How creative people discover what to create next seems like a perplexing mystery for most people. I’m often asked, “Melynda, how do you figure out what to create?” or “How did you come up with the ideas for these paintings?”
Trust me-I understand how difficult the answers to these questions can be. During the winter months I have more flexible time, so I spend many hours in the studio navigating my own rough waters to creativity as I find my path to new work. This process sometimes feels like crossing a desert or braving the wilderness as the blank canvases are laid out before me ready for whatever is next.
Through trial and error, I start to find the answers to what is next when I dig deeper internally and spend time in the quiet. I try to give myself permission to wander into my own stories, and engage the things I’m naturally drawn to and love.
But how do artists actually do those things like “digging deeper” or “engaging the things I’m naturally drawn to?” One really important way I explore my work on a deeper level is art journaling. An “art journal” may not be really the right word for what the books I work in look like. They are more a cross of a sketchbook or notebook filled with images, color, text and sketches. For me my art journals really function as an idea generation book.
So I’ve been spending a significant amount of time lately with my art journal/idea generation books. I’ve been cutting images out of magazines, arranging and gluing images to journal pages, and then adding layers of text or paint. Somehow in this very intuitive process of selecting images I’m drawn to, arranging them with poems or written text, and adding color, I start to see themes emerge. I start to notice which colors continually attract my eye. I start to see images that repeatedly show up. This practice of art journaling helps me look inside at the things that deeply interest me. It is one key that leads me down the path to discovering my new work.
Stephen Quiller says in his book Watermedia Painting “I can walk into a museum, look at a painting, and know immediately if Winslow Homer, Edward Degas, Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Henri, or Johannas Vermeer created it. Why is that? I believe it is because they spent a lifetime of sketching, taking notes, and studying; in short, living their art. As they matured, their marks became more distinct. There came a point when they mastered the craft of painting and let this mastery serve their power of expression. Yet they kept probing deeper inside taking risks, and finding uniquely what they had to say. They all got to the point where their knowledge of craft, their study of other masterworks and periods, served so they could most fully express their vision. In short, they got to the point where they could let their subconscious and spirit take over.”
Someone encouraged me recently that as an artist I should be noticing that I notice what I notice. I’ve been noticing lately the many reasons why I paint. There are so many reasons NOT to paint…but, why have I chosen to dedicate so much time and energy to the practice of painting?
One reason that I paint is that it is a sensory experience for me. I experience the vibrancy of the colors flowing out of the brush across the canvas and the feel of the lines pouring out as thick paint moves across the surface.
But, creating art is also so much more than that for me. When I am creating, I take the time in quiet to listen to my own internal landscape and translate it to the canvas. I allow what’s inside to flow out through my hands. I process my world in a healthy and life-giving way.
Painting is meditative and centering. It is a time for me to sift through what is important and what needs to fade away. Sometimes it is a safe place to wrestle with unknowns and mine the depths of my life experiences-the good, the bad, the gifts and the tragedies.
I take this long, hard journey deep inside my thoughts, my heart, with brushes, pigment, water, and time. I paint this inner excavation-down through the layers past all the junk that gets in the way. I take these sensory, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and intellectual journeys time and time again through the years.
The finished painting is not the journey. The journey encompasses so much more. But, the painting is an important by-product of the internal processes. Maybe it’s like the postcards sent to friends and family along the way while traveling?
So, I’ve taken these journeys…why could that matter to anyone else?
Isn’t it self absorbed?
A giant waste of time?
A waste of precious resources?
A waste of art supplies?
Who really cares?
How can a few more paintings in this world make anything different?
These questions are just the tip of the iceberg hinting at issues that creatives battle against. They are only the beginning of the thoughts that can and do haunt or stop our creativity from flowing into our world.
Because I can. Because it is part of me being alive in this world. Because it keeps me healthier. Because I am human. Because you are too. Because art reminds us of who we are. Because it helps us all to heal. Because it activates our senses. Because it reminds us that we all have stories. Because it builds community around us that helps us survive the perils of life. Because we all have the task of figuring out who we are in this world and what kind of life we wish to create. Because we are all in this journey together.
I have three exhibits available for viewing the next couple of months. Freedom from the Core is on view at the Becoming Free Semeiotic Gallery in Chicago, IL. This gallery space is a beautiful and historic church building in north downtown Chicago. The exhibit will be on view until October, 2019.
