As most of you know my drive to scribble on walls, sidewalks and coloring books was undeniable from an early age. For Sheila Martin, it was the making of mud pies that propelled her into creative life. Some of us (perhaps most of us) have a drive to make, to say, to express SOMEthing. We may not have a clue what that is, but the “itch” somewhere in the middle of the chest, or back of the throat, or between the eyes can be felt. It nags. But it’s hard to scratch. It’s a universal feeling that has been analyzed and discussed and written about for eons.
When I was a rower my favorite boat was the “eight”. Eight rowers, eight fifteen-foot-long oars and a coxswain in a sixty-foot-long, two-foot-wide shell balances shakily on a fast-moving river. If the oars don’t enter and exit the water at the same time the boat is unstable. Moving forward is hard. Muscles jolt, joints get pulled out of sockets, movement is not fluid. And there is a risk of capsizing.
But when all eight oars catch the water in concert and withdraw in unison with mighty thighs, abs and arms the boat can sit up and ride on the top of the water’s surface tension and glide forward with a sweet gurgle.
In an entire season—from March through mid-November, three-plus days a week, 8 to 10 miles a row— we might, if we were lucky and good, put together fifty strokes like that. Stringing two or three together was exciting. Even one lone stroke was recognized to be special. We’d analyze for hours over coffee how it happened. How could we make it happen again? Our coach was an Olympian, on the cover of US Rowing, a medalist. She was coached by the best in the world. It was crazy that a collection of middle-aged moms, most with no athletic background, could come together in this elite sport with an elite coach and in the dark and freezing rain experience transcendence. It was a mystery. Discussing the minutiae in an effort to understand how each element functioned so we could make it happen again was a worthy pursuit that took up hours and hours of each week.
And in the end, we knew that, despite the work ,the training and the effort put into understanding the function of each part of the stroke, we learned that at some point to ‘let go’ and trust was what was necessary in order for the mind and body and boat to soar.
Painting is like that. The components are many and the function of each can make a difference. Angelina, Sheila Service and I discuss all of this regularly as we share this moment of reaching for something and being afraid of falling short. But I watch it in me and in them and in others– the tightening. And the one thing I am sure of is that without a combination of practice and “letting go”, without a bit of a free fall, without a belief that an expression of our authentic selves can be enough, the work will lay still. It will stay in that canyon of “competency, but who cares”. For evidence of the life that letting go can inject into a brush stroke, just look at the apples (especially Leslie’s).
I remember clearly telling my mentor that “I need to paint, not to make paintings”. That phrase came to me in the midst of a discussion on what creates “art”. It was clear to me in that moment that the process is where the value lays, not the product. As we approach exhibition, our work will benefit by remembering how each stroke informs the next. Treat them like “teachers” on a journey, not like a definition of who we are or what we know.