A Guest Essay by Esalen Faculty Adam Wolpert
I am a painter of nature and have had the pleasure of teaching painting at Esalen for the past 16 years. I have thought a great deal about the dance between the poles of limitations and the limitless as it pertains to creativity, and Esalen is a good place to contemplate both.
As a young artist, I thought the connection between creativity and freedom was to be taken at face value. It was obvious: to be creative you must be free. I thought that limitations would squash my true creative self. As a landscape painter, I was always searching for new horizons, traveling to fantastic vistas, driving off into the sunset or sunrise unfettered and untethered. I could not imagine anything more inspiring than painting a fresh subject on a new scale with new colors or making a composition of something I’d never seen before.
But as decades of living and painting brought new insights, I began to see that creative freedom is not such an obvious matter. I realized that, paradoxically, too much freedom can in itself be limiting. When I stopped pursuing the novel, I settled down to observe one place, and I found that a new world of depth, substance and creativity opened up to me. As I narrowed my artistic scope by deepening my relationship with this one spot I call home, I found myself feeling more creatively inspired and, oddly, freer.
A couple of years ago, I set myself the task of painting the same tree by a rural pond over the course of a full year during which I completed a 70-painting series I called the Pond Series. I painted this subject with a limited palette of oil paints, out-of-doors, from the same point of view, on the same size canvas with the same composition, every time. The things that changed were the external realities (the time of day, the weather, the water level of the pond and the season) and my inner state.
I wondered if I would be too limited by all this structure. I wondered if I would lose touch with my creativity. To my surprise, instead of becoming bored by repetition, or feeling caged in by all my restrictions, the opposite happened. Each day, I saw more in the subject as I felt it open itself to me and every dawn I found myself excited to re-engage. All the energy I used to pour into finding novelty was suddenly available to spend on deepening my painting practice.
I felt held by the strong container of the project, free, liberated, more able to experiment than ever before. I became more focused on deep and subtle things. The work engaged my relationship to place, my feelings and how they affected my painting, even my relationship to the paint itself. This project became a meditation practice on being present, and even allowed me to explore the way I construct visual reality.
The fact that these are paintings of a simple tree by the corner of a simple pond, all so ordinary and so predictable, became central to the effort. The unremarkable became the great gift. I found, to my surprise, that this simple, seemingly repetitive gesture was more than enough to hold and inspire countless hours of creative expression. This realization made life seem more generous and made limitations less of a concern.
I found all I needed here in this tiny corner of the world, and in fact, I realized that we can learn to revere the world and our place in it by coming into relationship with any tiny part of it. I found also that small and simple subjects close to our hearts can be gateways to an infinite universe of creative exploration.
Adam is teaching Painting the Outer and Inner Landscape this week at Esalen.
Enjoy this short film about Adam’s Pond Series.