Four Days In Dreams

I spent the long weekend at the end of August making art, playing music, and finding inspiration at a hand-crafted garden village in the woods north of my hometown. The Vale, as it’s properly called, is a community of artists living in cabins encircling a great hall designed specifically for performances of every variety; from painting, theater, and music, to poetry, brewing, and culinary arts.


The central hall started as a kitchen shack, and over time had evolved into a bonfire pit, an open dance floor, a covered dining area, and then a two-story art pavilion. Little alcoves full of chairs and couches can be found around the bottom floor, with the loft above serving as comfortable, well lit space to lay out canvasses and paints.

Upon arrival I set up my tent out near the cabin of a friendly shaman who offers to chase evil spirits off my shoulders with burning sage, finger-snaps, and magnets. Next to his cabin was an A-frame in which a dancer lived in his own recording studio; opposite him on the other end of the field an actor/playwright lived in a yurt next to the impressive vegetable farm he’d been keeping.

I brought apples from my tree at home to offer up for making pies and crisps, my ukulele, a batch of colored pencils, and several half-filled sketchbooks of varying age and use.

Once I had a place to dump my corpse after midnight, I went directly to the pavilion to see who had arrived and to pick out a deep chair to spend the days ahead working from.

The days were brutally hot. Once the sun hit my tent, it became an oven and there was no way to hang on to sleep. Instead I’d burst out and stumble to the far side of the hall to find coffee and other sleepy artists lounging around one of the several outdoor tables. Once the sun had reached that side of the building, it was our cue to return indoors and get back to our projects.

The nights were cooler and carried a different energy. Performers hit the stage, followed by dancing, childhood games, and the excitement of touring the works of everyone there kept us moving and stretching at intervals.

Like surfers standing in the tide, we would ride the waves that came to us, then come back to shore for food and conversation and visits to the lake. Riding the crest was being fully locked into your work; in the “zone” with work pouring out continuously. Sometimes I’d see the musical wave pass by with other surfers on it and want to switch over mid-stream, and sometimes I would. Mostly, though, I was deeply into finding the rhythm of coming in and going out with explorations in my sketchbook.

Jam 8

I’d go to bed just as the glow of the sun crawling up the horizon so I could get at least a couple of hours of cool darkness to dream in. I wasn’t the last to bed, though. Outdoors, a gathering of roasted, toasted writers, poets, dancers, musicians, actors, and acrobats would blather about whatever absurdities came to mind, and upstairs, steady-handed painters would stay hard at it until they could trade in their lamps for daylight.

After a dark winter and a dull Summer, it was exactly what I needed to remind myself of what good there is gathering, in meeting new people, and in riding the waves of inspiration. Nothing keeps you sharper than joining with others in the same pursuit.

I made some new connections in the cities nearby, and caught the sound of the festival train moving steadily onward through the winter. I’m hoping I can make it over to Cumberland for the Woodstove festival, and whatever comes after that wherever it lands.

The whole experience makes me want to reshape my big house and yard into a place where artists and musicians can come and play. Ever since strolling through the streets of Portland Oregon on holiday and seeing all these old houses turned into quasi-formal lounges, I’d wanted to build such a space – but until now I thought it was impossible. Things have changed, and I’m looking at my Autumn projects with a different eye.

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LIVE from the Forest

So, this is my first painting since the Winter – one Solstice to another.

Summer Lights

The Summer Lights of British Columbia. Painted live.

This painting is of a regular stretch of forest off the edge of a trail somewhere near McFall Creek – directly behind where I live and where I painted it. I could try and show you exactly where it is, but the light would have to be just right to recognize it.

There are a great deal many more colours out there in this forest than occur to my memory. They are things that live only in the eye. What sits in my mind as being a gray tree amid a shadowy wood will to the eye burn with gold, cinnabar, and cobalt like jewel-beetles in the sun. Trails light up at your feet like pools of honey poured through stained glass, and each stick of wood stands like a vertical rainbow.

That’s what I see on the best of days, anyway, and it’s what I was out in the forest looking for like an entomologist with a butterfly net.

I’ll admit it: I was feeling a bit unsteady before I got started on this one. Out of tune, maybe – but I wanted to see it made more than I feared to make it.

A good sign for fair weather.

As mentioned before, Winter had left me feeling a little frostbitten, and though I was thawing out, I wasn’t sure yet how many fingers and toes I had left to work with.

All of them, as it turns out.

Fear isn’t just a liar, it’s a drama-queen.

Real tricks and trades: When I dread painting something, I sort of trick myself into production mode by getting started, and then posting infrequent “work-in-progress” pictures to social media as I go.

