Karen Laub-Novak: Writings
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Art and Mysticism Are a Journey
New Catholic World, June 1973
© Karen Laub-Novak

Art and mysticism are a journey. Both draw out the imagination, our sense of community with others. Both are attempts to live out of more than our heads alone. Both are attempts to better understand our instincts, emotions, senses; to live our lives with greater insight; to interpret our experiences and act rather than to be held captive by indecision, passivity, fears, inhibitions; to develop an expanded and awakened consciousness. Art and mysticism involve awakening, as Zen Mysticism says, "to the self before we were born." Both begin with experience, not with concepts, and both lead us through deepening stages of awakening, reflection, practice, discipline- through darknesses and union. Their aim? Acting, responding, being vulnerable. A losing of the self in the true self.

A journey into the self and outside the self. A journey to the center of the soul and at that moment a joining of the outer and the inner life.

* * *
Sounds of TV's Seasame Street. Incessant children. "Can I call a friend?" "Can I call one too?" Baby beginning to scowl in anticipation of her fifth meal of the day. The five and the seven year olds have more social life than I do. And more time for quiet, but they like to fill their "quite time" with friends and games.

* * *
For three weeks I've been putting off writing this article. To shift from painting images to writing words is difficult. Each word awakens different memories, ideas. (We take for granted the words but not the relation to the long history of each of us.) Each person responds differently to each word, because of personal experience. We're too easily taught in school to over-value words. The child begins by understanding gestures, sounds, touches --- understanding us by the set of our faces, the tone of our voices. Our memory reaches back to before we could talk.

The pre-school child's emotions are often more intense than an adult's. The healthy child from the moment of birth craves experience; seeks to explore her world and to learn to respond. She expresses her knowledge without words. Each word seems to freeze experience. Each seems inadequate to experience.

* * *
Pages of notes, short jottings, are beginning to accumulate in the kitchen, in the living room, in the studio, under the bed. Each word or two catching a fleeting idea. Each trying to reflect in a small way one of those experiences we all know, quickly forget, and are destined not to describe. Moments of insight and creativity caught up in our own history. A life-time of symbols lived and inherited from church, family, school, friends, nation. A fleeting time of union. A response to a word, idea, person, momentary awe at beauty or terror in nature. A moment of "I know." "I understand." Then the moment passes or is cut short by outside necessity: the phone rings.

* * *
Religion and creativity are stages of experience. I cannot talk about the "meaning" of my work but I like to talk of the experiences surrounding it. Slides of the work in process. Ideas cherished, books read, floating on the edge of the experience. The problems of practical life; children, women's lib, cups of coffee, the clutter that comes from a household of children. Inspiration is fragmentary. So these notes will be fragments of reflections, like that interior process that seems at the center of both religion and art.

* * *
To surround the experience as if I were painting. Adding a line here, a color there. Finding a fantastic blue that with over enthusiasm is then - maybe wrongly - adding to other paintings. Feeling those happy accidents of dripping paint, smudges caused by a leaky studio ceiling, planned and accidental. Certain color changes grow, or are eliminated. Step back, pursuer with delight, turn canvas to the wall for months in the indecision. One shape suggesting a whole new painting. Fragments of images, colors, lines gradually defining themselves from corner to corner pulling themselves into focus. Beyond conscious decisions.

Yet, decisions being made with every adding and taking out of line and color. A continuity to the whole piece but a continuity that only dreams and hidden memories can decipher.

* * *
Words don't express the awakening of creative experience. An experience valued by few. I try to talk about it. I feel this experience is one of shared humanity. Simple and fundamental in all of us. Talent varies. Commitment varies. The sheer guts to continue on with an activity that seems "unessential to progress" varies. But insight, inspiration, creativity are at the center of all of us. The rising and falling of the spirit are our common heritage, our common goal.

I cannot talk about the "meaning" of my work - but the process. The decisions, the quiet, the discipline, the will. Rituals of acting and thinking. Sometimes similar to those of contemplatives of the past. And I see now certain recurring themes in my work - death, flight of the Spirit, "Winged Shades," rites of passage, isolated figures suspended, floating, hanging, stripped to the muscle. It is religious work in the sense it reflects the struggles of the spirit.

