I eagerly awaited the moment I’d find out what lay within my subconscious. What would come out of me onto the canvas if I felt truly free to express? I hoped The Painting Experience workshop would show me.
The big day arrived, and as part of my work-study scholarship I blissfully set about helping to fill, mix and stir the paint containers, set out the 23 colors onto several paint tables, and fill water buckets. Meanwhile, cardboard had been taped to the walls, tarps taped all across the floor, brushes distributed, and Stewart was on a ladder hanging lights above each painting station when I left for the airport to pick up my sister Beth. Later that evening the group gathered.
I wondered how the magic box would open: very simply, it turned out. Stewart’s co-facilitator, Aziza said, “Pick up a brush, whichever one calls you. Then walk over to the paint and pick a color, whichever one calls you.” And that was the basic instruction – clean and unburdened – that set me free to have one of the most joyful experiences of my life.
My heart burst in ecstasy with all these colors and freedom. We painted on 20×26 sheets of paper that could be taped together to whatever size we wanted. I chose two sheets, and here’s what I painted that evening.
I think joy is embedded in that painting!
I was so excited that night I literally couldn’t sleep. At dawn I finally squeezed in an hour or two.
We started the next day with a forum where people shared about their experience and their questions (some participants were long-time followers), then went back into the studio to bring forth more of the unknown to be revealed.
It seemed that no sooner had I begun to paint than it was time for lunch. Where had two hours gone?
Before lunch was over everyone was drawn back into the studio, so by the time Stewart came back the entire room was already quiet and focused on their work.
The sustained level of quiet, intensely focused work in the room was profound and one of the most memorable qualities of the experience for me. Each person seemed to be immersed in their own individual process.
The raw expression of some of the pieces was awe-inspiring.
When Stewart came around, whatever was said was entirely private and one-to-one. Several individuals seemed to be releasing emotions through the process of painting. Stewart was a worthy steward of such vulnerable moments: sincere, present, sparing of words and actions.
A ground rule had been laid at the beginning not to discuss anyone’s work. We could talk about our own experience, but no comments could be made to anyone else – a habit that for me as a teacher was disconcerting to break, especially when I wanted to gush over someone’s amazing painting. But soon I got on board and found it relieving and liberating not to have any business with anyone else.
In fact, once a painting was done (which was to be determined only after consulting with Stewart) it was parked facing the wall, never to be unearthed again until time to take it home. And that policy actually led to one of my most valuable breakthroughs.
Okay, this breakthrough is rather personal to me and might not be useful to anyone else. But here’s how it evolved. The idea of my painting going to face the wall helped divest me of the lurking feeling that I had to paint well to impress others. It wasn’t quite enough (because between now and then was plenty of time to worry about how my painting looked to others), but I knew somewhere in that direction was a nugget of gold. So I played with it in my imagination and soon came up with a scenario that magnified the effect.
What if I knew that, when I was done with my painting, it would be thrown away? A freeing thought, but perhaps too conducive to sloppy hopelessness. So I played some more in my imagination and ended up with the following scenario: I’m in jail and painting is the one thing I get to do, with the stipulation that when I’m done they will throw it away.
Somehow that was a sweet spot for me, calling forth patient focus and intense caring about the present experience of painting, yet with no concern for what someone else will think. It was an instant remedy to set my priorities straight. With that tool I was on my way and in the zone (and still use that tool today).
Stewart’s superpower seems to be helping people break through to a deeper level when they get stuck and frustrated. I didn’t experience that particular transformation firsthand, because my seasoned painting practice had so easily hooked into the spirit of what was happening that I never hit a stuck spot.
Nor did I get to really witness and benefit from the transformations happening around me because, for one thing as mentioned, the interactions between teacher and student are all really private and personal. For another, I was on my own roll and wanting to stay there. But I wished I could have benefited from hearing Stewart help others.
However, he did move me into a more liberated space by leveraging the imagery that came up in my painting to help me get more honest about what was trying to come out. In other words, he encouraged me to dive into the imagery rather than halfway entertain it. Here is the painting I spent most of days 2 and 3 making.
It was exciting to realize when I came in on day 3 that I wanted to add black. I really got way into black, a color I normally use sparingly. One of the delights of intuitive painting is to just go with it, like riding the river.
Here is what the painting looked like previously, at the end of day 2, before adding black and committing to imagery.
A big takeaway for me was how luxurious it was to have completely unstructured painting time with no prescribed group plan. I don’t know exactly how I’ll incorporate that quality into my future workshops, but I intend to find out.
The question of when someone was done with their painting was another mysterious discussion between Stewart and the individual. But in my case, he agreed with me that when I was at risk of moving from energy to futzing it was time to stop.
Did I unlock my creative expression? I’ve made progress! In a future blog post I plan to show you how the Painting Experience has influenced my artwork since then, and explore differences between this workshop and my way of teaching. (Subscribe to my blog to be the first to find out!)