authentic work.

I don’t really trust ideas, especially good ones.
Rather I put my trust in the materials that confront me,
because they put me in touch with the unknown.
It’s then that I begin to work…
when I don’t have the comfort of sureness and certainty.
– Robert Rauchenberg

Creativity, by definition, implies a leap from the known to the unknown.  It is not the same as innovation, which has its feet firmly planted in the familiar.  Nor is it the same as invention, which implies a desired outcome or end product.  It has no pedagogy or curriculum.  There are no maps of the territory.  The only strategy we can employ, if we are earnest enough, is that of finding out what sabotages its natural expression.*

Whatever I know how to do, I’ve already done.
Therefore I do what I do not know how to do.

– Eduardo Chillida

~

I am always doing that which I cannot do,
in order that I may learn how to do it.
– Pablo Picasso

So my personal reaction to courses claiming to cultivate skills to access creative flow isn’t an enthusiastic one. I’m just not interested in exploring notions others might have (no matter what their pedigree) of ways to free my inner artist.  If anything is called for on my via creativa it’s the exile of that artist-ego with its accumulation of ideas, certainties, and its insatiable need for recognition.

Using the metaphor of a stream, it’s easy to understand that “flow” only moves downstream.  And as everyone knows, the source is always upstream.  Floating along in the flow is fine; it’s recreational and maybe allows a brief escape from stress – witness the huge popularity of doodle-books and colouring-in books.  There’s a place for this, of course, but let’s not kid ourselves that we’re being genuinely creative.

Remember, a dead fish can float down a stream,
but it takes a live one to swim upstream.
– W.C. Fields

If you ache for the authenticity, the unknowable and artist-vaporising creativity of the Source, forget about flow.  Abandon the “how-to” red herrings.

Adopt salmon-mind.  Make your way upstream.  You know the way – it’s imprinted in your cells.

Leap those rapids. Outwit those hungry bears.

My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful,
the more narrowly I limit my field of action
and the more I surround myself with obstacles.
– Richard Diebenkorn

How do we fuel our quest upstream? By dismissing irrelevancies (as Buckminster Fuller advised); by finding the questions that have no rational answers yet haunt us nevertheless. By spending a great deal of time in solitude and silence watching the mind’s desperate and insistent groping for certainty, affirmation, context. By the way of unlearning; by abandonment of our pet theories and preferences. Our courage in this quest will inevitably deliver us to the sweet dark pool of ultimate unknowing, and, worn out from the challenges to our sureties, we’ll drop our eggs.  We’ll sink.  The Source will reclaim its own.

Our eggs will hatch, some of them, and be swept downstream to spread the news: it is possible!  It is possible to return to the Source and leave the old life there.  It is possible to dissolve into the stream as it makes its way to the Ocean; to rest in and as its stream-ing, as its authentic expression, without any concern for or notion of, whether we’re “being creative” or not. (If that question is still arising… keep swimming upstream.)

Then we can speak of “flow” – because we’ve experienced that it’s exactly what we are. The one who thought they could (or couldn’t) find it, could tap it for artistic purposes, could promote it or become an expert and sell it – that one was the saboteur all along.

Until salmon-mind set it free.

I find my paintings by working on them…
…it is through the making of the paintings that I have many discoveries
which are different from ideas.

~

Painting is a long road.
The beauty to me is in the not knowing where one is going.

~

Perhaps we do not need to understand it all.
– Lawrence Carroll

 


* My series of e-books empty canvas – wondering mind was compiled with this mission in mind.


Image: Ohara Koson 1877 – 1945, Leaping Salmon in a Rapid, Ukiyo-e, 1910


From the bookshelf: Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson


Agnes Martin: I paint with my back to the world

Agnes Martin: I paint with my back to the world.
The last word.


 

red – rouge – rot – rosso – rojo

 
I am having a love affair with red at the moment. Maybe it’s a winter thing.

