LETTER TO A STUDENT
( From a blog by Ben Haggard)
Interestingly, you speak of 'meditation', and being present. This is a practice that has been a part of my life for many years. Slowly I think they are beginning to blend into a state that is mine and guides my work, my working sessions. I have pretty much given up taking on projects, tasks or challenges. Rather, I am finding that if I can create the open space, the subject will find me, and more often than not, the 'how to'. It is very much a process of letting go. I look back and look at all the things I had to 'fight' with, and realize that the only real moments of success had little to do with me. Moments of grace where somehow I was not in the way of things happening.
I also remember a statement I found in the chicken coops of Leo's house at Chatearnoir written by an architect friend of his. The thrust was that Leo should have no concern with the finished product, with the end. That his only job was to stay present and devote himself to the good of the work at hand, the process. This was something with which I struggled for many years, always hoping for results that could justify the hard work and to a certain degree suffering that went into the whole task. In other words, what could satisfy my poor insatiable ego.
That was a lot of years ago, and I still find it the principal concern. I do believe I have made progress, but then I am not sure about anything at this point, because whenever my mind creeps in I have learned that I must distrust it, not believe a word it says.
What you write about time, and what you are after in the moment of work, takes me to lines in the Four Quartets about how evasive time is, how the present contains the past and the future. I have had moments in my work, or rather periods or phases of my work, where I seemed to be floating in a space that contained no time. At those moments there seems not to be room for error, because I don't seem to be doing much, just standing there recording something, some correlation between the colors on my palette, what is in front of my eyes, and the canvas or paper. I was able to find that most readily in the watercolors of many years ago. And more recently in oils where I sink into a work and a state where I really don't seem to be part of it, just sure that something in me knows exactly what to do from one stroke to the next.
This happened at a point for me in Memphis back in the 80s, and recently I have found it again in my studio in Florida, working, strangely enough, from a photograph. I guess it is the trance you speak of. But it is full of assurance - the absence of doubt, of struggle. And it can carry on over days, weeks and even months if I don't get distracted. More and more I find an increased dependence upon meditation not only before the work, but constant, ongoing. Flannery O'Connor called it the 'habit of art'. I would say, the habit of simply being present not only in the moment but in the work.
My process has changed. It used to be short, quick. Watercolors from less than an hour to a maximum of a couple hours. Oils, if they were to 'work', were a single session from an hour to a few hours, on rare occasions maybe a long 5 or 6 hour session (exhausting, those). Now there is just putting some time on a single painting, getting present. There is not really a beginning and not an end.
What seems important, I've found, is that each session end on an up stroke. I mean at a point where I feel deep inside that it is going well and could maybe go like that for a long time. I'm in the state, but it's time to go. Just so I don't end in a sentiment of frustration or struggle. Rather grace. never look back at the painting, don't look at it in between sessions. Then I can easily come back, sit quietly in front of it a moment and be right back in the flow. I think I got this many years ago from reading Hemingway's Moveable Feast where he describes writing in the cafes of Paris. How he would always quit when it was going well, so he felt anxious to get back the next day.
"Shortly after I posted my last blog entry, I received the following letter from Sam Bjorklund, my teacher at the Leo Marchutz School in Aix-en-Provence and an extraordinary painter. In it he expands on the role of 'presence' in his own artistic process"