Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water… Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend. (Bruce Lee)
I come from a family of artists. Well, okay: we are a family of artistic types, which is kind of the same thing. My two sisters and I have always been musical and performance-y, both instrumentally and vocally, and we have produced seven creative children between us. Our mother is a pianist and beautiful singer, and our father is the King of the Dabblers: painting, photography, electronics, banjo. So my sisters and I grew up giving stuff a try. Like I said: artistic types.
My paternal grandparents Ikey and Wilma though: they were Artists. We have several of their paintings, in both oil and acrylics; there are enough of these works to indicate a real commitment to making art. More than dabblers, my grandparents were painters.
The heavy, humid days of summer were particularly formative for me in my Ozarks youth. Along with fried-chicken picnics with magic-tasting garden tomatoes and a rapture-inducing chocolate sheet cake*–August brought the annual art show Watercolor USA. It was here, in the wide, cool, quiet halls of the art museum that I fell in love with watercolor. As a result, I have always longed to paint with watercolor. (And when I say “longed”, I mean in the way one longs to meet George Clooney. You dream, but there’s no point in having any ambition actually to do it. It will probably never happen, anyway.)
I confessed one time to my grandmother The Artist that I wanted to try watercolor, to which she replied something like: “For God’s sake! You want to paint, paint with acrylics, they are much easier to control! It’s is too damned hard to make watercolor do what you want it to do.” Well, okay then. Never mind.
Of course it would be too easy to blame my grandmother that it has taken me years even to pick up a brush. Even though I fully expected to love painting with watercolor, I just didn’t do it. Mostly it was just that inertia that everybody experiences. It’s just easier to wish.
But then, after basically two generations-worth of wishing (I’m a slow thinker), I had this thought: Hang on. I don’t WANT to control the paint. Being unable to control the paint is EXACTLY the point, exactly what I love about watercolor. I love the way it pools and dries in over-lapping, transparent ways. (And for heaven’s sake: I’m a damned grown-up. Plus, as Mama Cass said, you have to make your own kind of music.)
So in recent years I have started taking action, by golly. I bought some supplies (feeling kind of like a faker even as I did it.) Mostly on vacations and retreats, I have produced some pieces that range from “blech” to “hey, not bad”. And lately, I have taken myself firmly by the hand and made a commitment to make art. I have set up a place at home where the paints and the palette and the ex-gelato cups can just stay there. I am watching instructional videos, of which there are a crap-ton. Maybe I will (eek) even sign up for a class.
Here’s the thing: The reason we commit to a discipline is to honor a process, not to produce a product. The process of letting go, losing oneself in work (or gardening, or prayer, or singing), creating but not controlling what happens…this is the true goal. I want to see if working with colored water, and the way it flows and pools and shapes itself, will teach me something: about creating, about myself, and maybe about God (aka “The Creator”, get it?) As with all other art–as with all spiritual disciplines, for that matter–the point is the process, not the product. The point of the whole thing is the process. The process of being available to the water, to the color, to the light, to the spirit. I have been learning this and forgetting it for years and years and years. Always we begin again. Amen. May it be so.
*The memory of the chocolate cake of my childhood sent me on a quest recently, looking for a recipe I feared had gone to the grave with my great-grandmother. As it turns out, my mother not only had the recipe, but her recipe card calls this “Everybody’s Chocolate Sheet Cake”. So: not lost to time, after all. My grandparents’ first date, in 1930, give or take, took place at the long-gone Half-a-Hill Supper Club, which may be where the Ozarks version of the cake originated. Click here for a cool article in Saveur, and check out the recipe. Yum.