As I indulge myself cruising around artstack, pinterest, and the bulging folders of artworks on my hard drive – works saved over many years, just-in-case – I notice my heart reaching out towards those pieces that are unashamedly vibrant with red, red, red – red a hundred ways; in every language red’s wild energy makes human beings stop, sit up, and most often, smile. (Oh yes, I’m aware of the connections this colour can have with anger and frustration, but for most of us, it’s the colour of life.) Here are a few favourites that get my smile muscles going and make my heart happy.


 

Henri Matisse - The Red Studio

Henri Matisse – The Red Studio, 1911

Museum of Modern Art, New York City


 

Colin McCahon - Ahipara,1970

Colin McCahon – Ahipara, 1970

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa


 

Georgia O'Keeffe - Black Door with Red, 1954.

Georgia O’Keeffe – Black Door with Red, 1954

Chrysler Museum of Art, Ghent, Virginia


 

Deborah Barlow - Colasee

Deborah Barlow – Colasee

deborahbarlow.com


 

Fabienne Verdier - Shen (La Quintessence)

Fabienne Verdier – Shen (La Quintessence)

fabienneverdier.com


 

Jean Miro - Paysage

Jean Miro – Paysage

National Gallery of Australia


 

Diane Foug - Red

Diane Foug – Red

dianefoug.com


 

Mark Rothko - Untitled (Red)

Mark Rothko – Untitled (Red), 1958

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne


 

Emily Mason - Slipped Beyond, 2009

Emily Mason – Slipped Beyond, 2009

lewallen contemporary art


 

Shane Drinkwater - Red 2

Shane Drinkwater – Red 2

on artstack


Do you have favourite red paintings? How do they affect you? If you’re an artist, do you work with strong reds?

I’ve only played with red in a small way – when I was working with dyes on silk. Oh the lustre of red silk! (Interestingly, one of those pieces won a National award.)

I can feel a reunion with RED coming on: watch this space.


what are you afraid of?

 

Hallie Bateman: What are you afraid of?Hallie Bateman: What are you afraid of?

 


Hallie Bateman’s website and blog


I love the way a deeply insightful illustrator, such as the astonishing Hallie Bateman, can employ such economy of line and shape to communicate profound wisdom. In this context a picture is certainly worth a thousand words.

What is the relationship between fear and creativity? Would you say they are mutually exclusive? Where does that leave the one who thinks they are afraid, or who imagines they are creative?


when the artist disappears, creativity radiates


wider wonderment; deepening devotion

 

Wonderingmind Studio: Miriam Louisa Simons - Dana

 

It’s the first day of a new year. I have been a very infrequent blogger on this site over the past year, but the pot has never been off the simmer. This post has been crafted over months – months during which my studio practice has been slowly resurrecting itself after a long hiatus and finding its voice from a place so mysterious that there has been no hurried urge to share, to make explicit, its deep inward movement.

In hindsight, I recognise that this mysterious movement has always been the prime motivator of my art practice. My inquiry has always occurred within the simple activity of making things, and the things I make are the inevitable outcome of the unique mix of my abilities, experience, and the questions raised by my circumstances in time and place.

I’ve never been interested in creating replicas of objects – human or non-human, or visual narratives about social and political issues, or in making explicit aspects of my own pathology. The ‘visionary’ output of my imagination never held any attraction. So what was it that compelled me to turn up in the studio year after year – regardless of whether there was an exhibition looming or not, or any commissions to complete?

It was, and remains, a mysterious attraction to something that occurs when I’m playing in a certain way with my materials without any intention to produce any kind of ‘art’ object.

“A certain way”?  This is hard to describe; it’s immaterial what technical processes I’m using, or what version of visual language I’m ‘speaking’. What is crucial is an attitude of innocent curiosity and a willingness to encounter – and be comfortable with – the unknown. And I can’t help but notice that to the extent that I’m absent (as artist, designer, controller, critic) creativity flows. My amazement at what shows up is as acute today as it was at the beginning of my via creativa.

