Saturday, June 2, 2012

Participating in a creative exchange: The push of a SPARK

So this won't be the usual post about food, as you may have guessed from the image. This is my latest painting, which I have titled "In the Garden." I made it as part of my participation in a creativity exchange called SPARK. SPARK is a way for visual artists, writers, and musicians to inspire other artists and to get a creative spark in return. During each 10-day round, pairs of artists and writers exchange a piece of writing, music, or artwork and use it as creative inspiration to create something new. In other words, it's a creative kick in the butt--something I have sorely needed considering it's been a year since I painted anything new. And I really do love(/hate) to paint.

So when the call for more artists came from SPARK, I signed up. I'll admit, I was nervous: What if I didn't like the inspiration piece? What if I made something horrible? What if I couldn't finish? Eek, ack, gah! Then, the 10-day round of SPARK started. I received these song lyrics from my SPARK partner, Sharon Deegan, as my inspiration:

Are you ready to face the feast my soul companion?
Pull off the boots made for silent marching through the night?
Well you’ve been appeasing corpses, shunning angels,
And me, I’ve been turning the compost every couple of days and my garden grows
Over the bones, and my garden grows.

Do you think you can stop your digging, drop your shovel?
Wash the dirt from your calloused hands?
Life is a well from which we’re all drinking,
How shall we meet our thirst’s demands?

Well you’ve been
Invited to your own wedding,
Invited to your own birth.
Love lies waiting for You-
(spending all your time just trying to bury your true heart
In a plot of dark and lonely and cold unyielding earth )

Will you ever be ready to 
Face the feast  my soul companion?
Pull off the boots made for silent marching through the night.  

When I read it, I was relieved to enjoy the piece. I read the lyrics a few times, allowing specific words and images to hook into me, assuming an idea for a painting would emerge. And it did.

One of the most enjoyable things to do when reading a poem, or in this case lyrics, is to consider individual words. What thoughts do they engender? What alternative meanings do they have? What associations do they have? When you have gathered together this cornucopia of thoughts and ideas, the question becomes how do you put them all together again? How do you form meaning? That explains the process both of unpacking a poem and then of developing new ideas.

Here are some of the ideas and connections I got from Sharon's lyrics: The image of working in a garden and turning over compost reminded me of a poem about compost by Walt Whitman. Whitman's poem celebrates the transformative qualities of compost (and anyone who is a gardener will know what I am talking about), this seemingly miraculous ability of worms and heat and time to transform leftovers, scraps, trash into fresh, dark, beautiful soil that nourishes the garden. The ability of the earth to take death into itself and bring forth life. The ability of the earth to turn rot into the very definition of freshness.

Sharon's lyrics suggest a similar transformation, of burying bones (a tragedy? participation in war? the loss of a loved one?) and allowing the earth to transform them from pain and rot into a feast.

One of the things I wanted to do with my painting was to create layers, to suggest decaying leaves that something fresh and green could grow from, to mimic a process of accretion. Also to suggest the process of letting time and the earth transmute pain, grief, and death into green plants, fresh life, a garden, a feast. This idea of layers reminded me of a painter I heard of many years ago, Claudia Bernardi. She builds up rich saturated images of pure pigments, layer upon layer. Her painting process suggests the work she has done with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Unit to exhume noncombatant civilians who were murdered during the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. In this work, she patiently uncovered layers, using the painstaking tools of archaeology, to lay bare a history of grief and thereby to transmute the darkness into new life and hope.

So these were some of the ideas that went into the painting. I hope that I captured some of the thoughts and feelings that went into writing the lyrics. The process of making the painting itself featured a lot of stress and terror. From creating the underdrawing and then covering that over with paint. Every layer of paint represents another possibility of catastrophe: of making a mistake or a bad choice that you can't recover from. Making the painting was a good reminder: Being creative is an act of courage. Making something new, something for others to like or dislike or misinterpret, is extraordinarily hard to do. Will I do it again? Absolutely.


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