Written on 9-15-2020
I suppose I have to write a column today. And I don’t believe in writers’ block. If I keep going through the motions I’ll be okay.
I keep going. I fall but I get back up. Even without evidence of achievement, I keep going. In the face of despair, I keep going. Alone, I keep going. With companions, I keep going. I don’t know why.
About eleven years ago, I took a weekend painting workshop and discovered an unanticipated talent for abstract art. The workshop was called “The Art of Not Knowing” and was presented by Todd Brown, co-founder of the Red Poppy Art House, one of the many places we can’t go to these days, and wish we could.
I arrived for the workshop carrying a three by four foot plywood board, painted with white gesso, as I had been instructed. Apparently, Todd did not want his students (non-artists, all) to be intimidated by a blank canvas, so he wanted us to use something different. Also, he knew that the wooden surface with its cracks, and bumps, and ridges, and irregularities would create effects that we might not otherwise achieve.
It’s a wonderful metaphor really. If we are the canvas on which we paint our lives, the more variant we are, the greater our imperfections, large and small, the bumpier our surface, the more interesting and rewarding our inner experience. I have found this to be very true.
At the Red Poppy, I was assigned a spot on the wall to hang my panel. The group of students then stood, each by our boards, as if they were already completed works on display. We were taking ownership of our creative field. We were placed along two facing walls, using all of the available surface, and Todd stood in the middle of the room. He raised his hand in the air to draw our attention. I felt excited. Oh, please, I thought, let this work for me. I want so badly to be an artist. I’ve waited so long.
Todd was standing very still and centered. He had a polka-dotted mug of coffee in his hand and was wearing a smock and a goofy hat. His matted brown hair had specks of paint in it. He stood in the midst of the Red Poppy Art House’s eccentric furnishings: a couple of old couches with deep cushions, some folding metal chairs, a beat-up old wing back covered in dust, a low coffee table with a large bowl of fruit, and a few huge pillows on the floor. It was not yet mid-morning and the sun cast long shafts of light into the eastern facing storefront, broken up into shadows by the signs and framing in the windows. The dust was dancing.
“Okay,” said Todd. “Let’s begin with a question. Do any of you know anything about making a painting?”
Among the dozen or so students, only a couple of hands were raised. Those students volunteered that they had tried to paint once or twice in the past but not much.
“How about the rest of you? Do you know anything about making a painting?”
“No,” we all agreed. “We know nothing about it.”
“Wonderful!” cried Todd, and he even clapped his hands. “That’s what this is all about: the art of not knowing. You admit you don’t know anything about it, so you don’t have to worry about making mistakes. Right?”
I was dubious but he had my attention.
“So,” he went on. “Who knows how to tango?”
The next thing I knew, flamenco music was pouring through the Poppy’s loud speakers and Todd was giving a tango lesson. It took the first hour of our painting workshop.
We took a break and ate some fruit.
“Okay,” said Todd. “By now you should have forgotten all about whatever you think you’re here for, so we can go on. Go to your places.”
We dutifully took our places along the walls.
“Now, here’s the most important lesson I’m gonna give you today,” said Todd. “Since you all admit you know nothing about painting, forget about it! We’re not going to paint anything today. We’re not even going to try.” I felt a bit frustrated. If I’m not here to paint, I thought, what did I pay for?
Todd continued, “What we’re going to do is process a surface. You all admit you know nothing about painting, but you can process a surface can’t you? Just do stuff to a surface?”
I was astonished. Why, yes I could! I could do that. I couldn’t draw, and I knew nothing about mixing colors, or perspective, or modeling, but I could do stuff to a surface. Is that all that was required? I felt a sudden sense of freedom and excitement. I was raring to go! I noticed similar excitement among my classmates.
What followed was a series of experiments that seemed to have nothing at all to do with creating anything. We played. We closed our eyes and danced around the room holding pieces of charcoal, then made marks (eyes still closed) all over our surfaces. We sprayed them with a fixative. Then Todd gave us a lesson on how to prepare ceviche and offered us wine. Then we took random colors, mixed them with water, and splashed it all over our surfaces. Then we pasted up pictures from magazines. Then we painted over them. We dripped paint in all directions. We splashed paint from a distance. We took modeling paste and made bumps all over our boards. We set them outside to dry in the sun while we sang songs. Then we went home.
The next day, we came back at noon and put the boards back up on the wall. They were interesting, all of them, if not beautiful.
Todd said, “Do whatever you like. Just keep processing until you think you are done.”
Two hours later, we were. We went outside for a walk and came back for a show. To our astonishment, we found we were in a gallery with real art on the walls. Our art. It was fucking amazing. The work was beautiful. Really.
I took my treasured piece home and after living it with it for a few days I thought: “I think I could do that again. I’d like to try. It’s true I know nothing about painting, but I’m sure I could keep processing a surface.” Within a couple of weeks, I’d rented a studio in the Mission and purchased some boards and even some canvasses.
Two months later I participated in my first open studio and sold my first painting and a few others. It was still fucking amazing.
A decade later, and I’m still at it. I’ve completed maybe a hundred paintings. Right now in my apartment (which includes a dedicated studio) are 23 of my paintings, an actual body of work.
I still don’t know how to do it. I can’t draw, can’t manage perspective, and when I achieve an effect, it’s accidental.
But if you asked me: Did you get what you wanted? Did you get to be an artist? I’d tell you: “You’re damn right I’m an artist! It worked great.”
Well, you might ask, what do you do?
“I don’t know,” I’d tell you. “I just keep processing the surface.”
Written on 9-15-2020