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

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


Several sketchbooks and notebooks

I am inside my body looking out at the world. I know that I will live my whole life as myself and will never experience it through another person's perspective. The type of thinking that occurs when I am making art concerns the perception of simultaneous inner and outer perspectives of the body as I experience them. Mental images appear continually in my mind's eye like memories. These images have an effect on my emotions and my body, which, in turn, affects my artwork.

In this chapter, I will describe and outline the manner by which my body consciousness - in the sense of physical awareness - is translated into perception and how this may be recorded through witnessing, text or image.

I begin by discussing my experience with sensitivity. Sensitivity emerges from different levels of perceptual and emotional consciousness. Phenomenology is a means to access this kind of thinking. I will relate some notions of consciousness from philosophy and psychoanalysis and describe them through my own experience.

Language and metaphor bridge inner existence and the outside world. I will identify how introspection is a means to access intimate thoughts and how these thoughts must be communicated by some means to the outside to be relevant.

I have a direct relationship to the materials and environment of art making through my senses and this affects the outcome of my work. Creative thinking is different from imagination, which seeks variety and amusement, because mental images form and become coherent just beneath consciousness. Art making is a unique way to manifest such ideas.

The experience of sensitivity

I have often been told for different reasons during the course of my life that I am too sensitive about things that most people would not bother to acknowledge. With time and through many conversations, I have determined that the way I think is somewhat more rigorous for details than average and that I tend to notice things that may be unrelated to the main issue of focus (and that this may be a disadvantage depending on the particular social situation).

My initial understanding of the term "sensitive" was physically manifested through a heavy and uncomfortable feeling in my stomach that I carried throughout the school day. The sensation would only leave me on Friday afternoons when we would do arts and crafts and it would slowly return to me on Sunday evening. My mother would use the word "sensitive" whenever I would get upset about school. I thought that being sensitive was a bad thing.

In school, my daydreaming was somewhat of a problem. Once, a teacher attempted to enforce my concentration by making me stand in class for an entire afternoon. Another teacher, in order to get my attention, threw a blackboard eraser at me in history class. I was not actually misbehaving, I was simply thinking about prehistoric civilisations, which I still do. At the time, it was difficult for me to make sense of myself. I thought that I was different and I felt out of place, which tarnished my entire experience in middle school. Studies have observed that when consciousness loses control over its psychic energy, irritability, sadness, anger, frustration and loneliness emerge and the focus on goals becomes blurred. Such experiences can cause a teenager to temporarily lose the ability to relate to the environment (Csikszentmihalyi, Larson, 1984, 19-20). Creative students see themselves in a less positive light than average students. This may be due to their high self-expectations and a repression of instinctual interests, such as their desire to make art, that require the energy that is being rechannelled to other purposes (Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, Whalen; with contributions by Wong, 1993). Art making is often set aside because schools are socialising institutions. The relative learning capabilities within any group of students often necessitate working under controlled conditions that, for practical reasons, require copying or uniformity in projects. In such an environment, notions promoting self-expression are nearly impossible to apply (Efland, Freedman, Stuhr, 1996). In my small-town high school, creative skills were considered superfluous and forced outside the core of utilitarian subjects. By the middle of tenth grade, I had lost all interest in school - but not in learning.

By the time I was in my twenties, I worked split-shifts and weekends and smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. I was unhappy with my situation and I was experiencing emotional fluctuations that caused me much grief. The possibility of having a good education as well as my job and my physical health was in peril. While visiting my parents for a few days, I went to see my family doctor about a bad cough. Because he had known me quite well, after telling me that I had pneumonia, we began to talk about my life in the city. Many things came out in that conversation. He reminded me that if I were not as sensitive as I was, I could not have painted the pictures that he so admired. It was the first time that I heard something positive about being sensitive, and it began the process of restoring my identity. It was only later and independently that I realised through visiting museums and exhibitions that I lacked the formal training that an artist requires. I now consider a sensitive individual as someone with a gift, an ability to uncover what would otherwise remain hidden to society in general (Taylor and Getzels, 1975).

Damasio (1994) describes emotions as a collection of changes in the body state in response to an external stimulus. "Primary emotions" are effectively wired into the limbic brain, where instinctive feelings have evolved to protect us from threats to our physical being. They are manifested through displays of anger, a quick move to escape or a speedy concealment from a predator. "Secondary emotions" appear in various somatic guises such as blushing, the pounding of the heart or muscular tension. Damasio observes, however, that "Nature, with its tinkerish knack for economy, did not select independent mechanisms for expressing primary and secondary emotions. It simply allowed secondary emotions to be expressed by the same channel already prepared to convey primary emotions," (131-139). Because the mind does not discriminate why it is emotional, some things must be instinctive. A creative impulse might have nothing to do with the logic of language. I have to make sense of that reality when I want to transpose something on to canvas. The way that an experience is making me feel could be a primary physical mechanism. Primary and secondary emotions are the same to the organism. I draw from both the instinctive and the rational when making art.

I spend my days associating things with no particular objective in mind. It occurs simultaneously with all of the other things I have to think about, like work, running a household and raising my daughter. Intertwined with those tasks I am half thinking about my artwork and a portion of my attention always tends toward that purpose. The mist that comes out of the refrigerated vegetable display in the grocery store fascinates me and I think of orchids growing on a damp cliff in South America. I look at elaborate packaging and mountains of merchandise and I start analysing people's behaviour, including my own. I realise that I have a sensitive disposition and I use it in a creative way, knowing that emotions are simply the changes in my body that contribute to creating mental images in thought (Damasio, 1999, 280).

