Read an Excerpt
Spirit Taking Form
MAKING A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE OF MAKING ART
By Nancy Azara
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2002 Nancy Azara
All rights reserved.
the door opens
We all have to fight our obsessions and prejudices and try to keep our eyes open to new forms. I know I do, for one. It's very difficult to see something that's new, and not a repetition of something you've already seen and responded to. But if you can get into the right kind of receptive and appreciative—creative—way of seeing, then the whole world is full of new ideas and new possibilities. One of the things that modern art has done is to open people's eyes in that way.
Materials for Letting Your Spirit Take Form
The artwork you make during our sessions together is your own personal information for getting you started or for reexamining your forms. However you work, whatever you come up with is fine. Make stick figures, be a child again, just let yourself be with your hand on the page openly expressing yourself. If you are just starting to work with art materials, you may find the following list of supplies helpful. Art supply stores carry all of these items.
Surround yourself with possibilities: an 11×14 drawing pad or larger (try to work with this size, as a smaller pad doesn't give you a chance to stretch out on the page). Choose an acid-free, all-purpose sketchpad instead of newsprint, which doesn't hold up.
Choose some or all of the following:
A small box of charcoal sticks
A box of watercolors
3B graphite pencils, (3B is a medium soft lead, you might want to experiment with 2H (hard) or 6B (soft) as well
2 soft water color brushes, one very narrow, one wider
A small set of acrylic paints, or tubes of the primary colors: red, yellow, blue, green, white and black
A box of colored pencils
A collection of magazine photos for collage; begin to collect them
An assortment of colored papers
Photocopies of family photos
Scissors and glue (white glue preferred)
If you have more space and/or would like to add a third dimension to your artwork, here are some suggestions:
Collect found objects that are small and manageable such as leaves, pebbles, and twigs (you can also make photocopies of these)
Wood scraps or driftwood
Interesting fabrics and thread
These supplies will give you the opportunity to work in different ways as your spirit guides you. If you have never used some of these materials, experiment with them. Make some marks on the page with the pencils, trying them out with some soft strokes and then some harder ones. Wet your brush (not too much water) and gently apply some of the watercolor to your paper, thickly so that the paint is opaque, and then thinly, so that it is translucent. With one of the oil pastels, press down hard on to the paper, giving it a burst of color. Now rub it with your finger and see how the color spreads out into a splash, deeper and lighter. Play with your materials. There is no one way to use any of them.
Cultivate two good habits: first, if you are able, keep your supplies out on a table always ready so that you can work easily, even a few minutes at a time. Even if you have a busy life or find it difficult to make time for your art, you can snatch moments from your life to make something as the need arises. Don't forget that looking at your work in progress is an important part of your process, so look as much as possible, thinking about it during the day, and your artwork will grow.
Second, save your artwork so that you can see your progress and grow to appreciate what you have done. Too often we discard something because we don't like it only to wonder later how it relates to what we're doing now, or intend to throw away something that on a second look is better than we thought.
About the Meditations We Will Do Together
Meditation is a very simple practice. It is often referred to as the cultivation of mindfulness, just noticing and being with what is. As you proceed to the guided meditations and other exercises in this book, begin by allowing yourself to relax.
I suggest you start each guided meditation in this way:
Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor, or cross-legged on a cushion, and become still and silent with yourself.
Fold your hands in your lap or rest them gently on your knees. Make yourself as comfortable as possible, as relaxed as possible, but stay clear-minded, alert, and aware, watching your thoughts.
Keep your spine straight, but don't force yourself into an uncomfortable uprightness. Observe how your body fits into the chair or on the cushion, the sounds about you, and the rhythm of your breath. Notice yourself breathing in and out.
Observe your out breath. You might imagine your out breath as if it is riding the wings of a beautiful bird. The in breath is automatic, so just let it happen and focus on the out breath. Let every part of your body feel filled with light and released from tension.
Notice where the tension is and try to fill it with light and breath.
You can do the meditations and exercises in this book many times, and each time can bring you new, richer experiences and deeper insights. When doing them there is no need to push yourself beyond where you feel you can go. Stop where you feel it's right to stop, and begin to draw in that place. Just draw freely. What comes up in the drawing is where you are supposed to be. Each meditation will offer suggestions and ideas about materials, so don't worry now about what to draw.
All the meditations and exercises in this book are suggestions. If you find yourself going to images different from the ones that I suggest in a meditation, change them as you like. Follow your intuition. Each time you return to the meditations, you may find different images from the experience of the meditation, which is your personal story line about your life events and experiences. If you think of your intuition as subconscious logic—a kind of thinking in an intuitive way, a different way to make sense out of the world—it can expand rather than hold back these stories. Don't push yourself beyond where you feel comfortable with any of them.
