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.


Ellen Fishman said...

Yes, that cloak of intimacy that one can experience
between reader and writer or as he suggests between artist and viewer, quite cozy it can be.
I've never spent the time approaching a painting as he suggests but I have spent many an hour enveloped by the words of an author.
But perhaps that is not your meaning ?
Not quite sure.

On most Sundays depending on the weather I often see a woman walking on the other side of the street to the church in my neighborhood. My neighborhood is similar to the one in Point Richmond. She walks very slowly, wears a different hat most days and is well attired. Her back is bent in a twisted way, as her body spills onto her walker. Slowly pushing the walker on the uneven sidewalk, she plods on. We never speak . There is a connection on my part ,an intimacy, of a different sort than that of writer/reader artist/viewer.
I open to the moment and go into the body.
I can feel how easy it is for me to hold up my head straight.

Anonymous said...

I don't really use Twitter an awful lot... not a very big fan of internet forums in general... much prefer meeting people in the 'real' world........

I had stopped ‘following’ people and rather hoped they would stop ‘following’ me to be honest. But then my hotmail inbox announced that I was in fact being followed a Mr Peter Clothier.
"Oh, what now!?” I thought, I really must disable that account, it's pointless!"
But, always one to press buttons, pull levers and click on links that I have no idea about, my curiosity got the better of me.

Just to point out that I am dyslexic and have a ridiculously short attention span, I find the internet extremely frustrating as the screen antagonizes my condition and makes it very hard for me to concentrate.

And yet... I began to read the above sample from Peter’s book and at once felt compelled to listen! That's right, I wasn't reading... there was no effort involved and so I couldn't have been reading. No, I was listening.

I was listening because Peter was talking to ME!

I was a new born. I was being shown how to see the REAL world. I was not being given a list of names and titles with which to go out and label this world; on the contrary.

I was excited by the possibility that my breath, and its passage through my body, could act as a kind of mystical key that could unlock the doors of my outer perception and allow me drink and taste and feel the world of art, and indeed everything, with my eyes alone.

I will never be a fan of the internet but I am already a fan of Peter's book and I can't wait to buy it!!

Note: I loved Ellen's poem (above) ... its unusual format and the way it made me feel.


Paul said...

Ken, as the publisher of Persist, I want to thank your for your kind words about the book and, of course, Peter. As you note, he is one who talks with you rather than to you - not only with the written word, but with the spoken word as well.

With gratigude,

Paul Gerhards, Parami Press

Gerhard said...

Its good to see another post Ken. Very interesting. I had the fortune of having Ivan Eyre as my teacher and my thesis advisor in my final year of Fine Arts. One of the many insights I recieved from him was the simple statement " we see in a painting what we know about ourselves" and of course the opposite is also true, "the images we paint reflect our self knowlege - we paint/see what we know of ourselves". A simple walk by or a moments reflection on an image is not enough to gain much insight into the work itself or have any sense of how the imagery resonnates within ourselves. Some works require long and repeated visits, sometimes looking at it with a sideways glance or walking into the image in an unexpected way allows us to remove our preconceptions and see in a new way. It all comes down to really seeing and listening to how we resonate. Simple but not easy, it takes time, patience and a willingness to engage. Thanks for the post.

Nathan @ the Art Monastery said...

So loved this post and this practice! (I just tossed it up on our facebook page:

Can't wait to read "Persist".

Looking forward to more insights on the intersection of art and contemplation.