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Category: Art

Differentiation of self

Self portrait. 18×24 inches, acrylic on paper

A few years ago, I came to realize (through hardship and a great therapist) that I had a problem with self-differentiation. In my most important relationships I was being driven by a deep-seated fear of rejection and abandonment. My sense of self was WAY too tied up in others and outside forces.

Self-differentiation is a concept introduced by Dr. Murray Bowen, and here I’ve copied some text from The Bowen Center to describe a well-differentiated self.

A person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality. Thoughtfully acquired principles help guide decision-making about important family and social issues, making him less at the mercy of the feelings of the moment. What he decides and what he says matches what he does. He can act selflessly, but his acting in the best interests of the group is a thoughtful choice, not a response to relationship pressures. Confident in his thinking, he can support others’ views without being a disciple or reject others’ views without polarizing the differences. He defines himself without being pushy and deals with pressure to yield without being wishy-washy.

thebowencenter.org – Differentiation of Self

This is hard shit if you didn’t grow up in a family with healthy attachments. Honestly, it’s hard shit for anybody.

With the help of a this therapist, I began to try and rewire my brain, in what I now recognize as my first steps into mindfulness training. It began with a constant reminder that became a mantra: Orient Self To Self. My aim was to move away from looking to others/outside to see if i’m okay, Rather I can look to myself (hello, mindfulness!) and also commit to being the kind of person that I am proud to be, giving myself grace and forgiveness when I don’t live up to my own expectations or the commitments i’ve made to others. To be free to be okay when others may not act in the way I expect or hope for.

I’ve made some progress. Most day’s I earn a “B” in this category. Some days and strings of days, I really lock into a healthy mindset that’s even better. But on the occasions when my more intense anxiety surfaces, and my ability to access these new skills becomes compromised, I can actually observe myself getting pulled away from wise mind, sucked into fear and muddled thinking, feeling unworthy and unloveable.

Tara Brach, in her excellent teaching on the RAIN of self-compassion, refers to this as a trance, “a narrow, distorted reality that lasts for a time.” The trance narrows one’s focus to only see what’s wrong, forgetting the larger context of life. She proposes that the only way to widen perspective from the narrow focus on what’s wrong, is to shine a light on the trance itself, which I suppose is what i’m attempting to do here.

I’m going to write more another time about how I’ve been attempting to integrate the RAIN concepts into my life this year. It is slow and vulnerable work, and rewarding.

These last couple of weeks I have been battling the trance with some big wins and some sad losses. Wish me luck.

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Returning to painting

Just above the tree line on the trail to Chasm Lake. 24×18 inches, acrylic on paper.

Has it really been nearly four months since I started this painting? In this period of quarantine stress, lockdowns, social upheaval, and massive shifts in my daily life, I have been without the motivation to paint. Like a fool who has learned nothing about self-motivation I have waited to feel it again. But for me, action precedes inspiration and motivation. Surprise, surprise… just getting started was all I needed to reconnect. Returning to painting has returned me to painting.

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Landscape sketches

Bierstadt Lake, Colorado. Paint on paper, 18×24 inches.

Took a little dip into painting again today. The quarantine energy has been the opposite of what motivates me to paint, but today as i was setting up a painting station for my daughter, i decided to flip open the big pad and do some quick, monochromatic paintings.

Backyard. Paint on paper, 18×24 inches.

It was fun, and i felt things click for a bit, which was reassuring.

There is a mind state I find conducive to making landscape paintings. The best way i’ve found so far to induce this state is by working to certain kinds of jazz. I am going to explore this more in future writing, but for now I’ve got a handful of records that bring me right there.

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Dorian’s

I made this blind contour drawing while waiting for Jeff Parker to play at Dorian’s. It was my last night out, and the last live music I witnessed before the stay at home orders hit Chicago just a few days later.

The show was exquisite. I can’t wait to get out and see live jazz of that caliber again. I have a new list of acts I have to see and I’m willing travel to make it happen “whenever this coronavirus thing is over” (as my daughter Ingrid would say).

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More painting experiments

I’ve had the Sayre Park painting hanging in the living room to observe for the past few weeks. It’s been a great reminder of the kind of work i don’t want to do. Through talking about this with Zion and Josiah last weekend, we decided it looked more interesting turned on its side. Once I did that, the painting was crying out to become an underpainting for something new.

A couple of days later, an artist named Katie Vernon posted a painting to her instagram that inspired me to start my new painting in a particular way. Here is her painting:

Last night I found just the right photo source for the new painting and got to work. I starting blocking white, then gray, then blue and brown and greenish grays. I made a few passes over it and really got into a flow and had a lot of fun. I’m absolutely loving the direction this took and I’m looking forward to digging back in to it.

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Loch Lake: session 2

Covered a lot of ground and had a really fun painting session last night. I blocked in more of the hills and mountains in the distance, and put in a couple of washes on the lake itself. I expect the final painting to not look much like this at all, but it’s heading in the right direction. Next passes will focus on sky and some elements in the foreground that haven’t been painted yet.

2. Blocking in hills, mountains, and the lake
My favorite detail at this stage

It feels inevitable that all this diving into observational painting is just taking me the long way back to complete abstraction. I’m not trying to go there, but as I continue to incorporate mindfulness into everything i’m doing, it’s hard to ignore the bursts of excitement and delight that I get when I’m making marks for marks-sake. Who knows!??!!!!

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A big scale-up

1. Gotta start somewhere!
My favorite part so far

Put in time last night doing an underdrawing and putting some paint down on this 48×36″ panel. Lately i’ve been trying to just work on whatever i’m drawn to in the moment, and last night I was feeling this big one. I lost a little momentum looking for the right source photo. to work from. I landed on a view of The Loch, a lake I hiked past on the way up to Sky Pond in Estes Park.

One thing i realized right away was just how much this change in scale changes the game for the way I’m painting, and really the way i’ll *be able* to paint. This one is going to be a challenge but i’m determined to learn as much as possible.

The main drawback of jumping into this painting is that I won’t be able to iterate as fast, which is going to slow down the overall learning cycle. To this end, i’m going to get one or two smaller works going over the weekend so when i’m not ready to dive into the big one, i’ll still be able to make progress.

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Gestural landscape practice

Gestural landscape practice. 1 pass, 24 x 18 inches.

Working on freeing myself up a bit more, so I’m going to be making some low-risk, low-stakes landscapes on paper. I have some ideas about what i’ll do with these but I’ll discuss that when I actually do something. I’m thinking this needs one more pass before calling it “done.” This scene is inspired by a photograph I took on my hike to Chasm Lake, just after climbing above the treeline.

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Painting: Above Sky Pond

Above Sky Pond, 2020. 22 x 15 Inches. Acrylic, pencil, ink, and resin on wood.

I am very pleased with how this painting turned out. There was a very real risk of overworking it and I managed to avoid that. I am still thinking about what i’ve learned with this painting, and I’ll probably have to consolidate those thoughts into another post.

This has been a great week of painting.

See the process leading up to this finished work.

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Painting: Wild Basin

Painting: Wild Basin, near Copeland Falls
Wild Basin, near Copeland Falls. 7 x 5 inches. Acrylic, pencil, paper, and ink on wood. 2020

Painted over another old abstract print/painting from 2002. I am very happy with how this painting turned out. I’m just beginning to identify the conditions that are making for enjoyable painting experiences with quality outcomes.

The scene is somewhere along the trail to Ouzel Falls from the Wild Basin trailhead in Estes Park. If memory serves, this spot is not far above Copeland Falls.

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