Getting high, creatively speaking

Salt, detail, Suzanne Edminster, original acrylic on canvas, 48" x 60"
Detail from “Salt”

I’m reading a book about getting high without drugs or alcohol.  Ironic, because I live in the heartland of  hedonistic, exquisite,  gourmet highs, sipped, smoked, or tasted: Sonoma County. In the midst of an opiate epidemic– understandable within our current mutated, obscene American political climate– I think we have lost our ways of enjoying the old ways of getting high, all on our own, in our own brains and bodies.

The Book of Highs, from my library, with four charming blue eggs, from my Coturnix quail.

The Book of Highs: 255 Ways to Alter Your Consciousness Without Drugs, by Edward Rosenfeld, is an likeable little compendium and pretty fun to read.  Written as a list, and illustrated with pop psychedelic-toned graphics, I immediately turned to the segment “Creativity: Reach into yourself, find and make something new.”  The quotes are all from this book.

“Creativity is something new, something fresh, something that arises out of the absence of preconceived ideas.  Intuition— ideas that spring from the untapped, unpredictable parts of the self– results in creativity.”

I found this striking.  In trying to teach students to paint intuitively this summer, I found that the concept is very hard to explain.  It doesn’t mean that there is no selected form, no restrictions.  It also doesn’t mean that you can’t alter it, edit it, find it wanting, or judge it.  If it exists in the physical universe,  there is always something that restrains and limits the painting:  the canvas and brushes, perhaps a chosen color palette or emotional feeling.

I think you have to paint first to have something emerge.  You have to make a random act on the canvas of some kind, because intuition wants a little springboard.  One mark… one spatter… one line…

Saltworktudio abstract class
My demo painting with initial intuitive marks

 

It’s this act of intuition that gets you high.  It is exhilarating to watch forms appear from nowhere.

“To observe the unexpected, the unknown, and then use what one finds there in a new, unique way: that is creativity.”

One thing to note is that you have to use it, not just observe it.  It isn’t a movie, and it’s not an opium dream.  If Coleridge hadn’t written down the lines of Kubla Khan before the “man from Porlock” had knocked at his door, we would not have an amazingly strange and evocative poem, but just another lost drug hallucination.  We tend to focus on the lost world, the longer poem or epic that vanished when Coleridge was interrupted.  Why not celebrate what he did manage to capture?

 

I was talking to a novelist who recently visited my studio about characters in his novels who seem to live their own lives,  independent of his best writerly plans for them.  He said that a master writer once told him something to the effect of “give the construction of your novel to your characters.  They’ll do it for you.”  I try to give the construction of the painting to the intuitive impulses that manifest:  shapes, lines, colors, sometimes spirits or ideas.

Salt, detail, Suzanne Edminster, acrylic on canvas
Salt, another detail.

This intuitive painting process makes me high.  It’s a problem.  I can’t drive when I’m painting; ask my husband.  It also makes me useless for a while for everyday life and chores.  It takes a lot of energy as well, and there can be a big low after the high of creation.

Salt, far left, Suzanne Edminster, acrylic on canvas, 4 feet by 6 feet,
Salt, the final painting, to the far right.

But I’m now an addict.  I couldn’t live without the creative high.

Creativity is the ability to bring something into existence from nothing. That is, from chaos comes a meaningful, organized whole.”

Creation is our agency to make change, and it gives us back unimaginable pleasure in return, if the risk is taken.

Painting Journal 2: Over Underworld

Over Underworld, acrylic on canvas, 36" x 48"
Over Underworld, acrylic on canvas, 36″ x 48″

The Over Underworld series features high horizons and chaotic, rich undergrowth. You can climb up and down the layers of it, and the black ink spatters underneath sometimes look like animal forms. The top has modern, intereference paint; the top invokes architecture, the conscious mind, technology and civilization. It’s shiny and bright, while the underpart is rough.

The concept behind each art piece is as vital to me as the finished work… often more vital. Abstract work has its own demands because it is unmoored from the anchor of representation and floating out at sea.

Students ask me, “How do I know it’s finished?” I think my true answer is that it’s finished when your dialogue or conversation with the painting is somehow complete. This is true whether or not the painting is a “success” at the moment. Ask your questions not ABOUT the painting, but TO it. If you can know it as complete, whole, and satisfying, your viewer will as well. Knowing an abstract painting is finished is also an abstract idea!

I believe we shouldn’t dwell too much on the underworld, the unconscious, the uncivilized. We don’t need to invite it. It will always come to us unbidden, as these paintings did to me.

Jung, Creativity and Play

Europa, Suzanne Edminster, acrylic on canvas, 36" x 36"
Europa, Suzanne Edminster, acrylic on canvas, 36″ x 36″

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” 

C.G. Jung, from Psychological Types

This quote made me pause.  When we lose play, and give it over to force, we lose our contact with the creative world.  On the other hand, the “inner necessity” has to include work and bringing the play or fantasy to  fruition.

“The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”  This painting is called Europa.  I wanted somehow to play with the Greek myth of the bull swimming with an abducted river maiden— and play simultaneously with abstract form.  I experienced both these desires in a visceral, childlike way.  I wanted to physically play with the figures in the myth, like playing with dolls or action figures, and I wanted to splash paint and watch it pool and run.   The two plays came together in this painting.  (Sometimes they don’t.)

This painting, an abstract mythic narrative, will be shown at The Gallery of Sea and Heaven in their upcoming  Myth and Legend show opening February 16.  They took two paintings.  The other one is a private narrative , where the visuals construct a strange story; it did not exist until I collaged it.  In other words, there’s definitely a story, but I don’t know exactly what it means, like the  stories and plots of dreams.

I think of Jung with his Tower on the lake and his mandalas.  He loved to play, and having a rich wife didn’t hurt the cause of “playing” with architecture .  When we play, we always trust that the practicalities of survival will take care of themselves, like children. What “objects” do you love to play with?