How an Artist is Like a Tree: Paul Klee on Creativity

By Paul Klee – Swiss-born German artist (1879-1940)

The artist has studied this world of variety and has, we may suppose, unobtrusively found his way in it. His sense of direction has brought order into the passing stream of image and experience. This sense of direction in nature and life, this branching and spreading array, I shall compare with the root of the tree.

From the root the sap flows to the artist, flows through him, flows to his eye.

Thus he stands as the trunk of the tree.

Battered and stirred by the strength of the flow, he guides the vision on into his work.

As, in full view of the world, the crown of the tree unfolds and spreads in time and space, so with his work.

Nobody would affirm that the tree grows its crown in the image of its root.

Between above and below can be no mirrored reflection. It is obvious that different functions expanding in different elements must produce divergences.

But it is just the artist who at times is denied those departures from nature which his art demands. He has even been charged with incompetence and deliberate distortion.

And yet, standing at his appointed place, the trunk of the tree,

he does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths.

He neither serves nor rules — he transmits.

His position is humble.

And the beauty at the crown is not his own.

He is merely a channel.

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It’s been years since I’ve had a stack of newspapers on the coffee table, and seeing it there made it look like home. As if this was what the living room had been missing. The papers. And to think I only ordered a subscription again because I didn’t have anything to put down by the front door for wet boots this winter. Or crumple up and stuff into a box to cushion the cookies or whatever it was I was packing to send off. Newspaper had also been handy to have around for repotting a plant indoors so the dirt wouldn’t get all over the floor. I once volunteered to give away a stack to a woman who posted on the app ‘Next Door,’ saying she needed them for the bottom of her bird cage.

Apps are great. Phones are wonderful too. There’s no end of news to read on my phone. I have several digital subscriptions with up to the minute reports of what’s going on in the world. It’s quick and it’s easy, but touching a screen and scrolling down isn’t the same as holding a paper in your hands, turning those unwieldy pages. Having to read near the window or turn on the light. There was a knack to folding the pages over and back and folded when riding a crowded bus or subway in the morning. You could tell a lot about a person not only from what paper they were reading but what section. Now everyone’s looking at their phones you don’t know what they’re seeing. Of course it’s none of my business, but I can’t help wondering anyway.

We’re all in our own world now, our own reality. But this isn’t about that. And neither is it about the difference between having to get dressed and leave my apartment to pick up the paper tossed on the front doorstep of the building, versus picking up my phone or looking at my computer to find out what sort of news the day has brought. It’s about home, and what feels like home used to feel. Like the touchy-feely newspapers that piled up and had to be tied in bundles for the recycling bin. I’ll have to go buy some string now.

I don’t know how long I’ll keep the subscription. I get it for half-price the first year. I remember when the paper cost a nickel and I was the paper-girl in high school, making half-a-cent for every five-cent paper I sold. It wasn’t enough to even buy my lunch, but it was fun, and I got to wear the green canvas apron with pockets for change. I remember when the ink used to come off on your hands, and the paper was fat and bulky, thick with advertisements. It’s a lot thinner now, and a lot more expensive, but I can feel it with my fingers. The news itself won’t be any different from what I can read on my phone. It’s only the sensory experience that changes. But isn’t that everything?

The feeling is everything. When sight goes, and touch and smell and taste and hearing, it’s the feeling that remains. The feeling I once had. It’s why I keep drawing. It’s simpler and faster to take a picture. But my eyes have already taken a picture and sent it to my brain to figure out what it is, and my brain sent it back, said it’s a pile of old papers, end of story. Whereas when I draw something, even if it’s just a pile of newspapers from last week—old news you might say—I’m doing more than replicating an image. More even than picking up the feeling I get from looking at the pile of papers. Because once I have the eye-hand coordination going on, it goes through my body. It’s all about expressing the feeling my brain sends through muscle and bone with magnificent speed until it comes through the hand holding the pen or the brush. And somehow the feeling is stored in the cellular matter, and I’ve got the memory in my body, in my heart, and in my feeling body. When the body goes and the watercolor fades, and these particular newspapers are long gone, what will be left is the memory in my heart. Because I touched the papers.

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Achilles Heel

If you woke up with a pain in your heel, would you automatically think of what needed to be healed? Would you think of Achilles, and wonder if it was a message to look at where you were vulnerable, where your Achilles Heel was? Or, would you immediately Google “heel pain”? Only misspell it in your nervousness, and type “heal pain.”