My moods fluctuate continuously and in many ways they arrive and dissipate like changing weather patterns. My purpose is to define in pictures my experience of the world as it is in my lifetime. I draw parallels between the multiple functions that link my mind and body into one continuous flow of perceived experience and the apparently seamless unity of the painted surface and the intellectual meaning of a good painting. Where can I begin to separate the paint from the meaning? Where does the mind's function stop seeing and start thinking? Fixed in the present, my senses fade invariably into my perception to then affect my thought. My body reacts simultaneously to the resonances of a twofold perception; that which perceives the outside of the body and that which manages my intimate existence within. I have worked on paintings that trace, to some extent, my experience of sensitivity in the studio. The results take the form of phenomenal landscapes.

Ocean (Viewed from within), 2005, Acrylic on canvas, 165.5 x 188 cm
"The results take the form of phenomenal landscapes."

Consciousness and physicality

My perception functions within the a priori of the body. My sense of physicality comes from the consideration of whatever my senses are bringing into my consciousness. My mind creates mental images that represent smells, sounds, tastes and whether I am cold or warm, whereas ambient noises, visual stimuli, the feel of my skin and the weight of my body on the ground are things from nature. Awareness is about how these things cross over from the outside to the inside and the thoughts that they might provoke. If I am particularly sensitive to all this unfolding before me, my preoccupation with details will bring me into the present. In this state, I am mostly oblivious to the future and the past (Merleau-Ponty, 1999, c.1945). When the past finally does enter my thoughts, it will be through mental images from memories. The smell of fresh bread will remind me of its taste. When I stay in the present, I focus on the sensations from my organism. If I am standing outdoors, I think about the breeze and how it feels on my body as it happens.

Damasio (1999) has described areas in the brain that create an imaged, nonverbal consciousness of everything happening outside the body. If the body's sensory processing system requires further information, the image becomes perceptually apparent (169). Everything that we assume to be unconsciousness or consciousness is the direct result of the interaction of internal physical and neurological events. My body can be described as a projection from neural synapses, but I am living in a world constructed from external experience. Réné Descartes (1824) imagined the body and the mind as separate realms of existence (Meditations VI) but I can find coherent arguments that explain how my organism provides me with the world outside (Damasio, Lakoff, Gabora). I can surmise that I exist because of the sensory interactivity that I entertain with exterior objects or situations. I know from scanning technologies that it is my organism that provides me with an inner voice, the capacity for contemplation and my concept of self. I could not have fathomed such things in the Baroque, but in my time I sense that my physical self and my consciousness are one and the same. Perception is the process of connecting the body with consciousness.

Psychoanalytical theory situates the latent self, or the "ego", Freud's term for the coherent organisation of mental processes, in the preconscious. The body gives birth to the preconscious, from which emerges the conscious. At birth, I developed my sense of being-in-the-world through my primary encounter with another. The initial experience created within me a polysemic internal object in the form of a mental construction and dynamic model for the self. My primary experience with the other also created within me the internal metaphors that describe space, time and direction (Grady, 1997). André Green (1998) observes that it is the child in distress that calls, so need must somehow be embedded within the intrapsychic self. Consciousness of my body precedes the knowledge of the other, initially the mother; however, the complexity of the self might stem from other things (46). In the process of introspection, there is a kind of need for the defined object (in this case, a desired solution) that creates the potential for expression and transformation. Problems of communication can interfere with the attainment of this freedom (47).

Freud (1965, c.1932) described the dynamics between the body, the "soma" and the "psyche", or subliminal mind as "drive". Drive is the work necessitated by the psyche and the energy implicated within the relationship between the soma and the psyche. Drive is primal and strangely prior to consciousness of self. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, believed that drive is purely narcissistic. He saw it as a kind of "acephalic" knowledge that brings about satisfaction. For Lacan, drive has no relationship with truth or subjectivity since it precedes both (Zizek, 1997). Psychoanalyst André Green (1998) agrees that drive is intertwined with the physical, stemming from deep inside the body and tending toward the psyche. It is not simply determined by the psyche but is the core and the product of such dynamics (31).

The relationship between the object and drive is such that the object is preconceived, projected, presented and constructed, while the drive is dynamic, active, self-organized and subject to transformation. The construction of the object leads retroactively to the retracing of the path defined by the drive that constructed the object (48). The object is what I see in my mind and drive considers whether the object is relevant to me or not. The object is my senses bringing in the world continually, or it is my senses thinking about the world out there, but it always implies an interaction with the exterior. Dynamic thought is embodied within the object. It describes me and gives rise to my self inside through looking at the world and thinking about it all the time. It is how I know that I am alive. As I am considering the world inside of me and outside of me, the conscious self tells me that I am an entity.

All things of consciousness, perception, language, creativity and sexuality stem from the physical and are manifested through visual perception. The visual system itself, however, provides very little information about the body because perception occurs from within the body and is intimately linked to a sense of being (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, 241). The body is the organism that echoes the outside inside.

