Shouldn't I be doing ... more painting?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Ever since I was a child, I have collected little treasures - shells, rocks, beads, feathers, bark - that I could take home and put in a special box in my closet to take out periodically and hold in the palm of my hand, look at, and mull over.

Now that I am an adult, these treasures have become the visible remnants of a creative spirit gone slightly awry, of imagination thwarted by reality. Though I never stopped collecting, and they continued to feed that lifelong desire to create, they also silently chastised as they gathered dust in their little boxes. The internal need to create gradually got buried beneath the routine of daily life - carpools and cooking, work in the morning, soccer, music lessons, and gymnastics in the afternoons.

Every now and then, however, my treasures would beckon, and my children and I would sift through the boxes. It is in these moments that the latent artist in me would whisper, "Don't just dream - do something."

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In days gone by, the arts were considered a vital part of civilized society. Painting, music-making, and dancing were not so much entertainment as activities integrated into daily life. But in our own fragmented society, adults too often look upon such moments of creativity as ill-afforded, self-indulgent luxuries. Who has time in the course of days chock full of deadlines, errands, chores, and small emergencies to delve into paint pots or sit down to relearn Bach partitas?

Not too long ago, that same little voice starting nudging, "You have time - you can make time if you really want to." And a variety of factors combined to fuel willpower with inspiration - more frequent trips to crafts exhibits and art museums, seminal shows on the works of Picasso, Monet, and Bonnard that moved me to tears, the rare opportunity at London's Tate Gallery to hold an original watercolor by 19th-century master J.M.W. Turner in my hot little hands and see each brushstroke with breathtaking immediacy.

So gradually I begin to give myself permission to create a space in my life for a tiny dream to flare to life, and time is cobbled together from bits and pieces of other activities - a half hour here or there, drawing in front of the TV after the kids are asleep. Art supplies long tucked away come out of drawers and closets. My only request for Christmas is a table of my own, carried up to the attic and planted in front of a sunny window. Combining my trove of little treasures and a high school interest in watercolor, I start to construct collages that speak to me (if perhaps no one else) and it has opened a door that has been stuck shut for more than 20 years. Talent completely aside, I have begun to tap the artist within, reaping unexpected benefits in the process.

I've become more visually aware and adventurous, finding elaborate and imaginative visions in life's random patternings. Images seem much clearer, much sharper, and yet much more fluid, rife with possibility.

My nine-year-old and I are finding a venue for quality time together, swapping art supplies, diving into projects that encourage us both to explore, share, learn. I am learning to experiment, to take risks. And most importantly, I am finding a vibrant forum for self-expression.

I start with Klutz Press's Watercolor for the Artistically Undiscovered (by Thacher Hurd and John Cassidy, 1992, $19.95), partly because I find the name so wonderfully encouraging and partly because it comes with paper and a set of watercolors. Instant possibility, instant gratification. "Take your brush for a test drive," it encourages, going step by step through all the basics as well as a lot of more technical points as well. I take heart when it insists, "the only mistake you can make is to criticize yourself."

I branch out to books of technique, of which there are dozens that take aspiring artists through the step by step process of putting paint to paper. Charles Le Clair's beautiful The Art of Watercolor (Watson-Guptill Publications, 1994, $29.95) is probably the best of the bunch, dealing with techniques and easy-to-follow sequential instructions in the context of analyzing acknowledged watercolor masterpieces.

It is slow going at first, mostly because of that persistent little voice that nags, "Shouldn't you be doing...?" But I am spurred by Albert Einstein's assertion that "Imagination is more important than knowledge," nurtured by the spiritual concepts of Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, which calls creativity "the natural order of life.... Our creative dreams and yearnings come from a divine source."

I find myself doodling - on napkins, the backs of envelopes, the margins of concert programs. It seems a kind of stream of consciousness process, flowing out unaided from a channel newly opened.

I come up with some tiny figures that dance across the page. I keep a scrapbook of these doodles, and they later become refined, transformed when I settle in for more focused art time.

I begin combining elements - watercolor washes that I cut into different shapes, adding figures in ink and then bits and pieces of the treasures I have collected. I turn to my collage books for additional guidance, but find I am less interested in technical advice than in just looking at the pictures of others' works, finding ideas, inspiration. Two stunning books (one by Wally Caruana, the other by Howard Morphy, both titled "Aboriginal Art") startle with their rich simplicity and reaffirm the potential power of the unschooled artist. I try mixing in bits of poetry, letting my writer's voice become involved. I rediscover Craypas, and spend one entire evening amidst the brilliant colored streaks, smudges, and dust of the chalky oil pastels of my childhood.

Not surprisingly, the more I delve into it all, the more I realize I have only scratched the surface - I have a lifetime of learning ahead. But instead of the prospect being daunting, it is rejuvenating. I am learning by doing and rediscovering how to play, and the process has expanded my world. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau put it, "The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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