I have long had a concern that in our ever growing world of distraction we are becoming more and more removed from our senses of seeing and perception. I'm not particularly insightful in making this observation, the media is filled with the commentaries warning of a generation or even generations "lost" to the vacuous, highly curated digital world where one can truly know longer believe what one sees, hears, or reads and we carve true connectedness and real human interaction but lack the skills to achieve them for lack of practice. And if that weren't enough, there are volumes of academic studies documenting the many and serious detrimental effects of social media, video games, etc. on the mental health of people of all ages.
I am no journalist nor am I an expert in mental health, but I do know what I see in my own high school students and I do know my own experience:
I have observed that all people experience a special satisfaction and sense of accomplishment when they create with their hands.
I have observed that working with one's hands is one of the quickest ways to achieve what brain experts refer to as the positive state of "flow."
I have learned that there is a beautiful, unique, non-verbal, dialogue that humans are capable of between their own mind, hand and eye.
I have learned that to become comfortable with quiet is to become comfortable with oneself.
I have learned to do anything well takes time and practice.
I have learned that knowledge comes from reflection upon experience and if there is no time for reflection the likelihood of learning becomes slim.
Why am I writing about this? The Art of Seeing has been a kind of reoccurring theme of late in both my art work and reading. I have included with this post a picture of a beautiful Chinese painting on silk from my recent visit to the Freer Gallery of Art. Of all the paintings and exquisite ceramics I saw that day, this work stood out to me the most. He is an average workman, pausing in his day not to only rest his body, but renew his spirit and mind by observing a chrysanthemum. He is seeing and perceiving the flower. In many ways it seems to me almost a symbiotic relationship. The flower needs the care of the human to thrive and the human needs the beauty of the flower to thrive.
I had my own small experience of this as I spent another three, three hour sessions drawing the bonsai at the National Arboretum over these past 14 days since my last post. I have decided to make my pencil drawings on watercolor as detailed as possible. And I reached a major milestone: I have decided on my three focus trees. You may recall the project is three trees: four seasons. You can see pictures of the trees (and me) below: Japanese Black Pine, Trident Maple, and a Crabapple. I have started however, several drawings of details of other trees, simply because I love them. I'm not quite ready to post any of this work yet. But, I promise too in the future.
While I have been continuing my work on this project, I stumbled upon the work of two women botanist. The first is Agnes Arber whose distinguish career and scientific contributions spanned over 50 years in the 20th century. Her research focused mainly on flowering plants. And to be completely honest, I'm not sure I truly can wrap my mind around her scientific works. However, later in life she began, through her writings she began to explore more philosophic realms including the activity of the human mind and seeing as well as the sense of "oneness" in nature. I have been reading her books The Manifold and The One as well as The Mind and The Eye and have been amazed at the similarities of the scientific mind in field observation and that of the artist in observation of their subject. I also find it fascinating that she risked discussing openly her experiences as she worked in the field as being one of the many but holistically complete parts of the "one" of Nature. Pretty risky stuff its seems to me for the empirical world of science. She also discusses how this experience is essential to the overall health of humans. Indeed, I don't think it is too far fetched to call her the mother of what is now tritely termed "forest bathing." Although I sincerely doubt she would like that.
After seeing the Academy Award winning documentary, "My Octopus Teacher" recently as well. I am assured that my experience of deep observation of my "little trees" as I have come to affectionately call them, is a shared experience of many (although I feared of late all too few) who spend hours being part of the living world and not just in the living world y trying to be truly present to other living things.
Of course now the question becomes, how do I bring this to my students? I'm hopeful through my development of my new lesson plan, "The Walking Sketchbook," I can help them to find their own way in the natural world. I have set up 14 different readings (all about walking in nature from many different historic periods and cultures), one per week as a text preface to a class walk outside, where the students will need to take at least 30 minutes and fill a page in their sketchbook. My hope is that text creates the mindset, the walk the mental quiet, and the drawing the flow. Ultimately, I hope in this experience they find themselves part of the world around them. But I have to keep reminding myself, it will take time, it will take practice.
