Staycation in Canvas and Verse

Today my wife and I were to return home after a week spent in Trinidad and Tobago building a home with Habitat for Humanity. It became apparent some time ago that this was not to happen, but I had a week of holidays to be completed before the end of April, so a staycation was in the offing.

The danger of staycation, especially after an extended period of working at home is figuring out a way not to work at home. I have to admit that I wasn’t altogether successful at this, but I did better than I thought I would. I was helped, largely, by two decisions I made. One was to buy a year’s subscription to Master Class, and the other was to work on a painting that has been kind of drifting about in my head for some weeks.

I was especially interested in Billy Collins’ class on poetry in Master Class. I delight in Collins’ poetry and so was not surprised to find his lessons entertaining, insightful and inspiring. He revealed much about himself and his process of creating poetry, all the while sharpening my tools for reading poetry as well as writing it. One of his great lines from the class was “the beauty of a poem can be measured by the degree of silence it creates when it is finished.” He read a few poems of his own and introduced me to others that gave me pause at their completion. Collins’ lectures, mostly in 10 minutes clips or so, allowed me to take in small bits, think about them for a time and return when I was ready for more. Undoubtedly, I will be revisiting these before the year is over. I have just started Margaret Atwood’s class, and it proves to be promising as well.

I would spend my morning doing a bit of reading, listening to a few Master Classes, and then think a bit about my painting for a half-hour to an hour. At noon or so I would go for a jog, eat some lunch with my working wife, and paint for a good part of the afternoon. Painting, when you are in the right space, is a timeless activity. A minute feels no weightier than an hour. Sometimes, I find my heart racing as an idea falls in place for dealing with some shape, or colour, or balance. Sometimes I tremble at the fear that I am going to wreck something that feels right as I move the painting forward. Painting, like running, are really spiritual experiences for me. I feel God powerfully in them, and they do not need to be successful to be successful.

I spent my evenings watching a movie, or another Masterclass, or reading some theology. I would end my evening with some yoga and a glass of red wine. I found good bits of silence in the course of my week, which makes me think that some of it was poetic, à la Collins. Luther famously said that the Holy Spirit is the best poet of all and so I suspect that divine fingerprints can be found here and there in this week of canvas and verse.

Painting Me in Three

I decided, not so long ago, that it was time to paint a portrait again. I generally work on landscapes but a few years ago I painted my Oppa, from a photograph. It was a most trying and satisfying experience: trying because I must have spent more time working on his eyes than any optometrist ever did. But satisfying because I remembered him as I painted: the way he teased Omma, his slow but graceful ways, his lovely accent, his warm smile, and the fact that he is – at least in part – where I come from. It was a richly satisfying experience, emotionally. But it was hard work for this amateur, not that painting landscapes isn’t. Yet this was altogether different. I’m not surprised it has taken me some time to come back to a portrait. The delay has been extended by the problem of deciding whom next to paint.

Some time ago I came upon the idea of doing a self-portrait. Yet, I knew I wanted to do something a little unusual and so have demurred. A couple of weeks ago I came upon an idea while cleaning up some files. I found a folder with some school photographs inspiring me to paint myself as a young lad. I spent some time pondering myself at twelve different stages. I came to the conclusion that I peaked in grade three, the year when my teacher likely combed my hair, and my teeth were all in place, and I seemed to exude a joy that suggests that life was pretty fine. I found my subject.

I have not yet started painting me in grade three, although I have done some sketches to warm up to the task before me. Drawing the sketches has been rather vexing. I come out looking like a young adult. With some re-working I can get myself down to what seems to be about grade seven. It is hard to draw myself at eight years of age. Perhaps the years have made it hard for me to reflect the adventurousness and curiousity of my public-school self. I can’t quite get me, but I have spent quite a bit of time looking at my eyes. The eyes seem to hold the key, and I will likely need a bit more sketch work before I wander toward the canvas.

In the meantime, I have been making an acquaintance of my grade three self. It has been most interesting. Questions emerge: what were my eight-year-old worries, joys, dreams, hopes? Was I proud of those delightful freckles? Where has my hair all gone? When I see myself in the photograph, I think that I would like to spend some time with that young man! Of course, I can and do spend time with him. He wanders around inside me; some days spreading more trouble than delight, and some days the opposite. Some days I send him to his room, but he generally sneaks out, and for that I am glad. We are spending quite a bit of time together these days!

I am not especially confident that this will be a successful venture, but I am absolutely certain that it will be worth every minute: looking at myself at a different stage in life, wondering whether one day I will be 82 painting my 56-year-old self ,and wondering: “What’s up with that grin?”

Enough, Already!

I am in the middle of a painting right now. Not so long ago I was near the end of it, but I have fallen victim to the propensity to do what a teacher of mine some years ago described as over-painting. There is a kind of painting-over where you re-use a canvas. Alas, that may be the fate of this particular piece as a result of the other kind of over-painting – the propensity to put too much into a work. The instructor who spoke to me of this danger told the class that an artist doesn’t need to cover every detail when interpreting a scene. In fact, it is sometimes more effective to allow the human imagination to connect the dots, and finish the painting in the viewing. Perhaps this is most often the best. And it might be that this is a good lesson for life.

