After years of painting highly defined and detailed images of cells and other living organisms with gouache paint, my work felt a little tight to me, like something laced up and slightly uncomfortable. I knew it was time to loosen up and focus only on that aspect of my own paintings that was most compelling to me: the quality of flow, of energy and form in fluid motion. I switched to oil paints and larger brushes and paid attention to pure movement and color. What emerged were more abstract images and a heightened awareness of how deeply my images are connected to my breath and the movements of my own arm. Energy flowing in me gets revealed on canvas in images that resemble water, soft layers of tissues folding into themselves as they grow, flowers unfurling, pond scum moving across a slow-moving stream. There seems to be a celebration going on: a celebration of how beautiful the natural world is and a wanting to share that knowledge.
The more I make paintings, the less I am interested in being called artist. "Artist" is a title that comes with a lot of cultural baggage that can work against the natural impulse to create. (Imagine Georgia O'Keefe being told by Alfred Steiglitz, "You're not a great artist until a rich person has bought your work." What happens when the media makes an artist a celebrity?) What I am doing when I paint is exploring a way to understand the forms of nature and the energy that flows through everything in the world, including myself. It is a way to feel intensely alive. When I see pictures of how the various tissues of our body originate in the infolding of and bulging out of layers of cells in the embryo, I feel the urge to make a painting about that process. Repeatedly, I am saying when I paint, "The world is truly extraordinary, and I need/want to do something special to commemorate that."
What if the essential aspect of what we call "the arts" were simply "To make the ordinary extraordinary"? Whether I'm painting a special image or decorating my house for a holiday party, I am 'artifying,' according to art historian and ethologist, Ellen Dissanayake. "Making the ordinary extraordinary" is a natural activity that humans are inclined to do and respond to. From the earliest times, people have made things special, at first in ritual ceremonies that helped their survival and more recently in multitudinous ways that help them get through life and make it worth living. Now that's a vision of the arts that I can live with. (More about Ellen and the arts in a future blog.)