Painting for Process: a Philosophy, a Practice, a Life



Beginning in 1995, I wrote what I called “Painting Letters” to my fellow painters in the teacher training program at the Painting Experience Studio in San Francisco. This was pre-mary’zine. I wasn’t training to be a teacher, but it was a great opportunity to paint for 10 days at a time, four times a year. The teachers were Michelle Cassou and Stewart Cubley, coauthors of Life, Paint and Passion, and Barbara Kaufman (see below), who, until her death in 2018, headed the Painting Studio, also in San Francisco (  (The studio is now in the capable hands of Claudia Erzinger.) I had painted with Michelle since 1979 but became an enthusiastic student of Barbara in 2000.



Following are several pieces I’ve written about the painting process. Many were first published on


The process: a short course

To paint intuitively is to paint not for the product (the picture) but for the process. “Process” can mean something as simple as reaching for the red paint just because it attracts you, or as deep as following this same intuitive voice in your life. And like many simple activities (“chop wood, carry water”) it can be profoundly life altering. Painting in this way can be seen as “child’s play” (a good comparison, actually) but is ultimately a meditative practice.

Like any meditative practice, painting has its moments of discomfort. Coming face to face with the reality of ourselves, mirrored on that white paper with its embarrassing image or its blank terror, can be a startling and disturbing experience. It sounds so simple: Just paint. Paint anything. Paint what feels good, paint what interests you. Don’t plan, don’t copy, just let whatever comes to you pour out on the paper. And yet, as soon as you try to paint, “the voices” start their litany—voices that sound like yours but are probably echoes of your parents’ or teachers’ voices. “You can’t paint.” “You’re not good enough.” “You’re empty inside.”

What the process teaches from that very first brush stroke is that you are good enough, you are not empty inside. All it asks from you in return is to drop your concerns about how the painting looks, what it means, what other people will think of it, whether you can sell it, and how it will look framed over your sofa. You can’t keep one toe in the water of “result,” trying to be spontaneous but protecting the look of the painting. Some people are fortunate enough to be natural-born painters, and they will paint freely without these concerns, for the simple joy of it. But most of us have a love-hate relationship with what M. Cassou calls “the miserable piece of paper with paint on it”—wanting to break free but finding ourselves tied up in knots as we attempt to control every stroke of the brush.

Painting is a mirror, pure and simple. The beauty of the process is that it seeks out the purest form of who we are. We learn about ourselves as we respond to the colors on the paint table and the images on the paper. We learn to trust the quieter voice beneath all the voices of judgment—the voice of our own heart. That voice, if we listen to it, will tell us what to do next: Pick up the green. Paint a tree. Paint the roots. Down, down, down, twisting and turning. Oh, there are birds in the tree! A skeleton is lying on the ground. Paint the grave, the cross, the ghost….

You may be shocked by where I went with that example. You don’t have to paint skeletons, or anything else that disturbs you. If these things want to come, they will come in their own time. Freedom to paint “anything” can bring an attraction to the taboo. But whatever it brings, that quiet inner voice is intelligent beyond our imagining. That is the gift of painting, and it is a gift that extends into our deepest soul and out to the farthest reaches of our lives. That intelligence is what we call “the process.”


The opening

I’ve wanted to be an artist all my life, but I didn’t even know what an artist was until I was 33 years old. Of course, I knew the word, and I thought I knew what it meant. It meant someone who could paint portraits, or bowls of fruit; someone who could faithfully reproduce a landscape, a beautiful ship on the sea, or a herd of horses; or at least someone who had a special gift of seeing, like Picasso. Being an artist seemed like a gift of the hand, the eye, and the intellect. Either you were born with these skills or you weren’t. I didn’t know that art could be about expression and play; color and form; feeling.

As long as I can remember, I had a hunger to express myself with images. But where I came from, it was like hungering after a foreign food I did not know existed. My parents had certainly never heard of this food, and neither had my teachers. Yet I craved it.

As with most children, my creativity wasn’t nurtured and watered—it was watered down. Instead of paint and paper, I had paint-by-number sets, coloring books, jewelry-making or sand painting kits. I enjoyed them, but the joy was limited, more about achievement than creativity—staying within the lines, or replicating a picture on a box.

On my own, I made little books with pictures cut out of magazines. It felt wonderful to create my own worlds; I would give anything to see those books again. If only my mother hadn’t thrown out everything from my childhood and instead filled her closets with empty boxes.

The art classes in junior high—sharing the school year with cooking and sewing—were all about copying pictures of movie stars and learning how to draw buildings that looked smaller in the distance. I did some interesting things with mixed media (which it wasn’t called then) but I was more convinced than ever that I didn’t have what it took to be an artist. So I tried to forget about it. But you can’t forget who you truly are.

