I talk about Pema Chodron quite a lot on this blog. It was my psychologist who introduced me to her writing by recommending Start Where You Are. Since that first introduction I fell in love with her way of writing and sharing her thoughts with the world. Though we have never met I admire her spirit and the energy she shares through her interpretation of Buddhist teachings.
Another strong, inspiring woman my psychologist encouraged me to look up was Hazel Dooney. An Australian artist, Dooney is proof of what dedication to ones craft can result in. She accepts that she cannot help but be an artist and in doing so she accepts that it is her responsibility to make her life happen. She keeps a blog of her experience as a self made, self marketing creative. One of the reoccurring themes in her blog is her general distaste for art competitions.
Today my love for Pema Chodron's teaching and my respect for Hazel Dooney's convictions came together in what could have been a moment of utter frustration, the story of which started last year at about this time.
When I first arrived in London I was overcome with the abundance of opportunity. I had lived most of my life in a city who's population had only just reached one million. It has one museum, a small theatre block, a newly opened art space and a handful of art supply stores. Compared to London, home of the greatest theatre district in the world, over two hundred museums, countless galleries and dozens of art supply stores, Calgary is a wasteland. Don't get me wrong, I adore Calgary and it will always be my home, but London just has so much more! A trip on the Underground is a parade past posters, billboards, signs and video advertisements for music, film, theatre and art. I immediately began scanning and filing away the advertisements I was seeing, and thus I noticed the BP Portrait Awards. I looked it up and discovered a competition open to any artist over eighteen to submit a portrait which could be selected and displayed in
the National Portrait Gallery just off of Trafalgar Square. The deadline for entries was only a month off, however, and I knew rushing something just for the sake of submission wouldn't be a wise choice. Besides, it was a yearly competition so I could just wait until 2011.
Flash forward several months to the summer. My partner forwarded me an email regarding an opportunity to attend a portraiture painting class at the National Portrait Gallery. Hosted by Sadie Lee, it seemed like a wonderful way to spend a Saturday and without hesitation I paid the fee and signed up. I quickly discovered that Sadie was a past winner of the BP Portrait Award and that her painting had not only been selected for the NPG showing, but was used to advertise the event. She described the odd sense of uncomfortable pride experienced at seeing her portrait displayed on the back of double-decker buses and along the platforms of the Underground.
Her story renewed my desire to create a painting which could be submitted to the competition but I was still struggling with who I could paint. Inspired by Sadie's passion for female artists I focused my mind on creating sketches of inspiring women, putting any thoughts of portrait painting to one side. I figured it would come to me when it came to me and I'm a strong believer in not forcing creativity. As it happened, the decision of who to paint came only a few weeks later. I was sat out in the garden, enjoying the shelter of the pergola on an extremely glorious summer day. I'd been working on a few sketches at once, one being Pema Chodron. I finished the shading and pulled my camera out to take a shot for my blog. The more I looked at what I'd drawn the more pleased I was. Sometimes I create something so incredibly good I'm
stunned that it's actually my own work. I was feeling this and thinking this when it occurred to me that the ease I felt when drawing Pema came from the admiration I feel for her.
I knew that hers was a portrait I would love to paint.
I began my initial sketches in the autumn and have been working on the portrait ever since. I referenced several different photos of her to create my own image. I also explored several different techniques using both acrylic and oil to create an effect which focuses on her robes being the punctum of the portrait. The flatness and smooth sheen of the acrylic on her robes and in the background contrasts wonderfully against the texture of the oils I used for her face. The text fits with the theme I've chosen for my Buddhist paintings, where I choose a Buddhist quote and write my own re-iteration of it. In this case I have explored my feelings on the student/teacher relationships in life based on the quote:
"Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense. "
The greatest teachers in my life have all taught me that I know the answers to all my own questions and that none of those answers are ever written in stone. Which brings me to today.
This morning I arose early, prepared my oils and brushes and set to work. I knew today was the day this painting would be complete. I always know because I get this feeling of contentment when I feel at ease with the canvas. There was very little left to do so I took my time, enjoying the earl morning quiet as I applied brush to canvas. When her face was done I set my brush to one side and pulled out my journal, which had notes I'd taken for the text. I began sketching the text out on a pad of paper, getting a feel for how the words would look.
Wanting to savour the moment I decided to go to the BP Awards page and look up all the submission details so I knew I'd have everything ready for the 2011 submission, the submission I'd been preparing myself for since this time last year. I read through the rules, satisfied myself that my painting was perfectly suitable, and clicked the online submission link. Halfway through the form I came across a tick box with a red asterisk indicating it as a required field. The text next to it read "I confirm that I have met the sitter".
I can't say that my heart sank, exactly. It was more a feeling of bemusement and mild frustration which took over. The rules had stated the portrait needed to be done from a sitting or study from life. I figured photographs counted as a study from life and I'd been covered. I didn't realise that the study from life only counted if the photograph had been taken with my own point-and-shoot.
The painting I'd been working on for months to submit to this contest could not be submitted to this contest. I wasn't quite sure how I felt and so I cried a bit, ranted a little, but ultimately I wasn't terribly upset. All my reactions felt more like what I thought I should be doing, when really I was quite calm about the whole thing. I wasn't even particularly frustrated with myself for getting it wrong. And that was when I understood Hazel's comments on competitions and galleries. When I truly appreciated what she meant when she said a competition takes away from the abilities of the artist.
It is inarguable that art is in the eye of the beholder. If art can only be defined by the artist or the person who appreciates the piece, how can we possibly judge one piece of art against another unless they are identical studies? I didn't want to start over with another portrait just for the sake of having a portrait to submit. I hadn't painted this portrait for the sake of having a portrait to submit to a contest. I'd painted the portrait because I wanted to. I knew upon starting it that I wanted to give the portrait to Pema. I painted it to strengthen my skills. I painted it to show my respect. I painted it to put my feelings down on canvas and offer them to the world to admire or hate or feel indifferent towards. I painted it because I'm an artist, and that's what I do.
I'm awarding myself the 'Portrait in oil and acrylic' award for this piece which I've titled 'Bodhisattva'. The award for having completed the painting is the opportunity to finally meet Pema Chodron as I intend to deliver it to her by hand.