If you are like some of my students who tell me that in their meditation they don't see anything, that "nothing" is all that they see, and that they get "nothing" out of it, I would ask you: What does nothing looks like? What color it is? How dark is it? What kind of shape does nothing have?
Put yourself into a picture with nothing. Frequently, this line of introspection can open up a place to start. It may help you to start drawing. Think about nothing. This idea always reminds me of mathematics. What is zero? Without zero we cannot have one. Without nothing we cannot have something.
Going to our inner vision and voice takes courage. At first the surprise of it can be a delight, but as you visit with your voice, say over the course of a week in a workshop, or as you work your way through this book, you can see parts of yourself that are difficult to acknowledge. Perhaps you will find anger or hurt that you may not have been aware of. Often you discover how you have built up barriers and made obstacles to encountering these feelings. You hear the voices of criticism or denial or find many veils and masks that prevent you from going within.
Finding your own vision in art can be a fearful thing even when you are drawn to it as a spiritual idea. Fear of fear makes life unpleasant because it makes the original fear even larger. We can either shut the door to this part of our self or help it to open and appreciate it. One way to open that door is to cultivate what is called the unconditional witness. There is a part of us that can observe who we are and all we do without judgment. This is so important in artmaking because it accepts us as we are and honors all the images and visions that come out of our imagination. Sogyal Rinpoche, the author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, gives the meditation instruction of dividing your awareness into three parts—twenty-five percent on your breath, fifty percent on the space, and twenty-five percent on this unconditional witness. This technique takes a lot of daily practice. Seen as a fertile ground from which your inner world can arise, the unconditional witness can become your best friend and your ally in the process of both your daily life and your artmaking,
Learning (and teaching) about art from a place of spirit calls us to a challenge, a challenge to look at something so familiar, yet so remote. Still it is so clearly from within ourselves that we often neglect to honor it.
Let your self guide you.
Allow into your art space these seven gifts that come from working from your inner world:
The courage to sit and wait.
The curiosity to open closed doors and explore what is behind them.
The ability to listen to yourself.
An appreciation for the experience of all life.
A respect for the power of your imagination.
The compassion to try to embrace all things with unconditional acceptance.
And an awe for the path of knowing.
Let your self guide you.
THE FIG TREE
I was born in Brooklyn just before World War II, and my early childhood is now a mist in my memory. A mist of a beautiful rose garden with roses planted in a circle, a yearly fragrant burst of different reds, yellows, whites, and pinks. I have memories of peonies and of fruit trees on the lawn. There was a lush fig tree whose leaves and branches were cut off every fall—leaving only its naked trunk and its wounds, which were then sealed with tar. Its torso was subsequently wrapped like a mummy in tight bandages of burlap.
During much of my early life I felt like that fig tree, pruned and clipped and once in a while, even now, the bittersweet words of my father still circle in my head. He long ago explained that the fig tree was treated that way "for its own good," otherwise it would not survive the New York winter.
In the mist are familiar songs, such as "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else But Me," songs that I have only recently realized were from the tender side of the war. I was very little, but I can still hear the loving, animated voices of the Italian-American adults and their fear and panic, frightened for their adopted country, and worried for those left on the "other side." I can still remember their concern escalating with every new report and their confusion at the inexplicable, unspeakable brutality and pain.
I can also bring back to mind the feelings of the darkly lit church in our parish, with its flickering votive candlelight which drew large, formidable shadows on the walls during the long hours of Sunday Mass when I had to sit very still. And as I think back now, I can hear the soft murmurs of old women caught up in fervent prayer.
I grew up pretty much as everybody else grows up and one day seven years ago found myself saying to myself—I can't live where I want to—I can't go where I want to—I can't do what I want to—I can't even say what I want to. School and things that painters have taught me even keep me from painting as I want to. I decided I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint as I wanted to and say what I wanted to when I painted as that seemed to be the only thing I could do that didn't concern anybody but myself—that was nobody's business but my own.
I have always felt a special connection to the artist Georgia O'Keeffe. I first looked at her lush flower paintings in an exhibition at the Whitney Museum in the early 1970s. Her paintings made me feel as if I had entered them, as if I had put myself in the middle of each canvas and become a person/flower experiencing the world. The power of these works, the fact that Georgia O'Keeffe was able to find essential images in flowers and paint them onto canvas, helped give me permission to pursue my own vision. This is not easy. Most people are unable to pursue their own vision by themselves.
The intense need for my own personal journey in art has led me from painting on canvas and making clay figures of the body to becoming a sculptor in wood. For many years now I have been painting gold- and silver-leafed sculptures and assembled pieces of carved wood. I also make collages and drawings. My art has been referred to as "spiritually infused" because it is involved with myth and ritual and because of its concern both with the magical qualities and healing properties inherent in the process and the finished work of art.