I took an art class or two in college, learned silk screening, did collage. After college, I spent more and more time alone in my room, searching for something to fulfill that old hunger. But my “room of one’s own” felt more like a prison, because I still didn’t have the talent I thought I had to have. One night I dreamed that I was locked inside my room but another door magically appeared in the wall. The opening was being created within me, though I still didn’t recognize it.

In San Francisco I found a class called “Drawing for Exploration,” and the description made it clear that no art experience was needed. Although the teacher—a practicing artist who showed her work—said she believed in “free expression,” I sensed that she was still focused on the product. But with her encouragement I dared to go beyond “abstract art,” drawing a primitive-looking bird and the negative space around a tree. It was an important step on my journey.

It all came together in the fall of 1979, when I saw a headline in the newspaper: “Teaching artists to paint from their hearts, not their heads.” I knew this was it. Michele Cassou believed that “…creativity does not come from the mind. It is being in contact with the root emotional feelings. It is a direct connection. I never know what I’m going to paint, but I do know that it will have continuity and direction and come directly from the guts and heart and onto the paper…. There are no bad paintings. There are no mistakes. There is respect for what each student has done. No judgments are made.” I called immediately and signed up for a weekend workshop.

Painting felt more intimidating than drawing. Far from feeling free and creative, I was afraid of painting something ugly, something silly. I started out painting abstract shapes, then outlining the shapes. Within a few hours I was asking Michele, “What do you do when you’re tired, bored, frustrated, and angry?” To me this meant I had failed, and I couldn’t understand why she didn’t seem bothered at all. I don’t remember how she helped me, but by the end of the weekend I felt as if I had come home to a part of myself I had thought was long dead.

After the workshop, as I drove home over the Golden Gate Bridge in the late afternoon sun, I was astonished at the brilliance of the colors around me, as if I were seeing the world for the first time. And inside I felt an opening I couldn’t explain. I had no idea that the journey I had begun would transform my life from the ground up.

This was my first painting:



The secrets of painting

Like everyone else who writes about a method, a practice, or a spiritual path, I believe wholeheartedly in the beauty and uniqueness of my particular Way. This Way has served me and many others, and I’m sure it could be a lifeline, a godsend, to many more. How can I not be a missionary, plunging into the wild world to bring enlightenment, to share that which nourishes me, that which is leading me toward God, understanding, peace of mind.

So I shamelessly admit to the missionary part. But when I go to write about it, I have to guard against making false claims. I’ve been painting for 35 years, and it still challenges me. It doesn’t always lead me to lie beside still waters, nor does it always comfort me. It’s often the last thing I want to do. I eagerly tell people that “painting changed my life,” and it’s true.

And yet… when the morning of a weekend workshop or a 5-day intensive comes around, I drive to the studio with a feeling of dread. A dark cloud hovers over me. It’s like waiting to go on stage; performance anxiety grips me. Either I have an unfinished painting that I can’t imagine getting back into, or I have to start a new one, and I’m feeling so uninspired that I expect hours of pain and struggle as I try to get out of my head and paint directly, like a child.

Should I be telling you this, dear reader? Don’t I want to speak only of the “joy of creative expression,” the “beauty of not knowing”? The problem with focusing on those beautiful concepts is that there’s more to it than that. I’m a beginner every time, and I go through all the same struggles to let go, to face the next hurdle. It’s an ongoing process, not a discipline to master.

There truly is a “joy of creative expression,” but it lies on the other side of a door, a door you have to go through, not knowing what you will find. There is definitely a before and after in painting; it’s a transformative experience. The problem is, neither the path of transformation nor the destination is given to you in advance—the course is always new, the path is not so much a path as a hacking though the undergrowth with a paintbrush for a machete. One sure thing I can say is that, no matter how stuck or awful you’re feeling at any given time, if you paint long enough, something will shift. And when you drop down into that trancelike state of truly not knowing (as opposed to being confused), there is no better feeling, a feeling of delight, certainty, and absorption, as if your whole being has been transfused with new life. But until it shifts, it can feel like torture. Caveat paintor. I’m trying to tell the truth here.

Ah, truth. Why do we really paint? It’s to find, know, experience, and live the truth. That’s all. Whether the truth is the pain of long-forgotten memories that are triggered by painting the family, or the transcendent feelings that come unexpectedly when light comes shining into the darkest painting—it doesn’t matter what the truth is in any given moment, only that it is. The truth, like virtue in the old saying, is its own reward.

We don’t hear a lot about truth in our society; instead, we hear about morality (with its many definitions) or belief (likewise). Even more rare is the idea that truth can be found in being exactly who we are. But that is the first secret of painting, the secret of the creative process—maybe even the secret of life—being who we are.

And yet—is anything more difficult? The paradox is obvious. The greatest spiritual teachers assure us, “You can’t be anything other than who you are.” But most of us constantly compare ourselves with others, looking to improve, believing with every shred of our being that we are not good enough. Personhood, creativity, truth seem to be states to be attained, not something we already have.

