Matisse and Me

I’m teaching art with my Kindergartners and that always has me reflecting on my own process, emotions, and thoughts as a creative.

I’ve been painting when I hike for a few years now, but this year, I began working in a watercolor journal. All the paintings — no matter my opinion of them — are there. I’m always kind of surprised by the courage involved to put pen or paint brush to paper — especially when it is in a bound book, or done without pencil sketching first. I wondered it if I were the only one to feel that. Surely not, I thought.

Looking for affirmation for my feelings I set about finding articles linking courage and creativity. As I looked I stumbled upon this quote by Henri Matisse “Creativity takes courage.” Ah, even the master felt it!

And then, as I read more, I nearly fell out of my chair. Matisse — the man whose pencil drawings of the Madonna enthralled me at the Museo d’Arte e Spiritualita in Brescia, and whose Cut Outs took my breath away at the MOMA — said this:

“It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else.”

Wow.

When I read that, I was amazed and encouraged. If Matisse could be bothered that he didn’t paint like everybody else, why would I be surprised that I feel that way? If Matisse said it, and yet went on to embrace his work — grow, change, re-invent himself when he saw fit — then I could, too.

It’s remarkable how freeing it is to know Matisse was bothered that he didn’t paint like everybody else. Somehow that gave me a great sense of freedom. Just paint, draw, do your thing. Notice, think, wonder, and make creative and artistic decisions. Your thing is yours, it’s beautiful, it’s creative, it’s artistic — but most of all, it’s yours.

What if Matisse had stopped doing his own thing and tried to be like everybody else. Yikes! That would have been awful. So I encourage myself — I am in amazing artistic and creative company, and if a master like Matisse could just say “Hey this brings me joy, and expresses what I see and feel” then so can I.

So I paint on. I draw on. Seeing my work, and the work of others for what it is — us.

I photographed daffodils on a recent walk. Wanting to make some art I grabbed a small piece of watercolor and got to work. Is it perfect? No. Is it good? Yes. Did it bring me joy? Yes. Does it bring me joy now as I look at it? Yes. Is it me? Yes. Is it my style? Yes. What more can I ask for?

For now it sits on my desk to remind myself of the joy and awesomeness that is creative and artistic me — the joy and awesomeness of creating from who we are, where we are, with all we are.

When I work with my Kindergartners I want them to have this freedom — the freedom to know they can make great artistic and creative decisions, the freedom to find joy in their process and product even if it looks different than others, the courage to create with confidence in their own fantabulousness.

From Matisse, to me, to them. Who knows where it will go from there?

Trust and Art

I’m teaching again! I’m super excited to be back, getting to know the girls, and doing my thing.

One big wrench in the works — or one gigantic and glorious opportunity for new thinking and wonderful possibilities, depending how you look at it — is that I’m teaching remotely. Most of my class is back in school, and one student continues to learn remotely.

It’s a lot of work to teach and develop relationships in person. Now I’m doing that remotely. Can you say “PHEW!”

This week I got to teach art. I could cry with happiness!

And, speaking of crying, I did cry — big ugly crying — as my colleague and I tried to work out the logistics for the art class. We went through many possible iterations, and each one seemed to have a reason it might not, or would not, work. Thank goodness, my colleague was super understanding and encouraging. She told me I was doing a great job and it was only the second day back in school. She assured me we would work it out. and it would be awesome. I decided to believe her, and signed off for a much needed moment and cup of tea.

Once I was settled and able to agree — It is only the second day. I am a fantabulous teacher. It is going to be alright, maybe even better than alright. — I was able to take a breath, and think creatively about what and how to teach. I settled on Hundertwasser.

First I considered how my image might be the large enough for them to see me, and the art I shared, while still allowing me to see all of them. A friend of mine signed on to a zoom call with me — along with her two daughters — to test out spotlighting and pinning. Pinning seemed to be the best choice.

Then I looked at my Hundertwasser books. What images did I have? Could I narrow them down to no more than 5? I wanted the Kindergarten artists to have time to notice, think, and wonder about the art, but I also wanted them to have plenty of time to create their own work, inspired by Hundertwasser.

