Greetings from a Sheraton hotel, somewhere near Cleveland, Ohio, where I am to attend a day of a conference for writers and illustrators of books for kids tomorrow. So today I drove and drove, and have settled into a my little room here. To pass the time (and avoid the tangly trappings of the nets of anxieties which can accompany these doings) I’ve decided to catch you all up on my near mystical time in Maine just this past weekend. (Can it really be just this past weekend??)
Barely a week ago I boarded a ferry (really, just the mail boat which takes passengers on board when room allows) to Islesford Island, Maine to attend a workshop in painting led by Henry Isaacs, Ashley Bryan, with capable assistance from graphic novelist and artist Gareth Hinds.
A few of us taking the 2:30 ferry traveled through the mists to arrive with a bit of time to explore. One of my housemates for the workshop took me to a favorite place of hers on the island. Looking for company, and not knowing my way around, I gladly took her up on the offer.
We walked the roads of this delightful and decidedly working island to arrive at the beach.
That evening we gathered back at Islesford Dock where classes and meals and general workshop business was to be held.
It was a lovely group of people, some of whom knew each other from years past. Others of us a little shyer. But we became acquainted quickly over oysters (oysters!!!!) and a cocktail or two. In spite of my workshop nerves, I was clearly to be well fed and have plenty of interesting folks to visit with in the coming days.
As promised by the light on the horizon just the day before, Saturday dawned bright and beautiful. The class convened for breakfast and followed instructions to a lovely outdoor painting environment for the day. We witnessed some demonstration from Henry but were encouraged to just dive into our own work for the day. Which we did.
I painted some pretty pictures, which was nice I suppose.
During critique times that day, and in the artist talks later that evening, we were all congratulated on our hard work, but asked to bring more to the table. To venture, if we were but brave enough, out of our comfort zones.
We all have our formulas. Formulas which work for us. And these are great. But none of us were there to perfect or practice our routine formulas.
We turn clay to make a vessel; But it is on the space where there is nothing that the utility of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house; and it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the utility of the house depends.
Therefore, just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the utility of what is not.” ~Lao Tse
The above poem was recited to us by Ashley Bryan in the afternoon as he, Henry and Gareth, attempted to gently guide us out of our normality. Late that afternoon, a small group took a tour of Ashley’s house and studio where we were given a glimpse into the genius that is Ashley Bryan. He makes puppets and paintings, has perfected a way to turn sea glass into stained glass panels. He lives a magically creative existence. And I, for one, was simply enchanted. One does not have to build fences between the varying degrees of one’s creativity. One must simply MAKE.
Ashley spoke of puppets as needing a piece of the puppeteer’s soul in order to be brought to life. I truly believe this. Having worked puppets a good bit myself.
I think this lot looks a bit like the Star Wars ‘cantina’ scene. A visual and musical favorite of mine!
By the end of that day my mind was reeling. I was completely overwhelmed. But I knew there was more to come, and I just prayed to the island gods that I could withstand it all…..
And so we moved on into the second full day of this rather intensive workshop….
We awoke to mysterious fog, wondering what this meant for our painting time that day – so spoiled by the lovely sunshine just the day before.
Over breakfast, in hushed tones, there was some conversation about how intense it all was. Somehow, this brought comfort to me, knowing the other artists might also feel they were flying a bit close to the sun for comfort.
Henry did another ‘demo’ for us (he likes to call them more like ‘suggestions’) and explained to us that we are not looking at a landscape. We ARE the landscape. There is no us and then it. Everything is one big mash up of stuff to paint. We have to paint ourselves into it.
And so, with some company, amidst quite a bit of mist, we settled into day two.
I had no clue what I was doing. I simply took up a spot in front of some rock pilings (a former steamship dock) near the dock and began painting. After awhile the old adage of oil not mixing with water came true and I opted to come indoors to work.
I felt grumpy and not at all sure about the work I was making. Discomfort was truly the name of the game that day….
By the day’s end, I had a number of little paintings like the ones above. They conveyed what I was seeing, but they did it in a way that also told of what I was thinking and feeling about what I was seeing. I was thrilled.
The rest of the class seemed to have a similar trek through the fog that day, as everyone made some sort of breakthrough in their work. We all stepped up to discomfort. We all gave our inner children a cookie and asked them to keep working. It was pure magic.
I have seen and heard a lot of what workshops can mean to an artist who needs a jump start. I’ve taken classes here and there and have shared this experience. I teach classes each summer that I hear are life changing. But it had been a long, long while since I had allowed myself the opportunity for such a sea change.
I am so grateful to have had the time and resources to take this workshop. And just after I publish this, I plan to send an email asking for a hold of a space for next year. Because I think I can do better; ask more of myself; go deeper into the work.
As I sit here in a hotel in Cleveland, hoping to make some connections which will afford me the opportunity to make a children’s book about a little hamster who sends back postcards of her adventures, I no longer believe there is a reason to separate the making of a little kid’s book, from a painting destined for a gallery or someone’s grand home-space. I no longer believe there is much of a difference between a hat knit up carefully by hand for a cold day and a puppet created to entertain as the curtains of a proscenium lift. Making is making. Provided it is done with purpose and seriousness of hand and craft and with an eye toward beauty and the betterment of this world.
There’s been a sea change round these parts. And it feels really good.