Sometimes painting seems to have no relation at all to my worldly self, and I am left to wonder who’s in charge here. Which brings us to another secret: We are never in charge. And that is our salvation, no matter how much we may wish to control the images or the outcome. Our salvation is in giving up, surrendering to The One Who Paints with no expectations, no demands. This is not easy, and you cannot trick it by claiming to be giving up or deciding to give up. It will decide, and it will lead. Painting for process has at its core the knowledge that the light is always the ultimate destination. Painting always leads me to a place I could not have arrived at any other way. If I persevere through the fear and the reluctance, the stops and the starts, I am always led eventually from my limited human view, the view of the little self, with its demands and rules and desires, to a greater truth. With this truth comes an acceptance that has nothing to do with resignation or despair: It transcends morality or judgment or comparison.

So this is why I paint, to discover over and over again that Who I Am is something other than who I think I am or strive to be. Probably I will keep laboring under the illusions of the little self in my daily life, but at least I have a place where I can be refreshed and know the truth again. Painting is a way to come back to the simplicity of being enough. I just Am. I am everything and everyone, no difference between me and the One painting next to me.

The final secret: To Be Who I Am, I need nothing more than to start from where I am: to paint (or speak, or write) from the anger, from the fear, from the anxiety, from the certainty that I can’t do it … from whatever I’m feeling. The doorway is our feeling of the moment. Life—or God—or the creative spirit—will take it from there, will deliver us back into Someone’s welcoming arms.


Beyond the visual


Art is a visual medium. But it is mainly visual from the point of view of the observer. For the artist, the visual is only a means, a tool—a medium, yes,  but not just for the eyes. For the artist it’s about consciousness. The painting we observe is consciousness in a costume. The art is everything we cannot see. But the sensitive observer sees with the artist through the costume, the outer layer to the real creation.  So maybe art isn’t a visual medium as much as it is a vehicle, an opening, an exploration, an exposure. If the artist’s heart is open, the art will be timeless. And in timelessness is the opportunity for the observer to receive and respond to the work … because she is consciousness, too. In that way, art can be a mirror.

The painting above definitely looks finished, doesn’t it? You might say it’s too finished, too “busy,” dense, impossible to see what’s going on, sort of interesting on the left where there’s some yellow, but too dark on the right. Someone named Arthur William Radford said, “Half of art is knowing when to stop.”  (I’d be curious to know what he thinks the other half is.) To know when to stop means that the artist must change from creator to speculator, make an aesthetic judgment, an active decision not to go past an arbitrary boundary, risking chaos. The initial brushstrokes may have burst forth with abandon, but what is crucial is stopping at … just … the right … place. That makes the artist half creator, half a judge of distance and control.

What does it mean to go too far, to ruin a lovely effect, to make something dark and hard to decipher? It means to lose control—not in a wild, destructive way, but to go beyond the limits of the mind. A true artist is not concerned with making a pleasing painting. A true artist does not care about the viewer or the judgment. She cares about truth and readiness, the inner readiness that is consciousness. The painter who knows when to stop becomes a businessman, a seamstress with a tape measure, an authority, a jailer of the self and all its potential.



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.


Freeing the grip of the mind

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.


Light and dark

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 she 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 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.



In a weekend workshop, my friend J., who’s been painting for several years, says she feels that her way of painting has changed, and she now wants to remain “mindful” of every difference, every shift.

I am struck by this comment, by the subtle ways the mind tries to stay in control. “Mindfulness” seems perfectly legitimate, commendable. Who can argue with it? Spiritual teachers urge us to be more mindful in our daily lives. “Chop wood, carry water.” “Drinking the green tea, I stop the war.” We want to be aware, alert. But the conniving mind can turn anything into a concept, and even mindfulness can be made into a kind of border patrol of our thoughts, a way to keep on top of them. We may think we’re just watching, but in the painting process any concept can be a trap.

I see myself in J.—the desire to understand, to do it right… frustrated by the constant change, the slipperiness of the process, the challenges the teacher throws down, always trying to take our security away. We want to end the suffering of the “always new.” We are flummoxed by this nonintellectual process that seems to put us exactly where we don’t want to be in every moment.

I try to answer J.’s questions and quiet her mind—convince her mind, more like it. Finally, I laugh at her insistent questioning; it seems she always finds the “wiggle room” in every answer I give. And face it, I’m no Zen master. I’m struggling with these things myself, all the time. But I laugh as the perfect answer comes flying out of my mouth.

“Nothing works!,” I say, and the stricken look on J.’s face makes me laugh again, because it mirrors my own disappointment when I’m not able to pin this process down. When I see a beautiful butterfly in the garden, something in me wants to capture it, to be able to gaze on its pristine beauty forever. How difficult it is to accept that this beauty is on the wing, in the moment, as it flits across my path and away. Only when I accept this transitoriness do I get to dwell in the eternal present, to experience the process—life—in its full beauty and power.



This is not going to be a treatise on Anger. I don’t know much about Anger, but I know what I don’t like. I don’t like Anger.

For such a hungry beast, Anger is easily distracted, channeled, or subdued. Ice cream works very well. Ignoring it, rationalizing it, lying (to yourself) about it, there is more than one way to bury Anger.

Oh, but did I mention? You can’t get rid of Anger. It lives inside you, like an engorged tick, a latent disease, a cancer, a boiling pot of leeks, the cries and sorrows and furies of generations that came before you.

Anger is heavy, old, tightly intertwined with the fibers of your being, the souls of your ancestors, your personal history, their personal history, even if you know nothing about them. Those people are easy to dismiss. You may be interested in learning their names, dates of birth, and number of separations between them and Richard III. But they weren’t just data, they were living, breathing people. And they were angry. Poor in material things, poor in spirit.

The double helix connecting you with the centuries of angry forefolk has been knotting itself more and more tightly. Yes, you have an easier life than most of them. More money, property, rights, opportunities. But you are united in your anger. It is up to you to untie the bonds, to set yourself free.

Anger can be cut, but only a double-edged sword will do. One edge severs the doubts, excuses, pettiness; the other edge looks back at you. You and Anger are One. You cannot escape it. All you can do is face it, name it, acknowledge it, see that the object of your anger is not the same as the anger itself. Anger will attach itself to anything. You can claim to be angry at politicians, police, or priests, but when you start looking closer to home, what do you find? Your real anger is toward your parents, your friends, your unfaithful lovers. Even then, they are excuses that turn your head away from the truth.

You are Anger. Anger is You. It can only dissolve when you stop lying to yourself. M. Cassou says, “Paint the wall, and the wall comes down.” In this case, the wall is Anger. Painting anger honestly and without defenses can begin the process of dissolution.

It’s as simple and as difficult as that.


Anger, of course, can be a mask for many other feelings: fear, hurt, disappointment, jealousy—any feeling that’s difficult to deal with, sowe lash out instead. Or lash in. We are often more angry at ourselves than at anyone else.

In painting for process, we are not looking for catharsis. We don’t throw paint at the wall in a fit of rage. We can be full of feeling, but the release is naturally controlled because we’re following our inner voice. And the inner voice isn’t overcome or scared by an emotional reaction.

The best example I have of this was one day when I was painting at home, alone. I was very angry with a woman I was desperately in love with. (Odd how the two feelings can go hand in hand.) It was a long-term destructive relationship that I felt powerless to end.

First, I painted slashing red and black lines. It was raw, it felt good. Then an image came to me that made me laugh, and I painted her eating me with a knife and fork. It was so satisfying. I felt I was being consumed by her, but it had never occurred to me to take it literally.

After an hour or so, I realized I felt different: peaceful, calm. I had gotten below the surface emotions, the defensiveness, the helpless aggression. And there, in the still point of my self, this great love of mine did not exist. She was not relevant. My feelings were transient, not anchored in truth. This great drama I had gotten caught up in was not what I truly wanted.

The experience was not cathartic; I wasn’t left feeling drained and exhausted, as when I would cry myself to sleep. I felt calm from the center out, no limits, no boundary. I was back in touch with myself.

What I had labeled Anger turned out to be a loud, attention-getting but ineffectual way to express my frustration that things were not as I wanted them to be. Isn’t that always the source of anger? Those feelings would return many times before I was finally able to leave the relationship behind. What I kept with me was the memory of that peaceful surrender that was the result of daring to paint my true feelings and allow the transformation to take place.



It is only human to want to take credit for what we paint, at least when we are pleased by the look of it. When we are not pleased, we still believe it is our doing, because the ego believes itself to be the master of all it surveys. But the images do not come from the mind, they come from below, above, beyond the mind. We don’t realize that to elevate our personal talent or insight to the status of Creator is to stay within the confines of the Known. The mind does not create, it merely copies and repeats.

M. Cassou called the ego the Thief. I was inspired by this metaphor to ask who isthe Thief? What does she want? And this is what I came up with—or, rather, this is what came to me:

Who is the Thief? She is a clever one. She wears a ski mask that covers her face except for her self-satisfied grin. The Thief thinks she’s so smart, she gets into God’s mansion and makes off with all the best jewels—and chuckles to herself as she climbs out the back window, right into the hands of the gendarme.

The Thief is well known for stealing God’s gifts and claiming them as her own. A painting that flows easily and brings joy upon the head of the painter is suddenly no longer a gift and a manifestation, but a possession of the big little “I”—the swollen creation of the fallen angel.

