If we think of God as a power, then we can say that creation is Its manifestation. We can also infer that creativity is an essential attribute of that Power. As an expression of that creativity, we exist by our connection to it in the way drops of water are ultimately one with the ocean. We don’t know how or why we became separated from the Power just like drops of water buried in mountain snowpacks have forgotten their journey from the sea. But inevitably, they will make their way back to their original home on an adventure of remembering. In the meantime, each drop contains the creative power of the whole and its expression finds its way to the plants and trees and all life it encounters along the way. Drops don’t withhold their creative force for themselves because water doesn’t require water in the same way atmosphere doesn’t need air or fire depend on the flame. Yet human beings, who are themselves the pinnacle of creativity, believe they need creativity. We seek approval and acknowledgement for our creative output as though drops of water are dry and barren if other drops don’t decree their wetness.
The question we should ask ourselves is where the source of our creativity originates. Is it something we must find on the outside or does the wellspring exist within ourselves? Are we only creative when others say we are creative or offer praise and recognition? Or does creativity flow from us and through us as effortlessly as our breathing?
About the process of creating art, Jack Tworkov asked if there is an inner propulsion that determines the work or if are we just making art for the purpose of waving to the art world for attention?[i] As a painter, I have been waving to the art world for forty years. I recently discovered that there are twenty-million other artists on social media: some waving, some not.
I was fortunate to have been one of Jack Tworkov’s students in 1979. I often follow his approach by starting a new canvas with a drawing of a geometric grid. I then methodically fill in the grid with conscious color choices and pay close attention to what Tworkov describes as a measured and random activity whereby the intersecting lines of this grid create squares and triangles from which we use our own (creative) sensibility to makes decisions about how to color them in or leave them blank. The goal of this exercise is to listen to the inner impulse that directs these ‘random’ choices. At some point in the process the impulse will inform the artist that the grid is complete. The canvas becomes like a Zen sand-painting where the process is a deep listening to our inner creative Power. For Tworkov, this process often led to the finished work. For me, it is more like a sand-painting. I don’t intend for the grid-painting to be seen as a finished piece. Instead, I paint over it like wiping away a sand-mandala.
I use the grid exercise to create a rich and smooth underpainting that undulates with color and brushstroke. And, if I am fortunate, and a good listener, I may receive inspiration about what the painting ultimately wants to be or say. For this, I pay attention to what bubbles up from my subconscious as I am making color choices and applying paint. I also pay attention to any dreams I have during the week or two I am working on the grid. Perhaps something will strike me from the news about the current world situation: social isolation, the climate crisis, hungry children, war, refugees, etc., etc. I put some of these inspired images together in my mind and wait, sometimes for days, until one solidifies and makes its impulses known and clear. Then I work to lay out the composition in the same measured manner I laid out the original geometric grid. Afterwards, with perspective and proportion worked out, I am free to paint freely with inspired brushstrokes and color placement like the surrealist’s notion of psychic automatism. While some surrealists engaged in pure psychic automatism by allowing for an imaginative doodling led by their subconscious impulses, I tend to use my already painted platform as the jumping off place to that free expression.
After years of insisting on painting in total silence, I discovered that playing Jethro Tull at full throttle forces my body to move and dance. My paintbrush follows along while the music drowns out all my thoughts about my competence and other insecurities. The physical movement is like a handing-off of full creative freedom and direction to the Power that is at my center and the activator of my existence.
When Robert Motherwell was asked about the purpose of his art, he described it “as an aesthetic which is not a question of beauty or artfulness but of an attitude towards reality. . . The process of painting is the search. . . The subject is, in a way, unnamable, nevertheless, is very humanly poetic.”[ii]
The enterprise of searching is one that fills me with waves of joy in the studio like the elation one feels when seeing your new-born child for the first time, or the flutter in your heart when you first ride a bicycle on your own. The feeling is ecstatic and intoxicating. It is what brings me back to the studio day after day. I am convinced that it happens only when I surrender my sense of self completely over to the Source of creativity. This is the result of the painting I am looking for. The actual painting itself only has meaning to me if I can catch a glimpse of what it felt like to paint it. In that light, it is impossible to paint a bad painting.
[i] See Tworkov Interview 2/24/1979.