Prima Harris: The Art of Straddling Worlds
Mere mortals stand in awe of artists. We marvel at the ability that these conjurers, these magicians, have. With charcoal, ink, paint or whatever medium, they manipulate line, texture, or tone to create the illusion of three dimen-sionality when there are obviously only two. They allude to movement when we know that a stroke once laid is rigid and unmoving. They even fool our eyes into seeing a non-existent purply brown just by placing a certain blue and a certain red next to one another.
The degree to which an artist is able to convince a viewer whether his idea is plausible or not depends on his ability to articulate his observation or his point of view. This ability needs to be supported by his skill as a draughtsman and technical know-how is requisite. However, there is a factor that lends integrity to a work of art that can sometimes circumvent a lack of skill; that is the sense of ease and flow that the piece exudes. This element comes about perhaps when the artist has completely surrendered to the very force that compelled him to create in the first place.
Often artists will say that some of their best paintings are the ones that came effortlessly, the ones that almost "painted themselves". What this seems to imply is that the artist simply let him or herself be the vehicle through which the urge to create was allowed to flow. For this to occur, he must set aside his identity as "doer", and in so doing, he sits right in the belly of, and becomes even more closely adhered to the creative force.
It is at this juncture that an artist steps into the realm akin to an active meditative state. Meditative because the self-conscious mind becomes quiescent and unperturbed, yet "active" in the sense that the artist's mind still engages in the specific activity of art-making, requiring him to make conscious decisions about problems to do with design, composition, perspective, etc.
Numerous studies have been done on the beneficial effects of meditation. Researchers have found that during meditation, brain activity shifts to different areas of the cortex. Brain waves in the stress-prone right frontal cortex move to the calmer left frontal cortex. This mental shift decreases the negative effects of stress, mild depression and anxiety. There is also less activity in the amygdala, where the brain processes fear. The resulting benefits to the heart, to the thickness of the arteries, to the digestive system, have also been documented.
If any part of the creative process is indeed like meditation, there must be something restorative and invigorating about it. Indeed studies have shown that creative work leads to positive mood changes, even if only temporary. This must partly explain the need the artist has to express his creativity.
Studies have also shown that negative affect (with accent on the first syllable) leads to greater creativity. For instance, researchers have found a significant correlation between depression and level of creative achievement, indicating perhaps that creative endeavor is a means by which one who is suffering could arrive at an understanding of their situation.
For artist Jan Crawford, it was her ordeal with Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 30 that propelled her towards a career in art. Throughout her illness, and with prompting from her sister, Lee (now a registered art therapist), she used art as a vehicle for healing. In her book, Art and Healing, an Artist's Journey through Cancer, she writes: "Flowers and windows, drawn in graphite and coloured pencil, collaged, pieced, and sewn together, became a visual vocabulary ... Windows seemed to speak to the duality of 'inner' and 'outer', to represent ... 'the light of life'. Flowers seem(ed) to express my fragile sense of life ... of rebirth the incredible transformation that I was undergoing. The images and their meanings were powerful in their ability to heal and reveal my inner life."
It isn't surprising given what we know about meditation and the studies done on creativity that art has a therapeutic effect and does play an important part in the well-being at least of the one who creates. In Jan's particular case, it led her to insights that were trans-formative: "I began to see my world with a crystal clear vision ... I could see the 'light energy' in the world around us. I could 'see' the web of emotions binding me to my friends and family ... I decided to take what was beautiful in what I had learned about people and life, and to let that beauty emanate from me. I would live that beauty and see only love."
Now, many years after her bout with cancer, Jan continues to make and teach art. Her experience has given her a solid grounding for why art is important: "I believe in art and its power to change the consciousness of people and the direction of society."
Perhaps this is why we stand in awe of artists. Like the shaman or the mystic, they straddle two worlds: the world that is and the world that is yet to be. They dip into, bring forth, and freeze-frame elements of our collective subconscious. They are indeed conjurers, as the result of their activity then becomes a part of our reality.
Jan Crawford is a Penticton native, and completed a Diploma in
Fine Arts from Langara College, a B.Ed (Art Major) from UBC, and a
BFA (Printmaking) from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and
Design. She paints acrylics on canvas, sculpts with clay, and has been
an active member of the Malaspina Printmakers Society since
1986. Her works are in the permanent collection of the Kelowna Art
Gallery, and can be seen at the Vancouver International Airport
and the Penticton Lakeside Resort. She is having a show this summer at
the Tumbleweed Gallery in Penticton, opening on August 15,
running until August 29.