Heidi Thompson: The Art of Art & Attention
Heidi Thompson leading workshop. Photo courtesy Ted Fogg
Twenty adults and one child sit quietly in the gallery waiting with curious anticipation. The walls surround them with glowing, colorful paintings, adding mystery to the event. It is August 17th 2008 at the Grand Forks Art Gallery. The workshop - Art & Attention, facilitated by artist Heidi Thompson, is about to commence.
Thompson welcomes everyone and begins, "Today we will conduct a personal experiment which involves observing the relationship between our state of mind and our artistic expression. We will begin by focusing our attention and calming our mind. After, we will paint a picture. Our goal is not to control how or what we paint, but simply observe the experience. The value and beauty of art is in its truthful exposure of the artist's state of mind, whether that state is desirable or not. Art mirrors who we. As we become aware of our unconscious motivations and mind states manifesting in our work, we gain self-knowledge. Examining our art allows us to eliminate undesirable qualities and nurture the positive. In this way, I believe, artists grow."
Art & Attention is an important component of Thompson's exhibition, Unity Sensation, Art and State of Mind. Her paintings resemble nature's surfaces land, water, air, and matter move in colour, light and space. Thompson avoids any kind of imagery. She wants to evoke a purely sensual, vibrational experience. "The intellect seems satisfied when it recognizes the familiar. Hopefully, my paintings will short-circuit the all-knowing intellect allowing the viewer to experience hard to describe feelings, sensations and energy."
The concept Art & Attention evolved over many years. While Thompson studied art in Europe in the 70s, she investigated various meditation techniques. She was inspired by artists like Kandinsky, Klee, Rudolf Steiner and Mark Tobey, who studied Eastern philosophy and practiced meditation. After returning to Canada, Thompson attended a 10-day meditation course which taught Anapana and Vipassana. She has practiced this meditation for several years which helped her experience how thoughts, sensations, mind states and all forms of expression, verbal, visual or audible, are interconnected.
Seeking Space, 2008 by Heidi Thompson.
Over the years, Thompson's painting style changed from somber figurative work to energized colour fields. Many factors contributed to this shift, but Thompson's experience of how thoughts and sensations are connected was most important. "An artist can chose to either paint the idea or thought, or the energy and sensation causing the thought or maybe both at once." Wanting to share her experiences, Thompson approached the curator of the Grand Forks Art Gallery, Ted Fogg. He invited her to exhibit and conduct the workshop. This is how Art & Attention began.
Thompson learns from artists' work. She is constantly seeking evidence how an artist's mind is manifested in his or her art. "Today, visual images are as varied and abundant as the people creating them. Some art is harmonious and peaceful, other work mirrors the unhealthy social and political aspects of society. Images of violence, abuse, and world crises certainly raise awareness about the artist's suffering and the deteriorating state of the world, but in my work, I seek ways to heal dis-ease. I believe that world peace begins with a peaceful mind. I can't say I'm there yet, but I keep trying. Art and people who enlighten and guide me in my search toward knowledge, compassion and peace, are my mentors."
The attention developing session continues for an hour. All work diligently, focusing on their breath. Their minds become increasingly sensitive while trying to detect the subtle sensations caused by the breath touching the skin. They are using an ancient focusing technique called Anapana. Not an easy task for any age. The mind keeps wandering to thoughts and external distractions. Thompson explains how to bring the attention back when it slips away. Even seven-year old Liam understands, "My mind is like my dog. He always comes when I call. But one time he wandered away to the neighbors 'cause something more interesting was going. I kept calling. It took awhile, but he finally came back."
Soon lights brighten alerting everyone that it is time to paint! For beginners, Thompson offers tips on composition and colour - just enough to get started. The plan is to paint a landscape using a photograph - mountains, sky, trees, lakes, rocks, sunsets, flowers all bathed in light and colour. Thompson believes that nature is our best teacher. "First we examine nature inside us the subtle vibrations on the skin caused by the breath. We learn that sensations keep changing arising and passing away. Then we open our eyes and examine reality around us. Whether it's studying the photograph, or how the paint drips, flows or changes over the canvas, the experience feels alive, connected with what is going on in the moment not what we imagined or wanted."
Within a couple of hours, students proudly finish their colorful, vibrant paintings and the room is filled with cheerful chatter. The class ends on a positive note. One woman writes, "Wow!, what an experience today! Words are not enough to portray my appreciation for the beautiful opportunity. I learned so much. The meditation was wonderful." Another confides, "You helped me unblock some energy today I've always told myself that I can't paint because I almost failed grade-four art class. Thank-you for giving me this opportunity to prove to myself that I can do it. I just need to focus and quiet the negative/critical chatter in my mind. My life is richer and more peaceful because of today."
Art & Attention was a free workshop made possible by several generous sponsors. Thompson will offer the workshop and exhibit again to anyone interested in providing a space. For more information: www.heidithompson.ca