The other botanist who was inspirational to me since my latest post is the 18th century British woman, Anna Atkins. A pioneer in both botany and photography, she created the first botany text, British Algae, to use a photographic process, the cyanotype (more commonly known as the blueprint in modern times). I was fortunate enough to get a copy of limited edition text which documents her life and work from an inter-library loan. It is filled with compelling images that I find myself tracing. For the first time, I am thinking of plants not just as forms but of the space their forms create, almost like living architecture. I'm not sure where all this is going, I have considered using some of my tracings as inspiration for a series of woodcuts, but for now, I'm enjoying this intricate world of the tracery of delicate plant structures. In case you are interested, the book is: Sun Gardens: Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins.
I have continued my printmaking work, specifically the foxes and the rabbits these past 14 days. I have posted the final work on my Works in Progress page. I have also been experimenting with multiple color printing on one woodblock. Somewhat tedious, but, I am enjoying the results (see flowers below). I can now write my name in Chinese! But, as you can see, I have to keep practicing. A wonderful exercise in the subtle use of the brush, but that is another topic for another blog post (it's been a busy two weeks as you can see!). And I have continued my work in my Japanese style album sketchbooks, the gold fish as well as started new one I call "dragon fly pond" and a second orchid. I am also completing a folding album of a daffodil that I began sometime ago and expect to post soon.
Lastly, below I have posted a picture of two more albums I have prepared using the plastic wrap technique in case any folks are interested in giving it a try for themselves. Well, for now that's a wrap! Stay tuned for mid-post updates for works as I complete them on my works in progress and portfolio pages.
When I haven't been painting in Japanese albums, I've been tinkering with printmaking. I've worked on several rough sketches for some new projects and promise to post those sketches once they are more refined. Last spring however, I was charmed by a pair of blue birds that fortunately, chose the nesting box on our upper deck as their home to start a family in. I sketched these little birds from life directly on to the wooden blocks. This month, I was able to complete carving the blocks and begin test prints. This is the mokuhanga technique, so I am using watercolor with rice paste and printing with a hand barren on rice paper. I'm still mastering the art of two color printing, but I'm pretty happy with this little fellow.
The subtlety of tone as well as that of the brush have given me a new appreciation for the range of nuance in human expression. There are simply tones and lines I am hearing and seeing for the first time. Recently, I watched the Academy Award winning documentary My Octopus Teacher and I could not help but think about this as I watched the beautiful, subtle relationship grow between two very different lives. So much of our being is defined by what we see. It seems to me the more we can see the broader and deeper our understanding of our own being and openness to the being of others. I feel myself growing, but I am not exactly sure how, just enjoying the practice and journey for now.
I kicked off my summer creative endeavors by beginning the sketch phase of a project that I had been hoping to start almost two years ago. For I long time I have been fascinated by bonsai. On a field trip to the National Penjing and Bonsai Collection, I asked my students to be Poet/Painters. That is, they were to select a subject tree from the collection and write and illustrate a poem inspired by the little tree. While there I wondered, what would it be like to pick three different trees and draw, paint, and create block prints of each in the four seasons. So a project was born! Just as I was preparing to begin the project, the pandemic happened, and I found that all of my potential subjects were sequestered behind closed doors. What a joy to begin my summer by finally being able to visit museums and galleries again! A most especially to visit one of my favorites: The National Arboretum and in particular the National Penjing and Bonsai Collection.
Since my last visit, like many folks, I had developed a pandemic obsession. Perhaps it was the fact that I couldn't access the collection which spurred me on to start my own humble bonsai collection. I only know that I am so glad it happened. An online class and numerous books on the subject, as well as a local enthusiast club whose dedication to the art form happily spilled into Zoom meetings kept feeding my curiosity. Since then I have learned so much about the art of penjing (the Chinese term for "tree in a tray") and bonsai (the Japanese term for the same). Although I know I have only scratched the surface, I never imagined what a cross curricular adventure it would be! Not only have I learned so much about the history of China and Japan (Buddhist monks brought the art of Penjing to Japan in the early 8th century BCE) but I have also learned so much about the biology of plants, trees in particular, and the environment as a whole. I also never imagined how valuable my knowledge of the visual arts including the elements and principles of design would be in not only appreciating these living works of art, but in understanding how artists are shape them. Lastly, too I was amazed to discover the important role of philosophy, in all this as well. I find myself truly pondering my place in the natural world and my role in fostering and shaping the growth of a living work of art. So I suppose that in a way the pandemic served as not only a true test to my commitment in starting to the the project which I'm calling "3 Trees 4 Seasons" but it thankfully provided an opportunity for me to deepen my understanding before I even lifted a pencil.
