The Kami of Brushes


For a long time working as a painter, I was always rushing as I worked. Forcing myself through a painting, I avoided preparation and focused on discovery.  This is a legitimate and rewarding approach to painting, and I still go to it on several occasions. But certainly I have slowed a bit and become more resolute about what my process and practice should be. And there is one portion of my way of working that I have really changed over the last 10 or 15 years. That is my approach to my tools and materials.


While rushing around to be a painter and a creator, I was neglecting the tools that sustained my practice. Paint tubes would end up smattered all over and my work benches, palettes, rags would be left uncared for and unkempt throughout my workspace. Worst of all brushes would sit eternally in a brown soup of turpenoid.


A lot of this came from my desire to keep working. Lets face it when you have the opportunity to be painting and working on your art, who really wants to be sweeping the floors and wiping down tables?


But as understandable as that attitude may have been, I realize more and more that I need my studio to be maintained as a kind of sacred space.  When I enter, I want there to be a kind of serenity that will echo within my thoughts. I want to feel a sanctity about the atmosphere and the processes that sustain it. This is becoming a lot about enjoying the rituals of preparation and the rituals of caring for the tools and materials.


I feel it necessary  to say that I have no interest in adopting a spiritual attitude within my work. I often find that those artists that set out with a kind of pre-determined spiritualism end up making some rather bland and boring work. The ideals of spiritual attitudes and the realities of the media we use to create with don’t always mesh –particularly for the creator– and when folks force a pseudo-spiritual Creator (with a capital C) attitude, they tend to miss the truly powerful components of their work.


Rather, I see work the work itself as a spiritual attitude – what I mean by that is the processes I once found laborious and boring are now a necessary and personally sacred time of reflection and focusing. Through this restructuring of my approach to these tasks I see my connection to my work grow. The distinctions between my materials, my tools and myself become less rigid, and this directly impacts my thinking and working process.


I start to recognize the Kami, or spirit of my brushes I use. The subtle weight of a brush in my palm, and the way the bristles bend when they meet the canvas. Every action and reaction of the brush and my hand. I start to see how the way I treat them will determine how I can treat them in painting. The most importantly I start to see them. My awareness of them grows. And I recognize how are interactions determine everything. Your hands and the brush can’t act as one until you see them as one.


Painting is such a strange thing. The almost miraculous mixing of crushed rocks, muds and  tree spirits (quite literally) to make up some illusion of  place, event, story, or heretofore invisible moment of space and time. It is an inconsistent dance meant to evoke the Philospher’s stone. Recognizing the value of your tools, giving them significance in your work is a way to embrace the larger possibilities of being an artist and of being a worker in the world. As I get older I recognize that contribution can only truly come when you  are paying attention. And paying attention to the spirits that work with you as an artist is paying attention to what makes your art your art.


I don’t do this as some new-age way of expressing my love for inanimate objects, rather I see it as establishing routines and rituals that inform my process and aid my practice. I won’t be praying to any of my brushes, but I may be talking to them, and will certainly be listening.