Sunday, December 27, 2009

Painting With Brooms: Advent-Retreat Reprise 2009

While painting with brooms in my friend’s heated garage, I realized we had an Advent teaching metaphor in the making. So, generously, Natalie Lombard hauled all the painting apparatus—brooms and turkey-basters (our “brushes”), acrylic paint jars, four 8’×4’ foot rolls of paper, trays for mixing paint, tarps and calligraphy brushes—all so we could make a few points about the theme of this year’s Advent Retreat, Prepare Ye!

What had begun this fall as an experiment in technique—Natalie had been taken with the painting style of Hans Hartung, whose work she encountered as we toured the Macht Foundation Modern Art Museum on our Hungry Souls France trip in October of 2008—had become for me a kind of play, which I would not have undertaken on my own had I not had a companion ready to “play” along with me (and to gather all the equipment).

As we brushed paint with brooms in the garage, we began to talk about the principles that exist in every project requiring humans to “get ready” or to “be prepared,” whether it is cooking a recipe, designing a work project, leaving for a vacation, writing a book, cleaning a car, planting a garden, going to church, or implementing a big (or little) idea.

So, at the Bishop Lane Retreat Center in Rockford, before entering into 24 hours of Grand Silence, Natalie and I demonstrated “painting with brooms.” This was slightly complicated because it takes almost 24 hours for a layer of paint to dry before the next layer can be applied. Consequently, we adapted our technique by applying the first field of color—black, which dried to a charcoal grey—in the garage. There, we used push brooms to sweep the color across the eight-foot expanse of paper. This technique allows the colors to puddle between the feathery-sweeps left by the broom. Onto these puddles we pressed kitchen plastic-wrap and removed it when the field was no longer wet to the touch. This left spontaneous blotches of texture that gave intriguing surface effects. At the retreat, we then swept royal-blue acrylic on the upper half of the surface using the feathering strokes of a straw-bristle kitchen broom—we had learned that plastic bristles do not absorb the paint.

Without allowing the blue acrylic to dry, Natalie then filled a turkey-baster with a magenta-toned paint that she spread in big looping designs across the lower half of the paper; sort of a loose-handed combination of squeezing and pouring! Without allowing this color to dry, she then hit a wallpaper brush filled with yellow so that it splattered bright random sprays across the whole scroll.

Eventually, when the attendees had gone and as the retreat progressed, Natalie blotted the standing pools of paint, we turned on floor fans to hasten the drying process, and she spent the next morning calligraphing “Prepare Ye!” all over the 8’ papers (four in all, two of them for each retreat).

The universal principles about getting ready we shared from this teaching metaphor are:

Every project begins with an unformed idea.

An idea, no matter how mundane—I need to get the house really cleaned this week—is the genesis of any getting-ready project. A seed concept lies at the beginning of grand schemes or ordinary functions. The question is this: What are we going to do with that idea?

For Natalie, the idea of using ordinary objects for some artistic adventuring began at the Macht Foundation above the little town of Saint-Paul de Vence, nestled in the hills above the French coastal city of Nice. The museum, which had mounted a major exhibit of the works of the abstract, modernist painter Hans Hartung, also displayed cases of his tools—a fascinating introduction to technique. Natalie came home determined to try this approach to painting herself—hence, our painting with brooms.

The interesting thing about “the idea” is that everyone has ideas, but not everyone executes the idea (nor should every idea be executed). And many of us just do not pay attention to what is going on in the inner stew of our desires and longings and conceptualizations. Ideas do pop into our hearts and minds: I would love to… we think.

At this point, the inner saboteur begins to tell us all the reason why we cannot do what it is we would love to do. You couldn’t possibly do that; you’re not gifted enough. You don’t have enough money. You never finish what you start. On and on it sneers, injecting its innuendoes and accusations, shutting down the embryonic ideas that want life.

We are never potentially more god-like than when we decide whether or not to give ourselves to the idea. The Mind of the Maker, written by Dorothy Sayers, is a theological treatise on creativity and the creative mind. In it she writes, “It is the artist who, more than other men, is able to create something out of nothing. A whole artistic work is immeasurably more than the sum of its parts. … The components of the material world are fixed; those of the world of the imagination increase by a continuous and irreversible process, without any destruction or rearrangement of what went before. This represents the nearest approach we experience to ‘creating out of nothing.’ … The experience of the creative imagination in the common man or woman and in the artist is the only thing we have to go upon in entertaining and formulating the concept of Creation.”

So be tender toward your ideas. Remember: Every project begins with an unformed idea.

The next principle of getting ready is that we begin to gather what we need to execute the idea.

I’ve learned that if I want to bake pumpkin bread for the holidays, or make some of the endless variations of pumpkin-soup recipes I’ve collected, or finally get to that pumpkin soufflĂ© dessert I’ve been wanting an excuse to use, I need to buy pumpkins before Thanksgiving. No pumpkins are to be found anywhere the week before Thanksgiving (Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin gathers them all into the Garden Patch in the sky, I guess). So, I take one morning in October before the nearby Farmers’ Market closes for the season and splurge on a wild assortment of cucurabitaceae (pumpkins, gourds or squashes). They line the walk to my house and sit on my cement porch beside the front door.

A sign in the canned-goods aisle of my grocer’s this morning apologized that they had run out of cans of pumpkins due to an unexpected shortage in the growing zones caused by inclement weather. Good thing that I had gathered my equipment earlier in the fall. I pried the frozen pumpkins out of the snow-covered displays, defrosted them slowly in the oven, baked them, scraped the seeds out and the skins off, and made my own puree.

In order to paint with brooms, Natalie had to gather the equipment, learn what worked and what didn’t work, figure the costs (hence acrylic paint, which is cheaper than the rest and tolerates being watered down) and construct some sort of informal timeline. We had four practice sessions, one discussion session, one conversation about what-were-we-doing, never completed a finished work but decided that as far as a teaching metaphor goes, we knew enough to mount a workable demonstration.

Every getting-ready process includes a gathering period.

Somewhere along the way, when we are getting ready, we do some type of research.

Yes, we do. Think about the fact-checking that goes into writing a journalistic article. Think about the morning spent looking into recipes for that company dinner. Think about how many books I’ve read on the microenterprise economy so I could be informed before starting the Global Bag Project. Think about what it takes to purchase an airline ticket to fly somewhere for vacation. Think of the Bible study that goes into a sermon.

I realize that I have three shelves of books illuminating the art-making process. I have been doing unconscious research because the creation of art intrigues me. I’ve roamed through more museums across the world than I can count. Think about what it takes for those of us from non-liturgical church backgrounds to understand (and get ready for) Advent! (Are the candles in an Advent wreath all one color, or are they pink, blue and purple? What is the Christ-candle for? When are they lit?)

Every getting-ready process has some kind of research that goes into it.

Next, we need to trust the precedents that we have already observed.

For most getting-ready events, we have been gathering information, mulling over the idea, looking at how other people do it and researching the concept formally or informally. A whole contemplative consideration has been going on in our lives culminating in the desire not just to know how to climb mountains but to actually participate in the event, to scale those walls, to go mountaineering.

So, when we embark on a project, we need to trust the fact that we have been observing and absorbing lore, information, example, some kind of experience regarding our venture more than we even know. All the books about art I’ve read, the artists that I’ve studied and written about have filled my inner self with advice and how-to. I know more about what I know than I know. When getting ready, I need to trust that learning.

I need to look around and see what is at hand. You have probably been collecting the tools to do what it is in your heart to do. What about that file on traveling to Italy? What about that garage shelf filled with leftover paint in cans that you’ve been thinking about throwing on canvas? What about all those volumes (Karen?) about earning a living from writing? Frequently, everything you need to get started is at hand. You have been attracted to people who do what you want to do. One of them will be delighted to help you get started. You want to quilt? You’ve been gathering material scraps for years. You want to learn computer design? Why do you always circle those classes in the local community-college catalogue when it comes?

Trust the precedents. They will prepare you. They will inform you. They will enable you. Believe me, they are part of God’s work in your life to show you the way it is you should go.

Every getting-ready process begins with chaos.

Disorder is just the name of the game. I don’t know how to get where I am going. That attic hasn’t really been ordered the whole time we’ve lived in that house. We just keep shoving things upstairs to store and rooting around up there when we need to find things. It’s a mess! I don’t know where to start.

Don’t be afraid of the chaos (whether it is little or monumental). The very process of getting ready is a process of bringing order through planning, through gathering, through some sort of pre-thought, through researching and learning into what at first seems an insurmountable task.

God is a Master at creating form out of the void, or reordering chaos into meaning. He will whisper the way into your heart. Don’t be afraid or avoid getting ready just because you can’t see your way through the void. You can do it.

Every getting-ready process needs an assessment period.

“Is this as good as it can be?” We need to learn that we can learn more from what we have already done. So evaluation questions must be asked. “Can I be more efficient in the kitchen?” “Do I need to and can I hire help in some of the getting-ready events?” (Getting the garden ready for spring, for instance.) “Would this getting ready be better if I shared the labor of it with others (my husband, a willing friend, a child in the family who is curious and capable, or colleagues at work, for instance)?”

I love the fact that “In the Beginning…” as Genesis tells us, God leaned back and evaluated the work. “It is good,” we are told He concluded. “It is very good.”

Work toward that blessing, from God upon you, and from you upon what you are trying to accomplish. Be satisfied in having begun a good thing.

So our Advent retreats went well this year. The teaching metaphor was a success. Natalie’s calligraphy lifted the art experiment to another level. Her Prepare Ye! danced all over the 8’ scrolls. She cut the four 8-foot sheets into three panels each and we sold them for $20, earning $240 in all, enough to defray our material expenses. Sixty-six people, including the retreat team, attended. We entered into silence, met God in the silence, watched the light come into the world at our annual morning gathering, had time to attend the Prepare Ye! stations, sat before the Cross in the Chapel and repented whatever needed to be brought before God, then swept away our errors in a symbolic act using brooms in another way. We made appointments for prayer. We journaled or napped, we ate meals in silence. We listened to David Mains talk from his three-year study of Revelation, about preparing ourselves for the Second Coming of Christ, and we went home ready, for the most part, to enter deeply into this holy season of watching and waiting, Advent.

And some of us had an idea, a new thing pushing up out of the quiet interior, something thrusting about, something asking for life, for birth, for becoming, for being. Unto us a child is born.

Whatever nativity is in your heart to give birth to, may this year be the one in which it finds conception. Blessings.

Karen Mains

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