The experience of artmaking:  body, self and word as ontological environment.

Lynn Millette



Phenomenology, hermeneutics and metaphor

Relevant theories on the creative experience

Crossing over from memory and experience

A phenomenology of my consciousness: processes
of perception and introspection as they relate to my studio practice

My engagement as a creator


Views from my studio window

In Chapter 1, I introduce the discussion that I elaborate in subsequent chapters. I begin with a statement and the context of my research and follow with a general summary of my study.

Attempting close proximity to the conscious self enables a process that is creative in nature. The human body resonates to the mind the merging flow of inner and outer perspectives. The blending of sense and self occurs within life experience, which can then be embodied through the production of artwork. As a phenomenon, this process can be carefully observed and noted and reinterpreted to provide insight into self-knowledge and the nature of understanding.

In my experience, the idea of creativity is shrouded in mystery. Words like clever, inventive, interesting, original and eccentric are often used to describe the creative personality. I have often wondered whether my brain functions in the same way when I am painting as it does when I am solving a scientific problem. Is creativity self-knowledge? I like to think that it is. The purpose of this research is to look into the nature of the human faculty of creativity to better understand myself as an artist.

In post secondary studio curricula, the emphasis is on self-directed learning through practice ( Mottram and Whale, 2001, Lavender, 2003). For many good reasons, including expressive and formal traditions in studio art teaching, the challenge of materials and practicality, teaching has been object oriented. As an artist, I learn things each time my ideas cross over into material reality through the making of an artwork. I believe that a rigorous consideration of an art practice can offer insight into ways that art students can learn about themselves as well as how thoughts are managed conceptually when thinking creatively.

This is a qualitative study that provides a detailed picture of the personal and academic influences that have contributed to my art making. The result is largely an exploration of how my recent paintings have developed from my consideration of phenomenology and hermeneutics. It is based, personally and ontologically, on my inquiry into my own artistic practice and knowing as I experience it in the studio.


Viscera, 2004, detail

An overview of my study:

I began my research because I had questions about my creative process. I could not quite understand the emotional peaks and dips that occur while making art. I wanted to better understand them to remain productive because in creation there is always uncertainty and I needed to learn about it.

My experience with phenomenology and hermeneutics shifted my thinking away from art theory, learning and concerns about what other people were doing in their art. Through a phenomenological method I was able to turn my attention toward art making through a consideration of my physicality. The experience made me feel like I was touching and looking at art in the way I did before I received my training. My inquiry provided me the opportunity to orient myself toward an authentic art practice.

I started my inquiry with phenomenology because creation comes from within my organism. I wanted to find out more about the senses. Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty introduced the notion of "self" to Husserl's phenomenology and made it work as a means to understand consciousness. Merleau-Ponty's writings referred me to Heidegger and his notions of being and, through these ideas, I acquired a reflective understanding of perception.

In my explorations I wanted to know how the mind worked. I wanted to know about memory and how it functions. I wanted to know about dreams because of the way ideas come in metaphors. It made sense for me to look at things dealing with the conscious and sub-conscious mind as these notions were related to mental images that artists work with.

I think with images but also in words and that took my research to language. I looked into language to see what place it occupies in experience and perception. How do we use words? Is language the same inside as outside? Why do ideas come so quickly? Why do I have lingering questions that are suddenly answered out of the blue? All kinds of mysterious things go on as I create. I wanted to understand how they related to the creative process. I now have a better idea of creative inklings, why I see the way I do and what emotions are and how they work within me. I did not wish to explain art. It remains mysterious and beautiful but I did come to a better understanding of the way the mind works creatively. I now know what the symbolism in the work that I was doing was about. My knowledge was already beginning to appear in my paintings as I was reading Merleau-Ponty. I literally cleared images from my mind without realising that I was doing it. I was burying language and figuration by covering things over. I was putting things away — not in terms of meaning but what they looked like in convention and content. I wanted my new understanding to be in my work, and I found it in the studies I made of a piece of lace. From them I constructed paintings with lines that traced my experience and that released me from figuration, for a while at least.