* * *
That early imperative to learn words; to explain, analyze, categorize. To learn words at the expense of the imagination. The young child understands inspiration. Given the opportunity the child expresses knowledge or emotions, without words. The child records the emotions of her/his life with private images and symbols. The child has a delight in things for their own sake - a delight in line, color, not for what she can make with them, but simply as line and color.

Later, as he or she begins to use images, the meaning is still personal and private. The sky is red, the tree is purple, the dot in the corner is his sister and his mother is ten times taller than the tree. Each line, color or image is real and immediate to him.

As the child grows older, verbal values begin to dominate her world. The fantasy images of her past experience retreat into the unconscious and only rarely become conscious in her dreams. Material essential to her creative and religious spirit is neglected.

* * *
Berdyaev said: "Indeed I never could understand a book of any sort other than by bringing it into connection with the experience through which I myself was living." How good it made me feel to read that. What relief.

* * *
How often we have been told if you can't say it you don't know it. But there are "unsayable" experiences. Knowledge without words adequate to describe it. An interior knowing in the act of making.

* * *
This is not to deny words. Reading so often releases the spirit. We find a common bond with someone from the present or distant past. Certain writers seem to reveal to us what we have known, felt, but could not describe. A sensitivity to using words is a special talent - developed with great care - each layer of meaning sensed in a single phrase. Reading so often expands our awareness. Takes us outside the narrow limits of our own immediate consciousness - opens us to another understanding of evil, as Dostoevski does.

* * *
Reading Mircea Eliade last year showed me that many themes of my own work are ancient, proved to me I'm not alone: dreams not quite conscious, winged figures, shades, shadows from the past.

* * *
We've learned to keep the unconscious in check; learned to deny roots and moments of our past. We no longer understand how to move our consciousness with fidelity to our own nature and to our community. How to be both individual and part of a people. Mircia Eliade has said that the man without imagination is cut off from his soul - lacks interior life. I would add that the man who is cute off from his roots, from his traditions, from his community is cut off from his soul.

* * *
Mystical and artistic impulse is a search which is not passive reflection, or withdrawal. It is active, it moves away from the isolated ego.

* * *
Creativity touches the sources of suffering we share with all persons. Are we here to put in time? To live out our lives with diminishing insight and dignity? To face death with fear, frustration and the dissatisfaction of things undone? Hoping our children will fare better than we? For them only a better material life, the gifts of the Spirit forgotten?

* * *
Berdyaev says creative energy is increasing energy. Not energy which merely rearranges itself. Yes. But creative energy can decrease with in=activity. In the activity we find more energy. We cease working, then find it more difficult each day to begin again. Being dragged down. Diminished energy. Depression. When the world of necessity becomes too strong and we don't "make" the time to create.

* * *
Inspiration is the awakening.

Imagination is the seeing of new connections, the hidden bonds between things.

A moment of discovery comes from - anything. It sets off imagination - seeing new ideas, images, connections. It awakens the unconscious. Fears and inhibitions swamp the work of insight. Layer and layers of filters, thicker over the years. Shielding us from pain but also from joy.

* * *
The first impulse of insight is quickly lost. Fleeting, momentary. How do we release and nourish these moments? Self-doubt strangles inspiration.

Inspiration is a second effort. Inspiration comes through doing. The first impulse may have disappeared. The second waits in the medium; painting, praying, cooking. In playing with a child, making, doing, working with hands or minds. A conversation between us and the medium begins. One color suggests another. One line leads to frantic activity in another corner of the canvas - or maybe to start another painting. Step back, look at it - upside down to rid it of details and content. Be present to the color, nothing else. Don't judge it. Absorb the tender movement of the brush through your fingers. The feel of the brush with paint moving over rough canvas - awakens memories without words, lost scents, feelings of anger, loneliness, tranquility. Each stroke, feeling, memory, connected somehow to a whole that seems to extend to the ancient past. Suspended in a dark emptiness through eons - and present to the smells of paint, turpentine, glue.

* * *
The inspiration increases the more it is acted on. But to begin the work is painful. Not to work is more painful. A ritual, a regular time, aids the birth. Easy to put off until tomorrow. When the ritual is broken it's difficult to begin again. To open the studio door, turns on the heaters. Dawdle over my coffee, put dishes away; a friend says, "She does a lot of milling around." I mill around the studio, too. Not really cleaning up the clutter but rearranging it. Pencils need to be sharpened. Brushes cleaned. Move the painting around. Look at it backwards in a mirror, upside down. A ritual dance, you might say. Afraid to paint over good parts of a painting, I too often begin new ones. I feel much freer on an empty canvas. There are fewer decisions to make: fewer questions to ask. And so it begins. When the paint is finally on the brush the verbal part of my mind separates. I begin to feel immersed in the activity. Michael and I need separate radios. His is quiet music to release words. Mine insistent and loud. It seems to say don't think - just act - don't analyze or think - just paint. The rhythm of the music creates a world, surrounds the room, isolates it; creates a "silence." Silence is at the heart of noise.

* * *
Intuition and discipline. Seemingly contradictory? Mystics so often speak of discipline, asceticism, preparation. Freedom through detachment?

Discipline not of tee senses, not a series of "ought nots," not fears or repressions, not a series of filters that stiffen action, not a discipline of the body to achieve a more "spiritual" reality. But rather a discipline that insists upon action, strong commitment, a strong sense of critical judgment. Discipline - not as a forced authoritarian restriction imposed from without by orders. That does not aid the development of our own sense of limits and powers. But from within, guided by "masters of the past," seeing the ways others have gone and seeking our own inner mansions. Inspiration and insight develop not by verbal understanding or by reading, but by doing. Finding our own way, our own schedule. Any skill requires preparation, repetition; work, exercise to develop the mind and the emotions. The master woodworker over yars of experience learns the touch of his wood; how to handle his tools with perfect delicacy; how to deisn a cabinet according to the beauty and the naturalness of the wood he has.

He was an apprentice and is now the master. And for those who care he can share what he has learned over the years. The years are necessary. Days and days of work are necessary. That is the discipline.

* * *
Intuition deepens with preparation, reflection, action. The mystic and the artist go through long preparation and "detachment." Ascetism is not freedom, but may lead to freedom. Ascetism is not a shutting down of instinct but a release. Acknowledgment of our rage, anger, fear, love. Release from our individual self too attached to our anger and fear. Release by accepting.

Two disciplines: one of technique - a discovery of all the ways a pencil works, from it flows how many possibilities, how many ways of making marks. Sheer technique.

And a discipline of self - and attempt to "unclutter" our experience so that we can focus on what is important. What out of all our experiences shall we value? Selectivity takes place both in our personal commitments and in the creative act. Each choice we face is not of equal value. For me time with the children is more important than trips, clothes, shopping. I learn from their experience, relive my early inner life. I like them to work in my studio cutting paper, painting.

* * *
Our lives are cluttered with non-essentials. Our energy squandered, distracted. Too little activity of compassion, listening, sharing. We don't listen to our inner voice. A voice that doesn't speak in the language of words. A voice we've not been trained to hear. How explain how the self speaks silent to the self?

* * *
Inspiration enters in a time of solitude, silence. We have few masters, few guides to the way of silence and contemplation. How do we gather to us these moments of silence and not deny the needs of others? The silence and reflection of the mystic is not the isolation of the misanthrope.

* * *
Inspiration comes in silence, yet long hours of silence may not be fruitful.

* * *
We need to find and develop our own rhythms of activity, rest, contemplation, being with others, being alone. Solitude means being alone. It is not necessarily alienation from the cosmos, or from community. God knows great and anguished solitude, Berdyaev says.

* * *
We begin to understand our personal rhythms but the world doesn't respect them. Practical necessity always intervenes. The joy of quiet work; then a telephone rings, a diaper needs changing. We carry the baggage of the past moment on to the next and become confused: which day are we facing? Mysticism values detachment as a way to be awakened and present to the small, the ordinary, and the awesome moments. Zen has a phrase: "When tired sleep, when hungry eat." To be present at the moment - but to the moment as part of a whole. Not pulled this way and that by every changing sensation. A continuing fidelity to persons and a consciousness of our own roots.

