Something blue

February 18, 2019

One day, during a long intensive, I decide to experiment with “being in the moment” in a more conscious way. Starting a new painting, I stand and sense what wants to come. I don’t grab at the first image, I let myself wait.

Finally, a red heart comes to me. I paint it. I watch and wait again. A torso surrounds the heart, with arms and hands. Paint them. The suspense is heating up. I feel as if I’m learning how to paint for the first time.

Then, after waiting, sensing some more… I see a head. I could have predicted a head, there was no mystery to the head, but this one came honestly, from deep in my intuition.

So now I had an upper body, a head, and a heart. An exhausting morning but a productive one, I think. Time for lunch.

Sometimes going out into the world after painting shows me more than anything else how deeply this process affects me. On this day, H. and T. and I walk down to the café on Taraval. I discover within half a block that they are in a very different state from mine. H. is in ecstasy mode and has to stop and exclaim over every little flower and leaf. She and T. start imitating the vegetation as we slowly make our way down the street. T. does a hilarious imitation of those sculpted “ball” trees, with her cheeks puffed out and her arms akimbo. But I can’t join in the fun. I feel as if I’m out of register—the color doesn’t line up with the outline.

At the café, as I tell them my revelation about waiting for the head to come on my painting, I start to laugh. It makes such a ridiculous suspense story: “There was a body … and then … wait for it … a head! I couldn’t believe it!” By now I’m laughing uncontrollably, and in the next moment I’m crying. How do other people stand their boring lunches with their small talk and tuna sandwiches?

It takes so little to step outside our outlines. The outlines seem so safe, we snuggle right into them, we cling to the safety of knowing we will be able to conduct ourselves with dignity inside a sandwich shop. And yet we keep going back to painting, because we yearn to be blasted out of the outline. This lunch experience gives me new insight into the Void: We picture it below us, ahead of us, a big yawning hole in the fabric of the known, like a pothole in the street that we might be able to get past if we pay attention … but instead, it’s everywhere, just one millimeter away. It hits me how we are just barely existing inside the vastness of the inexplicable emptiness—like particles of foam in the wave of life, so easily dissolved….

 So that was lunch.

When I go back to my painting, it seems I’ve lost the thread… that beautiful connection to my intuition. When I start to get flashes of a big blue penis, I swat the image away. It’s clearly ridiculous. What’s happening here?

I become so tired from my resistance that I go into the other room and lie down. I let myself drop down and out of consciousness. When I resurface, it seems something has changed. The blue penis is definitely there. Glowing. Huge. Repellent but insistent, it takes on a sense of inevitability. So I go back and paint it—a large blue penis coming up from the bottom of the painting, with a blue leg on either side. Then I paint the vagina that belongs to the head-heart-torso person. No more guesswork, no more “sensing,” it’s obvious.

My next painting starts with a large blue Being who has an enormous penis with a halo around it. Proving that there’s always something new to paint. The phrase “foreign presence” comes to me. Just that, no explanation.

So I feel reassured once again that something always comes, that resistance (the will) always deposits you in a cul de sac, giving you no choice but to turn around and find your way back to the flow. And I feel humbled that I can’t make a technique out of it, even if my “technique” is only to wait for my intuition to tell me what to do. The important thing is to keep painting. It’s all going on deep, deep in the unknown, which is, perhaps, the core of our being. Journeying to that core is a sometimes scary, always miraculous, and ultimately safe endeavor. As Henry Miller famously said, “Paint as you like and die happy.”



Red dog

February 18, 2019

I was painting in class one day, skimming along on the surface of my feelings, not knowing how to get down below, not sure I wanted to. The painting had started out strong—a week, a lifetime ago—and I thought wistfully of the feelings of power and aliveness I’d had at the beginning. Strange what becomes nostalgic for a painter: “Remember when I was painting all that blood on the skeleton, and snakes came out of the eye sockets? I want to feel that again.”

I wanted the feeling of being in contact, but there was this big obstacle in the way: Me. I was feeling cut off from everything. I was sealed up in my head, painting dots as if I were on another planet beaming down radio waves to direct the brush. Clearly, I was trying not to feel, but what I want to know is, Why is not-feeling more excruciating than feeling? Standing there painting dots that really are just dots, not tiny universes, with 2 more hours of class to go, is the most exquisite form of torture I know. Perhaps they should try it on spies who won’t give up their secrets. “Forget the rack, here’s a brush, paint what you feel.” “Nooooo….”

Barbara comes around to see how I’m doing, looks sweetly into my eyes, and it’s almost more contact than I can bear. Well, forget “almost,” I can’t look back. Instead, I stare at the painting, where I see a snarling dog that doesn’t have a color yet, at the snakes that felt so powerful last week but now look like one-dimensional black smudges covered with inexplicable pinpoints of white.