When I walked through the Arboretum I could't help be struck by the joyful atmosphere as I a passed by the newly filled koi pond and through the cool evergreen glade at the gate of the bonsai collection. It wasn't just me, it was in the air, everyone was so happy to be there. As I wandered through the collection I couldn't believe how much some of my old favorites had grown and changed, it was in many ways like seeing some of my students with their masks off for the first time in a year! I took my time snapping pictures of trees that caught my eye and their labels with my phone for review when I returned home. Then I found a nice shady spot with cool flat stones to sit on and I began the first sketch, seen above.
This sketch I used water soluble graphite pencils with watercolors highlights. This was my first time using this media, so I was stumbling through the combined techniques of pencil drawing and watercolor and trying to find what worked and what didn't. I was really pleased to discover that the pencils give a beautiful range of values, similar to sumi ink. I'm looking forward to practicing with this media more.
Since that first day, I have returned and started a second, larger sketch that I am hoping will be the underdrawing for a watercolor. The good news is that this wonderful Japanese Black Pine (#130 in the collection, too bad them don't have names!), will definitely be one of my three trees. Stay tuned for more about this project!
My next creative endeavor was participating in an online workshop given by the Delaware Chapter of the Guild of Book Workers. If you would like to learn more about them click on the button below.
The workshop focused on creating a clamshell box out of cardboard, which was a new thing for me. This experience ensured that I will never take a perfectly mitered corner for granted ever again, for boxes excellent construction is everything! To see the entire process you can go to my "Works in Progress" page for the step by step photos. The next part of the workshop was to link the boxes using a Jacob's Ladder. Thankfully, I was familiar with this binding having made a Jacob's Ladder book with fish prints before (again, for this please check out my Works in Progress page). The entire box was constructed with a foundation of Davey's board (a heavy cardboard, typical for book covers) black book cloth, and a beautiful Japanese decorative paper I got from TALAS Bookbinding and Conservation Suppliers. (check out www.talasonline.com). The ribbons used in the binding were some decorative ribbons I picked up from my local Joanne Fabric shop. I used PVA adhesive.
This project really helped me sharpen my cutting and construction skills which were a bit rusty since it had been several months since I had built anything three dimensional. Also, I was very happy I took the recommendation of the instructor and I had all my tools ready and materials cut out ahead of time.
Since attending this workshop, I have been wondering about the future of Zoom learning and the nature of online learning communities. Recently, I signed off of my social media accounts for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I am a teacher and I feel that the social media giants have been increasingly insensitive to the negative impacts of social media on young people. As an adult, in small doses, and through carefully vetted sources, I have greatly enjoyed my online learning experiences. Those that stand out in particular are with this organization, the Morgan Library, and the Prince's Foundation School for the Traditional Arts. I have been amazed at technology's ability to bring the world closer together (the instructor for this workshop was located in Mexico City!) and create enriching, albeit, temporary learning communities. I have no great revelations, but I will be curious to see how the learning landscape changes in the future.
So I made a promise to my husband after this, the Worst Year in the History of Education in the Western World, I would take it easy this summer. I wouldn't make too many commitments. I'm not sure I really know what that exactly means. I mean how many is too many and what exactly is a commitment anyway? I mean, does doing several things a week I really like not taking it easy? So I've been bumbling with indecision these past few months. And I realized in all honesty that one of the roadblocks I have been stumbling over for years (and not admitting it to myself) is common enough for most artists: I've been finding seemingly important and worthy activities to fill up my summer days and employ my energy that are not specifically my making art. Hmmm...but I thought I Liked making art? I do. I can say that without a doubt, but, why is facing unstructured time in the studio so difficult. What is it about an empty canvas that is so difficult to face? Why is the opportunity to "play" (as my colleague in the studio adjacent to mine at school would say) with materials seemingly a waste of time? Must I always have a goal or product in mind?
