I recently stood in a gallery in San Francisco that my art work was hanging in, just before the opening reception, and reflected on the long road that brought me to that very moment. It’s always surprising for me to see my work, all framed and well lit, in the formal sanctuary of an art gallery. There was such an interesting path to birth these colorful, dynamic paintings of snakes and dragons.
In the past, standing like this with my art hung in a gallery, would bring a feeling of shyness and undeserved attention. I would nervously notice where I had made mistakes and fallen short in my skill or color choices. But that day, I felt proud. There were many reasons for this feeling. I felt proud because the work speaks for itself, it draws the viewer in, it represents the numinous and subject matter I find sacred. It also mirrors a process of unique collaboration and growing love between friends.
During the past few months, I’ve been creating collaborative paintings with graffiti artist, Benny Wiemeyer and my husband, fine art painter, Martin Stensaas.
There is a magical synergy between the three of us. Benny has an aggressive, angular decisive mark making…very linear and loud. Martin, in contrast, is more thoughtful and extremely skilled…he pulls the elements together in a unique way that unifies the composition. I bring an emotionally connected, feminine, figural style. This combination makes for an interesting blend of complimentary approaches that together seem to make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
When we began working together, we could all feel the magic of this union. We decided to create more work together. We began painting regularly in our studio in Salt Lake City. We started two canvases the same day and all three of us jumped back and forth on them simultaneously. These marathon nights of painting were complimented with music, laughter and good food.
This has been very interesting for my relationship to my own work, my relationship with Martin, and our new friendship with Benny. Martin and I are getting to know one another in a new way. There is a strange intimacy that forms when painting with someone closely in live collaboration. I may pull a long stroke with a loaded brush across the canvas in blue. Martin comes in and modifies my fresh mark, going down the opposite direction. Benny sprays the canvas with water and paint drips down. We grab the rubber-tip brushes and cut into the moist paint, reducing back to the underpainting while it’s still workable.
The collective decisions of form, content, and color composition are not like what any one of us would have made if we had been painting alone, caught in our old tricks and habits. I witness my collaborators’ thought processes, their minds responding to the impromptu flow, and react to mine. There is a quick decisiveness that is required as the paint dries. There is a live in-the-moment inspiration that is created from this verb of painting together.
I am constantly checking in with myself….How do I feel about that mark Benny made? Am I precious about my own? Do I let it go? Do I make a mark on Martin’s? Am I excited about what just took place—do I see fresh potential there?
What I usually end up doing is asking myself, “Is there something I can learn from this decision he has made?” And constantly learn and grow through the process.
Rarely does one of us insist that some area be cordoned off from further exploration because we are precious about it. Collaborating like this requires a constant checking of ego. Knowing when to let go, and when to make a decision and claim the theme or the composition is an ongoing balancing act. Painting this way has a feminine aspect to it….there is receptivity and surrender. There is also a child-like energy of exploration—a willingness to create something new and inspired- something you would never create within the confining habits of one’s own mind.
There is of course plenty of manly yang energy, too: making marks, taking up canvas real estate and directing. But somewhere in the middle, the painting begins to unfurl like a baby being born out of a feminine and masculine unification, which creates a third, new creation. There is a libidinal power in the collaborative process. It is not directly sexual, but it contains a shared, intimate eros.
In our relationships, there is a camaraderie that has grown between us–all three of us. There is a particular kind of insight when we see into someone’s style directly -knee deep in their flow and making waves. In this dance we can watch the way others free associate from the marks. When we see places each of us are struggling. We may honor and nurture that weakness, or push one another into trying something new. We can see where we shine, and honor the unique talent and skill we each offer into the mix. All of us are becoming better painters from our collaborations. I feel excited to work with other artists and sense of this synergy is common or rare with other combinations of personalities and skills.
And as for my marriage, there is a new energy and life in it from painting together. Martin and I have always gotten along, famously for those who know us. In addition to being a painter for a long time, I am now also a Jungian psychotherapist focusing on marriage and family therapy. This helps our relationship of course, and I’m always fine tuning our communication and flow to deepen our connection. So in addition to processing our feelings about our marriage and our kids’ wellbeing, we talk a lot about art– the psychology of art, why we create what we do, and look into the deeper insights about the role of imagery in the world. This new frontier of painting together has opened a vein of gold within our dyad. A new depth and discovery of parts of one another we haven’t yet discovered. I wonder what the next chapter holds.