I keep painting, looking for a way in, trying to thread a microscopic needle with invisible thread. Thoughts of blame, self-blame, stories of my distant, dead family, feelings about a grandmother I can’t even remember. I feel like I’m sifting through an old trunk, looking through other people’s memories for a secret that is all mine. I don’t even know what “feeling” is at this point. We tend to think of feelings as clear and distinct, there’s red, there’s black, every feeling corresponds to a color. They all have names, anger, sadness, fear. But now I’m losing all sense of definition, it’s more like motion than color, I can’t seem to keep my balance, my safe harbor.

Suddenly, I’m blind-sided by something, a rising up or a falling down, I don’t know which. What’s going on? It’s too big to name, almost too big to think; all I know is, I can’t do this anymore. Words are an inadequate translation. My whole body is like a graph on a lie detector and the needle’s going crazy, plunging up and down. I can hardly see the paper or register what the brush is doing. I’ve broken through the ice, and now there’s a shock of ice-cold water and my body is screaming some bodily version of no way.

It’s as if I black out for a second. I’m not in the world of time anymore, there’s just dark water and a flooding sensation. The words salvation and redemption come to me in the whirlpool like inarticulate prayers, but I don’t know who’s praying them. My mind quickly struggles to its feet, but it’s already too late. I’m somewhere else, while it scurries around to explain what happened, goes back over its previous thoughts, looks for the doorway back to control. The one who’s holding the brush just keeps painting. Suddenly, as if a light has come on, I know the dog is red. I paint the big strokes, wondering how long it’s been since I painted so broadly, I feel released from the land of infinitesimal dots and micro-thin lines. I’m sad when the dog is finished, wishing for paper as big as the wall so I can paint huge red dogs forever.

I hesitate, sink down on the stool. I’m overwhelmed by all that power at my fingertips. How can I contain it, channel it where it needs to go? Barbara comes back around the corner, as if psychically reading my thought waves. Only she conveniently ignores the fact that my thought waves are saying, “Barbara, don’t come now!”

I tell her about the huge red dogs, and she wants to know what could come into this painting. I say, heads, hands, tongues, eyes on arms, it doesn’t seem to matter as long as there are “too many” of them. I see that it’s about going downstream now, riding the rapids. I can no longer get away with not knowing what to do.

She leaves, and I dare to paint the new faces, the eyes and mouths, the teeth, a hand over here, a hand there. I go big, then small wants to come again, I have so much to do. Time passes but not in me, and all at once I notice I’m in calm waters. The words come back, salvation, redemption, they taste solid in my mouth, in my belly. There is a truth that words embody, but you can’t hear it with your ears or speak it with your mouth. Words connect to something real, but you can’t be on the page when you read them.



Painting Jesus

February 18, 2019

“Jesus will come in your lifetime.” Reading this statement somewhere, I was hit with a realization—not that Jesus will appear in all his blonde, blue-eyed glory on a street corner in San Francisco, but that the Second Coming takes place in any heart that opens to him. I can sort of get that this opening is a process we are familiar with from painting, a surrender to the universe (universe is a much safer term than Jesus, isn’t it?). But the religious right and other so-called Christians who have perverted and twisted the concept of redemption into some kind of righteous military conquest over the forces of evil (as defined by them) have gotten me all confused. I don’t really know what the death on the cross is supposed to signify, or how I’m supposed to be saved by that. Once again, I am grateful that painting is nonverbal and subverts the mind and its grasping at straws of truth to remain afloat, when all it really has to do is willingly drown.

Still—I always dread the moment when I’m standing in front of a blank sheet of paper and I know I have to paint Jesus on the cross. Or I should say—something in me knows it’s the next thing to paint. It’s the one image that I really don’t feel up to. I think it’s partly the idea of it—so important!—and partly the fact that I don’t know what that feeling is, the feeling of wanting to paint Jesus. I get self-conscious about it, with expectations of the pious state I should be in to paint such an image. What I’m afraid of is that he’ll end up looking like a clown with backwards genitalia. (It’s happened!) It just feels too important to leave in my hands.

Forget sensing—I’m gripping the brush like a demon strapped into a roller coaster seat. And then I’m off … careening down the page … painting the bloody head and downcast eyes, supplicating arms, body and legs coming to a nailed-down pair of feet. The last time I painted him, it was disconcerting, because he didn’t look like the usual martyred Messiah. But this Jesus was looking right at me, wearing his jaunty crown like he had just won a bloody race. Looking triumphant to be pinned to 2 pieces of wood. This ain’t no Bible story. We’re in this wilderness together, me and my made-up Jesus.