* * *
Both mysticism and art draw out our sense of union with the universe. We feel an inner power, energy, and delight and we feel anguish and human fears. We are possessed by "angels" and by "demons" and we seek the center of the soul; that place of great despair at the center, that sense the mystics speak of as the dark night. We are captured by a brief insight, in a feeling of totality, we achieve a sense of direction and then enter into a stage where all supports drop away - and become meaningless - a sense of complete loss.

* * *
Despair is part of that dark night - but the void and despair are different. In despair we're still possessed, attacked by those continual burdens from the past. Regrets, indecisions. How many sleepless nights, too, remembering those times of poor decisions, doing and saying the "wrong" thing. The dark night is full of our best and worst impulses.

In isolation the voice peoples itself with false demons. It feeds upon the solitary ego. A sense of common suffering is lost and we cannibalize ourselves. Panic makes it ugly and terrifying.

* * *
St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, the Zen Mystics. Each speaks in a different way to the inner journey. We have a glimmer of understanding of the fruitfulness in the void. Not joy, not anguish, but a moment of understanding in the constant presence of both. A sense of reconciliation suspended over darkness. No longer falling through space - the continual nightmare - clutching or something to stop that sensation opening beneath us. But resting, suspended within it. Neither rising nor falling. Quiet with great anguish and great joy. Present to our inner strength and welcoming our weakness, present to that strength and weakness in others.

Emancipated from duality.

* * *
The journey that takes us into the self and out of the self. "Whoever loses his soul shall find it." Creativity springs from that center at that moment. Even coming again and leaving us. We reach that center and lose it again. To know that this is the way is enough.

* * *
Only the free person creates and our freedom is mainly an illusion. We break through and then we are bound again to false battles, remembered worries.

* * *
The creative person needs to be daring.
Dar to make choices and then assert them. Dare to change, grow, develop. Dare to admit when they're right and when I'm right.

* * *
Nature keeps us grounded and well. It's not bondage, being a part of nature, taking joy and anguish in common things. Children are a constant source of insight. Their own awareness, liveliness, needs, angers, fears. The range of love, anger, they provoke in me. Nature and spirit are not two.

* * *
Seven-year-old Richard decided last night to keep a diary, as he said, "to write down what I do now so that when I'm big I can remember it." And so he begins another journey. Not the beginning of remembered reflections - his memory reaches back to "pre verbal" baby days - but now a deeper consciousness of his own actions. He seems lately to be more concerned, conscious of his actions, his temper, his generosity, his competitiveness. He has deeper compassion and understanding for the rages, foibles, inconsistencies of others.

Art and religion are like that: "A search through time and memory", even at the age of seven. The age of … reason. Could this be reason? The reason of the heart?

* * *
Lack of confidence paralyzes creativity.

* * *
And on being a woman artist - I would need another notebook. But as an ending and as a beginning - to find St. Teresa - a 16th century mystic - who was once very important to me. To find "feminine" and "masculine" qualities interchanged in both St. John and St. Teresa and thus to have a model, to have a way of perceiving my work - a buffer against those who would say "You have talent but a woman can't make it as a professional artist, hardly ever."

The journey is important for a human, man or woman. There's no question that sexual roles, cultural roles, inhibit or encourage the way to an inner life. I'd like to define words for this better. Another day, another project.

* * *
In order to arrive at having pleasure in everything,
Desire to have please in nothing.
In order to arrive at possessing everything,
Desire to possess nothing.
In order to arrive at being everything,
Desire to be nothing.
In order to arrive at that wherein thou hast no pleasure,
Thou must go by a way wherein thou has no pleasure.
In order to arrive at that which thou knowest not,
Thou must go by a way that thou knowest not.
In order to arrive at that which thou possessest not,
Thou must go by a way that thou possessest not.
In order to arrive at that which thou art not,
Thou must go through that which thou art not.

St. John of the Cross


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