“When you draw a tree, you must feel yourself growing with it.” –
Connecting the visual arts, life and personal evolution has always fascinated me. For many years I directed a programme of art workshops in the UK in which artists coached young people on how to express themselves more fully through the challenges of drawing from the naked human figure. The workshops took participants on a journey of self-discovery through visual language in which the subject was life itself and the process of intense artistic questioning enabled previously hidden talents and potential to emerge
I have also seen the way in which a work of art or an artist’s philosophy can resonate deeply with someone and how, when they are inspired by an artist touching his or her own ‘essence’ in their art, they can feel more connected to themselves and their own essence. They may also feel more aligned with their own creativity and realize that they, too, can be artists in their own lives. They have the power to carve, paint, draw and conceptualise themselves in infinite ways in the search for their most profound passions and ‘life purpose’.
When I participated in the arc leadercoach essence programme earlier this year, I could sense many connections between artists’ approaches and the arc coaching model, and various ideas came to mind. I reflected on how the creative processes of well-known artists demonstrate a fusion of creativity, curiosity and compassion combined with moments of courage where an innovative leap takes place, and a new kind of artistic expression or state of being is brought into the world. As is the case with a client, these kinds of developmental breakthroughs can happen several times in an artist’s evolution, each time bringing them closer to revealing their creative essence in visual form.
Like coaches, artists dig deep and use numerous strategies to explore their subjects, clarify their intentions and ‘name what’s present’. They are expert at taking risks and breaking boundaries to fully express unconscious, intangible feelings. Artists are constantly questioning themselves, their direction and purpose, beliefs and values. They are brilliant at examining re-examining inner and outer realities.
The key elements of an artist’s ‘essence’ are usually hinted at in their early work through their instinctive choice of subjects, colours and techniques. It can then take time, perhaps a whole lifetime of self -questioning and exploration, to be fully expressed, where the form and materials are completely aligned with the meaning. It feels the same in our own lives: the threads of our unique essences are there from the beginning, but may never be integrated or fully realized without a coaching context.
Claude Monet’s famous early painting of sunrise in the port of Le Havre, with its simple expression of light and atmosphere on water, shows all the elements of the artist’s lifelong search to capture his ephemeral impressions of nature in paint, but it took until nearly the end of his life for these to become the full subject of his art. In his daringly abstract cycle of water lily murals in the Musée de l’Orangerie, we can completely touch the artist’s essence on an immense scale. Poetic sensations of light, colour, water and atmosphere have become the entire subject of the painting and all reference to visual reality has disappeared.
The large abstract paintings of Mark Rothko in which simple colour fields are the portals to our deepest feelings and states of being are for me examples of this artist in his essence. The palpable silence of these paintings requires us to be fully present emotionally in the here and now and invites us to reflect on our sensations. The nuances of colour open the paintings to numerous interpretations, with joy and sadness often layered in the same image and the intangible inner world made tangible.
Henri Matisse is perhaps the ultimate arc artist. Running through the whole of his work and his writings is a search for essence and the complete and simple expression of his inner reality. The carefully modulated colours and articulate lines in his earlier artworks were gradually intensified into the essential shapes and forms of his later ‘cut-outs’. The artist’s values and vision are clearly expressed as much by what he chooses to exclude from the image as by what he chooses to include. Emotional authenticity was of key importance for Matisse, who said that his artistic curiosity was constantly fed by being in touch with his feelings and intuition.
The arc model helps coaches to bring clients greater consciousness and clarity about what it is they really want to express in their lives, their essence, the deepest possibility of who they are, and the creative steps they need to put in place to release this potential. Sometimes there are no precise terms to communicate moments of transformation, and visual language may express these states more articulately than words. The visual arts can provide a rich frame of reference and an additional source of metaphors to support this process, while also suggesting questions to deepen the search and widen the focus.