One year we had a 10-day painting intensive that happened to fall on Easter weekend. The day before Easter, I painted a huge cross. Michele joked, “Who could be on the cross?” It was too obvious, like the seasonal artwork kids do in school, only there it’s the Easter bunny, not the resurrection. I just kept painting and hung out with the feelings, didn’t try to control what was going to happen next. On Sunday morning he was there. It was embarrassing but true. Jesus came into my painting on the day he arose from the dead.

I spent the rest of the week painting him, struggling to stay true and real, trying not to let the strong images from a lifetime of religious indoctrination get in the way of wisdom. One night at home, I was looking through the Bible my mother had given me years before. It had little drawings illustrating the various stories, and one of them was of the cross with 2 ladders, one on either side of Jesus. Suddenly I had to paint those ladders! I was afraid it would be like copying, but I wasn’t trying to recreate the look of the ladders, I was just feeling the mystery of my attraction. This is the true excitement of creation. I don’t know why I want to paint this, I only know I must.

The next day I painted the cross again and then Jesus being lifted down by two Beings. And then the strangest thing, I started to feel the Nails. It felt absolutely crucial at that moment to paint the 4 nails, and they had eyes on them and they vibrated, they were yellow. All that feeling in the Nails, for the Nails. It made me realize how deep is our not-knowing, how shallow and limited our little Bible stories.






Painting my father

February 18, 2019



Sometimes it seems like I’m doomed to paint the same thing over and over again: me, Death, my immediate family. This time, I’ve started a painting in which Death is holding me above his head while he wades waist deep in the Sea of Disappearance. When I want to paint lots of anonymous bodies floating in the sea, Barbara asks the simple question: “Do you know any of them?” and it’s like, Nooooo… I am so sick of painting my family!

But I know what I have to do: When creation tells you to jump, you ask “How high?” So I paint Mom, Dad, baby brother (who died), and a cross with the name McKenney on it. Instead of the romantic-sounding Sea of Disappearance, it’s a rather pedestrian version: the Green Bay of Disappearance or the Menominee River of Disappearance—a small cove off the big waters of Death, Upper Michigan division. There’s no escaping the family ties.

It goes well, but when I think I’m done, Barbara persists with her pesky questions. What more could I do? It comes to me that there are strings of matter unraveling from the bodies. I realize I’m willing to paint death as long as the bodies are peacefully mummified and whole, but the thought of their actual disintegration strikes me hard.

Painting the strings streaming out of my father’s body, I get increasingly irritated. At first, I locate the source of irritation outside me. A new painter, an art therapist, is humming. I find that distracting under the best of circumstances, but now the erratic, low hum is stretching my nerves as thin as the strings of matter I’m painting. I finish them and then paint little cuts and splits on the body itself, the beginnings of disintegration from within.

I’m getting more and more agitated. I’m painting next to an open window, and a bee flies in and then can’t find its way back out. It just buzzes and buzzes and beats its little body against the upper part of the window. How stupid is nature sometimes!, I think, as I transfer my irritation to this innocent creature. Can’t you figure it out, go down, go down! The buzzing and the humming together are now like a discordant symphony in my brain as I keep painting the little cuts and fissures in my father’s flesh. I think of the famous story in which a patient of Jung’s is telling him her dream about a scarab (beetle). While she’s telling the dream, an actual scarab taps on the window—thus illustrating (or precipitating) Jung’s theory of synchronicity. So anyway, I try to see that the buzzing bee is my version of the scarab and that it and the humming art therapist are forces of nature teaming up to bring forth the expression of whatever is in me that is driving me crazy.

I finally go and find a paper cup and a book, with which I capture the bee and throw it out the window. Would that the buzz within me (or the art therapist without me) could be dispatched so easily. Returning to my painting, I feel physically weak, as if I’m in anaphylactic shock. There’s no physical explanation for this. Plus, the irritation is now more like rage. It’s a debilitating combination.

Finally, I add 2 + 2 and see where all this feeling is coming from. My father had multiple sclerosis (MS), and I had “known” for a long time that the disease made him feel weak and angry and out of control. But I had never put myself in his shoes, never considered what it might feel like—not only the symptoms of the disease, but to be deprived of his physicality, masculine control over the family, ability to earn a living, and freedom to go out drinking for 3 days at a time. I’ve painted my father hundreds of times but had never felt so attuned to him, on a psychocellular level, so to speak.

