I'm thinking I need a better, perhaps more enticing description of my "One Hour/One Painting" sessions. Last Saturday's event at Angles Gallery, with a painting by Tony de los Reyes, went well as usual. Those who showed up, including the artist, were enthusiastic in their response at the end of the session; and I had been worried, in advance, that the painting I had chosen was too subtle in it effects, too attenuated in color, and had too little apparent activity on the surface to keep the eye engaged--especially for those not used to sitting still for an hour's contemplation. The week before, by contrast, the F. Scott Hess painting at Koplin del Rio Gallery had almost more activity than the eye could handle.
Yet both events were successful, if measured by the response that they received. I could not have wished for better. I could, though, have wished for a few more participants, since only a handful showed up for each occasion; and I have begun to think that the wording on flyers I send out with a brief description of what to expect in a "One Hour/One Painting" session might sound a bit intimidating to people who lead busy lives and recognize how normally active their minds can be. I think the description could be more reassuring, and therefore more inviting. Something like this:
A "One Hour/One Painting" session begins with a brief introduction to the long traditions of meditation and contemplation, explaining how they can be used to deepen the experience of a work of art. Participants are encouraged to leave their usual baggage at the door: their likes and dislikes, their judgments of what is good art, or bad, all their expectations. Most of us carry so much baggage that, instead of seeing what's on the wall in front of us, we see only a reflection of those expectations. We see ourselves, not what the artist shows us. This session encourages you to see the painting with fresh eyes, untainted by prior experience. It's about pure, slow, unwavering looking at what's there.
Before starting, there's a quick guide to the process, explaining the use of the breath as an anchor, to stabilize both closed-eye, meditative periods and open-eyed contemplation--with a preparation for the distractions that can intervene: the thoughts of a busy mind, the ambient sounds in a gallery space, the physical sensations (which might include the discomfort of sitting still for an hour), the feelings that might arise. All of these can be handled with a simple return of the attention to the breath, and to the surface of the painting under contemplation.
The guided process begins with closed eyes, settling mind and body into a comfortable, restful state and refreshing particularly the brain and the eyes in preparation for the work of contemplation. Then, with eyes open, we begin a guided study of the painting on the wall. What follows is best described as a thorough visual perambulation of the painting's surface. There is no attempt at explanation or interpretation, no art historical reference, no aesthetic theory--these can come later, once the painting has been seen for what it is. The looking, though, is guided throughout, so that participants are relieved of the decision-making that distracts from pure observation. And the periods of contemplation alternate with periods of meditation: with closed eyes, participants are encouraged to use the mind's eye to reinforce what they have seen; and to completely refresh their vision in preparation for further exploration of the painting.
What's stressed, from start to finish, is not only the hard work required of the eyes and the receptive brain, but also the comfort, the restfulness and pleasure experienced in giving oneself permission to slow down for this one hour and enjoy the pure presence of a work of art. Participants are typically surprised that the hour goes by so fast, and reach the end of the experience refreshed and filled with a profound appreciation for the painting. The "One Hour/One Painting" adventure leaves a lasting impression: those who experience it can bring it to every future aesthetic experience; more broadly, they will have learned something of the value of paying attention to every other aspect of their lives.Okay, this is not exactly brief. Still, it's something I might think of using to send to gallery dealers who are kind enough to host a session, so that they have a better understanding of the process; and to those whose curiosity is piqued by the "One Hour/One Painting" title enough to inquire what it's all about. posting it here might also encourage readers of The Buddha Diaries to try it for themselves!