Sunday, March 14, 2010

Being an Artist in Today's World

Peter Clothier recently wrote a little book called Persist, which consists of a collection of his reflections on being an artist "in a world gone mad with commerce". His reflections are sprinkled with his experience with meditation and how it has influenced his approach to art and writing.

What I like most here is that Peter sees his meditation practice not as way to heal, nor as a way to live life better or more efficiently, but as a way to appreciate life more deeply.

One example: One Hour/One Painting.

First, choose your picture. It should be preferably an original work of art, but it need not be a masterpiece. This is simply about learning to be available to what's there, not about the finer points of aesthetic discrimination. That can come later, if you wish. This is about allowing the eyes to function, in so far as possible, without interference from the thinking process. You can do this in a gallery, too; all you need it to request the favor of a chair or bring your own folding stool.

Begin, as always, with the breath. Close your eyes, place the feet firmly on the ground with the hands laid gently in your lap. Don't be in a rush to open your eyes: if you take a few minutes to get bodily present, adjust to the breath and empty out the mind of its prejudice and expectations, you'll be astounded by the effect when you open them up to see the painting. It can be as breathtaking as I imagine it would be to step out onto the surface of a newly discovered planet.

From now on, the process will be to simply walk around the surface of the painting. Find a focal point, if that is helpful, and work out from there. Or work from the edges, one at a time, toward the center, simply allowing the eyes to take in what's there. No questions. No commentary. From time to time, allow the eyes to close gently and to rest and refresh for as long as feels comfortable — perhaps until they get hungry again. then feed them. Better if they are greedy!

Keep reminding yourself, when the mind begins to wander, to return the attention to the breath. It's the mind that will keep wanting to ask the questions, or answer them: What in God's name am I doing here, wasting an hour when I could be really working? How is this artist using color, or form, or pattern — and what is he trying to say? And so on. Ignore it. Get back to the breath. Allow the eyes to do the work. Notice how their small muscles change direction and focus.

It's simple but not easy to do if you are not accustomed to sitting for an hour in silence. 

Simple, but not easy.

As you read these pages, it's easy to feel that Peter is in the room talking with you — with you, not to you — in a warm gentle cadence in which the conversation unfolds not as a set of polemics, but his experience and thoughts about art, poetry, and writing, about meeting the creative challenge as captured in Duane Michals' line "While I am not afraid...", working from the hurt or difficult places as in Rumi's "Keep your eye on the bandaged place", or about not being a critic but one who translates, taking a painting or a poem, and expressing it in another medium. His skill with this last is something with which I have personal experience: his review of An Arrow to the Heart shows that he understood exactly what I hoped the book would do for people.

By the end, whether you are a writer, a painter, or one who enjoys art, you feel you have been invited into a different way of appreciating and approaching art, and, possibly, life.