So I keep painting. As the body becomes covered with the little cuts and unravelings, I’m startled to see that it isn’t disintegrating, it’s coming alive! The body seems to be jumping off the page. I realize I’m painting (and feeling) the electrical nerve impulses that are another symptom of MS. Richard Pryor (who also had MS) once talked about the humiliation and physical discomfort of having no control over his body; his arm would just shoot up, and there was nothing he could do about it. My father had some control over his arms, but his leg (the one with the shrapnel in it from WWII) would start shaking and jumping until he had to beat it into stillness.

As I start the next painting, I know I have to paint my father big, in “flesh” color—not the black, somewhat abstract form I usually paint. I can’t remember ever feeling so resistant to painting an image. I plod between the paper and the paint table and back again. I paint the big strokes of yellowy-pink doggedly, unenthusiastically. I can only wonder what joys await me further down the line in this painting. Finally I have this massive, fleshy, almost life-size body in front of me, and I feel like I’ve painted a wall I can’t penetrate.

Barbara helps me see that I have to get inside the body, which is the last place I want to go. I was used to painting all kinds of things on the outside of bodies, but I’d never painted insides. I finally paint big flapping openings in the chest and head, through which I can see organs with tubes and veins and unnameable inner workings. I feel so intense painting them! A medical illustrator I’m not, but it feels so good to invent my heart, my brain (I mean, his heart, his brain) as I go. But my upper back hurts with all the tension and intensity, I’m barely breathing. And I wonder where all this is going, how much I’m going to have to feel, how I’m going to get safely back to the shores of stillness and my own separate identity. I feel like I want to beat these feelings back the way my father beat his jumpy leg. That self-hatred, hatred of the body and its betrayals. Fierce ambivalence about the family and its betrayals.

At the end of the workshop, I tell this story in the group, and someone suggests that I’ve been storing these feelings in my body for  years. While painting, I was afraid that I was somehow “getting” the feelings from my father, but if so, I “got” them a long time ago. I’ve spent most of my life being afraid that I would get MS too, or that I would become an alcoholic. Anything, I think, not to acknowledge my true legacy from him, an exquisite sensitivity to pain and circumstance.

When I got home that night I was exhausted. I lay down on the bed, and when I woke up half an hour later, my whole body was pulsing, even the soles of my feet. I felt like I had rappelled my way down inside a deep cavern, in a journey to the center of my father, myself.

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William Henry McKenney



Family ties

February 18, 2019



So I go to painting class one morning, and I’m not feeling anything in particular, except annoyed at having to find a place to stash my car on 1st-Wednesday-of-the-month-don’t-even-THINK-of-parking-here. I put up my unfinished painting from 2 weeks ago, and I can’t see anything to do on it. In the painting I’m standing on top of the earth with my arms out in a joyful pose, while long, black holes stream in and out of their earthly passageways and little black figures swim upward in a strange parade.

Barbara comes up and asks me what I could paint next, and I’m a blank wall. I look into her eyes, and they strike me as so deep, so intelligent, as if they are her soul’s eyes taking a periscope peek out the portholes. Which I suppose they are.

She asks what I would paint on a fast painting, and I see myself on a dark planet all alone while everyone I know is dancing and frolicking far away on the Planet of Joy. Then she asks for another start, and I see myself squished between the earth and the dead planet I’m lying on, with snakes dancing around me on the tips of their tails. Each new painting I imagine takes me into deeper and darker places, and the tears are flowing now.

I spend the 3 hours of class doing one fast painting after another. At first the imagery fits what I had said to Barbara—me under a rock and my friends dancing on top of it. Me bleeding, snakes dancing around me. Sometimes painting is like a blunt stone tool that you just pound big stakes in the ground with, none of that delicate fine-tuning and painting every atom and particle. On the third or fourth painting, without any idea how I’m going to start, I paint myself as a fetus at the bottom of the paper. I’m encased in something, a womb, I suppose, and I’m being pelted by lots of black and green jabbing lines. For someone who’s used to painting dots and little details for weeks on end, these fast paintings are liberating.

Now I’m past the 3-mile limit off the coast of What I Know, and I’m just painting whatever comes. I start with the fetus image again, but this time my mother is sitting in the lotus position on top of me. She’s one pissed-off Buddha, with jaggedy teeth and angry eyes, and she’s reaching down with very long arms and long blood-red fingernails to claw at me in my safe harbor. Suddenly I’m stunned by a realization I have tried to hide from myself my whole life—that I was terrified of my mother. And that I had long been ashamed of this, as if it meant something was terribly wrong with me.

At the last minute, just before taking the painting off the wall, I paint a little figure in my mother’s heart, and I know it’s my little brother who died.