Nuances of Freedom is on view at Harvest Vineyard in Ames, IA. They will be hosting an Artist Talk & Reception on September 15, 2019 from 12:30-2:30 pm. Come join us at the Harvest Cafe if you’d like to hear more about my work.
Finally, I have my last couple of art fairs of the year this month. This weekend I’ll be Rockbrook Village in Omaha, NE and on September 22 you can find me at the Octagon Art Festival in Ames, IA. This will be my only Iowa art fair this year.
After a winter season of painting in my studio, I’m pleased to share with you my new Inner Core painting series. Last year I found myself painting a recurring image of a spiral shape. These spiral shapes were different from other spirals I had painted in the past. The shapes began in the center, but rather than spinning counter-clockwise around a center point, the lines flowed outward and came back to the center again. This movement repeated itself again and again around a central point.
Because it had continually been showing up in my work over and over, I let myself be more curious and continued to explore this shape-especially experimenting with multiple spiraling and overlapping shapes within the paintings. And, I challenged myself to paint these spiral shapes on a much larger scale. The shapes were bold, flowing, overlapping, multi-dimensional and soothing. I began working on four large canvases by pouring lines of acrylic paint from bottles and then adding layers of translucent paint. Slowly over the time I’ve worked within this imagery, the more I’ve become aware that a theme of focusing on the inner core of life was appearing before my eyes on the canvases.
Simultaneously, I’ve also been thinking about the concept that artists are often responding to the shifts, trends and realities of the culture within which they live. Sometimes adapting their work to the cultural norms and sometimes reacting against or speaking into the current cultural flow. As I reflect on our cultural life together, I’m increasingly alarmed by the way our communication with each other and knowledge of our personal selves is being eroded right before our eyes.
Awareness is one of the first skills I teach in creativity classes. And, I’m still somewhat incredulous how important it is that I teach this- how important it is that I teach people to “look”, to really look at the world within and around them. As a culture we have forgotten what it looks like to really pay attention to our particular physical and non-physical world. We are so absorbed in what other people think, what other people are saying, how other people are reacting to current political and societal ills that we have forgotten how to slow down and look at what is happening in our own hearts, in our own personal relationships, and in our own backyards.
We are afraid to look too deep, because there we might find the things we don’t want to face. As a culture we are numbing out with reactive living, technology or other mood altering habits. These invasive habits are our escape mechanisms.
My new Inner Core Series has arisen from my own journey of choosing an alternative path-a different way of showing up in the world. It is a path that involves focusing on my own inner core. My art practice is one of the crucial pieces of how I figure out who I am- who I am going to be in this world and how I am going to show up. Art gives me a healthy place to make all these explorations and process my world. It is a sensory experience-the intensity of the colors, the movement of the brush, the vibrancy of the creativity flowing through me.
It is in my art journals- in the gathering of visual information and sketching that I begin to quiet down the outside world and allow myself to explore my own unique visual ideas. I filter the ideas and sketches in my art journal and eventually some of the ideas end up as paintings. This process requires paying attention to my own heart, emotions, thoughts, decision making, responses and reactions.
This vulnerable journey feels like a giant creativity research project that I’ve been investigating for years. I don’t want to keep the results of this work to myself, so I keep sharing my discoveries and creations with you. Thank you for joining in with my on-going creativity research project. If you’d like to see more of the new series, the paintings are available to view in Paintings. Interested in purchasing a specific piece? Please contact me on our Contact page. Finally, if you’d like to see me at an art show this upcoming spring/summer season, the schedule is below.
What kinds of problems are you struggling to solve on a daily basis? What areas of your life and work need innovative thoughts? A recent problem I was invited to solve by one of my artistic communities, the central Iowa based Paintpushers group, was to create two paintings with the theme of “Light & Dark” for our yearly group art show. I was given a couple of canvas sizes to choose from and a deadline for completion and exhibition. And, then time, to contemplate and create.
Often times when we are faced with big problems to solve and looking for truly innovative ideas, the project can seem so overwhelming it is hard to even know where to start. I started my creative process by asking myself big picture questions like “How do I visually represent the vast concepts of ‘Light & Dark’? How do I put color, line, and form around such abstract concepts? What comes to mind when I think about light and dark? What do they represent to me?” These big picture questions are a good place to start while grasping vision for innovative ideas, but only the first step.