In consciousness I sense the layered transparencies of my inner and outer existences merge into my own sense of reality. I know that, from a physiological perspective, there are topographically distinct parts to me. My mind, my body and my senses are divided into so many parts. However, I cannot distinguish between physical components as life flows through me, as everything works together to project sensation. Affixed in the present, I scan my body for subtle movements. This is the place where I live and from which I see the world and the other. My body is a physical barrier to the outside world as I realize that within, all my self is at work connecting me to the outside. From my body, it is evident to me that I am a unified being. I see through my eyes and I hear what my ears can capture from the environment.

I have watched my body change. I remember my knees and hands when I was a child. I have seen my skin transformed through time. When I became a mother, I went from a sexual being to a source of life, providing sustenance for another. For a while, I began to see myself in a completely different way because what had been my physical identity was now an organism of gestation. I was happy, but there was a part of me that found it curious and puzzling in the way that it had shaken my sense of self. Freud observed that among the vicissitudes of the sexual drive is the fact that it is sublimated into the creation of knowledge. The excitement of the body involved in all of its sensations is a source of pleasure which, when displaced from the object of desire, is sublimated into intellectual exploration and creation (Green, 1999, 218). Green agrees with Freud that alterity enhances pleasure. The life drive offers a greater opportunity to sustain existence and an erotic life offers the opportunity to grow and surpass oneself by including a not-self that can physically unite (230). However, through the transformation of the internal object and its abstraction into the sublime, it is disassociated from narcissistic concerns and leads to the creation of a new object of a different nature - the art object (242).

I will never be able to distinguish my perception from someone else's experience by being someone else. Pondering the "object", whatever that object may be, from the exterior, gives rise to the self inside. It is the phenomenon that tells me that I exist. When I make art, I am simply sharing my subjective understanding of what it is like to see and feel like me. I look at art in general as a reflection of others' experiences of the world seen through similar human senses.

In my painted conception of the real world, I find that the experience of nature in all of its manifestations reinforces my sense of presence in the world. My physical body is the part of me that is truly related to nature since one day it will expire. My mind though, distorts my impression of reality in many ways. My thoughts shift quickly, from the future to the past. Social life and interaction with others also affect my perception of reality. The human mind seems distanced from the natural world. When I am outdoors, I feel that I am not part of the rain falling. I am not the leaf on the tree. I am challenged and inspired by nature but because I have a mind, I question my existence. When I make art, it is about all aspects of my human experience and my passage through the temporal present.

Physical sensation could be my weight seated in a chair, dryness in the throat, an itch, pain, heat or cold. When I am being physically aware, I am sensing everything coming in. I am not thinking about anything yet, and I am in the moment. If I want to feel the breeze right now, I will feel it coming and I will be sensing the fluctuations in the breeze, its temperature and when its velocity rises and falls. Then I contemplate the movement of the breeze and what it does to me. If I know what that breeze does and I am inattentive to what it is doing but focus rather on what it does to me, then all of my body, my thoughts, my identity, personality, everything comes in and that, I think, is consciousness. My organism is in the physical and temporal present but my consciousness is all encompassing.

My creative process becomes phenomenological when I focus on things that might attract me or when I associate objects of consideration. When I am working from an idea or intuition, I am looking for connections that might open up a subject. I become precise and direct my attention to my senses. I need to touch my thoughts to see them. On a piece of paper, I can form them and shape them. I can compare lived feelings with remembered experiences and investigate similarities. When I am moved to draw something, for example, a group of trees, it becomes a means to acquire them, to change them into the way I feel about them as I am looking at them. I can modify their shape a little bit to render them a little more slanted or straighter vertically, and that would say something of the way the trees that I am observing are making me feel. Their shape changes into my experience of looking at them, and they become a part of my worldview. From this perspective, I touch them and share the sensation. Phenomenology brings to light that which is already visible (Heidegger, 1977, 75). Artists are born phenomenologists through the introspection that occurs in the creative process (Van Manen, 1996). The art object is phenomenological because nature is not mine, but when I draw it, I claim it. Trees can become a recognisable piece of my experience. In the shape that I create I have recorded the phenomena and the moment of perception and I have created a new object open to subjective reinterpretation.

Consciousness focused on the inside

Introspection is consciousness focused on the inside where the experience takes place. It comes into reality through witnessing, which can occur through speaking and being heard by someone or by writing texts for reinterpretation.

In my art-making experience, I am introspective as I am focusing on my body senses to see what images might come to mind. I concentrate by simply being there and listening to the outside world, trying to see how my body responds. I sit on the couch at the studio, I close my eyes and hear the usual traffic going by below, people chatting, birds singing and then, if suddenly there is an unusual noise, I react to it and usually see something in my head. Being introspective is a state of mind where I am opening up all of my senses to the world outside and at the same time looking at what might show up on the screen in the mind's eye.

The mind is always creating images (the autobiographical self) that I perceive as the reality of my body and my world (Damasio, 1999). This reality is acknowledged through emotions, a process that is present when I am creating art. I cannot escape the effects of my organism. Motor and emotional properties are what make the reality of having a mind. Only when I can map the relationship of object and organism and consider all of the reactive changes taking place can I be truly conscious of my own perception at work (147-149).

