Disengaging the mind …

Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019

Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019

For months now I’ve been feeling stalled; lacking a new source of inspiration in my work. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not usually one to hang around waiting for inspiration to strike, I like to get into the studio and work because who knows what might happen? Some of my most reluctant studio days have produced surprising and exciting work.

But usually I’m fired up about one subject or another – coastal reedbeds on the North Norfolk coast, Dungeness’ strange landscape, Cornwall’s dramatic coastline, Venice, North York Moors – and this informs and energises my work. These work series are usually a result of time spent in those landscapes, studying and exploring and I think this is where my problem stemmed from. For various reasons I’ve not been able to travel and explore as much as I’d like in the last 6 months.

So I’d slipped into an unhappy and relatively unproductive period of no particular direction, going through the angst that many artists experience: What am I doing? Where am I going? Am I producing anything worthwhile? This is despite the fact that I was still painting and experimenting, and that I’d had works accepted into well-respected exhibitions, but when did sense ever come into this?!

Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019

Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019

This week, still pondering subjects that might work in a series, I was in the studio, despite the sunshine tempting me to stay in the garden, and something made me look back at a bookmarked link to Canadian artist Cheryl Taves’ blog. I greatly admire Taves’ work and am grateful for the art advice posts that she publishes on her blog and her engaging honesty about her own experiences and problems.

“In the early stages of creating it is not a good time to engage our thinking minds…there will be plenty of time for that later. But, what we do want while we are creating is to be as limitless as possible…allowing ourselves to play, experiment and discover…” Cheryl Taves

Reading Taves’ post again, it dawned on me that a subject is not actually necessary for the way I work, how had I forgotten this? For years I used to start a painting with no particular subject in mind, playing around with the materials in an intuitive manner until something started to present itself to me. And although I’ll probably always react to new experience of landscape with new work, I realised that situation is not actually necessary for me to work.

I’d got myself tied in knots trying to straightjacket myself into responding to new subjects (and trying to demonstrate that response in the results) when I have a wealth of subconscious experience and material to rely on intuitively. What I need to do is to relearn how to ‘stay open’ to ‘allow myself to play, experiment and discover’ as Taves wisely advises. It seems obvious to me now, I can allow myself to put the question of subject matter to one side if I want to. To paint for the joy of it. I’ve been here before in the past, but I needed to be reminded. It’s not always easy advice to follow, but how it rewards us when we do. As another author said ‘trust the process’.

The other interesting aspect of this is that, as I rediscovered again today in the studio, once I give up the demands of subject matter, not only is there a joyful freedom again for me in working, but the resulting work still offers glimpses of certain motifs and experiences that I recognise. I can allow them to come through instead of forcing them into existence. I’m trying not to pigeonhole the result into a particular recognisable subject, that would be a self-defeating. But it offers an interesting dimension to the process.

It feels akin to channelling or being a conduit for the artwork. But we are channelling what we have, through years of work and observation, already stored in our minds and in our body memory. I knew this, but I’d forgotten, I needed to be reminded. Now I’m fired up again.

The following excerpt from Cheryl Taves’ blog (link at the bottom of the page) is worth following and reading in full as she also gives a list of useful guidelines …

Following The Flow
… Making art, whether it be through painting, writing, dance….any form of creative expression, requires a certain freedom and willingness to stay open, to engage what comes and trust the process. Following the flow.

In the early stages of creating it is not a good time to engage our thinking minds…there will be plenty of time for that later. But, what we do want while we are creating is to be as limitless as possible…allowing ourselves to play, experiment and discover. The only real requirement is to show up and be willing to follow.

I know this and yet I continually need to reinstate this into my painting practice because I easily slip back into fearful, analytical thinking much too soon…

Cheryl Taves 2015

Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019

Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019

8 thoughts on “Disengaging the mind …

  1. Thanks for this Mari, I completely identify with this. I came to live in France from the Yorkshire Dales three years ago and last year I was offered a solo show at a reputable venue in the Vendee. I fairly soon found that trying to adapt to the landscape of this region meant that I lost my intuitive process and I had to think about adapting my style. I was soon frustrated with the results, too mechanical and lacking any spark. I felt flat and unmotivated as you described until I did a couple of purely intuitive “sketches” based on my feeling for the local area rather than trying to represent “le paysage” as it is. I have been happier with these, and your post gave me confidence to continue and rely on my process. I also read Cheryl Taves’ blog. Good stuff for artists block. I like your work for it’s freedom of spirit, more abstract than mine by a long way, but quite inspiring. Thank you Mari.

    • Hello Stephen, many thanks for your interesting response to my blog post. I’m so pleased it was of encouragement to you (one of my main aims in writing it!). Thanks too for your kind comments about my work. I can relate to your problems in adapting to a change of landscape, this is such a challenge to a landscape artist (whether abstract or representational). I had the same situation when I moved from the Isle of Skye where we’d lived for 15 years, to Norfolk, a completely different landscape. Although I loved this area it took me a year or two before I realised how compelling I found the beauty in the long saltmarsh coast with its reedbeds and creeks. It takes time living in a place, exploring and keeping an open mind before something ‘catches’ I think. It sounds like you’ve found an effective way of relating to it now though. I’m convinced these changes of scenes and approaches to work keep us evolving as artists, which has to be a good thing! I love the Yorkshire Dales by the way, I’m off up to the North York Moors in a few weeks for a sketching break. Lovely to have a change of scene still. Best wishes, Mari

  2. At the Rooftop Arts Centre, we resident artists get together every 6 weeks or so for our “Artist Therapy Session”. As we plough through a large bag of chips(fresh from a proper fish and chip shop owned by one of our artists family), and a large homemade chocolate cake we share our current work, and our “troubles”. Without exception, some of us will be fighting this “blank canvas” syndrome. It helps to talk about it with fellow artists, is reassuring to know one is not alone, and often helps throw the “on” switch

    • Thanks for your thoughts on my post Martin. You’re right, it’s very helpful to talk to fellow artists about these things, which is something I do when I can. In this case I found myself trying to work out my thoughts on ‘paper’ (ipad!) then decided to share them as a post. It’s been really heartening to hear the responses of so many artists going through the same thing.

  3. Wonderful, so honest and insightful post, Mari. I just love your abstraction and have always appreciated its landscape sources … your sophistication shines through as your source becomes a generalised thing due to your experience … you’re not representing particular places but particular personal responses in paint in the original, beautiful marks that are so recognisable as yours alone… looking forward to seeing the new paintings

    • Thanks so much Lez for your thoughtful response to this post. Your comments are really helpful and generous. It means a lot coming from you, not just as a friend but an artist I admire. I know you appreciate the difficulties we abstract landscape artists experience in expressing what goes on in our minds and trying to bring it into our work. Thank you.

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