A Process of Self-Awareness

My Students at WSA
My Students at WSA

“One cannot expect to have influence unless, one can be influenced”. As I finish teaching this semester I can’t help thinking of this quote of Carl Jung. Teaching has not only allowed me the opportunity to relay my own views on art but has provided the rare opportunity to glean bits of wisdom from my students.

Teaching art is as abstract and as practical as it gets. One is called to be a keen observer before the model, noting the rhythm, anatomy, color, value and mood of the sitter. But one is also called to say what denotes a strong painting-that feeling for color and composition that signifies something unique, something that stands apart. This delving into these serious questions of what is the nature of a great work of art and how one goes down the path to pursue it is of the utmost importance. It is much easier to say that the sternocleiedomastoid muscle connects the head to the main body of the torso, providing a rhythmic link within the figure than to say this painting is calling for such and such a color because a feeling or intuition is leading me to sense this. The teacher needs to provide the link between these two paths of knowledge- a practical knowledge as well as a knowledge that must spring from within. In a sense, the artist-teacher needs to have the capacity to point the way down both paths.  And the student needs to acknowledge the paths and then find the route that is unique to their inner self.

This interaction between student and teacher is something that is no longer given its special status. In the past, one could only gain knowledge by coming under the apprenticeship of a master whether one was pursuing a specialized craft or philosophy. Today we read a lot. But this does not provide us with the connection we feel toward an individual where the interaction can be on an unspoken level. In the presence of a person,one can intuit more than one can say.  And what is unconscious can be given an opportunity to manifest itself.  It is this special feeling the teacher has for his or her student that allows for much of the passing on of knowledge. Many times when I was a student my mentor would intuit what I would need before I could even put it into words. He would automatically be able to present before me what was in my heart. This can only be achieved in an environment of trust and companionship.

But it is not only the student who benefits. In many ways the teacher, in the very process of relaying his or her own knowledge, comes to know themselves more intimately. When one is called upon to state “this is true”, then one comes to recognize the very road map one is on- it becomes conscious as in a mirror held before oneself. This consciousness can only benefit the teacher. But in this very act of recognition within the teacher, the student can gain insight into the creative act- the honesty with one’s self that is a necessary element of the pursuit.

In this intimate relationship between teacher and student, I have gained so many bits of wisdom from the combined experience of my students, experiences I could only have come upon through meeting and connecting with them. Their experience and insight become mine also. Creating is a struggle that takes place within and without. But it is in this struggle one comes to know oneself and the world more intimately. And when two minds meet at this intersection between knowledge and creation, one’s insight can be shared and affirmed, each joyful for this new clarity.

"My Fancy"

Portrait of Walt Whitman
Painting of Whitman by Eakins via Wikipedia

In Robert Creeley’s essay, Reflections on Whitman in Age, he reflects on Walt Whitman’s poem, “Good-Bye My Fancy”. It is particularly the word “fancy” and Whitman’s meaning of the word that Creeley muses on. “It’s a great word in itself, the contraction of fantasy: “c.1325, ‘illusory appearance,’ from O. Fr. fantasie, from L. phantasie, from Gk. phantasia ” appearance, image, perception, imagination,’from phantazesthai ‘ picture to oneself,’ from phantos ‘visible,’ from phainesthai ‘appear,’ in late Gk. ‘ to imagine, have visions,’ related to phaos, phos ‘ light.’ Sense of whimsical notion, illusion’ pre-1400, followed by that of ‘ imagination,’ which is first attested 1539. Sense of day-dream based on desires is from 1926, as is to fantasize…”  (Creeley,”On Earth“,2006,p.65)

How the meaning of the word has changed over time. It begins as a part of one’s perceptions- filled with one’s own power to bring something into reality, into the light of day and progressively degenerates to a mere day- dream of one’s own desires. I am particularly attracted to the idea of phantazesthai– ‘to picture to one’s self.’ Taking a feeling or an intuition or a perception about the world and presenting it back to one’s self and allowing it to stand as an image before one’s self as in a mirror- to see if we recognize it- is powerful. Does its  new, visible form stand as the perennial symbol of that hidden perception? Has this image, gaining material substance, come to light with a sense of accuracy and authenticity?  This interaction between an interior perception or feeling is an essential element of the creative life.

The Sufi writer, Ibn al-‘Arabi, speaks about the objective reality of the imaginal world. The imaginal world exist as an isthmus between two mirror images. One residing within the world. The other, existing beyond our present perceptions which can only be glimpsed at when one has either died or in a dream or reverie. This place of reverie brings one to the isthmus where one can look both ways, to the visible and to the hidden. The area between the two is where insight resides manifesting itself through images that have their own independent life. Through its sense of mirror image, what is internal finds its identification in an outward source, reflecting it back to one’s self. This is at the heart of ‘imagination‘.

Only through the process of  ‘picturing it to one’s self ‘ is the perception retained and given a body, an image, that can further be reflected upon by one’s self and others. The artist’s real struggle lies in this. Creeley concludes his thoughts on Whitman’s ‘fancy’ by stating that the poets job is to give an idea a body, a body that calls the present and reflections of the past together in a reverie of the moment. Memory is key- for it calls forth the impression with renewed intensity before one’s eyes. Whitman’s ‘fancy’ reveals a deeper power of mind than we care to admit about our ‘imaginings’. Creeley reveals, that ” ‘reality’ is the given imago mundi, the fantasy into which one is born. It’s where thought and sense find a way of meeting…” ( Ibid,p.65)

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