I remember as a child, doing a craft project at elementary school. It didn’t much interest me, and its being assigned near the end of the school year provided me with the opportunity to drag it out in the hopes the year’s end might bring to an end my need to finish it. Needless to say, that didn’t go so well, and both my teacher and my parents reminded me of the importance of completing what we start, a lesson that has served me well over the years. It is an important and laudable strategy in life, as long as we remind ourselves that some projects are best completed by not being finished. This latter bit might mean, I suppose, two different things. One the one hand, some projects need to be brought to completion by recognizing that they are not viable. Sometimes we need to say to ourselves, “I gave it a go, but now is the time to let it go.” I had a great conversation with a pastor the other day about just this. She and I talked about the gift of allowing ourselves to fail, recognizing that sometimes what we aimed for just isn’t going to happen with this or that particular project. If the gospel accords us any right, it most certainly accords us the right to fail, and to embrace failure as a gift that is an occasion for learning and growing in the discipline of accepting our acceptance – as Tillich was wont to describe faith. On the other hand, sometimes we complete a project by not crossing every “t” and not dotting every “i.” Sometimes, what a project most needs is a little breathing space; some white between the colours and a pause between the notes.

I find art that is spacious to be the most invigorating, and yet I find it the most difficult to achieve. Being able to know when to quit is an important skill for artists, but really for all of us. Ending well is really a life project. I am grateful for the many ways that life affords us small opportunities to learn to let go; to let this creation or that project make its way into the world, removed from my propensity to add just a little bit more, and in so doing to take away so very much.

Paint Me a Me

I just finished a painting.  It took me all of an hour.  I suppose one might call it abstract, or perhaps experimental.  But what it really was, was therapeutic; not in the sense that it was meant to express, let alone cure, some deep seated anxiety or fear or such thing.  No, this was therapeutic in that other ancient meaning of therapy, which is “to serve” (found in the Christian Bible in Acts 17:25 wherein we witness the Greek antecedent for “therapy” to reference serving the gods).  Therapy, then, can do a service and the end served in this instance was a little joy, which came about as I painted for a bit without thought of subject matter.  I was in the moment, happy to wash colors around the canvass without the need to represent an image or express a feeling.  It was really about seeing colors brush up against colors.

Sometimes I need to explore doing per se, and bracket the point of the doing.  Sometimes I ache to rediscover the joy of color, of shape, of sound, of word.  Perhaps you too experience that desire to create without purpose beyond creation.  There is a certain euphoria that arrives with that license to attend to the physicality of sight, sound, smell and touch.  We are, after all, sensual people who live into the world by way of bodies that only know the world at the edge where I end and it begins.  Of course, edges are permeable and so I know, in the adventure of being open to the world, that as I go out into the world the world makes its way into me, in a fashion.

So, what of this world?  It is loved by the divine yet it can shipwreck our faith.  It provides fodder for the sacraments yet can pollute piety.  The world is a dangerous place yet sacred writ reminds us that the pivot that is change rarely occurs in sequestered sanctuaries where all is at peace – although such places, too, have a place in the life of the faithful.  Deserts, oceans, mountains, highways; these are the sites of insight.  We need to be “out there” – in the world by interaction and in the soul by creativity – to be fulfilled.  Creativity is a mode of adventure.  The word adventure, for good purpose, has hidden within it the Latin word venire meaning “to come.”

We “come to” in creativity: we come to our senses as a source of freedom.  Creativity frees us to be curious, and to wager a better me, a better world by being in the moment, by being in the canvas, on the page.  These three seem to come together for great purpose:  therapy, creation and curiosity.   In their interaction we take leave of self-obsession to the end that we can finally be more authentically. And so I know that my painting might not be great, but when I look at it I see me, smiling.

Views from the Gallery

Last Friday I made my way to Toronto. A handful of times a year I venture in to see what is on at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I was especially looking forward to its current exhibit on Alex Colville. For those unfamiliar with Canadian artists, Colville has been called one of our most influential. It isn’t easy to describe his art. His is a style that might be called realistic; some call it hyperreal, but that doesn’t quite catch it. You often hear the words “eerie” or “menacing” attached to his art. His style is dramatic, exploring the everyday in an uncanny way. He regularly introduces some unresolved narrative twist in an image, as if we are given a frame from a film spool – isolated and so bearing the burden of telling the whole story all on its own. The viewer is left wondering what the next frame will be. Colville’s art invite us to reflect on the phenomenon of searching for the stories needed to make sense of our experiences. Humans, it seems, are people attuned to stories, and are often on the lookout for occasions to unleash the imagination. But back to the story at hand!

I generally take the train for these trips, and so immediately enter a different world. I am neither in control nor accessible and so find the journey from home to the big city and back to be a kind of voyage deeper into the self. By the time I am at the gallery, I am in a different space and open to what might otherwise escape me.

