Compost, Prayer and Allowing
Rachel Hines, an artist and Senior Instructor of Art Practices at Portland State University, incorporates movement and meditation into her visual art courses. Helping everyone to be fully present, she believes, creates a shared humanity and lets the wellspring of creativity flow. Rachel shares with wonder that in her 2016 class entitled Time, her students created performances that had her in tears, in spite of their lack of experience.
Descriptions of her work on her website read somewhat like distilled diary entries, or short, poetic notes addressed to the viewer. On her series of paintings Change My Mind, she writes, “This is a meditation practice in changing my mind, literally and metaphorically.” The paintings are meant to be “visual rests.” Rachel made them as a self-experiment in allowing herself to be guided by instinct rather than a rigorous academic process. The result is a host of playful, rich pieces that hang in her office to calm Rachel and her students down.
Rachel’s wide-ranging work includes white flags made from curtains that reference “surrender, mourning, peace”, private reminders on her phone, a self-care manual, a daily practice of drawing on scrolls as a way to process her life and paintings that hold her accountable for her actions. In Performing Healing, an ongoing series of works, she examines the relationship between the body and the spirit and how one can heal the other. She is currently working on a book called Creativity & Mindfulness, which looks at the way she combines meditation and making. All of these projects invite the viewer into themselves, through Rachel’s own deep, tender burrowing. One gets the sense that she is at once gentle and disciplined, fluid and resolute. Having zipped through art academia to teach right after grad school, a “massive identity crisis” was the beginnings of Rachel’s internal art-making revolution a few years ago. In her own ritual-steeped everyday where art and life are blurred, everyday moments are reverently dissected in a never-ending prayer.
It’s really interesting that you bring spiritual concepts into your art, like using spirituality as a score for art-making. How do you view the relationship between your art practice and life practice?
My initial answer is that it’s all practice. My actual answer is that there is a real difference between what I let out in the gallery versus the yoga studio versus a social meditation workshop. It is a curation of what is ready to be witnessed in myself, based on the audience. Safe spaces for me to be vulnerable visually are very different than verbally. As I develop my healing practice in relation to my visual arts, I realize how important all that processed ‘waste’ is that never gets exhibited. It’s the compost material that nurtures the next seed. I draw six feet a day on my scrolls. I have over twenty scrolls, ninety feet each. More than a thousand feet of drawing will never be shown, but the process is essential for my personal and artistic growth.
As I become gentler with myself, it is more pleasurable to work in this less controlled and spacious way. To devote time to the unknown feels a lot more natural and nourishing, but totally scary and vulnerable. This recent work called Performing Healing is born from this expansive process. It is mostly about allowing my body to do whatever it needs in that moment, whether I’m witnessed or not - developing trust in my own inner medicine. It’s bouncing around this private and public thing of safety and sharing. It is about freeing up through my body first, and then allowing it out through art.
Many spiritual teachings talk about letting go of the ego. How do you relate that to art and the position of the artist that you occupy?
The way that I teach and make now is not about pushing anything aside, but about including it with compassion and letting go of what I think it should look like. I think of it as a relationship with my ego. How can I co-exist with it in a conflict-rich place that’s okay? If I just say conflict is natural, and let the different parts of me have a conversation, sometimes through art, something shifts. Art-making is just like everything else – it’s a relationship, and I’m practiced at that. I have a lot of experience being in relation, with my inner self, my body, with others. I’m my best studio tool. I’ve been honing myself for decades and now I’m willing to make more “mistakes”.
That thing about wanting to be seen is so beautiful. That’s not wrong. There’s the Damien Hirst way of talking about it, which is, “I want to be the best and the most famous”. I relate to that also, but that’s just one voice. The deeper resounding piece of it is that I want to be known and loved and validated and held and supported. And that’s so natural. I don’t want to turn that off in myself or in anyone else. So when I find those uncomfortable thoughts like “How am I going to be in the next moment?” – which is anxiety – then I can go, “Oh, Rachel, of course you’re concerned because you want to be loved.” Then I can soften.
At the heart of all my teaching now has been the combination of creativity and mindfulness - and I’m now writing a book about it. I’ve started looking at each student as a human that has a beating heart and has worries and joys. We gather to be in a real experience together. Movement and meditation have been crucial for me to be embodied and so it’s what I naturally offer to them. Allowing all the feelings and sensations of this moment, creativity is the most natural thing for any of us to have. It’s only stifled by the ego with shame, fear and expectations – things that emerge from relating to other people while not being in this moment.
That’s beautiful. So much of our lives is about running around like headless chickens and always feeling the pressure to just make and make. How does the idea of slowing down relate to your everyday art practice?
It’s a one-to-one correlation. I have to do it pretty much like constant prayer. (laughs) It’s constantly praying for the grace to remember that I’m here, right now, in this body, and it’s okay to feel pain, anxiety, depression, to need something. I do rituals that help me to gather all the parts of myself to make from an embodied, inclusive place. I slow down by giving intention to simple acts. I take time to light a candle and palo santos. I ring a special bell from a loved one. And I breathe and close my eyes to drop into my Self. That generosity can then be extended to my art making, my students and other people.