Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Susan Pitcairn

"Stepping In" 24x24 oil on canvas

Deepen Your Landscapes with Poetry

Living in Sedona, Arizona, it’s easy to become enchanted by its magical landscapes. Sedona's towering red spires, mystical panoramas and dramatic skies are an ever-fascinating inspiration for painters. When I first moved here to return to art full-time, I took a plein air landscape workshop with John Cogan. He emphasized that every good painting tells a story, and that every part of the painting must support that story. One day at Red Rock Crossing he asked me to reflect on the question, “What is it about Sedona that inspires you? What is the story that it tells you?” Until then I had never exactly thought about why Sedona (or any place) was so inspiring. It was just, well… beautiful. But here was an intriguing question, one that every artist, poet or musician should ask themselves about those things they find inspiring. So as we gazed at the spires of Cathedral Rock reflected in the autumn waters of Oak Creek, I paused to consider the question...
and before I knew it, out of my mouth poured a stream of spontaneous insights about how this landscape spoke to me:

“Well, we know that opposites on the color wheel create harmony. And here in Sedona the rusty orange rocks and turquoise skies are a naturally perfect harmony."
I paused again to consider the beauty before us.
“And just look at the textural contrasts here! There are vast skies with soft clouds, versus rough, hard rocks. And look at the directional contrast between the hard vertical spires of the rocks and the horizontal, reflective surface of the water right here at this place that draws so many people. Wow, what perfect opposites!”
“Really," I continued with the excitement of discovery, "such contrasts and opposites, and the balance between them, are the underlying essence of the universe. They are everywhere: night and day, warm and cold, male and female, protons and electrons, right and left, plant and animal. It goes on and on!"


Earlier in my life I’d had glimmerings of the symbolism in nature. But from that pivotal moment, I nearly always look for the deeper qualities in the landscapes that attract my attention. And often, I write poetry to help me explore that. In a way, every part of nature has a story to tell, one with complex and ancient origins stretching back to the beginning of the universe itself. Such a story is truly mysterious, forever beyond our ability to fully understand.
Nevertheless, nature speaks to us constantly and we can hear some part of its story if we but listen. The vastness of the sky, for example, may speak of life’s mysteries and the unfettered spaciousness of those moments in which our thoughts quiet down and we may sense a quality of the sacred. A towering tree may speak to us of inner strength, of endurance, or of balance, as it is both deeply rooted in the earth and reaching for the sky.
Grand Canyon scenes often speak to me of the process of surrender, the edge between structure and the formless, the beauty of the act of letting go. The inevitable processes of wind, rain, snow and time inevitably wear down layer after layer of the Canyon’s ancient rocks, carrying it piece by piece to a distant ocean. Likewise, life is a process of constant change, ultimately taking from us all that we try to hold onto forever.

One of my favorite poems, “Surrender” was written to accompany an acrylic that placed in the 2007 Paint the Parks competition. Both express the way that vast spaces invite us to let go of all that does not truly matter. A golden bluff of limestone clings tenuously to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon on a late winter afternoon. Though these rocks have existed for eons, gradually even they erode and wash into the mystery of the light-filled distance:


So golden each moment,
So utterly clear
To stand on the edge of creation.
So joyous that surrender to eternity.
Love is not optional.
Love is infinite gravity.
Each moment we live on the edge.
Cling we may to the rock of will,
But its fate is written into its making:
Surrender is not optional.
Surrender to time and trust,
To wind and breath,
To water and soul.
Like rain we flow into
The greatness of Being,
Into the indigo,
Into the every,
Into the All.
It's love that pulls us,
Light that leads us.
Let us go
Let go.

Recently I compiled many of my Southwest paintings and poems in book form to share the inspiration and strength that I derive from nature ("The Poetry of Place," 2009) is just the start of much more to come. I also now offer a workshop on how to incorporate this process into plein air painting, through the Sedona Arts Center, "The Heart of Landscape Art").


There are no hard and fast rules to writing poetry or journaling as a means to deepen your connection with your subject. Mostly, it simply requires a clear intention and a passion for doing so. Sometimes I've just taken a break from my easel and waded into a creek, pocket notebook in hand, scribbling poem after poem, knee deep in water and literally "in the flow."

But tools and exercises can certainly help. For example:

1. Find something in nature that attracts you.
2. Quiet down and listen, pen in hand, with the intent to understand what draws you to this scene and what it may be showing you.
3. Write down the first words or phrases that come to mind, no matter how odd they may seem.
4. Keep writing, uncensored, until you feel done (later on you can polish the wordsmithing if you care to do so).
5. Invite inner guidance as to how to best use composition, line, color, direction, values and textures to emphasize and express the inner story or meaning you want to communicate (and it may also help to explain it to a fellow artist and get feedback).
6. Consider listening to inspiring music as you work. I find this very helpful and bring my IPod along when I paint outdoors.

You can employ this process before you paint, while you are painting (indoors or out), or even years after you have completed a painting.

In the latter case, just sit back in a comfortable chair with your pen and paper and ask yourself the same questions: “What speaks to me here? How does this inspire me?”

Finally, appreciate that whatever inspires you will usually inspire others. After all, we humans are much the same. In my own experience, I nearly always find that my most popular paintings and images are those in which I’ve taken the time to connect with my subject in this inner manner.

You need not be a poet laureate to play with this process, and you may or may not want to share whatever you write or think about the inspiration behind your work.

But if you play with this process I think you will find that it enriches your life as an artist. And ultimately, that matters far more than the outer rewards of producing a nice painting, getting praise, winning awards or making sales.

Art, after all, is really a matter of the heart, a matter of the spirit. Be true to that calling, and the rest will follow.

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