Creative Rebellion Essays: When things are going south

After a long day of Zoom and work, I spend my evenings painting large canvases as a practice that centres me while also being able to throw me completely into moments of uncertainty and anxiety. There’s no “command-Z” for analog work –– if you screw up, you either have to incorporate it into the work or you start over.

“The brushstroke at the moment of contact carries inevitably the exact state of being of the artist at that exact moment into the work, and there it is, to be seen and read by those who can read such signs, and to be read later by the artist himself, with perhaps some surprise, as a revelation of himself.” ― The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

I make my paintings in stages, laying down a colour field next to another colour field. And since, like most people, I have other responsibilities to work and family, I have to stay in a state of flow that allows me to seamlessly move from working on financial planning and meetings with my staff to painting to giving meds to our sick dog to painting to dealing with construction happening on my house. As I mentioned in my last essay, life has a ton of interruptions and if we are defeated by that, then creative work will never get done. In my experience, there’s never the perfect time and place to do great work. So, after laying down the foundational composition for my latest painting, “Now (今),” I was ready for the final brushstroke, for which I use a massive brush in a manner that could (superficially) be considered somewhere between shodō (書道) and abstract expressionism. However, this particular painting had been giving me difficulty from the beginning –– the colors and lines weren’t quite working and my state of mind was distracted. Again, the painting was simply a mirror, reflecting back to me where I was at the time in the process. And as I prepared for the final brushstrokes, my head was still partly in work-mode and partly in some other state of distraction. In other words, I wasn’t fully present with the work and failed to follow my own advice to use “ceremony” to transition my state of being from the distracted day-to-day, low anxiety-ridden condition into a mindset that is needed to make any art, whether it’s acting, ceramics, design or dance. I had poorly prepared the black paint and when it went onto the canvas, it was too dry and I had not prepared an adequate amount of it –– as soon as the brush went into the liquid, it was all gone. I still shouldered on and slammed the paint onto the canvas, pulling the brush across the surface as it staggered along, not doing what I wanted at all. In my frustration, I pressed down harder and then I heard and felt a snap! The brush broke from its handle. My wife was recording the whole thing, while my daughter watched, and we all broke out into uncontrollable laughter at how badly the whole thing had gone. I felt a loosening of my angst at that moment –– I realised that I had been trying to enforce my will on the painting, no longer being a conduit for the art to come into being on its own. I wasn’t being true to the artwork. So with that, I threw aside the broken handle, poured more paint into the glass jar I use for dipping the paint, and continued on with what was left of the brush, just allowing it to be what it was going to be. And as an homage to what I learned from this process, I slammed my handprint against the artwork (something I’d not done to any of the previous works) as an acknowledgement of what I learned.
My wife used the most versatile and ubiquitous of materials to repair the brush: glue and duct tape. The key to making anything of substance is to get out of the way and let it be what it’s going to be.

“Stop trying to make something. Art is about letting something out, not making something.” ― Yoshida Kenji, from The Art of Creative Rebellion

As we know there are going to be good and bad days. We will all metaphorically break brushes once in a while. What I’m learning is that bad days can be salvaged, if we stop resisting what is happening and flow with the torrent.

What I’m watching:
The Truth – starring the legendary Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, as mother and daughter, this film by Hirokazu Kore-eda explores the relativity of memory and the dynamics of family with wonderful supporting performances by Ethan Hawke and the adorable and bilingual Clémentine Grenier, who plays the role of Charlotte. It’s the famous Japanese director’s first film outside of his native language – the characters speak French and English.

What I’m reading:
Lone Wolf and Cub Omnibus – the famous series of graphic novels about a lone samurai assassin and his three-year-old boy as they travel across medieval Japan taking on assignments and seeking vengeance against the “Ura-Yagu” clan that framed them. Written by Koike Kazuo and brilliantly illustrated by Kojima Goseki, the series, though fictional, is historically accurate, brutal and beautiful. Ogami Ittō, the assassin, is emblematic of honor and the way of the warrior. The manga series was extremely popular and also became a very successful series of movies, that vary in quality (the music and style was a bit over the top but, hey, they were made in the 70’s).

Written by John Couch – VP, Product Design at Hulu and author of “The Art of Creative Rebellion: How to champion creativity, change culture and save your soul”.


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