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Okanagan Arts

Culture and Community


An Ongoing Series of Lectures and Presentations that Celebrate the Creative Okanagan

Okanagan Institute
Thursday Express
5pm Thursdays
at the Bohemian Café

Click here for schedule
and information.


Arts Council of the Central Okanagan
Arts Council of the
Central Okanagan

100-1690 Water Street
Kelowna BC Canada V1Y 8T8
Email: Click Here.
Elke Lange, Executive Director
Telephone: 250.861-4123

Produced in association with the
Okanagan Institute


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Okanagan Arts: Summer 2008

Karen Close: The Art of Art Awakening

In 2000, Harvard Med School graduate Dr. Gene D. Cohen published The Creative Age about the importance of creativity in the second half of life. In 2005, he released clinical research proving that adults who pursue creative outlets improve the health of all bodily systems. These discoveries are presented in his book The Mature Mind. Last November 21st the CBC radio program, "The Current" presented an overview titled The Creative Brain. The program presents this research and explains how, after about the age of 45 and into the late 70s, exercising the right brain through creative activities builds new brain cells called dendrites. These branch-like extensions of neurons facilitate communication between brain cells. Cohen calls creativity 'chocolate for the brain' and likens the effect on the brain to putting the brain into all wheel drive, where both the left and rights side act together in problem solving and in making our bodily systems perform better. The success of expressive painting programs was heralded. Unfortunately, the program concluded with statistics to indicate that Canada is 20 to 30 years behind other developed nations in promoting understanding of the important role the arts can play in healthcare. Our socialised medicare has impeded the inclusion of alternative medical practices. As Canadian communities move towards integrating the arts into healthcare, at the individual level and within institutions, the health of our whole culture will improve in ways we can hardly conceive. Opening to our creative urges requires opening our hearts and releasing the deep sensations that spring from our hearts. Exercising one's creativity is as important as exercising one's body. We all need to become HeArt Fit.

I have been a proponent of the arts in healthcare for a long time and have been an avid reader of those medical practitioners who recognize that our health will improve when we take responsibility for integrating creativity into our health regimes. In 2003, Vancouver Dr. Gabor Maté published When The Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress. In this he asserts the need to "value our own creative self ... The gods, we are taught, created humankind in their own image. Everyone has the urge to create. Its expression may flow through many channels: through writing, art or music, through the inventiveness of work or in any number of ways unique to all of us, whether it be cooking, gardening or the art of social discourse. The point is to honour the urge. To do so is healing for ourselves and for others; not to do so deadens our bodies and our spirits." Maté notes the words of Hans Selye: "What is in us must out, otherwise we may explode in the wrong places or become hopelessly hemmed in by frustrations."

An associate of Maté's, Dr. Gelmon, adds: "A search outside where the light shines will not yield us the key to health: we have to look inside where it is dark and murky"

Maté continues: "Health also resides in knowing that: The second great affirmation is of the universe itself - our connection with all that is. The assumption that we are cut off, alone and without contact is toxic."

HeArt Fit sessions lead participants to open to their creative urges and enjoy spontaneous process painting where the act of painting is the focus rather than seeking a product. Almost since my arrival in Kelowna I have been an eager advocate for supporting creativity and have been fortunate to find others who share my enthusiasm. In particular art therapist Cori Devlin, who founded the ArtWorks studio at the Canadian Mental Health Association. She and I have been eager to share the benefits of an expressive painting program with the community at large. That opportunity was given us this year by Tracie Ward, director of the Rotary Centre for the Arts. To us this seems the perfect venue because as we encourage others to feel their creative urgings they can see the wonderful facility we have within our community in which to pursue arts interests. The intent of HeArt Fit is to encourage all participants who wish to, to share their areas of creativity with the group. There is a drop-in fee of $5 to cover rental of the studio and participants bring their own supplies. Those of us who lead the sessions do not charge.