In my studio, I have observed that the art object is the result of many environmental, cultural and perceptual influences. Observing and noting all aspects of the creative process reinforces my belief that culture is the natural outcome of sheer human existence. Contemporary art making, as much as it is linked to past artistic knowledge, is primarily focused on the present, and my experience involves this reality. I learn as I make art. With time, I have accumulated knowledge that continues to grow through my practice.

Art practice involves a great deal of subjective reasoning in the form of introspection. I sense that art stems from deep inside of me – memories – the way I feel when I look outside. It is the surface of the canvas as it develops. Visual representations and words cannot capture everything that I feel inside and some aspects will always remain unexpressed.

It is language through metaphor that bridges my inner and outer reality of experience. Focusing on my body's senses turns perception inwards. When I write about my physical state, metaphors and mental images emerge from rich unexplored venues. Words describe subjective experience; however, they are also objects of consideration with categories. A better understanding of phenomenology, hermeneutics and metaphor can provide a framework for the description through words of perception in the art-making process.

Once our basics of physical sustenance and security were established, the contemplation of the meaning of our own existence became possible. My senses allow me to perceive many phenomena within and outside my organism and my body exists in the present even though my mind knows the past and looks to the future. I might age, but my sense of self remains who I have always been. I define reality through my physicality, but my consciousness has its own system that I cannot always access. Turning my attention to my organism makes me the object of consideration. Consciousness of my physicality allows an understanding of reality through lived experience.

Neurologist Antonio Damasio (1999) notes that there has been an absence of the notion of "organism" in science. The human mind is linked to the brain but the brain has been considered as somewhat separate from the body, which has always been understood as a complex living thing (40). Merleau-Ponty (1962) emphasises the importance of the body for perception. I have chosen to use the terms "body" and "organism" synonymously to express the idea of an integrated body and organism at work at art making.

weaving emotions

Weaving Emotions, 2005, detail

Although my body is material, my mind understands it as an intelligible space. My entire experience is stored in neurological structures yet the world that I perceive outside of my organism cannot be understood as an extension of me. When I am making meaning through art, I get a sense of my physical reality. My hand at work exercises my will as I create. Phenomenology, which is cognitive and physical perception considering an object of thought, brings me into the moment of creation.

Although through language phenomenology allows an examination of the present, words themselves can distance me from reality. Words are tools for communication. New words are continually created to identify things which, without language, would simply not exist. Words combined into sentences enable me to state the most complicated of concepts. Words are anchored in cultural subjectivity but hermeneutics or the use and rereading of uncomplicated texts can reveal meaning. Art does not come from language alone but through introspection. I can generate reflective texts that trace the path of my creative process from mental images to metaphors.

As I read old letters, postcards and my diaries I remember moments that resonate meaning that gains significance through the passage of time. Words cannot come from nothing and so they have to be related to other structures in the mind. People identify with and read each other's body expression while conversing because body language reveals an underlying emotional interaction (Damasio, 1999, 53). My artistic process opens me to understanding another's personal experience and meaning in creativity. When thinking, concepts precede words and an aesthetic object can allow for communication. Through my relationship with another, I can address both the interior and exterior self and emotional interaction becomes an outcome in itself.

It is important for me to know as an artist that I have an extended consciousness that I cannot normally access. I believe that latent memories motivate me to make art and that art making is about self-awareness. In my mind is created a nonverbal imaged consciousness of every occurrence outside my organism. Although mental images occur spontaneously, I can also consciously create them. As I paint, sensory motor systems and rationality work together to construct perception. Making a picture brings a conceptual metaphor into reality. Art allows for associations that can uncover deeper levels of meaning through the use of recurring symbols and fragments of memories. As I paint I am not entirely aware of the meaning within my marks but there are clues that reveal to me aspects of my self. The aesthetic object I make allows me to see myself from another perspective. My ontology is in the work of art and art making is tied to the present. The human element within the artwork is its "aura" (Benjamin, 1968).

Although it is thought that the creative process progresses through stages (Wallas, 1926) it is difficult for me to categorise the experience in discrete steps. Originality correlates with problem finding and discovery orientation, and original solutions come through the discovery of unexpected links between bits of information (Taylor, Getzels, 1975). Creative thinking is at the top of the hierarchy of problem solving. Creative ideas are intuitive and seem to come spontaneously (Beittel, 1972, 62). For these reasons an empirical inquiry into the creative process must look beyond interviews and external observations. An art practice can provide a qualitative foundation for dialogue on the creative process. It is instrumental research into creativity because it is the language of creation (Eisner, 1998; Hollm, 1989; Best, 2000; Regent, 2002; Sullivan, 2005).