I did not know that Colville, for instance, was a rabid fan of animals. I recall that animals often fit into his work, but I was not aware of his thought behind the images that I knew so well. At the gallery there were some interesting clips from a National Film Board interview of him some years ago, in which he spoke of animals as those not tainted by the many vices that mark being human. Their appearance in his paintings, then, strikes me as an especially interesting comment on our responsibility to attend to innocence. His work draws out the way in which animals invite us to see the world differently, and so draws us deeper into those residual moments of openness to the earth that paradoxically result in both joy and sorrow.

Colville points us to both our interest in the storied character of our existence as well as our sometimes muted yet never obliterated fascination with a more instinctive path of life. In the end, he invites us into a different world; a world where intuition matters as much as measurement, and passion as much as plans. Colville certainly cracks open a vantage point from which to witness a different way of being in the world – for those with eyes to see. May his tribe increase.

Richter for Reel

This last week I watched the film “Gerhard Richter Painting,” (an apt and self-interpreting title). This isn’t a film for everyone, but I was spell-bound. Richter could well be Germany’s most famous cultural export. His paintings and photo-paintings are simply sublime. From time to time, I load one of his works of art onto my computer and just stare. Objectivity likely doesn’t inform what follows.

The film chronicles Richter working on a handful of paintings, alongside of his musings about the past, and film slices from his attendance at public events. Richter appears to eschew attention throughout the film, which makes one wonder why he agreed to the project. Nonetheless, the viewer is awarded interesting insights into the mind and work of this master. At one point in the film, he is working on a piece, and then begins to pace nervously about, looking at it from different angles. It is hard to describe the look on his face: pensive, impatient, ponderous, all of these and more. He stops, and says “I don’t know what to do next.” His face is blank, having become a canvas of its own as the viewer projects his or her own moments of anxiety and failure onto this visage. He walks over to his bench and loads some blue on his spreader, but pauses saying, “It’s not working.” There is an interchange between Richter and the interviewer, during which Richter mentions the movement towards the blue was “overblown.” The interviewer asks him if it was because he was “at a loss.” Richter replies “There’s always that. That’s not the problem. It won’t work. I don’t think I can do this.” If I was his mother, I would weep watching this anguish. But I’m not his mother, I’m his fan.

Fans expect both excellence and confidence from their heroes. Richter bursts that bubble. I can’t imagine how a man who has been producing seven figure paintings for decades could ever be at loss. I imagine him being full of the confidence reflected in his paintings. But that is my vision, not his reality. Richter produces astounding works of art, but by his confession, they come from the place of being “at a loss.”

Well, his loss is my, is art’s, is the world’s gain. He injects arresting beauty into creation. It comes from a place that I too am familiar with, yet a place I try hard to hide. I scurry to bury loss deep; Richter spreads it across his canvas. I imagine certainty and clarity to be the mark of the master, but this master gropes in the dark, even while chronicling his artistic wager with creativity for all to see. In so doing, he reminds us that often the path forward is behind us; the illumined way begins in the dark; life makes its appearance in death; and faith treads the way of doubt.

Cloudy Visions

I’ve been painting clouds, and they have gotten the better of me.

I have at least three problems. The first is that if I like what I paint when it is seen up close, I don’t like it when I stand at a distance. The second problem is that if I like what I paint when seen from a distance, I don’t like what I see up close. The third problem is that I’m not really that fond of my results either up close or at a distance. Plus, I am ever wiping my brow in exasperation or ponderously stroking my chin and so get paint on my face!

But I’m having fun all the same. In fact, yesterday evening I painted for close to three hours and it was as five minutes. It seems to me that in some ways painting is a parable of a life of faith.

On the one hand, we like to “see” God up close and personal: a face to face God who will speak to us of unconditional love, and remind us that this divine presence is ever beside us. This is a God near and dear to us. But sometimes we want a God who is powerful and transcendent: a God who can set the world right. But then I remember that setting the world right means setting me right too, and I’m not necessarily so thrilled with that vision.

It seems that it is as hard to speak “God” as it is to paint clouds. Yet I persist at both, and in speaking God I join a host of others across denominations, and lands, and tongues, and creeds. Why? Because God is a “mystery” in the best sense of the word and mysteries draw us in by ever evoking in us a posture of curiosity. God is not a riddle to be solved but an adventure to be lived. The more we know God, the more we know we don’t know God and that is a humbling, yet strangely fulfilling knowing. In fact, it gives us the freedom to admit our ignorance; it frees us to try and to fail; it encourages us to persist in faith rather than certainty. A life of faith means that ignorance is strangely now a virtue rather than a vice.

I suppose, in some ways, I experience the same when I venture in paints all the while allowing myself to fail. When I let go of the need to be perfect, I enjoy the journey as much as, if not more than, the destination, and along the way I have the joy of messy fun. In some ways, the life of creativity and the life of the Creator meet in mystery, curiosity, and sheer joy. May your New Year be full of such graces!