The "pedernal cuerro" was a beacon for Georgia O'Keeffe and still is for those who follow her powerful voice as painters. This is my favorite interpretation scene first as an original acrylic painting on the right and then as an original digital composition on the left. I view the spiral as a visual timeline connecting me to all who have come before as admirers of this iconic land mark.
I am sometimes haunted by feelings that I just can't change, that I am doomed to repeat my (many) past failures. These feelings freeze me like a deer in the headlights. I avoid, I procrastinate, I pout, I become even more indecisive than my usual "keep my options open" self. David Whyte's poem "Mameen" (p49,Essentials)challenges us to look at our lives "lived and unlived" through re-engaging with the past and future through the powerful lens of the present:
"Then, look back down the path to the north,
the way you came, as if seeing
your entire past and then south
over the hazy blue coast as if present
to a broad future.
Recall the way you are all possibilities
you can see and how you live best
as an appreciator of horizons
whether you can reach them or not."
You and I are all the possibilities we could possibly imagine, we have only to get up and take "the path up high beyond the ordinary..." The present choice of the extraordinary frees us from an ordinary past and moves us closer to living life at the edge of the horizon we seek.
When I think of finding my voice as an artist and a human being, an appreciation of the perceived failures keeps me humble, still a beginner at the important things in life. Looking out at new horizons and possible futures keeps me motivated to get up when I fall and try something else or get some help! The harder part for me is staying present to the daily possibilities and choices I must make to find the extraordinary life I truly want. Spiritual reading, mind/ body practices (in need of current choices!), connection to nature and to the people who love me most are all part of finding freedom from the past and my true voice, one that moves me and others towards a new horizon, even if we never quite get there! The power to choose keeps the past from determining our future.
"What you can plan
is too small for you to live.
What you can live wholeheartedly
will make plans enough for the vitality
hidden in your sleep.
To become human
is to become visible
while carrying what is hidden
as a give to other. from David Whyte, "What to Remember when Waking"
Paying attention to the dialog between our conscious and subconscious worlds is where our true voice moves from barely audible to understood and embraced; dreams, just waking up, the three o'clock flash of brilliance you have to write down before your forget. This is one of the reasons I move between representation and abstract painting processes. Sometimes I am several paintings in before I start to notice patterns, subjects, colors, marks that are recurring subconsciously. Recently I need to just get painting again after immersing myself in the digital experiment. I painted an abstract purely by instinct, trying some new things as they come up. It sold so fast, I didn't have time to figure if it was saying something to me. Then I started another and something about it resonated with the poetry of David Whyte I was reading. Both paintings had a horizon of sorts...between contrasting worlds. Now I let Whyte's words and ideas influence some conscious decision in the second painting. It sold still hanging in my studio area. I started a third,forth and fifth painting together as I some times do, not know whether they remain separate or not. I got to a point of wholeness on each panel and began to play with them together, different orientations, combinations but keeping the horizon line horizontal. Moving the lines to vertical seems to suggest a dialog or a time sequence. Each section moves some things forward, as new elements, leaves things behind. Life is a living process not a once and done plan. What you can plan is "too small to paint" whether it is representational or abstract. This is part of my voice, "painting as dialog." This may not be part of your voice. The important thing is to notice how your art emerges from you, to pay attention to way you feel about your artistic process, to see what gift you are imparting to others.
David Whyte in "The Winter of Listening" (Essentials, p.26) contains this profound verse:
is a great shout of joy
waiting to be born."
The digital composition above is anchored by a painting called "Mary's Song," the Madonna's spontaneous celebration of the mystery and miracle of life and faith with her cousin Elizibeth and by extension all women. Inside her is "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" to quote Bach and by extension, that great shout of Joy that resides in us all, waiting. For what?, you might ask. A birth, in natural time, not something we can hurry up. In the unexpected places that we did not plan. For reasons we cannot fully understand or explain. This is how we find our own voice. It is in us already, being nourished, growing to readiness to be brought forth through pain, love, sacrifice. Born from us to be a blessing to world which needs what we have as those carriers of the light, love and light.
I loved to draw as far back as I can remember. I studied and practiced architecture. But for many years my "art" was helping other people find their own path to joy. I was not till I turned 60, that I returned to my root passion. In natural time, still evolving and growing with each experiment, I am finding my own voice as an artist and human being.
By the way, I know several women whose art-form/ is motherhood. Their creativity,passion,ingenuity,and unique voice is on display everyday on the pages of social media in the joy and growth of their children. You know who you are, I see your joy, your "art" and the blessing you are to the world!
"Start close in,
don't take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don't want to take."
David Whyte (Essentials p.13)
I was a bad water colorist for 30+ years. I would do 10 or so paintings, take a few lessons and then quit. Again and again. Reading this poem recently, I realized why. I hated being a beginner. I wanted to do a few, get the hang of it and ride my talent to the next level in a few months, a few paintings in. I wanted to start at the third step. When I moved to Santa Fe, I wanted to try again.
