Paintings of Nothing

February 19, 2018

I recently began teaching an after-school art program at the YMCA here on Martha's Vineyard for children in kindergarten through to 5th grade. We had a new group of girls join the program last week, so I asked the boys to explain and show what we had been doing in the previous class. As usual, a child will always be able to present an idea much more wholly than an adult, and this was no exception. 


One of the boys said, "We were doing Paintings of Nothing," and showed the girls how to simply just paint - with no subject, no form, no nothing in mind. In this way, the paintbrush, pencil or piece of charcoal is seen as an extension of your hand, arm, and body. The most important thing is to allow the movement, however subtle, that we all have inside us, to come out.


This, let us say, "inner" movement is not characterized by patterns, but by free brushstrokes that are usually circular, or rounded in some way. These curved, twirling, spiraling motions are the fundamental essence of human movement - there are literally no straight lines in our body & all joints articulate with some degree of rotation - so it makes sense that when we paint freely, we paint with circular gestures.


Yet, as a culture the way we move, and indeed our ability to, is increasingly restricted. Just at an age when the whole human instinct is to move, a child is forced to sit at desks for hours in school, a prelude to an adult's work life in the office. Many of us no longer have a sense of what it feels like to really move freely, reasons ranging from birthing trauma, to sitting for hours, to the popular music of today, for the most part, restricting us to a solely linear up-and-down back-and-forth type of motion.This linear motion has become part of our culture's mentality it seems, so opportunities to remind ourselves and reconnect to a free, and more natural way of moving are all the more essential. And art, especially if created with this specific intent, can have an important part to play in this. 


So these Paintings of Nothing, for instance, have the potential to facilitate flowing inner movement, which when externally expressed also have the additional benefit of revealing to others, and ourselves, our inherent creativity, which has nothing to do with acquired skill or talent. It is more a suggestion of gracefulness, possessing a soothing, yet dynamic, quality and femininity, which according to the Japanese aesthetic principals of "Wabi-Sabi" can be a powerful medicine for a more harmonious way of being in relationship with Nature and each other. 


Two other Japanese concepts come to mind in relation to my student describing this art as Paintings of Nothing. The first, is "Mushin", which is the essence of Zen and Japanese martial arts, and literally means "mind without mind". It is more commonly known as the "state of no-mindedness" where the mind is not fixed (or occupied by any thought or emotion) but is always in the state of flowing. For when it stops, the flow is interrupted and it is this interruption that is injurious to the well-being of the mind, and in the case of the swordsman, it means death. 


This concept of "Mushin" is also identical to the Japanese metaphorical expression "Mizo no Kokoro" or the "mind like water" which refers to a mind in harmony with our environment as inspired by the very nature of water. This is not only a mental attitude, but a feeling attitude,  for "kokoro" in Japanese means heart/mind. The implication is that our emotional life (of the heart) and our rational life (of the mind) are intertwined and not separated as we tend to distinguish between them in the West.

Both these concepts promote a natural way of moving in relation to nature and each other, and can be incorporated into our art, so that by moving more freely, and thus thinking and feeling more freely, we can ultimately foster a more nurturing relationship and feeling of interconnectedness with our community and environment.


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