H O W   P A I N T I N G    H O L D S  M E
O N   T H E   E A R T H

by Leigh Hyams

Leigh Hyams is a painter/teaching-artist at UC Berkeley Extension, at JFK University,
at Esalen in California and at Atsitsa in Greece. A Fulbright Scholar whose work has
been exhibited internationally, she leads painting intensives and art tours in the U.S.,
Latin America and Europe for museums and universities.

Life changes when you paint.  All of a sudden you're somebody else, namely, your real self.  Your head changes.  Furniture doesn't matter any more.  And it's so sensual.  So private.  So demanding. You finish a canvas exhausted and exhilarated if it's a good one, but by morning it doesn't feel very important.  It's the next one not yet painted that you care about.  Worry about.  Can I possibly do it again?  Will I die if I don't?

Painting feels bigger than the universe.  It keeps expanding and deepening and if you follow it you expand and deepen.  It keeps you in unknown places where all you can do is work your way out. And work and work and work.  You work with your mind and chance and your muscles and memory but you have to stay on the edge of what you don't know, forgetting the rest of your life.  And when you're working well you really aren't there.  You're swimming blind underwater, and it's perilous to come to the surface for you might fall off the edge and into known things.

Just knowing that a sculptor bought a volcano to catch the light of the stars is enough to keep my mind from shutting down.  But painting is so hard it makes me tired just thinking about it this morning.  I'm writing this in the summertime in the northern Canadian wilderness.  In my studio tent down the mountain there's a five-foot canvas waiting for me to arrive and take up the battle again.  Four hours yesterday and five the day before were just the start.  I need to ride in there on a horse today, maybe wearing armor.  I love the red part on the left side, though.  It's quirky and bloody and painted well. The rest is a mess.

I could never stop working or teaching or thinking about art.  It's okay to go without drawing for a few days now and then but the thinking and feeling and seeing never cease.  Watching a bush plane take off the other day it occurred to me that what I was actually seeing was the changing wedge of space between the plane and the earth.

Looking out the window of this cabin right now I am plagued by the relationship of two spruce trees to the mountain across the lake.  My teacup casts a white reflection on the table top surrounded by dark shadow with soft edges.  My crossed feet make an angle related to the position of the wood stove and the reddish purple of the fireweed in that vase animates the whole room.  Anyone can see these things but only artists always do.

It's fun to sit in the woods with a bottle of ink and a stick and spend hours dipping and scratching on a piece of paper, drawing the feel of the trees, transferring.   Transferring what?  Does the forest enter the paper?  Through the stick or through me?  And how did it get inside me?  The trees are still in the earth.   So what are those marks on paper and why do they feel like trees?  A forest isn't 18 by 20 inches but mine is.  And where is Art in all of this?

I like drawing sounds with my eyes shut.  The other day I sat in a canoe in the middle of the lake with sketchbook, pencil and closed eyes, getting connected with the universe, feeling and drawing the gentle rocking movement of the canoe, the small licking sounds of the water, the jolt of a paddle being moved, sounds my down jacket made when I stretched my arm.  A seaplane taking off at the far end of the lake made a long wavering line which changed completely when it became airborne.  How do you make a distant line ? Listen to one.

A refinement when drawing the wind with closed eyes is to block out the sound and just draw the moment of impact as the wind touches your body.  It's amazing how inventive the wind is, circling, touching you with little puffs, brushing your body softly on the whole left side, nothing at all for a moment and then a smart little slap on the cheek.   When my pencil can make these marks simultaneously it feels as if I'm playing with the wind.  Once in a while I ride along with it.

When full to the brim with a landscape, an idea or an image, I explode into the drawing.    Completely focused, yet not focused at all, my hand and arm move rapidly across the paper's surface (sort of like the wind) circling, stabbing, thrusting, smearing, changing directions, crossing over lines, wiping areas with my other hand, sometimes drawing with both hands at the same time.  The awareness that the upper left corner needs more darkness doesn't quite have to surface.  The charcoal is working there before the thought arrives.

So why do I draw and paint?  At this stage it feels like I'll evaporate if I don't.   It's not only the core of my life, it's the whole foundation.  Or container.   It holds me on the earth.  It makes me closer to the world around me and inside myself.  My eyes constantly drink the shape of movement and light.  I hear and feel the sounds in the air.  I can draw the wind and the sound of chickens, paint with dust and ashes and vegetables as well as oils and acrylics - make paintings that may be a valid addition to the planet, or valid additions to some viewers' lives, at least.  But does that make any difference in the scheme of things?  Well, it temporarily makes me whole.

I never wondered if I were solving the problem of living by losing myself in art.   Art took me over before life did.  Any artist will tell you there are times when one must brush aside life in order to deal with art.  Truthfully, to most of us that's less painful than the other way around.

There's still the problem of alchemy and its role in the reasons an artist paints (or draws, dances, etc.) What happens?  How can a painter (me, on a good day) look at a banana, for example, and transcend it with a brush and yellow paint?  It doesn't have to be yellow and you don't even need a brush.  Once I set out to do 32 little ink drawings of a half-peeled banana.  To my surprise, they came out looking like a corps de ballet.  Was this alchemy, and when and how did it take place behind my back?   (I once met an artist who tans banana skins with myrrh and makes shoes out of them.)

Then there's that almost inexplicable specific moment when the painting is completed.   Sometimes you go out for coffee and find it's resolved itself in your absence. It's as if the canvas takes over from you and adjusts your thirty million brushstrokes, all the passion, perception, frustration, yearning, despair, exhilaration, sensitivity and damned hard work you put into it, saying okay, okay, click, and it separates itself from you.   It's finished.  It may even be marvelous.  The moment certainly seems like an act of mercy on the painting's part. Is this alchemy, magic, luck, knowledge or experience?  A mixture of all of them probably, but no artist can count on their constant availability.

It takes blind trust in the process, the abandonment of conventional logic, and immense courage to make a painting.

(excerpt from the manuscript of her new book:
"Turning On the Waterfall - How Painting Holds Me on the Earth")

You may write to Leigh Hyams at:  leigh_hyams@artsreal.com
or visit her website at:  www.artsreal.com


Leigh Hyams' previous odyssey:
'Some Talk About Making Art'

Leigh Hyams' workshops:
Drawing, Painting & Perception
Independent Projects
Mixed Media & Artists' Books
odyssey index page 
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