It’s been three months since my last art blog post. Again, I’m rededicating myself to it. I feel like the prodigal blogger here, though I’ve kept other blogs religiously for many months or years on end. That’s hopeful.
What it feels like is ebb and flow. And right now, there is a lot of that. When I first sensed what what coming with Coronavirus, I returned to my military instincts. When I arrived at West Point, long ago in 1989, I was issued a steel pot. Today, Soldiers are issued a Kevlar, which is much more effective, and yet, perhaps not as versatile. Anyhow, we were taught that we should wear it at all times, except when we cooked or did hygiene in it . . . . versatile. We were taught to heat water in it, to shave in it (well, I didn’t have whiskers back then, but as I get closer to menopause . . . ), to brush our teeth and wash our face. We were taught we could heat water for making Ranger Pudding (a coffee-cocoa-creamer-sugar blend from our Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) and quite a delicacy when nothing else was available. After all, we were heating water in our helmet . . . .
So when news and stray talk, equally, began to spread like the virus itself, I brought out my “steel pot routine.” Practice all of these things daily, almost as though we were taken prisoner of war. Get the kids up and get them going, too. Keep them going. Keep work going in whatever form it takes. Keep Soldiers encouraged and safe and able. Care for the ones who go down, and leave no one behind. I remember this feeling when we deployed to Haiti in 1994. My company commander insisted that our unit be vital—an old port construction unit without outdated, poorly maintained equipment that could barely offload a ship, let alone drive piles into the ocean floor to repair ports. He insisted that we be ready to go right from Haiti to the theater in Southwest Asia because Saddam Hussein was on the move again, and we could lay out an airstrip, if needed . . . .
When news of Soldiers deploying from one theater into another arrived, I found myself unexpectedly taking people to see mental health specialists at a field hospital because it was just too much—all this change.
I recount this story because it comes back to me today—and to my own mind state. There has to be an ebb and a flow. Or it is too much.
And so, after a week of steel-pot living, I ebb into my art. But isn’t it better to flow in art? Maybe. There’s flow. That’s what we do, mentally, when we create art—or run—or play music. We get into flow. Just for today . . . it’s an ebb, which isn’t a “stop,” but rather, a slowing and an eddying. Here’s how:
Art slows us down. While we can make art on the run, pulling out a simple sketchbook to reflect necessitates slowing the pace to a walk. Maybe even sitting down. And it doesn’t have to be for long. The mind can follow.
Art is present. There’s nothing like an object in front of us, beckoning to be sketched or painted to encourage us to “be present.” We can be present with an object—nature—a person. We can be present with our hands—our eyes—our minds.
Art sees more. How much do we really see as we go through our days? There was a viral video of people passing a ball, and viewers were asked to count the number of passes, as a person in a gorilla suit walked by. Very few people watching noticed the gorilla. The term for this is “inattention blindness,” or inability to see what we don’t expect to see. I suspect we do this in our days. We miss a lot. Making art is a time to sit down and pay attention to more. It may not make us better at multitasking or cure “inattention blindness,” but perhaps it brings awareness—and joy at creating.
Art sees clearly (literally). Let’s take the image of a “tree,” for example. In grade school, we may have learned to draw it as a wide stick with a cloud of green on top. But is that what it really looks like? Not usually. This is a tree symbol—it may represent a tree. But what does it really look like? When we take the time to sit and look, to follow the edges of branches and leaves, of trunks and blossoms and fruit clearly, perhaps we see more clearly. The key is allowing ourselves to see something fully and follow the lines and qualities of that object naked in front of us without assuming we know what it looks like.
Art sees clearly (figuratively). But not all painted trees look like the trees that we see clearly. Some are blue or spattered or have sharp angles. We can interpret. Isn’t this beautiful? Yes, we want to “get it right,” but the ability to interpret our world doesn’t stop at the canvas. That’s where it begins. And you have license to do this. Observe, draw, paint—and interpret. See what you think of it. There may be some truth in it that you didn’t fully realize until it came out on canvas. And maybe honor that.
Art disrupts (in the best way possible). Has a painting ever stopped you in your tracks? Maybe a stained glass window, a sculpture? Maybe a tee shirt? I know there have been a few tees that have stopped me in my tracks. I recently saw one that said, “I just arted.” I’m not going to insert the smiley with laughing tears emoji here, but I just had to laugh. I had to laugh at myself because I do “art” sometimes. Art can inspire laughter, tears, make us feel “awakened” or put us right to sleep. So maybe art allows us to pivot gently. Especially in a time like this.
Art says go. Art gives me permission to be who I am in a way that nothing else does. Those who know me know that I’ve been: a soldier, writer/editor, secondary school teacher, college instructor, deputy coroner, volunteer coordinator, nonprofit director, fitness instructor, health coach. None of these me has given me permission to live fully in my own life and skin. I’ve loved them all in their own sweet way. The Enneagram would say I’m an “enthusiast.” But I’ve had one ongoing enthusiasm, and that’s my art. For me, art says “go.” Do it. And when you have something that you just need to get out—your voice, thought or feeling—art is there to say “go,” too.
Enjoy art. I’ll be releasing a few little videos in which you get to hear more of my “back in the day” stories as I make art. Please join me with whatever writing implement and substrate fits your mood. Thanks for joining me here. Keep on keepin’ on!