Looking back over more than five decades of making things, I can see that I have always been preoccupied with icon making. Whether conscious of it or not, I’ve been making secular icons, altarpieces; expressions of wonder, expressions that in their eclectic and deceptive simplicity might have the power to affect consciousness – to close the gap between the observer and the object observed, even if only for a moment’s restful ahhhh … a little benediction of peace.

Although there were many occasions when I was informed that my makings had this effect, I had little scholastic reference to back up the concept until a book called Tantra Song landed in my lap, and I learned that for hundreds if not thousands of years, artists in Rajasthan, India, have – usually in anonymity and seclusion – created images specifically for the purpose of the transformation of consciousness. I learned the significance, in this context, of my own habitual use of certain symbols and colors – components of my work that had been turning up forever, without my conscious understanding of what they stood for in the lexicon of Yoga Art. My hair stood on end.

A second mind-shifter crept up on me soon after. For the better part of a decade I have devoted an enormous amount of time and energy (aka love) creating a cyber platform for artists and artisans who speak about their practice in terms of engagement or intimacy with the unknown: theawakenedeye.com  Over the years I have had the privilege of reading and sharing the heart-felt authentic expressions of many makers across a wide range of work – all sharing the sense that their practice is an expression of wonderment at, and devotion to, something much larger than themselves. Something that moves through them when they are empty enough, quiet enough, humble enough.

Recently I came upon an artist writing very explicitly and beautifully about her practice as “devotion to the unknown”, and I felt the earth move. There was an upswelling of a mountainous YES. It was like the ‘hundredth monkey effect’ – there was such a powerful shift. Her directness moved me to totally cease censoring my own real-time artist statements to make them conform to the currently correct version of artspeak.

(Many years ago, a Melbourne curator had advised me not to speak of ‘flakey spiritual stuff’ when dealing with galleries or arts councils. For decades, I’d felt split in two – my identity as a maker whose practice is wholly concerned with the unknowable source of creation was intact in the studio and online, but in real time I felt forced to dissemble.)

So here’s the truth: the crux of my work is devotion. Whatever happens in the studio is an act of devotion to the innate Unknowable. How could I not be in awe of the mystery that pours through these hands, this mind, when given unconditional permission, when not impeded by my own small visions and versions of what real art should look like?

It’s an act of awe and devotion, yes. But as the same artist pointed out – that’s not the whole story.

Devotion to the Unknowable doesn’t mean one stops questioning the great mysteries of existence. Actually, it generates and fosters this inquiry; such was the intention behind instruction in the Mystery Schools. We discover that the Unknown/Unknowable isn’t some kind of remote and sacrosanct object. It’s inescapably and seamlessly interwoven into our every perception, thought and experience. Just don’t try to define, systematize or organise it – it simply can’t be conceptualized.

But it can be expressed. And to my mind, this is the power and purpose of any creative expression, whether visual or poetic, performed or musical: its capacity to evoke that Unknown, to render it visible in its shimmering, evanescent, momentary wholeness.

Wholeness. There’s something that happens in the creative encounter that’s familiar to artists of all kinds. It’s a melting of the division between our seemingly solid separate self and the wild suchness of the world; a dissolving that brings an experience of utter wonder, of timelessness, of knowing that this is the way the world simply IS in its naked perfection.

I never know what will happen when I walk into my studio. I may have a list of tasks to attend to, but when it comes to the empty canvas I’m brain-dead. I’m on my knees without a prayer – empty and ready. I’ve spent decades maybe, pondering questions that can’t be answered with words; they are folded up in my heart. It may be today that the Unknown makes an appearance in form. If not today, well, I’ll be back tomorrow just in case She shows up, and is in the mood to make.


