- Particularity, Presence, Art Teaching, and Learning
The Awful, the Particular, and the Transcendent
Years ago in a life drawing class during graduate school, for who knows what reason, I chose to focus my drawing on the model's head and not on her entire form. She was wearing an enormous and elaborate black velvet hat with yards of veiling and several large red silk roses. The combination of textures, shadows, colors, forms, and the suggestion of a story, of meaning beyond the exercise itself, drew me in I think. Using an entire large sheet of tan-colored drawing paper, soft vine charcoal, and a kneaded rubber eraser I began to draw, moving from the impossible hat to the model's high cheekbones, deep-set shadowed eyes, soft cheeks, and curved neck. Somewhere between the top of the paper (the crown of her hat) and the woman's face, however, my hand, my self, the drawing, the young woman, and the hat merged by some means outside my control. I was the act of drawing. I was the charcoal, the curved cheek, the dark eyes, the wonderful hat. There were no boundaries among us. No distances. The drawing, it seemed, drew me at the same time that it revealed an image of the model and her black velvet hat on the paper and tied me to the woman seated before me. I was exalted, transported, amazed.
Now, as I think back to that drawing, I understand it as my first clear art experience of doing, not thinking, being, not observing that all artists encounter on their best days. It was, in another way of considering, my initial encounter with the fact that "the imaginative faculty, especially as engaged in the art process is one of the strongest and clearest ways in which we can learn within the qualitative, immediate present, within kairotic as opposed to chronic time, or within the eternal present,"1 as the art educator Kenneth [End Page 51] Beittel explains. Or, put another way, it was my experience with the fact that, as the writer Lawrence Weschler suggests in his biography of the artist Robert Irwin, "Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees."2 Or, as the sculptor Anne Truitt explains, drawing can be "a direct channel between one's [my] experience and one's [my] hand."3
This transformation from a distinct see-er and seen to a single entity sharing both time and space, from a distant relationship to intimacy, from a world of the generalized to the place of the particular brings us to the intertwined themes of this article: the importance of the awesome transcendent particularity of the singular—person, creature, place, object, plant, or moment in art and, similarly, religious contemplation and the likeness and/or overlap of artistic engagement with spiritual experience.
In order for us to examine the artist in the midst of creating, and to explore our theme of art's relationship to the awful (think of the older usage meaning "full of awe" here) particularity of thisness as John Dun Sotus4 describes the perfection of the particular and specific, as well as to explore the relationship of art making, art learning, art teaching, and spiritual experience, exemplars are necessary. Our first exemplar is Gordie, a member of the art class I teach at a local hospital. He, as much as anyone, exemplifies artistic engagement with the current moment, its thisness in fact, and he illustrates the art maker's/learner's engagement with pure doing in the act of creating an image. Our second exemplar, the filmmaker, writer, and painter Derek Jarman,5 exemplifies by his lifetime of creative accomplishment an artist in the most literal manner. And even in the last years of his life—as sculptor, gardener, landscape designer, writer, and creator of a place of great beauty—he illuminates in both his words and in his garden his engagement with the present moment, with particularity, and with the spiritual quality that permeates his world.
Gordie's Tale: Art and Flowers
Gordie accompanied his friend Roger to the first art class to be held at the hospital for people with...