Excerpt: Creative Process as Art Practice

· Creative Expression, Sangha News, Zen Training

This excerpt is from Mountains and Rivers, the annual book-length journal of the MRO which features original contributions from dharma teachers like Hojin Sensei, an artist, ceramicist and director of training at Zen Mountain Monastery. Learn more here about the journal and enjoy this teaching Hojin offered on creativity, connection and spiritual integrity.

Hojin Sensei: You can do an entire art practice with your eyes closed, so it’s not about technique. It’s about connections, about staying connected, turning off those voices that judge. Or, let the judge do your work! What does ‘judging my work’ actually look like? What would a judge draw? I mean, give ‘em a pen! Say “go to it, judge,” you know. They’d probably be, like, “naw, not that. You’re going to do that? no way, that doesn’t look like art.”

So these are those monsters, showing us the path to liberation. That’s why this is one of the eight gates, and a gate of liberation, because we’re terrified to put something out. What else are we terrified of in our processes or expressions? We can study still further.

Q: I’ve had some amazing experiences making art and music, but what I’m terrified of is that I can’t get back to that place.

A: Yeah, and that’s in any experience, right? You have something that was revealed to you in a period of sitting and you’re like, how do I get back to that state? That’s not something we can take along. Just know that that experience is in you, and again you have to keep dropping those thoughts. Just see them for what they are, and re-enter. And how do we do that? Sometimes it’s just picking up and starting again, starting simply, not complicated, maybe with just one string, one sound, and make a connection. And then maybe another. You have to invite yourself to explore, right?

Q: When I’m good I can go out and look for things. In the daily grind a line gets crossed and at that point I start to push things away. So how to reverse that process? I know that pushing things away is not good for me, art could be helpful, but how do I reverse that process?

A: Tuning in to the energy that is present, sometimes to just use “push away” as your process to express “I don’t want to do this”—and express whatever the energy is saying. That’s a creation too. Some of my best work came out of “I don’t give a royal f *k,” in that mood, you know? Or sometimes it’s just like raaaaahr! And all of a sudden I’m like yes I do, all of a sudden I am caring! So sometimes it’s just tuning in. Sometimes there are stabilizing shapes and forms—with the body, music— whatever the form may be. Simplicity is beautiful for an entry place. For me geometry is grounding and sometimes I just do circles or squares or triangles or lines, and this moves me in deep. Sometimes I have to move—that kind of energy—and I’ll dance with watercolor on the paper! And so, learning how to play so that then you can see something. A movement like pushing is good, just putting paint on your hands and pushing it away! A certain kind of thing is going to show up. Or you can take dirt outside and push, or whatever. Glue!

Page from an art practice journal

We don’t wait for special circumstances or materials. How many people tell me “yeah I’m going to go to the art supply store next week.” Meanwhile the refrigerator is loaded with pigments, or you have makeup galore, you could just lipstick your way through ango. What is “medium,” what is material? We could trash pick our entire art practice. This is life. Go outside of the art box, the kit, and the finished product and find the turn on, find the radiance, find the connection, that’s all you need. Don’t worry about the rest.

Jody Hojin Kimmel began her artistic career early and has taught drawing, ceramics, and painting, opening people up to the wonders and mysteries of the creative process. She is currently the Training Director for the Mountains and Rivers order and co-Director of the Zen Center of New York City. Recordings of several of Hojin’s talks are available here.

Expression without words as a “creative audience” happening in Hojin’s workshop.
NextUpdate: Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic