The Big Brush Experience
Two hundred people sit on chairs lining the sides of a large room. In the center of the space lengths of white paper stretch down the floor, buckets of ink with large bamboo handled brushes are placed near the cushioned seats, a round rock rests on each corner of the large sheets of paper. Everything is ready.
This is the set up for the Big Brush practice I have been guiding over the years. Corporate bankers and consultants, coaches and recovering mental health patients, Buddhist practitioners , students and even children have all participated. What will unfold is an experience of natural order, learning how to begin an action, how to follow through, how to complete. Being held by this form a fresh beauty shows up in the marks people make. What comes forth is good, worthwhile and insightful. In this group setting the Big Brush practice joins individual embodied mark making with community art expression.
Getting ready for a Big Brush session, my preparation is focused and intense. I feel like I'm setting the table for a huge feast, every object placed exactly. Beginning with a clean, clear, uplifted environment opens and invites in the nourishment and unpredictable nature of the creative act.
The seeds of this practice began with my meeting Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher, in the early 1970's. I had been working for a number of years as a western calligrapher, bringing my love of the alphabet and the scripts of the Middle Ages into contemporary graphic design, bookmaking and calligraphic commissions. I was involved in the precision, delicacy and intense focus of the calligraphic form, but something inside was longing to take more risk and be bold. In 1978 I attended a talk by Trungpa at Naropa University in Colorado on Dharma Art. He described Dharma Art as coming from non-aggression and well being rather than neurosis. He said the work of a dharmic artist expressed sanity, a settled state of mind, and that living an artistic life was a fundamentally human act, available to all,. Then he said, "It's possible to make a brush stroke that expresses your whole life."
photo Robert Del Tredeci
I sat in the middle of the crowd taking in these words, letting them land inside. "This means a really BIG brushstroke" I thought to myself. Looking back on this moment I recognize my inner teacher guiding me towards working larger, looser, involving the whole body as a counterbalance and enrichment to my precision. Over the next ten years the Big Brush practice became my vehicle for taking more risk and getting grounded in my body. It also brought with it the companionship and delight of community art making.
Here is how it works -
Participants come up (four at a time or more depending on the size of the group) and kneel on the cushions. I introduce the principles of heaven, earth and human as the form that we will be following in the making of our abstract strokes. Trungpa had presented these ancient Asian principles in a fresh, up to date and universal way. This will be the essential structure that will hold us through the process and give our strokes strength and integrity.
To begin I ask everyone seated to bow together. A simple bow brings one into the present and bowing together is a collective act. Then each person enters the solo space of making a stroke. When everyone is finished with their strokes all bow together again as a marking of completion and a return to the larger group awareness. The strokes are then folded up, set aside, and a new sheet laid down for the next person. A new group comes up and the sequence continues.
The folding up of the strokes developed out of a logistical need to contain and manage so much wet ink, but this letting go has become a powerful teaching in itself, offering the experience of not holding on to the results of our actions. There are always more brushstrokes ready to be born. It is possible to trust this endless creative energy available to us all.
For the first stroke everyone is asked to make a circle on the page - an ancient symbol of wholeness and unity. I suggest the focus for this first stroke be on the inner/feeling experience. The principle of heaven is the sense of uncertainty one feels when facing the unknown, in this case the blank page. Trungpa called it a "positive panic", a gathering of one's energy, a natural trembling. The earth principle is felt as the movement into action - picking up the brush, becoming engaged, grounded, connected to the page. The human quality is about noticing how we feel about what we have done - curious, inquisitive, open, without judgment.
After everyone has made the first circle, the instruction for the second round is to make three strokes on one sheet - a vertical stroke for heaven, a horizontal stroke for earth, a dot for human. The focus expands now to include spontaneous design, an awareness of the relationship between the strokes, their contrasting qualities, and developing the ability to know where each mark is needed to balance, complete and resolve the whole.
In the third round everyone makes one continuous stroke that moves through all three stages - heaven is the act of landing on the page, beginning to move, setting the tone; then the stroke shifts to earth by counterbalancing, responding, grounding. Human is the last mark before lifting off the page; resolving, completing, letting go.
