About a year ago we were exploring a deep canyon in the Oregon Cascade Mountains. This area is known as the old cascades because geologically it is much older than the larger mountain range that includes peaks like Mt. Hood, Three Sisters, Jefferson and Washington. This area is craggy and raw. Dense old growth forest is veined with hidden canyons. Mudslides are a normal activity and treasures are around every corner for those willing to scramble, crawl and scrape a way through them.
My friend and I had our our boys and a couple of others along with us for the day. All that was planned was a canyoneering jaunt of three miles to where a bridge would bring us back to one of our vehicles.
Some of the finds that day were waterfalls to climb (luckily we brought a rope), lots of beautiful caves made from giant log jams and many critters including a frog.
I make it a point often to visit streams and leave my fly rod behind. I easily become obsessed by the possibility of trout in every pool. It leaving the rod arranges for me to disconnect from the sport and reconnect with the stream. Fly fishing master Lefty Kreh says that a great fisherman spends more time watching streams than fishing them.
Everything becomes vibrant again. I see the kingfisher, the otter, the bear tracks and the water splash on a boulder from a coyote that sprinted for safety as we advance up stream.
Patterns emerge. With it all, stress carried there from the valley melts away and we pick up frogs, salamanders and skip rocks. Boys stumble and bruise shins.
And soon enough I am back to being a calm fisherman, one that comes to the stream appreciative, not a taker but a lover.
One of my best painting teachers ironically was not at the world class fine arts school I began my college career at. He was an instructor at a community college. He challenged all of us to paint something and then without thinking white wash the canvas and begin again. I had my greatest breakthroughs in painting when I embraced this crazy illogical way of learning. And I learned even more when I took that first stroke of white paint and covered over what I felt was some of my best work.
The pain of covering over the work and beginning again at first seemed pointless. I wanted to show someone, hear their praises and feel the satisfaction of a job well done.
But the brilliance of it started to emerge immediately. I started to paint for me. I relaxed and just painted for the sake of painting. I started to care less whether anyone liked it or not. I became bolder with my strokes and experimented more. I had an audience of one. The painting took a second role to the true main character, the art.
In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the character Sean O’Connell played by Sean Penn says “beautiful things don’t ask for attention”. In the scene below, he has been sitting in the cold waiting to see the elusive Ghost Cat, a Himalayan snow leopard. As the cat finally appears he chooses to take the moment in and not take the photo.
Letting go of so much as I white washed my first painting set me free to enjoy the art. That was over 23 years ago. And to be honest what my teacher initiated with the canvas white-washing began to wear off and was only recovered about 8 years ago. I have noticed that the artist that does their craft for an audience of one impacts the world the most. The artist that ignores the critic and continues to do her art over and over again brings an unfiltered beauty to the world.
So where do we start? What is the equivalent of white washing our paintings today? Here is a list of just some examples I am trying and few suggestions too. Please feel free to comment and add your own.
-Use a DSLR not linked to any social sites. Of course feel free to post photos to instagram, FB or Flickr but let them rest first and post later.
-Take digital fasts. You will be amazed how hard it is to write, play music, laugh and engage with a small audience in real life. Take a few notes and pay attention to your digital addictions. I bet you will find some places where your art has become a crutch or pathway to gaining approval from others. (if you need help getting started you can read a few things I have found along the way.)
-Sit alone with your thoughts at least once a day. Allow yourself to get past the fears, clutter and must-do’s.
-Write a blog, post a picture or record a podcast and then choose to not look at how many comments it receives or likes (dislikes) it gets. Ignore everyone, even if it drives you crazy.
-Try a new language, skill or art.
-Start a journal.
-Delete all your old emails.
-When someone compliments you, say thank you and leave it at that. And for my Christian friends reading this, please consider this. My good friend Chris Skaggs has a great reply he compliments someone’s art and they say “all the glory to God” or “it is all Jesus”. He replies, “It wasn’t that good!”
-Publish something anonymously.
This is just a start. I would love to hear about your own artist journey on the topic as well as any challenges you could add to the list.