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Grow Your Eyes

For here there is nothing that does not see you. You must change your life.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

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Maybe years from now, the fall 2014 class of Marchutz students will reflect fondly on this first meeting as the beginning of a transformative experience they have yet to understand, but the morning of orientation they were wide-eyed and full of questions: are we using oils or acrylics? is the walk to Marchutz really two miles? when do we start painting? “You’ll see,” said the fellows. The four of us enthusiastic alumni returned to this school on a hill for the privilege of assisting and learning here for free (i.e. without pay), so believe us, the next few months won’t be that bad.

At the head of the table in a sunlit room downtown, Professor Alan Roberts gave an overview of what the Marchutz School is all about. Although I’ve been through the experience – through the figure drawing, landscape painting, and portraiture, through my professors demands to letting go and look, through the trips to Paris, Giverny, Arles –  Alan’s words were not less but more palpable than they were the fall of two years ago. He made it clear that the way we’ll be studying art here may be different than they way students have studied art, or economics or literature for that matter, at their home universities. At Marchutz we don’t separate the liberal arts study of ideas from studio practice: our reading, conceptualizing and collective discussions feeds into our painting sessions, just as our experience painting feeds into our thinking. Nor do we separate students according to technical ability by putting the “beginners” in one room copying wooden blocks and bananas while the “advanced” students express themselves undisturbed in private studios. Nor do we separate the habits of art from the rest of life. We’re going to learn by mistakes and to discourage perfectionism we’re going to paint on cheap surfaces, and quickly – for sessions often of around 20 minutes each. We won’t concern ourselves with style per se, or about exhibiting our work (yet) but with seeing – with responding to the visual world unmediated by concepts; unmediated by what we think we know, by what we are supposed to know or by what we are told to think. We are going to learn to see things as they really are. And to see is a discipline.

John Gasparach’s comments in his introduction to 19th century art and Impressionism – a class that I took as a student and am now auditing as a fellow, because it was that good – were likewise refreshing. With his usual profundity, he explained to the class the value not only of studying Impressionism – including its artistic lineage and effect on the history of art – but the value of studying the unity of form and content in our analysis of paintings. “You may look at something and be terribly moved and not know why,” he said. Embodied in the form, that is the color, plasticity, line and volume of a work are ideas and thoughts and feelings, and ultimately, meaning, that is, the content. But to understand these takes time. The point is, he said, in opening your eyes to a work, is to have as deep and profound an experience as possible. And to see is a discipline.

No discipline is finished. In our introduction to the Marchutz Studio two miles away on the Route de Tholonet, Alan explained how he used to think that if you went to school to be an artist, you would leave school knowing how to do art and that was that. But do you think the published novelist, he asked, after she returns from a book tour, sits down confident that she knows what she’s doing? Heck no. A creative discipline, which is essentially one of seeing, involves the habit of getting to work free of the preconceptions about ourselves and the world that cloud our will and vision daily. So don’t judge your work while you’re working, Alan said. Judge it when you’ve got some distance in time and space. Just don’t let anything get in the way of your connection with your motif. Get out of your mind and work from your gut. Your best work may frighten you.

All this talk of not judging and letting go of preconceptions and getting out of our minds points to what Zen masters have called the beginner’s mind. This mindset of eagerness, perceptiveness and openness to what we see, smell, taste, feel, think is no less important for students as it is for teachers as it is for fellows. And it’s with this mindset that I begin the semester, as a beginner –  maybe a more articulate one with a better grasp as to what I’m getting into –  but a beginner no less.

For exhibit A in feeling like a beginner je te presente this morning, when we had our first studio class in figure drawing. And boy, was I rusty. But I could feel, in the parallel between my drawing two years as a student and my drawing today, a difference in openness that meant that even if my drawings made the model look like a monkey, they were more full of light and life than when I began the semester as an undergrad in 2012. All the same, it’s hard to get out of your mind.

Knowing this, about halfway through our drawing session John asked us to switch to our left or non-dominant hand, adding that he’d put on left hand music to accompany us. So he switched the CD in our Boombox from Bach to Django Reinhart. “Title this next drawing Django Reinhart,” said Alan, “I want you to feel the music.” And so with my mind open, my eyes on the model and my left hand on the pencil I let Django’s jazz guitar move its way into my feet, knees, shoulders, hands and onto the paper. Out came an expression of the woman’s figure reclining on the studio floor, the whole space alive with rhythm.

It’s good to be back.

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