I suspect that my thinking process often uses a unique internal language. I sense that there is an inner language because the whole world continues to happen around me as I am thinking to myself and other things will come in as I am inside of my head working out things. If, while in the process of contemplation, I happen to drop something on the sidewalk, I do not have to interrupt myself inside to say, "Oh! I dropped something on the sidewalk." I simply bend down to pick it up. An internal language has an exclusive nature. No one has access to what I am saying or hears my chatter. I cannot address someone outside in the manner that I speak inside my head. My inner language makes sense to me, of course, because there is no need for justification or clarification of meaning. The outside world requires a certain social agreement and a conventional vocabulary to allow for accurate communication of ideas. As I think and paint, I constantly test my abstractions against the outside world by asking myself whether this can be understood or whether people would be able to grasp the connection. There are boundaries or limits to how much can cross over from inner to outer meaning; although they are both dependent on language, only common language is perfectly adapted for the purpose of communication. Things that appear appropriate inside may be outlandish or contrived on the outside. Without the social constraints of outside language, inner language says anything it wishes. It talks out loud as the physical person appears silent and that is often a good thing.

I initially tended to agree with Wittgenstein (1968), who argued that private language was illogical (P.I. 243). However, the more I think about an intimate language, the more I suspect, through working as an artist in the studio, that it does exist. This is because, in the context of my inquiry, I am always looking at myself in the language of objectivity and noting my creative experience from an exterior viewpoint. Private language makes sense to me because I am the one crossing my internal thoughts over right now to the exterior as I am working. When I begin another painting it will happen again. I am doing pencil sketches of maple trees in my book and I am trying to do something with the branches. I am thinking about some kind of system in my mind and I am crossing it over into reality. I sense what I want to do, but I do not see it yet. I know that these thoughts remind me of a poem by Joyce Kilmer (1914) that my mother used to quote when I was little. She would say that "only God can make a tree… whose hungry mouth is prest / Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;" and that struck me. When I look at trees I see them drawing everything they can from the earth, I see the knuckles of the roots sometimes appearing far from the trunk. I imagine the whole system that is in the ground. All of that makes me feel a certain way, but that is all it does, for the moment. I was in the metro recently and I could see the wiring attached to the track, carefully placed and bolted down. As I was looking at that, I could hear all the ambient noise. What I am doing when I see these things is placing them. For example, I was not aware that I was checking out the transformers on the electric posts behind my house. It just seemed to me that everything was so neatly tied down and stretched. My eyes are drawn to these things because, right now, my mind is looking for such things to resolve some obscure question, I suppose, that I have concerning systems and I am not always conscious of it. All that I can rationally assume is that this is what I am working at right now. It has become the object of desire - the object of drive for me.

"I see the knuckles of the roots showing up far from the trunk."

I have to live an experience before I can rationalise it and create with it. I have to see the scenery or be in the environment to feel it. I must be with people in the metro and feel everything until a combination of these influences affects the direction of my work. This is the material that I work with. If I were to go into the vacuum of a dark room and never see anything, I would not be able to do anything. It is the effect of the outside world that gives the shadows in Plato's cave their character.

I can also sense that there is more to my mind than the thoughts that I control and organize. In my imagination, obscure images with a quality of their own come as though they were buried deep within me. Fleeting and immaterial, they engender emotions as they surface and I experience something similar to deja vu. There is an awareness that wakes up in me and reacts as if to grasp the disappearing image or a small trace of memory. I know that words cannot encompass the whole experience of such a moment and only a hint of what my thoughts are alluding to will transpire and make me think that I may have had a similar moment - or perhaps not. As I begin to sketch or write down these things, I bring my thoughts into the outside world, where the fundamental nature of my language must change. After a notion of mine has entered the exterior world in a drawing, I can deal with it objectively and formulate aesthetically the meaning that I wish to express. As I begin to paint my thoughts shift between internal and external language and with time, I will gradually see my ideas cross over into material reality. I am transposing inner meaning onto the canvas from my self to others.

According to philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, anything that is not part of the collective self-in-the-world is the "other" (Davis, 2003). The object that I am making represents the "other". It says that I am here now and this is how I express being-in-the-world. I define the time that I am living in and I put my identity and experience into the shape of that object and as I am doing it I am trying to temper the uncertainty I might feel while crossing over from the inner language of introspection into the realm of otherness.

My self is represented by my artwork and a part of my self is there for communication with the "other" because bringing to consciousness that which comes from the deeper parts of the mind cannot occur in existential isolation. Lévinas stresses that there is always a feeling of strangeness or constitutive alterity that is the self-in-the-world aware of the irreducible idea of being (Davis). My lived experience is nourished through my knowledge of the other (Beavers, 1990). As I paint I breathe, my heart beats and my brain is working. The content of my work is intellectual, in that it must be relevant to my cultural environment, but the aesthetic is closer to my self-identity because authenticity is unique. My work must come from my lived experience.

Detail of sketchbook," I do not always share everything that I know with my conscious mind."

The workings of the mind and body are entirely intertwined. Different parts of the brain share various functions. However, all that I need to know about my existence can be revealed through my experience as an artist. When I focus as I paint, time slows down. I do not worry about the past and the future. I am making a mark that states that I am here now. I think that there is intrinsic pleasure in the confirmation of existence. What I recognised in a graduate class at Concordia University that I had with Dr. Cathy Mullen , when she had us focus on our physical presence, was that we were getting involved with temporality. To respond to the repeated question, "What are you feeling right now?" required me to experience time slowing down. I found myself suddenly in the present through my physicality. I had never really been conscious of the present from a phenomenological perspective. From that exercise, I knew that I am very close to that particular consciousness of time when I paint.

