Art Speaks for the Soul
Six months ago I interviewed Maarten Schaddelee, a well-known Victoria sculptor. Maarten’s work is beautiful and technically superb with flowing lines that speak to me of spirit. I did not feel the interview was successful. I had gone in with an agenda that wasn’t satisfied. Yet Maarten was candid and welcoming. Over the past months I have thought about this interview and my expectations and I have some new insights.
It is the end of Fall term, the groups are established and the studio is a safe place to explore art making, so I try to nudge the students a little further. I ask them to think about why they create art. What they are trying to say with their art. I ask them to notice the subjects they choose and then reflect on why they choose them. What is driving their need to create? Because once an artist can identify why they create, the act of creating art can lead to deeper understanding of their selves.
In my current group of students I have a few who are resistant to the idea that artmaking can be about more than technique and representation. One night I went to sleep wondering how to convey the concept to them and woke up thinking about my own Father. Near the end of his painting career he created a number of large landscapes. One of which I have in my studio. It is a painting of Douglas Channel, just outside of Kitimat in northern BC. The sun is streaking through the clouds and reflecting on the water. It is like the dawn of time. My father was a professed atheist. He denied that there would be anything after this life. We live and we die. From the void and into the void. I don’t know when this position came to be his, but it was what I knew of him until a few days before he died and revised this position.
It came to me that sometimes art is not the vehicle of the conscious artist at all. Rather it can be a vehicle for the artists’ soul. If this is true it explains many things. It explains why artists who are unkind and immensely selfish, can create work that speaks to others in a profoundly deep way. It explains why artists who deny that they are spiritual can create art that speaks loudly of spirit. This thought took me back to my interview with Maarten. During our interview he repeated several times that his wife, Nadina, is very spiritual while speaking of his own part as that of ‘allowing the work to happen’. Yet he recounted that in a conversation with Nadina he had come up with the phrase ‘my hands make the voice of my heart visible’ and was immediately inspired to carve the words into stone. Maarten also stated that he and Nadina are a team, for instance the name of their website is Maarnada Studios. Maarten creates the objects and Nadina articulates the stories that Maarten doesn’t always see in the work. Reminiscent of Myles Lowry’s comment that; ‘Sometimes people get the work at a deeper level than I do. Even though I painted it.’
One monumental work that Maarten is particularly proud of is a series of doorways representing 16 religious and spiritual practices. Sixteen large panels of carved MD fibreboard and together they are called “Doorways to Spiritual Peace”. Nadina offered this description, ‘The Doorways are installed with their faces outward and they are hinged together like real doors. They are holding each other up in the circle realizing that when we come together with our own unique stories and recognize our heart’s truth that is when our Earth will have Peace. It is not how we are different but how we share the love of our planet.’ Maarten also explained that these were not doorways for the physical. They are for the spirit only. The statement being that all religions lead to the same place, to the place of our beginnings, to the place of our becoming.
The love and labour he put into these doors is palpable. They are very different from his other sculptures. At first I saw them as stiff and contrived, but upon reflection, I think instead they are more innocent, an expression earnest concern for the spiritual paths on this planet. They are naïve in style where his other work is modern and masterly. The message is the same. That spirit is in us and around us.
This series of articles: Art as Spiritual Practice, is written by Joanne Thomson, a visual artist living in Victoria BC. If you are an artist who can relate to these columns and are interested in being interviewed about your practice, please contact Joanne.
This article was first published Saturday December 8th 2013 in the Times Colonist print edition and then on the SS blog. In the print edition it was mis named as Rawing a Sacred Space which was odd, but got readers. I have had the opportunity to attend another workshop this Spring so thought this would be timely. I still find getting to quiet with a pencil or brush as my favourite practice, usually by myself. The retreat workshops I am offering this year will have tips for that practice. Enjoy these wonderful lengtheni
Drawing a Sacred Space
I tried sitting still once. It was during a 12-day Buddhist meditation retreat in which my body screamed for movement while my mind futilely attempted stillness. Only during the few meditations where movement was allowed did I experience a welcome and quiet joy. I expect that I am not alone in this. There are abundant practices that join body and mind to create space for the spirit; Yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi and Eight Threads movement meditation are a few. I would like to add Drawing to that list. With paper and a pencil I am able sit for hours contemplating what is in front of me. The movements, though smaller, are focused and precise. The connection between the body and the mind is one of flow and reciprocity. The practice makes space for connection and my most satisfying paintings grow out of drawings made during these experiences. The rewards of connection and contentment have motivated me to deliberately make space in my life for drawing in nature.
I have found that novice artists and non-artists can experience the stillness of this connection quite easily. I deliberately lead beginning students into the experience of stillness by instructing them in blind contour drawing using complex subjects that require their full attention. When the connection happens it is audible in the silence that fills the room. The joy happens later, when they laugh at their drawings.
A number of years ago, before I thought of drawing as a potentially spiritual practice, I taught a group of Land Conservancy volunteers. These were active people used to hiking and removing invasive plant species. The idea was that drawing nature would enhance the participants’ ability to observe nature and therefore increase their enjoyment of being outdoors. One man assertively questioned the usefulness of drawing. His quest was to see all of the largest trees in the northwest. He would hike in, snap a photograph and hike back out. After the workshop he told me of a visit to a tree near Port Renfrew. He had hiked in and snapped a photograph. Then he sat down and drew the tree. His astonished email stated, ‘It was like the spirit of the tree went down through the trunk, into its roots, up through me and out through my hand! Awesome!’ He had made the space to experienced connection.
Last weekend I attended my first full day Sacred Circle Dance workshop. Another participant enthusiastically expressed that the dance workshop was a great opportunity for ‘making space’. I found myself contemplating this as I danced. I was easily able to move into a place of non-verbal connection as the floor became my paper and my feet became my pencil responding to the rhythm of movement and music. There were twenty other dancers in the room all dancing in the space that was made sacred by our dancing. After the event I asked for clarification about the meaning of ‘making space’. What I understand from his reply is that it is a good practice to make time to step out of our ordinary lives so that we can better observe our own habits and learn to move beyond them. What he didn’t say was to make space for the sacred within our lives. Perhaps that can be an understood.
Sacred Circle Dancing is dancing that specifically makes space for the sacred and names it as such. Drawing can make space for the sacred as well. Perhaps the time has come to name it.
first published Saturday December 8th 2013 in the Times Colonist print edition and then on the SS blog.
Making Meaning: a cure for the pain of rejection
by Joanne D Thomson
A few years ago a good friend gave me a book called “The Van Gogh Blues: the creative persons path through depression”. It was a joke given my reputation for being perpetually positive, but also an astute observation from a real friend. Life as an artist is difficult.
It was as a teacher of art that I first took this gift from the shelf and examined it. As I moved beyond the title I found information that could help my students see their way past perceived ‘failures’. The author of the book Eric Maisel is psychotherapist who works with creative people. I am not a therapist and resist taking on that role. However, Maisel wrote about the need for artists to find meaning in their work and I have found this very useful. Meaning can be an inoculation against a sense of failure and offers some padding when the opinions of others can be hurtful.
The creative process is quite wonderful; it is a wheel that can fuel itself and become a source of perpetual inspiration. However, it can also get flat tires, run off the road or get stuck in the mud. The gap between what we hope to accomplish and what our efforts actually create can be lesson in humility. However, the final step in the creative process is the most hazardous. It involves showing the work to others. This is where a meaning crisis is most likely to occur. When we show our work to another and they do not understand what we are trying to do (which is entirely likely since we often don’t know ourselves) a casual, that’s nice may cut us to the quick when we were expecting, OMG! You have captured your inner most feelings and have communicated them to me beautifully! The phrase that so often cut me was that’s interesting followed by an embarrassed silence and a change of subject.
Perhaps this is why I have become a process painter. The act of painting in itself is why I create. The end product is a result of my process. Time spent in reflection, time spent in my quiet studio while I challenge myself to do the best that I can do is the reward of creating. Though it is wonderful and also very rewarding when someone ‘gets’ my work and exclaims that you have captured ____ it is not necessary to my sense of self-worth and accomplishment. The meaning has been made in the making of the work and in my learning about life in the process.
Recently I have had two rather loud rejections. This spring I spent many hours preparing two proposals for Artist in Residence positions and they were both rejected. Yet, I found that neither rejection depressed me. This surprised me. It was not because I don’t need the money or because I didn’t sincerely want the opportunities. But rather because, as Maisel advises, I have learned how to effectively deal with meaning crisis and more importantly, I have decided what is a meaning crisis and what is not.