From composition to about mid-way through, I’ll post little sneak-peaks of things that may not survive to the end, but please me enough that I want to share them. Things change dramatically during the broad-strokes, and that’s fun for me to see in other painters – so I do the same. Closer to the final stages, I’ll hold back and let the final piece fill in whatever blanks are left.

Doing it that way, I feel like I’m walking through shorter milestones and I get to benefit from a little back-slapping encouragement along the way.

On the less fuzzy-wuzzy flip-side of that coin is the equally motivating factor of public accountability.

Once I’ve started something in the public, I tend to feel strongly obligated to complete it for anyone who’s interested in seeing it finished. Even if I myself lose interest, I want to make sure you don’t, and weird as it sounds, it sort of puts me on the clock to get the job done. Knowing I left it out there hanging around all messy and under-cooked encourages me to fight it through to the end instead of privately balling it up and bank-shotting it into the recycling bin.

Why do you think so many people post weekly fitness pictures instead of just one at the end?

I knew these methods well, and I knew they’d serve me in the coming days, but it wasn’t following through from one marker to the next that was giving me trouble at this point. It was getting started on something at all.

Be bold: At a certain point, you have to say yes in the places where you’ve been saying no. Courage is called for, yes, and action required before discovering that risk is simpler and more energizing than the perpetual anticipation of defeat.

I had a gorgeous piece of scenery to work with, my equipment was functional, and though I hadn’t painted for a while, my sketchbooks were full of interesting new work (all about trees and plants, no less). All I had to do was stop thinking and get started.

Burnt out on being burnt out, the idea of listening to myself continue the debate between nihilistic paralysis and the red hot urgency to get a grip was nauseating. Rather than let it wind to a pitch, I hit the breaks like a frustrated parent and threatened to raise the stakes.

I’d paint it live.

No safety nets. No buffer. Just an internet audience of followers, friends, colleagues, and anonymous randoms watching every naked move I make on the canvas with as much power of scrutiny as I myself get.

No negotiating. No thinking about it. No more whining about your delicate introverted workarounds. Just shut the fuck up and do it.

So I just shut up and did it.

I’d done a few live painting sessions before at festivals, but this would be different. I wouldn’t just be one dude with a colourful whatever in a playground of other spectacles; I’d be working directly from my screen to yours – however many of you happened to tune in during broadcast. I’ve never been good with crowds, and I don’t like being the center of attention, but the time for hand-wringing was past. If I didn’t stop, I never would. The key, like it is on stage, would lay in not becoming overly self-conscious; which is about as challenging as it is for you to not imagine an octopus in a top-hat now that I’ve said the words octopus in a top-hat.

I’d never let anyone in that close to my processes before. I wasn’t giving myself anywhere to hide, and as I realized that, I kind of freed myself from any fear about it at all. Any of it. I mean, who cares if it’s boring? or full of mistakes nobody else notices? or if nobody shows up to watch? or if everybody does?

What, was I afraid of showing how much care I put into a painting? Like that’s a bad thing?

Sometimes the big scary thing is the best option just because it’s different. The devil you don’t know can be a lot more fun than the boring old threadbare one you’re stuck with.

All told, there were about three or four sessions at three to six hours a piece to produce the above painting. I think the end of the final broadcast on this one ended sometime after two AM on a Sunday.

Practice vs. Product: I don’t view the individual paintings, drawings, or scraps of writing that I dribble out as being particularly important. It’s just noise. I view the practice as important. It’s the practice, and the making of that practice as frequent as possible that is my highest priority.

The product is secondary. That said, whatever it happens to be held in the eyes of other people is important to me, but if I focus on the practice instead, there’s more product for more eyes to behold anyway.

In the case of this painting, I’d fallen away from the practice of painting long enough that I got my priorities backward. I’d put way too much importance on the anticipated quality of the work and not on the quantity of the practice. I’m lucky that this forest turned out in a way that I’m happy with, but it shouldn’t ever really matter that much.

No matter what you’re working on, even if what you work on never sees the light of day, keep picking away at it. The practice of practice itself might be the most important skill to have, and it applies to every discipline I could name.

In any case, I think that maybe I’ve got it figured out again for a while, and it’s my intention to keep painting live and posting new work as often as I can – even if, or perhaps especially if it doesn’t rise to my expectations or make a lot of sense.

I’m also slowly working on opening up a few more pipelines to my work where I can publish segments of other projects in progress.

If you’re interested in tuning in to watch me work on my next painting, follow me on twitter or instagram so you can see me drop the link when I’m about to get started. Or you can go here to my twitch channel and wait. As it is today, I’m nearing the end of a live painting of the Helix Nebula. Feel free to show up and bother me with messages, tweets, and comments.