I suppose I could get very psychoanalytic about the whole thing and relate all of this to some over achieving work ethic that was instilled in me by my family culture in childhood. But, I'm a firm believer that after the age of 25 you are captain of your own ship in life for better or worse. Blaming yourself or others and dwelling on your past or circumstances is simply a waste of time. So here I am, at the start of a beautiful summer of my own making and choosing that this is the summer (hopefully) that I will face up to my own art in a more authentic way and just see what happens. Since I like a little structure I've decided I'm going to give myself some summer goals. This is something I also ask my own student to do, so in the spirit of "Physician, heal thyself" here are my goals:
1. Keep a summer sketch book and draw in it every day.
2. Read a few good books. Right now I'm finishing D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love and next on the agenda is Sarton's The Education of Harriet Hatfield.
3. Learn how to read, write and speak, a little Chinese.
4. Finish an unfinished painting I've been looking at too long.
5. Teach myself how to bind a book with a leather cover.
6. Finish my 3 Sparrows multi-color woodblock print.
7. Finish my fish etching.
8. Draw bonsai and maybe...
9. Work on my mukahanga foxes, birds, and bugs
10. Write two new lesson plans: one on Keeping and Walking Sketchbook and the other on Making a Poem into a Book.
I think that's enough for now. So if you are a student or colleague of mine and your are reading this, feel free to ask me about the above list. Now, I think I'll go make a cake...well, maybe draw first :-)
I suppose it seems strange to write about last summer in January. But, some distance on events helps me put things into perspective. These months since last June have been months of quiet work and reflection for me. The challenges of the pandemic and teaching have been quite real, but I thought I would take a moment to share some of the resources that truly helped enrich my home studio experience, inform my artistic practice, and continue to make me feel connected and positive.
Here are some things I did that truly helped:
1. Developed a daily artistic practice and kept a schedule with it. I also challenged myself to be "free" in my artwork. So I found out I kind of though iguanas were interesting and I ended up spending the better part of the summer creating a wood block reduction print of one. To see more of my summer works check out my "Works in Progress" page.
2. Reached out and stayed connected to my fellow artists through creative postcard exchanges, emails, letters, and text group chats where we shared our work and process. You may wonder why no social media was mentioned. I have found social media platforms increasingly depressing, so for self-care reasons I have intentionally been avoiding them. Also, I find the serendipity of Google searches and just visiting museum websites far more enjoyable and fruitful.
3. Participated in Zoom workshops through the artists' guilds I am a member of.
4. Attended free concerts and lectures at my favorite museums.
5. Took three online courses: Bonsai Fundamentals, Artistic Geometry of the Arab World, and Chinese Painting.
6. Became more deeply committed to spending time in nature and especially my garden.
7. Becoming an avid porch sitter in the evenings so I see and chat with my neighbors.
Here are a few links to some of my favorite little gems I recently discovered in the digital world in the past several months:
Popupology, incredible online source for making pop-up cards
Drawing Prompts for Everyday, just found this article very inspirational
Prince's Foundation for the Traditional Arts, incredible lectures and short courses
The Morgan Library, amazing talks and virtual tours:
These are challenging times, stay creative and connected! If you have any gems to share please leave a comment below.
