Monday, 31 October 2011

sweet darkness

Sweet Darkness
When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your womb
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
David Whyte

 House of Belonging

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

how to be an explorer of the world

Keri Smith

If any of you have been looking at the work on flickr that I've been doing since the Authentic Artist workshop, you'll be familiar with the idea of 'keeping your channel open'. I developed this after reading the Martha Graham letter I posted here some time ago, where she is urging someone to forget about comparing themselves with others, or trying work out whether their work is good or not, and simply to do this - to keep their channel open. In conjunction with what changed and moved for me as a result of the workshop, this idea has guided me ever since. For me it's a way of capturing the importance of working without any doubt or self-criticism - to allow whatever registers in my field of vision (inner or outer) to exist and be responded to.

I've come across a book, How to be an Explorer of the World, which  seems to be just perfect for moving this along. I keep noticing, over and over, a tendency in myself to unconsciously be looking for the pattern of behaviour, or the attitude, or the daily routine, that will somehow be 'right', and from which everything else will just flow. And over and over again, I learn that it doesn't work like this. The music that had me moving and singing and painting one day is the wrong thing on another. The activities that 'worked' so brilliantly on one occasion completely fail on the next. Somehow I have to learn that every day has to be different, has to be new, has to be approached and explored in a way that doesn't repeat what went before. This book is providing a brilliant way of doing this.

Three days I ago, I drew ten things that I could see from where I was sitting. Yesterday, I took 'two random experience generation' pills and set off on a long walk, to document what I could see, and hear, and smell. Today I have to document thirty things that reflect the light, and also describe in words how the reflection of the light is different in each case (diffused, mottled, shiny etc). It works particularly well for me because of its focus on the multisensory (as in... words, objects, colours, music, movement, voice etc), and on looking and seeing rather than on drawing or making paintings.

In all these years I've struggled to get the painting/drawing genii out of its box, I've always had this idea (and I've said this in many different ways before) that when it started working, I would be possessed from within with something that would make me want to draw and paint unceasingly. One of the things that got in the way of this actually ever happening was the sense that artists 'draw all the time' either because they want to improve their technique, or because they had some mysterious vision or sense of the world inside themselves that they were responding to. What I'm increasingly discovering is what John Cage talks about in my previous post - that I don't need to think about improving or learning something, and I don't need to have some magical vision. Perhaps most importantly, I don't have to assess every thing that comes out to see whether it's 'going somewhere' or not, in relation to that nebulous vision. All I have to do is be really, really interested in everything around me; to study it, in itself, in its being there. That's all.

Monday, 24 October 2011

waking up

'[the residual purpose of art] is PURPOSELESS PLAY. This play, however, is an affirmation of life - not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we're living, which is so excellent once one gets one's mind and one's desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord'

John Cage, cited in How to be an Explorer of the World

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

'who are you really'?

There was a very good supplement published in the Guardian this weekend entitled 'How to write fiction'.  It's full of interesting pieces by different writers, and also has short writing and freeing exercises. The section that drew me towards it this morning, however, was on voice.

'Who are you really'?
Your 'voice' lies somewhere between your conscious and subconscious mind. Finding that place is a challenging exercise in self-confrontation.

Do you have a voice? Can you recognise a voice when you hear one? And while we're on the subject, what does 'having a voice' actually mean?

How to kill a living thing

Neglect it
Criticise it to its face
Say how it kills the light
Traps all the rubbish
Bores you with its green

Harden your heart
Cut it down close
To the root as possible

Forget it
For a week or a month
Return with an axe
Split it with one blow
Insert a stone

To keep the wound wide open

Do you hear a voice in those lines? Despite being unable to pronounce her name, the author Eibhlin Nic Eochaidh's voice is so clear to me, I'm tempted to offer her a chair and a cup of tea.

Many would-be writers spend far too much time nervously scrabbling about for a voice, but the word itself is horribly misleading. 'Voice' (unlike 'power' , for instance, or 'presence') suggests a superficial quality, one that can be manipulated by having singing lessons, or by changing the tone, volume, or accent.

There is nothing superficial, however, about voice when used in the context of writing. Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.

So... what is the essence of your personality? What is the clearest expression of your DNA combined with a lifetime of experience? What does the combination of nature and nurture add up to? In other words, who are you? Who are you really?

If you don't know, you need to find out. Self-knowledge is essential not only to writing, but to doing almost anything really well. It allows you to work from a deep place - from the deep, dark corners of your subconscious mind. This connection of the subconscious to the conscious mind is what gives a writer's voice resonance.

Read a great writer and you'll feel the resonance - it's the added dimension of power that can't quite be explained by mere talent. An ability with words is nice, but it's not a voice.

Connecting with your subconscious mind is not easy. It requires confronting difficult facts - about yourself and about the world. Can you know who you are without understanding your own weaknesses? And what frightens you? Can you know who you are without understanding the evil, the selfishness, the cruelty of which you're capable? OK. And the goodness, kindness, brilliance as well

Of course the biggest, darkest question of all is death. Not an easy question to meet head-on. Some people naturally confront death. Some seem incapable of not confronting it. Woody Allen says that when he was a small child he lay in bed, terrified, contemplating eternal nothingness. So, apparently, did William Golding. Many people, however, live their lives in evasion of the central fact of existence.

Of course it is perfectly possible to be a writer without facing death face-on, without years of psychoanlaysis, and without a tendency towards depression. But the resonant, powerful, exciting voice that grips you in its thrall is likely to be a voice with a good deal of hard-won wisdom about humanity.