Or pizzas. I’m open to being hassled by pizzas.

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Whatever More

Aaaaand here’s another batch of these unholy trees or rocks or candies or whatever they are.

trees30

After months of what seemed like a hopeless, Pyrrhic war with depression and anxiety, I snapped completely out of it yesterday and I can’t explain why. Nothing had changed in my life in any positive way – I just wasn’t under water anymore. I could breathe again.

The only thing of note that actually happened yesterday was that my seasonal allergies finally kicked in. That’s hardly a trigger for positive, upward motion is it?

And yet there it is, and here I am.

It’s like having spent months locked in the darkest, hottest, most boring room you can imagine; and then *boot*, you’re outdoors in the breeze again with the world moving like a carnival around you.

A jug of cold water instead of warm vinegar. A skull made of open windows and not smoked iron.

Today I’m left scratching my head, wondering what happened.

 

In the hour of it happening, my mind was once again flooded with all the projects I wanted to get back to, and a sort of second-chance kind of gratitude that I could now remember what it was like to be a person again.

It’s frustrating in that whilst in that state of depression, you can’t even comprehend happiness, joy, or anything beyond the oven-like intensity of it. Now that I’m out again (at least for a day) I can see horizons I’d forgotten existed.

I’m inspired again. My blindfolds are shed and ankles cut loose from the church-bell that I left somewhere under the waves.

I’m not one to look gift horses in the mouth, so I’ve been busy all day and night making plans, smelling roses, and sighing heavy sighs of relief. Like a fugitive, I’ve been running to put distance between myself and whatever wants to throw me back in.

 

Trees 34

Meanwhile, my sketchbooks continue to fill up with this tree-like nonsense.

I’ll keep this journal of mine updated as plans and art continue to pour out. In the mean-time, I’m looking forward to whatever day I find tomorrow.

Yin-Yang

The other night I dreamt I was on a moon that orbited not the planet, but the lake near my house. I could see everything from up there, but I myself could not be seen or heard – except in notes I made from paper airplanes. They had to be thrown hard enough to curve along the surface of the moon two or three times in full orbit to make escape velocity.

From there, who knows where they landed.

trees29

Here’s another exploration of organic shapes, lines, and colour. This time lighter balances against darker – not as intrinsic elements, but as shades of the same thing.

 

Wooden

Three pencils, a blank sheet of paper; my hands and mind. This is what comes about in the span of a pot of coffee.

trees28

It kind of feels like exploration – which is good for me. I’ve often felt quite bound to material subjects when I paint; trying to capture a likeness to something already known. This isn’t that.

Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

Sketchdrop: More or Less

I’m still exploring the organic, maze-like surfaces of trees – and in the process I’ve gone further in the direction of abstraction.

trees 23

In one case, I tried turning stumps into moons. There was something about the way the knots and layers of bark were coming together that reminded me of craters.

Some of these drawings were done in a group setting with friends. Others done while swilling coffee at the neighbourhood diner.

Oh, and here’s a bonus drawing of Rodin’s great sculpture in red pencil. As perhaps my last post might explain, I’ve been lost in thought, and this seemed – at the time – to be the best way to express heat and the muscular struggle and weight of thought without actually admitting anything.

I’ve really got to stop being so oblique. It’s one of my most frustrating qualities.

The collection of these grows steadily, and again, I find myself with the material for a legitimate show in the works. Once I have a venue, I’ll put them on display and make them available for sale.

Sketchdrop: Trees

trees5

With the weather growing ever less garbagesome, I’ve been taking my sketchbooks with me on adventures into the forest and up the side of cliffs; also to cafes, diners, and spontaneous drawing clubs in basements (the first and second rules forbid me from elaborating. Sorry).

I’ve been drawing trees a lot lately, and the more I draw them, the more I find myself getting lost in fabricating three-dimensional bodies with a flow of lines. What started with fairly ordinary landscapes in pencil went into outer-space once I stepped away from trying to represent a true object and instead started playing with its visual DNA.

Pencil crayons are mama-hecking fun, too.

Some of my friends and neighbours are fallers (lumberjacks if you’re not from around here). Regardless of how abstract the stumps were, they’d look at it and see only a bad cut. From the moment I opened the page to get their opinion, out would come a chorus of “Aww, that’s a terrible stump” from anyone who’s looked at a chainsaw twice.

trees12

“What!?”

“Well, any BC boy ought to know a good undercut.”

Fair point, I suppose, but I didn’t realize I’d be graded on my saw-craft of purely theoretical stumps.

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