I had an invitation from an art docent group to speak about my work a few weeks ago. Since I’m a narrative artist, the subject was art as a form of storytelling. Their preferred method was a PowerPoint presentation — a format I hadn’t used in decades — with real life examples displayed so they could encounter them up close and personal.
How to best represent my art? Going back 35 years, long before it became a conscious outcome, each of my pieces had a story behind them. They came from my experiences. Initially, they centered on villages I’d wandered through and trails I’d followed through forests, particularly in Europe.
Later, it was more about what came from sacred sites, ceremonies and people who populated Indigenous lands where I returned over and over, conveying in some way what had touched and changed me, deepened my understanding of what matters in this life.
I’m quite clear about my personal evolution over the years — changes I chose that placed me on another track entirely — but I hadn’t realized how it affected my artwork as well. How could I have missed that? I’m like anyone else. I’d gotten so immersed in the day-to-day I hadn’t realized what was evident. Creating that presentation became a gift. It caused me to stand back and pinpoint how I got from there to here. In that moment, I became the observer, not the artist. Each of those pieces were part of a history that generated a visual story. I used the same strategy on myself — in the context of art — that I facilitate with others who want to consciously create a transition in their life.
In being our own witness, rather than being in it, things become apparent. It helps us make decisions. It serves as momentum to veer off a beaten path, to move through a threshold with intent. It naturally gathers energy that provides courage and reinforcement.
So that was my first decision. If these folks really wanted me to relay how art could tell a story, they were going to get a retrospective peppered liberally with how I’d progressed as an artist, what influenced me, and finally what was behind each image in the PowerPoint.
That decision took me to another level. I became aware that, over the last decade, creating art had become integral to my spiritual practice. For me, that means there’s an excavation of sorts that occurs in the process of creation. My intent is to express something deeper than a surface level image and initiate an evocative response from the viewer. To do so, I require myself to go deeper.
During my talk prep, I came across a quote from the writer James Baldwin.
The purpose of art is to lay bare the question hidden by the answers.
I’d written and taught of this before, although I hadn’t considered art when I did.
…Like an unconscious mantra held in the mind, we ask a question in any given moment. In asking the question, the answer naturally comes to us. Therefore, in holding the thought, we ask the answer. This is the paradox that guides our lives.
We cannot ask a question for which there is no answer. Our minds can’t conceive of such…Through some fluke of determination when our minds can conceive of a wider reality, or at least have some inkling of acceptance, that conception will generate answers beyond the questions. This opening will then move us into new experiences through the wider framework of the mind—and we wonder how we got there.
—Excerpted fromStanding Stark: The Willingness to Engage
I noticed there was increased depth in my art when I made a simple adjustment about five years ago. I sit in the same place every morning when I do my early morning meditation practice. I learned long ago that energy builds up in a physical space when I return to it over and over with such intent. It becomes a natural segue, an anchor or portal through which I easily enter a meditative state. Energy lingers there—like a booster rocket—the same as when I close my eyes in a certain way, signaling readiness for a shift from ordinary reality, a surrender to non-ordinary reality.
The simple adjustment I made was this. I began to bring whatever piece of art I had in process and placed it within direct viewing distance from my meditation spot. Then when I opened my eyes, still in a deeper state of being, a communication started to occur. A communion of sorts. No, I didn’t experience discourse with my ordinary ears or eyes. But something happened. I formed a much greater connection and knowing. The artwork came to life and had its own expression. The piece itself became my guide in how to express its deeper nature.
Of course, you can do the same for any context you wish to explore…whether you place a physical object as I did…or project some representation—via visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory manner—of what you wish to consider.
Next month, I’ll share what else I learned in this process. Stay tuned for Retrospective, Part II.