Therapy Sessions: en plein air

When I’m drawing – and here drawing is very different from writing or reasoning – I have the impression at certain moments of participating in something like a visceral function, such as digestion or sweating, a function that is independent of the conscious will.  – John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook.

fingers, too busy
paintbox enthusiasm
cracked orange-scrawled blue

Earlier today, my two-year-old and I practiced our bugle and ukulele duet. It sounded as awesome as you might expect, especially after he decided he didn’t want to use the mouthpiece, just scream into the horn.

I’m trained in music (though just learning the ukulele) and have a certain familiarity, though somewhat fluctuating comfort, with words as a stumbling, inactive poet who more often than not jots notes that never become a complete enterprise. Fortunately, the poetry I admire and find digestible is often short and tart, just a brief, bended path to another dimension. I have no desire to emulate epic works or tell a history’s worth of stories. Just to distill a moment or thought as well as I can. With poetry, I’ve nothing to prove.  

In painting, the nothing-to-prove is extended beyond a poetic attempt at concentrated memory. I am almost wholly unversed in art-making.  I’ve read more about art-making than I’ve actually attempted. Turns out, art-making = hard work + training (even if it’s self-taught) + a certain amount of sacrifice + desire. Even my musical training focused more on interpretation, not creation. So it took me awhile to get up the courage (and find time in my schedule) to attend a session of the Kansas City Plein Air Coterie.

Their motto is “Observe.” While I feel I spend a bulk of my time observing, and then rushing home to write out those observations, this is a different creature.

Packing a block of watercolor paper, a cheapo tray of eight colors and a pack of equally-cheapo brushes (I had no idea if I’d ever attempt this art-making shenanigan again), I wandered towards the group’s meeting place, waiting for someone to notice that I was clearly uncomfortable and new. Turns out, that particular meeting had a bunch of rookies (The Kansas City Star had run a story on the group a few weekends prior), some artists, some not.

That day we headed down to the banks of the Mighty Mo and documented thereof. It was the weirdest experience. The group spread out and, after walking about a bit, each settled down for a few hours of uninterrupted painting. I’d tried my hand at sketching before, but I’ve almost always fallen to my camera (and not a stellarly technical one at that) for capturing any scenes that deemed it. Trying to get some sort of resemblance on paper – when I had no idea how to go about creating tone qualities or depth or dimensional layerings – was a dually satisfying and frustrating challenge. To realize that my hands had no idea how to interpret what I saw and my brain was at a loss how to help either – it was freeing and bizarre.

For two hours I thought about nothing but painting.

For two hours I thought about nothing but painting. Since no one has access to this shaken, lumpy gray matter, let me assure you that rarely – as a mother with a full time job, who also freelances, and is married to another freelancer, who has all the same issues of life that everyone else has, too – is there a time when my brain is not trying to handle roughly eleven different to-do lists at once.

I didn’t even realize that I wasn’t thinking about anything but painting until I stopped (admittedly, in dismay at my results) for a reflective moment to have a sip of cooling coffee and those day-to-day worries and checklists seeped back to the forefront. For no other reason than that – not experiencing nature, not meeting new people, not delving into a world of deliberate uncertainty – I knew I’d be back again.

I changed views and locations three times, restarting until I finally had a paper of something that didn’t make me blush … just like most of my poetry.

To look at something truly is an act that involves more than the eyes. … Painting is a way of being in constant contact with my own vulnerability, my limitations. It is necessary to live with error and chance, it is necessary to inhabit a state of permanent uncertainty, … Painting and drawing make me strangely aware of what it means to be alive.  – Eduardo Berliner, Elephant magazine.

My work that morning didn’t even rate amateur, but there’s no judging, at least negatively or openly. No one said a word about the work I contributed to the Bounty of Wonder (the group’s showing at the end of a session), or any subsequent work on any subsequent foray. Like I said, nothing to prove and no one to prove it to.

And as long as I was okay with the product, it was the process that suddenly had taken a more interesting focus. And I have always been afraid and stymied by process.

wall watercolor
Latest attempt from Session No .0098

I’m task-oriented and I rarely ever try to figure why I’m even doing the task. It’s usually a simple answer: my boss said to do it, I’m assigned to this review, if no one does the dishes we won’t have anything to eat on, etc. If I try to think about why-how, I’m stopped before I’ve begun. If I think about it, I’ll try to take the best route toward completing the task. I don’t ever just take a path to see where it leads. Even in the woods, there are trail-markers.

Toddlers are incredible reminders of process vs product. For them (and I often have to remind myself) it’s the doing that’s the end-goal. Try making cookies with a certain two-year old. He will stir and stir and stir and stir and scream when you’ve taken all the batter out of his bowl to shape and lay on cookie sheets to put in the oven. He’s still “making cookies.”

When he paints, he smashes the brush into the tray, muddling the colors and creating a joyous mess. With luck and rarely, some of the color falls on the paper.

I’ve managed to attend five Sunday morning sessions and one open session since June of last year. Out of my six attempts I’ve made three paintings that haven’t been too bad. The images look like discernable things! Perhaps someday I will be able to see beyond what is present and paint more accurately what is actually there.

Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, savor you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow.   – Mary Jean Irion

For me, it’s become more about the act of focus, the opportunity to focus, and the experiences in (completely non-committed) failure, than any aspirations as an artist. The act of observing and the documentation of the observation, requiring mindfulness to the task at hand, the discipline these artists and associates exhibit (I’ve yet to attend a very cold or even vaguely uncomfortable session), and listening to their friendly artist-speak that places me at an interesting level of discomfort, and I becoming more comfortable with being uncertain, of the unmarked path, of the chance to go catch at something neither inside or outside myself.

Being dislocated is an opportunity to understand how senses precede thinking. – Corey Antis, studio tour in Wheelhouse Review blog.

One session I attended marked the departure of a founder. KC PAC does like to do things with a certain amount of ceremonial aplomb and his sending off even had me (who’d met the guy two weeks prior) in a sad state. But in a parting speech, another founder reminisced about the starting of the group and a quote stood out to me that summarized the art-making experience:

“Who’s going to stop us?!?”

uke watercolor
Observing toddler putting artist’s tape all over the ukulele.

One thought on “Therapy Sessions: en plein air

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  1. I treasure the body wisdom i got from 4 years of life drawing classes in college. maybe as consciousness itself grows within the art world, maybe if the art crowd becomes less outcome oriented and critical, it can be seen that ANY making is a benefit to the whole world, and a gentle encouragement of process can come to help all.

    I felt that the art world was going wrong, Mr. Hanta said. I was starting to receive commissions. I was being asked to paint the ceiling of the Paris Opera House. Society seemed to be preparing to paint my work for me. I could have obeyed; many, perhaps most, painters do. The prospect did not coincide with my desire. S. Hantai, 1998 The goal ever recedes from us, victory lies in the effort, not the attainment. Full effort is full victory. -Mahatma Gandhi

    Date: Sat, 1 Mar 2014 17:01:25 +0000 To:

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