Skyler McGee, my "real artist" daughter in law, suggested I try oils instead of watercolors. It was a new beginning. My new teacher noticed that I was the only one, in the class of 10 or so, that was working on a new painting each week and said, "You will learn more from starts than finishes." I remembered a mantra from design school, "Quantity produces Quality." I decided to do 100 oil paintings before I quit. I painted small. If I didn't like one or got stuck, I wrote a number on the back, put it in a box and started a new one. When I noticed I was resisting instruction, I tried to shift to learning mode, embrace being a beginner. About 60-70 paintings in, I started do work I "didn't hate." I found a new mentor. About 150 paintings in, over a year later, I was finally producing salable art. For me the first step, the one I didn't want to take, was embracing the "beginner mind" and the process of learning from scratch.
Press into something close, the doable next step, but probably the step you don't want to take. Embrace the process, the exploration, the learning. Listen often, to what you are enjoying, the voice inside will guide the second, and third steps.
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
way to begin
from "Start Close In" in David Whyte: Essentials
Young artists I talk to are sometimes confusing style and artist statements with voice. Your own voice is not something clever you do in every painting or piece so people with know it is your work. It is not an often too complicated explanation of what you are trying to accomplish in your artwork.
Voice is deeper.
It comes from the ground up,
through your feet, legs,
loins and heart.
It breaths through your
eyes, ears, mind and lips
and only then does it
flow through your finger tips,
Speaking from earth to earth and
spirit to spirit.
Voice includes perspective, insight, passion, expression, tone, phrasing, your body, soul, mind and spirit in dialog with the other. Voice emerges through conversation and experimentation.
You act........ then ask and listen........
Then do it again and again until you,
your artwork or the other has nothing left to say and
you can sit with yourself and know you have
learning something you didn't know before
the dialog started. You start again, knowing that
finishing is not the goal, neither is finding your voice,
both are outcome of good conversation.
"To hear your
you must listen
to the response of the
To understand the
You must first
learn to hear
your own voice."
- Tom McGee
The gallery is closing, we still have to pay rent and all Summer festivals in Santa Fe are called off. We were beyond discouraged. I had no motivation even to paint knowing I was just stacking them in the corner of my make shift studio at home. Nothing but closed doors as far as the eye can see through the Summer. I did have a commission to do and it got me thinking. Is there a way to do more of these? Then I had a thought that seemed to come out of no where. What if I could paint things that I know people would enjoy, like their favorite scenes and memories? Get them involved in the process but still only paint things I knew had a chance of selling if they couldn't afford them or didn't like how they turned out. A win, win and I would be interacting with potential clients just like the gallery - a new door opens.
"I might paint YOUR landscape photo next!"has become a whole new way of working for me, meeting people and making enough to pay the rent, even without the gallery! I think we are all endowed with the ability to hear a voice, have a thought, see something new that becomes that new open door. I believe in a God who is with us, for us, loves us all. But, we have to be open to the possibilities that lay beyond our past, and even beyond our imagination. In my experience, these possibilities often seem to come out of no where. Open people usually find the open doors. I am grateful every day that this kind of grace finds me!
This may be the most purely impressionist piece I've done to date. "Superstition Snow" is a playful acrylic painting that emphasizes light reflecting off very different surfaces (clouds, cliffs and snow) in similar ways. By simplifying shapes, I can highlight the similarities of all three surfaces, just atoms with different densities! Our universe is amazing and in constant motion no matter how solid it appears.
I was in awe of the breadth and variety of Monet’s work. But what struck me most was how he let each scene speak for itself. Doing the same subject over and over, it was not just the palet that changed with the seasons or time of day. His brushwork changed from bold strokes to light wispy flicks of the tip. The thickness of the paint, amount of contrast, no formulas that had to be repeated in every painting.
Our show, "Great Things Come in Small Packages" is in progress now, in the middle of last minute shopping season. Yes, I am hoping someone buys the small painting above, but mostly I am hoping all the giving and receiving accomplishes one thing: reminding those around us of the value of our relationships with each other. It is not the size of the gift but the smiles, hugs, words of gratefulness and encouragement that we need on the journey that make all the difference. The receiving end is just as important as the giving end. Don't evaluate whether it was a good gift, think of the goodness of the person giving it and richness they bring to you, and smile in some memory. Blessings, Tom
I did not show work in progress on this large "Grand Canyon" piece because it was supposed to a surprise for some long time friends. But as you see, it is very similar in approach to the commission work I did, "Wonder." As we approach the holidays, art occupies a seldom thought of but very significant place as a gift. Yes, it can be expensive, but the lasting value can be immense. Art can be a constant reminder of the beautiful possibilities of life in a world filled with beauty and mystery. It can also be an encouragement of some past achievement or blessing. I gave a friend battling cancer a painting of Denali, one of 6 continental highest mountains he had climbed in his lifetime. I gave the above painting titled "Deep and Wide" to remind my friends of the impact they have had by loving others deeply for a long time in the same place. Art speaks beyond words directly to the heart, providing encouragement each time it is encountered.
Consider art as a gift this season, and don't just think about the color of their decor. Think about what is in your heart and what their heart might need more of over the years ahead. 7 Arts Gallery will be having a show of smaller, affordable artworks in early December hoping to encourage art lovers to share their love with others!
Tom C. McGee, Jr.
Musings about mystery, art and spirituality.