I often share a story with my students about the evolution of one of my favorite paintings. It’s a story about persistence despite misgivings. It’s a story about staying in the conversation even when that conversation is not going well FOR A VERY LONG TIME. And it’s a story about having faith that the questions one is trying to explore have their own timeframe for opening. It’s the story of a painting called Hiver (French for winter).
Hiver began in 2013. At the time, it was the largest piece I had attempted. It represented a pretty substantial leap from 18” x 18” paintings. In its first iteration, it was entirely black. Essentially, I tried to take a painting that I had successfully executed at 12” x 12” and enlarge it. Up close, the lush, graphite-covered surface was complex and rich with texture. But viewed at a distance, it simply looked like a black painting. I left it leaning against the wall for months, trying to figure out what it needed.
Eventually I divided the painting in two, incorporating green paint and different shapes. The horizon line offered something in the way of improvement, but didn’t satisfy me and the color felt cold and harsh. I struggled to understand the way the meaning of the original work had shifted in my attempt to resolve it. Perplexed, I turned it around to face the wall of my studio. I felt like giving up. It had already consumed too much of my time and resources.
The painting stayed like that for the next two years. Periodically I would turn it around and study it, asking myself what it was missing. But each time, I felt inadequate to answer those questions. The painting was becoming a signifier of what I wasn’t yet capable of as an artist. It was a reminder of my shortcomings. And I didn’t like that feeling.
Several times I came close to throwing it away. Of course, throwing a 36” x 36” painting “away” is not the easiest task in the world. It would require carrying it to my car and driving it to the transfer station twenty minutes from my studio. And so, it remained in my studio, facing the wall, tucked behind other paintings that had not given me as much trouble.
In 2017, while teaching a workshop, I was observing one of my students paint when something caught spark inside me. Her strokes were soft, gestural, uninhibited. Though she was working on small panels, I recognized immediately that this looseness was what was missing from my work. I wasn’t able to get into my studio for another week, but the vision stayed inside me. I turned it over in my mind, considering it, planning what I would need.
When I was finally able to get to my studio, I placed the painting on my table and began. Using a 6'“ brush, I applied loose, gestural strokes. Graphite lines and marks flowed naturally. I turned the dial all the way down on my knowing and my planning, and let myself feel the painting. It was almost as if I heard what it wanted and in this space I was able to respond.
Athletes often describe the experience of flow or being in the zone, a mental state of mind in which one is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus. That was my experience that Sunday morning in my studio. When I was complete, the painting was complete too. I leaned it against the wall and stared at it. It had taught me such a valuable lesson. How not to give up. How to have faith in that which is at work inside us. And the rich and infinitely rewarding value of failure.