I think I became what some call obsessed about nurturing the creative power within myself when I was rather young. Fortunately, unlike many, my memories can't pinpoint any specific incident of trauma, when I was told by a teacher to "Listen, here's how you should/must make art." Nor, was I ever applauded for my talent and so because I was never too rebellious, I was allowed to be and find my own way. That has been a gift. I still believe the self directed path is the best. In nurturing creative expression, I believe free expression should be encouraged first before learning techniques. Unfortunately, many still remain unaware that as Dr. Maté notes: "Everyone has the urge to create. We need to tune into our unconscious urgings and accept them, not judge them. After experiencing the joy that comes from authentic expression creators are more motivated to learn techniques to better express what they want to communicate."

I was a teacher of English and Art for twenty seven years and a strong proponent of experiential learning. I loved teaching in the expressive arts. Synchronicity seemed to guide my career and I was given many unique opportunities to further my training and my understanding of the role creativity can and should have in our culture. My success with what the system calls 'at risk students' taught me how a student learns self worth when the uniqueness within is allowed to emerge through unconstrained personal creative expression. Because I valued my students' ideas and the products that evolved from these ideas, they developed a loyalty to me and their success in my program. Their increased self esteem brought about real change in how they performed in other areas. I learned from this.

In my beginning years, high school art teachers did not hold Fine Arts degrees, because the programs were not yet in universities. Teachers developed curriculum according to their own training. I had studied Carl Jung in psychology courses and valued his views on the role art should have for an individual. My teaching was guided by his words: "The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves."

As I became more trained in Canadian art history I saw a connection with Jung's words and the 1930's Canadian Art Movement who called themselves The Automatistes. These artists sent out a call to all those who believed that: "... the living quality of art is based on imagination, sensitivity, intuition and spontaneity as opposed to conventional proficiency ... membership in an academy is merely a consolation for having died during one's lifetime." The spirit of these words appealed to me and to my students keen to experience meaningful living. I thank Carl Jung and The Automatistes for guiding me to teach from the perspective that making art should be playful and originate from within because the seeds are within each of us waiting to be released. I lament how attitudes towards the arts have developed and that recent centuries have institutionalised art, by establishing academies with rigorous rules and then preserving art in galleries. This institutionalising infers that art is about products made by special people with special talents for both creating it and explaining it to others. Individuals have lost touch with their innate intuitive healing source and have been taught to believe that in order to understand or practice art one needs to be taught its special language. I have always believed art is the language of the heart whose voice is paramount to self discovery and inner peace.

I delight that this position is deemed to be synchronistic with spiritual awakening and the proliferation of new books urging us to consciousness. Getting particular recent attention is A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle. I found it interesting to note that after growing up and training in England, Tolle has chosen to relocate to Bowen Island, British Columbia. I always try to be alert to connections. My Canadian art history training caused me to see synchronicity with Tolle's decision and that of Canadian artist Frederick Varley whose work was recently exhibited at the Kelowna Art Gallery. Varley had significant influence on the Vancouver art scene in the 1930s. He was trained in England, immigrated to Toronto, but then chose to relocate to Vancouver and teach art at what is now the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. In a tribute to Varley, painter Jock (JWG) Macdonald, whose portrait was in the KAG exhibit, says, "Varley was the artist who laid the foundation stone of imaginative and creative painting in British Columbia." For Varley, the province allowed a pursuit of connection and understanding to which he attached a special mysticism. Varley in correspondence to a friend in Halifax wrote: "British Columbia is heaven ... It trembles within me and pains within me with its wonder as when I was a child I first awakened to the song of the earth at home. Only the hills are bigger, the torrents are bigger. The sea is here and the sky is vast; and humans little bits of mind - would clamber up rocky slopes,
creep in and out of mountain passes, fish in the streams, build little hermit cabins in sheltered places, curl up in sleeping bags and sleep under the stars ... I often feel that only the Chinese of the 11th and 12th century ever interpreted the spirit of such a country. We have not yet awakened to its nature."

This is how Varley saw this province. I hear a challenge in those words. So did his student, Jock Macdonald, whose abstract works pursued the belief in the connections between spiritualism and painting that he was taught by Varley.