For the fourth round the instruction is to make one stroke that expresses the beginning of heaven and the counterbalancing of earth. Then the human stroke is made with a small brush dipped in bright red ink - warm, direct and accurate. Now the deepest aspects of the heaven, earth and human principles are offered:
- heaven is the basic goodness of the whole situation,
a natural sacredness
- earth is the freedom from laziness, a natural exertion,
a deep relaxation within action
- human is the letting go of subconscious gossip (our internal commentary)
and having no regrets.
For participants the Big Brush process creates a safe space to explore power and expression in new ways. The softness of the tool combined with the directness of the stroke joins gentleness and effective action in the moment.
For artists working in smaller formats this bigger looser scale can breathe life into the carefulness of precision, enlivening sketch noting skills. Broadening one's expressive range - in life and in mark making - widens the world.
* * *
Over the years I have created large brushstrokes for the ending moments of conferences. In this setting I am acting as a channel, gathering the collective energy alive in the room and bringing it down - through my body and brush - onto the page and into form.
Here is my moment by moment account of executing one of these strokes at the Authentic Leadership in Action conference in Nova Scotia in 2009.
Walking out into the large room I unroll a long sheet of
paper in the center of the space, place rocks on the corners and buckets of black and vermilion ink and my large brushes on the side.
I stand at the end of the length of paper, facing the room, my heart pounding. It is silent, all two hundred pairs of eyes watching. I feel a stroke emerging inside me. It is just a blurred image stirring, but it draws me forward. I bow to the space, and the fullness of the moment, and walk over to the big horsehair brush soaking in the ink. Taking hold of the bamboo handle I press the hairs down and lift up, listening to the ink dripping in the bucket. I look back at the huge white sheet, my legs planted wide, knees bent. I press the brush down into the shimmering blackness, raise the dripping hairs up, down again, up, then I can’t hold back anymore.
I bring the brush up and over and it lands on the page – like a hawk, talons extended, landing on prey, wings pulled back, ready to lift up and fly away, but the intention and weight is too strong, it can’t pull away from the page now. The brush is connected by a powerful gravity.
The brush moves up to the right, drops down to the left, pushes through, curves around. This is all heaven, descending from above, arriving - the first mark.
The brush pauses. Now there is a turning towards the earth, the natural counterbalancing grounding energy. Mysteriously, at this moment of stillness and transition, the brush releases ink onto the paper (and the floor) in a fan of splatters. No time to wonder why.
Now the earth voice is moving, speaking, slowing, steadying, drawing the brush down the length of paper, side to side, until it arrives at the bottom right corner of the big page. This is the destination, a simple stop, a quiet ending, humble earth.
I lift up the brush, walk over and place it in the bucket, pick up the red paint bucket and smaller brush. This pigment is thick, like blood, like plasma. The smaller brush is thick too, and moist and heavy.
I scan the big glistening black stroke - where is the spot for the human mark? Where is this human energy needed that will join and complete the act? I squint my eyes, softening the visual element so I can feel my body pull me - right into the center of the stroke – the space between heaven and earth. I step onto the page and gently, directly, strike the heart mark – wet and juicy at the core. It is another sudden landing, but this time the bird lifts off, leaving its brilliant color behind.
I place the small red brush and bucket on the side, stand at the end of the sheet, cool floor under my bare feet. I bow to the stroke and the space, turn and walk away. For a moment I am caught off balance, stepping awkwardly. As the gong strikes three times my steadiness returns and the sound dissolves, slowly, into the big room.
In the deepest sense, the art of calligraphy is the beautiful writing of this moment. The directness and immediacy of a brushstroke joins the space and vision of mind with the embodiment of form, body and tools. Creating a brushstroke is the act of bringing heaven down to earth through the human experience.
Showing up fully in the moment connects us to our life. A brushstroke invites us onto this path of aliveness. The deeper the involvement in what we do, the more tenderness and compassion we have for the world. In the Big Brush practice we let ourselves be seen, and we see others truly.
This visual expression of aliveness wakes up and enlivens the viewer. This is the importance of art in the world. It is a passing of energy from person to person. The Big Brush brings everyone along on this path of art and awakening. It is possible for us all to express our life in a brushstroke and in that moment be whole.
Here is a video of the group brush practice -
And here is the book cover and the link to order !
Drawn Together Through Visual Practice