Well, I guess the first question is really “Why paint?”
For me, the short answer is: “Because it’s fun.” I feel freedom. I get to play and experiment. I get to see colors bump up against each other and start dancing. I feel alive.
But why paint every day is a different and more complex question. So for the next few days, I’ll give you some of my reasons for creating a daily practice of painting.
Reason # 1:
It sets the right priority for my day. Most days, I paint starting at 5am. I used to wake up, grab my phone, and check email or Facebook before even getting out of bed. That means that first thing, I was plunged into the outer world of other people’s lives, needs, and stories before I could even consider what was going on in my inner world. By choosing to paint before I go to my phone or computer, I’m letting myself tune into my own heart and hear from God before I start extroverting for the day. C.S. Lewis said: “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in; put second things first and we lose both first and second things.” To me, it feels like painting daily is a first things first kind of activity. And when I’m done painting, I post to FaceBook and Instagram, and the second things come along for the ride.
Today’s first thing…
It’s intentional. You don’t accidentally make a little painting. You have to decide to do it. So the discipline reminds me that I have choices. For a certain number of minutes every day, I choose to be in front of my easel with flowers and paint and light and a sense of anticipation that ping-pongs between giddiness (what might happen today?) and mild dread (what might not happen today?) Exercising my choice matters. It affirms the dignity of my design. And it reminds me of Viktor Frankl’s wisdom: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
It is brave. Let’s face it, waking up to creativity is risky business. A blank canvas. Materials that won’t be controlled but insist on being mysteriously engaged. Uncertainty about whether my hands can translate what my eyes and heart are seeing and feeling. The nattering of the shame gremlins lurking in the darkness, waiting to taunt me with harsh self-talk and comparison (the thief of joy). Choosing to enter this arena every day is an act of “getting my brave on.” It is fraught with dangers. And it is fabulous. Alan Alda once said that to be creative, you “have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.” For me, painting every day is an act of courage, another step on a pilgrimage of discovery.
There’s a rhythm — a liturgy, if you will — that feeds my soul. I read Ruth Haley Barton’s book, Sacred Rhythms, several years ago and have marveled ever since in the significance of rituals. They help us mark moments. They train us to notice that we are creatures subject to the patterns that are part of all creation (e.g., inhale and exhale, the movement of the seasons, day and night, sleep and wakefulness, famine and plenty, the bounty of summer and the fallow of midwinter). This new ritual of daily painting has its own patterns. On Sundays I purchase and arrange flowers. Each morning, once the coffee is on, I pick out my flowers for the day. Then I lay out my paints – nine colors, placed in the same order each day on the metal butcher tray that serves as my palette. Putting the same colors in the same places isn’t boring – it grounds me and gives me a sense of order and confidence. Then, coffee mug in hand, I take a few moments to breathe, appreciate the beauty of the flowers in front of me, and ask God what He has in store for this process today. After that, the painting begins. It usually takes about 45 – 60 minutes to create a little 6” x 6” painting; and when I’m done, I sign, title, and number the piece as an Amen to the experience.
The daily painting practice seems significant and powerful in ways that transcend the mundane details. But I believe my experience is consistent with Barton’s observation: “Over time, as we surrender ourselves to new life rhythms, they help us to surrender old behaviors, attitudes and practices so that we can be shaped by new ones.” For me, the new ritual is forming me.
(By the way, you can find out more about spiritual formation at www.stillforming.com, the website of the amazing Christianne Squires. She and her husband, Kirk, are doing a fantastic series on formation that is worth engaging!)
It connects me to the Creator. Years ago I read a book by Gordon Mackenzie, founder of Hallmark’s Shoe Box Greeting Division, that was provocatively titled “Orbiting the Giant Hairball.” In it he tells the story of going to talk to elementary students about creativity and art. When addressing kindergarten students, when he asked if any of them were artists, almost all hands would shoot in the air, often waving maniacally. By third grade fewer than a quarter of the students would typically raise their hands. By fifth grade, maybe one or two hands would go up, and then only partially, tentatively. He speculated that something was happening to cause us to lose the joyful awareness that we are all creative.
I believe this creativity is part of our design. We are image bearers of a creative God. The first thing we learn about Him in the Bible is that He makes things. Dreams them up. Fashions them. Delights in them. And I believe that capacity for generativity and delight is deeply woven into our DNA – whether our making takes place in a boardroom or a studio, a garden or an orchestra pit, a kitchen or a construction site, a library or laboratory. We fashion relationships, we design our lifestyles, we present pictures of ourselves and others. We are creators. And when we create, we are mysteriously connected to the One who first created us.
When I am painting, I am bringing all the skills and training that I have to the process. I do my best with my limited capacities. But sometimes – even often – the outcome is more than I could have anticipated. When I am in the flow, I have a sense of connecting with something within and beyond me that is larger than my ego or talents. I feel an ephemeral connection with what Jung calls the collective unconscious, some call the Divine, and I call the Holy Spirit and the great cloud of witnesses. I am connected not only to my own creative spirit, but also the creative Spirit that is the ground of being. It is mysterious and sweet. And I’m kind of hooked on it. Why wouldn’t I want it every day?
It’s an opportunity for gratitude. Eugene Peterson talks about “eucharistic hospitality” as a way of living in the world that consciously engages the generosity, sacrifice and gifting hidden in our common ordinary experiences. Eucharist, the word most commonly associated with the celebration of Communion in churches, derives from a Greek word meaning thanksgiving for grace gifts. Painting daily is a way that I am practicing hospitality of soul for the grace gifts around me.
The flowers that I paint are usually cut, which means that they will wither and die sometime in my keeping. I honor their sacrifice. But more than that, the Lisianthus that I painted today were grown in Virginia; the African Roses hailed from Canada; and the glass vase that they were sitting in was made in Mexico. So I am grateful for workers across the Americas this morning.
Growers in the U.S. and Canada prepared soil, planted seeds, tended seedlings, weeded, watered and fertilized the plants. People I will likely never meet harvested, gathered the flowers into bunches, banded them, wrapped them in plastic, labeled them, shipped them, and delivered them to stores, where clerks set them out in buckets and other clerks rang up the purchase, and someone helped me carry a wine box overflowing with blooms to my car. Somewhere in the U.S. a hardboard manufacturing plant took wood chips, steamed and compressed them, formed them into panels, and cut them to size so that I would have something to paint on this morning. And before them, forests sacrificed their trees and loggers and wood workers did their jobs. And clerks in Illinois processed my on-line order for the supplies, and inventory control clerks and warehouse employees, and a team of FedEx workers made sure that they arrived at my door. In Mexico, silica was processed, and workers operated glass furnaces, and artisans shaped the chunky vase that I love. And others packed and shipped and merchandised the vase so that it ended up in a Hobby Lobby in Orlando for me to find on clearance. And in all of those chains of events there were accountants and retail assistants and trainers and supervisors and marketers and graphic designers and quality control specialists doing their jobs, offering their gifts and making their sacrifices.
And it doesn’t stop there. The earth has offered up her bounty, diversity, and beauty. The pigments that go into the paints that I use are mostly synthetic, but they reproduce the crimson made from Madder plants, ground lapis lazuli gemstones, and titanium mined from igneous rock. I owe a debt of gratitude to color chemists who discovered the brilliant blues and greens of phthalocyanine and captured the yellow and red pigments produced by the cadmium generated in copper and zinc smelting. The earth’s minerals, plants and animals, along with human ingenuity, have yielded an unbelievably rich palette that I got to play with this morning.
When I think of all these materials and processes and all this interdependence, it can make me want to weep with wonder and gratitude. And in response, I want to offer my own best gifts – my time, attention, vision, whimsy, heart, courage, and commitment. So I paint.