I think I’m starting to come out of the place of unknowing.
I have inklings of new beginnings. But when I am at the start of a new creative endeavor the theory-practice gap is a yawning chasm. All my ideas, interests and impulses are pure theory till I put brush to canvas and manifest something. The first steps are baby steps, tentative and doubtful. I am surrounded by questions. I even went back up to the pond thinking maybe I should spend another year painting that same view again. But I know I can only go forward. It’s strange to be driven to do something so intensely when you don’t know what it is.
At some point I realized that I wanted to paint something I was authentically connected to, and to paint about that relationship. The love I feel for the pond and the tree I’ve been painting for the past year was so palpable. That place is so meaningful to me, and when I painted that scene, that love was part of the activity. Looking at the collection of over 60 paintings in the pond series, sometimes it seems the subject is the depth of respect and reverence I have for that place rather than just the place itself.
These thoughts were in my mind as I walked through my studio and my eye fell on a tea bowl made by my friend Marc Lancet. I’ve been collecting tea bowls, made mostly by Marc, for over 20 years. I have a collection of over 25 of them. They are so much more than beautiful. In addition to demonstrating the exquisite aesthetics of an ancient culture, they somehow have a sense of geology, as if they emerged like stones from the heart of the earth. They are bright and empty and silent. When I sit with them, they teach me to pay attention and listen, and to remember what is important and simple and astonishing.
I’ll paint these bowls, I thought. In some ways they are like my tree, there is a deep relationship there and they are local, simple and immediate. I reflect on how the way the sculpted clay engages heat and flame reminds me of the dance between the cultivated and the wild that I witnessed every day that I painted at the pond. But, in another way, these bowls are nothing like the pond, for they are still and unchanging, especially in the controlled light of the studio. Perhaps they will offer an interesting counterpoint to all that study of change and lead me to consider questions of motion and stillness yet again.
Now I have to bridge that gap and actually paint! First there is set-up. What height to place the bowl? Do I paint standing or sitting? How to arrange the lighting? What scale? What does scale even mean here? Do I paint them life-size? Can I make them smaller? Does larger scale connote commitment, intensity, reverence, respect? I begin to remember how many questions arise when I try to do something as simple as “paint a tea bowl”.
I pass another day with seven false starts in paint on different-sized canvases and from different points of view. I decide I need to paint the bowl floating in space; any ground gives too much context and serves as a distraction. I “realize” (although I don’t know how I know this or what unspoken law of composition I might be following) that I need squares, I can only paint these tea bowls on squares. I begin with a 16” x 16” square and begin painting the bowl in the center of it. An hour later, I know it’s wrong. Either the space is too big around the bowl or, if I fill that space, the bowl itself gets too magnified. I do want a little of the magnification that happens when you give something your full attention. At this point I consider giving the whole effort up as it’s been a couple of days and it just doesn’t seem to be working.
Then I try a 12” x 12” square: one square foot. Immediately I recognize that size, that measure of so many measures, from stepping stones and floor tiles to mirror tiles and countertops. Although I know that particular size so well, I’ve never painted on a square foot canvas. I look at the square foot and think, what could be more banal? And what could be more simple than a clay tea bowl fired in a wood fire? The two together are interesting.
I notice a small rush of fascination and feel the thrill of inspiration. I also feel some relief as I think finally something substantial I can work with has emerged. Of course, this may end up being another false start. But for now I see a doorway to walk through, a new pathway to explore the nature of human meaning-making.