The Thief starts out in Ego heaven but ends up in Ego hell. One minute she’s lounging on a cloud being serenaded by angels, and the next minute she’s sitting on the Ego devil’s lap. As soon as you start thinking how great you are, look out. This is so inevitable it’s laughable, so you might as well have some fun with it. When D. and I praised each other for anything, it came with the proviso, “May you roast in Ego hell.” It’s a friendly reminder to be on the lookout for the internal room temperature rising and tiny flames appearing in the window.

Once you become aware of the Ego’s larcenous tendency, you see it everywhere. It lurks in your prideful chest when someone admires your painting. It’s there grinning insincerely behind your words when you say that no, really, you don’t see yourself as a visionary painter.

But I’d like to play devil’s advocate for a moment. I see the Ego as forever standing outside God’s mansion, looking for a way in. The Ego has no friends, except for other egos—and they’re all thinking about themselves. So when we react from this place, are we really hardened crooks who are taking what doesn’t belong to us? Or are we like little children who are desperate for praise, love, and recognition? Can we keep the Thief outside the gates without denying our humanness, without pushing away the contact that we grasp at so clumsily? The biggest egos are those who arrest themselves for every minor infraction: “the piece of shit around which the world revolves.”

To paraphrase Krishnamurti, the Stealer is the Stolen. We are the process and the product both. Together we struggle through life as if it’s a one-legged bag race. We are all Geminis, one face turned toward God, one glancing around to see who notices how saintly we are. Who are we to deny this twin, this Mr. Hyde into which the good Dr. Jekyll transforms? Know thyselves.

The good news is that painting itself teaches us to disconnect the process from the product. This is one thing I like about painting with beginners: kind of a gentle “there but for the grace of God go I,” where I used to go so much. I remember wanting a beautiful painting more than anything else; and now when I see others caught in the same trap, I’m sad for them. Someone recently told me she liked my painting and I swear I did not get a drop of ego gratification out of it. It seemed like such a foreign concept. Like it? What’s to like? What I like is this new one I just started; it feels so good to be painting skulls and snakes and blood, there’s excitement and suspense and a touch of fear and I don’t want the class to end because these white dots on the black snakes feel so good… but I just smiled because she doesn’t know about that yet.

The process giveth and the process taketh away. If one of your students thanks you profusely for changing her life, you can be sure that someone down the line will accuse you of trying to control her brain. Ego hell is self-regulating and doesn’t need you to play policeman. The Ego is a poor lamb, not a hardened criminal. And the lamb sheds her wolf’s clothing in response to kindness and compassion. She suffers just from being who she is. Give her a break.

We each bring unique gifts to this strange planet, so let’s enjoy them and let them flower. Let both the Thief and the policeman into the mansion, let everyone wear the jewels for a day. Observe your pitiful self without judgment. When you start getting hot under the collar with self-congratulation, smile at yourself and know that the Thief always gets caught, no matter how clever she is… and that the only reason she steals in the first place is that those jewels are so damn beautiful.


Death: our destroyer, our savior

Just as the ancients purportedly believed that the earth is flat, people in our day believe that life, too, falls off the ends of itself. But life is not a cube, it is a sphere, like our earthly home.

In the summer of 2016, I painted in a 5-day intensive, at home, connected to the group in San Francisco on my computer via Zoom. The painting didn’t go at all as I expected. I should know better, it never does. But this was rather extreme.

On my first painting, I painted myself half above ground and half below. My dead parents and brother were lined up underground, barely recognizable as human because of how long they’d been there. My arms were out to the sides, and my torso was stretched open, my cracked heart half-exposed. There was a big white space next to me, which I kept open until I was sure I knew what to put there.

On the other side of my body, I painted a large cross above a gravestone with my initials on it.

Eventually, Death came into the white space. He was oddly shaped, as if he were pregnant. One arm held a knife. Then the knife was bloody. This surprised me. I painted red gashes in my side, thinking, gee, some people get to die in their sleep. I had never painted Death any color but the iconic black, but it didn’t feel right this time. I painted a blazing heart and a blue-and-yellow body. A cross above his head, and a look of surprise on his face.




Then a thought came to me, full-blown and unbidden. From the outside, Death looks like a shutting down. The person we had known, who was so real to us, is no longer recognizable, an empty shell. But something about painting Death stabbing me made me think of Death as creating openings, piercing the body with light. The light destroys the personality (what we think Life is), and the soul is set free.

Then I saw that there was a baby inside Death’s body. Thoughts came rushing through me. Of course there is Life in Death and Death in Life. They are as one, together. Duality is an illusion.

I’m just painting this whole time, letting forms and colors come as they choose. And of course I feel great, like I have stumbled onto something very profound.



