Mary’s a painter.
She paints, as she puts it, in two gears.
In one gear she keeps her eye on the audience and produces paintings she hopes to sell. Landscapes. Still lifes. Pink clouds against blue sky. Her cat in a shaft of sunlight. Pretty pictures. She calls these her “careful” paintings.
In the other gear she focuses inward and tries to paint the feelings she hears. Anger at her husband. Grief for her dead father. Fear of her mother, and of people in general. Unpretty pictures. Abstracts, usually, in strong colors. She calls them “explosions.”
We’ve been working to help her explode more regularly.
Today the way she plops down on my sofa announces how the work has been going.
“Still constipated?” I ask.
She nods. When depressed, she dislikes talking.
“Tell me what happens.”
She shakes her head. “Same old shit. I lose focus. I start off listening, determined to really listen, just listen. And for a while I can. But then little things distract me. The phone rings. Eddie yells at the dog. A car with a bad muffler goes by. And I get distracted.” She sighs. “And I dry right up.”
We both know why this happens. As a child Mary spent most of her time with Mom, who was alcoholic, moody and unpredictable. She learned early on to focus on Mom, try to read her moods and guess her intentions, the way a fisherman far out to sea keeps a defensive eye on the weather.
She still does it. She does it everywhere, in all her relationships. She simply never learned how not to.
It’s a control thing.
In our first session I told her, “Kids who grow up in threatening environments usually become control-addicted. That’s because they decided the only way to ever feel safe was to anticipate and fend off external dangers. To try to control people, places and things.
“And that made perfect sense, when they were kids.
“But it’s no basis for an adult life. Because you end trying to control everything. And since nobody can control Everything, you keep failing and feeling more confused and inadequate. What you thought would make you feel safe ends up making you feel…”
“Crazy,” she finished.
“Crazy, yes. But also scared and helpless. Like you’re still that kid.”
We’d hoped she could use painting to feel less crazy by giving her practice in shifting attention from outside to inside. Maybe then she could express some of the feelings she learned long ago to stuff.
But a weather eye like Mary’s is not surrendered easily. And creative explosion feels like a death-defying act.
“Are you up for an experiment?” I ask.
She eyes me. “Maybe.”
“When do you paint? Same time every day?”
“No,” she says. “When I feel like it.”
“Okay, so this experiment has two parts. The first part is to establish a routine. You pick a time to paint, and then you paint at that time every day, without fail.”
“Okay,” she says uneasily. “And the second part?”
“You paint with your body.”
“You paint only what you feel. Take a breath, and then another, and tune into your stomach. Whatever feeling you find there, paint that. Don’t think about it. Let your stomach do the painting. Colors and shapes only. Nothing representational. And paint fast. That’s it.”
“Yes. See what happens.”
“But what if I get distracted? What if the phone rings? What if…”
“You want to be a painter? The kind who can explode?”
She nods. “I really do.”
“Buy ear plugs.”
(To be continued.)
* * *
There are at least four types of explosions that a — let’s call it a healthy person for the time being– must be able to experience.
These are: anger, joy, grief and orgasm….
Now these explosions in themselves are not the meaning of life or existence. They are a kind of energy that bursts, so to say, a dam, and links up with the authentic person. So that the feeling, the ability to participate, to be emotionally involved, becomes possible.
Once you’re through the explosive layer, the authentic person, the real person comes through.
~ From Gestalt Therapy Verbatim by Fritz Perls.
* * *
I propose a new form of courage of the body: the use of the body…for the cultivation of sensitivity.
This will mean the development of the capacity to listen with the body.
It will be, as Nietsche remarked, a learning to think with the body.
It will be a valuing of the body as means of empathizing with others, as expression of the self as a thing of beauty, and as a rich source of pleasure.
~ From The courage to create by Rollo May.
* * *
Art making is
a way of dwelling in
whatever is before us
that needs our attention.
~ From Art is a way of knowing by Pat Allen.