I moved 350 pounds of clay the other day and tweaked my back. Since then, I’ve been living on a steady diet of Advil and MSM, wondering if I should take up a lighter art form. Feather mosaics. Papel Picado. Origami, perhaps.
For the moment, painting is my fallback art form. I paint for the process, and not to end up with decor for my living room or anyone else’s. For me, painting is a direct connection to the source of creation and creativity. There are no intermediary steps. No slow drying over days, weeks, or months. No bisque firing. No glazing. No glaze firing. Painting is brutally honest and gives instant feedback on how I ope to my truth.
One of my inspirations is Michele Cassou. I first learned of Michele a few years ago though my sister, Elisa. After they met on a book tour, Elisa recommended that I read Michele’s book, Life Paint and Passion, Reclaiming the Magic of Spontaneous Expression. The book spoke to me at a time when I had lost some of the joy I usually experience in creating art. After reading Point Zero, Creativity Without Limits, I decided to take one of Michele’s weekend workshops in San Francisco.
I’d never taken a painting class before. Many different levels of painters attended the workshop: professionals, hobbyists, and beginners like me. Our goal was to paint spontaneously, without any preconceived notions of a final product, following our innate creative consciousness. We used the simplest tools: brushes, large sheets of thick paper, and inexpensive tempera paint. Pots filled with myriad colors were set into huge wooden tables located in different area of the studio. Participants walked back and forth to their paper, loading their brushes with paint while Michele chirped out encouraging words in her charming French accent. She and her assistants went around the room answering questions and helping people who seemed stuck.
I walked over and dipped my brush into the first color that caught my eye. The paint, slippery and sensuous, flowed so easily on the paper. I had no idea what I was painting. I swear that my brush–not me–knew exactly what to do! I was one with the paint and the color, and it was an amazing feeling. So, I went on for several hours in a wonderful, meditative state.
“Keep the brush moving! Let’s go! Vite! Vite! There is no time to waste!” Michele sang out just before lunch.
The words stopped me cold. All at once, deep and utter despair descended upon me like a black fog. I felt rushed and panicked–time was running out! In an instant I went from happily flowing with the brush, to misery and tears. Michele and her assistant, Patrick, noticed this and immediately came over.
“But I was not talking to you!” Michele sighed when I explained what I was feeling. “You have all the time in the world.”
Yet out of all the things she said, this was what I picked up on. It was all about what I say to myself. What I heard was my own voice telling me, “Hurry up! Get it done! There’s so much more to do! You’ll never have time to do it all!”
Feeling more settled after lunch, I continued to paint. At one point, I recognized what I was painting. What did it mean? I felt bored and heavy and exasperated. This was magnified when I noticed that some people were starting new work. I was tired of this. I wanted to be finished, too.
“How do I know when I’m done?” I asked Michele.
“That is a very good question,” she said. “Do you know what color is your name? To sign your painting?”
“My name? Ummm. No.”
“Then you are not done.” she asserted. “Now, if something was to come into your painting from any direction, where would it enter?”
“The bottom.” I replied with surprising certainty.
“And what color would it be? What kind of brush–small or large?”
“Black. A small brush.” There was no question in my mind. I just knew. So, for the rest of the day, I painted with black using a small brush, moving upward from the bottom of my painting.
I walked back to my little rental house at dusk, shaking my head. I had worked on one 20 x 26” piece of paper, painting ceaselessly the entire day, only breaking for an hour to eat lunch.
I slept fitfully that night., disturbed by nightmares that the black was growing like a cancer on my painting, completely devouring it. The next morning I awoke in a panic, threw on my clothes, and near tears, ran all the way to the studio. Patrick, a gentle man with soulful blue eyes and a kind smile, met me at the door–he had just opened the studio and was the only one there. Shaking, I told him about my dream.
“Well, let’s have a look before we get too far ahead of ourselves,” he said calmly. He took my arm and led me to the painting.
I was aghast at what I saw. The black hadn’t destroyed the painting after all. I had imagined the whole thing. Yet welling up inside me was the perverse urge to obliterate the work I had done.
“I feel like taking black and covering the whole painting with it.” I told Patrick, tears streaming down my face. “Seriously, I’m afraid I’ll do that.”
“Sounds like you need to do some black paintings,” Patrick said. “Let’s just take your painting down and put up a fresh sheet of paper. Then I want you to take the biggest brush you can find and paint only with black.”
I started tentatively at first and then picked up speed. Without warning, I felt a fury building up within me. I threw my whole body into one, two, three, then four sheets of paper, completely covering them with angry black strokes until there was no empty space. On the fifth paper, I gradually began to slow down. The ferocity dissipated, and I felt an immense sense of calm and relief. I turned to look at Patrick and exhaled deeply.
“Now you’ve made friends with back.” he said with a smile, pinning my painting back up on the wall.
I took a small brush, dipped it into the black paint and began to work anew. I was never more grateful for anything than I was for Patrick’s guidance that morning. It was as if he saved my life!
And when that painting was finished, I had no doubts. I knew where to put my name. And I knew what color my name would be.