The Place of Unknowing

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Facing the blank canvas…again

Diving back in after 4 months away from posting on my blog and two months out of the studio. The year of painting the pond almost every day is now well behind me and I plunge ahead to the next thing. I am faced with initiating new directions after completing a large body of work.

This is the private part of the process. It always has been for me; it may be for most artists…the still place, the place when the wind stops filling your sails, the place of huge questions and feeling small, and doubt.

Alone again in the studio and ready to paint, I find myself in what I’d call the place of unknowing. This is a place in which I have spent time before. I’m not comfortable when I don’t know what to do: what I want to do, what I should do, what I must do.

Adding to my discomfort is the heartbeat of the world, which is especially loud and insistent to me these days and seems to amplify everything. Heat waves and fires, violence,  injustice and war, hurricanes, Donald Trump! It is all enraging, distracting, heartbreaking and confusing.

This is an erratic place to be. I swing from frantically starting new work to deciding to try to finish or re-work old work, to staring out the window or at the wall. Inspiration could strike at any moment, could come from any direction. I am energized and edgy, stimulated, frustrated, fascinated.

In this place of unknowing I find myself looking back, as if searching for clues. Yes, I’ve been here before, and I can remember this part of the cycle. In my creative process there is a breathing in and out from clarity to muddle, in and out from knowing to unknowing. Although I have lived with this cycle for decades still the unknowing is always private and hard.

 In an effort to better understand the work of art, I am trying to make this opaque part of the process transparent, especially to myself. As I  write about this, I find myself searching for the right metaphors. How can I describe this journey of moving from knowing to unknowing and back again?

  • A door that opens up and then closes again;
  • A visitation that materializes and then vanishes before my eyes;
  • A light that clearly illuminates everything and then turns off again, leaving me in the darkness;
  • Falling in and out of love.

I’m not sure which fits best but there is a little truth in each. Even though I have experienced this before, I am still feeling lost and in a sense it feels like the first time. What do I do in the dark? Wait for the lights to come on or walk with my hands out? How can I get that door to open again? How long will it remain shut?

I remember Chekhov said: The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.

After many years of moving through this part of the cycle, at least I have come to understand that a few things are called for: trust in the process, heightened awareness, a willingness to experiment, and a lot of patient practice. But perhaps what I need most is what I seem to have the least of, faith.

8 thoughts on “The Place of Unknowing

  1. This is beautiful, thank you for sharing these thoughts Adam. One of the stories beginning to fall apart in our world is that of the lone genius, feverously creating away in some mythical and extraordinary place that produces great art. We hail and celebrate the pain of artists on one level, and mock and deride it on another level, often depending on how important we judge the artist to be. But most of the time, the real experience of a real artist in the real world (with real stuff going on like heat waves and Trump!) is not understood beyond these cartoon depictions. The Place of Unknowing is not an easy place to be, or to speak of.

    Artists feel the same things as other humans, but often, (in my observation anyway!) artists have a greater willingness than many to breathe into and inhabit these uncomfortable and edgy spaces you write about. A crisis in faith is always part of the bigger process of keeping the faith—when sometimes all you can do is hold your brush or your instrument or your pen and stare out the window. It’s easy to be an artist when the muses are flowing, and the synapses are snapping….but for me at least, those sweet hallelujah places only happen after spending some time in the Place of Unknowing.

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  2. We’ve all been there, Adam, and in my experience these in-between times, the fallow ones, are the most fruitful and the most unsettling. Thank you so much for sharing yours. I wrote about mine in a poem, below.

    inside tallgrass prairie

    as though

    the spaces
    between clumps between
    deergrass spikes

    must
    have always
    been there

    lying with leaf-fall
    in the scrub-gray field
    deadstill unseen

    not
    the stab & rustle
    trampled stalks
    a scent of crush

    but as though
    inside nothing
    something
    could give breath make room

    for the unperceived
    the unexpected

    call it want desire
    without

    wild wind or heat

    Judith Pacht,
    Caesura

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  3. Diving and dwelling into the great mystery and willing to be in the ” I don’t know”. Brilliant writing …..inspiring . Be with the breath and be patient. A big lesson for me as well. What did pop up for me while reading this: Does Adam do family portraits? Has he ever painted Sabine or Katy???
    To great inspiration and inner peace…XO. Suzette

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  4. I’ve only recently emerged from my own place of unknowing, which I call by various names: hibernation, fallow time, the doldrums, adrift, motiveless, gestation, etc. depending on my mood. The Place of Unknowing makes a copious container for the whole mix.
    I love your pond series, Adam, and Chris’ filming and your wise comments create a lovely art piece/teaching.
    I live in my own world of voluntary limitation. I just this minute made that up as another way of saying I’m a minimalist! And my frugality, I also just this minute realize, is another aspect of voluntary limitation. When I am centered in my Artist Essence, I see everything I do as art, and everything in my process as congruent. Thank you for this inspiration, Adam.
    I’m signing up for your notifications.

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    1. Thank you for your comment Dot! It means so much to me that you are out there and listening and breathing into the work.I know what you mean about being “centered in your artist essence” (or not), when I am not there is an inside and an outside and sometimes I feel shut out of my own work! That duality is an illusion of course, we are whole beings.. so why is it a struggle sometimes to accept that as the truth of our existence? Anyway all my love goes out to you tonight, may you remain congruent, inspired and courageous!

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