I now believe that anyone can make art. In my thirty-five years of teaching, I have always found this to be true. I didn't always feel that way. I never thought that I could make art when I was a child. I loved to make things, but I never thought of myself as an artist. Even though I knew somehow that art was natural to everyone, I couldn't make the leap necessary to do it. Making art was for artists. I didn't think I had ability because representational art—both that of Michelangelo and commercial art out of magazines—was what everybody in my southern Italian family praised and admired. My desire to pursue art was great, but my ability to do it was held back by other people's definitions of what I should be able to put on the page. I eagerly painted by numbers, made leather-craft wallets, and assembled crepe paper flowers, but to create from an empty space, a blank canvas or a bare wood stump, was not even considered, let alone encouraged.
I did have some early glimpses about the nature of art. The process of becoming an artist began in my grandfather's garden in the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn where I grew up. When I think about the things that have formed my sense of self as an artist, I always return to those lessons from the garden. The garden heightened my sense of observation, awakened my curiosity, and made me comfortable with solitude. It opened my eyes to an appreciation of colors and shapes, and brought me wonder at its different cycles.
Because there were no children my age in my neighborhood, I was often left alone in the garden to play by myself. I would watch the flowers and leaves grow and die. My child self would not know that they would return. Their return brought awe and disbelief. It is still so vivid in my mind: the explosion of colors in the spring, the change of colors in the fall. The brilliance of the sun, the softness of the moon, the shadows cast by the trees. The rhythm and patterns of spacing and thinning, shaping and pruning, of watching things change, of seeing birds and plants mature and die. My grandfather and his gardener worked there with such love and caring.
I used to lie on the grass under the flowers, pressing my body into the damp earth as I watched the daily comings and goings of garden life. There were fragrant lilies of the valley lining the side of the garage. An abandoned doghouse with its musty smell brought to life the image of lost dogs and children. There was a victory garden with lettuce, (lattuga my father would say,) zucchini, and string beans. A neighbor's garden was behind a vine-covered fence where I could watch huge summer squashes with their exotic southern Italian names—zucchini, cocozz', cuccuzelle. A neat row of proud wild cherry trees separated the property. As I watched the lovingness and the passion of my grandfather and his gardener, I learned from him how to bring that same kind of attention to my art.
Another important lesson about the nature of art took place when I was six years old. As part of a class trip I saw the mummies at the Brooklyn Museum. The teacher was chattering on about the life of the mummies and I remember wishing she would be quiet, because I was experiencing a light in them and the sound of her voice distracted me. An inexplicable radiance was permeating everything. In fact, everything in my sight was permeated with light emanating from the inside of the mummy cases. It was a light and a magic I had never experienced before in anything else except when lying on the grass on the damp earth in my grandfather's garden. All I wanted was to be in that light and to learn about that light and live in that light. Something inexplicable opened to me. It had all seemed very strange but special, and I kept it to myself, not daring to share it with anyone.
The first time that I heard it was possible for me to become an artist was twelve years later when I was interviewed for a class in fashion design taught by Christine Block, a teacher at Finch College in New York City. She told me emphatically, "If you can write your own name, you can learn to draw." News to me, I thought, but I guess I will try it. Timidly I signed up for her class. During the semester I found that my hand could develop a memory for information about vision just as it had learned to make letters. I have never turned back.
After graduating from Finch, I became a costume designer for the theater in New York City. Although I loved what I was doing and had fun with it, I began to look for something more artistically challenging. Gradually, I thought that maybe art was what I was looking for. I experimented with canvas and paints. My first painting tried to capture the light from the lampost across the street from where I lived. I made an almost life-sized painting of the black metal streetlight head, and then I tried to paint the light that radiated from within it. At the time no one liked it. I am not sure whether even I liked it, because it was odd looking, not pleasant to look at.
I know now that I wasn't looking for a pretty picture. What I was looking for was a way to describe radiance and to put it into paint, a way to make a relationship between this radiance and the spiritual aspect of artmaking. I was obsessed with painting those rays from that streetlight. I spent hours on them. The result was not that interesting, but it was a start. How odd it is to look back at that first painting from where I am now many years later, as an artist who uses an abundance of gold leaf in her sculpture. It is curious that even then, when I was twenty years old, I was trying to do with paints what I do now. That part is the same. It runs through all of my artwork: a desire to express the radiance. But at that time it was all buried under the surface of myself.
Excerpted from Spirit Taking Form by Nancy Azara. Copyright © 2002 Nancy Azara. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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