On Risk, Bill Collectors and a Bag of Rice

Barn in Fremont, a landscape painting by Judith Reeve

Once, many years ago I went to the Badlands in South Dakota to paint. Everyday I would hike out with my pack and easel and seek my newest subject. One day I found myself walking out along a narrow jut protruding from a butte. I reached a point along this narrow where the ground I was standing on was no wider than the width of my shoe. I could feel the sharp edge of the rock beneath my feet. On both sides of this ridge the ground fell away several hundred feet. I was literally balancing on a beam of the narrowest dimension. My footing was no longer sure and my arms were extended to keep my body aligned and my pack from shifting.

This experience of not having a sure footing has become a part of my daily living as it has been for many artists both economically and creatively. My mere existence is constantly balancing along this narrow edge. So people tell me,”get a full-time job”, “have your boss pay you more”, “work two jobs and eat less…..” and it goes on. But I need to remind myself when I reach these low points that the artists’ most important activity is to create. And there are requirements to maintain this ability to create.  One must have space both physically and mentally. This is the space that brings about an inner stillness necessary for contemplation and from this, creation. This cannot simultaneously exist with “busy-ness” and a divided attention. An intense focus, in which all else seems dwarfed, is the only way that there can be any room for an imaginal moment. All creative activity is risky because allowing that physical and mental space to exist in one’s life, puts you at odds with society and sometimes with oneself.

Because of the inherent need for still-ness, there is consequently, a constant, nagging- for- sustenance animal biting at your heels like a ferocious dog AND HE HAS YOU BY YOUR SHOE. There have been times where I have lived on a  20 lb. bag of rice from an Asian market for a month and nothing else. Not a lot of flavor unless you fry some onions to go with it for a little change. I have had my water and electricity cut off. I have done without heat and have taken the coldest showers imaginable, getting cramps in my scalp. I have lived pretty low to the ground.

Every artist reaches this critical moment where it appears to be more sane to give up the work and be rational. But there is no such thing as logic. Once one has experienced the incredible wholeness of one’s creative being manifest itself in the work and the work feels true and sure, there is really no decision to make. The real risk is to give up on oneself and betray the inner voice that is calling you. The risk is that there is no satisfaction without that voice. There is no rest until the compulsion can be followed through with. All else will fail to satisfy. And more importantly, one feels divided within oneself unless there is a resolution. This becomes the prologue or the invitation to the voyage.  And from this point, one realizes that this is where one ought to be regardless of the demands of society. Sacrificing of physical needs to maintain this “place” within oneself becomes second nature.

There is also the risk that takes place in the creation of the work as well. Creativity at its most vital is fraught with risk. If there is no risk, is the image worth crafting? One must create at the edge of what one is capable of. It must push one beyond one’s comfort zone. Without this there is no vitality or freshness in the work. There is no self-discovery or even beauty. Robert Henri believed that one must push oneself within a painting and through that process the solution will manifest itself in order to make the image work. Every image has its unique resolution. It must because the image itself has a life of its own beyond that of the artist .

Creation is a struggle with matter, with the material manifestation of the image. There is “stuff” that needs to be shaped and formed into something. . There is no work without the materials. Matter is the medium that allows the imagination together with human action to become the art object.  What is the stuff it will be made of paint, charcoal, ink, pastel, clay?

There is also the inner struggle that begins when one first puts paint to canvas. There is the vast whiteness of the canvas that confronts us and causes one to pause before the undertaking.  There is a mixture of expectation and excitement as well as fear and a little trepidation. Failure is always before you. But so is the lure of a great adventure about to unfold. Can I manifest my deepest thoughts, dreams, desires here upon this whiteness.

Can I get this right? I am not strictly speaking of accuracy, but bringing together in the image the emotive voice that calls our sympathy to be united to the image. A voice of emotion and clarity. A voice that calls us back to ourselves and we again recognize who we truly are. One looks in the mirror and sees how it is and should be. It becomes a cathartic experience that points to what is most needed at this moment. But these are easy words to say. When I face that canvas and begin, words have no meaning. I need something other than easy words. I need the stillness within and without to allow this moment to unfold as it ought to.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

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