Image – Wonderbox series, Dana, Miriam Louisa Simons


Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, by Franck André Jamme


the high purpose of purposeless play

 

The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all.
– John Cage

My mind has returned, these past months, to the delights of playing without purpose in (and out of) the studio – especially embracing aspects of chance in my work.  Early in my career as an artisan I played with processes that were very fickle – applying wax, winding, clamping, dipping fiber in dyes, bleaching, discharging and manipulating textile surfaces. These processes were instrumental in showing me the hidden gift in the “goof-up”. Eventually, as I relaxed with the unexpected ways that the process would defy my expectations and spur my curiosity, I came to regard the unexpected as pure magic. Those “failures” would always open a door onto what might be possible if I surrendered my expectations and pushed the process a little further…

 

Wonderingmind Studio: Miriam Louisa Simons: EarthWorks Series, detail

earthWorks series India.
Khadi papers, textile fragments, coconut twine,
thorns, pigments from walls, mud

 
In India I folded Khadi paper and buried it in mud for days.  When I unearthed the folded wads of paper I was enchanted to find that there were lines and tones etched into the surface by the action of the earth and water – and sometimes a worm had left evidence of its journey or a hearty meal.  In the work above, this was just the beginning of my journey – there would be rubbing, collage and stitching added before the work reached its resolution.

It’s the unexpected and uninvited occurrences in the studio that excite me the most. I’m not at all temperamentally suited to production-by-design. What’s more, I’m far enough along the via creativa now to have learned that genuine creativity has little to do with the known. Or with innovation of old ideas. Or with work repeated ad infinitum because it was acclaimed and commercially successful in the past. I’ve come to be convinced that creativity and play are a “goes-with”, as Alan Watts would say. Play is the heart of the matter, and it’s time we made fun of it, as children do. I love Laurence G Boldt’s description of playfulness as a “kind of rascal”:

Playfulness is the dew-fresh, childlike spirit of wonder.
A roving, wandering, wondering, “what if” kind of a rascal.
Unconventional, lightning flash, sailing through the cracks…

 
If play doesn’t come easy for us we can easily sidestep the “get-serious” inner critic by resorting to chance. We can surrender every decision to the roll of a dice, the selection of a random card, or the way the sticks fall using the I Ching. We can invent our own aleatory devices, and be genuine in our commitment to obey them – just for now, just while we’re playing. (There’s no need for anxiety, the critic will still be there when we stop our game!)

It seems to me that the creative life is actually one big game of chance – whether one’s an artist in the studio or a gardener in the backyard, or a family-absorbed young mother. Chance rolls a situation under our feet; we meet it with open curiosity. We make a gesture, which chance plays with before serving us another … chance.  There have been a few renegade artists who have made the use of chance a formal aspect of their work – in music composition and performance, in writing, and in visual art; I am particularly inspired by the work of John Cage. Influenced by his studies of Buddhism, Indian philosophy, and the I-Ching in the 1940s and 1950s, Cage incorporated “chance-controlled” elements into his ground-breaking work in all media, including watercolors, prints, drawings, and scores.

The function of art is not to communicate one’s personal ideas or feelings,
but rather to imitate nature in her manner of operation.

– John Cage

 
For Cage, nature’s “manner of operation” was purposeless play. Although he embraced randomness with the use of chance operations, he insisted that this “helped him make choices”, as the crucial ingredient in the process was finding the “right questions” in the first place. In the context of painting, for example, “What colour palette?” “What tools?” “What options for layout?” The painting below is the result of random composition dictated entirely by chance; the outcome is serenely contemplative.

 

John Cage: HV2, No 17b

John Cage, HV2, No 17b

 
Maybe I am such a play-enthusiast because there was little allowance for it in my childhood years, when creativity was constrained by the need for productivity and usefulness – in other words, purposefulness. But there’s another reason: it was the best strategy I ever came upon as a teacher of art and design. Whether my students were working towards formal exams, or taking art subjects for the love of it, they all responded to the encouragement to play – and indeed, one of the enduring effects of playing with chance (they reported) was that they learned to find the right questions. And that’s a great life-skill, wouldn’t you agree?

It is play, not properness
that is the central artery, the core,
the brain stem of creative life.

No play, no creative life.
Be good, no creative life.
Sit still, no creative life.

The impulse to play is an instinct.

– Clarissa Pinkola Estes

 


making fun of play is one of the ebooks in my empty canvas – wondering mind series
(free download)


http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/jul/10/john-cage-composer-drawings-exhibition