Pigment and ink stain my fingers most days. Interesting things are happening in the studio because after a long dry spell, I am painting again. A small part of me fears that creativity will abandon me, leaving behind a bereft husk of the artist I used to be. But it never really goes away. The art submerges when life gets too busy or I am preoccupied by thinking too much. My life in general is creative, whether I am cooking or gardening or solving problems out on the trail. I write every morning, and I write when I don’t feel enough space around me to paint and draw. I am usually stitching on some quilt or knitting some little doodad.
But when painting calls, that’s big magic. Paint has been part of my life since childhood, starting with those watercolor sets in the metal box that everybody had in elementary school. When I showed aptitude, I was given beginner watercolor and oil color sets. I painted on paper. I painted on cardboard. I painted in junior high, high school, and in my room at home. While I was a forestry student in the early 80s, I took an art class every quarter as an elective. At 25, I took a huge leap and majored in art at the University of Idaho. When I finished that degree, I went to work for the Forest Service and painted at home. Within two years, I was back in college pursuing a master’s degree in painting. After that, I spent 10 years as an exhibiting artist and teacher. I taught others to paint with watercolors, to push beyond their fears, practice technique, and play with color and shape. Years of my life have been spent in the company of paint.
Then there wasn’t much painting at all. My attention was pulled away by other things. I began to wonder if painting is a luxury, something you do when you are assured of a roof over your head and three meals a day. When you have good health and are not depressed or ill. When you don’t have to be a wage slave and spend your days working for the man. Those are excuses. Turns out I was simply living. Painting was always there, but I wasn’t always showing up. After I built a studio, the question was how to re-enter the visual world.
A book crossed my path–The Trickster’s Hat: a Mischievous Apprenticeship in Creativity by Nick Bantock. I own several of his other books, which are filled with imaginative illustrations and stories and a hint of mystery. The Trickster’s Hat contains 49 exercises designed to instigate creativity. I looked through the book and chose one to start with. Digging through the bottom drawer of my flat file, I came up with scraps of illustration board and cut them into six inch squares. The instructions were to paint a layer of acrylic paint, then scribble with a pastel, then cut a letter or number from a magazine and paste it on with acrylic medium. That was enough to get me going. The idea is to begin to build up a surface in layers. And this is where the Trickster comes in. I’m only playing–I have no preconceived notions, no imagery or message in mind. I can destroy the six inch pieces of board, waste little bits of paint. I have absolutely nothing to lose. There is incredible freedom in that knowledge. So when my Trickster began to suggest images or dig deeper into drawers for a piece of marbled paper or old drawing to create another layer, surprising things began to happen. I responded only to what was in front of me and the disparate elements began to become compositions. The six-inchers sit on my work table where I can see them. Sometimes they rest idly for days, weeks, months. Sometimes I take one up and focus on it. Sometimes I don’t like the last thing I did so I scribble over it or put down another layer of paint and let it rest again. I find myself rooting around in all my unfinished projects, no longer feeling attached to something I started years ago. It’s all fair game for getting cut up and recycled and worked over. The Trickster is breathing new life into stale old attempts by pulling the unexpected out of the Hat.
None of these are finished yet. I am using everything–watercolor, gouache, pastel, ink, acrylic medium, tissue paper, old tracings, all sorts of papers collected over years, cardboard scraps from the trash can, maps, charcoal pencil, dry metallic pigment, whatever I have. In a way, I’m cleaning up. What I like about the six-inchers is the small size, the freedom to mess things up, pull images out of chaos. If one of them doesn’t work out, I can throw it away without feeling a sense of loss. When I do finish a six-incher, I have a little jewel, a glowing icon that is an example of trusting the creative process. My only intention is to show up and see what happens. My only agenda is to paint and feel free from self-imposed constraint. The more I paint, the more I realize what an act of courage it is to start from nothing and not know where I am going to end up. How I paint is also how I live. I want to be interested and engaged and using what is available here and now. I want to wallow in color and relate one shape to another. I want to pay attention to the space between shapes, and draw fluid lines with a brush.
There is a whole bright world when I stay home to paint. Even in the dark depth of winter. Especially in the dark depth of winter. It’s a really good place to be.