Sunday, December 12th—or 12.12 as I like to see those digits that appear only once a year on the calendar, yet call us daily to noon or midnight, signifying the 24-hour cycle is half-done or half-to-go—I woke up with a soreness on the heel of my right foot. I couldn’t imagine what had caused it since my foot had been perfectly fine before I went to sleep and all I had done was lie down for a while. Though it was a minor discomfort, it changed my walk, and I decided it would be best to do as little walking as possible that day. Then as I sat around, I thought of Achilles, and wondered if it was a message to look at where I was most vulnerable.

It was that old bugaboo—Time. Will I have enough? Will there be enough? Time that rushes on, no matter we slow it down or stretch it or ignore or bend it. While it’s true we can step out of Time in dreams or meditation, or by getting into the zone that is timeless, here in the physical, “Time and tide wait for no man.”

I had the same concern when I passed the signpost of 30 more than half a lifetime ago, and it felt just as pressing then as it does now. But before you pipe up and tell me, like a friend of mine did back then, that I’ll have all the time I need and not to worry, let me say that I need the idea of limits and lifespans, of timespans and time-ups. I can’t take forever to finish my book. At some point it has to be done. Not necessarily finished, every questioned answered, but done.

So, I’m telling myself not to think of Time. Rather think of Space. Just being in Space in the Now. If anything needs to be healed, it’s the fear of running out, not having enough. It’s always Now. The Now is endless. I will let go of lack. I will stop counting the days. I will trust that if I do the work, it will be done. And no matter if I write The End, there will be something more after that. There are still SO MANY, so many days left until the end of December.

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Time Pieces

Time. It’s always time and there’s never enough. 
Except when there’s too much in this place where we’re all doing time. 
Time me, ti-me, tie-me-to-time. 
Or let the battery run out, let the ticking stop. 
But not my heart. 
Let my heart go on ticking when time has stopped. 
I’ll keep time to the beat of my heart. 
My inner biological, psychological, psychic clock, 
with its own logic that puts me in the right place, 
at the right time and never runs out. 

This is the clock that rests on the shelf above my desk. Its battery, which seemed to have endless life, finally slowed down.

I had to wait a day to get a replacement. What surprised me was how often I found myself looking at the spot where the clock no longer was. I had no idea I was so dependent on this clock. It’s not as if I don’t have a clock on my laptop and phone. But I’m not used to looking at them for the time when I’m at my desk. I’m used to glancing at a certain spot on the shelf that was now empty. The disappearance of the clock threw me. And then I realized that this was the time-piece that reined me back into Time.

Laptops and phones are connected to the internet where it is too easy to lose all track of time and even to know what day it is. This old battery-run clock of mine, so solid looking and simple to read, purchased before anyone ever heard of a smartphone, brings me back. And I need that.

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Writer’s Blood, Body and Spirit


I bought this ink for the name on the bottle—Writer’s Blood—to remind me, as Paul Gallicowriter's blood 2 said, to “bleed onto the page a little.”

“It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.”

Hemingway’s quote is the better known one: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

I often write by hand before I can face the keys, so the right fountain pen filled with my current favorite color ink helps me to get into the flow of feeling-hand-mind-heart coordination.

The “Writer’s Blood” was a little too brown for me, so I added some red to it, not knowing that when you write with real blood, it does turn brown.

Bhuddist scrolls

Buddhist Scrolls

I saw this when looked at the work of Buddhists in Eastern Asia who believe that copying a sutra with blood drained from their own body is proof of their piety and devotion to the Dharma. Certain Chinese Buddhists take this idea to the extreme by draining their own blood. In this prolonged ritual of self-sacrifice, since the texts might be hundreds of thousands of Chinese characters, they are literally embodying the holy teachings, sanctifying and animating scripture in a way that ordinary ink, no matter what the name, could never do. And as such, blood written artifacts are revered and worshiped rather than read or studied.


Sketchbook, N. Wait

Body and spirit. Blood as spirit. Nietzsche says blood is spirit:

Of all that is written, I love only what a person hath written with his blood. Write with blood, and thou wilt find that blood is spirit. ~ “Thus Spake Zarathustra” (1883-1892)

James Dowd says much the same thing:

I believe that writing with Blood is to write with spirit, to feel the energy in you and around you, and to funnel it into your work. It means including everything that is you; the best and the worst parts of yourself, all there, right on the page.

Then we have Portuguese author Jose Saramago who would rather not speak of it at all. Words that come from the heart are never spoken, they get caught in the throat and can only be read in one’s eyes.

I wondered then what women writers had to say on the subject, and the two I found mentioned the state of being vulnerable.

Jenny Li, in her blog, “After The Ellipsis,” writes,

Bleeding means revealing what others cannot see, what they have never seen, and what you might be afraid to see. You must not be afraid to be vulnerable. You must accept the blood you pour onto the paper as your own.

Jeanette Winterson speaks of being vulnerable, and doesn’t mention blood at all.

Wounds don’t heal. They scar over, but they are always the place where you can be hurt. It is knowing that you’ve got vulnerabilities. And I think that makes you more receptive to the world and what’s going on.

As humans we are fragile, vulnerable creatures. Physically, psychologically, emotionally. Regardless of what sort of armor we develop as we get older, some part of us always remembers the state of complete dependence and vulnerability when we entered the world. Even if we think we’ve forgotten, the body remembers. Writers, along with artists in any expressive medium, who have a willingness to express their deepest feelings or their hidden feelings, serve the purpose of bringing us closer to our own hidden selves. Perhaps the dis-owned self, too.

It can be a risky endeavor for those fearful of exposure. And yet it’s this exposure that brings us together.

For God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Alan Watts

Though we may never know whom we will have reached with our words, John Pavlovitz penned a thank you note to all in his “Love Letter To Writers,” ending with, Thank you for bleeding.

For further reading:

“Why Vulnerability is a Writer’s Most Powerful Tool,” by Jane Harkness

“5 Brene Brown Quotes for Vulnerable Writing,” by Jessica A. Pedraza, Esq.

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Prayer, 08.08 Portal

God, grant me the insight to realize that everything I see/read/hear online (and everywhere else for that matter) is the result of the particular frequency of the one posting. It’s a level of perception, nothing more, nothing less. A viewpoint, … Continue reading

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Making Your Unknown Known

When I went to London in the late 1960s I brought a sword with me on the plane. (It was allowed in those days.) I was bringing it over for a friend. Seven years later, when it became time for me to leave, I was given a light by another friend—it happened in a dream, but a light is a light—and I like to think I brought over a sword and took back a light.

watercolor by N. Wait

I took the long way home on a Polish cargo ship. During those eleven days with nothing to see but the sea and the sky and unobstructed space, I pictured a secret opening at the horizon line. Some kind of slit or crack or gap hidden between the curtain of sky and the rolling carpet of sea. A hole in the fabric of reality. A threshold to another place, another dimension. Yet the more we moved forward, the more it moved back, always out of reach. Except when the fog rolled in and we sailed into nothingness. Then the line could have been anywhere. We could have slipped through the gap without knowing it. If we did it couldn’t have been  for long because we docked at the Port of Newark and I stepped onto dry land again.

I went on with my life, but the memory of the gap stayed with me, as if part of my consciousness remained on the ship, staring at the horizon. As the years went by, every now and then I’d feel it pulling me out to take another look, and I’d see myself floating closer to the opening beyond time and space.

And so the journey home became two journeys. The outer one where I made it across the sea and onto dry land, and the inner one where I was still out there, floating towards the unknown. When I started picturing it in the imaginary world of my paintings, it took on another reality, became an opening somewhere beyond life and death. A place where dreams could be actual memories on another plane of existence.

Portal by N. Wait

Then, about a dozen years after the voyage, I thought to resolve the matter in a final painting where I saw the gap as a portal, and myself at the threshold, balancing between the outer and inner worlds. Neither going forward nor back, but remaining in place, in the eternal present. An image created with my brush—about my brush with the unknown.

It wasn’t enough. Georgia O’Keeffe said it best. Making your unknown known, is the important thing.

I had to write the story behind the pictures. This was where the light came in. The light of conscious memory to describe a pictorial journey into the realm of the subconscious. And in the recollection of real events in real time, I discovered the portal or gap had been real too.

The Nancy Who Drew, the Memoir that Solved a Mystery, (2011) ends with the voyage back to New York. In the sequel, The Nancy Who Drew the Way Home, I found the pictures that would open the portal. They came from feeling the place I didn’t have words for.





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What Drawing Does

3rd St PPWThe other day when I was drawing, I was reminded (on a visceral level) that everything is connected.

I’ve always taken it for granted that while I’m drawing, my brain is making all sorts of hand-eye connections. But now it hit me that along with this automatic brain activity, what I’m doing is connecting disparate objects in space in order to draw them, which isn’t necessarily automatic. I mean, it can become automatic if you’re used to drawing, but it requires a type of thinking that has to be developed.

