A blank canvas holds endless possibilities. And this, as one might envision, is both extremely attractive — and terrifying.
Believing I have power over which one of these possibilities materializes — along with the ability to make it conform to my lofty vision — is an exhilarating illusion that lures me into picking up the brush every time.
In practice, my vision always eludes me and I pursue it — fervently — while God patiently allows me this time of wrestling with the ragged edges of my heart.
Each time the process starts, I think “I’m really going to get there this time.”
When the painting eventually comes to rest, I realize there was nowhere to get to — the present moment just as it is in the immediacy of this brush stroke, this step back, this gaze upon and within is God coming to me as this painting.
Over the 10 years I’ve been practicing painting and walking with Contemplative spirituality, this process has been clarified for me in four distinct stages which correspond to aspects of the practice of Centering Prayer.
One: To be Overtaken
The spark that leads me into a work of art is profoundly simple and endlessly vast and my name for it is “beauty.”
“Oh beauty, ever ancient, ever new.”St, Augustine
I experience this spark of creation as coming upon me, grasping me — fleeting in linear time — and unmistakably eternal in deep time. Contemplative teacher and healer James Finley refers to this experience as a moment of spontaneous contemplative awakening.
In Jim’s words: “There is an intuition that in this instant you are glimpsing the true nature of the one unending moment in which our lives unfold. Merton wrote and talked often about the fact that these awakening moments arise spontaneously out of the substance of everyday life itself. That is, they come in a moment of holding a newborn infant, or lying awake at night when it starts to rain, or walking along the beach in the midst of a deep sorrow. Our heart is quickened and we know that this moment is true.
And they’re often extremely subtle. They are so subtle that if we aren’t careful we will miss it. But the point is, we didn’t miss it.James Finley
When I notice a moment like this, it doggedly imprints itself in my mind and heart and then shows up in my journal and sketchbook. I open a book or listen to a podcast and there it is again, translating itself to me, asking me to translate it to the world.
Over the years, I’ve been able to recognize that God is seeking me when beauty holds my attention this way. I’ve gradually learned to let go of performance and pleasing in order to be overtaken by God and moved into the next stage of the process.
Two: To Merge With
Here, I encounter the initial subject of the painting, which is often grounded in some element of nature.
For example, I start with the notion that this piece is meant to hold the presence of a bloom of sorts with the energy of fullness and impermanence. That notion becomes a concrete starting point to guide the texturing process.
I use molding paste to lay down a baseline vibration. This directs the energy flow on the canvas and is perhaps the only long-term commitment I make to the process. I make this layer more from what I feel, and less from what I am visualizing.
Then comes the selection of the initial color palette. I mostly feel it depending on the light in the room and my mood, but sometimes liturgical symbolism guides this process.
It’s when the first layer of color goes down that I begin to realize my plans are essentially useless.
I may realize that what I perceived as a bloom is now offering itself as another aspect of landscape — perhaps flowing water or windblown prairie. Time and time again, I feel the oneness of all things in “this” thing as I perceive it — be it endless sky, country road, sunset over sea, or fleeting flower petal. All share the same energy and float before me as possibilities.
In this stage, I learn to bear what is simply coming to me now without knowing what it is becoming. I add another layer in faith, allowing the underpainting to inform and show through in a dynamic dance. It’s very apophatic, and takes practice to let God fill in the gaps in unspeakable ways.
I notice how unremarkable and essential as breath each possibility that arises is and I am also aware of just how much I want to “get it” and get on with it, bypassing the next stage altogether.
Three: To Lose Sight
I put off leaving my comfort zone and losing sight of the shore for as long as possible, even though I am aware that the paintings that speak deeply to me and others have this painful passage in common.
Through the pandemic of 2020 that ripped all of us away from our customary reference points, I noticed my resolve to keep this part of the process at bay more than usual.
I heard myself share “I am about to go over the edge” in conversation repeatedly, and I felt keeping myself on this side of that edge was an imperative.
That meant working on concrete, little pieces I could control. I held my sessions close to me, finite and able to finish in an hour or two with a big smiley face.
Then about a week before the Fall Equinox, I remembered a quote that I first heard Richard Rohr reference in 2013 as I sat in the gathering of the first cohort of the Living School for Action & Contemplation.
“God is an intelligible sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.”Hermes Trismegistus
When I sat with this text, it occurred to me that God is over that edge I’m trying to keep myself from going over.
Why am I resisting the chance to taste the infinite Love of my awakening heart’s longing?
When I pray “thy will be done” nearly every morning as I awake, do I really mean “my will be done”?
Shortly after the Equinox I worked a 20” x 20” canvas over a few days. When it stopped in an interesting place, I called it “Blooming Edge.”
A day later, I turned it on its side and consented to be carried over the edge by it for another three days.
Four: To Rest in Wholeness
When I started painting in 2010, I thought of my work as sacramental and reflective of a process of reconciliation. I’ve come to express this as a still point in time where the painting comes to rest in the midst of all the unfinished business of life.
Discerning this still point is the most evolved aspect of my artist’s heart.
I am aware it presents itself several times through out every process and often I miss it. I also feel I fail in my stewardship of its landing on more occasions than I am aware.
And yet, there are unmistakable moments when I immediately know the painting has reached a state where it rests in wholeness. I discern this state as active with the aliveness of a dynamic incarnational being, and quiet with the unchanging presence of the One in Whom all things hold together.
Recognizing this becomes its own moment of spontaneous contemplative awakening.
After “Blooming Edge” was transformed, I called it “Receive” and I wrote:
“Receive is now here. It was a struggle, a huge journey with 8+ hour practice sessions and chasing the light as it faded in the Loft. The challenge in this piece was the very rough texture which wanted to assert itself and fought with the process. Only by my staying with it was it able to reconcile itself on the canvas, allowing the resting place to appear.
“This painting had its way with me for days. To refuse it seemed impossible and in continuing, a voice inside criticized me for being obsessive. For not getting it sooner. For being wishing washy. For lacking focus.
“And yet, I was willing to give myself over to this until thy will be done — I think.”
I am amazed by how this process mysteriously exposes, accepts and reconciles my own wayward heart. It is at once humbling and wonder-filled to experience myself in relationship with God taking a blank canvas with endless possibilities and wrestling into awareness a unique expression of beauty beyond my finite imagination.
If this process resonates with you, I invite you to take a journey into your own heart guided by my workbook “Into Your Heart: A Creative Path to Healing & Wholeness.”