Focus

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So I went on my first SFUSD elementary school tour last week. Don’t worry, you’re not at the wrong blog, and this will have a painterly conclusion!

This particular school, the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, incorporates a program called First PASS (Promoting Achievement in School through Sport). It was my first time hearing about First PASS, and I was fascinated to hear how it takes methods based on aikido and developed with professional athletes (the program was founded by Joel Kirsch, a sports psychologist who worked with the SF Giants in the 1980s) to teach children many important skills through the language of sports, including how to focus.

The latter was of particular interest to me because I have been struck many times this week by how much focus is the name of the game when it comes to art.

Also of interest was their emphasis on not separating the mind from the body when it comes to education, but instead keeping the two working together.

When painting, it is easy to fall into going to the brain for answers. Perhaps simply because we are often drawn to do this in general. It is also easy to believe our self is equivalent to our brain because our brain tells us so. Regularly. Or at least this is true for me.

But one of the things I love most about painting is the constant reminder that the brain is not the self and is not the answer. It is a useful tool, but that is all.

Believe it or not, when I’m working on a very detailed area and need to get it just right, I often paint without quite looking at the canvas. I look a bit to the side, so I know my brush is in the right arena but I can’t see the area I’m working on. Instead of looking with my eyes, I feel where the brush needs to go, trust it, and it’s almost always right. If not, I curse and do it again!

(But I do not endorse cursing as a good way to find answers.)

Besides disengaging my eyes, I also give my brain busy work: I will find a repetitive phrase or rhyme that has some resonance with the feeling I’m trying to create and just keep it running in my thoughts while I finish a particular part of a canvas.

There are many other tricks I use, but you get the idea (ha ha); I’ve often said painting, for me, is less of an intellectual exercise and more like a combination between dance and divination.

It was pretty surprising and gratifying to find out how many of the same tricks, especially with regard to getting the brain out of the way, are also relevant in sports.

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