Activities, People, Places

Getting in the Flow

The creative action I proposed this week was to visit a museum. I thought it was an easy assignment, but when you’re busy and tired, it’s hard to squeeze something in that doesn’t feel like a necessity, isn’t it?  I made myself do it, though, and what I’m realizing more and more is that doing something that feeds me creatively is more “necessary” than most things I routinely put first in my life.

After visiting the Maira Kalman show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and looking at the catalog of the Wayne Thiebaud show at the San Jose Museum of Art (because I’d missed the actual show, darn it), I was inspired to paint again. They are two very different artists, but two of my contemporary favorites. Kalman’s paintings were smaller than I’d imagined. Little pieces of paper with wonky objects and people and words, mostly painted in gouache with more than a little whimsy and chaos. Thiebaud’s oil paintings are on large canvases with luscious, thick layers of paint that make you want to dip your finger in and lick it off like frosting. Hers were mainly intended for books and magazines, his for museum and gallery walls, but their work has two things in common that made me want to go home and try it. They both paint objects from the everyday – cakes, gumball machines, flowers, candy, shoes – and they both do it with wild colors.

I have always wanted to be wilder than I am. I am drawn to work by artists that can really go crazy with color. Kalman is clearly influenced by Fauvist painters like Matisse. Les Fauves were “Wild Beasts” with color. Kalman is cuckoo for hot pink and orange and blending colors on the page and leaving the brush strokes visible and uneven. Thiebaud is a little more restrained in his compositions. His perspective actually makes sense. But his color is just as wild. A slice of pie with white frosting on a white dish on a white countertop will have at least a dozen neon colors competing in the shadows. As an art teacher I was always encouraging my students to experiment with color, saying “the sky isn’t just blue, what other colors have you seen in the sky?”, but when it’s my turn, I can’t put hot pink in the sky, either.

I came home the other day, about an hour earlier than usual, my son was still with my in-laws, and I forced myself not to turn on the computer or take a shower or clean the house, but to get out the paints. I would try using gouache on a small piece of paper (totally different than the large acrylic on canvas or walls I usually do). I would paint a simple object, a white one, and try to use far more colors than just white. I saw my son’s Lamby. His lovey. The stuffed toy we’d lugged all the way to Taiwan and back because he can’t sleep without it. I propped him up, and got to painting, letting go of my to do list, and there it was.

I remembered how much I loved to paint.  Since hearing this TED talk, I know the name for what I was feeling: “flow“. There is nothing else like being fully immersed in the task at hand. Time stops, “existence is temporarily suspended”, and I can enjoy just being in the moment swirling colors around and putting them down. The product isn’t that great. It’s a one hour sketch in which you can see I am still tight and cautious with my colors and composition, not as wild as I want to be, but maybe if I let myself play like that more often, I could get there. Or at least enjoy the process, which seems to be the key to happiness. For years now I’ve been operating in a mode where I  spend most of my time doing things that contribute to my family’s bottom line, where the emphasis is on the product, but it has taken much of the joy out of the process. I’m going to try to allow myself more time for this getting lost in wild wonder, making things just to make them, because that positive, energized feeling I get is indeed necessary to a worthwhile life.

I also made time to take my son for a quick visit to the Bay Area Discovery Museum. This is him experiencing flow.

I hope you make some time to create wonder and find your flow this week, whether it’s through painting, dancing, or programming software. We are all wired differently, but we all have something that moves us. Remember, if you post a comment sharing your museum experience by this Sunday night, you’ll be entered into a drawing for a copy of my book.

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