Visual art can be made for its own sake. Using line, form, color, composition, texture and all the other artistic elements to create a piece of art is a satisfying engagement for the artist and for the viewer.
Visual art can make a political or social statement through the subject matter and the manipulation of the various artistic elements. This also can be a satisfying engagement for the artist and for the viewer.
Visual art can also reveal the soul of the artist and in turn, mirror the soul of the viewer. I learned this in a community of artists, mostly women, who were using artmaking as soulshaping. The community was called Art & Soul, and our guide, Arunima Orr, masterfully led us in various spiritual practices to open us up to the possibility of our own Inner Life, and the art that was created seemed to exceed the mere artistic abilities of the artists. It seemed to have a life of its own.
For me, one quotation by a member of this collective spoke volumes: Noa Ben-Amotz said, “I learned to see what I paint, not paint what I see!” How amazing the transformation when you approach art in this way!
I had a little formal art training before I came to Art & Soul but not much. My extensive training had been in classical music. In high school, I took two semesters of a studio art class, I had about three lessons from a local artist, and I read a little book my parents gave me entitled How to Draw and Paint by Henry Gasser.
This little paperback from the 1960’s contained how-to information and step-by-step illustrations. I learned many of the basics of composition in particular. Through my teens and twenties, I painted, mostly watercolors. Then the intensity of college music study and the ambition to be a really fine, accomplished musician meant that hours were spent in practicing the piano, organ, or singing instead of artmaking.
In midlife, I found myself—like Dante—in the midst of a “dark wood,” and my way was lost. A dear friend who had already partaken of the riches of Art & Soul strongly suggested that I try it for myself. She was persistent because I was reluctant, but in the end this dear friend knew exactly what I needed. She has been such a guide and inspiration to me through these latter years and I am deeply grateful!
So, I tried a “potpourri” weekend in which Nima (as we call her) offered experiences of the various practices that she used to open us up to the mystery of our own inner life.
One of the practices was to hang a large sheet of Kraft paper on the wall and use unconventional tools to put paint on it: a wide white-wash brush, a tooth brush, a comb. . . whatever you could find in one of the bins of oddments. The paint was tempera, in bright, primary colors, and the paper was a deep blue. Moving over the paper in large strokes, I fairly danced the paint onto the paper. It seemed totally random, yet when I looked at it, there was definitely a sense of order, of composition. I was amazed! I painted that??? It was totally a moment of transformation to possibilities in myself that I had not yet discovered.
I think that the word “soulshaping” can be misleading. I love the phrase that is the title of this essay because the “a” of “making” and the “a” of “shaping” have the same sound—a kind of music is produced. Yet I believe we don’t shape the soul so much as we are shaped by the soul. It is the soul that does the shaping. We have only to discover the shape that is already there.
Artmaking is but one way we do this. The whole realm of spiritual practices in all kinds of traditions have this as their goal as well. But for me, creating a piece of visual art has a kind of power that even my spiritual practices do not.
I think it’s time to get out my paints. . .