In my next painting, Death is holding me. My eyes are closed, body at rest. Knives of Death’s light are piercing me. I feel completely safe. Death has wings like an angel, and light rays emanate from his shoulders. My body is electrified: lightning comes from my hands and feet. Then I see that Death is standing in a river, and I paint an undulating wave from one side of the painting to the other. I don’t know what could be in the water, but I’m not concerned. It would come when it was ready.

Then I sensed that the spirit body that Death was holding had come from a corporeal body below the waves. I start painting with red and black, the body in the casket. Black figures appear with their hands seeming to hold up the casket. At some point I have no more feelings or thoughts about what to paint. It’s as if I really am dead in this red and black watery grave. The underground part of the painting is so incongruent with the top part that my exciting insight about Death no longer seems to matter. I feel empty—not free, just … not there. I paint fire, crosses, a tiny earth covered with crosses. Black and red tempestuous forces sweep across the space. I become desperate. I had often felt like I didn’t know what to paint, but this was different. I was in a dark place, seemingly abandoned. But I had to keep painting. So I paint Jesus on a large cross, the iconic imagery of the crown of thorns, the holes in his hands and feet, the swatch of cloth covering his nakedness. Then red and black birds flying upward but with nowhere to go. It’s as if I had come to the end of my creativity, as if I had entered the Void, or the Void had entered me.

The afternoon session was almost over. My last strokes of the day were on the body in the casket: I painted a crown of thorns, holes in my hands and feet, a swatch of cloth covering my nakedness. Although noting that I was painting myself as Jesus, nothing profound came to me. I felt that the creative process (or the life process, or the death process) had usurped my understanding so completely that I couldn’t keep up, I had nothing to contribute. My images felt false or simply inadequate. Death was no longer something I could even speculate about. I had been so proud of my earlier insights into the Piercing Light, as if it were all so easy to explain. You could say I felt dead, spiritually.

My painting, which was not finished, now consisted of two worlds or feeling states, but I felt that I didn’t belong in either one, it was all beyond my capacity to express, or even guess at. I had painted Death many times over the years, and I now saw that it was always a concept to me. It’s not that the concept fell away and I now saw Death with clear eyes; there was no clarity at all. While we are alive, Death will always be a concept. I had thought I was seeing the truth, but I was only seeing another unreality, a piece of hopeful fiction. I had unknowingly painted the duality. I live in duality, there’s no transcending it through paint or prayer or anything else.

Still, I had to keep painting, so on the last day of the intensive I started letting some darkness into the top of the painting, where Death held my Pierced-with-Light self. It felt good. I knew I wasn’t in control, but if anything had dropped, it was my need to keep Death and Life separate and clearly delineated. Knowing that I was free to paint whatever came helped me calm down and not take it all so seriously.

I hadn’t slept at all the night before. But as I told the group in San Francisco, through my computer screen, I learned that I could paint on no sleep, and I could paint without thought or comfort or anything to guide my brush. I had taken a small step into a dark world that nonetheless was not separate from the light world, in some way that passeth understanding.


Odd dark beauty

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.


 Painting cancer


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.


Family ties


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 my father


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.

Image8 (1)

William Henry McKenney




Painting Jesus

“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.


Red dog

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.


Something blue

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.”


Fri. 6-5-15

I painted “nothing” today, but it was “the right nothing”—just little lines, some leaves on a flower, flames, dots. It was intense. My mind wondered how a connection with… ?… can come through on such flimsy… I’m thinking the wings of an angel. I actually have an angel in the painting. At first I thought he was Death’s Henchman (Death is there, too, pulling me down into my grave). The Henchman, who I discovered last week is really an angel, though an unconventional one—but how do we know what a conventional angel looks like? He does have wings but also a do-rag on his head and a skull and crossbones on his back. I love mixing the expected with the unexpected. Once you do that, the unexpected takes over. It’s so much more interesting, surprising, freeing. It takes time over, too. My mind had a clock going, as always, but it didn’t seem to affect the intensity of the painting. It was like straddling time. “I” wasn’t “gone,” I was fully present, but not in a steady state. Well, it was stable but ever changeable. CCE has a painting workshop called “Death and the Unknowable.” Today Barbara announced that “part 2” was coming up. I thought about the Unknowable having sequences, numbered portions, there is a practical element to all this, after all. We are still in the physical world. But I wonder, are there two kinds of reality, the Knowable and the Unknowable? Give me the Unknowable any day. It’s the deepest Knowing there is. No end to the contradictions, which are only contradictions according to our mundane grasp of things, not truly a dual, clashing entity. We think we know what’s Real and what’s not—as if there’s anything that’s “not.” We have no idea. It is good to have no idea. We can talk about it, marvel at it, we can’t help making plans with it, thinking we can conquer it, but in Reality it is wild, not Knowable at all, except in that deep Knowledge that passeth understanding.