Creativity began when humans could spontaneously shift between analytic and associative modes of thought, which allowed for multiple solutions to problems (Gabora, 2006). Because the exploration of novel ideas is shrouded in uncertainty, creators are disciplined. They also possess a naiveté that permits inductive access to knowledge (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996).

Creativity cannot be measured through testing. Tests only show that creative individuals are considerably dedicated in areas where quantitative tests cannot predict success (Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, Whalen, 1993). They also have the ability to adjust to many disciplinary environments (Gabora, 2002), which tends to support the idea of creativity as an inherent human trait.

Every individual has access to latent memories acquired from evolution and through lived experience; however, due to the physical constraints of human physiology only a portion is available at any given instant (Damasio, 1999, 332). Because creativity comes from both a physical and logical mind, intuition is the product of cognitive mapping of primary metaphor with logical decisions (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). Abstractions and concepts are the result of neurological structures and can be considered as synonymous. The social and cultural environment of any person will determine the kind of thoughts that will emerge from latent memories (Lakoff and Johnson).

Researchers have compared brain function with computers because computers were designed to mirror the nature of human language. In contemporary thought, memories can be understood as reconstructions rather than retrievals (Damasio, 221). This neural mechanism is useful in creativity. Biologist and cognitive scientist Liane Gabora (2002) has used the computational metaphor to describe how the creative process occurs in a state of defocused attention, heightened sensitivity and an awareness of stimuli perceived unconsciously. When deductive and rational approaches fail, new ideas come through a sort of conceptual meltdown.

Perception occurs in consciousness but empirically there are many levels of awareness. The idea of the subconscious comes from the duality of consciousness; one from the sense that I am awake and the other in the form of an autobiographical brain map that creates a sense of self. They both feel the same because there are no physical structures in the brain that separate them (Damasio, 1999, 300-302). The physiological pathways used by the creative mind are considerably easier to describe than the creative process itself. Creativity is a part of conscious experience that cannot be readily explained because the human mind does not function as a machine (Chalmers, 1995).

Emotions are made manifest through body language. It is through the dynamics of an inner dialogue of the body that I have intimate thoughts about where I might fit in the outside world. These thoughts are at the core of my art-making process because I know that I can be opened or closed to awareness of my physical senses. Even though I might be deeply involved in thought, my body is still aware of my exterior reality. There are many levels of perception and some parts of me operate autonomously.

In my artwork, the moment is perceivable in the paint itself. My work is the path between what was inside of me and the exterior world, and the crossing over is mediated through language. Language is both a culturally determined form of communication and an internal cognitive and physiological component of the brain shaping the very perception of the space around us (Chomsky, 2005).

My sense of being-in-the-world precedes language. As I awake my autonomic system arouses my sense of awareness that defines consciousness. Language is a framework for dynamic thought. I need a conceptually amalgamated network for art making (Gabora, 1997, 9) because I must know what I perceive in its completeness before I can abstract it. The intrapsychic is my interiority and the relationship between its parts. In the intrapsychic and before the necessity to communicate, I possess an internal language that knows no boundaries. It is very different from the language that I use in the exterior world. My inner language shares the cognitive mechanisms of common language but also is the means by which I communicate between conceptual metaphors and emotions. Thoughts inside will be lost unless they are recorded through writing or speaking. However, the bridge I cross from inside to the outside when I paint is not the same as the bridge I cross when I speak and write. When I paint, I am silent.

I generally see myself as being somewhat rigorous for details and I tend to notice things unrelated to the main object of focus. When I was young, the term "sensitive" had a negative connotation for me, defined through bad feelings. The repression of sensitivity brings frustration and loneliness (Csikszentmihalyi, Larson, 1984) that affected my early experience with school. Only much later did I realise that if I had not been as sensitive as I am, I would not have become a painter.

The human organism cannot discriminate between emotions related to instinctive feelings (for survival) and those that appear in the body through blushing or tension (Damasio, 1994, 139). When art making, I deal with both instinctive and conscious thought. My moods fluctuate continuously as emotions link my mind and body into a seamless flow of experience. Perception is about how things came from the outside to the inside.

