By Elise Crohn
As a painter, and an expressive arts facilitator for almost 20 years, I see the creative process as a shamanic act. A shaman is a tribal healer whose main duty is not to heal sick individuals within the tribe but to commune with the elements, land and creatures that support the tribe so that “right relationship” is maintained. Right relationship ensures the health of the entire ecosystem. While painting, images and colors come through us, move through our bodies out of our hands into the brush and onto the paper. These images and colors are strange visitors from strange lands – messengers, warriors, and gift givers. Like dreams and shamanic visions they have the capability of returning us and our tribe to “right relationship” among everything we are connected with if we allow their honest expression. Also like dreaming, painting is something that everyone already knows how to do – the only special skill needed is a willingness to surrender to the process, to honor what arrives on the paper.
On Tuesday night Monica, one of my students, paints a horse – timidly at first. She starts with only water on her brush outlining the shape. Then she risks white paint. Then some flesh color. Finally, ever more brave, she paints the horse a chestnut brown. The horse comes to life galloping through her world of sky, water and grass directly into a fire! Such wildness and freedom! The painter rigidly stands back from her painting, her lips pursed in scrutiny.
Does she see the magic that has just poured through her? Or will she let her mind steal that magic and mystery because it doesn’t meet some mental standard? I remember what my teacher has said to me and so many others, “looking and painting are two different activities.” I attempt to explain this to Monica hoping it will be useful, knowing that her image deserves her entire love.
It’s much easier to see the inherent beauty and depth in each of my students’ first paintings than it was in my initial paintings. I am awed by their willingness and by the risks they take. And then I remember all those painting classes when my teachers would say at the end “just honor yourself for the risks you took tonight.” Early on I though they were talking about everyone else, not me, or that it was one of those obligatory things that teachers say but don't necessarily mean. Gradually though, hearing those words of encouragement wore away the granite of my resistance and my trust in the process grew much bigger than my fear of it.
Now it is Wednesday morning. I am standing in my studio. The sun streams in the windows lighting up Monica’s wild horse. Christy’s buried copper woman, Lillith’s ocean and underwater tree, Steve’s searching bluebirds, Diane’s x-ray woman surrounded by scribbled words and Kyle’s tribe of women with moons in their bellies under a sky full of snakes.
I see so clearly that these beginning risks have come from the very heart of the Mystery, the limitless brave Creative Spirit within them that never dies, that always waits and is ready for the opportunity to light up a paper with galloping horses and wild brush fires.
And this is why I paint: to touch that Mystery and to be humbled and raised up at the same time. In every painting there are those moments when I am delivered to the door of the unknown and breathlessly step through the threshold as the surprising, possibly terrifying, always liberating, new image is allowed to pass through me onto the paper.
“OOOOHHH! I didn’t know that!” I exclaim inwardly (sometimes outwardly) as a messenger from beyond makes its way into my painting helping to paradoxically simplify and complicate the understanding I have of myself and the cosmos.
These images I paint are like lanterns, helping me to see into the dark, the dark fertile center of my own being and deep past of humanity into the collective unconscious. In these moments, sometimes blessed hours and days, when my mind surrenders and releases its oh so “serious and real” concerns about the paint, color, shape of lines, proportion and all the rest, what is left is awe. In awe I come into right relationship with everything around me, from the parts of myself and the images in my painting, to the humans and animals in my life, to the elements and the cosmos. In awe I am alive and new and naked.
To learn to live nakedly again, unashamed, is the greatest hope I find and practice through painting. As I practice this in painting I become more willing to stand in my naked truth in life – a revolutionary act that invites others to do the same.
May we all find tools, whether it be painting, meditating, yoga, dancing, gardening or walking in nature that help deliver us from the tyranny of a de-sacralized world view. May we use these tools to find a re-enchanted, re-wilded, re-sacralized worl within and without that hums and brims over with life, beauty, soul, passion and zest because it has embraced the humus filled darkness and Mystery of imagination, soil and womb. May we share these tools with each other ensuring the health and vibrancy of our tribe human, animal and elemental.