I am in the present when I am creative. Initially, I might get ideas mixed with feelings and emotions and, sometimes, memories. This varies from one painting to the next. Then I may start working out the conceptual idea. For example, I am presently dealing with a tree or trees. I want to do something with the idea of connections. It has been in my mind and I have sketched and written about it. My idea concerns roots and branches. The roots go into the ground and the branches go to the sky and I am trying to create a system because I know that it is a system. I am also trying to see the tree trunk as a connector between the sky and the ground. I see the tree as a cylinder that is open ended, where life is in transit. Then I see an image of a tree as a brace between the sky and the earth. I imagine that a kind of force is channelled through that. Sometimes I see the system of trees all woven into the ground like nerves. I have not resolved these thoughts yet but it will come. The abstraction of a subject is always full of questions that I have asked myself. I keep accumulating the things I see and I do not know what will ultimately happen with them. I persist in sensing that nature is much bigger than I am.

"I am presently dealing with a tree or trees."

Sometimes I will associate things and get an idea that may not necessarily relate to what I am doing, but it could serve for future work. I write these things down because such ideas are so involved in the moment that they are easily lost. It is similar to the experience of waking from a dream where I was figuring out something important, and then it suddenly evaporates. Mental images that occur as I am painting are a bit like that. When the painting is done, I cannot recall those ideas as they were closely related to a specific moment as I was painting.

Introspection is a way to access the mental images that I perceive and focus on through all my senses. They have something to do with my identity, my memories, my past and, of course, there has to be something that reverberates from what is behind consciousness. Transfixed on the passage of idea into reality, I see from the interior to the exterior. The language inside when I think is not quite the same as the one I use for the exterior and that is where changes come in as I shape my images. Once I sketch or record ideas orally, they evolve into reality that must express a certain significance. I am within the realm of reason when I am in the studio because art must have meaning. Painting is about ontology directed outwards. I want to bring my perception of the world inside through my senses but I also wish to bring it out again and express it for the other.

Pages from my notebooks

I suspect that the part that remains highly personal inside, and that I find difficult to identify, is authenticity. I do not always share everything that I know with my conscious mind (Freud, 1960; Damasio, 1999) and what remains in the preconscious or subconscious often is the source of metaphors that I create. But to access such things, I have to be aware of the phenomena involved when my conscious self dialogues with the intimate self, and of the nature of the vocabulary of my internal language through a hermeneutic understanding of the words I record.

All of these things are quirky and bizarre in a "I am not quite sure of the way things are" manner. They are explorations that I do not normally want to share. Artists have to go through an introspective path deep into embedded memories. Contemplation does not occur in discrete areas of the organism. Everything - physical feelings, emotions and perception - is intermixed when I become quiet and meditative. The pathway to the self is not always a rationally comfortable experience. Uncertainty comes with pushing a bit beyond what I have learned (the accepted procedures in the traditions of art making). The existence of theory means that someone has already stated something in an objective manner.

In internal conversations thoughts may fluctuate from genuinely frustrating notions to tolerable and relatively lucid ideas. Things become particularly intense, so I tend to direct my thinking toward my finished work stored in the studio and try to look to my surroundings with my mind responsive to whatever might connect. If my thinking tends toward preconceived notions I will not generate interesting ideas; then frustration sets in and stifles my creative process. I must remain confident that my mind is at work somewhere in the back of my head, and, if I have any doubts, I will sketch whatever initial objects come to mind and they will serve as a starting point from which my ideas might develop. Once my interior thoughts have been rationalised through my knowledge of the exterior world and I have judged them to be worth pursuing, I will begin work. As long as ideas are in the form of mental images, they remain intertwined with emotions and the body's own physicality. Once I record them on paper, the thoughts cannot change until I choose to alter them in the concrete world. Bringing thoughts into rationality makes them stop in time. Following Wittgenstein (1968), if I can describe something through words then it is not private, and if I understand something to be private, then I cannot talk about it. I might have something completely different in my mind but as soon as I use words, everyone assumes that I am referring to the same thing that they understand to be in their mind (P.I. 293). I think what is indescribable about painting, that language does not express, is that it encompasses everything about the inner world and the outer world. A private language is in the work of art. Because I can look at them for what they are, drawings objectify what is happening in my mind. They enable me to project my ideas onto something real, away from a changeable imagination. Because they have a presence, they also allow me to begin to work out formal issues.

Details from The Ends of the Earth, 2003, Oil on panel
20 x 20 cm each

The sensory perspective

My body separates me from the world and links me to it at the same time. I scan my surroundings through my vision, my sense of smell and my skin while my mind thinks about what my body perceives. I pick up a tube of paint and see pigments that reflect their origins from metals, earths and dyes. Colours come sliding out of tubes onto my mixing surface. The texture is so thick and glossy that it affects my taste buds. Acid reds and yellows echo the tanginess of fresh lemon and hard sour candies. When cerulean blue comes out of a tube, I remember a school notebook cover that had an autumn scene with the sky in that colour. As I begin to mix my colours, fruit, hard candies, purées, cream and vegetables come to mind. I look at my sketches and see the areas where contrasts of light and shadow will be needed. Openly conscious of the links that I make while combining the hues and tints, related metaphors surface. I remember places, weather, sounds, tastes and felt emotions related to particular experiences. The mixing process is a physical activity where memories surface independently of my initial ideas for the project. Even though I refer to my images and notes to choose colours that I will need, as I select the hues and open the tubes to push out some paint I sense new experiences in textures, smells and tastes. They often remind me of things such as food and liquids, mixed with external sensations of mud, slush and sand.

