Once I made a true commitment to my artwork, to reach into deeper recesses of myself, to somehow translate what I found there onto a surface, I noticed something interesting.
Whenever I would see an artist post their unfinished painting or sculpture on social media and label it WIP, shorthand for work in progress, it grated on me. It serves as a constant reminder of western societal norms: the pressure to worship at the altar of “progress”. To produce…quickly and consistently in a prescribed way…to set goals rather than hold intent. Prior to social media, perhaps I wasn’t consciously aware of what I rebelled against, but now it’s all too visible in so many ways.
It also brings to consciousness, a choice to be made at any turn. To paraphrase my first spiritual teacher Américo Yábar, are you acting for an audience…or are you an actor for the Infinite?
I had my first glimmer of understanding in my early 20s. First of all, I was working in a white male-dominated field in a bureaucratic environment. My boss charged me with a small project. I remember nothing about the content but do remember the process. It had creative elements and potential strategies toward the given outcome. I was intrigued and diligently went to work on it. But when he didn’t immediately get reports of my progress, he became more and more anxious, probably thinking he’d made a mistake choosing this very young woman for the task. He then attempted to micromanage me, which never works with me. I pretty much blew him off except to say I’m working on it. When I did give him my detailed recommendations, strategies in place, well before the deadline, he didn’t hide his shock.
He was a good boss and treated me well, but clearly, he knew nothing of the creative process. It requires space and a willingness to step outside time, to incubate in the underworld, before the final outcome surfaces. Now this was a minor incident in the scope of my life. But somehow, it’s remained vivid in my memory as a major teaching where creativity takes center stage.
Where the WIP term is concerned, I felt quite validated toward what I’d already long determined after watching a 2021 interview of Eric Maisel , a psychotherapist, creativity coach and author of more than 50 books, for an audience of artist members of the Cold Wax Academy. In essence he said, “The idea of progress is a trap. The Transcendentalists named ‘progress’ as the central metaphor for America. The icon was an upward spiral.”
What a set-up. As if unknown territory, frustration and being lost isn’t part of the process, too. That, by the way, is how we learn and then continue to expand beyond what we know…by stepping off the beaten path. I used to call it my love-hate relationship with painting—until I didn’t. Maisel went on to say, “Just do the next right thing.” Primarily that means stepping outside the progress paradigm and into yourself. Make yourself available to what comes through.
That began to happen for me when I fully realized that creating art had become a spiritual practice, an extension beyond my morning meditations. By that time, I’d had a daily meditation practice for 30 years. And just like that practice, it took some time for deeper channels to open in this different context. But one day it just happened. Something else entered, which is impossible to explain logically. There was an exchange, an ongoing silent conversation, and I was suddenly taking direction from the painting…or something beyond it…as the most natural of occurrences.
I titled the painting My Magdalen Heart. Some months later I happened to be in the gallery where I showed my work at the time when an older couple entered and started making their way along the back wall. Soon the woman came to me with tears in her eyes, asking if I was the artist. She told me the painting had spoken to her. I didn’t doubt her. She went on to say how devoted she’d been to Mary Magdalen since childhood, having so many stories. It was emotional for us both. My Magdalen Heart now lives in New Mexico where, as the owner wrote to me, her presence commands the room.
Several months ago, I learned of Peter Kingsley’s body of work. It would be remiss of me not to mention him here. I have been slowly making my way through his books, there being so much that rings true for me. Sprinkled throughout his writings he exposes “the western myth of progress” trying to shake us awake, directing us back toward our origins. Those we forgot long ago as a culture, but remembered and still lived by traditional Indigenous peoples. In Catafalque, on Carl Jung and his Red Book, he uses Jung’s own words to describe the progress myth: “cult” and “illusion” relating to the obsession and fragility, the state of affairs we’re collectively enduring.
I’ve learned over time to create space around my artwork, to ignore outside influences attempting to break through what I consider sacred space. These days working a piece to completion may take months. I’ve learned to be patient and trust what comes as it does. I’ve lost the angst around painting that used to wait in the wings, its cue to appear when I didn’t know what to do. Instead, I know it’s gone underground for a while to be sorted out and willingly let go.
I usually have a sense of what narrative I want to convey before I start painting. Early this year I began a series called One Mother as an invitation to re-member ourselves and our collective foundation. When I started the second work, it quickly diverged from the Arizona forest image I used as a prompt and took on a life of its own. I went with it. After some weeks I realized the landscape seemed awfully familiar but quite different from what I started with, nowhere around here. I couldn’t put my finger on it, and whatever was directing my palette knife wasn’t giving any hints. I have a rocker I keep across the room from my easel. I hang out there a lot, gazing at my work to get distance and another perspective. I knew something significant was missing from this piece but no clue as to what. Then one day two things happened in quick succession. Suddenly, I recognized the landscape as that below the cliff at Serpent Mound in southern Ohio. An instant later, superimposed on the painting, I saw a snake slithering along a large rock at the creek’s edge, the cosmic egg in its mouth.
This outcome was not in my human mind, and it was only by being willing to stay with the process, to surrender and have the silent, sometimes intermittent, conversation was the unfolding delivered. And for that I have no words. But I do know it’s not progress.
Revelations in Process was first published in Illumination on Medium in November 2022.