RAPPER11402352_829275280475283_4238451472827953716_o (1)


Group process

I despair of ever capturing in words, even in a small way, the spirit of the group process when we paint together. What happens in the group over a multi-day workshop is so exquisitely profound. Along with the “I’m feeling deep” vs. “I’m feeling like nothing’s happening” disparities, there’s a general sense that something sacred is going on. Our senses seem to awaken, and with that awakening, the sacredness is touched and also the deepest childhood wounds. It’s as if we get stripped bare and no longer have a choice about what we take in or even what we put out.

In one sense, the group process is a blurring of boundaries. In one corner of the room, people are laughing, and the nonlaughers feel isolated. Later, their positions may be reversed. Just about anything anyone says can be echoed and acknowledged by everyone else, everyone has “been there,” no matter which “there” you describe. But it’s the strangest thing. In the giving up of boundaries, I’m not wiped out as an individual. I’ve never felt so individual. I have the freedom to go deeply into my own exploration, wherever it takes me, whether I’m painting my mother and father or skeletons in their graves or God holding the earth. No need to apologize for (or explain) the tears, laughter, or spaciness, the outgoingness of the shyest person, the quietness of the usually talkative.

I’ve never felt this before, this strong sense of being accepted by other people, accepted for my honesty and sensitivity, my humor and erstwhile wisdom, but also for my shortcomings, because they are the common shortcomings of humanity: my fear, jealousy, selfishness uniting to make one imperfect but often lovable human being who is distinct from all the others but also the same, separating and connecting, being wise and being completely cut off from wisdom and grace, darting between one flower of experience and the next in a matter of moments. It’s this kind of exploration that the painting process is really about, and yet I don’t know if I can even touch it in writing, it feels too big and untranslatable.

It’s day 3 of a 7-day intensive, and I arrive feeling bad about my dumb sharing of the night before. H. had spoken movingly about painting a murderer who had been in the news. I had jumped in with my sociological observations and had she seen “Dead Man Walking,” and she had patted my knee kindly and said, “No, Mary.” I felt like a child, instead of old enough to be her mother. So on this morning, when Barbara mentions “group process,” I know I have to say something—or rather, read something I had written the night before. So I start to read all weepy and quivery, “I despair of ever capturing in words, even in a small way, the spirit of the group process.” I get through the reading but feel so exposed. Then H. (of all people) comes up to me and says that what I wrote had pierced a membrane over an opening for her, and I am so grateful and it seems just too perfect that she’d be the cause of tears of pain the night before and tears of connection the next morning.

In the afternoons of these workshops, when everyone is painting intently, it can get so quiet that you would swear you were the only one awake in a roomful of sleeping infants. And then someone will say something to Barbara in complete seriousness, and everyone will burst out laughing in recognition, and then we will go back into our separate but communal experience. On this day, in relief and gratitude and in the crazy connectedness of painting blood-red tubes between my mother and father, I was laughing along with everyone and feeling like my heart was full and pounding with the outrageous Rightness of it all. I could feel the spillover into my eyes, and when I would meet someone’s glance, we’d both be beaming understanding and intelligence and acceptance, worlds within worlds of communication, no words necessary.

And at the end of this joyous, raucous day, Maria is in high humor mode, rocking on her pillow and trying to speak but can’t get the words out she’s laughing so hard, and there’s poor H. sitting there with such dignity, in her pain of discovering that the man who murdered the women at Yosemite is her teacher of the moment. She’s been painting the beheaded woman and all the bloody details, painting him, the murderer, and she can’t help but see him as a human being, however broken. So how must she feel in the midst of all the painting hilarity, but she is quietly present for it all and I feel such respect for her. At the end, everyone is talking about going out for dinner, and H. says plaintively, “But I have to buy a cat door,” and we all crack up again. It’s such an incredible experience being with one another because you can’t pin anything down, it keeps careening through the room, and each moment is a brand-new birth of something unexpected.


Painting letters

6-20-98 (during a weekend workshop with beginning painters)

Dear D.,

Last night I woke up with an insight from painting that I wanted to remember to write about. So I grabbed my trusty microcassette recorder and captured it for all time. In the morning I eagerly rewound the tape to discover my croaky, middle-of-the-night voice saying, “Be in the moment.” Thank God I got that one on tape!

I’m back, exhausted, from my first full day of painting in a long time. And I’m so touched by the easily forgotten process, once again. I was in a marginally bored / “just painting” state for an hour or so, afraid to say anything to Barbara, afraid she’d come and look into my eyes and see that I was DEAD inside. Lately I’ve talked myself into thinking that I’m at a hopeless dead end, painting-wise. So I finally told Barbara this, and of course I immediately started to cry. She simply commented that a dead end usually doesn’t have so much feeling in it. She wanted to know what I could paint, and I said little black figures going up, and she asked where they were coming from (the earth) and who they were (lost souls), and what their names were (all MARY, of course). I was so impressed with her deft, simple, nonpanicked response to my dead certainty that I was hopeless. She was only there with me for a minute or less, and that’s all it took to turn me around. I really got into painting myself black and gushing red and birds tearing me apart.

