“While working, it is helpful not to be all that smart.” Wolf Kahn
“In order to realize our creative powers, we have to believe that we have the ability to make something significant. As I reflect on this attitude, I realize that I am not really talking about self-confidence. I am describing a commitment to “the process” and its ability to generate worthwhile results. I learn over and over again that the creative process is an intelligence that knows where it has to go. Somehow it always finds the way to the place where I need to be, and it is always a destination that never could have been known by me in advance.” Shaun McNiff
In his book on pastels, Wolf Kahn talks about using trees reaching up to the sky as symbols of aspiration. He describes his thoughts on this idea using his paintings as an example – but then he says, “These are after the fact readings; had I thought of it at the time I made the pictures, it might have ruined the whole enterprise. While working it is helpful not to be all that smart.”
I had a similar experience while working on a series of paintings I did based on a photo I took of a gal sitting at an outdoor cafe on California’s Catalina Island. The series came to symbolize so many things for me – from my love for Catalina Island to my love of trying to read a person’s body language. As the series grew however, it became more and more autobiographical – it became a meditation on my life. Through it I was “Looking Back” (the title of the series) on my life and my art. The last painting in the series to date, Shattered, was painted right after my mom passed away and perfectly expressed my feelings at the time.
Looking back on my Looking Back Series (sorry, couldn’t resist!) , I know that if I had insisted on the specific “content” I had determined in advance for each of these paintings, I never would have discovered the deeper, more personal meaning that this subject/figure/pose/body language held for me. By allowing myself to trust the process and to dig deeper into my inquiry of my subject, I found what I was looking for when I first viewed my subject. And, to repeat Wolf Kahn’s brilliant observation, “These are after the fact readings; had I thought of it at the time, it might have ruined the whole enterprise.”
When I thought about it, I realized that this has happened to me many times. While I may start out with my “content” identified – the story I want to tell in my painting – I often end up in a totally different place with a totally different story. I’m learning that that’s a very good thing!
In her book The Quest for Inspiration, Peggy Hadden adds another twist saying, “Spontaneity is the salt on the tomato, the tiny shot of black that Matisse knew would raise the value of all the wonderfully bright colors he used, that mysterious quality that we don’t control. Artists must welcome the spontaneous to enter into the process of creating. The term spontaneous is defined as that which comes without constraint, without effort, or premeditation. For example, you may accidentally spill yellow paint on a canvas that has no yellow in it, yet realize that the yellow was exactly what the picture needed. But you had no plan to introduce yellow on that canvas. When you permit the yellow to remain as part of the finished work, you’re allowing for spontaneity. Spontaneity, for those of us who are control freaks, may be the disaster of the day and, yet, permitted to remain, it can become the genius of the piece. In fact, people may come forward and ask you how you thought of that wonderful touch of yellow. At first, it will be hard to keep a straight face, as you demurely offer an answer but, later, you’ll realize that you’re getting credit for something that could just as easily have been the ruination of an otherwise good, but dull, artwork. If a wild rose somehow insinuates itself into a bed of cultivated flowers, the result may be spectacular, if unplanned – and so it is with happy accidents. The English language even has a word for such felicitous accidents – serendipity.
But there is a price to pay for spontaneity and serendipity. We must be willing to give up control, the feeling that we “know” what we’re doing (or that we really know anything at all!). We must be willing to be comfortable with what John Keats called, “negative capability” – the ability to embrace the unknown, to endure endless encounters with uncertainty.
What do you think? How do you deal with the issues of content, spontaneity, and serendipity in your work? Should we insist on delivering pre-determined content in our paintings? Or should we simply honor the subjects that call to us and trust that there is more there than meets the eye?