On the next painting, I paint my mother big. She’s in the lotus position again, holding my brother and weeping and gnashing her teeth. All the pain in the world seems to emanate from her chest, where my brother is cradled in her big, red, aching heart.

I barely find room to paint myself on this painting, but finally, there I am, scrunched into a corner. My father is scrunched into the opposite corner. I hadn’t planned this, but suddenly I see the truth of it. Both of us were grieving my brother’s loss, too, but we were both closed off completely from the fierce mother-grief.

At the last minute, I paint my brother’s waiting grave, with a cross and his name on it. Mike.

Next painting: my father at the bottom of the paper, stretched out in his grave, reaching up to my mother, stretched out in her grave, reaching up to my brother, stretched out in his grave, reaching up to me, stretched out on top of all the graves, arms tight to my sides, reaching out to no one.

There’s all this white space on the right side of the paper. I sense that something big is there, but I don’t know what. Without thinking (because what have I got to lose at this point), I paint a large blue spirit, with a halo and a big heart, reaching for my brother’s grave. Then I paint a blue cross on each of the bodies, including mine.

I’m definitely out in the open sea now, but I don’t seem to be above water anymore. I’m far from the feelings I started my first painting of the day with, and it strikes me once again that feelings are only the choppy waves on the surface. Where we really live is down in the enormous depths of the ocean.

I start my next painting. The blue spirit takes up the whole paper this time. She’s a female spirit with a big round gold heart. I paint her with legs but wonder about the propriety (or accuracy) of painting genitals on a spirit. Sometimes I just pop out of the painting trance and my mind tries to grab control, think logically, plan my next step. But I’m too far gone, I ignore that thought and continue to paint the blue and gold body. When I finish filling in the colors, I know She does indeed have dark blue genitalia that look more like a mysterious flowering plant, and lots of little people are being born out of her and falling upside down, plunging to someplace far below the bottom edge of the paper. Off to the side, I paint gold round planets with white insides and white rays coming out from around the edges.

It has been a good painting day.



Painting cancer

February 18, 2019

I’m painting near someone who has cancer. She’s been painting the cancer leaving her body, as she has no doubt been taught in visualization or guided imagery exercises. It makes sense. It’s probably one of the breakthroughs in cancer therapy, to treat the imagery of the mind and not just the disease of the body.

So why is Barbara suggesting that she not paint the cancer leaving her body? Rather, that she take the next step and face the darkness? She’s not suggesting specific imagery, she’s merely asking the woman to trust the process enough to question her assumptions.

Do we excise the darkness by only painting the light? Do we find beauty by banishing ugliness? In painting for process we learn another way. The truth as healer. The truth as an end in itself, regardless of what physical or mental healing takes place. Truth without bargaining. Can we really ask of the universe, “Save my life at all costs, get rid of this horrible thing inside me” (even though death is already “inside” us all, biding its time)? You can’t attach conditions to truth, you can’t say, Give me truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—except for the part where I’m going to die. The ultimate goal of all therapies is to cheat death, to get the cancer or other sickness out of the body. What if we went beyond therapy and sought the truth?

Painting can be a playful activity. It can also be a way of confronting psychological demons or horrific memories. It can serve as an introduction to spirit. And ultimately it can put us in a place of questioning our beliefs about our own existence. Does accepting my eventual death make life itself worth living? Does painting the cancer—the truth—in all its pain and ugliness do more to right the balance between “me” and “the disease” than taking a warrior stance against it? Is the cancer something different from me? Is it different from everything else in life that I resist?

It takes courage to face the disease with its possible death sentence. But the purpose of painting for process is to face reality on its own terms. The process questions life—physical survival—as the ultimate prize.



Odd dark beauty

February 18, 2019

 The painting intensives are challenges that cannot be directly met, because there are no terms, no methods, no way of knowing what will happen or what will be expected of you. This can make it a nerve-wracking experience, especially in antici…

pation, but there’s also a beauty and a simultaneous excitement and silence of the heart as we sit together in a circle and prepare (without preparing) to step into the Unknown. This sounds a bit grandiose, but I assure you, it is factual and real. We come together for just that purpose, but it is daunting. No matter how many intensives you have experienced or how long you have been painting, there is no sure way to do it, the beginner is on a par with the most experienced painter, it’s back to zero all over again. This zero is not empty, the proverbial goose egg; au contraire, as with the real goose, it is filled to bursting with actual and potential.

Throughout the 7 days, the painting was easy for me. But it was disconcerting to find no words for it on the last day, when we went around the studio to see everyone’s paintings and to hear what each painter had to say about her process. Many people had things going on in their lives that naturally came out in their paintings: a new relationship, a break-up, a pregnancy, a death in the family. Real life, in other words, expressed without forethought but with a direct experience of joy or difficulty. It’s not therapy—where you put a problem into words or pictures and search for a resolution. It’s more a mirror in which you paint what comes and see what is reflected back. Any resolution is a by-product, the real “work” is in staying with yourself, sidestepping judgment and being vulnerable and open to whatever wants to be revealed.

When it was my turn to show my paintings, I had nothing to say. I knew it wouldn’t be useful or interesting to just point to the various images and tell which came first, second, and third. All I could say was “I don’t know why I painted that,” “I don’t remember what I felt painting that.” Me, wordsmith! Lacking an explanation or an insight into my experience. Wondering if I had an experience at all: where was I when all this color and these shapes and images were being applied to the paper?

I cried a lot on that last day—for many reasons, I suspect, but in this case it was frustration at not being able to perform the “task” of talking about my process. Barbara said some kind and encouraging words, not that I remember them, and when I was done she came over and held my hand. I was so moved by that. It was only an hour or so later, when we were saying the final good-byes in the circle, that it hit me. I didn’t have a “story” going on; my life is fairly placid and does not provide much fodder for drama. None of what I painted felt personal, unlike all those times when I have painted my family or other worldly or spiritual relationships or fantasies. What I realized in a blinding flash of insight was that I didn’t know what had happened in my process or even my feelings, because “something” had told me what to paint at every step; “I” was not really involved.

I had brought along an unfinished painting from last December. I had painted myself in the center of the painting, bursting out of my grave below ground. But as I didn’t have the same energy for it now, I went about painting lots of circles and dots and trying this and that. It was satisfying—no thought, just doing. In the top left corner was a blue head that I barely remembered painting, but when Barbara asked me who it was, I said “God.” She asked if there could be anything coming out of or going in anywhere, so I painted white breath coming from the mouth of “God.” Then I was finished and had a blank sheet of paper on the wall in front of me. The new painting came to me in an instant. “God” was blowing his breath on me where I was sitting deep underground. I was in the lotus position, holding a baby. I didn’t know who the baby was, or the black figure I painted on the left, who also had white trails of something coming from her chest. I didn’t place a lot of importance on this painting, I just did whatever felt good: lots of circles, dots, and finally some fish swimming along on the bottom. I had the unoriginal “insight” that I could paint anything. It’s something we know all the time but somehow rediscover at odd moments. It’s as if the brain short-circuits while trying to set some rules, paint the familiar, find a pattern that works and stick with it. Then it gets jolted out of its brain patter (patter is part of the pattern) by a seemingly uninteresting occurrence like painting fish that don’t logically fit with the God’s breath, a baby, or a crevasse.

During a break, I noticed one of the flyers for children’s painting classes that showed a painting of a large fish, along with the little boy who had painted it. I was amused by the anatomical accuracy with which he had painted the fins and other whats-its on the fish’s body, whereas my standard way of painting a fish is to make a sort of infinity symbol, cut off one end to make the tail, and add eyes and a fin on top.

My next painting came to me as quickly and easily as the previous one had. God was on top blowing breath down on me, but this time the crevasse was in the ocean and I was being burned on a cross, with fagots (kindling) stacked beneath it. I was separated from the water on both sides by a barrier, which was in danger of being breached on the right by a large yellow fish that was about to devour 3 smaller fish; it had teeth and a tongue, lots of holes on its sides, jaggedy scales, slanted eyes, and a sharkish fin.

After we stopped for the day, a mother and her son happened to come by to pick up the little boy’s paintings from a previous class. Barbara delightedly introduced me to the boy who had painted the fish I had seen on the flyer. I asked him if he had a fish at home, thinking that was how he knew what fish actually looked like, but he said no. Barbara had joked that she brought in a fish in a bowl for the kids to paint, like life nude drawing except the nude was a fish. (This was funnier than I’m making it sound.)

The boy was 7 years old, well mannered and soft spoken. He walked into the studio proper where he looked around at the large colorful paintings on the walls and breathed, “These are actually rather amazing.” Barbara told him about my noticing the fish he had painted, so I brought him over to my painting. At this point the painting consisted of “God,” me burning on the cross, and the big yellow fish about to devour the little fish. Some of the images we paint are not suitable for children to view, but this seemed OK. In the meantime, a few of us chatted with the mother. As they were going out the door with his paintings, the little boy looked at me and said, “Your fish is cooler than my fish,” and I said, “No it isn’t!” though I was of course pleased as punch to hear that high praise. Afterward, someone told me that when we were talking to his mother he had gone back to my painting and studied it for a long time… I don’t know to what end.


The next day I continued to paint with no hesitation; everything was obvious, from the “fabric of the universe” (which D. calls “plaid”) to underwater circles and sea plants and a couple of lizard beings who were presumably trying to break the barrier to get at me like the big fish on the other side. A round fish with protruding extremities (that looked like snakes) appeared, also.

Needless to say (?), there was no apparent correspondence between what I was painting and anything in my life. But being open to any shape, color, or image that wants to appear makes it ridiculously easy to paint, because you’re not trying to force it or make sense of it. The correspondence is with your feeling, a deep, undemanding sense of rightness—no ambition to make a beautiful product, no censorship of images, no need for interpretation.

During a group sharing, M. said that she appreciated “beauty”—which puzzled me until she amended that to say, “odd dark beauty,” and that phrase has resonated with me ever since. The beauty of our paintings and our interactions with one another is not a matter of artifice but of a deep, rich truthfulness and grace. It’s the essence of going beneath the surface to find what is truly beautiful no matter how odd-looking or dark-seeming. We are not in the business of painting calming landscapes or, in our interactions, of saying only the polite, meaningless thing. The atmosphere is so truthful that it throbs in silence but can erupt into laughter (or tears) in an instant.

if x = G + U, where G = God and U = Unknown, then solve for x

Obviously, I can’t tell you anything about the “Unknown.” It’s just a word we use, like “x” or “God”—though you can put “x” into an equation, and most of the time you can solve it. But the Unknown is real, like dark matter, the dark side of the moon, like odd, dark beauty, so I’m just going to riff here about what has come to me as I paint and disappear into that Unknown.

The Unknown is a strange place—though not a “place,” of course. And it’s not empty, not by a long shot. In it, you lose yourself, but not really. Your everyday mind still functions perfectly, but it’s not in charge; at most, it’s the copilot… like if you have to wash a brush or blow your nose or eat an apple. But actually, that everyday mind/traffic controller is way in the back of the “plane” (of existence!)—maybe the lowest-ranking flight attendant, maybe a secret air marshal or the last customer to buy a ticket who has to sit in the very last seat.

When you are painting in a state that we call “the Unknown,” “something” (another vague word that stands for something very real; oh dear, the semantics of this is just impossible)—“something” tells you everything you need to know and nothing you don’t. And we say we want this: the ease of painting “whatever” with no sense of confusion or trying to think (but not think) of the next image. Because the Unknown is not the same as drawing a blank or not knowing what to do. It’s not uncertainty, but it’s not certain, either. It’s not at all like traveling on a dark road in a strange land. It’s a source, and a resource.

And yet, we fear it, or the idea of it. Why is that? It can be daunting and even painful when you want to get from here to there. It feels like you would be free if not for that stubborn mind of yours, struggling for control with the big bad Unknown. But you can’t get there from here. You can’t will it, control it, wish it near, or wish it away.

“Sometimes it feels like light, sometimes like bone,” said Kate about one of the images on her painting. The oddness of that, the apparent contradiction, struck me. We don’t know what we’re dealing with when we paint. But it’s a reality like no other.


Light and dark

February 18, 2019

When you begin to paint intuitively, you inevitably spend a fair amount of time worrying about how your paintings look. At first you may want to paint safe little pictures, maybe abstracts or geometric shapes, anything that won’t reveal too much of you. But at some point, you find that the complete permission to paint anything draws you toward the imagery of your deepest fears. Demons, monsters. Blood and guts. Penises and other body parts.

I remember, early on, painting a car accident, with me spread out on the ground, dazed and bloody, and a strange little man behind the wheel of the car. The supposedly violent imagery felt so peaceful, so freeing. That is one of the many paradoxes of painting in this way.


The intense imagery that arises can be a little intimidating to the beginning painter, especially if s/he sees the more experienced painters painting knives, sex organs, skeletons, and blood. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s an agenda here, that the teachers encourage the darker images and discourage the lighter side of life—the flowers and sunsets and rainbows. Conversely, a woman walked out in the middle of a painting workshop because she believed the studio’s agenda was to train “visionary painters.” I knew she had noticed my painting, which happened to include some intense blue-winged angels and flames and otherworldly swords. So I laughed a little at being thought of as “visionary.” The next day I could be back to painting bloody knives, and then how would she classify me?

