About Rebecca Crowell

Copyright© 2006 by Rebecca Crowell

This is the text of a talk that I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Eau Claire, WI on April 2, 2006.

I would like to say first that I regard creativity as an essential human quality. Defined broadly, we all create in order to live. There is no aspect of life into which creativity doesn't enter in some form-the urge to order and structure, to make more beautiful or more efficient or to insure better results is universal. I reject the idea that those of us in the arts are fundamentally more creative than anyone else. I think we just focus on it more, and perhaps too we have something in our personalities that helps us to tolerate the ups and downs, and the uncertainties and ambiguities of this kind of work. What I want to talk about today is a bit about my own creative process and how I see it as intersecting with spirituality; I offer this in the hope that there are parallels to your own creative and spiritual endeavors, whatever they may be.

I would like to begin with talking about searching as both an artistic and a spiritual activity. When I paint, what I'm after is undefined throughout much of the process. Answers or conclusions are elusive during all of the initial stages. However, as I come to the end of a painting, I recognize what the outcome will be, and do my best to bring it forth as the final step. This is similar to the way in which a spiritual insight or understanding of a particular issue may be just out of your reach as you struggle towards it, but then becomes clear, sometimes in a rather sudden manner. The frustrations along the way, the need for persistence, and the willingness to keep at something without knowing the final result are similar in both a creative and a spiritual search, as is the sense of resolution and peace when a conclusion is achieved.

To explain the process in a bit more detail, all of my paintings are carried out in an intuitive manner, with one thing leading to and suggesting another. I begin with a broad question or idea, which sets off a chain of events in the work-for example, I might start with a range of colors, certain kinds of marks or a compositional idea, but then allow each step along the way to influence my next move. I have my more cautious days when I do a lot of sitting and contemplating various possibilities, and also my more adventurous and impulsive days, when I might make a really radical shift or completely paint over or wash out whole areas. That is exhilarating-to get rid of something that wasn't working well, or was just "OK" in search of something truly good. After many painting sessions of all sorts, in the end I have made something I never imagined or envisioned. It's always like that-I end up in a very different place from where I started. My initial ideas were just jumping-off points for the journey that followed. At the same time, this process is not as random or unstructured as it may sound. I work within parameters that I've discovered over years of making art, that suit me--the individualized abstract language that I have developed, certain art materials and techniques that define my work as mine. These form a steady base from which I make my explorations.

In terms of spiritual searching, this base can be compared to the basic belief system I've developed for myself over years of reading, questioning, wondering, investigating other religions, and talking about spiritual ideas with family and friends. These core beliefs are in place, but of course I don't imagine that I have all the answers. Questions, challenges, new ideas, and life situations that occur often lead me into a process that parallels that of making a painting. I am motivated by something that I need--or want--to understand better, or a decision that must be made--and then I follow my thoughts and intuition to where they lead, trying to keep an open mind while staying true to my basic principles and beliefs. I have a sense of trust in this process, that if I stick with it and listen to that "still small voice within" I will find an answer. Sometimes I have to fight off an urge to control the outcome, and realize that I have to clear my mind of preconceived ideas and negative thoughts in order to receive the clearest understandings.

Just as when I paint, if I follow this path, in the end the answer or result can surprise me, and seem to come from somewhere outside of myself. To paint well involves listening to that same inner voice that provides direction and insight in other areas of life. The gratitude that I feel when a painting is finished is the same as I feel when a problem is resolved through spiritual meditation.

When I paint, I'm both inside and outside of the work-aware that it comes from deep in my consciousness, but also that others will view it without that context. So I am an observer of my paintings even as I create them, aware of their source but also slightly detached from them. This state of mind means being separated from my ego in a rather helpful manner. It is similar to meditation or certain kinds of prayer, when you are able to clear the mind and turn off the brain static, and get out of your own way. The act of painting itself seems often to banish negative or habitual kinds of thinking or anxieties that are counterproductive to clarity of thought and creativity. The ordinary activities of the mind in which events and conversations are rehashed, to-do lists created or gone over, and various speculations and emotions given free reign, are transcended. On my best painting days, I am absolutely present in the moment for rather long stretches of time. It is an energizing and refreshing state of mind that occurs spontaneously--it just happens, and I'm not sure if there is anything conscious that can be done to make it happen. It's sometimes called "creative flow" and it can happen to anyone deeply involved in what they are doing. I have to believe it's a good thing for overall mental health, and seems to indicate a successful integration of the spiritual and the creative aspects of mind, if only for a few hours.

Trust is the last spiritual aspect of creative work that I want to mention--trust in the creative process is required; trust that there will eventually be a good outcome. For this reason, I feel that for me, painting is essentially a very optimistic activity. It is tied to spirituality in that I believe that growth is inevitable, and that there are no backward steps. Searching, questioning and creating are their own rewards, deeply satisfying activities whether carried out in thought or through creative work.

– Rebecca Crowell

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