It was truly a pleasure and honor to be asked by Wil Scott, an artist whom I greatly respect, for an interview on my work, influences, and artistic practice. This is part of a series of "Zoom" artist interviews with the Maryland Federation of Art during quarantine. To hear the interview you can check out the link below:
So, I’m writing you from the Delphic Heights of my eight weeks of on-line teaching experience in the hope of preventing some poor unwitting fellow educator from making the same mistakes that I have made. Actually, that’s not all completely true. I have been teaching a high school course on-line, once a semester for the past three years. But there are important differences. That course is a History of Western Architecture and Aesthetic Philosophy, and although there are hands on design projects, it has been largely a text and dialogue-based course. Frankly, one semester a year in a full schedule of secondary school visual arts studios that are brick and mortar based is a kind of anomaly when compared to full days, week in and week out of teaching the visual arts on-line. Enter COVID-19. The little bug that rocked education all over the world.
Overall, and despite the obvious limitations and challenges of remote learning, I have enjoyed getting to know my students better by interacting with them through my curriculum in a different way. I have unexpectedly been forced to rethink the way I teach and I think I'm a better teacher for it. I know I'm a better person for being reminded of the challenges, frustrations, and fears of what it is to be a student everyday.
I hope that helps! Like Dory in Finding Nemo: Just keep swimming!
This same class made the request to do something completely different-
they wanted to make flip books.
I knew from my colleagues on this course team that this section of students was a particularly challenging one to engage. I wondered:
Would I be rewarding poor behavior by indulging this request?
Did I really want to research and write a new series of lessons in the middle of the school year? Could I really do this with my limited knowledge of animation?
Probably, I guess so, I’ll see…not the best answers to start with but, I dove in anyway.
Student choice is so often the key to student engagement, so I figured that was worth the risk. Sometimes going off track from the predictable, tried and true path leads to unexpected and positive results, not to mention increased teacher engagement. And besides, I love nothing more than the smallest excuse to dive down a rabbit hole of art research. And of course, sometimes our goals as educators are occasionally less than high minded: I love animation and I never made a flip book before: this might be fun!
As I began, I turned to an animator whose work I have always enjoyed, Terry Gilliam, aka the creator of the Big Cut-Out Monty Python Foot. I came across this quote from him:
The whole point of animation to me is to tell a story, make a joke, express an idea. The technique itself doesn’t really matter. Whatever works is the thing to use.
Sounds a whole lot like teaching to me! For my part in our freshman introduction to Visual Arts Principles, which is a team taught course, I need to teach the students how the Elements of Art and Principles of Design are employed by artists in drawing and painting with non-digital media. I make every effort to make sure the students’ experience includes not only the Great Masters of the past but contemporary masters as well. I always hope that they leave the studio seeing a little more and able to recognize the Elements and Principles around them in their daily lives. I suppose generally more visually literate in a hype visual culture. So when I made the decision to build an animation unit I had to come up with an entire new cadre of master artists. Master artists I found that had far more personal meaning for my students since cartoons and animation is so much part of their lives. I also had to find fun and interesting examples and videos about how those artists work. Thank Goodness for TED and You Tube!
So I’ll begin and the beginning, here’s how it’s gone so far. I will be updating since this class section is not yet completed and I do want to share my students work with you.
The new animation unit began with a study of optical illusions in order to get the students comfortable with the principles of balance, visual rhythm, and techniques on how to create visual movement. The students had to find three optic illusions and recreate them in a three inch by three inch square. To start, I focused on craftsmanship since it is so important to draw carefully and accurately for an effective optic illusion and ultimately for a successful animation. I taught them how to use a 2H pencil with a ruler and triangle to draft a perfect grid on a blank page. Then they had the chance to use softer pencils to see the value differences and the utility of a hard lead for under drawing. They selected illusions from searching the web. They had to find ones that focused on: figure/ground (e.g. face/vase), movement (e.g. spinning/moving grids), spacial (e.g. making a hole in the page or impossible geometries). Once they selected their own “classic” illusions to study and recreate, they had to come up with three illusions of their own. The students truly enjoyed this. I assigned each student at random a “Wow! Partner” to sit with. This was their classmate who they needed to “Wow!” with their illusion and exchange honest feedback with. The random assigning of partners had two great benefits. It forced the students to mix it up and get to know each other and it promoted honest feedback. For how to give effective critique, I used the Ladder of Feedback as our casual critique rubric. This first time around, I think I spent too long on the optic illusion exercise and intend to keep it as a shorter two-three day exercise in the future.
Then there was the fun of researching the approaches of classic Disney and Merry Melodies and finding some terrific flip book artists on You Tube (I highly recommend Andymation) as well as getting some terrific advice from folks in the field. All of which meant I had to watch animation shorts for Professional Reasons. To quote Billie Holiday, "Nice work if you can get it." It was was great fun sharing the best of my research with the students and discussing the elements and principles with them in light of these works.
I then had the students create a six to seven panel story board of a simple action by a simple character, e.g. a ball bouncing, an eye winking, stick figure jumping. I then asked them to come up with two more different storyboards. I’ve found that three’s a magic number. The first idea is often clumsy or overly simplistic, the second derivative, and the third you begin to find your stride and have something to build upon.
After their storyboard brainstorming in pencil, I asked the students to ink their favorite storyboard. Here was my opportunity to discuss with them different line types and how to create a hierarchy of line. It also was a chance to demonstrate how using overlap and simple perspective and compositional techniques to create the illusion of three dimensional space on a two dimensional surface and thereby increase the visual impact of their story and character. Wrapped up in this was a condensed opportunity for character development. With more time I would pull character development out as a separate exercise with a chance to talk about structure/anatomy, proportion, and expression. But, because of the time constraints I needed to keep this to as needed one-on-one instruction. As they developed their storyboards they began to add value and color so I was also able discuss basic color theory.
They currently are creating “draft” flip books using sticky note pads. What’s really fun is that they have begun to see the mechanics of how to create smooth action, adding frames where there were omissions in the storyboard action. The sticky note pads and working in pencil make the entire development process very easy, flexible, and much less intimidating to beginners. This also give them a tremendous amount of drawing practice, even though much of it is repetitive, they have been cheerfully drawing away (even going so far as asking to take their books home and coming to the studio to work during free periods). I'm noticing too that the students are gaining confidence in their own drawing ability. The end goal of bringing their character and story to life has been quite a motivator for both general work ethic but, also craftsmanship!
In the final days of the unit I will have the students create a final flip book on index cards with post or rubber band bindings. No worries I will post video, so stay tuned!
When I retold the story about the young man exploring his cranial orifice with a pen cap to my husband he laughed, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, some things you can teach, but other things you just have to learn.” I got thinking, maybe part of that spark to really engaging the students is that expression of your own learning…pen caps up the nose aside.
Below are examples for my students of my learning to teach about animation. If you would like to learn more specifics about my lesson plan, feel free to drop me a line, I’m happy to share and would love to hear about what you learn when you teach!
The short video above is of a homemade zoetrope I have in the studio. Not only is it a fun gadget to make, it was very useful in teaching animation by providing interesting historic background. It also proved to be very useful in testing my storyboard. I was able to cut my story board strip and place in the zoetrope and watch for "jumps" in action. In the end I added two additional frames in order to make the rabbit jumping from the hat smoother action. I also was able to create a fast flip book from the same storybook by using a copier. That book can be seen in the photo above with the binder clip. The final (or at least where I chose to stop) flip book "Poof" can be seen below. Using the rubber band binding with copier images spray glued on index cards I was able to experiment with adding and subtracting frames in order to change the pacing of the action. It has been a great demo tool for the students in explaining this concepts creating smooth action sequencing and the pacing of the action. Not to mention really fun!
This blog post will be somewhat different than previous posts. I think because maybe my writing, for the first time, is part of my processing the experience itself.