“You are free to choose your meanings since meaning is entirely up for grabs. But you are also obliged to choose your meanings, as meaning means nothing until you tell the universe where you stand.” Eris Maisel
We are entering the season of juried exhibitions on Vancouver Island. This can be a very dangerous time for new artists who make the mistake of attaching meaning to the opinions of jurors and seek to have their work validated by being included in a juried exhibition. If you are considering entering a juried exhibition I ask you to consider this. Jurors are human and juried exhibitions usually have three jurors (all of them human and therefore influenced by their own lives, ways of looking at the world and what they had for breakfast). These jurors may have wildly different opinions about the work they view. This is why there is a category called juror’s choice. It saves a work each juror was determined to have included in the exhibition but that the others may not have voted for. Only the artist’s opinion that the work was worthy of being seen is a certainty.
As solace to those who have been rejected and may be rejected this season. Know that I am frequently rejected from juried shows as well. I used to spend time trying to figure out why. Now I don’t. I understand that it is a type of gambling compulsion that causes me to enter the shows (with the reward of acceptance being my work can reach a new audience). However, I have long since given up waiting for someone else to approve of my art. Not because I think my work is the best, rather because I evaluate my work on a scale of making meaning. Did I manage to create something related to what I set out to do? Did I learn during the process of making the work? Do I think the work is capable to communicating some of my experience? And most important, can my work help interested viewers to make meaning that they perhaps didn’t think to make before? If I can say yes to some of these then I have been successful.
(images in this article are from Thomson’s Bottled Series: Nothings going to stop me now, Bottled Women #2 and The Juror’s Assistant – watercolour and ink on paper).
Joanne D Thomson is a professional artist living in Victoria BC. www.joannethomson.com
If you know an artist, or are an artist, interested in being interviewed for this series please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
(First published in the Times Colonist Newspaper- print edition- January 11, 2014 then on the Spiritually Speaking Blog.)
“There are no rules.” Was not something I had expected to hear from octogenarian artist and writer, Annora Brown. We were having tea. I was a young mother struggling to find time for my art and she was a proud ‘Miss’. When the first pot of tea was finished and she left to get more water, I rose to look at a painting she had received awards for. It was a beautiful little watercolour of a jack pine with hoar frost. I exclaimed, “You’ve used white!” and was immediately embarrassed. She calmly replied with a smile, ‘Yes, there are no rules’. The conversation that followed has been pivotal to my career as an artist. Miss Brown advised me throw away as many rules as I could and keep only those rules useful to me in my search for knowing and expressing. It is valuable advice and can be applied in many areas of life, not just art making.
I have adopted the habit of evaluating whether or not something hinders my artistic practice. Yet in relationships with people I find myself mired in rules I acquired as a child and rarely evaluate as an adult. Christian values provide the points on my moral compass, however, most have slipped into the realm of beliefs and I follow them unthinkingly. In art, making the rules I follow are more apparent. One rule is to use a good brush. This allows me to do my best work. When a brush looses its point, I move it from the ‘good jar’ to the ‘can possibly be salvaged jar’, and finally to the ‘stop kidding yourself’ container. Given that the brush cannot insult me, spread rumours about me, or attack me as a person, it is a surprisingly slow process. I suppose it should not surprise me that letting go of a person requires considerably more effort.
Last year I decided to review my rules about loyalty and “let go of someone who continually caused me pain”. What intrigues me now is that it took me so long to do this, to recognize that friends are not always what they appear to be. I was surprised that someone would expend the effort to masquerading as a friend in order to undermine me. George Bernard Shaw stated; ‘The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.’ If we are to treat others the way we want to be treated ourselves then I suppose it is fine to refuse to be treated by others in ways we would not treat them. My belief in loyalty was used as a weapon against me and I had misplaced that loyalty. This realization was humbling and a reminder that, as a human, I too can be blind to what I don’t want to know. The News channels give us plenty of examples of the damage that occurs when people are blindly loyal or follow rules that need changing. Societal norms and ‘rules’ are necessary as we live together on this earth, however our free will demands that we be vigilant in our assessment of their usefulness.
I have still not relegated the person to the ‘stop kidding yourself’ container because I am no longer kidding myself. They are in the ‘can possibly be salvaged jar’ and may stay there forever as our lives often intersect. However, I have removed my loyalty and they can no longer hurt me. There is great peace and power in that and it allows me to do my best work.
Joanne Thomson is a watercolorist who works on paper and canvas. She is best known for her images of the BC forest and coast. These strong images are created with a gentle spiritual approach to art making. Thomson writes about the connections between Art and Spirituality as a regular contributor to the Times Colonist’s Spiritually Speaking Blog. Joanne has earned a Masters of Adult Education and as an instructor she brings enthusiasm and wisdom to her workshops encouraging students to explore the creative process through research and experimentation. www.joannethomson.com.