by Amy Nelder, Chloe Gallery Founder and Resident Artist, January, 2017

Painting is Meditation

The Energizing Sanctuary of Art

ART IS AN OPPORTUNITY to celebrate, energize, heal and simply “be”. Both making art and viewing art can be a pathway to a centering sense of joy in the present, contributing to better health, higher energy levels, and more focus in our personal and work relationships. Chloe Gallery wants to celebrate and investigate where mindfulness may fit into the artistic process. It is exciting to think we can expand our own enjoyment of art through a conscious attentiveness, discovering new ways to bring that sense of joy, love and mystery from the art we love even further into our personal space – even leading to better overall physical health. Can we go even further with our art, more richly beyond just loving a piece, to calling upon it even constructively, as an object of peace and focus in our busy lives?

Mark Gaskin
Mom's Garden, Peonies #1, 2017
Encaustic on Canvas, 32" x 32"

“The crafty process of my work is where I am mindful and focused. What makes me stay in the present is the crafting of a process, and for myself – I evolve my process and become better with my tools: my eyes, my hands, my head.” – Mark Gaskin

Psychology Today calls mindfulness a “present moment awareness”. Many of us who have fallen in love with a painting may have felt a “present moment awareness” with art – a moment when the rest of the world falls away around us, and the artwork grabs us by all our senses and holds us in an energizing, all-enveloping sanctuary. So how do we maximize and extend that experience?

“When I’m standing in front of the easel I’m very focused,” says American Impressionist James Scoppettone, who has meditated for most of his life to maximize his physical health and spirit of mind. “When I’m at the easel it doesn’t cross my mind about what’s going to happen next, everything is in the moment that I’m addressing the canvas. I’m not thinking about where I’m going to be in half an hour. I don’t stop and think about what I’m going to do next, it just happens, and I don’t want to break that pattern.” One might wonder: is painting, for some artists, a form of meditation?

Mustard Fields

James Scoppettone
Mustard Fields, 2017
oil on canvas, 12" x 16"

Beyond the act of collecting, some psychologists specializing in mindfulness could argue that we can even translate that sense of initial awareness into an exercise towards better physical health within our bodies. But what about the artist who made it? What does the artist feel, and can we share and communicate with the artist’s experience? “During my (painting) process, the walls, the floors, the ceilings dissolve,” says Canadian artist Mark Gaskin of his own sense of awareness as he creates. “Time goes by rapidly during the creative process. Years ago I was often late for appointments because time evaporated. Now I set a timer as I begin to paint… Painting is meditation.”

Mark Gaskin
White Tulips, 2017
encaustic on canvas, 30" x 30"

Mindfulness practices have been proven significantly effective for better overall health - lessening pain and stress, and heightening “mental and physical function."

“Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.” (psychologytoday.com)

“My approach to meditation is to try to achieve pure awareness,” says Mr. Scoppettone – who doesn’t call meditation part of his painting process, simply an integral part of his lifestyle - but whose description of painting sounds much like the state of pure awareness he has achieved for decades with meditation – “where you go beyond your thinking process and you leave your thinking process backstage, so to speak, as you shift gears – First gear is a state of pure awareness where you’re not thinking about anything and you’re totally in the moment. When I find myself agitated, that element of meditation becomes part of my psyche in order to promote the good things in life that come our way. That state of pure awareness is leaving all that trash behind.” Mr. Scoppettone, who turned 80 this January, and has only recently begun painting abstract works in addition to his museum-credentialed Post-Impressionistic career, claims that meditation is a huge contributor to his good health and mental plasticity. On his personal experience with the connection between meditation and physical and mental health, Scoppettone says: “I don’t have all the answers, but I know where to look for a few.”

James Scoppettone
Quiet Reflections, 2016
oil on canvas, 24" x 30"

James Scoppettone
Surfs Up (Blue), 2016
oil on canvas, 20" x 16"

If making art creates, for some artists, a psychologically-delicious, health-enhancing, all-encompassing present-moment awareness, can the viewer who feels a resonance with that art also tap into the physical and emotional benefits of the artist’s experience?

