Music. Art. Culture. Writing.
The Drawing Studio is a non-profit artist cooperative founded in 1992 in Tucson by Arizona artist Andrew Rush and artist friends. Its mission is to cultivate the skills of visual intelligence in people of all ages and walks of life through studio practice. TDS is now serving over 2000 students a year in courses and workshops offered by over 30 master teaching artists. Rush’s essays on the practice of art (of which this is one) have appeared for 13 years, one in each of the TDS quarterly newsletters. A selection of the essays will be published as a book available through The Drawing Studio in January 2011.
Each of us as human beings carries within us a perceptual presence that we sometimes call consciousness. To refer to this kind of inner awareness is a little like trying to explain air to birds or water to fish, that is, it is so much a shared medium that it is usually invisible to ordinary living. But in any serious art learning we must include an effort to understand what consciousness is, because it is central to the spirit of art.
What is immediately apparent about consciousness is that it is not an isolated ‘thing’ located only in single individuals. And whatever it is called among different cultures or peoples, it seems to be a kind of shared space of awareness that connects us with others in what we sometimes call community. As such, it is most revealed in our communications, especially through what we call our creative life.
Educating oneself to be creative only begins when one realizes “I have the ability to widen my consciousness through mastering and retooling the skills of perception in myself.” It is hard to get a handle on this realization without help, first because traditional education doesn’t deal with it, and second, because our available brain-space is mostly clogged up with our personal version of reality that I call a “trance,” a kind of living dream held in place by habit, cultural indoctrination, and fear of change. Each of us also has a personal set of ingrained living patterns that are designed to keep us in our trance with a program of producing pleasure and avoiding pain. I call this trance ‘the human condition’ and note that we are all born into it, without exception.
The truth of life, however, is that we are not dumped into a ready-made world that mirrors our trance. Creative Life begins the day we somehow manage to step outside our personal trance, even if only as a passing flash of recognition. Often that flash comes to us as a work of art, generated by seeing a play, a painting, or hearing a piece of music. For some it may be the experience of seeing a sunset or even falling in love. By whatever gift of grace it comes, from that moment, options for learning more about our deeper capacity for new awareness becomes a hunger that looks for new openings of learning.
Fortunately for us, most pathways that lead to a change in life are always physical. For example, once we grasp that the condition of our physical body/mind is largely a function of our trance habits, we can intervene with new practices of exercise, diet, meditation etc., to open a wider experience of wellbeing. In the same way, given that the brain is also physical, it too is responsive to new learning practices that help us dismantle our ready-made patterns so that our brain has new space to express our ‘self’ as a life force generator, rather than a passive consumer.
The curriculum for the Creative Life consists of seeking out and adopting such new learning strategies. There are many, often well outside conventional institutions. They are often rooted in awareness practices related to the larger field of timeless consciousness that both includes us as well as preexists us in time and space. These strategies often help us integrate many of the dilemmas of living in a seemingly separate inner and outer world. The field of study we call the arts is in fact an enormous repository of these learning strategies.
In my lifetime, I have found deep connections between my art practice and the many spiritual practices of the world, especially meditation. The study of the visual arts is one of the most effective pathways through the brain trances that bind us, in part because the visual cortex is our most active filter in continuously supporting the trance of our personal reality. Because our curriculum at The Drawing Studio trains our ability to observe, it challenges the trance, first by training the brain to distinguish between what I think from what I see, and second, by developing a capacity for empathy with life in many forms.
From visual art practice come several benefits: 1) it naturally awakens the context of quiet inner thoughtfulness (meditation) that no longer takes my view of life for granted; 2) it reveals my neighbor’s view of life as different but equally valid, opening conversations between us that often lead to new friendships and new enterprises; 3) as one learns to see a much richer visual world, a natural and deeper expression of participation in life awakens. This richer participation is sometimes expressed as ‘art,’ sometimes in other domains of life, like relationships, work practices, or a larger ownership that makes community a joy.
Let me end this essay with a few examples of how the Creative Life generates community. I had the experience a few days ago of stopping to look in a studio door to observe one of our teaching artists preparing for her students’ arrival, quietly arranging the lights, the chairs and visual environment, laying out materials, all with a consciousness of a thoughtful hostess preparing for guests. Not long after, I learned that one of our volunteer receptionists, kept busy by a steady stream of phone calls and visitors during her shift at the front desk, returned voluntarily the next day to complete a correspondence task rather than leave it to others. Then yesterday, as I was coming in the rear entrance to The Drawing Studio, I was greeted by a passing student who had stopped to sweep up the trash that the wind brings from the alley to our door.
To live the Creative Life is a continual demonstration that naturally expresses our experience of our larger self as part of a living and loving community.
Used with permission. © 2010 Andrew Rush