What did I want them to know about Hundertwasser? I decided on these points:

Hundertwasser was curious and couragous.
Hundertwasser did a lot of thinking and imagining.
Hundertwasser’s ideas became artwork or buildings.
Hundertwasser liked spirals, wavy lines, bricks and stones on his buildings, lollipop trees, and color.
Hundertwasser changed his name when he became an artist.

I shared these images with the Kindergarten artists, and we dialogued about them.

Once they were familiar with Hundertwasser, I asked the Kindergarten artists to use their sketchbooks to experiment with, and practice, the various elements. They worked with determination, focus, imagination, courage, and joy. They used the classroom document camera to show their sketches to me. I shared what I noticed, thought, and wondered. I did my best to encourage their artistic freedom and decisions making, while also highlighting the elements we were using from Hundertwasser’s art.

I was surprised how well we were able to interact with one another. Even though we were miles away from one another, they seemed to be able to feel my love, respect, awe, and joy. I worked hard to express it through my emotions, language, and very self. I was very intentional with my words, and actions, so as to be able to express what I was feeling, thinking, and believing about them.

Before the second Hundertwasser inspired class, I again thought deeply about what I would present, as well as what we would discuss. The time and zoom constraints were a blessing — an annoying blessing but a blessing none-the-less. The constraints forced me to be very clear about my purpose and plan.

The Kindergarten artists and I reviewed the elements together, and re-examined the images so they were fresh in our minds. I shared a bit of my thinking as an artist. “I do lots of thinking – and often move my head or step back in order to see my art work in new ways.” I told them Hundertwasser was very thoughtful as well. I assured them that they could do great art thinking, and make great artistic decisions, too! I showed them a few watercolor tricks – using your dry brush as an eraser of sorts, and mixing colors on the page rather than a palette.

Finally I reminded them about Hundertwasser changing his name when he became an artist. Since we are all artists in Kindergarten I suggested we all change our names for this piece of art. I told them some names I was considering, and remarked that Hundertwasser changed his name to something that had meaning to him (peace and water).

After reviewing the steps – pencil first, sharpie marker next, then colored pencils if wanted, and and finally watercolor — I set them free.

I decided to work on my own art while they worked on theirs. I resisted the urge to micromanage them, but instead chose to trust them as artists. One of my colleagues asked if a teacher should see their work before they moved on with each step. Taking a deep breath, and willing myself to continue to trust those artists, I said wanting to be clear to her and the Kindergarten artists, “Nope. We don’t have to see it. They know what they have to do, and I trust them as artists. I’d love to see their work, but they don’t have to show it to me.”

My art was wonderfully interrupted by Kindergarten artists eager to share their work with me. Each time I would do what I did with their sketching. I would affirm their artistic decisions, express awe and joy, notice the elements they had included, and encourage them to think if they might add whatever was missing. But, if they pushed back that they were totally happy with their work, and it didn’t stray too far from the path we were walking together, I accepted their decision.

At the end of the class I heard a call “Ms. James, the artist known as Dog, would like to show you her work. And here is the work of the artist known as Creative Trees. Oh, and the artist known as Swirl, as well as the artist known as Creative Ruby, would also like to show you their work..”

I laughed out loud, and expressed my joy to these fantabulous Hundertwasser-inspired artists. Their work was amazing. Their name choices were spectacular.

I’m SO glad I took the risk and trusted the Kindergarten artists!

Their work didn’t turn out as I imagined it might when I picked Hundertwasser as our inspiration. But, that’s exactly as it should be! Their work turned out like a piece of Hundertwasser- inspired art — created by them, not by me.

Oooh, A New Brush!

I broke out a new watercolor brush today. It was so much fun! If you’ve never tried it, you really should. It doesn’t have to be a new brush — any new tool will do. It’s especially fantabulous if the new tool has unique or unusual characteristics compared to your other tools.

I discovered this type brush a few months ago. Can you imagine?! I’ve been an artist of sorts my whole life, and here’s a brush I’d never heard of before.

The brush is a rigger, and the hair is remarkably long compared to a similarly sized round brush.

I read it’s called a rigger because it was originally used to create the straight lines of the rigging of boats. The idea being, I believe, that the long hairs allowed for the shaking in your hands to be less noticeable in the line. And yet, what I loved as I used it, was the fact that very slight movements of my fingers/hands created beautiful, non-straight, organic lines. I’m thinking there’s a connection between those two competing uses. I can’t yet express it, but I feel it’s there. I need to play a bit more.

Finished for the moment, I imagined my Kindergartners saying, “That’s so nice, Miss James. How did you do that?” Implying “How can you do that but I can’t?” I usually respond to that query by reminding them how long I’ve been playing and practicing. But today, I’d have to add, “And I used a really cool brush called a rigger. I’ll have to bring it in so you can try it”

Sit, Sip, Breathe, Look

PART ONE:

I love to sit on my back porch. I sit, sip delicious green tea, breathe, and look.

One tree is particularly attractive to me. It stands in my neighbor’s backyard, and greets me from above their fence. I first noticed it as its leaves turned from green to brilliant gold. Its trunk and branches stood in spectacularly stark contrast to the blazing leaves.

I began to wonder if I could capture it in art. Each time I’m on the porch, I look at this tree. I study it. I admire it. I imagine how I might capture its shape and structure. I wonder what colors and techniques I might use to create the fiery leaves glistening in the sun.

Then, one day, in a remarkably unexpected turn of events, I noticed the tree was bare. All its leaves had fallen to the ground …

… and I saw the sky.

Wow!

Same tree. Same sky.

And yet, completely new.

New perspective. New information. New understanding. New love.

It’s amazing isn’t it?

I’m contemplating doing a study of this tree and sky. Can you imagine? Each day, maybe more than once a day, I would capture this tree and sky in my journal. Every page the same, and yet wildly different! Even if two pages end up being the same, I will grow in my understanding of the tree, the sky, my materials, and my process. And, who’s to say I have to make the sky blue, or the clouds white? It’s my journal, my study, my discovery, my process, my learning, my joy!

I’m excited … and a bit nervous.

PART TWO:

While I wonder if I have a watercolor journal lying around, and where it actually might be, my thoughts turn to my Kindergartners.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if I did this tree and sky study, and then shared it with them? Not as an art project, but as a way to be, and as a powerful way to learn!

I should copyright and market this as a new pedagogical practice – The Sit, Sip, Breathe and Look, Method of Learning. Sit, Sip, Breathe, and Look — Increased learning through relaxation and curiosity. For short I could call it the SSBL Method of Learning.

I started writing the paragraph above with a chuckle. I thought, typed, deleted, and thought some more as I crated a title for my learning method. My chuckles — and clarity– increased as I typed the quick explanation and abbreviation. Naming it seemed to enhance the legitimacy of this as a fantabulous pedagogical practice! Hmmm. I think there’s an article, or some coaching possibilities here.

Until then, back to my students. How would I present my study and the SSBL Method to them? What would I want to them to know?
*It’s good — and important — to sit, sip, breathe, and look.
*Our brains learn best when we, and they, are relaxed.
*Noticing, thinking, and wondering are fascinating, fantabulous, and fun.
*Be curious.
*Be open to more — more noticing, more thinking, more wondering.
*Look, and then look again.
*Even when you think you know something, look again.
*Especially when you think you know something, look again.
*Be willing to be surprised. Expect it, even!
*It’s ok to not know, yet. It’s actually kind of exciting!
*It’s ok to be a little nervous.
*Keep looking.
*Keep learning.
*Be inspired by others.
*Share your noticing, wondering, thinking, ideas, with others.
*Create a study.
*You can do it.

And, there’s no point in telling them all of this, if I don’t also help them do it.

So what might I do to help them embrace the SSBL method of learning?
*Create the infrastructure they need to be successful.
*Talk with their parents and invite them into the SSBL method and concept of learning.
*Explain some of the brain science the supports this method of learning.
*Encourage the parents to create opportunities for the children to sit, sip, breathe, and look.
*Inspire the parents to join their children in their sit, sip, breathe, and look sessions.
*Gift parents with their own study journal.
*Incorporate this form of inquiry and learning as a regular part of our school day.
*Provide time for students to sit, sip, breathe, and look — for their own interests, and curricular purposes.
*Create journals for them to use to record their studies.
*Teach them how to make journals that they can make for their studies.
*Join them in their studies, and invite them into mine.
*Model curiosity, wonder, and awe.
*Value their study and make time to let them share it with others.

I can’t wait to give this a bit more thought, and then give it a go with my girls! Oh, (wink) and market it!






Press

The 4 Ps of creativity (thanks Mel Rhodes, 1961) are person, process, product, and press. Each is important as one ponders creativity — what it means, how we might support it in ourselves and others, what it looks like, or how we might teach it.

My favorite P has always been press. I even had a paper published about managing the classroom press for creativity. It’s not that I don’t like the other 3 Ps, press just resonates with me. The other Ps exist — and flourish or not — within the press. That’s critical. Plus, I love constructing creativity, joy, possibility, and relationship enhancing press.

So, you may be wondering, what is press? Press is what presses on us. It’s the environment — inside and out — that supports us, challenges us, encourages curiosity and creative and critical thinking, helps us learn, or that makes all that quite difficult.

Recently I thought “Press is a lot like the setting of a story.” I mention that because we tell a story each time we write, or share ideas — about creativity or anything else. Thing is, we don’t always share the setting of our story. Sometimes we share about ourselves, or our process and product. Much less frequently we talk about our setting. That’s unfortunate, because, when we don’t share the setting, when we don’t talk about the things that press on us, we don’t tell the whole story, or worse, we tell a story that is less than accurate. That may make it more difficult for others to be creative because they think their press couldn’t possibly be like ours. We must have a lovely studio, or an amazing library and set of colleagues, or a fantabulous mental press. Instead of working where they are, or enhancing their particular press, they search for some elusively perfect setting instead of just sitting down, wherever they are, and getting to it.

So, to encourage you to start wherever you are — with whatever space is available — I thought I’d share a bit of my press with you.

My physical environment doesn’t always look conducive to thinking, or making. Often I’m grabbing a corner of my kitchen island, surrounded by the stuff of life. Sometimes that stuff feels like clutter — and I neaten up or find a new space. But, other times it feels like home, reminds me of who I am, and gives me the support and shelter I need to think, risk, and create. Funny, sometimes things that seem incongruous to positive press remain near me. That little pill bottle in the photo is part of my cancer meds. That’s a big press on my life these days and I try to embrace it as a normal part of my press. Thankfully, today I’m experiencing the presence of that bottle as positive and encouraging.

I think I may be the poster child for unusual creative thinking spaces. The other night, I needed a quiet, slightly dark space to manage the blechiness that I felt. At the same time I wanted to connect with art and learn some new things. That night, my press was the comfort of my floor, wrapped in a blanket, light flooding softly from my bathroom into my room. Interestingly, the connection between the two physical settings is a sense of solitude, combined with a relatively intense experience of being safe, centered, and comfortable.

Our inner press is also really important. Sometimes my inner critic rules my mental and emotional press — cranking at me about my work or ideas. I’ve been working on quieting that voice, with affirmations, acknowledging other’s positive reviews of my thought and work, and just enjoying a beginner’s mind. Consequently, and thankfully, lately my inner press has been hopeful, open, and helpful. The positive inner press, open to possibility, and learning, helps me make connections, entertain new ideas, risk, learn, and experience joy and hope in the process.

Thinking about, and sharing, my own press, encourages me to consider the press of others. What presses on my students, my colleagues, my friends and family, and the people who get on my last nerve? It’s important to be cognizant about the press others exist within, to act out of that understanding, and to do what we can to positively impact the press of others.

One quick thought on creativity and art. I just read an article in which the author lamented the many times creativity and art are linked with one another. I agree that creativity is not synonymous with art. Incredibly profound and valuable creative thinking happens outside of the art world. However, art is a part of my creative world. When I make art, I research, ponder, reflect, observe, take notes, think creatively and critically, problem solve, and often innovate.

Perspective

Looking to give my mind something interesting and positive to focus on, I grabbed my sketch book. Then, in a change of perspective, I made some of today’s medications the focus of my morning artistic play and study.

The first cylindrical container was pretty simple. But the others? Not so much. It seemed impossible to translate what I saw with my eyes into an image on the page. I saw shapes, but was unclear how to create them on the page.

Perplexed, I returned to looking, comparing, and analyzing. I realized the shapes I thought I saw, weren’t accurate. And, to my surprise, the slightest change in gaze totally changed my perspective, and hence what my eyes saw. It makes me chuckle to say I was surprised. But, I was.

At this point I abandoned my pen, and employed my blue pencil to sketch in the various shapes. That gave me the opportunity to try, re-look, and try again. I was able to have some aha moments, and finally create something that was satisfying and relatively accurate.

Then it was time to add color. I experimented with the loose watercolor technique I’ve been reading about. It’s interesting that the lack of precision — when embraced in a sort of organic, unforced way — added to my enjoyment of the process, and, I think, gave me a better product.

So, yeah, perspective. It’s remarkably important — transformative, even. How I looked at those bottles — with my eyes, and my heart and mind — made a difference in how I saw them. It was amazing how much they changed with the each change in my perspective — no matter how small. Equally remarkable was how difficult it was for me to see with accuracy, and translate that accuracy onto the page.

Rarely does the first look tell us everything. It may give us an abundance of information, but it leaves a myriad of other things yet to be discovered. Looking at things repeatedly from different perspectives opens us to new ideas, realizations, discovery, wonder, and awe. Unfortunately, we are frequently so enamored with success, knowing, and getting things right, that we forget, skip over, and devalue the incredible power of inquiry, exploration, and discovery of the more.

So, let’s grab our blue pencils, notice, think, wonder, make mistakes, be kind to ourselves and others, and learn! I’m betting our art, thinking, and world will benefit.


I Did It!

I did it!

My brother and I got out for walk in nature, and I PAINTED!!!

I sat quietly, enfolded in the sounds and sights of nature. But, something in me rejoiced loudly “YAY!!! II’m sitting by the water, and I’m painting!!! All is right with the world”

It was a remarkably beautiful, and emotional few moments. I’m not sure I can express how lovely it is to sit by a river, with my watercolors, a fresh piece of paper, a paint brush, and some water (often from the river itself).

I know creativity isn’t the same thing as art. But, sometimes art gives me the opportunity to indulge in my love for creativity and creative thinking. Art sharpens my ability to be open to possibility and think differently — How might I express with the paint what I see with my eyes? How might I use the water, or the vegetation, or the wind as part of my process? Is there something new I might try? What if I expressed it in shades of black and white rather than color?

Strangely, COVID gives me more opportunities to think creatively as well. How might I feel comfortable sitting and painting? Where can we find a place to actually sit? If I have to stand, how might I use what is around me to hold my paint and water? Might I wonder and entertain all the possible things that might go right, instead of the things that might go wrong?

We humans have a negativity bias – keeps us safe – but I think sometimes for creatives our ability to problem find and imagine possibilities works against us. Well, I’ll speak for myself. Sometimes it works against me. Remember I said the moment was emotional? It was emotional because of the beauty, joy, and peace I felt. It was emotional because it was one of the first moments I have not felt afraid being out of doors doing something normal.

Yesterday I painted by the river.

Today I knitted.

Life is good.

These artistic endeavors soothe my soul. They teach me to look, notice, and wonder. They encourage me to be in the moment, open to possibility, even when it seems elusive.

I am a creative. It is part of who I am. I think I was born with the ‘I love noticing, thinking, creating, and figuring things out’ gene. Or perhaps, I don’t have that gene, but simply was blessed with parents who raised me to notice, think, create, and figure things out. Either way, here I am.

Yes, I am a creative. Each day gifts me with opportunities to increase my understanding of creativity and creative thinking, challenges that strengthen my creative confidence, and moments that urge me to consider possibilities. As I write this I am reminded of the Mary Anne Radmacher quote ““… sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”

If I might be bold enough to allow her quote to speak to me and inspire me about creativity, I would rephrase it like this — often creativity is the quiet voice at the end of the day, that, looking at opportunities untaken, or problems as yet unsolved, says “I will sleep on it tonight and will try again tomorrow.”

May we always treasure and nurture that small voice.

Start Small

I want so much to engage in the creative, to blog and share all my thoughts, to find that space of peace and flow that creativity brings me. And yet, I am experiencing feelings of tiredness, anxiousness, and worry, and these seem to keep me from being able to do any of that. Even as I sit at the keyboard, my head hurts, and my eyes well with tears.

But, I encourage myself, as I do my students.

“Just do something. It doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be you.”

So I thought I’d just start small, and share my new art teaching board.

Nice right? At other times, it’s the barn door to my bathroom. Makes me chuckle, because I often joke that my bathroom — with its easily cleaned tile floor — is my art studio for messy projects.

My students haven’t finished the project. They’ve actually only received the part one video, but they are already sending me messages and photos via their parents. One mom remarked, “I love watching her. The whole time she’s working, she’s talking to you.”

My heart is full.

Tell Me More

I recently did a free-paint art project with my students. The only requirement was to paint something on the paper using the paint colors they had mixed during our color mixing activity. They love to paint, and being able to use colors they created intensified their enjoyment.

I moved around the room snapping photos, chatting with the girls, and putting finished works on the drying rack. On one of my passes I captured this.

jojo1

I was intrigued by the horizontal lines. I loved the structure and the contrast between the flowers organic shape and the horizontal lines.

After a bit of time I returned to this same artist. She was focused. She didn’t raise her head but continued to look and add, look and add.

Her work was so different than when I last saw it. I was intrigued. I loved it even more now then before. I wasn’t sure what was behind the flower, but I liked. I snapped a photo, and told her how cool I thought it was.

jojo2

She stopped painting, gave it one more look. and then with a gigantic smile and complete clarity, she looked up and said.  “It’s a flower growing in a library.”

Me: “Oh, wow … it is!!! That’s fantabulous!”

I snapped another photo, and continued the controlled chaos that art clean up sometimes is.

Afterwards I realize I missed an opportunity. I missed an opportunity to take a breath and a moment to let her tell me more.

Did she have that idea from the beginning?

Did it just happen?

Did her work remind her of a library?

Does she have a library with a flower in it?

So many questions. So many opportunities for connection, affirmation, wonder, relationship, joy, learning.

For some time, I fretted about not giving her that time.

Now I see it as a lesson and an opportunity for me to learn and grow as an educator and human being. And, I breathe easy remembering her focus, intensity, experience and smile. She was content.

Create Space

A while back I was experimenting with ideas from Joanne Fink’s book about zenspiration dangle design.

I’m not quite sure if Joanne suggested dangling a circle or if I came up with the idea. But it enjoyed playing with it. After finishing the exterior side of the circle, I decided to dangle the interior portion as well. Even now I’m intrigued by the different sense of the design on either side of the circle.

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For some reason the outer design maintains its outward flow. When I look at it, it doesn’t change. It is strong, steady, open, and ever reaching. I am attracted to the balance between white space and color, between lines, shapes, and openness, between straight lines and curved.

My relationship to the inner circle work feels much different. I am at one and the same time attracted and somewhat disturbed by it. The structures do not maintain a particular direction, but seem to move depending on where my gaze lands. I notice the same elements of line, color, and open space. But, I feel a sense of conflict as the various elements converge on the center.

As I wondered what to do, I remembered a henna design the awesome Catherine Lent did for me. In the midst of her beautifully intricate design, she had an empty circle. We chuckled about it as she worked around it. After checking with me to be sure I was ok with it, she left it empty. She said something like, “Sometimes it’s good to leave a bit of space.”

Hmmmm. Space. Yes, leave a bit of space, or create a bit of space.

I went back to my drawing and covered the tightness of the center with a small circular piece of white paper.

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I love it! I am intrigued by the space I created in the center. It is at one and the same time empty and yet full of stillness, openness, wonder, and possibility.

This speaks to me for my life as much as it does for my art.

In art, and in life it’s good to have space. Space for possibility. Space for stillness. Space for breath and being.

Space.

Sometimes it’s hard to find.

But, just like with this piece of art, I can step back, make a choice, and create space in my life, my heart, my mind.

Breath, prayer, times of sitting, a walk, are some of the small white circles that I place upon my life to create calm, still, open moments.

Sometimes it’s nice to leave a little space … or to create it.