Spring in the southern Gulf Islands . . . Old Man Winter seems to have retired in our Rockies valley, and it felt wonderful to fill my lungs and my spirit with the sunshine of blossom-time. My friend Jocey and I were at last making the journey to Salt Spring Island we have dreamed of and lived for over the last six months. Easter weekend had finally arrived to carry us to our long-awaited workshop with author and mixed media wunderkind Nick Bantock. As mixed media types ourselves, we had each absorbed every detail of Nick’s wonderful books and writings over the years, including such stars as the “Griffin and Sabine” series and my personal favourite, “The Forgetting Room”.
“The Forgetting Room” has always particularly spoken to me because of the sophisticated interplay between text and image. Nick tells a story as much with his artwork as he does with his words, and they are inseparable. How eloquently he told the story of a young man’s confusion and dislocated and unfocused grief for a grandfather he hardly knew. I am moved by the tenderness that emerges from this multi-layered story, as the young man finds the artist within himself through his exploration of his grandfather’s home and studio. We are the voyeurs as we watch a beautiful, profound work of art develop over the pages. My hunger to learn the skill of telling story in such a way drove my steps to this workshop.
On our long journey together, Jocey and I enjoyed deep talks, smiles and laughter and the deepening of a friendship we had both sensed just around the corner for several years. By the time we reached the island, we were softened, both open and ready for whatever would come. Neither of us really had any idea what to expect. No detailed description of what we were about to undergo had been given. We were there because it was Nick. We shared our trepidation – would he be anything like he seemed through his writings? Would we be completely intimidated and all vestige of our own creativity would evaporate? We both had jitters.
On Saturday morning, we arrived at the lovely Monivea Bed and Breakfast http://www.moniveasaltspring.com/www.moniveasaltspring.com/Welcome.html, where we were welcomed with humour and gentleness by John and Wendy ffrench. The studio in which we were to work was at the top of a beautiful terraced garden woven of blossom and spring flower, bird song and the chirp of frogs in the stream. We arrived into a group ready to begin. Nick Bantock, the man I had long waited to meet, was at the centre: long, lean as a whippet, shock of whitening hair and natty goatee beard on his trickster face. Our eyes met and the first of many soul thrills ran through me. In his eyes was soul – frank, open, questing. A deep knell of satisfaction rang within me. I thought, Now here is a character you can get your teeth into.
We introduced ourselves around the circle. Nick immediately apologised if he was unable to remember our names, we mustn’t be offended. He’d be too busy seeing us. Another knell. We moved around the circle as each spoke in response to his question of what we hoped to get out of the weekend. Nick made sharp observations of each person, drawing out the deeper meaning behind our words, provoking thought with his questions. Within minutes of beginning, we were beyond small talk and deep in spirit. With a pang, I could identify with nearly every person’s statement. I had been in each of those places personally and with my creativity at some time. I tried to be present, to listen with my whole self and to connect rather than be thinking of what I would say. And so when it came to me, last or nearly last I think, I was caught out. I spoke without thinking far ahead, acknowledging the places I had shared, and the place of creative grace I seemed to have been occupying for the last year. My explanation that I work at speaking from the soul in my work and don’t really care if anyone else likes it drew a sharply amused look from our teacher. He perceived, as he put it, a little ‘foot stamp’ in that statement. Astute. True.
Was this a collage workshop? Yes, though not at all in the way you are imagining. There was no instruction on how to lay paint or elements just so to create an effect. There was intense instruction on how to build a story through a collage of word and image from our souls. Through writing and visualising exercises, we learned how to mine within ourselves for the characters and the stories that reside there. We learned to explore and discover what Nick termed our ‘personal mythology’. We learned to bring those characters and stories to the fore as needed, and to use them to inform our artwork.
As we produced our characters through the opening exercises, Nick analysed and helped us to analyse who these characters were within us, and why they were speaking now. The analysis was intense. We all participated in and witnessed each other’s analysis. We squirmed, we were thoughtful, we struggled and reached for truth. There were tears, there was laughter. Most of all, there was bonding and spirit. Gradually, over the two days, nearly all of us reached a crisis moment at some point – some privately, some more publicly – a break down or break through or emergence beyond Ego to the soft, chewy centre.