Before I started drawing it, I looked at this scene of the entrance to the park at Third Street on Prospect Park West, and saw a stone fence, a lamppost, a woman with her dog and child, etc. In other words, a place composed of various subject matter. But once I began the sketch, though I still saw these things, I stopped identifying them by name. Instead I saw darks and lights, and what related to what. It’s this last, the relationship of these forms to each other and how they’re connected in space that actually makes up the sense of the drawing.

I don’t usually notice how forms relate to each other unless I’m arranging something purposefully like furniture or a still-life or setting a table. I do it without thinking. It’s drawing that makes me think.

I did this sketch from a photograph I took on a Sunday when I was sitting just inside the entrance of the park. It was a bright sunny day and the colors were brilliant. The car in the background was red, the leaves green, the traffic lights yellow, and so on. But I was enjoying myself so much in pencil that I stayed with it, even though the end result lacks the sparkle and brightness and sharpness of the photo. This was because color seemed secondary to the satisfaction I felt relating the various objects to one another.

I remember hearing that ‘everything is connected,’ and experiencing it as a mental concept. An idea. An underlying something that holds the physical world together. And I thought of this when I was drawing, looking at the woman, dog and girl for instance in relation to the wheels of the car. And the traffic lights on the lamppost in relation to the windows of the building. And so it went. Everything I drew was related to something else. In fact, I could only see one thing in relation to another thing.

It makes me wonder, what if instead of a class in ‘Drawing,’ the class was called, ‘Connecting Objects to One Another.’

It might be a new place to start. While I’ve heard people say, “Oh, I can’t draw to save my life,” or, “I can’t even draw a straight line,” I’ve never heard anyone say, “I can’t connect things with each other,” because of course we do, all the time, albeit unconsciously. It’s the act of drawing that makes us aware of it. Drawing, aside from making the world come alive so that I might feel more alive in it, inserts me smack into whatever has been created so that I can create it again, in my own way. And so partake more deeply and more consciously in this great thing we call creation.

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That Emma, That Torch

Emma's TorchI had a fun bit of synchronicity Saturday morning when I listened to the latest On the Media podcast about the 130-year political war over the meaning of the Statue of Liberty, and then Saturday afternoon when I went to the library and had a coffee. Unbeknownst to me, the concession stand was now called, Emma’s Torch Café. ‘Emma’s Torch,’ could it be that Emma…that torch?

It was. So then I learned Emma’s Torch is a non-profit culinary training program for refugees and survivors of human trafficking, and they have a restaurant in Carroll Gardens here in Brooklyn where they serve—what else—New American cuisine. I only had a coffee, but it was delicious. I’ll have to try the restaurant next.

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Hearing Bells

In days of old when we sat in awe around the lighted tree, my father told us that if we heard a bell ringing, it meant an angel was present. We had to be very quiet, and then unbeknownst to us, he tugged a hidden string and we heard the bell. Magic! The spirit of Christmas itself. Then I grew up. Many Decembers came and went. Then one spring I heard the magic of bells again.

I was in a car. I had just been to see a client and he’d offered me a lift to the subway. A car is a small, intimate space. I might say that as much as the car was enveloped in midtown traffic, I was enveloped in an energy field. His. We came to the subway, the car stopped, and just before I got out, he leaned over, brushed my mouth with his lips, and I heard bells. It was a soft, distant ring in my inner ear, but it was bells. Bells! When he drove off I was so weak in the knees I had to lean against the fire hydrant. I thought of Ginger Rogers in “Tom, Dick, and Harry,” because she heard bells when one of them kissed her. Yet by the time I took the train home I felt something else was at work. So I got to work, transmuting the feeling into paint, which is another story, too long to go into here, but the picture had to do with lighting up a dark place. I thought it started with the kiss, with hearing bells. And it did, because kisses are no small matter, especially when bells go off in your head.

I never heard them again, not in that way. And it’s only today that I’ve put the two memories together, the angel ringing the bell on the Christmas tree, and the kiss that rang in my ears and resonated in my soul. Both were magical. It doesn’t matter that my father pulled a string. It only matters that I thought it was an angel. So that later in life I would be ready for a certain kiss. And the ringing that turned into light on the canvas.

My thanks to Jennifer Warters of Rainbow Light Trust for her teachings on sound and light.

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