Dancing with your Dragon

This dragon hoards the treasure inside of me. My fears, the things that make me righteously angry, the negativity I project onto others - these become the dragon that stands between me and my enlightenment.

In mythology East to West, the dragon is an archetype of the most unreasonable and formidable foe. Dragon scales are impermeable except for … one weakness. Sometimes the hero needs close observation and a clear mind to see the one gap in a dragon’s armor. Other times the dragon’s scales have developed as protection against the blows of life. Once I lay down my defenses and show kindness, the dragon can remove the burden of their frightening suit of armor and be light and free. They don’t scare anyone anymore. Sometimes we befriend the dragon, sometimes we fool it long enough to get the treasure, sometimes it needs to be slayed.

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These are some of my reflections as I work on this dragon from my recent painting. He guards the pearl of wisdom and dances around Vajrasattva, bodhisattva of purification in Tibetan Buddhism.

How do you dance with your dragon?

Love or Fear?

It hit me in the heart like an arrow of pure truth.

“There are two ways to master an art - through love or through fear.”

A dear friend shared this quote with me on a hike to the Buddha Rocks at Shoshoni. So many years I had fear motivating my work. On a subtle level, I related to my teacher with inferiority and my peers with hostility. My learning process was sabotaged by my inner critic. It was hard to be with myself creatively.

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And now, as the dust has cleared from this exploded illusion, the open space is full of love. How to go about developing my work with love? Marinate in love and gratitude for my life and creative opportunities each morning. Dedicate the merit of my work to the benefit of others. Shake off negative states of mind and see them as passing storms. Release my grip on how things should be and give them space to grow and be as they are.

How do you do your work with love?

Grow with the Flow

Usually I don't get to decide what I'm painting. At least not all of it. A piece starts with an inspiration, images, feelings. Add to that time when I'm open and willing to work on it. Then in this luscious place, creativity takes root.

If I'm too stuck on things being a certain way, this can be a creative block. So, time to let go and grow with the flow.

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It's a lot like our garden. Some veggies we planted did well, others struggled. And then there were the surprise guests! Carrots and kale, survivors just waiting for the right conditions to pop up. I could never have predicted what our harvest would be like.

The surprises are the best part. What has surprised you in your creative life?

Darkness in Perspective

Am I afraid of the dark? Or am I limited in my perspective?

The painting I am working on now is a Cosmic Green Tara. She is in the vastness of outer space, which appears to our eyes as a dark color.

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The first stages of painting the background seemed like smoke in the darkness. I was nervous and resistant as this was the first time I had painted outer space. The deeper I worked into the painting, the more it developed into something new, beautiful and captivating.

The unknown, the things we can't see clearly, the things we don't have a context for yet - these often appear as darkness and we may feel an aversion to them. The darkness has more to do with our point of view and what is familiar to us. How often my world changes when I get to know someone or something better.

 

Passing Through

Like Meg from the movie Wrinkle in Time, my first reaction to life is often "no."

When I was in art school, we visited the artist Laura Mosquera in her Chicago studio. Check out her amazing work here. I remember being unable to appreciate her paintings because of the critical state of my mind.

For me, the journey of making art is learning to move through negative reactions to stay focused on my work. I have learned that my initial "no" response doesn't have to color what I think and do. It is like a hallway I walk through to enter the grand ballroom of my creativity and growth.

The Buddhist deity Vajrasattva embodies the energy of purification, helping us to be free of our negativity and karma. I have always felt a dancing rhythm in his posture. He holds the vajra, symbolic of diamond-like clarity and focus. In meditation and life, gazing at a deity like Vajrasattva is a powerful way to stay focused on our highest aspirations for our own enlightenment.

Mini meditation: Take a moment right now to breathe and relax in yourself. Release any negativity or heaviness, and allow your heart to open.

Vajrasattva drawing by Faith Stone with spray paint stencils by Gayatri

Vajrasattva drawing by Faith Stone with spray paint stencils by Gayatri

Epic in Increments

When I was new to making art regularly, a good friend asked me if I would make large paintings of my subjects. I had been making 12" x 16" paintings and I told her it felt like all I could handle at the time!

I had to get a handle on what I could handle, and then scale up from there.

Scaling up happens in a sweet spot somewhere between what I can handle and what is completely beyond me. Like the Buddha's insight  about the Middle Way listening to the musician on the river: "if you tighten the string too much it will break, if it is too loose it will make no sound."  

I have a tendency to want the next level of epic growth RIGHT NOW! Damnit!  Forcing things can do more harm than good, breaking the string. I am learning that my growth feels more like a slow cooker.