In 1940 MacDonald gave a lecture in Vancouver titled Art and Its Relation To Nature. Remember the words of Vancouver Dr. Gabor Maté six decades later stressing the importance of accessing art and nature into our beings. Mac-Donald explained to an uneasy audience that "nature is not just visual appearances but a whole universe of unseen forces governed by geometrical and mathematical relationships. The lesson of science is that what the senses tell of reality is only an illusion of reality and the artist who paints only surface imitations will miss nature's full truth and fail in his expression of inner spirit ... Art has no choice but to be progressive ... Consciousness is always in a state of change, and with changes in consciousness must come changes in art." Like that 1940's audience many today, 68 years later, still struggle with seeing art making as the tool for seeking consciousness and health. HeArt Fit hopes to change that by awakening participants to listen to their inner urgings and to discover the automatic process within.

To steer his students in this direction Macdonald also taught Automatism. Automatic images are created by staying present and observing what is developing in the painting, releasing control and intent so that the creator is being guided by the eye of contemplation, often called the third eye. That eye is guided by intuition, imagination and sensitivity to what is evolving in the present moment within the work and by allowing spontaneity to operate within the work. Images are created by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. I call this spontaneous process painting. The eye of contemplation works best when the eyes of flesh and the eye of reason ­ those ideas we identify as knowledge ­ are closed.

Creating automatic images is about staying in the present and allowing. This is the core message presented by Eckhart Tolle. I was delighted that after experiencing several sessions of HeArt Fit, one of the participants emailed me that she had just finished reading Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth. She said "so much of the last half of the book is the process of what you're teaching us to do through painting. Painting in this way is the tool to understanding his message and discovering consciousness. In particular she noted the following quotes:

"When you are in inner alignment with the present moment, your actions become empowered by the intelligence of Life itself"

­ Tolle

"The surrendered state of consciousness opens up the vertical dimension in your life, the dimension of depth. Something will then come forth from that dimension into this world, something of infinite value that otherwise would have remained unmanifested."

­ Tolle

"If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, it turns into fear. If it is perfectly acceptable, it turns into increased aliveness, alertness and creativity." ­ Tolle

"The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise" ­ Tacitus

"When something difficult happens ... you either resist or yield. Yielding means inner acceptance of what is. You are open to life. When you yield internally, when you surrender, a new dimension of consciousness opens up. If action is possible or necessary, your action will be in alignment with the whole and supported by creative intelligence, the unconditioned consciousness which in a state of inner openness you become one with. Circumstances and people then become helpful, cooperative. Coincidences happen. If no action is possible, you rest in the peace and inner stillness that comes with surrender. You rest in God." ­ Tolle

Each session of HeArt Fit ends with the joyful expressions of creators who are being awakened to the discoveries of seeing through the eye of contemplation and feeling in harmony with the universe.

I think we're in a very special province at a very special time. I've pointed out that significant minds and artists have seen this potential in the past. My hope is that HeArt Fit will help those who are open to
evolution to manifest that potential now. I am devoted to reading about culture, creativity and how these relate to the healthy wholeness of individuals and hence society. In my very depths, I know this must be the foundation of a community's cultural mandate. Culture must be a mirror into which we look to find ourselves. It seems no coincidence that there are also so many 'wellness' facilities emerging in our community, but equally as important, I know we all need to become HeArt Fit. I believe it is our responsibility to the future to unleash our own creative potential and to share creative enthusiasm with today's youth. This is the theme of Okanagan Arts: "Show Me. Inspire Me. Teach Me. Include Me." Our adult generation needs to plant the seeds so that youth will have a better understanding of creative inspiration. This is the understanding that will develop minds which will solve the problems of today and take humanity into a better future. Awakening to Your Life's Purpose requires discovering and exercising one's responsibility to nurture creative expression in ourselves and in our youth so that A New Earth will be created.

Karen Close is an artist and writer, a former schoolteacher, and the author of Unfinished Women: Seeds from My Friendship with Reva Brooks, and the editor of Spirit of Kelowna.

Wild Blue Yonder at Thursday Express