Sunday, July 24, 2011

Considering Solitude

Heaven Can Wait 42x42" oil/cold wax on panel © Janice Mason Steeves
Still feeling the effects of my week long home retreat (how long can this feeling last?), I'm thinking about  solitude and it's place in the creative process.   In Paul Tillich's quote, solitude is the 'glory of being alone'.  Solitude is something you choose.  It's different than loneliness.

- In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone. ~Rollo May

As I went into my home retreat a couple of weeks ago, I had many people tell me that they just wouldn't be able to do a home retreat.  "Oh I wish I could do that", was a very common response. Several friends-many of them artists- told me that they thought I was courageous to be alone for a week.  Courage is not spending a week alone and unplugged. Courage is Harry Potter fighting Voldemort to the death. Courage comes from the latin word "cor" meaning heart, which is a common metaphor for inner strength. Courage is having your first solo art show.  Courage is changing directions in your work when you have no idea where you're going or how you're going to do it.  Courage is following your heart no matter where it leads.  Courage is choosing a life in the arts even though it may not pay the bills. It is not spending a week alone.

Ester Buchholz, author of The Call of Solitude, says that "Life's creative solutions require alonetime. Solitude is required for the unconscious to process and unravel problems.  Others inspire us, information feeds us, practice improves our performance, but we need quiet time to figure things out, to emerge with new discoveries, to unearth original answers."

She goes on to say, "The natural creativity in all of us-the sudden and slow insights, bursts and gentle bubbles of imagination-is found as a result of alone time.  Passion evolves in aloneness.  Both creativity and curiosity are bred through contemplation."

The retreat sort of re-booted my awareness of how much I need space or solitude to create.  Space that is created through unplugging and leaving long open-ended days.  I think that the 'rules of engagement' that I set for the retreat can be modified for daily use.  I guess the word is self-discipline.

Buchholz says, "Alonetime is a great protector of the self and the human spirit. Ultimately, we might follow the message of every practiced meditator, who suggests living each moment as a new moment, with greater sensitivity to one's thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. That is the real message of alonetime, and it is through that profound self-awareness, that inner aloneness, that our lives will flower".

Kafka said: "You need not leave your room.  Remain sitting at your table and listen.  You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet and still and solitary.  The world will freely offer itself to you unmasked.  It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet".  Or what about Picasso who said, "Without great solitude, no serious work is possible."

And then in the words of Gertrude Stein, "When they are alone they want to be with others and when they are with others they want to be alone.  After all, human beings are like that."

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Artist's Home Retreat

"Go instead where there is no path"  50x50" oil /cold wax medium ©Janice Mason Steeves 2011
"Language has created the word 'loneliness' to express the pain of being alone.  And it has created the word 'solitude' to express the glory of being alone"  Paul Tillich

My week-long home retreat was a much-needed refreshing break.  It ended on July 8th, which also happens to be my birthday. Friends came over to help me celebrate. A lovely way to close off the week.    I managed to follow all the guidelines I'd set up for myself: see my last blog post for the rules of engagement. I made the 'rules' to set the parameters of the retreat, to encourage myself to unplug as though I were on a small remote island for a week.

I didn't use the computer at all but kept daily notes in my journal of my experience and ideas and thoughts. The occasional twinge of loneliness in the first day or two didn't last long.  The creative juices were flowing in abundance in my studio. My focus was on being aware of an attitude of play.  As soon as I noticed that my mind became involved, the work tightened up and I became indecisive and tense.  I put the work aside, grabbed another painting and let the play continue.

Amazing to me, I also did a lot of cleaning jobs in my house and my studio.  I did that in my last retreat and it surprised me both times because those are normally jobs that I can postpone indefinitely.  On my hands and knees in a particularly grimy area of my laundry room, I actually thought I could hear my deceased mother-who loved housecleaning-talking to me over my shoulder, telling me how good I was to be doing all these cleaning jobs!  Thanks Mum. Maybe I was just spending too much time alone.  Anyway, I got some soap and water into many slightly disgusting corners of the house.  I have to think that because the retreat feels like such a nurturing time, that cleaning the house and studio have some connection with that.  I am cleaning out those corners that need work and making room for new things in my life.  I kept telling myself that.

The retreat truly did feel nurturing.  Not quite like going to a spa, but caring for myself in another way.  I was giving myself the gift of time, of space that expanded, away from daily responsibilities; meetings, appointments, emails and phone calls.  I continued to look after myself by going for long walks in the woods, making lovely meals for myself, including homemade chicken soup, which lasted me for the week and zucchini bread.  I painted for long hours each day and revelled in the freedom of ideas that seemed to flow.  Most evenings, I sat outdoors in my screened-in porch, reading or writing.

Feeling that my creativity seems to greatly increase during these retreats, it was so interesting that during this week, I heard an interview on CBC radio with David Strayer  a Professor of Psychology from the University of Utah.  He studies the effect of multi-tasking on the brain.  He talked about going on a week-long wilderness trip with several colleagues.  They decided to leave their computers and cell phones at home.  Strayer gave his colleagues a Remote Associates Task, a word association creativity test before they left.  After three days on the trip he gave the task again.  Their creativity scores increased by 45%.
After three days back at work, their results on the creativity test dropped back.  Strayer claims that we have better clarity of thought when we get away from technology and into nature on a regular basis.  Even walking in a park for 45 min/day has measurable benefits.

 As well as being in nature and unplugging, solitude is also a significant part of the creative process. It was glory to be alone.