“If you know what you are going to write when you’re writing a poem, it’s going to be average.”
A friend heard a poem on the radio and emailed it to me this morning.
It was “Love After Love” by Derek Walcott.
Since I wasn’t familiar with him, I did a little research and came across several of his quotes, including the one written above, which got me thinking.
Two nights ago, I was having a conversation with some friends in our basement studio. I was describing my painting process and how I never really know what a painting will end up looking like when I start. The forms that emerge as the painting comes together are always a fun surprise. An “Oh! Who knew that was living in my brain?” kind of thing.
That is to say, I rarely “know what I’m going to write when I’m writing a poem”.
I’ve had several (self-proclaimed!) “brilliant ideas” for paintings. I’ve got sketchbooks scattered with brainstorms and messy sketches and suggested color palettes for pieces that I want to make. Roadmaps to creating the perfect piece. In the midst of fleshing out these brainstorms and plans, I feel like a total freakin’ genius, to be honest.
But I rarely ever make or even start those pieces.
And I think this quote opens my eyes a little as to why.
For me and the work that I make, stepping up to a canvas is making the decision to open up, let something come out, and then to be very curious about what that something is all about. After all of this time, I have learned that I am just the middle man. I’m the hands that can get that something out into the world. I do not decide the something. I only have to pay attention and have a conversation with it.
In other words, painting, for me, is not about having a road map that I follow and force and strive to follow. Painting is about the conversation that happens during the process.
“I am thinking about the ways that traumas are passed down from generation to generation and the healing that can happen when we dig into the core of those traumas.”
I start to paint something that resembles a wound.
“The important thing about this is really the digging into that wound. It’s not stitching it up and trying to fix it, but it’s about understanding the ugliness of that wound so that we can heal it from the inside out.”
I use colors that reference blood and skin and insides.
“So often, we stitch things up, heal the skin around that wound, and never learn about what’s inside. I’m thinking about the imagery of an open wound with stitches that have been loosened on either side.”
I paint in the stitches.
“I’m noticing that this “wound” is also looking like a land mass surrounded by water on three sides. A peninsula. That makes me think about an area of the world that personally has been the root a lot of pain in my family, which is also a peninsula. I’m starting to recognize the specifics of the pain that I have been thinking about and they are coming out of me without me even trying.”
And it goes on like that. Back and forth. Put down some paint, get curious about what is happening and what it has to do with that core idea of the trauma and healing, and respond with more paint.
Eventually, it gets to a point where the image is resolved and I feel settled when I look at it.
Even when the painting itself is jarring or colorful or sharp or aggressive, when it’s resolved, that inner conversation is quiet. I’ve learned something about myself or the human condition and I’m standing in front of a painting that has seemingly come out of nowhere.
That’s the surprise of it!
And that’s not to say that I still haven’t created a final product that can be judged as “average”. But the process was exceptional and meaningful.
Many of us love to plan, to organize, to prepare, and to know what we’re in for ahead of time. When I remember the many parallels between my art practice and my life, I’m always reminded to become a little more curious about what is instead of forcing myself down a path of what I think should be.
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Sir Derek Alton Walcott (1930-2017) was a Saint Lucian poet and playwright. He received the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature.