An interviewer of the artist Gerhard Reichter commented to him, “The paintings have changed a lot.” Gerhard responded, “Yes, yes! That’s the thing: They do what they want!” For many artists a blank canvas is a thing of terror: What’s the right thing to do? What will be wrong? Will it all, ultimately, be a waste of time? As Gerhard knows by experience, the artist learns to follow where the painting leads. But how does he know what it’s indicating? This requires growing a connectedness to the work, a type of listening which enables him to hear what the work whispers “might be.” This listening has nothing to do with ears; it is an orientation of the mind and heart which wants to hear what it has not yet heard. This type of listening is a willingness to reach out to the unknown in order to connect with what has not yet come into being. This orientation is fostered by learning to pay attention to what the heart whispers to the mind, and it is not only artists who need to develop this ability to be attuned; anyone who wants to really be alive and not just doing time also needs to develop this skill since our life, like a painting, is also evolving. But into what?
Often in counseling I have had people ask “How can I know if this is the right step to take?” This is exactly the same question that an artist asks the painting in front of him: “Is this what I want? How can I know?” The thing is that there are no guarantees in life; one brushstroke takes the artist in a direction which, in the end, may not be where he really wanted to go. Sometimes in life, as in painting, we may need to wipe the canvas clean and start over, but coming to that realization means that we now know what we don’t want, which is a kind of clarification. The only way to know if the next step is the right one… is to take the chance and to just do it! Whether it’s in front of an easel or a situation, we do that by asking ourselves: “What do I want?”
Even if we don’t know the answer to that question we often still need to simply do something since life goes on despite our uncertainties. So we take one or two steps in a direction, one or two strokes on the canvas. And then we listen to the heart’s reaction. Sometimes we don’t arrive at a feeling of surety, but the presence of fear or anxiety do not necessarily mean the steps taken were wrong; maybe we are just unsettled by what we have never encountered before! If that is the case, then take one or two steps more, add one of two more colors and just see where it goes! As our life’s painting develops we keep asking, “What am I after? Is this it?” And each time we ask, we then listen, despite our anxiety.
A blank canvas or a not-yet-lived life can be disconcerting. Just because we are uncertain do we then walk away from that which unsettles us? If we do, there is a price to be paid: To refuse to engage the risk of the unknown is to live a life of laziness so profound that when death comes it will hardly even be noticed. A painting never painted, a life never lived: Is that what you want?