Scaling up is also contagious. Hanging out with people who are bigger than I am in the areas I wish to expand. Maybe they'll give me a ride in their airplane...

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I'm scaling up with a new painting: taking things larger, trying a few new techniques that are stabilized by methods I have been working on. Scaling up with a good foundation.

How do you scale up?

Spring Fever

Someone who loves me told me once that I always have a hard time in the spring. This gives me comfort and perspective when I get restless and think I need to make major life changes. My body can feel discombobulated with the change of the seasons. We are part of nature, and this major phase of change in the natural world affects us deeply.

In creative life, there are cycles as well. Wintertime is a more internal, like germinating the seed. Summer is outward and expansive, sharing the fruits of our work with others. The seasons are especially significant in my husband's pottery work: times for turning pots, glazing, firing and culminating in events for sales and community.

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Since I enjoy a number of creative disciplines - painting, drawing, music, yoga, cooking – it helps to have something I’m working toward like, dare I say it, a clear deadline. A set time to share and connect with other people: a concert for music, a commission for a painting, a workshop for yoga, a meal for cooking.

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There was a time when I put myself down or saw it as a shortcoming that I wasn’t always painting, or playing cello everyday, etc. The restlessness is often unused creative energy. Over time, I learned about myself that I work in projects. Each day is a chance to invest in part of my creative life. Everyone is unique in the way they work.

How are you growing your creative life this spring?

You're not Alone

One of the best parts of starting a new painting is putting my team together. Assembling my resources, calling in the troops.

I really never do it alone.

And when I thought I had to do it alone in order to be authentic/original/creative – I was hardly doing it and tying myself up in knots in the fruitless process.

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To create the team behind a new piece, I gather references, usually from more accomplished artists than myself. On the easel this week, Faith Stone’s book Drawing Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is on the left and Robert Beer’s Buddhist Art Coloring Book 2 on the right.

I hope some of their grace will rub off on me. And I hope my work will express my gratitude as we all reach for a new level.

Who’s on your team?

Repetition & Variation

My first art class in high school, Mr. Drake talked about art being made up of repetition and variation. It comes through in a painting and even in a meal. Beauty comes through the composition and contrast of flavor, textures, and colors.

Here are a few paintings where I have worked with the same subject over a number of years. It's like deepening a relationship, especially while working with sacred art and painting deities.

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At the top, Saraswati is the goddess of the arts, language, beauty and wisdom. My favorite description of her - "She who swallows my sense of dullness and incompleteness" - from Sri Ma's pujas.

I have connected with Saraswati through puja, mantra, meditation and painting as a way of understanding how to use my creative energy and release my small self in the creative process. In times when I have felt confused and restless about making art (or life in general), I do Saraswati mantra or puja to connect to this pure creative energy and be a vehicle for something higher.

Over the years connecting to Saraswati, I can see my growth in more subtle ways: real changes in perspective and inner experience. In my practice and art, I have learned how staying steady with my commitments opens me up to deeper layers of awareness and spiritual growth. 

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Newest Saraswati in progress. The lines around her head are like a funnel for higher energy to come in and through her.  

Buddha's Moving In

“It’s not personal” – I tell myself this all the time. “It’s not about me, it’s about something bigger.” Painting a Buddha or deity is not a personal endeavor – it’s universal.

When we meditate, we bring our awareness to the subtle inner work of being present and open to a flow of higher energy. It is a way of developing ourselves so that we can truly be of service to others.

It is the same thing with spiritual art, whichever side you are on – making or viewing. My art mentor Faith Stone talks about this process:

“Your goal is to try to stay out of the way and let the Buddha be expressed - not you. Essentially you are creating an environment for the Bodhisattva (enlightened being) or Buddha to reside or take form.”

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When you bring a piece of sacred art into your home, the deity or higher energy is moving in! As a meditator, I see the sacred art throughout my home as a reminder of the practice I did that morning and take a moment to reconnect to this higher awareness.

In sacred art class at Eldorado Ashram, we finish a painting session with this dedication prayer offering up the merit of our actions to the liberation of all beings. This part of class always feels like a celebration and release - because it’s not about me.

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Talent, Skill & Effort

Sometimes I only have a 30% chance of making art, doing yoga or something else productive. The things I want to do be the person I want to be. The trick of it is to convert the 30% inspiration into 100% action.

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Talent and inspiration are not the essence of making art. They are the initial impulse, sometimes a random bonus. The sprinkles on the cupcake.

“The separation of talent and skill is one of the greatest misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, who have dreams, who want to do things. Talent you have naturally. Skill is ONLY developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.”

- Will Smith

Angela Duckworth quoted Will Smith in her book Grit, where she explores the science and psychology of high achievers. She comments:

 “With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive.”

This reminded me of Swami Rudrananda’s meditation teaching:

“Effort over time equals growth.”

How we relate to and harness our effort matters so much more than pure talent.

Temporary Struggle

I worked on a painting yesterday and it was a very long two hours of effort. For most of that time, I wasn’t thrilled with what I saw on the canvas but I kept working at it to work things out. At the end, I got some space from the painting and the rocks came into view. Ahhh.

The other day I was looking at one of my favorite paintings and remembering the challenge of working through the details. I spent 4+ hours on Kelly’s face – a two-inch square area. I’m pretty sure I cried that afternoon.

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But all that struggle is gone now. In its place is a beautiful painting. I love looking at it every day and continue to see something new. And I feel so lucky that I was part of bringing this art into being.

 

Chill with the Chaos

Things usually look like hell for a large part of the painting process. Especially portraits - everyone looks old and blotchy. Not suitable for public viewing. A bystander might nod and hum in sympathy that I am working so hard at something so crappy.

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I heard a great quote - "if you are going through hell, keep going." I can really relate this to my spiritual growth and to the process of making art. One of my art and meditation friends said that she will put at least one mark on her painting everyday.

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The "in-between" phase of the process is actually where all the magic is setting in. Things feel unfamiliar because our brains are stretching and new neural pathways are forming. It is a journey into pure possibility and being a vehicle for creative energy.

Interestingly, I have made paintings more by rote, where the process is clear and the in-between wasn't a challenge. And these paintings lacked the magic and refinement. They almost felt like cartoons of a painting.

The more time I spend in the in-between, the more comfortable and relaxed I am navigating this new terrain.

What do you do in-between?

 

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Making art is not easy

A common misconception is that the experience of making art should feel like experiencing a finished work of art - refinement, release, beauty, revelation. Actually, it is challenging to do creative work and bring something into the world that wasn't here before.

It was comforting to hear Malcolm Gladwell's consideration of artistic refinement in his podcast last year (Listen here: http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/07-hallelujah). He talks about Cezanne working on the same subject repeatedly for greater refinement, often with a lot of dissatisfaction propelling the process. Gladwell also explores how a piece - the song Hallelujah - was brought into its fullness by a number of artists working together over decades. Art takes time!

Working at the dining room table at Cambridge Woodfired Pottery.  

Working at the dining room table at Cambridge Woodfired Pottery.  

One of the primary dead-ends to being creative is waiting until I feel like making art. I find that I have to dive into the work itself and make the act of working the reason to be there. This relates to the practice of yoga described in the Bhagavad Gita:

"To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction."

The real "work" of art, and the work of growing, involves going into the unknown. For me, it feels more like bushwhacking through the wilderness of my resistance and fear, and less like receiving sprinkles of easy inspiration and pixie dust ;)

What does the process feel like for you?

Learning what you are not

I started painting in high school and identified strongly as a portrait painter, NOT a landscape painter. I was serious about this, damnit! I would put in my time on the background of the painting like eating my vegetables so I could skip to dessert - the portrait. This preference was so strong that it often blocked me from working on a painting.

Since making art more consistently, I have discovered:

  1. I actually enjoy painting landscapes
  2. One is not better than the other. Or as Paul Reps said, "each is best.

As usual, the next step involved getting out of my own way!

I love my little painting, Bromance, and how it toes the line of landscape and portrait:

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Are you creating or consuming?

Were you born and raised in consumer culture? Me too. It feels like  I have to carve my creative self out of a dense consumer shell. Sometimes my desire to have a milkshake and be a couch potato is so strong!

For me, creativity is stepping up to my life. It is not a one-time job. Each new day craves creative effort. I find that an uphill feeling is the norm, and a downhill ride is a treat! And so is the occasional milkshake ;)

Sometimes being creative is expansive, easy and revelatory, other times it is like an ox plowing the field – slow methodical digging that does not appear to end. But it does, and then you have a breakthrough!

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So many things we do can be creative:

  • Listening and being present with someone
  • Making food and house cleaning
  • Running a business and working with focus
  • Exercise
  • Relationships and parenting
  • And last but not least, MAKING ART!

What do you do to be creative?

Seeing what is possible

Can you see what is possible? Creative people can. They can see what resources they have right now and take action. 

