Author Archives: Lezlie Laws

“With a Mind as if Empty”

OdTBqLAD0AZ0A9L7euDrz_0TrLLk84_1QeuDnWowrl8Last Saturday, a group of art lovers gathered in one of the galleries of the Orlando Museum of Art to write about what they were seeing or feeling or reminded of as they stood before a work of art. Some amazing writing came out of that morning. And I like to think part of it was the preparation we did prior to writing.

We first examined a chapter from a book of writing prompts called Twelve Doors:Writing for Pleasure, Self-Expression, and Insight, which begins with a quotation from Henri Matisse. About painting Matisse said, “It is necessary to present oneself with the greatest humility: white, pure, and candid with a mind as if empty.” We talked about the importance of dropping thought when plunging into any creative process. Psychologist John Welwood says that the deepest creative realizations emerge out of what he calls an “alert empty-mindedness.” And we also talked about “self-arising wisdom,” a notion from the Buddhist tradition that suggests that innovation and insight emerge out of silence and mental openness.

Many artists share the belief that any practice that helps you tap into empty mind is beneficial to a creative practice, whether it be painting, writing, composing, or performing music.

Such practices include meditating, chanting, dancing, listening to music, walking in nature, praying—and looking at art. And that’s exactly what we were at OMA to do on Saturday. Give ourselves over to looking deeply and quietly at one painting, and see what arises. As John Welwood says, “It helps to let ourselves not know before we can discover anything new.”

Before exploring the gallery, participants were told not to think too much about what they were “supposed” to create. They were invited to remain open to the inner space that houses the unique impressions of awareness. They were encouraged to let come out what wants to come out— ideas, images, stories, or memories. It was an opportunity slow down, get quiet,  experience their unique wisdom.

And so without any knowledge whatsoever of  artist biography or technique, participants got quiet and looked; they really looked. And finally, they wrote.

w-Wq7L2obPB4WitJXs1vqLO2pORJQ3XV8-vy-8qKjnMAnd boy did they write.

What they created in our short time together was quite remarkable—thoughtful, observant, and moving. I think a few of the writers were surprised with the words that came out of them so quickly.  And that is the miracle of empty mind.

If you, too, would like to experience the joy of letting your unique wisdom spill out onto the page, join us next month on February 3 when, once again, we’ll use art as a form of meditation that leads us to writing that is pleasurable, expressive, and insightful.


So join us on Saturday, February 3, 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., at the Orlando Museum of Art. Easy registration here.




“self-arising wisdom” – Buddhist tradition


Writing in the Galleries

images-2On one of the last years I taught English at Rollins College, maybe the very last year, I had the pleasure of having David Matteson in an editing course required of all English majors. He was a senior, and had somehow slipped under my radar, so I was delighted to get to enjoy his keen intellect and his subtle sense of humor over the course of the term. He was an unusual English major, however, because he was completing a double major in English and Studio Art. As you may know, it’s fairly hard to be an English major, and it’s also hard to be a Studio Art major, but to be both of them at the same time is quite a feat. I was more than impressed with this fascinating young man.

At the end of the semester I went to the senior art show at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum and saw the large work of collage and mixed media that concluded David’s art major with honors.   There on the wall of the gallery was evidence of a creative mind consumed with words as well as with color, design, and texture, an installation based on his altered book called The Couple.

I thought it was stunning—and again, I was way more than a little impressed with David Matteson.

cover_2And soon after that, David introduced me to the world of art journaling when I read his altered book called The Couple. I want to do that, I told him! And before I knew it, I was taking a course with art professor Rachel Simmons at Rollins on creating an art journal. I can’t remember having so much fun, or being so in over my head.

A big part of the fun of that course was that David Matteson was assisting Rachel, so the tables turned and I got to be his student. I got to learn techniques from him. I got to watch him paint. I sheepishly asked him to look at my very primitive attempts. I got to see how the whole process of art journaling works through the eyes and the talents of my student. I can almost cry just writing these words. Truly. It was such a wonderful experience to be the student of someone who just weeks before had been my student. The roles reversed, and the joy and admiration continued.

After his graduation from Rollins, I saw David often because he had taken a position at the Orlando Museum of Art, a place I frequent. I took a class on abstract painting from him, and hugged him at all of the OMA openings. And I celebrated him when he was promoted to Associate Curator of Education at the Museum and watched him bring his signature energy and enthusiasm to the educational programming at the museum.

