May 2017 Connect + Create: choosing your ‘essential’ words

When people ask us what our paintings are about, we are sometimes at a loss for words. Isn’t the painting supposed to ‘speak for itself’? At times, I’m not sure how much to share about the underlying story, not wanting to hijack the viewers interpretation. There is a fine line when it comes to knowing how much to tell, and what questions to ask to pull out different views from those looking at our art. Several years ago, when I was a member of Propeller Gallery in Toronto, I met Adam Lodzinski. He is an artist, writer, psychologist and workshop facilitator. I attended one of his ‘Self-Mentoring and Creativity in the Arts’ workshops, and have used (with his permission) some of his exercises over the years with my students. One of our favourite ones involves choosing a list of words. Sounds simple, but in fact, it can be quite challenging. Adam has developed a list of hundreds of words: “The Essential List”, and we are invited to go through this list, choosing words that resonate with us/our art/our vision and/or our creative process.  One can focus on a body of work, or a single piece, or all the art you’ve ever made… the point is to end up with ten words – listed in order of importance – that are ‘essential’ for you.  Adam invites us to delve under the surface: not only describing the look of our art, but the sense of it: how it feels, what inspires you, what is important (or salient, Adam’s word) to you in the process of making art?  Here is a quote from him about ‘salience’….

encaustic collage by andrea bird

What is Salience, and why does it matter? As Rumi says, ‘Only from the heart can you touch the sky.’  In ordinary language, salience means pretty much the same thing as importance…. in psychology, the term takes on added meaning, which for our purpose, is significant.  The distinction is this: whereas importance is intellectual, salience is visceral.  What is salient to us is experienced primarily in our heart, not in our head.  What is salient to us can make the hairs stand up on the back of our neck, it can give us goose bumps, make our heart pound, stop us dead in our tracks… knowing what characteristics of the work you create are the most salient – and hence essential to you as an artist – is perhaps the single most important step in being able to evaluate your work and make the most of other’s evaluation of it.”  by Adam Lodzinski (Self-Mentoring and Creativity in the Arts)

When students take the time to come up with their list of ten essential words, they are surprised by the process: are there words that find their way in that were unexpected? Ones they wanted to choose, but felt ‘forbidden’? If there were two lists, one for sharing, and one for only them, would they be different lists? I don’t have the list here to share (although Adam is in the process of re-releasing his book – stay tuned!), but you can do this exercise by jotting down words that come to mind when you meditate on your art. After you have a good list, there is a honing down that is usually needed, and then an ordering from most salient to least. All of your ten words will be important, of course, but depending on the time, some words are going to be shuffled to the top of the list, while others are not. We’ve found, over all the years of doing this exercise, that the words can change… I recommend that people do it as often as they need to. It can be quite fascinating to see what words remain on the list and what words come and go, and/or how the order changes over time.

We’ve taken it one step further and challenge ourselves to write a short paragraph using our words… here is mine from last week when I did this exercise…”In the liminal space between not knowing and knowing, that is where the mystery is. Love treads gently into the shadow, not knowing what will emerge. Being part of the human condition, I strive to open a conversation both with my art and the viewer.  Patterns are revealed in the stories partially hidden in the beeswax layers.  The surface beauty pulls me in for a closer look.”

I have found it helpful to use my words as a jumping off point to write an artist statement, etc. and talking about my art is also flowing more smoothly as my words become a thread that takes me into the visual realm.  Doing this helps to build a bridge between our art and words to describe and talk about it. I encourage you to find your ten ‘essential’ words… the ones you cannot ‘live without’, as Adam would say. Here is where you can read more by Adam Lodzinski!

Thank you Adam, for this and the work that you do to deepen the conversation for all of us in creative fields!


Image: Embrace Your Soul, by Andrea Bird – encaustic/collage/mixed media 2016, 32″ square

6 thoughts on “May 2017 Connect + Create: choosing your ‘essential’ words

  • Thank you! I have, for many years, asked my students to make lists of words that are important to them, to their work to help generate visual ideas for paintings. This article assists in that process.

    • Hi Mira, you are very welcome. When Adam releases the next edition of his book I look forward to having them in our studio/school so that students have a huge jumping off point! What is so interesting is how the words change over time… thanks for your comment! Andrea

    • Thanks Melody, it was a dancing painting, which means that I dance on the wax with charcoal on my feet as one of the initial stages. Embrace your soul was a line in the song I danced to… these are great for ‘getting out of one’s head’!

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