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In Front of a Bowl of Peaches

November 12, 2010

‘Art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible’ ~ Paul Klee

One late summer afternoon I sat in front of a crystal bowl of peaches slighted tilted by a coin.  I had been eager to learn how to paint for a long time and I was both excited and understandably a bit anxious about what was coming.  I knew it would not be a ‘typical’ painting class.  I was fully aware that my teacher had more in mind than teaching me how to paint.  I knew it was about looking, deeply.  I knew it was about seeing.  I knew it was about sensing.  I knew it was about Buber’s I-Thou relationship.  It was definitely not about technique not even skill.

I was given watercolors.  I don’t like watercolors; I find them uncontrollable.  The color diffuses on the paper in a way that is completely unpredictable: I want to put some color here and as the brush touches the paper—oops!—it’s all over.  I don’t know the technique.  I was not taught any techniques.

I was told I should not try to draw the overall still life scene with a pencil, but instead start painting directly (I’m not sure why).  That’s about all I was told.   I was shown a few pictures of Cezanne’s watercolors—his own bowl of fruit.  Of course, I know Cezanne’s work was not about representing reality as it is seen.  Cezanne is the father of cubism.  And modern art goes beyond representing reality; it is about perceiving the essence of reality; it is about the relationship between the artist and the object—an object that is not “it” but “thou.” Modern art is about ‘wholeness’.

I was left alone.

I observed the bowl; I observed the peaches.  I still remember them vividly.  The crystal bowl had oblong carvings and the light was reflecting on each one with multiple hues of grey—from white to dark grey.  Through the bowl I could see blurry shapes—the rounded shapes (although they did not look rounded) of the peaches at the bottom of the bowl.  I loved the colors of the peaches—from deep purple to orange to bright yellow.  I wanted to capture those colors.  I also saw their roundness: how was I going to paint their roundness?

I realized the process was not going to go well at the second I started to add color on the paper.  “Ah!  Watercolors!”  Fairly quickly, I started to feel tension growing in my body.  I felt a ball growing in my throat.  My eyes became watery.  More than anything, I started to feel very angry.  I was in terrible emotional and physical pain.  Why was I left here alone with no instructions on how to work with watercolors?  “Stay calm!  Breathe!  Look!  Try again!  It’s about the process.  You never painted before.  Why would you expect to get any results on the first try?  I hate this!  Boy!  I want to throw all this away!  This is useless—meaningless!”  Negative thoughts were flowing.  I can still feel the emotion in my body by simply recalling the event.

I’m not sure how long I stayed there— 45 minutes to one hour, perhaps.  When my teacher came back I had painted the shape of the bowl and a few peaches that did not look like peaches and were as flat as the paper they were on.  I was told I had forgotten to capture the overall scene and that it would have been helpful to put objects in relationship with one another.  “Darn!  I knew that!”  But, in my eagerness of try to control the watercolors, I exclusively focused on the peaches and the bowl and completely forgot everything else.  My bowl was basically floating up in the air!

I was very angry.  I probably complained again about the watercolors.  I felt terrible.  I hated the whole experience and myself.  Perhaps my teacher was disappointed in me because he did not debrief much.  He simply brought my attention to a small passage in the watercolour and said it was “excellent.”  But I did not hear this and I did not see anything “excellent” in what I had done.  We cleaned up and never talked about it anymore.

What was I supposed to learn from this exercise?  I’m still struggling with the answer.  I was put in a situation of not knowing, of high uncertainties.  There was no expert, only someone eager to learn (or so I thought!).  In fact, the situation I was in is quite similar to the “adaptive challenges” I am eager to facilitate in my professional life.  In this case, however, it was not about ‘midwifing’ a group through the process of change; it was about facilitating my own self through a very experiential learning process.  And I failed miserably!

I could have used the exercise as an opportunity to experiment, problem-solve and learn, in a completely safe environment; instead, I tried to control the medium.  The less it behaved the way I wanted, the harder I tried.  Why I followed the few instructions that were given to me without even questioning them is beyond me today.  The trust I hold for my teacher and the desire to please (there must be a reason for doing it like this: do what you were told!) blinded me.  I had a pencil.  Why didn’t I try to sketch the whole scene to help me start?  There were gouaches on the table.  Why didn’t I try to use them?  And, why didn’t I truly “play” with the process.  Perhaps I could have messed up what I had done (knowing it was worthless) and experiment with the watercolors—go abstract! (Yes, but in my mind, I was there to capture what I was looking at.).

While I was inherently free to do whatever pleased me, I voluntarily constrained myself and restricted the realm of learning possibilities.  I applied a mechanical mind to a creative process, which should have been fully organic.  It was not about techniques and about representation.  But, that’s the box I put myself in.  And, once in the ‘box,’ the challenge was too daunting because there were too many things I had to learn at once (observing, sensing, creating my composition, learning how to use the medium and experimenting with it, etc.), and I had no experience.  I was addressing complexity with a simplistic and reductionist mind: this never works!  As a very powerful teacher once said: “If that student wants to escape the mediocrity of management and its education, the student will have to seek the burning fire of authentic learning.” That day in front of a crystal bowl of peaches I was not an authentic learner!

The fact that I realize this today, weeks after the event, is a ‘creative collapse’ with deep transformative power—one that will help me become who I must become: an authentic, creative, and highly adaptive individual able to navigate, and help other navigate, the complexity of today’s world.

Beatrice

Postscript

From my teacher: “In that hour you will see, one day, is almost everything you can possibly do and know — but it is rightly hidden now, and it is for me to sense that, and to rightly withhold, until that day comes.”

I know there is still much I do not understand from this experience.  But, I’ll let it go until the day comes and I will see.  Meanwhile, I’ll practice humility while remembering that art is about “feeling—not knowing or believing or thinking” and I will keep the advice of the poet e.e. cummings in mind:

“A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.

This may sound easy. It isn’t.

[Snip]

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.”

[Snip]

e.e.cummings, A Poet’s Advice: http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=61872

Cezanne’s Bowl of Fruit, watercolors, from http://www.paul-cezanne.org

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