the alchemy of creativity

As artists … we make artwork as something we have to do
not knowing how it will work out.

– Agnes Martin

 

Agnes Martin, Untitled 1960

 

Just when I began to doubt that I would ever write again on this blog – it being many moons since the urge to do so has visited – I find myself inspired by a post written by the insightful and meticulous artist Fiona Dempster on her blog Paper Ponderings. She opens with a quote from Anais Nin (see below) and offers her responses before summing up thus:

 

There is something in here I think that says that art is integral to our wellbeing;
and I have to agree.

– Fiona Dempster

 

A torrent arose from deep within as I read this: art is integral to our wellbeing. I was reminded of my own long path to this understanding. Being a slow learner when it comes to my own wellbeing it took decades to notice that if I was experiencing unease, confusion or frustration, the failsafe remedy was to enter creative engagement. In that engagement, that deliberate hollowing out of my mental marrow, all I need to know percolates up into presence and flows forth into my life. No effort required. As Jeanette Winterson observes, it’s simply humanity expressing itself.

 

Life has an inside as well as an outside. Consumer culture directs all resources and attention to life on the outside. What happens to the inner life? Art is never a luxury because it stimulates and responds to the inner life. We are badly out of balance. I don’t think of art / creativity as a substitute for anything else. I see it as a powerful expression of our humanity – and on the side of humanity under threat. If we say art is a luxury, we might as well say that being human is a luxury.

– Jeanette Winterson

 

I eventually learned that creativity is not a luxury for me; it’s a necessity if I am to remain sane. Creativity is integral to my wellbeing, and art is one way that creativity can shatter the granite edifice that is my conditioned thinking.

I was unspeakably fortunate to be assisted in coming to this understanding by physicist David Bohm, who would share his insights with us at Brockwood Park and patiently answer our questions. This morning, opening a notebook I kept at the time – twenty years ago – and rather grandly titled “Creativity and Consciousness”, I found these quotes:

 

For creativity is a prime need of a human being and its denial brings about a pervasive state of dissatisfaction and boredom.

Whenever … creativity is impeded, the ultimate result is not simply the absence of creativity, but an actual positive presence of destructiveness…

– David Bohm (with F David Peat), Science, Order, and Creativity, 1987

 

The need for creative thinking in every corner of our collective consciousness has never been greater. I feel a tide surging within, a tide that has been out for many years as other concerns consumed my attention. It is washing up an imperative to speak again on these things, to share the perennial wisdom of my teachers and voice my own.

 

I believe the most important thing for humankind is its own creativity.

– Dalai Lama XIV, Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama

 

Discovery is the beginning of creativeness; and without creativeness, do what we may, there can be no peace or happiness for man.

Jiddu Krishnamurti

 
There’s more to creativity, and in particular creative thinking, than is allowed by its current association with corporate concerns – “How can we harness creativity to make more sales?” There’s more to creativity than learning how to pass the time with recreational dabbling. These are not an elitist statements. If taken as such, a deep understanding of the dynamic of genuine creativity is shown to be lacking. Creativity shapes lives and cultures.

Genuine creativity is elusive. It lives solely in the present moment with no regard for past or future. It is outside of time altogether. In this context it is identical to what the sages call Reality, the Divine, Presence, Source. To be absorbed by it is to “unite” again with that which we never left and yet can never know – the Unified Field of Creation. Our whole self.

 

We do not escape into philosophy, psychology, and art — we go there to restore our shattered selves into whole ones.

– Anais Nin

 

Exactly. Creativity is no escape. Engagement with genuine creativity spurns the urge to retreat or escape from life. Rather, life is brought full-focus into the feeling realm and away from the head. For me a prerequisite to the engagement is that I take all the versions of myself – shattered or stuck or simply curious – to the altar of my worktable. I bring them to the space of unknowing and watch in awe as they disappear entirely.

The artist self? Nowhere to be found.

For me it’s essential to be artist in absentia if work that’s free from preconceived ideas and unsullied by the subtle yet persistent longing that my work be accepted / admired  / valuable / important. In other words: if genuine creativity is to be allowed space.

 

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

– Eduardo Chillida

 

The alchemy of this immersion in unknowingness – the blessing of creativity – is paradoxical: while disappearing the solid-state, separate “me”, it simultaneously fosters “me-ness” in the sense of rock solid authenticity. It shapes the unique no-thing that we are; it gives it whatever voice is true and appropriate as we navigate the world of appearances – the “outside”. In the process, it makes us feel more keenly alive, alert, aware. It brings the wondrous feeling that all is well with the world (after all) and a sense of order, rightness, blessedness prevails.

 

There is a curiously sharp sense of joy or mild ecstasy that comes when you find the particular form required for your creation: … the experience of  “This is the way things are meant to be.”

– Rollo May

 

Further. We eventually realise, if we look deeply enough, that the “outside” is not outside at all. Wherever we go / look / feel – there we are, fully displayed as a reflection of our consciousness. It’s so vital to “get” this, because here is precisely where the voice that sings through our “hollow bamboo”* has the power to change the world, i.e., consciousness. Not by our self-determined efforts – no matter how sincere – but by allowing a force incomprehensibly vaster than our minds can conceive to express, via our utterly unique constellation of skills and wisdom, exactly what it needs to. For this moment. For now.

Let us not forget that Creation set this whole scenario – whatever it appears to be– in motion.

Let us not forget that its agenda is beyond our cognitive capacity.

Let us not forget that it operates beyond the laws of physics and knows no degree of difficulty.

Let us invite that power to play as we turn up in our studio feeling shattered, depressed, blocked and confused.

And let us not forget that it will only show up when we disappear.

 

***

 

The final paragraph in Science, Order, and Creativity:

The ultimate aim of this book has been to arouse an interest in the importance of Creativity. Whoever sees this importance will have the energy to begin to do something about fostering it, in ways that are appropriate to the special talents, abilities, and endowments of that person. All great changes have begun to manifest themselves in only a few people at first, but these were only the “seeds” as it were of something greater to come. We hope that this book will not only draw attention to all the questions that have been discussed in it, but will actually begin the liberation of creative energy in as many of its readers as possible.

Amen.

And the last word…

 

Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing.

Making your unknown known is the important thing.

– Georgia O’Keeffe

 


*Try this. This is one of the most beautiful meditations, the meditation of becoming a hollow bamboo. You need not do anything else. You simply become this, and all else happens. Suddenly you feel something is descending in your hollowness. You are like a womb and a new life is entering in you, a seed is falling. And a moment comes when the bamboo completely disappears.
– Osho


Painting by Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1960


Other posts and pages on this theme:

when the artist disappears, creativity radiates

and when I do that, I feel whole

salmon-mind and stream-ing


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. 


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.


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.


 

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