Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Your Uniqueness: or, Why You Don't Have to Try So Hard

by Kate Merriman

On a wonderful plein air weekend trip to the Pedernales River area of Texas with my wonderful painter buddy Robin Cheers, I relayed a story to her that she asked I try to write up for this blog.

I'm not sure I can relay this so that it can be understood, but I will give it a try.

I think Robin and I were talking about that funny block we sometimes get when we see a subject we want to paint but the little inner gremlin says, "Well, why paint that?  You know that Penny Painter does paintings of (seashells / bank buildings / matchbooks) really well and all the time.  She's known for those.  The world doesn't need another painting of that same thing.  It's been DONE."

Sometimes, I have that gremlin try to convince me out of painting in that situation.  And often, remembering an experience I had at the Tassajara Zen Monastery on a beautiful meditation retreat can help me past it.  What's tricky is trying to put that experience into words, but again, I'm giving it a go.


We meditators were practicing some sitting and some paying attention in the zendo with teacher Ed Brown.  His wonderful sense of humor and lightness of spirit was lifting me all week.  Toward the end of our time of sitting quietly, one of the monks-in-training could be heard walking along the boardwalk just outside the zendo building and then ringing the gong that let all the kitchen helpers know it was time to start cooking dinner.

Ed mentioned this in the talk he gave us just after meditation.  He laughed and explained that although (and probably BECAUSE) the students ringing that gong were consciously stripping away personality and attempting to ring the bell with ultimate adherence to form, he could always tell exactly which student was ringing that gong.  Their true energy, absent the neurotic flourish of "personal form" that they might want to put into the gong ringing, remained.  Maybe I should not say "remained" but say "was made more apparent."

Shortly afterward, I was in a painting class led by the wonderful Gary Stutler at Napa Community College and the memory of the gong-ringer story resurfaced and suddenly made sense with art-making.  It was a thought perfectly aligned with some teaching that Gary was giving about how the energy of the artist shows up in every stroke - part of why he was recommending, for example, that we stand up and really move when we painted if we wanted a dynamic piece. 

So back to the painting of a seashell.  Let's say Penny Painter really does create wonderful paintings of seashells.  If you and Penny tried to paint the same shell with the same formal approach, same palette, same perspective, and if you and Penny let go of all clinging about inserting your "personalities" into that painting, it is clear that the true energy and essence of each of you would cause there to be two authentically interesting, unique paintings. 

Is that interesting enough to you to proceed with your painting?  If not, what else is motivating you to paint? 

Can you think of paintings you've seen where it seems the output of pure unique energy of a person, but seems also not muddied by "personality"?  Can you think of artworks where all you see is "personality"?  Are you drawn to one over the other?

Something to think about!

And hopefully, a story that can help nudge you over that "gremlin block" about uniqueness next time it comes up.

Go artists!
-- Kate Merriman


Tess Traylor Walls said...

This brings to mind an exhibit of Pissaro and Cezanne I saw at the Musee D'Orsay in Paris. I had been unaware that Cezanne looked to Pissaro as a mentor of sorts and painted along side him at several points in his career. The exhibit had their paintings shown side-by-side. They could not have been more unique. Thanks for adding another dimension to that experience with these thoughts.

Lily said...

This is wonderful and absolutely true in many aspects of life. For example, if two people stand right next to each other and watch the exact same bird frolic in a puddle, the accounts of what happened will be subtly different from each person. It's a people thing.

A Painter's Journal said...

Brilliant Kate. Thanks again for sharing this idea. You did it beautifully. I still have that page in my sketchbook where I noted: No matter how we try, we can't deny our true selves. Or something like that. I've lost my sketchbook! eek!

Linda Popple said...

This really hit home. I've read it twice with much to think about.

Oma3 said...

Early in my painting years I was very concerned about finding my "style"... my paintings would reflect whom ever was my teacher of the day. Then, I read this quote in a book, "Don't worry about finding your style... who you are will always appear in your work." Some how, this helped me to relax and let go of trying to be a certain way. AND, who I am is now showing up in my work.


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