BEYOND COLLECTING

How much better to enhance your experience with your art than by being totally present before it and with it? As California painter Carrie Graber says, “A small price to pay”! Most of us who fall in love with a painting or sculpture feel an immediate kinship with the piece, whether it is color, line or narrative that strikes us. Sometimes, we feel an emotion like love; others, a need for acquisition, closeness and even embrace. But how about breathing that love in, embracing whatever one discovers of the artwork, and being so totally present with its mystery that you become able to consciously bring the peace of it into the health of your body and mind at will?

Some artists like painter Mark Gaskin, sculptor Paige Bradley, and myself consciously bring mindfulness practices like yoga (Gaskin), breathing exercises (pranayama breath work for Bradley), or meditation (me) into their studio process; others do not. “I do not intentionally bring mindfulness into my work process,” says Southern California painter Carrie Graber. “Although I consider the physical process of painting extraordinarily meditative. Maybe it creates a more expansive internal life…There's usually some manifestation of social abstraction, like a period of time I need to emerge from the painting head space. After prolonged studio time, verbal skills usually need a few days to bounce back, and real-time awareness...... well, that's always been a struggle! A small price to pay to see beauty in most things; that never changes.”

Carrie Graber
It's All Good, 2017
oil on canvas, 27" x 35"

“Mindfulness might best be described as a 'way of being' rather than a technique, but in psychological terms it can be taught as a technique to increase insight and alter our relationship with our thoughts.”1 (#ref1) Chloe Gallery sculptor Paige Bradley discusses times when her full awareness in her work has proven such an emotional immersion that she has transcended her physical experience: “I have been guilty of ignoring my body while I am in the creative zone. If I cut my finger, I find tape: scotch, masking, duct, and just tape it up. Once I had a broken leg. So I sat down to sculpt. I got so into it that several hours later I looked down and saw that my toes had become a dark purple color. I was supposed to elevate it I guess, and that is hard to do while sculpting. I forget to drink and eat sometimes. It’s ok. Many people who love what they do have similar stories. It’s a signpost that we chose the right career path and it’s easy for us to disappear inside of the happy and productive moments.

Paige Bradley
Blossom (Maquette)
bronze sculpture, 15" x 12" x 12"

“The way I engage in mindfulness is to do what I love! …My studio has no windows and so no passerby look in. I get no signal in my studio, so I have no Wi-Fi or computer or screens. I turn off my phone. I play an endless stream of music. The lights are bright and happy. The room is a constant 68 degrees which is comfortable but not 'sleepy' warm. I know where all my tools are so I don’t lose time looking for things. My counters and floors are generally kept tidy, so I don’t have to spend time clearing a space to create.” – Paige Bradley

Paige Bradley
Expansion
bronze sculpture

So, how do we build on the feelings of euphoria we already glean from our art? How do we bring mindfulness into the experience of viewing art? Do the artists’ practices have anything to share with us to that end? “I have been learning to set myself up for a healthy studio,” says Canadian painter Mark Gaskin. “I may have Yoga on a monitor in the next room. I constantly read from books that give me courage or break me down so that I can fit into the studio.”

Taking 5 with your ART

One of the most basic tenets of mindfulness is a daily awareness, and it’s been proven not just to bring joy, but even to heal. “In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn recruited chronically ill patients not responding well to traditional treatments to participate in his newly formed eight-week stress-reduction program, which we now call Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).” The practice has spread worldwide from hospitals to private practices, and involves daily meditations, breathing exercises, and practices to bring present-moment awareness and even enjoyment into even the most minute moments of everyday life, such as brushing one’s teeth.

“My inspirations come from everyday life. I don’t want a single event to pass me by that isn’t captured and analyzed as art-worthy and either kept or discarded. Now that I have two sweet children, those events happen frequently. I try to capture the essence of the moment and to celebrate the joy of life,” says Paige Bradley. “For example, this piece is called “Chapter Sweetness” and it’s a totem to my son’s playfulness (age 1-5).”

“On Mindfulness and how I measure it simply,” says Bradley, “Can you name things where time disappears for you? I can: Playing dolls with my daughter, throwing a football with my son, picking up seashells at the beach, cuddling with my husband, swinging on a swing, carving a pumpkin and decorating a Christmas tree, creating art and making stuff, even Legos.”