Allowing this personal, often surprising imagery to come out can also be scary to those who are on a spiritual path and have certain preconceived ideas about what that means. It’s tempting to want to “go toward the light,” thinking only positive thoughts and painting only positive images. But I’ve learned that it’s meaningless to go toward the light when all you have is a mental concept of what the light is. The mind has a strong hold on us, but its tyranny can be shaken by repeatedly circumventing it and relying instead on a deeper source of understanding. You may want to paint something deep, beautiful, mysterious, and spiritual. But if you get profound satisfaction out of painting what you fear, something will open up inside you and will take you to the depth, beauty, mystery, and spirit you seek. If there’s rage in your heart and you try to paint joy, it simply won’t work.

And so the journey goes, each painter finding her own sign posts along the way, taking the detours and expressways that are designed especially for him or her. There’s an incredible release that comes from painting the truth, whatever it is. That is the secret of painting. That is the engine that will drive you as far as you are willing to go.

Freeing the grip of the mind

February 18, 2019

When I thought of the title for this post, I had to laugh, because I pictured one part of myself gripping the steering wheel with all my might while another part of me patiently pries my fingers away. The one in the driver’s seat is holding on for dear life. She can’t imagine what disasters will ensue if she turns the control over to this other character, that thing called intuition. The irony is that, while she may control the wheel, the intuition controls the ignition. That’s what makes the car go.

Continuing with the automotive metaphor, in the early days of painting I had an insight that painting for process is like sitting in a little seat on top of an elephant. You have a little toy steering wheel, which you can turn and turn to your heart’s content, but your steering will have no effect on where the elephant takes you. This wasn’t altogether a frightening image; in fact, it was reassuring—because along with the loss of control (on one level), I was learning that the elephant was completely trustworthy, that it had my best interests at heart and wouldn’t take me down the wrong path. The landscape I found myself in could seem strange and foreign at times, but it was utterly safe.

I always considered myself the most difficult case in my painting group. When Michelle tried to work with me, even making encouraging statements like “Didn’t that feel good to paint?” or asking what else could come into the painting, all my hackles went up. I heard everything as a criticism, and even the encouragement seemed like it must have an ulterior motive behind it. Growing up with a controlling mother had made me hypersensitive to anyone I thought was trying to take me over.

Resistance is a natural part of the process, whether you’ve just started painting or have been doing it for 30 years. We naturally resist when we feel as if something (or someone) is pushing us to go where we don’t want to go. Sometimes we call it “being stuck,” not knowing what to do, but even stuckness is a way of resisting the unknown, of trying to maintain control over what images come to us. The good news about resistance is that, unless you stop painting altogether, you can’t really hold the process back. You will not be stuck forever. The process does the work in spite of you.

There is a difference between “the thinker” and “the painter.” While I’m thinking up a storm in front of my painting, judging and worrying and trying to control the outcome, the painter keeps on painting. I don’t know who that painter is, but she’s different from who I think I am. Fortunately, the painter has a mind and purpose of her own.

The painting mirror is unrelenting. You see that nothing you do brings a feeling of control. Only letting up on the grip a little—taking a risk, painting a little faster, stepping into the unknown—brings any relief, brings the immediate feedback that there’s another level that you can trust. You don’t necessarily understand what made it happen, but the softening in your body, the sudden fascination with painting the monster or the baby or the huge red woman—that’s what tells you it’s OK. You can trust your desires. “Go toward what interests you” is still the best painting (and life) advice I’ve ever heard.

Painting kind of knocks you off your axis. It’s as if the center of gravity shifts from your head to somewhere deep in your body. As you learn to trust this other center, you discover a whole rich inner land of feelings and images. It reminds me of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, where there’s a whole world inside the one we see on the surface. What impressed me so much about that book was that there was a sky at the center of the earth. I could imagine caves and streams and even dinosaurs, but a sky? How could the inside contain an outside? And it’s like that in painting. Going down deep into the center of yourself, along with the recognizable images and strange creatures, there is a deep blue sky that holds infinite possibilities for exploration.




February 18, 2019

Imagination can be a wonderful thing in a storyteller. The mind uses this tool to “make things up.” But painting for process isn’t about making things up in that sense. We say we “invent” the image as we paint, rather than try to reproduce a picture we have in our minds. But this kind of inventing is more like letting something happen, not imagining it or thinking it out. This can be confusing when the teacher comes along and asks, “What could you paint?” And before you can open your mouth, she says, “Don’t think!” It feels like one of those impossible Zen koans. The mind truly doesn’t understand what to use if it can’t use itself.

Thus is born the process of listening for another voice to speak to us, from within us. It’s as if the mind is a loud, boorish companion that always has a quick answer, or at least an opinion, and it drowns out the softer voice, the part of us that doesn’t use words, call it the heart or the soul or intuition. That part of us does use images, and when the mind’s overwrought “imagination” gives this other voice room to come forth, the images are connected to a deeper source, they come from a deeper well within.

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