How the body makes art & yoga: An experientialist approach

The position of the artist is humble. He is essentially a channel. -Piet Mondrian

I begin a painting with eyes closed and let the breath come in. My sense awareness tingles on the surface of my skin. My body is preparing to be a vehicle for creation. With an exhale, my hand reaches for something, a brush, a palette knife, a tube of paint. I look at my hand and extend it toward the empty space. It is the life inside of me that makes its first mark, and then it has more to say, and more. My body is choreographer and dancer telling its story. My hands with their chosen medium are the body’s bridge to the picture. The picture is a book, a multilayered autobiography. I look at what I’m doing deliberately, as if seeing it for the first time; it’s slow, I drink it in one sip at a time, let the liquid substance hit my stomach and swirl in my chest. There’s a moment of joy, then a struggle, a birth of something hard, perhaps a sorrow. I feel that and continue. And so it goes, holding fragmentary parts of experience, with a whole, holding presence, a core self, which lovingly stewards the process with curiosity and compassion.

When I teach a yoga class, I begin with the same spacial awareness. With the first breath, my arms begin to move into a prayer, a Namaste, an opening. Then I observe my body as a spontaneous unfolding of limbs, trunk, and head movement. I narrate as if I were witnessing the spray and sound of a waterfall, or the warmth on a sun washed rose: an invitation to all the senses. Breathing rhythms emerge naturally. My students and I use our hands to heal our bodies and ourselves, and we do it in an experiential way. Experiential meaning we link the physical to a conscious awareness of our sensations, our inner images, our intention. This helps to process the changes in our body, and anchor those changes, so we can progressively express who we are more freely. Here, the body itself is the teacher and the healer.

In a Pure Painting workshop, we practice the art of seeing before we engage our materials. Here, the body gives clues, where to look and look again. The word respect comes from the root to look again, more deeply. Learning to paint begins with respect. Are we letting what we see, teach us what it is, or do we think we know and copy that information? What we see “out there” can fluidly take us back to some part of us that wants to be seen. The teaching, as in my own art practice, becomes about how we reveal and conceal ourselves in the act of creation. Our willingness to look again and again keeps changing what we see and its relationship to us, so we stay flexible with our perception, tracing the changes in contour and hue. When we apply our materials, we do so differently from our habit. We use the non-dominant hand, we paint respectfully on other people’s canvases, we work collaboratively. We work and re-work our canvas, building up layers, scraping them down, re-layering, observing how plastic the medium is. And how our perception can be. We learn to let go and make mistakes, and realize, as Miles Davis said, “there are no mistakes.” We explore, we are curious, and we can have an experience of shift. Sometimes I bring the yoga class into the painting class, and we allow the body to deeply relax, connect to breath and paint with a new feeling inside that lingers for a while. A freer expression beyond our restrictive patterns can manifest.

When I moved to Bowling Green two years ago from Brooklyn, N.Y., with my wife, Lisa, and daughter, Olive, I became an artist-in-residence at Gallery 916. There, I had the opportunity to make a large body of work. I created a series of territory paintings in my first year, mostly large format acrylics with influences from Australian Aboriginal art, along with some experiential abstract work on the side. Two of the territory paintings in the series received Honorable Mention awards at The Jack Lunt Show, Joe Downing Museum, and The Artworks show at the Ivan Wilson Center on WKU’s campus. In March 2018, at the US Bank Show hosted by the Kentucky Museum, one of my experientialist pieces won first place in the professional painting category.

The 6’ x 4’ DNA Tear was not my first choice to submit. The one I wanted was just finished but still wet so I went with DNA. It tells an interesting story. This canvas has two tears made with a straight edge. Countless layers of paint had been built up and scraped down. It went through several incarnations of earlier paintings before it became what it is. Paul Gardner said, “A painting is never finished, it simply stops in an interesting place.” It took two and a half years for this canvas to stop in an interesting place. When it was time to submit, I wasn’t sure if I would leave the gashes or suture them together with spackle. At the last moment, I chose to close the holes, sensing it would evoke the right amount of tension in the painting’s surface. DNA was a long, strange trip to first place.

The following month I had a one-person exhibition called “Paintings from the Sea” at Gallery 916. The exhibit featured over 50 works dating back to the early 1990s. I appeared on Laura Rogers’ Midday Live show to talk about the US Bank Show award, my solo show, and my Pure Painting workshops.

Since then, I have been engaged in a number of portrait commissions, where I work with clients and paint from both life and photographs. The life work is very expressive, a bold palette, done quickly in an alla prima style and comes from my body-based approach to art, while the photographic work tends to take time and have a tighter structure focused on likeness of the subject as well as the capturing of their essence.

I am currently beginning training to work as an Artist Mentor for VSA, a Kentucky program that brings artists into schools to teach and mentor kids with disabilities.

I teach regular weekend Pure Painting classes and workshops in Glasgow. I also teach yoga at Bowling Green Athletic Club on Scottsville Road on Tuesdays at 7 p.m.

For more information…, or 347-853-6034

-by Jonathan Lerner