I open the studio doors.
Nine paintings in various stages greet me. The drying rack is heavy with unfinished illustrations. Three drawers are partially opened, evidence my sons have raided my stash of tools and flotsam—again! The floor is littered in curls of birch, the wood shavings carved from a woodcut I am working on this week.
There are so many unread books and blank pages to fill, such mess and clutter. And all of these incomplete works. Somehow this does not cause me stress, not like a garden filling with weeds or a sink full of dishes. I tie my apron, turn on the twinkly lights, and watch smoke from my incense meander the room. I know that when this studio is too buttoned up, little work is being done.
I sometimes wish my studio was a tidy space full of finished paintings and clean counters, and I do want to diminish the accumulating stacks. I often lament my lack of time, even knowing this is the worst waste of time there is.
I have to look. I have to take the time to see or I cannot honestly connect the landscape to the work.
Doesn’t most of life occur in this in-process state? Working is not without order, but working as an artist requires a good deal of material, a particular mess. In process, I follow lines of possibility, colors and shapes, ideas too. A professor once told me to think of painting as a conversation: you speak, the canvas speaks. The artist must become a good listener.
When I am in deep conversation with my work I have feet to “leap into the boundless and make it home,” as the philosopher Chuan Tzu said. The boundless is no abyss; it’s not empty and dark. It’s a spacious place, abundant in rhythm, movement, and layers. My working studio, at its best, reflects that.
Set back in the woods, the windows look out onto maples, hickory, and oaks. This view impacts my internal creative space as well as the studio. To gain a quiet pause before the day’s hustle, I like to wake early and watch the varying hues of the sunrise play on snow-slicked tree bark. I sip hot tea and anticipate the coming spring morning when I will look out and find a green dusting of new life over the ground and branches. These colors and images work inside me, and so they make their way into my work.
In recent years it’s not only the looking that connects my constructed images to the land. I collect stones and fallen branches and flowers to use in my art. My children bring me offerings too. Every few years we find an arrowhead when the fields are turned over. I have a growing collection of these I plan to use in a mosaic. Lately, I forage mostly for the colors abundant in our woods and fields.
I savor the smell of acorn caps or black walnuts simmering on the stovetop on a rainy fall day. There is nothing like pouring this condensed liquid into ink bottles, dipping in the brush, and making a fresh mark, a mark specific to my time and place. The nut falls—I pick it up, paint with it. This intimacy is a mindfulness of the colors I use. The black walnut’s brown means so much more to me than the umber I buy from the store and squeeze from a tube. I want to use all my materials well because they remind me of the intricate and interconnected relationships between us and the world.
Choices are made; sometimes by me, sometimes by the work. Trust and stillness are required.
When my work is going well, it weaves images and mediums in and out of one another, interconnecting to create a whole story. I try not to come to a canvas with much more than a loose sketch, nothing so precious it cannot make room for movement and a natural working out. I love a happy accident, a blot of ink, an unintended scribble.
Still, there are times when the studio is buttoned up and neglected. Invariably, these are the times when I am least at peace. Does anyone else struggle to remember to value their work? It’s not always easy to center, to prioritize, to play–to make space and time to blow open the studio doors…then close them quietly behind you.
In those times I find it’s rarely picking up a pen or paintbrush that reminds me of all that matters. It’s the work of others. And this is one more way we are all connected, because I do not tend to forget the work that has made a difference in me. Louise Bourgeois, Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver—I love the eyes these women give me. I can once more find energy and power and my own sight.
More than anything, mindfulness for me is about wholeness and presence, letting go of all self-consciousness until the deepest prayers I possess have their say.