Details from The Ends of the Earth, 2003, Oil on panel
20 x 20 cm each

The weight, the feel and the smell of acrylic paint is not the same as oils. I consider for a moment that I have worked with oil paints through most of my art practice and acrylics now seem relatively new to me, but my choice of materials is dependent on the kind of painting I imagine and nothing else. These paints have a very subtle chemical smell compared with the odour of oil blended with mineral spirits that lingers and changes the atmosphere of the studio. I spoon out a dollop of white paint from a large jar and let it fall onto the mixing tray. I add a touch of manganese blue to the shiny mound of stiff peaks. I press my palette knife downward into a pearly mixture and drag it until I see beautiful blue stripes in various tints. I scrape up the whole amount of paint and press into it again and again, until it transforms into a homogenous blend. I judge it too milky and decide to add a little more blue and mix it some more. Now it seems too cool (temperature) and too sweet (taste) so I decide to bring down the brightness of the sky with a little earth. Burnt umber will soil the postcard blue just enough to give me the kind of colour I want - a warm greyish blue. I often work with winter colours.

The studio inside my head

There is an intermediate place where creativity is in proximity to the self. It is the one place which permits me to go deep into the self and come up again with some form of truth.

Winnicott (1971) refers to an area of experience that is neither flight of fancy nor knowledge, but involves both. In flight of fancy, the mind is unorganized and chaotic as it passes from image to image in search of variety or distraction (Croce, 1964). Reasoned thinking has clear motives or objective beliefs in its resolution of a problem. Imagination is more like when I am playing with my daughter. We will have four stuffed toys and all of a sudden, they will have personalities and names. I will be in a scenario where bed sheets become a home and pillows will transform into another. When play is over the objects revert to stuffed toys that I pick up and the things that we imagined are gone. When I decide to look at something in another way for a while, and then it goes away, that is imagination.

I think that the place inside - unlike imagination which is flight of fancy - is the part of consciousness that figures out things, but not quite as literally as in the logical/mathematical realm. Drawings in my books are about figuring out things. In them, I start trying to piece things together without a particular end in mind. I wonder how things work as I shift motifs around to determine an optimal composition. I think about the meaning of things because the choices I make signify things. My decisions invariably represent such intimate symbolism that I wonder where it happens in my mind. There is a place inside where imagination, memory and emotions are blended together into mental images that change dynamically like clouds in the sky.

"I write because ideas change rapidly."

The place inside allows freedom to think, create and work. Freedom is an important part of my cultural vocabulary, omnipresent in songs, the news and around the dinner table as a teenager and it still holds meaning for me. Within, I can judge to what extent I can think and say what I want and that, in turn, allows me to be my own person. The place inside cannot be described as it changes every time. It is sometimes the best place in the world, where I can be at home inside my body and mind.

Perception as sensory experience aims at whatever consciousness (cognizance) is focused on while the reasoning mind heeds what the initial sensory experience delivers. My mind does not know everything and, at a certain point in a creative engagement, knowledge is not enough because to get to that point, the last phase before authenticity (my conscious self coming to terms with being-in-the-world), I have already applied the notions of art, the discourse of criticism, art history and philosophy. All that I am left with is my own baggage, my expression. It is at this moment that I find my identity and, by probing deeper still, I will find what makes me authentic. It is from this place that I create what is my own. Creation calls upon my perspective, identity and experience of the world. The singular predicate that comes from the self is authenticity. When the mind looks at itself, it remembers the past and its identity. It thinks in terms of "I am" and emotions come into play; but when perception is occupied with scanning physical senses that the logical mind transcribes in plain words (to remain true to the moment), the present comes into focus. That part of art making that comes from the frontal lobe is looking for something. Aesthetic thinking implies problem solving or problem finding and the mind reasoning its own knowledge may disrupt what needs to be perceived but is not yet rationalised. A focus on the physical body makes perceptual sense of the moment. Preoccupation with the outside world is distracting from the reality of being in a mortal organism.

The place inside my mind seems to change with my disposition and if that part of me is not doing well then it is simply not accessible. Ideas come to mind, of course they do, but what I am addressing here is a kind of quiet state of openness, of suspension. It is the type of focus that waits for something to materialise from many possibilities without a question being formulated. (This is the way I think. It may not be the same for others, since each person understands concepts from their subjective viewpoint).

"...the view of eastern Montreal from my studio window - the weather and the Olympic stadium."

My creative experience in the studio

I work in a section of the fourth floor of a large manufacturing building. The idea of the physical studio is intertwined with the intellectual space that I occupy when I am in my studio. There is something about the ambient sounds that describe it as a working place. The people next to me sew all day in their factory. I see them go in and sometimes we all leave at the same time. The trucks come and go all day downstairs, while I am in my little cocoon where I do my thinking and where I go to define things. Everything is made at the studio. It is also where everything is stored. Even my work stacked and facing the wall affects my mental space. I look at those works and I remember, through the shape of the canvas, the path that I have taken and that helps me continue.

