S&H editor Ben Nussbaum and Portland-based artist Flora Bowley spoke about teaching, the link between creativity and intuition, and how limitations can create freedom.
You’ve been teaching workshops on painting for about a decade. How has your approach to teaching changed in that time?
Flora: I’ve learned a lot about teaching itself. I remember about two hours into my first class, I looked around and every canvas was brown. I realized, oh, I really need to come up with ways to teach people about things like color—such as mixing and not mixing—and so many other aspects as well. It’s been a very interesting journey to “teach,” and I put that in quotes, something that is so nonlinear and intuitive to me, and I hope will be non-linear and intuitive to other people.
Over the years I’ve tried to focus on how I can simplify the nuts-and-bolts part of painting in order to give people enough information to be empowered while focusing on freedom, intuition, letting go, and allowing it to be a process that isn’t technical.
The paintings were brown because people wanted to combine all these beautiful colors but didn’t understand how to do that.
Yeah. If you mix opposite colors, they turn muddy. Whereas if you put them next to each other, that’s a real pop and contrast. So I quickly realized we need to divide the warm colors and the cool colors. So the first thing we do is an eyes-closed, finger-painting, dance-the-paint-onto-your-canvas exercise, with only the warm or the cool colors. We let that layer dry, then the next thing we do is add intuitive marks with the opposite colors. The students create this vibrant painting just being in their freedom and having a little bit of information around color combining.
How has teaching changed your approach to your own art?
It’s been a journey ... it became so much more clear through teaching that what I’m most interested in is how painting teaches us about living.
It’s a really cool vehicle that offers a place to practice things like listening to our intuition and trying new things and changing directions when we need to—learning to see the world through the eyes of an artist and how to translate that.
There are so many metaphors. Through guiding so many people through the painting process, I’ve come to really see, wow, they’re getting a lot more than just painting out of this. Painting is the vehicle we’re using, just like you could use yoga or meditation or whatever else, to learn about life.
What’s the difference between intuition and creativity—in your mind, your process?
Intuition is sort of what drives creativity. Intuition is that very personal inner relationship to your higher self, or whatever word you want to put there. The part of you that just knows things. Intuition is something that we draw upon in the creative process.
I think of creativity as a lens through which we see the world. It’s being open to finding new solutions. Being open to changing directions. ... Painting gives this very distinct space in which we get to play with creativity and play with intuition. It flexes that muscle. If I’ve been painting all day, I walk out of my studio and I’m seeing the world a different way, because I’ve been flexing those muscles. It changes you.
How do you combine intuition and craftsmanship, or intuition and a sort of editing function?
That’s been something I’ve really had to dive into in this process. Can something be intuitive and about letting go and flexing those muscles, and can we make something we want to hang on the wall at the end?
For me, it’s another metaphor. The kind of life I want to live is a combination of those things. It has all this intuitive flow and the ability to go with it, and I also need to pay my mortgage and make sure I’m exercising. There’s this housekeeping, refining, paying-attention-to-the- details part of life that when combined with freedom and flow ... that’s the magical place where life gets really good.
That’s a conversation we have a lot in my classes. I call it spiraling in and spiraling out, where we’re taking a step back, noticing what’s happening on that canvas, but also letting ourselves get lost in it.
Can you share one way to shake loose our intuition?
One that comes to mind is Creating Banks on the River. If you create a little bit of restraint, it’s easier to be free. With painting anything’s possible, which is so wonderful, and it can
also be overwhelming. We can paint ourselves into a chaotic mess.
So an example would be, “How about for the next ten minutes, you only paint in blue, and you work with your non-dominant hand.” The river’s banks get to change as you continue on the piece, but giving yourself parameters is one of the best ways to get unstuck.