Photo: Sang An
I've been a word person my whole life. At 10 my idea of fun was browsing through Roget's Thesaurus and typing nature poems on my grandmother's pale green Smith-Corona manual. I won spelling bees in grade school. On a high school class trip I talked, embarrassingly, in my sleep: "I want to be a writer—a good writer."
Right now, though, I'm dreaming of cobalt blue and cadmium yellow, and my right index finger is callused where the brush has been. I've just spent five days at a watercolor class in the Berkshire hills of Massachusetts—a little like camp, a little like doing finger paints or drugs. It was group ecstasy without an illegal substance in sight: all 15 of us high on shapes and colors and lines and designs. It was as if my brain, like a train, had suddenly switched tracks.
Letting another part of my psyche come out to play—the intuitive, unworried, messy part—was precisely what the teacher, Ann K. Lindsay, had intended. There I was on the first day, facing a rectangle of thick, pristine paper, armed with an unclouded water bottle and fresh paint, my brush poised, my body in fight-or-flight mode—and she yelled out: "Remember, think kindergarten! Maybe preschool!" I could only laugh, gulp, and go ahead.
Many art classes start with rules and how-tos; Lindsay begins by encouraging her students to trust their instincts and have fun. Interestingly, there is a physiological basis for this approach: The 1960s research of Nobel Prize–winning psychobiologist Roger W. Sperry established that the human brain has a dual nature—the verbal, analytical mode, located in the left hemisphere, and the visual, perceptual mode in the right. Applied to art education, this concept implies a mental shift that's liberating, exhilarating, and, especially at first, seriously awkward. The left hemisphere—rational, survival driven, impatient, hypercritical—is the boss; to gain access to right-brain mode, you have to be cagey.
The literary persona that patrols my psyche hadn't exactly put out the welcome mat for a different way of thinking. ("Fuzzy," it muttered. "No standards.") Painting was my way of sneaking into the right brain through a side door. Technical perfection and aesthetic judgments were not what this course was about. Whatever awful daubs I produced, nobody would call me a washout.
Notice how I slam myself in that last sentence. Saying that something is bad ("awful daubs") is the left brain's way of protecting and defending us, according to Lindsay—but, like an overprotective parent, it can be inhibiting. She urged us to stop calling ourselves names. She urged us to splash and spatter, literally to color outside the lines. "How much paint should I start with?" I asked as we began. "A lot!" said Lindsay. "First one to use up a whole tube gets a prize! And if you like something your neighbor is doing, try it. None of this 'no copying' stuff." She is the grade-school teacher we all should have had.
First we just wallowed in color, doing free-form paintings that used only two of the three primaries (red, blue, yellow) at a time, experimenting with wet paper (the paint blossoms and/or runs) and dry (more control). I found myself weirdly averse to red and yellow, crazy about red and blue, fond of swooping, rounded forms. I also found myself in a kind of ecstasy.
This is not to say that all fear and judgment instantly fled. Years of museumgoing and exposure to unnaturally perfect computer-generated graphics have made our artistic expectations cruelly high. But watercolor is forgiving, a medium of drips and bleeds and happy accidents; it is also blessedly low-tech. "Let yourselves be little kids here," Lindsay said. "You'll grow in your own way."