Which brings us to 'throughness'. 'Throughness' is a word I've borrowed from dressage; 'The supple, elastic, unblocked, connected state that permits an unrestricted flow of energy from back to front and front to back'. Synonymous with the German term Durchlassigkeit, or 'througlettingness', it is often used in conjunction with the word 'connection' - define as a state 'in which there is no blockage, break, or slack in the circuit that joins horse and rider into a single harmonious unit; the unrestricted flow of energy and influence from and through the rider to and througout the horse, and back to the rider'.

Now think, for a minute, of your subconconscious mind as the horse and your conscious mind as the rider. The goal is a combination of strength, suppleness, and softness. If the rider (conscious mind) is too strong, too stiff or unsympathetic, the horse becomes unresponsive and dull. The object of the dressage is to create an open, graceful exchange of understanding and energy between horse and rider.

In writing, a powerful flow of energy between conscious and subconscious mind will result in extraordinary occurences. Characters will behave in ways you had not anticipated. Twists of plot will astound you. The part of your brain that concocts elaborate dreams while you sleep with emerge in daytime, informing your story in ways you might never have anticipated.

A book written with an exchange of energy between the conscious and subconscious mind will feel exciting and fluid in the way that a perfectly planned and pre-plotted book never will. Writing (like riding, or singing, or playing an musical instrument, or painting or playing cricket or thinking about the universe) requires the deep psychological resonance of the subconscious mind. It requires throughness and connection, and only then will the reader feel the surge of power that a clever borrowed voice never achieves.

The good news is that you can achieve throughness by writing. Practice, in other words. Write first thing in the morning when your conscious brain hasn't quite taken over yet. Write letters. Or essays. Write and write and write, and athen look at what you've written to find out who you are.

Last bit of advice? Stop thinking about your voice. Think about your life instead. Live. Take risks. Seek wisdom. confront the unconfrontable. Find out who you are. Let your voice gain power as you go.

Then write your book.

Meg Rosoff

Saturday, 15 October 2011

sending a message?

The basic problem in artistic endeavor is the tendency to split the artist from the audience and then try to send a message from one to the other. When this happens, art becomes exhibitionism. One person may get a tremendous flash of inspiration and rush to 'put it down on paper' to impress or excite others, and a more deliberate artist may strategize each step of his work in order to produce certain effects on his viewers. But no matter how well-intentioned or technically accomplished such approaches may be, they inevitably become clumsy and aggressive toward others and toward oneself......Our message is simply one of appreciating the nature of things as they are and expressing it without any struggle of thoughts or fears....

Trungpa Rinpoche

Thursday, 13 October 2011

the freedom of cheap materials

I had a conversation on the phone this morning with someone about how threatening good quality art materials can be. We found that we both had beautiful watercolour paper which cost £3.50 a sheet lying around unused, along with a number of beautiful sketchbooks (also unused).

It strikes me that we blockos are kidding ourselves buying high quality paints which then sit on the end of the brush pregnant with expectation (if they ever get to the end of a brush), freezing us to stone.

I've been experimenting over the last year or so with different materials. I started with the best quality watercolours, and there's on doubt that they're fabulous. There's also no doubt that Sennelier oil pastels, at £1.35 each, compared to what you can get in your local budget book store, £2.00 for a whole box, are like chalk and cheese. Using Sennelier is like painting with lipstick; using the budget one is like drawing with a candle.

But, a few months ago I decided to start using lining paper, so that I could stop worrying about the cost of experimenting. I used the thickest available - what you buy from a hardware store for putting on your walls. It's so thick that you don't need to stretch it for acrylic or watercolour (just pin the sides down as it dries). You can scrunch up the painting, run it under the tap, and otherwise abuse it, and it still holds together. My recent big self-portraits were done on this - it's so cheap that you don't care what you do, which means you can start to work differently. The paper does start to yellow quite quickly if you leave any paper showing, but as you're experimenting, you don't care about such things....

For acrylic paint, I've found that Gerstaecker and Aquatec, both available from Great Art, are half the price of Daler-Rowney System 3, which seems to be the 'cheap' artist quality paint. You can get 500 ml for £5, or £7, and, having tested them against paints that are up to £10 for a small tube, there isn't a lot of difference. At least if you want to throw them on thick and play.

Seawhite of Brighton do very good quality hard and softcover sketchbooks. The supply art colleges and schools and are much cheaper than other places.

Jacksons are my favourite supplier (I had to remove this link, but they're easy enough to find). They're usually cheaper than everyone else, have top quality stuff, including their own really good quality paints, and everyone there is an artist and can give you advice or find out information if you have a query about something. These sites are obviously all in the UK...


Sunday, 9 October 2011

picture process

It turned me inside out, that workshop.

I'm not currently interested in analysing it, but if you're interested in the process, I've just put some pictures on the photostream...


Saturday, 8 October 2011


body contour self-portrait

like a great whale
on this blue sofa
under the sky

what an effort
to heave myself onto dry land

what a tremendous
letting go

look at the size of me
I had no idea
I was so big

I had no idea
no idea
I was

I had no idea I was SO big

no wonder
I was so tired
with all this straining

with all this
straining to slip its bonds
straining to fly

but also
for the earth

straining to

into the earth

Monday, 3 October 2011


the channel

An extract from a letter from Martha Graham to Agnes de Mille

There is a vitality,
a life force,
an energy,
a quickening 
that is translated through you into action
and because there is only one you in all of time,
this expression is unique.

And if you block it,
it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.
The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is
nor how valuable,
nor how it compares with other expressions.

It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly
to keep the channel open.

You do not have to believe in yourself
or your work.
You have to keep open and aware directly to
the urges that motivate you.
Keep the channel open.

No artist is pleased.
There is no satisfaction whatever, at any time.
There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction,
a blessed unrest
that keeps us marching
and makes us more alive
than the others.

Martha Graham to Agnes de Mille in "Dance to the Piper"


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