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mprvmnts Posts

the Work is never done

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a problem with anger.

Once, as a grade-schooler, I was walking home from school and got roughed up by a couple of neighborhood bullies. During this episode, I landed zero meaningful physical punches but delivered a few insults that ultimately saved me and sent the other kids packing. I walked home marveling in my new found super-power: hurting people with words. I made the kind of mental note that was significant enough that i remember it today. “I can protect myself this way, with words that hurt.”

I made the kind of mental note that was significant enough that i remember it today. “I can protect myself this way, with words that hurt.”

Skimming through the innumerable explosions of my teens and twenties, you’d encounter young Benjamin dressing down a variety of characters with foul mouthed rage. Family, friends, lovers, passersby, authority figures, coworkers, bosses. Nobody was safe from me, including me. I was no longer ignorant about my childhood coping mechanism turned against me, but I felt helpless about finding lasting change.

Fortunately, in my late twenties a few good things happened. (1) My boss at the time told me in no uncertain terms, “You’ve got what it takes to lead this team, but I can’t promote you to leadership if you don’t get a handle on your anger.” Providing for my family and advancing professionally were really important to me, so this was a huge motivation. (2) My (now ex) wife found a book about “rageaholics” that helped me. Essentially, it framed my challenge as “addiction to rage,” and expained how, for folks like me, a lot of the conventional advice about dealing with anger was counterproductive. I started learning about my “point of no return” (once a rage-prone person passes this, self-control is often practically unavailable) and finding ways to avoid getting there. (3) With the help of therapists and a men’s group, i started coming to terms with what was driving my generalized anger (and depression) and managing myself better. I was making progress. I managed to do the difficult personal work that took me from having 2 or more outbursts a week to having 1 or maybe 2 a month. I felt like I had arrived. Turns out I hadn’t. I felt like a new person. Turns out I wasn’t.

Now, fast forward with me past the shit-storm that was marital separation, dislocation from my children, loss of friendships, and divorce. Fast forward past new love and new marriage. Fast forward to that new love and marriage hitting the rocks amidst the backdrop of new children, job stress and my own depression. I was slipping fast back into anger as a coping mechanism, driving myself further into shame and depression and away from love, kindness, acceptance and patience.

I was sad, angry, depressed, and having suicidal thoughts pretty regularly. In that space, I was doing more than my part to ruin the marriage and limit my other relationships. After years of looking outside myself for answers, I decided to look back in and I didn’t like a lot of what I was seeing. Turns out 1 or 2 angry outbursts a month was more than enough to make me miserable and the people around me afraid. So I got to work again.

With a focus on dealing with my depression (and the role that disappointment and anger play in it), I started back into therapy, and headed down the track of what I can now identify as mindfulness training. Observing and noting what I’m thinking and feeling. Observing and noting patterns, and doing little things to change them for the better. Not “owning” my thoughts, etc.

Over the last few years I have managed to claw my way out of that depression, rebuild my self-confidence, and further reduce my reactivity across the board (including anger). Thanks to the hard work of therapy and especially through mindfulness meditation practice, I am now able to process my thoughts and emotions in a non-reactive fashion, and I can do this in extremely difficult or stressful environments. Anger no longer has a death grip on me. I am able to receive the emotion and let it go. I am able to see what’s beneath the anger and pain and bring healing to those parts of me that I wasn’t able to sit with before. I am in so many ways, a new person.

But I’m not.

This morning I popped off in reactive anger when something went wrong at work. I was harsh and unkind to one of my absolute favorite employees (ugh!). I have apologized sincerely, but there is not much else I can do other than commit myself again to the life I wish to lead. Commit myself again to love above all things.

I will never arrive, and the Work will never be finished until I am.

So it strikes me that, as much as I have changed, and continue to change, I will always make mistakes. I will never arrive, and the Work will never be finished until I am. For now, I will forgive myself and do my best not to pull the hoodie of unworthiness over my head. I will grieve the moment and continue on the path of peace, loving myself and others the best that I can, and always better.

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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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Recalibration

I want more from myself. I want fewer compulsive behaviors and more mindful ones. I want wilder nights and more peaceful days. I want to be able to gain and keep momentum at will. I want my words to be received and understood just as I had intended. I want to experience deep friendships and exquisite solitude. I want power in my steps and humility in my words. I want all of this and a good night’s sleep.

What i need is to be present. Here, now. What i need it to let go of all the planning and striving and just put one foot in front of the other and delight in it.

Recalibrating…

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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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A very good painting session

Everything about this roughly two hour painting session felt good. It had its ups and downs but more often than not I was experiencing a flow state. I succeeded in not overworking anything, and I now have a clear vision of where this painting will end. I am toying with a tone change in the sky but I want to add the foreground elements before changing anything.

one thing that has been working well when my intention is to paint looser and more intuitively is to put on improvisational jazz music. The last couple of painting sessions were powered by Makaya McCraven. Something about the groove and the open ended improvisation really helps me get out of my head and paint more by feel.

studio aftermath
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Starting something new

I was finishing up sanding a few freshly primed wood supports when I came across an old project I started about two years ago. I had cut up the solid wood top of an unused drawing table to use part of it for another project and was left with a 22×15 inch panel that seemed to have potential. I decided to use wood carving tools to carve a series of grooves into the wood, then pushed magenta ink into those cracks and wiped the top surface down (kind of like inking an etching). I then filled the cracks and covered the entire surface with about 1/8 inch of resin. This is where i stopped (my original plan was to layer further groove/fills, but I put the panel aside).

Upon seeing that board again, i had an urge to paint over it because i’ve found that starting with an old painting seems to work well for me right now. I took the panel outside and sanded the resin down to a paintable surface with 150 grit, wiped off all the dust, then got busy.

Using a photo I took from above Sky Pond, I started with a pencil sketch. Feeling the momentum, I decided to white out the sky as a base, then make some green marks. I really like where this is headed, it’s got a lot of potential and it feels right.

First pass, painting a view from above Sky Pond in Estes Park, Colorado.
Grooves and paint filled with resin, 2018
Carved grooves in wood, then filled with magenta paint, 2018
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Painting: River Through Mountains

Painting: River Through Mountains
River Through Mountains. 8 x 8 inches, acrylic on wood.

I decided to relieve myself of the impulse to make another tonal, semi-representative work by forcing myself to work with a non-representative palette. I painted this over three sessions and I feel pretty good about it. The one thing i really learned while painting this is how much the music i’m listening to influences my approach to making marks.

I struggled quite a bit at first to get into a flow with this painting. Zion was also painting in the studio next to me and I let him pick the music. It was a great mix, but around halfway through the session some kind of more improvisational jazz type of music started playing and the groove and the energy of the music started influencing my painting. Zion noticed it too and commented on it. I’m going to start to experiment with different music as i continue this painting practice. There is really something here to use.

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