My sister Katrina surprised me recently. A speech pathologist and gifted athlete (a college softball player, a cyclist, a marathoner) who had never really expressed interest in anything artistic, shocked many of us who knew her by suddenly posting photographs of paintings that she had done on Facebook. I marveled at their quality for someone who had to have been an absolute beginner, as she certainly was no painter the last time I saw her. Her work was well-received and prompted many commissions from her Facebook friends, some half-hearted and some rather serious.
She came to visit (is in fact visiting right now) and I find myself marveling at her process. Watching her paint has forced me to reconsider some of the theory I have been generating about performance and the creative process and I would like to share some of those insights here.
First, it was fascinating to watch her set up her materials. I was struck by the technicality involved in painting—the tools a painter must use and the technique with which she uses them. Since I’ve been thinking so much about 4E (embodied, embedded, extended, enacted) cognition lately, I got thinking about how the painter interacts with those tools and together they produce an artwork. So in a sense, my sister represents an extraordinary example of cognition both embodied and extended. The brushes, the paints, even the paint thinner, are in fact extensions of her body—the body being the origin of the movements that somehow precisely lay the paints upon the canvas in a way that renders an interior reality visible to the outside world. Her brain, body, and tools work in unison, as one unit, to cognize the external environment—that is, to take it in, process it, and render a novel and wholly original interpretation back to that external world. Watching her movements is like a dance where technique and interpretation are manifested live for the viewer.
This creative process has enacted a whole new world for her, as she explained that she sees the world in terms of light and color and other elements and dimensions of composition. I can’t help but think that a painter, like a writer, must begin to see the surrounding world more profoundly, with greater discretion and an appreciation for nuance. The world and the things in it must make more sense to the artist. Their brains allow for more sensory input and therefore they have more to process and interpret. Does such rich access to the external environment pay off in greater wisdom or more valuable insights, I wonder?
So, the painter, in seeing the world differently and then engaging in an active experience—that was yet another striking moment for me: seeing painting as an active, engaged, corporeal experience. So often painting is experienced only as an admiration of the final product, which no matter how beautiful, lies still and two-dimensional. But to watch a painter work (and perhaps this betrays their mystique), one sees it actually as a potentially performative experience. Painting is not a still, two-dimensional act. It is an active, four-dimensional sensory experience. It is time spent; it is effort directed; it is a dynamic evolution of an expression devised by the interaction of the internal and external.
I think her internal motivation stems directly from the fact that painting is worthwhile not as a process of production but rather as “time spent,” and a subjective moment experienced. Running is relaxing and rewarding, but in leaving the mind exhilaratingly free, it also invites potentially negative thoughts to linger or provides space for rumination and perseveration. Painting in a state of flow, however, occupies the mind with countless creative decisions to be made–decisions that are delights to make, so unlike the difficult and potentially paralyzing decisions we are asked to make “in real life.” There’s nothing mindless about the arts. In fact, as Katrina pointed out, it’s a welcome escape to enact a world in which flow and mindfulness converge in a creative harmony. It’s a lovely world to inhabit.
When I asked Katrina if she had a set process or technique or other “order of things” that goes from vision to interpretation to creation, she said simply, “I just keep putting on paint until it looks right.” She didn’t realize the profundity of that statement, but I sure did and spent the next several minutes whispering it to myself. How simple, how useful, how transformational, how brilliant.
With that one extemporaneously generated sentence, Katrina summed up several important elements of the creative process. She acknowledged and articulated the dynamics of creation—that even if the end result is static, still, and inanimate, the process of its creation was one of dynamic flow, change, and evolution within time. Each stroke was in fact constitutive of a recursive process of changes, of movement. How like a dance! “I just keep adding paint . . .” Her words also gesture toward the notion that within that dynamic and recursive process, unfolding within the fourth dimension of time, one has the expanse of time and flow to fix any mistakes, to experiment, and to remain luxuriously in flux. The static reality of the final result is suspended as if by magic and there’s a sort of divine freedom in the mutability. Like a dancer on the stage, the opportunities for movement, for “where to go next” are endless. And mistakes can be erased, painted over, transformed into something that is not a mistake.
After all, you keep moving and working and looking and relooking until the piece pleases one’s own subjective values and perspective. This subjectivity is what Katrina perhaps inadvertently referred to in her brilliant directive: “ . . . until it looks right.” There is no right or wrong painting and the purpose is not to objectively capture a static and precise reality, but rather to devise and impart an interpretation—to craft an experience for the viewer. And, perhaps most importantly, for oneself.
And the artist knows, internally and intuitively, when it “looks right.”