So folks, for a teacher, it doesn’t get better than this. To work with a talented young person and then get to watch his trajectory toward success in his chosen field—that’s what we live for!! It is SO-MUCH-FUN!

But wait, it does get better! Here’s the next part of the story.

Last month, out of the blue (cerulean blue I believe it was), David Matteson wrote me asking if I would be interested in teaching a class with him at OMA, a class on writing about art. “I know you’re busy,” he said, “but I thought I’d ask anyway. Would you be interested?”

WOULD I BE INTERESTED? Are you kidding? How amazing would it be to actually teach with a former student on a topic both of us absolutely love? This was a no brainer.

Which brings me to the reason for this post—I know, I tend to have a long wind up.

I want you, my subscribers, to be first to know that David Matteson and I are teaming up to teach Writing in the Galleries, four sessions offered monthly January through April in which we examine a work of art, look at it really hard, be with it, sit in silence with it, walk around it, and sniff it if we want to. And David will help us see what the artist was up to.

After that, I’ll give participants a prompt from my book Twelve Doors that will help find the story 61cExKlHfaL._AC_US160_or the angle or the feeling that bubbles into your consciousness during the looking part of the session. We’ll write for about 30 minutes, without pressure to produce a finished product, of course, but with encouragement to write from the heart and to express what most deeply wants to be expressed about how the art was meaningful to you. And then we’ll share what we produced.

If this sounds like fun to you, I would love to have you join our first session on Saturday, January 13, from 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. I will have copies of the book Twelve Doors for purchase, but if you already have one, please bring it with you. I can promise you an inspiring experience. And you get the added bonus of seeing an unusual learning collaboration between me and David continue.

Here’s the OMA link for registering. Do it now!

I hope to see you on January 13.




The Sacred Moment

We live in a challenging time, a time when many are suffering, confused, disappointed, and for those facing life-threatening circumstances, broken.

I, like many of you, worry about how to help, both myself and others. How to find solid ground. How to do something of benefit.

Today, I listened to a podcast that offered a way to think about both the slight and the horrible challenges we face. Jonathan Fields, of GoodLife Project, interviewed Julie Piatt, the plant-based chef, healer, wife, mother, and artist who has created a remarkable health movement with her husband and co-authored  The Plantpower Way.

The interview is wide-ranging, but one point she makes pertains to my opening question about how to help myself absorb and address productively the challenges facing us on so many fronts—political, social, personal, psychological.  She says,

“If you’re really blessed, you’ll be given a sacred moment, a moment when you are on your knees, facing a problem you can’t solve with positive thinking. You have no choice but to be in it fully and face the discomfort and pain.   When this happens, you become very clear. These moments chisel you into a servant; you understand you are not in control of any of this. You must submit your life. These are huge gifts for the soul.”

One has to be thoughtful about when it’s appropriate to suggest that a bad experience is a “gift.” And yet, many wisdom traditions teach that every experience is a gift, for they are here  not to make us happy, but to wake us up;  not to make us comfortable, but to nudge us in a different direction; not to lead to smugness, but to encourage compassion. Our challenges are uniquely designed to guide us toward who we are meant to be, and thus toward how we are able to serve.

As I struggle daily with what I see happening in our world, I urge myself to avoid judging or critiquing the distasteful and disturbing events, and try to see them from a larger point of view. See them as a battle between two world views, one struggling to survive, another yearning to be born. I strive to face what these challenging times show me about my own habits of mind, my own limiting assumptions, my own eagerness to blame “the other” instead of evolve my self.

In the interview, Julie Piatt asks three questions of us:

What am I doing?
Why am I doing it?
Is it aligned with my highest intentions?

Through these questions, she says, we might find our authentic expression toward a life challenge. The sacred moment, she says, is the way we gain the fortitude it takes to give voice to our authentic self.

This way of approaching a sacred moment takes a sturdiness of heart many of us do not yet have. It takes a kind of faith, and ultimately a kind of hope, that something good and new is trying to emerge through us—that something good and new will emerge through us, if we let it.

If the only thing I can do today is sit quietly and hold the pain of the sacred moment we collectively face, that might be a good start. I sit in the discomfort of what we have become—and dedicate myself to becoming what we can be.  I pray for sturdiness of heart.