Damasio (1999) states that consciousness is the result of the interaction of internal physical and neurological events. The body can be described as a projection of an autobiographical image created by neural synapses, but we perceive a world constructed from my interaction with it (169). At birth, the sense of being-in-the-world emerges from a primary encounter with another. This experience creates a dynamic model for the inner self that is called an "object" in psychoanalysis. Introspection comes from a need to relate to the object. In art making, the object in mind takes the form of an inkling or potentiality. Introspection allows for the metamorphosis of the inner object into an exterior form. The "object" refers to my physical senses bringing in the world from the exterior. It describes me and gives rise to my self inside.

Throughout my life, I have watched my body change and I know that life is lived through the perspective of my physicality. I feel a need to paint because it reinforces my sense of presence. I cannot live in isolation, because I was born into society and I have been made in such a way that I have senses that allow me to communicate with others.

My creative process is phenomenological when I consider and associate things that I see. At a certain point, my inner dialogue and mental images enter reality through drawings. As I draw, I think of the way I feel about my subject and somehow those things are transformed into my work. I change the shape of a tree as I draw it and it acquires a unique meaning from my interpretation.

I think that I have an inner language because I cannot address someone outside in the same manner that I talk inside my head. In my mind, I am in my own world. Not everything that I think about can or should cross over to the exterior world. I noticed that as I work I am always crossing over ideas from an internal intimate dialogue to an exterior social context. For example, when I look at roots on the ground, I imagine a whole system. What I am doing is considering perception within my mind to live an experience before I rationalise it into an aesthetic object or situation. My ideas come from associations that I make inside from what I see from the outside. I have an awareness in my mind that cannot be translated into words and images. As I begin to bring inner thoughts into the world, the fundamental nature of inner language changes as I see ideas cross over into material reality. Bringing out notions from introspection cannot occur in existential isolation, because for ideas to make any sense, I must be a part of a world that includes others.

tree roots

untitled drawing, 2006
"I change the shape of a tree as I draw it and it acquires a unique meaning from my

All that I need to know about ontology can be uncovered through my experience as an artist. I know that I am very close to a phenomenological perspective of temporality when I paint. A similar thing occurs in intense physical activity. As I run, I am aware because my organism becomes my object of consideration.

When I paint, I am in the temporal present. Feelings and memories go through a process of rationalisation through sketches and dialogue. I look for related ideas but I rarely know how they may appear in my finished work. At a certain point, my original inspiration seems irrelevant, perhaps because it was too closely related to a specific moment. I have been looking at the phenomena involved at this level of self-awareness. When I am involved inside with creativity, there are things that I do not wish to share with the external world because they might seem incomplete or irregular and so the vocabulary of my conscious self communicating with my intimate self remains internal. I cannot share my inside language because as soon as I choose words to express it, everyone will assume that I am referring to the same thing that they understand to be in their mind (Wittgenstein, 1968, P.I. 293).

sur naturel

Details of Sur naturel (On Nature), 1998
Oil on paper
11 x 11 cm

In the intermediate place between my imagination and rationality, creativity is close to my sense of self (Winnicott, 1971). My imagination is where I look for variety or distraction while my rational mind figures out things. The place inside is where I go for authenticity. It is where memories and emotions blend together in mental images that can be recorded. My imagination can push things to impossible extremes where the place inside allows freedom to think and create. The mind's eye is always creating mental images. Sometimes these thoughts are distracting and at other times they are helpful. The basic neural system that regulates emotions and body function is also implicated in conscious notions. When I am sensitive, it is a product of my physicality and not of my imagination (Damasio, 1994, xvii-xviii). Any idea or mental image is fleeting because it is connected to emotions and the organism but once it is brought into reality on paper or by some other means, it will not change until I choose to alter it in a technical manner.

I have noticed that my experience as an artist is not based on theory that has already been put forth by someone in an objective manner. If my work tends toward preconceived ideas, it inhibits my expression. Artistic rationality is linked to notions of art, criticism, history and philosophy. Authenticity is what truly comes from the self.