Over the early months of the project, I let my mind drift around the concept of light and dark. I thought about the concepts of light and dark aesthetically, philosophically, emotionally and spiritually. I read current news reports, ancient scriptures, art history books and novels. I wrote notes in my sketchbook along the way. I spent time drawing what felt like random abstract shapes in my art journal. I had conversations with artists in my Paintpushers group. I worked on other paintings for different shows. I interacted with my friends and family. I went to yoga and took walks. Basically, I call this the “marinating phase”. Like a good steak, ideas need time to marinate. Ideas need time for the thinker to research and to draw connections from a variety of sources.
My thoughts around the topic grew deeper, actually more confused. “Is one painting all light and one all dark? Do they each have elements of both? Who am I to try to paint Light & Dark? What wins Light or Dark???” And, now I was sinking down into the messy middle…cross pollinating ideas, the sorting and eliminating concepts. I referenced my own experiences and I looked for the universal connections. For example, I know that I have personally experienced light notably masked by grayness/darkness-a light marred by dark shadows. I know, too, that this is the experience of humanity-a universal experience for all of us. I know that each of us gets to choose where we will focus in the midst of these complicated realities-will it be on the light? Will it always be on the dark? Will it be with eyes open wide to the reality of both?
I started wrestling through the emotional and spiritual roadblocks to solving my problem. I asked myself “How do I let despair, anger, evil win and block out the light? Do I pretend that everything is sunshine and roses putting on a false front of uber happiness that is unsustainable? Can I acknowledge the beautiful, tumultuous experience of having both light and dark simultaneously appearing in my daily life often times at a mock rate of speed as I do something as simple as scrolling through my social media feeds? And, how on earth, might I somehow be able to translate these larger questions through paint?”
As I was working through my own personal, “why and how” questions, my fellow Paintpushers members were asking themselves similar questions. I find it kind of fascinating to watch this process of corporate creativity and innovation. What happens when you take a group of visual artists with numerous personalities and life experiences and ask them to commit to exploring the same topic-in this case creating two pieces of work with the theme of Light & Dark? What happens as each individual artist lives through the wrestle of how they might interpret these concepts with their own media, personal symbols, textures, and color choices? What happens when we all finally commit to doing the work and start creating?
For at some point in the innovation process, the creator actually needs to commit to the work. Decisions start to be made. Tools come out- in our case…we begin to draw, sketch, paint, pull brushes out, uncap paint pens, order canvases, commit to size of panels, pay fees, sharpen pencils, fret, and plan. We apply the paint, pencil, and charcoal. We start with 1st layers, obsess, stare, avoid, research more. We add more paint, take photos, turn work upside down, paint over, look at it from across the room, and complain about the process to anyone around us. And, then we finish. We declare a painting complete. We photograph and varnish and sign and title and add wire to the back.
But, then this creation, this innovative solution to a problem, this personal interpretation of a theme, needs to be shared, needs to leave the safety of the studio, needs to make its way into the world and the artist needs to let it go. What happens when a group of creators come together and shares this new body of work corporately imagined, but executed in the privacy and quiet of individual studios? My answer to this question is growth-growth is what has happened. Growth and transformation and innovation-new ideas and images have been welcomed into the world.
The process of innovation is fraught with ups and downs, sideways maneuvers, emotional upheaval and uncertain outcomes. But, for each of us that undertakes the creative process, we transform a bit of who we are in the process. Taking invisible concepts like “light” and “dark” and making them visible-that is what artists do, but the process for how we actually do it is sometimes quite a mystery to the artist themselves while in the middle of the process and almost always to those around the artist.
However, this process does not need to remain a mystery.
I read so much about how our culture is deeply in need of innovation, but I fear we have much to learn about where true innovation comes from. The worlds of education, business, government, health, science all have deep needs which will take innovative thinkers to solve.
How does change, transformation, and innovation happen in our communities and businesses?
What if artists become the teachers of innovation and problem solving?
What if artists would teach other people this process of corporately imagining new things- how to ask big picture questions, how to research and draw connections, how to live the wrestle and commit to the work?
What if artistic communities become the model for sharing explorations and incubating innovative ideas together?
And while the Paintpushers “Light & Dark” show at the Heritage Gallery for 2018 is now history, the process we took to achieve the innovating work in this show is something we can repeat over and over again in the many arenas of our lives. And, it is a process you can adapt to your own problems-your own situations in need of solutions and innovative answers.