Timelessly Artful

In Buddhism, achieving pure consciousness means gaining a unique insight into our essential nature and unburdening ourselves from impurities that hinder us from knowing our true selves. While I am not a Buddhist by any means, I do find the concept of mindfulness to be essential for balancing and recalibrating my mind, body and soul. Mindfulness is a form of meditation where you focus on being acutely attuned to what you are immediately feeling and experiencing. You may have heard the phrase, “being in the moment,” which is exactly what the framework of mindfulness entails.

Psychology writer and educator, Jay Dixit (2008), expounds that “When you become mindful, you realize that you are not your thoughts; you become an observer of your thoughts from moment to moment without judging them. Mindfulness involves being with your thoughts as they are, neither grasping at them nor pushing them away. Instead of letting your life go by without living it, you awaken to experience.”

Engaging in mindful practice includes breathing exercises and guided imagery. Being mindful helps reduce stress, redirect negativity and provides a necessary counterbalance to our rigid schedules. Both viewing and creating art can be a mindful activity, which I will expand upon later in this post.

I recently wrote about the impact that the late Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, has had on making mindful thinking and behavior more explicit and widespread (see: Artfully Mindful). His method of mindful breathing has helped me cope with the all too often anxious thoughts and impulses that envelop my mind.

We all deserve to experience a largely stress-free existence (make this one of your mantras or daily affirmations). Taking the time for self-care and reflection is generally treated as a luxury, when in reality, meditation techniques and mindful thinking should be ingrained into our quotidian experiences.

One way of getting ourselves attuned to this kind of living is to integrate these practices into the educational environment so that from kindergarten through graduate school, students are taught to understand and acknowledge the importance and autonomy of one’s body and feelings. Achieving education via mindfulness involves a restructuring of how we collectively perceive and value time.

This is where artistic immersion comes into play. Through artful thinking and the art making process, we can rekindle our childlike nature (see: Fun enough for kids, but made for adults) and become more profound observers and responders to the present moment. Being enveloped in art can slow down, speed up, reverse or more aptly, make us lose track of traditional notions of time.

Two “Freespace” clocks in Howard Schwartzberg’s art classroom.

I witnessed the aforementioned effects when I was observing Howard Schwartzberg‘s studio art classes at Forest Hills High School. Schwartzberg encouraged students to enter what he called the “Freespace for expression and observation.” According to Schwartzberg, “Freespace can be anywhere and everywhere and ultimately exists as a goal for students to find their own Freespace from within.” In order to encourage uninhibited creativity, he created his own clocks with no numbers and only the second hand. These “Freespace” clocks are both symbols and literal guides to scaffold student’s artistic process and creative consciousness. The environment promoted mindfulness by removing extraneous objects and distractions, such as the measurement of class time, which Schwartzberg considered to be an artificial value judgement. The physical space and the curriculum prompted student artists to create and live in the moment. These were the most tranquil and engaged classes that I have experienced within a school.

On Kawara, Installation view: Pure Consciousness (1998– ), Goa, India, 2013
© On Kawara. Photo: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

Another pertinent example of how time has been conceptually integrated within an educational setting is On Kawara’s installation, Pure Consciousness, which placed several of that artist’s signature date paintings within nineteen international kindergarten classrooms. These paintings are simple in their design, featuring monochromatic backgrounds and the date when the painting was completed. All works of art record a period in time. The art process is largely an act of memorializing a moment, feeling or action that is or was contemporary to the artist during its creation. Kawara’s text-based paintings literally tell time, but in a particularly ambiguous and open-ended manner. Dates mean many different things to many different people. Moreover, they remain as objects long after the actual date that is represented in the painting has passed, which adds to their subjectivity because of how memories and records of history are in flux.

The ingenuity of having Kawara’s work on display within an early childhood classroom is bolstered by the artist’s instructions for the installation, specifically those which stipulated that “The paintings should be hung high to prevent children from touching them,” “Only children aged four to six may see the exhibition. Or rather, live in the exhibition. The teacher must not explain the paintings to the children even if asked. They should not even respond” and “No one should ask the children about their reactions to the paintings. The purpose of the exhibition is simple: to allow the children to look at the paintings as they are. Nothing more. Some children may form a memory in their minds, some may not. Education generally has a social purpose. In that regard, this exhibition is not educational.”

I will push back on Kawara’s declaration that the exhibition is not educational. This may be true if we consider it within the context of very traditional notions of education, which considers that the transfer of knowledge should be didactic and explicit. However, students are not blank slates and come into their classrooms with varied experiences and prior knowledge (i.e. nature and nurture working in tandem).

While Kawara’s instructions may initially appear harsh or indifferent, they are both developmentally appropriate and prompt mindfulness. At that age range, children are very much explorers and discoverers. This in and of itself is a process that requires internal processing and introspection. As young artists, they enter a phase of artistic development where they make very little distinction between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space; and their mark making is not concerned with significant spatial relationships (i.e. no overlapping or distinction between figure and ground, proportion or scale). They also exhibit little to no interest in communicating shared meaning through their art works. Meaning to them is implicit within their artwork. Therefore asking a child in this phase what something is can be emotionally shattering. 

If we observe the way children engage the world around them, it becomes clear that time is not a structured concept for them until they are conditioned to conform to the ways that mainstream society regards time and linear narratives. In addition to being a construct for organization and structure, time is a lofty and abstract concept.

In an analytical essay about Pure Consciousness, artist, educator and theorist, Pablo Helguera, analyzes the social, emotional and cognitive ways we perceive time and how development shapes how time is valued and construed. Helguera (2022), writes “we know that time for a child is not so much a concatenation of past and future days but rather a constantly unfolding present, where every single moment is lived fully and often joyously.”

Helguera infers that “The works are presented outside any artistic frame, simply there as a presence that may be interpreted by the child in whichever way they want. In a sense, the date paintings hanging in the classroom are not meant to be pre-identified as art works, but just objects that are present: objects with numbers, things to look at and experience in a non-verbal way, ‘living with the works.'”

That is mindfulness in practice.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Dixit, Jay. The Art of Now: Six Steps to Living in the Moment,” Psychology Today, 1 November 2008. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200811/the-art-now-six-steps-living-in-the-moment

Helguera, Pablo. “Pure Timelessness,” Beautiful Eccentrics, 20 January 2022. https://pablohelguera.substack.com/p/pure-timelessness?utm_source=url

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