Friday, December 19, 2014


"Untitled" Center panel triptych, 6'x4', oil on canvas
This week’s New York Times Science Section had an article by John Tierney called : “A Meditation on the Art of Not Trying.” In it, he discussed a new book by Dr. Edward Slingerland entitled “Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity” based on the centuries old Asian philosophy of “wu wei,” the Chinese term to describe “effortless action” This is the kind of spontaneity we see in champion athletes, musicians, experienced speakers and so on. Of course, as we all know, to get to that point requires countless hours of initial effort and training. Tierney talks about the charismatic effect it creates when a public speaker goes with the flow instead of struggling; “Paralysis through analysis and overthinking” is the way he describes it.
Although the article doesn’t talk about artists and writers, I’d like to throw in a few comments. A number of years ago, I saw a documentary about Picasso at work; most of you have probably seen it. Picasso, who knew his craft as well as any painter alive, did not seem to preplan his work; he painted without any visible preconceptions, purely from the subconscious. Works literally poured out of him, painting after painting, unplanned, spontaneous.

"Gangsters" Overhead projector drawings  8'x6'
I find that after years of studying art and painting stilted student work; I am now free to paint from the subconscious. In fact, it’s the only way I can work. I didn’t know it was called “wu wei” (pronounced “ooo-way;” I called it an alpha State, reached when my surroundings dropped away leaving me with a clear, empty, meditative state of mind. When I think too much about what I am doing, try to preplan the work, it looks forced and unspontaneous and I have to erase what I have done and start over. Also, in order to reach an alpha state, I must have absolute quiet, no one around, not even music on the radio. It often takes me an hour or more of false starts, bad beginnings, erasures before the alpha state takes over and unplanned images begin to pour out. Sometimes, I have a theme, other times what shows up is often a surprise. Since I begin with a charcoal drawing on primed canvas, I can always change my mind, wipe out, add, develop a theme,  discard it. I spend many hours in this glorious state of creative suspension. When things go well, I dance around the room, charcoal in hand. I am an artist and all is well with the world.

"Lower East Side," Panel #4, 6'x4', oil on canvas
All creative artists, writers, composers wrestle with the difficulty of reaching this state of wu wei. For some people, it is easier than others; being out of control is too frightening to them. You often hear of famous writers and their “drinking problems,” (Cheever, Fitzgerald) which might have been their way of getting to the point where their subconscious took over and words flew out. The NY Times article speaks of drinking as “mental disarmament,” a way in which your inner self is revealed. As the article says “Paralysis through analysis and overthinking are very real pitfalls that the art of wu wei was designed to avoid.” Of course, this leads me to Post #63 “Getting in Your 10 thousand Hours,” the time required to get really good at something. There’s no point “accessing your unconscious” if when you reach it, the skills you need aren’t there, or worse yet, you have nothing  to say. 

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