Then I wanted to paint a large figure, and the first thing that came to me was a Blue Dog Being. And so of course I rejected it, because it seemed frivolous. But I told Barbara about it and it didn’t seem strange to her. When I started painting it, I had the strangest feeling, like love—a kind of embarrassed this-can’t-be-real-what-is-this-funny-stirring-in-my-chest-cavity. I put a halo around the Dog Being and all sorts of dots and sparklies and shimmeries, and was just totally floored by how much feeling was connected to this strange creation.

Afterward, in the group sharing, Barbara asked me if I had anything to say. The one thing I’d been wanting to say all day, I thought was too “advanced” or abstract for beginners. I said it anyway: “What I always forget about painting is that it puts me back inside. In my life, when I don’t paint, I live on the surface and judge everything on appearances. But painting has put me back in, living from the inside out.” As soon as I said this I was plunged into self-judgment, wishing that I had kept my mouth shut. I felt as much of a beginner in talking as I had in painting, but it seemed there is no payoff for being a beginner in talking. Even so, I left full of feeling and amazed and heartened once again by the painting process. So even if tomorrow is difficult and doesn’t go as I want it to, I’m hoping I can remember the gift of being in contact with myself again, and that’s partly why I’m writing to you about it in such detail.

Love, M



Dear D.,

I am so expanded from painting tonight, like I haven’t been (even close) in months. Yesterday was great, but today was really really IT. Interesting to discover that the expanded I AM EVERYONE throbbing chest feeling doesn’t just come from being with friends, longtime painters, or familiar faces. In the final sharing, as I felt myself moving outward and inward at the same time, it didn’t matter who was a friend and who a stranger.

Earlier in the day, I’d had the sudden piercing thought, I AM JESUS—and I wasn’t even painting him. I realized that Jesus isn’t some spiritual being “out there.” He is us, you&me!, in that deep-down suffering, half-human, all God being way that we all are, stretched out on our cross, feeling forsaken, forgetting the spirit even while embodying it.

So I said in the sharing that I felt so expanded that I felt like I encompassed all of San Francisco and probably California and so if anyone wasn’t feeling that great, it was OK because they were being held in my vast embrace … or something like that. I felt like I was glowing from deep inside and hardly able to contain myself. Afterward, someone I hadn’t even noticed all weekend told me my sharing made her “so happy.” So there you go.

But back to the beginning. I arrived at the studio in dread, afraid that yesterday’s triumphs would leave me totally stuck today. I had two crises. I ended one painting with a tiny Buddha in the corner, and I knew I wanted to start a new one with that. So I did, and it felt good, but I always feel on such alien ground with him, like I really have no associated imagery with the Buddha, just a big fat gold guy. As I painted, I felt myself getting into a narrower and narrower space, like I was rapidly running out of places to put gold and white dots and swirls and things, and there really wasn’t anything else there. But a feeling of intensity was building, and I told Barbara I wanted to put big dark blue “somethings” all over. She asked if I could do it with a small brush. So I found some thin blue rays I could do, and then more places with the blue, and suddenly it was like bursting out of the birth canal! I was so excited. I had been caught in the old trap of “This is a ‘spiritual’ painting so it has to look ethereal and, you know, spiritual.” But when I started with the blue, I remembered that I could do ANYthing, and it didn’t have to fit with some new-age incense and gold fat guy statue image or anything.

Why is that so hard to remember? I think it’s because the process has to throw you into beginner mode each time, that’s the nature of it, but it still surprises me that after all this time I don’t have that one down.

After a while I knew it was time for another big image. The two things that came to me were a tree and a blue Being. The color blue was the only thing I knew for sure. Barbara suggested that I not label it in advance but just invent it as I went. So I started painting, feeling very tentative, and this Thing just evolved, with several tentacle-like arms reaching around me, and a regular head, and big eye holes all over, and fat rays coming out of its back, and I was seriously appalled. I had a whole chatterfest in my mind about how it didn’t look like a Being, it looked like an alien. It couldn’t have been less “right.”

But as time went on, I noticed that the process didn’t seem to realize how totally wrong the image was. I was finding things to paint, and inwardly I wasn’t disturbed at all. So more time passes, I’m still painting, and suddenly I look at it and, you know, it doesn’t look half bad. It’s just a kind of strange Tree-ish Eye-Hole Being. I couldn’t believe it, that I had had the two basic lessons (or the one basic lesson, twice) in the same day. And to end with that big whomping chest expansion. Expect a miracle.

Love, M














Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: