As a tennis fan— watching, sadly not playing–long hours of summer, Sunday mornings are spent struggling to tear myself away from the TV as my Catholic upbringing shouts that I should be doing something that is at least productive if not spiritual. The anxiety rises in my chest, but I stay unmoved.
I can’t help it. I watch the searing focus and amazing agility of the players knowing their commitment, wishing it would rain outside so I would feel less guilty about being inside. Why don’t I have such focus? Such discipline? I could have been in the studio for hours by now. Or at least the laundry could be going. Or the plants getting tended. Or a long walk. Or? But I remain captivated.
It may be rebellion against the typically American need for productivity that, for me, does not foster things like thought, poetry or beauty unless it’s in a clean house or a well-weeded garden. Or it may simply be laziness easily couched (pardon the pun) in the myth that watching sports is actually doing something. I like to think hearing the umpire say “Egalite’” at the French Open is practicing a foreign language. Perhaps that counts.
The thing about tennis that is so compelling is observing the psychology of an individual who is solving problem after problem in an instant not knowing exactly to what they are going to be reacting. The wheels turn as the player discerns with acute awareness and then fluidly responds. If a player commits right when the shot goes left the point is dead. Then the face reveals where the player is mentally. And if they beat themselves up for the wrong move the next shot is most often equally wrong. When they center and breathe and take risks, they show brilliance. There is no one else on whom to depend. They alone are responsible for the outcome and yet they can’t fully plan or construct it. They have to take each shot as it comes.
IT’S THE SAME THING IN PAINTING!!!! Focus, awareness, concentration and connection to the mark just as a player connects to the racket and the ball–that is what the process is for me. And just like in tennis, trying to think ahead too much leads to being in the wrong place at the wrong time shutting down the possibilities. You have to react to the last passage, the last mark that speaks. If I decide too early what my painting should look like the result may be competent, but the mysteries and the magic might never materialize. It is only in taking the risks of not-knowing and staying connected in the moment with a belief in what’s imaginable that the best can be born. Trying too hard to force the result is rarely a winning strategy.
So even in a practice as ubiquitous as figure-work is for an artist, where it seems as if the result should be obvious, paying attention and reacting to what you observe as you truly engage with model and materials rather than planning the end result is what really builds skill. It creates the unknown, the unexpected and the yet-to-be-learned as any worthy match does.