I am closest to my self in my studio. As I go from one project to another, I make important decisions about what elements to conserve and what elements to discard from the last production. I make notes as I work. I write because ideas change rapidly. Sometimes, even a few hours later, I cannot remember exactly what I had considered to be a precious thought. I see that my notes refer to my impressions concerning the meaning in my work and its relationship to everything else around me. I have notes about photography and reflections on debates about the idea of the pragmatic in art. There are descriptions of the view of eastern Montreal from my studio window - the weather and the Olympic stadium. There are physical descriptions of places that have left an impression on me and notes that discuss how my work should be presented to the viewer - how it should be mounted and things of that nature. There is a page about current events, things to be done, a daily schedule. I talk about the music playing as I work and there are, of course, drawings and sketches in pencil and pen.

I have always kept diaries. My creative process is in the sketchbook but not explicitly. I cannot write everything. When I am writing notes, I express the way I perceive. I use plain language as directly and genuinely as possible. I record the idea that I am contemplating, its source and the links to where it might take me. My writing is like thinking aloud. Sometimes I relate ancillary thoughts and memories that are internalised or personal and, for this reason, I do not normally wish to share my writings openly. This is not unusual in an artist. Artist are reluctant to make the contents of sketchbooks public because they prefer to keep private thoughts to themselves (Gilbert, 1998).

Every studio has had a distinct influence on the shape of my work. I was sharing a live-in studio (1985-95) when I was an undergraduate student. Everything about art was new to me. I was thinking about art theory, I was discovering photography and imagery was beginning to mean more to me. When I made larger paintings, I had major problems with transportation. The space in my studio was also cramped so I decided to do smaller works that I could place together and assemble into larger projects that I could transport to and from school. With The Staalmeesters (1989) I painted nine oil paintings, reproductions of details of Rembrandt's last group painting. I applied elaborate Jacquard and satin fabric to double mats that were around each painting to convey a baroque atmosphere. I framed the pictures in red enamel protected by Plexiglas that also reflected the viewer.

I really felt the outsider when I worked as an undergraduate in the school studios. To start with, I was older than most of the students in my class. I had been living and supporting myself for ten years so I was mature in many aspects. I had a salary, a loft; I paid bills and had insurance. When I was working on the portraits for The Staalmeesters, the studios at school were open to all kinds of disturbances. It would actually push me to perform for an audience of people who would look at my work and encourage me. A part of me was uncomfortable having to work at school while another part of me liked the social atmosphere. On the other hand, while I was working on the same project in my studio at home, I could listen quietly to a selection of Gregorian chants. I can still hear that music in my head when I look at the completed paintings. The process of making that work was very intense. It was the first project where I could freely innovate creatively. On my way to class, I would go up the escalator and hear Gregorian music in my mind as the brick arches of the Lucien-L'Allier metro station took on the appearance of a seminary with the way that morning light came into the space. I had completely absorbed the music, the red paint and the rich fabrics.

Details from The Staalmeesters, 1989

When I presented The Staalmeesters to the class, I prepared for it as if it was a real exhibition. I got permission to set up in an empty studio and I installed the works precisely with the right tools. When the class came in and I had my critique, many were impressed and supportive of what I had done. In school, I saw who I was in a group. I know now that I needed to be around other people who were learning about making art because I could see how they went about their creative process. Even though we were all in a learning process, I still tended to compare myself with others and I think that it helped me begin to develop a sense of identity as a creator. Not a single painting that I did in the school studio ended up being used in the final project but they did allow me to resolve problems. I would go home and pin the studies on the wall and in the quiet of my own working space, I would repaint new ones.

Because my second studio (1995-99) had more space, I thought that I was going to do work of larger dimensions, but I still found myself involved with piecing together smaller works. I used to do drawings and notes on little time slips. I would work out things without being self-conscious about making a work of art. Quite a few of those drawings were relevant to my Master's thesis project, On Nature (1997). Working at a day job created an appropriate distance between my artwork and my preconceived notions of what an artist should be. It was a stressful but, in another sense, an effortless job and the company provided me with a pencil in my hand with which I could approach creativity in a relaxed manner. As I would work with my client and focus on a call, I also had this window of opportunity to explore things. I enjoyed the way I pieced these little squares of paper together in novel configurations. It was particularly useful for those paintings where the composition was all-important.

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

As an artist I look everywhere. I see things but I do not recognize them instantly. I rack my brains on form or to try to give three-dimensional depth to something flat, so sometimes I see things that twist my perception. Because of the kinds of forms I might be looking for, I sometimes intentionally flip things around or I might see a picture in a newspaper upside down and perceive a completely different thing than the photograph. What I notice is usually far more interesting, with a quality and atmosphere full of mystery. When I finally see it right side up, it will turn out to be something banal. I remember when I was working on the paintings for On Nature, I saw something in a shop window that appeared strange but, at the same time, there was something attractive about it. As I got closer, I saw that the reflection from the window glass had changed my perception of what was in the display. I imagined something that was not there. I thought to myself that I was seeing things but I had been biased by what I was involved with at the studio. Merleau-Ponty (1962) refers to a similar experience. The phenomena of perception precede rationalisation and the object is only gradually revealed in relationship to my expectations and previous experience (20). The project, On Nature, was dealing with the idea of man's intervention in the landscape. I was abstracting shapes like bridges, monuments and parks. When I compared a park with the forest, I saw rational thinking in the form of sidewalks, trim gardens and colour co-ordinated flowers. The form I saw in the store window was in fact related to these kinds of abstractions.

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

My second studio was important to me for several reasons. I developed my first professional work there. I had my first experience with a solo exhibition. There were many changes in my private life. This studio is where I brought my baby daughter to work with me, where I completed my graduate degree work and was awarded a Canada Council Grant. The time I spent there was meaningful and when we were unfortunately forced out because of a condominium development, I was sad to let it go.

I know that it is important for me to have a place to work. I am a twenty-minute walk from my present studio and that creates a physical space between the building where I live and where I work. Sometimes I wish I could snap my fingers and be there, especially when it is very hot in the summer or when there is a snowstorm, but the rest of the time the path that I take is usually pleasant. I go through a thinking transition from the moment I leave home. I look back at the garden in front of my house and then I engage the street. The more I move toward the studio, the more I get into my artwork.

When I walk into the studio in the morning, the first thing I do is look at my developing work. I can stand there for quite a while imagining different outcomes and evaluating the work I did last. A great deal of my thinking occurs when perception is fresh and my mind is rested. Based on my experience, I prefer to ignore what I call "ghosts". These second thoughts, if they appear interesting to pursue, are written down or sketched for future work.

Novel issues surface constantly as my work develops, but once my sketches are pinned to the wall I remain as close as I can to my initial ideas because otherwise I would never complete a painting.

The kind of thinking that I experience when in the studio is like brainstorming. I work out my thoughts and hope for an all encompassing common denominator to gather into one kernel all of the elements with which I am working. I cover a canvas with a black ground and I place it on the floor, where I paint these big, white serpent-like lines. A couple of days later I paint them with a smaller brush. The motifs imitate knots that occur in weaving - they loop, one upon another. I take a digital picture of that and say to myself, "What's the point of painting this, because it's not really very interesting," and so I cover it with a new ground. This is how I work on certain days in my studio. I think that there must be some way that I can put all of these ideas together and come up with something really interesting. In brainstorming, I am waiting for the memory locations in my mind to reach a point of saturation where, through some kind of conceptual meltdown (Gabora, 2002), I will suddenly realise an answer.

Detail of untitled study, 2006, acrylic on canvas

I begin to explore the effect of different types of lines over certain painted surfaces. I paint thin lines that look almost like a fringe and they end up appearing a little bit like an aurora borealis, then I have another kind of line that looks like a spiral or string. I have continuous wide brush strokes that look like tubes and suddenly I am thinking of putting things into those tubes. I have all these different ways of applying the paint and putting an image together. I feel like I have everything necessary but I am holding back some things in my mind. I try to put something down in sketch form on a small canvas, but when it does not seem to come out instantly, I begin to panic because it feels like I am not doing anything. I keep looking at the clock. Oh my, it's twelve o'clock! It is one-thirty and I say to myself that I have an hour-and-a-half. I'd better hurry up and so I go and make another cup of coffee and I wash my brushes and keep on going, starting from the beginning. Then I put down the brushes and say to myself that I have an hour left. Now I am going to sit down and read. I start reading and then I say to myself that I had better write something because I have not written anything yet. I go to the computer and start writing and then realise that I am just correcting sentence structure and looking for alternate words and it's three o'clock and I have to go. I say to myself that I have not produced anything. Where did the day go? Then I say that it is the end of the week and I haven't done anything. I've spent three days running around in circles and I start to panic and I sense that I am on the wrong track and I can't wait to get home and put this aside because I'm tired of suffering. When I get home to my daughter and feel like I am in her world, all of this goes on a shelf for a few hours. By the time I write about it, I feel like I am giving a lab report. I don't want anyone to think that I might be failing. I am reminded of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) wondering about the quality of light and the depiction of light and shadow in his paintings. He did three versions of Virgin of the Rocks. My daughter asks why he did so many of them. I say that it is because he was trying to work out something. I imagine that in the first versions he did not quite get what he had in mind and so he painted another one to push it a little further and to correct something that to him was not quite what he was looking for. Now there is one in the Louvre, another one in London and a third in Switzerland.

left: Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, 1483-86, Musee du Louvre, Paris
right: Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, 1503-1506, National Gallery, London

Creation has something to do with the enormous stock of memories of which I am unconscious but nevertheless feel. My body remembers because my organism has a memory of its own (Damasio, 1999). My body was there when I was born. My mind was registering memories that are still in there. A melody touches something deep inside and I remember when I was a child I would hear Brahms and my eyes would fill with tears. I sit here in my studio perch, five floors above ground, where for several summers now I have worked on my inquiry. I see treetops poking out from rows of rooftops and chimneys. From here, they are compressed and seemingly flat without streets and people in view. I have seen the trees change with the seasons year after year and it is a dramatic metamorphosis. It always amazes me how life forms go on about their existence. I muse that a digital program is somewhat like a seed in which a giant tree is potentially waiting to be planted. It is rather small and does not look at all like what it is capable of doing. I am aware of the complexity of the seed, but like a seed, our capacity for invention is involved in a metamorphosis, which is what human experience is about.

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