Living Art- V. Teaching Creativity -Painting Non-figurative “Objects” and Dancing with the Figure

 V. Teaching Creativity


An artifact is a work of art in so far as it sensitively, vitally and intensely embodies inwardness in an interpersonal medium… Inwardness is the world as it is experienced. My inwardness is the world as it appears to me.

Every thing visual is soulful.

Direct comparison with the model and awareness of pattern enable the teacher to point out and clearly demonstrate achievements and errors in proportion, anatomy, color, form and dynamics. Yet if left alone even for a few weeks this can enclose and limit.

I want to be able to say and show that “This painting, for all its technical flaws, is personal, original and vital: thus it is a work of art.” and “This accurate figure composition is an anonymous instance of competence. It has no life or individuality. It is not art.”

Art teaching should directly assist vital medially sensitive communication of inwardness.


Painting Non-figurative “Objects”

1. Opening


Art is direct intimate communication of inwardness between individual and species. Inwardness, thus art, is always in dialogue with “the other.” In this sense all art is “objective” (i.e., there is no “nonobjective art”).

Yet the object need not be “a recognizable thing” (i.e., a human body, a vase of flowers)…. It should be definite enough to offer guidance. It should be “open” enough to invite personal interpretation and free play of imagination. We select themes and musical compositions as nonfigurative “models.”

In class, where work must be publicly evaluated as moving towards or away from art, this “model” should be publicly specified.

2. Painting Themes


The first approach to directly teaching personal creative expression translates pure language into visual images.

I let down a net of words into “the ocean of voices”, strands tight enough to select yet open to personal variation.

I say, for example, “Paint something strong in relation to something delicate.”: I don’t say “fragile,” “weak,” “harsh” or “tough.”

To weld “vulnerable” and “sensitive” to delicate would deny vulnerability and sensitivity to strength. To weld “harsh” and “tough” to strong would have forbiddden the “embryos in their mother’s wombs”, “birds in sheltering trees” and “children cherished by parents” some Phoenix House students painted.

One tries to open not to trap.

3.Painting Music



In teaching “painting music,” the crucial problem is to become aware of processes normally taken for granted.

When I was with The New York City Health Department my work often brought me to a child health station in Chinatown. Every year there was a Christmas party. There was home cooked food from many cultures: Chinese noodles, southern fried chicken, chicken vendeloo, curried goat, tamales, enchiladas, spaghetti, veal parmigan, Native American corn bread, beef stew, etc. After we ate, tapes were played on a “boom box”: soul, reggae, rock, pop, salsa…. We danced around long tables.

At one of these parties I recognized that in America we naturally express our personal uniqueness, our group connection and our shared humanity through dancing. – Years later I realized that as music translates into movement it could translate into paint: I “saw” equivalences (e.g., line is like melody, colors and textures resemble the sounds of instruments and voices).



There are recurrent problems in painting to music.

We can be trapped by the machine augmented lowest common denominator visual clichés that surround us.

One can be overwhelmed by the richness of music in time… A resonant pattern emerges on the canvas. Yet the music continues and changes.

There are solutions.

It helps to avoid cliché if each line – each movement of brush on canvas – is “with the music”.

Look at your image (in your mind or on the canvas). Let it sink into you, deeper and deeper…as a stone in water… until it becomes unique and personal.

Once you have a living coherent image, take from the music as it flows past you only what nourishes and completes that image…Let the painting tell you what it needs.


Painting to music frees the student from the rigidities of given “figurative objects.” It invites – and requires – focus on medium, archetypical resonance and composition.

Dancing with the Figure


          After a few weeks “teaching pattern” most students draw and paint the human figure as an organic and dynamic unity. Yet their work is relatively anonymous and inexpressive.

For most students, movement to the nonfigurative model is a qualitative leap: paintings become vital, personal and intense.

Return to the human figure as model is normally a regression. – Why? I’m not sure….The figure is a complex given shape. Yet a Mozart concerto is also intricate….We are profoundly conditioned to respect the human figure. It is who we are.

I am exploring ways of avoiding this decline.

2.The Moving Figure

We introduce the figure in the presence of music, and in motion. – I explain the situation. “We are trying now to open your figure work to the wonderful intensity you’ve achieved in your directly medial compositions ….The world is there for your expression: music and figures, and your memories. Look at the model. Lean back into the music. Your act of creation is the center.”

The power of the stationary human figure to compel attention is irresistible to beginners. Thus I start with music first. At first the music plays alone until they are deeply involved in their paintings. Then I signal the model to appear.

I ask the model to subordinate him/herself to the music. Almost always s/he enters dancing… Sometimes I join the dance.

Little by little I introduce the model earlier until pose and music begin together.

3.Painting Gesture

I enact as well as explicate languages of gesture…“You walk into class on the first day. You see your teacher. This is what you see.” I slump on the model’s stand as though my bones were butter and the butter melted: as though I were a lump of weeping clay and a puddle of soft ice cream…. “Or this.” I leap up as though full of lightening: straight, rigid…movements sharp, over energized…eyes wide open, pupils dark hot coals in snow. “Or this.” I strut like a wind up Mussolini. All this slouching and leaping is consciously ham acting. (In everyday life gesture is of course more subtle.)

Returning to the human figure, we paint to the “music” of gesture.


The above is an exert from Living Art, Click bellow to continue reading the next section-

Painting Archeytpes


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Writings and Interviews by Avron Soyer

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