Paige Bradley
Ballet Femme

“I guess there are a lot of places where I can go to be in the moment and enjoy complete mindfulness. There are no thoughts of other obligations, nothing that pulls at me. I am present. I am awake, energized and happy.” – Paige Bradley

“’There’s waking up—dragging yourself around—and then there’s waking up,’ Kabat-Zinn says. Brushing your teeth, being in the bathroom—it’s all part of developing awareness, and you can build mindful habits around those…tasks.’”2 (#ref2) Leading us to wonder: If even brushing your teeth mindfully has been proven to foster better mental and physical health, how many additionally enriching benefits might we encourage within ourselves by use of our art, which already brings us so much joy and positive sensation?

Using these techniques plus an investigation of my fellow artists we love, I, the artist, assert that you, the viewer, can indeed build on the feelings of euphoria you already glean from the art you love, bringing a health-enhancing mindfulness into the experience of viewing art. Do our featured Chloe Gallery artists’ practices have anything to share with us to that end? “I have been learning to set myself up for a healthy studio,” says Gaskin. “I may have Yoga on a monitor in the next room. I constantly read from books that give me courage or break me down so that I can fit into the studio.”

Our conclusion? Treat yourself to a five minute retreat with your art! How about turning off the Wi-Fi for a few minutes a day, every day this week, to enjoy the viewing of the work in the same way as Paige Bradley enjoys making it? Or spare five minutes of quiet with your favorite painting in the morning - setting a timer, like Mark Gaskin, so you can build a “viewing meditation” into your waking ritual without worrying about being late for work? “Build a mindful habit”, as Mr. Kabat-Zinn says, around your artwork – try it every day for a week, and see how it feels! Experiment with the following steps:

  1. Take five. Grab a comfortable seat, and really look - don’t just glance at the painting: consciously decide to stop and make time to see it. Agree with yourself to turn off your phone for five minutes and do nothing else but look at the canvas or bronze before you. Be aware of your breathing, your posture, whether your shoulders are tense or relaxed. Don’t judge, just notice.
  2. Name your experience: Practice looking over the entirety of the canvas, appreciating not just the climactic moments of color or composition, but quietly running your eyes over the whole body of the piece – what colors and shapes do you see? Are there brush strokes? What else do you see? Really notice what is passing before your eyes as you caress the artwork with your sense of sight, and consciously give names to the things you are noticing – for instance, “thick paint”, “great sweeps of color”, “light reflecting on the curve of this brushstroke”, “The sculpture is smooth here, but not here”.
  3. Check in with your physical self, and be aware of the sensations in your body as you view the work – How is my breathing as I view this painting? What is the sensation in my shoulders, legs, hands, feet as I run my eyes, or fingers, over this sculpture? How is my heartrate?
“We should all be mindful of the elements we experience, if and when we can, as there's so much cross-pollination into other ones... Stimuli is important. We process and reflect everything we absorb. My way just happens to be painting.” – Carrie Graber
References:
  1. Mindful Staff, “Easing Chronic Pain with Mindfulness, A recent study demonstrates that Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is effective in easing pain symptoms.”, November 22, 2015, www.mindful.org, http://www.mindful.org/easing-chronic-pain-with-mindfulness/
  2. Mindful Staff, “Jon Kabat-Zinn: How to Make Your Morning Routine into a Meditation Practice (video)”, April 13, 2015, www.mindful.org, http://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-how-to-make-your-morning-routine-into-a-meditation-practice-video/
  3. “Mindfulness”, https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/mindfulness, “Mindfulness, Present Moment Awareness”, published 1991-2016, retrieved 2016 from www.psychologytoday.com, Psychology Today, © 1991-2016 Sussex Publishers, LLC; HealthProfs.com, © 2002-2016 Sussex Directories, Inc.
  4. “Mindfulness”, http://psychology.tools/technique-mindfulness.html, retrieved 2016 from psychology.tools
  5. The JAMA Network Journals, "Use of mindfulness-based stress reduction for chronic low back pain.", ScienceDaily, March 22, 2016, www.sciencedaily.com, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160322120023.htm