Several years ago I followed the exercises in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Well, I followed some of them; I wrote my morning pages without fail. But I confess: I didn’t do the collages, and even though I went so far as to schedule regular Artist Dates, I didn’t always follow through.
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron prescribes taking oneself on a regularly scheduled “artist date.” An artist date is “a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you pre-plan and defend against all interlopers.”
Even though I’m good at blocking out time for writing and other word-related activities, I’ve never followed through on Cameron’s advice, even though I carried a shadow of shame that I should – if only I had the time.
Then last weekend, while I was in the Hudson River Valley for a family wedding, I visited The Storm King Art Center, a world-class sculpture park.
Waves, by Maya Lin
It was as I was strolling across the rolling terrain studded with sculpture of all sizes that I finally got it – what the artist date was all about.
Most of all, I became more observant, especially as my point-of-view of each sculpture kept shifting first as I saw it from a distance, then as I walked closer to it, around it, and then again from a distance. What I was seeing changed from each vantage point, just as our stories are shaped by the point of view from which we tell them.
I was also struck by the way the relationship of objects and angles bent space and changed one another, just the way details in narrative shift in importance and meaning depending on how they are presented.
I was especially struck by the power of negative space – the blank area created by sculptural lines that nearly vibrated with tension. Great prose can do this too – outline what’s not there, what’s not being said, but what may in fact be forcing all the characters in a story rushing toward mayhem.
Abstract sculptures at Storm King Art Center
Many of the sculptures were abstract. Nevertheless, I nearly always tried to make up a story about them, to ground them in narrative, because that’s how humans (or this human, anyway) makes sense of the world: through story. And once I noticed myself trying to tell a story about each orange girder, I challenged myself to see it simply qua orange girder, the way in yoga class I’m learning to acknowledge intrusive thoughts and then let them go. This technique allowed me the freedom of seeing without storytelling, sharpening my observational capability and focusing my concentration, two key tools for writers.
Some of the artwork literally stopped me in my tracks, they were so breathtaking, others barely registered as I strolled by. I simply noted this, without trying to evaluate it. Isn’t it interesting, I said to myself, that some of this art is so moving and some leaves me cold? And I walked on.
By the end of the day, I was seeing ordinary objects in new ways, which is one of the wonderful things that any art can do – sculpture, painting, music, prose. Suddenly, the way two trees leaned toward each other was pregnant with meaning, as was the relationship of two trashcans standing shoulder to shoulder, like sentinels guarding the parking lot.
And that was it: looking at art changed how I look at the world.
It also taught me the importance of the artist’s date, which I’ll now ink into my calendar and heed.
Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist living in southern Vermont.