The first day, we produced small collage pieces as story boards of our characters. Subject to strict time limits, we worked quickly and with little time to think or criticise. We were to try to tell the story of who they were, the elements that were the essence of their character and reaction to their environment. This is Katie, a homeless girl:
Katie was my first character. She was 17, homeless and living rough on the streets of LA. As Nick drew me out about this character, it emerged that she had run away from her Mormon family after having been married off to a 65-year-old man at the age of 15. She was an artist. She coped with the stark ugliness of her homeless existence and preserved the pearl of her creative beauty within by making graffiti art on the city with whatever materials she could find. As we worked stage after stage, through astute questioning, Nick helped to reveal the person in me this character was, what this character had to say, the story this character had to tell that was deep and complex and dark. My other character, Laszlo, had less substance to me, seemed to bear resemblance more to the emergent me, the artist blossoming forth from the lawyer. I was far more intrigued by Katie as Saturday’s work came to a close.
I left the studio on Saturday feeling tender, almost a little bruised by so intimate a soul contact. I felt open and a little vulnerable, aware we were working deeply, but blind at that time to just exactly where we were going and why. As a group, we bonded on a lighter and more festive note over dinner that evening. More laughter than tears at this stage, much interesting talk. I lay awake long into the night afterward, feeling full to bursting in spirit as much as body.
Sunday morning, we met as old friends and were straight into our circle and then to work. Sunday’s work was to create larger collage pieces that expressed our characters’ environments. We set to with a good will, breaking three times through the day to return to the circle of show and tell, discussion and analysis. Time limits were again set. I was aware of some discomfiture as we broke for a delicious lunch in the house. Conversation with my colleagues was difficult. There was a deep, muddy churning going on in my depths that I was not yet able to articulate.
As we returned to our work in the afternoon, I suddenly became aware of a breathless quality, a rising panic, panting for breath as though I had been running, running, running. I reached my chaos point in this work where it looked like a complete dog’s breakfast. I weathered that and allowed it to emerge and move beyond. However, as we entered the final hour of this extraordinary work, I reached my own breaking point. All ability, all creativity, all inspiration came to a shrieking halt and I stood staring, dumb and blank, at the piece I had created. At its centre, there was a deep, dark hole bearing murky images that I could not leave. My psyche felt sucked into this hole and I could not interpret intelligently what was happening around it or what to do next. I finally cried for help. Nick came to see me, stood studying the piece for some time. He did not talk. Then, he looked at me and asked if he could do something. Despairing, I asked please . . He studied again, then in tiny, deft movements, he dotted two small points and one small smudge of bright metallic gold paint on my piece. He mixed up some of my sky colour and sketched in the horizon line around this sucking hole. Then, he held the piece up and made me step back from it and look. And then, with a fierce challenge in that trickster eye, he pierced me with a look and said, “OK, now what will you do next?” With those humble contributions, the piece had transformed before my eyes. It was no longer a sucking hole full of darkness. It was a glowing glimpse into faerie, a window onto golden light for which the darkness was but a foil . . . And at that moment, the workshop was over and it was time to pack away and say goodbye. I was trembling all the while I was packing away, feeling completely undone and unable to articulate why. As we were saying our goodbyes, I explained to Nick that I felt somewhat panicked by the pace of our work. I normally work in a contemplative way, silently and often through the stillness of the night, emerging after two or five or ten hours feeling as though I have been meditating. The forced march pace of this work took my breath away. Nick laughed at this and explained firmly that the pace was for a reason, to drive us past the critical voice and into speaking from our truthful Self. Silence the voices and see what emerges. Feeling as though I had been peeled like an onion, I made my goodbye to this extraordinary person. We embraced, and I swear I don’t know how he did it, but I felt my entire person firmly embraced from my feet right to the top of my head.
It was difficult to leave, difficult to say goodbye. Jocey and I explored the island by car that evening, not talking much. I continued to feel completely undone. An hour letting the rain and tears wash through me at least helped part of an explanation to emerge. You see, I’m a safe learner. I always have been, it’s part of the perfectionism that permeates my family. I learn quickly and easily, 95% in private before I risk, thereby giving the appearance often that I can just pick something up and do it right off. As a highly skilled person, I had each of my skills and competencies systematically stripped away from me over this weekend until there was nothing to rely on or hide behind. I had to stand and face that painting from a place where none of my skills or experience or competencies were any good to me. I stood, bare and exposed and incompetent and facing failure. And what Nick Bantock, the teacher, offered me was a hand. One gentle hand to help me step over a threshold into a whole new world. My personal mythology.
No finished wonder of artwork emerged from this weekend. No fancy new techniques or new skills to add to the armoury. No, not at all. What emerged from the time spent under the trickster eye of this extraordinary teacher was a stronger connection between soul and mind, hand and eye. The time to rest back in the place of grace I had arrived at is over. The next evolution is nigh, and the work has begun. Indeed, what has been wrought is a mere beginning. Stay with me and watch where it leads.