My studio is an environment conducive to creative thinking. I have worked in several studios and each environment has had a distinct influence on my work. When I worked at school as an undergraduate student, the social context of the studio was very different from the intimate environment that I had at home. My paintings at school were subject to exterior influences, where at home, I painted from my interior self. I know, however, that as a student I needed to be around other people who were also learning about making art.

ends of the earth

Detail of installation of The Ends of the Earth, 2003
Oil on panel
20 x 20 cm each

My second studio had more space but, with a full time job, I had to learn how to discipline myself as an artist. I found that I could think about art and sketch while I was at work and, at the same time, my day job created an appropriate distance between my artwork and preconceived notions of what I had imagined an artist to be. Many of the drawings that I did at work were relevant to my project, On Nature (1997).

Being an artist implies looking everywhere but it also means that I sometimes want to see things in particular ways. My project On Nature came from what I perceived in the interaction of human rationality within a natural environment. In the difference between a park and a forest, I distinguished myself from nature. My second studio was where I went through the transformation from an art school graduate to an artist. Having a place where I could go and consider what I was perceiving, away from home and employment, allowed me to create the work that eventually became On Nature.

I am now in my third studio. When I walk to work, I go through a mental transition from domestic life to my artwork. When I arrive at the studio, I ignore what I call "ghosts", or second thoughts about what I am doing. Once I begin a project, I stay as close as possible to my initial intentions or I would never complete a painting. The kind of thinking that I do at my studio is like brainstorming. I work out things and look for common denominators. I have noticed that when things do not immediately work out I tend to panic, and it is at this point that my knowledge of the creative process allows me to moderate these thoughts.

dream interrupted

Dream Interrupted, 2003, detail

Making a picture for me is finding out what the world is like at this moment through my own perception based on my entire life experience. As I am involved in the different stages of a process, a dialogue takes place within me about the issues that I am addressing and how they affect me inside and how I will put them across to the outside world. I wonder what shapes and materials I should use and ask myself whether it will be clear. There is no certainty; otherwise, it would not be art. The way I feel inside is what initially made me pick up a pencil and draw and I have to trust those feelings. All artists have a different approach to the creative process. In my inquiry into creativity, I try to use words to describe what comes naturally to me from lived experience or embedded memories. It is my perception that leads me to art making.


Process, 2004, detail

My project The Ends of the Earth (2002-2004) is related to language. Interior Experience, on the other hand, is related to my physicality and my inner self.

In everything that I have done I have expressed my interest in my relationship with the natural world and how my faculty of reasoning seems to be different from nature. The Ends of the Earth reflected something different from what I had initially planned. As my idea crossed over from the inside, outside, it brought out latent images that I was only aware of after they had been processed through my technical abilities. It seemed to me that the work developed its own direction from within and I did not have control over my creative process. But a painting does not paint itself and I am responsible for the outcome. Mental abstractions are difficult to grasp because they are either amorphous or illogical; however, I possess a rationality constructed from my learning that moderates things but may also stifle creativity.

Through making art I have learned that every painting is a stepping stone to the next one. The Ends of the Earth made me think about language and its categories. The written language is the foundation of discourse and our primary method of communication, yet artists also express meaning in a relevant manner.

A visual language has been identified in formalism and semiology but art is not language. Aesthetic representation refers to itself for meaning. Language acquires meaning through the conventionalisation of symbols and signs. Words can be used to describe what we see but a picture is an object of such perception.

The project Interior Experience made me wonder about how the creative process allows for conjecture. My subconscious mind makes connections of which I may not be aware that reveal empirical truths in a metaphor. Philosopher David Chalmers (1996) thinks that the inner sense of consciousness might be one of the fundamental properties on which empiricism is founded (216).

The difference between man and nature is made manifest through the shape of logic — the post and beam, systems of measure and the street grids that shape our cities. I look outside my body to examine an inside that I cannot see. I compare roots in the ground to my organism and I can imagine the earth and the soil as a system like mine. I choose things from my perception and render them singular and authentic.

When I create, I am in an area between my inner world and my outer world. I am closest to that place at the studio and when I feel the moment frozen in my body at work sustaining life.

My art is related to time, sensitivity and physicality. Phenomenological inquiry, hermeneutics, but most of all, body consciousness can be effective and meaningful in my understanding of the creative process of making art.

top | table of contents | next