Next week ends my fall/winter sabbatical at home, and I will begin this new year of travel and teaching in St. Louis. I am thinking this morning about how much of my development as an artist comes from what I learn by teaching! My students in St Louis helped to shape the theme for this year: Deepening Your Art Through Daily Practice. This gives me the challenge of asking myself how to deepen my practice, and expand the exercises that we do in class.
I returned to my first days as a student, when I was introduced to Sister Corita Kent's Rules and Hints for Students and Teachers. This has inspired me to come up with a list of my own.
How do you deepen your art?
I see a work of art not as a thing in itself, but as a door that opens both ways: out into the world, and inward to your soul. The timeless contemplative practices of going deeper cultivate making as a discovery. This way of operating is participatory, rather than asserting your will. It is based on the assumption that the creative process is inherently sacred, an exchange with something larger than yourself. It is, in fact, a blissful opportunity to forget yourself, your lists, your self-image, your ability, your age, etc. Freshness, power and magnetism in your work comes from depth, not from cleverness. To paraphrase Gerald Manley Hopkins:
There lives the dearest freshness in deep down things
Here is my first draft of principles I strive to live and teach by:
1. Everyone belongs: My classes are inclusive. They are for professionals and beginners. They are for anyone interested in a contemplative atmosphere of discovery, and a desire to express through color, shape or word. I understand that each one of you, without exception, has something particular to offer. I name here this something as your infinite particular.
2. Leave everything behind: I practice creating an atmosphere in which to bring out your best work, your infinite particular. It requires more of me, and more of you. It necessitates all of us to defy the 24/7 trend of culture to be "on call". This means leaving our devices, distractions and duties behind. We practice dropping expectations for ourselves and each other, and welcome beginner's mind. In this way we protect the sacred space, the temenos, and make room for the muse.
3. Getting stuck: Getting stuck is a necessary part of the creative pattern. I don't see it going away, but it does become easier to navigate by welcoming it, by making a note of it (oh it's you again!). Some of the most compelling discoveries come through a willingness to say yes to what gets us jammed up.
4. Commitment: The decision to show up for the part of yourself that brings you to being a maker, to doing what you are here to do, needs cultivation, like a plant, on a regular basis.
5. Doing/ Being: There is a tension between doing and being. It is easy today to fall into "cruise control" mode, wandering from one thing to the next, without any time for being. Compulsive doing magnifies complications and confusion. It is common to assume that being still is not actually a part of your work– that it is not "productive"– but I believe it is every bit as crucial as when you have your brush in your hand. It is not so much about what you do, as it is the awareness you bring to your doing.
6. Participation: The creative process happens when there is an exchange, a conversation that is new and alive: with your inner self, with the painting, with the tree you are walking by. You activate imagination and play. Creativity is blocked by asserting your will. When you adopt the attitude that everything is alive and full of mystery, that you are participating in something much vaster than yourself, you can learn a lot.
7. Shadow boxing: This practice requires a willingness to take risks, to engage with your shadow, your dark side. What are your reference points? What is unresolved in your heart? What makes you push back? How can you learn from what you want to exclude? Your work gains authenticity, authority and allure when you notice what has resonance, let go of slick tricks, and draw upon your shadow.
8. Remembrance: The idea that creation is more an act of remembrance than making something new has been said by many great thinkers. There is a strong sense of our ancestors, of all the footprints that have been left for us, of the timelessness of what matters. The Bushmen had a practice that cultivated intuition and remembrance. They listened intently, and when they heard an inner tapping, no matter how faintly, they went to their sacred place to wait and concentrate more deeply.
9. Deep Time: The commitment to showing up in a place where you will not be interrupted eventually has the effect of dropping you into the luxury of deep time. From this place you have relinquished the driver's seat, and cannot make a "wrong turn".
10. Talent: Often what seems like talent is watching someone do something they have practiced so long that it looks easy. Everyone is born with a seed, an infinite particular, that no one else has, or will ever have. There is something you have to offer, however small, to give back to this world– an offering that gives meaning and coherence. The Zen Buddhists call this "the face you had before you were born."
This is the poignant place of recognition, of returning home.
"They once loved the raft, now they love the shore where it has taken them."
–Richard Rohr, Falling Upward
What deepens your work? What stops you? I'd love to hear from you.