Recently, I experienced a brief illness: a severe allergic reaction to a vaccination. Along with the typical flu like symptoms, this reaction caused intense spasms pain all over my body. Pain of this kind is the notable symptom of the disease which I was trying to avoid. I could ironically muse about the fact that the medical profession has found that the path to better health often times seems to be what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. But, I'll refrain. Having had loved ones who experienced the disease that the vaccination prevents, I am grateful that now, with the unwavering support of my loved ones, I stand on my own two feet immune, despite a terrible experience. I suppose another bright spot of this experience is that I have found that there is actually something on this planet that makes me quite literally “one in a million.” Most folks get this vaccination and their only experience is a pinch and cheerfully move on with their lives. Alas, I must admit that my vanity was hoping for a bit more out of life than to be an anomaly of medical science. Maybe that’s why I make art and write? A good question. But, I don’t think the drive of mere vanity, a desire for some kind of immortality, or brand of uniqueness alone is enough to fuel a lifelong personal vocation for anyone. So maybe my soul is safe in that regard? At least I’m hoping so. Besides, we all know the old story about artists never gaining respect or recognition until long after their own deaths. To engage in art betting on fame and fortune would certainly be one’s vanity playing the long shot in life it seems to me.
Be that all as it may, my recent personal experience has left a mark beyond the singular one on my left upper arm where I got the vaccination. The experience of intense pain, pain that simply does not allow you to think clearly or about anything else, that is quite literally physically staggering can be profound. My small recent experience of pain brought to the forefront of my mind a dear friend who lived with severe chronic pain. The sheer heroism and grace of his daily life where he somehow put aside his pain to dedicate himself to productive pursuits, kindness, and cheerfulness staggers my mind. Indeed, such people seem to have chosen that Buddha-like path: knowing that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. And that in pain, our challenge is to find the gift.
So many stories of suffering artists, artists where pain was an almost constant companion in their lives. Vincent Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo come immediately to mind. Despite all the romanticizing of the image of the suffering artist neither artist found creative inspiration in pain. In fact, Van Gogh cursed his physical limitations and bouts with mental illness as the greatest obstacles to his work. Kahlo found her art as the best way of expressing her dreams and all that was good, wonderful, and beautiful, despite her physical and emotional pain. For both artists, pain was chronic, but suffering was the inability to create. Creating was the gift because the act of making art was not only a way of coping, but a way of making sense of their pain. They didn’t chose their physical pain, but they did actively chose to manage their suffering by channeling that energy into their painting.
Pain is a strange companion, when present it is almost all there is. When not, the relief makes it almost difficult to recall with any exactitude. Like a stranger wearing a mask, we recognize the fearful shape of pain, but cannot recount specific features. In many ways, I think Hayao Miyakaki's image of the character No Face in his film Spirited Away, is a perfect personification of Pain. But, our hearts keep a record of pain, its heralds and its scars. Like echos of a shout in a canyon, remnants of little hurts live in one’s body and heart and are recalled when there is a symptom, a rainy day, a hint of that form on the horizon, or any small reminder. The causes of physical pain can be varied, from a virus to a shattering life experience. We even call it “a broken heart.” A broken heart is real pain and suffering. Anyone who has loved and lost knows this. Certainly Van Gogh and Kahlo knew this. The sleeplessness, nausea, dizziness, pressure on the chest, difficulty in breathing…sounds like the flu, sounds real enough for a diagnoses does it not? Our bodies remember this pain too, just as it does the stubbed toes, bumped heads, and flus. Perhaps, some of the gifts of pain is perspective on life’s events, and the ability to recognize and compassionately support others in pain. In pain, one’s thought process is completely simplified. One’s psyche completely paired down to the bare essence of things, perhaps this is a kind of "flow," perhaps this too may be a kind of gift. But there is no doubt that in the Herculean effort in channeling all this some extraordinary people can create with a fervor and intensity of vision that is wholly singular.
I think it is unwise and tragically naive to seek out pain in life in the hopes that it will make one more creative. That not only is foolish, as Jim Morrison said, "Nobody here gets out alive" or I'll add without pain. But, that romantic vapid media image of suffering artists I think does artists like Van Gogh and Kalho a great disservice by not recognizing their incredible strength of will in their heroic dedication to their life’s work. As for myself, I never found any artistic inspiration in the trials and tribulations of life. To be sure the sun shone a bit brighter the morning I awoke and the pain was gone. And maybe that was that part of this experience’s gift to me. For surely I have a deeper appreciation for my ability to experience the world as a healthy able bodied and able minded person as well as a profoundly deeper admiration for those who, despite their pain chose to create the beautiful from suffering.