I'm having a ball getting things together for the next Art Night with the Cambridge Arts Council. It takes a moment to choose what the project will be. Other projects have been Mandala Painting and a landscape of the Northern Lights. What to paint this time...

OWLS! Who doesn't love owls? They're ewoks with wings and talons. They're stealthy, wise, perceptive, attractive - just like us. We all have a furry, smirky place in our hearts for an owl.

How will an owl painting be possible? I found a reference of a Chinese brush painting that hit the spot and set out to make a sample painting.

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Time to create a simple process where this painting can be made in two hours by someone who may not consider themselves to be an artist and may be drinking wine.

  • A light wash for the background, making out the moon.
  • Cut in the branch
  • Spray paint maple leaf stencils in burgundy and copper (bling is a must!)
  • A few steps for a simple, impressionistic owl with a little attitude
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Let's see what's possible!

Art Night at Camrock Cafe, Cambridge WI

Friday October 13, 7:00-9:00pm

It's time to break the rules

Sometimes I'm just dying under the weight of these rules. Not anyone else's rules - my stupid rules. The boundaries I place on myself. The rigid definitions and impossible principles that are holding me back in my creativity and happiness.

Elizabeth Gilbert had a great metaphor about this in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (Highly recommended!). She talks about the martyr and the trickster. The martyr puts themselves on a pedestal of principles where they are bound and tied, a clear target and easy shot. The trickster, however, sneaks around, seeks out the opening in a situation, and has fun in the process. Gilbert talks about the martyr on the front lines dying for their cause while the trickster starts a profitable black market on the sides of the battle.

It's time for this martyr to break the rules and get a little tricksy. Here are some rules I broke recently and had a BREAKTHROUGH in my art:

 1. Don't make the same painting twice.  From left to right, a copy of the tiny bamboo bookmark that inspired the paintings, first version 2014 and second version 2017.

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  2.  Don't copy someone else's painting.  Top row: Robert Beer's Milarepa drawing and Faith Stone's. Bottom row: unknown Milarepa thangka and my thangka.

 2.  Don't copy someone else's painting. Top row: Robert Beer's Milarepa drawing and Faith Stone's. Bottom row: unknown Milarepa thangka and my thangka.

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3.  Don't paint from photographs. My photo on left the inspired the painting on right. I have also copied a Georgia O'Keefe painting in the background ;)

How have you broken YOUR rules lately? 

Creative Flow & Plateau

Don't you love being in the flow? Smooth sailing, a sense of focus and purpose - it is the best! And then you hit a wall. BUT, the wall is actually part of a plateau that leads up to our next level of work and growth.

My dad was a professional musician, and he would say that the more he progressed at music, the longer the plateaus were between levels. I can really relate this to the process of growing spiritually in my meditation practice. My teacher describes the process of spiritual death and rebirth as we grow, and how hitting the wall is a normal part of the process. Otherwise how would we transcend?

After finishing the highly detailed Milarepa painting, I needed to prime my creative pump with a simple painting. So, I chose this lovely dancing Nepalese Shiva that I had painted before. Here they are side be side. Milarepa had been so amazing to work on, in a pain-staking kind of way. I spent about 3 hours on the nimbus, or halo around his head. Shiva, on the other hand, was pure paint-by-number delight! I could relax and get the flow going.

It is so essential for me to keep my creative momentum with regular art-making and meditation. Then the wall is easier to scale!

How do you find your creative flow?

Why make art and meditate?

This past weekend, Deepak and I facilitated a Shambhava Meditation Teacher Training intensive at Chi-town Shakti in Chicago. It was so wonderful to reaffirm the WHY behind my practice and spend time in the nourishment of meditation.

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The amazing Meditation Teacher Training Grads at Chi-Town Shakti!

It takes a lot of courage to go within and sit with yourself, especially on a consistent basis. There are a million compelling reasons to fix the world around us and avoid sitting. I remember being a new meditator and the eternity of chanting a mala of mantra and sitting for twenty minutes. I was in denial about what inner skills I actually had, which were pretty weak.

My meditation practice has shown me that the challenges of life have a root in me. Fortunately, the solutions are also within, as is the fulfillment we are seeking in life. When I sit to meditate, I become present and open to experience the Inner Self, the goal of meditation that is a natural part of who we are. Meditation is a process of relaxing into this experience while releasing the things that obscure it: the tensions and emotions of the mind and reactions to our lives. This process of release is what my teacher calls surrender.

Reconnected to the purpose of my practice, I was so refreshed to return to teaching yoga after the meditation training.

Why do you meditate?