The WIP Project: WHAT IS PAINTING? previously published in Neoteric Art, February 20, 2015
When I was a kid, I was extremely interested in space travel, the solar system, the universe. I remember getting a star chart for Christmas so that I could identify constellations in the night sky. Constructed of thick paper, the chart would rotate to align with the heavens at a particular time on a specific evening. My goal was to be the first person to travel to Mars. My favorite TV program became Project UFO. I didn’t have a telescope, but my father had a pair of binoculars that I used to watch the night sky. I was ready for the moment a UFO might glide across the horizon.
While I still haven’t reached my goal of traveling to Mars, nor have I experienced an encounter with an alien being (at least not that I’m aware of), my study of the universe has offered me perspective and informed my pursuit of painting. I see it like this: most of what we observe in the night sky is believed to be empty space or inanimate matter or energy. The fact that I am a breathing, conscious creature amidst what appears as an overwhelmingly non-conscious universe strikes me as unfathomable. What are the odds that I’m alive, complete with perceptions, with thoughts and feelings of my own amidst this vast milieu? Surely, I say to myself, this is the manifestation of a miracle.
Painting becomes a way of celebrating this awareness of myself and the surrounding world. Creating art becomes a means of liberating an inner spirit, the energy that moves as part of me, perhaps all of us. Whether I use human forms or plant forms in my work, I see either as representative of a carrier of life, a transmitter of a spirit. This idea shares similarities with animism, a belief commonly held by certain African tribal cultures as well as Japanese Shinto. In animism, both animate and even some inanimate objects (such as works of art), are believed to possess a unique energy. The Makonde people of East Africa refer to this energy as “shetani”. Believers in Shinto call it “kami”. I think of it as a life force.
As I create, I begin without much of a plan, as I allow myself to express nearly anything that courses through me at the moment. The piece that accompanies this essay draws its title from Shunryu Suzuki’s book on meditation practice entitled Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. The author discusses what he calls “beginner’s mind,” a state of openness and receptivity to possibility. The beginner sees many possible solutions to a problem; the expert sees only few. At some point I must let go of assumptions, to forget everything I know about making a successful piece of art. Perhaps this attitude owes something to the astronomer’s openness, like Copernicus letting go of the notion that the sun must revolve around the earth. When we stop clinging to knowledge, then real discovery becomes possible, for to resolve a painting means to arrive at an epiphany. It cannot be planned.
As painters we are open to the vision. For me the vision becomes palpable through a marriage of my own energies and the material itself (whether it be paint or found materials). This union of self and media can feel as limitless as the universe itself, as each gesture, each brush stroke marks an acclamation, a realization of the wonder behind this existence.