Thursday, August 06, 2009

Witnessing Art… from Your Heart

bead embroidery by Robin Atkins, detail of bag showing eye and heart
Today I invite you to pour a cup of your favorite tea or coffee and sit with me for a few minutes to ponder the concept of witnessing.

Although I am no expert on this topic, I have a sense that it may be one of the most important benefits of being in the Bead Journal Project and (on a much larger scale) the whole idea of blogging.

Let me digress for a moment. Many years ago I took a life-changing class called Process Painting. The idea is to hang a large sheet of paper on the wall, stand very close to it, grab a paint brush and, with a minimal palette of Tempera colors, paint marks on the paper. It is not about proper painting. Rather it is about inviting an inner truth to come forward through the paint… spontaneous and uncensored, quick, gutsy, raw and private.

Our teacher says:
Don’t step back and judge… Stay with it, up close.
If you put one more color on this paper, what might it be?
If you paint one more thing on this paper, where might it be?
If you have one more thing to add to this painting, what might it be?
She encourages us to paint with the self-promise that we will NEVER show our paintings to anybody…. not ever! Nor are we allowed to look at our classmates’ work… not at all, not for the entire three days of the class! This gives us an exhilarating freedom to open the closet door (no sugar-coating) and to let go of having to do it right. We paint like children, without constraints.

But a few weeks after the class, I break the rule. I trust my best friend, Liz, completely. She loves me as I am. She rarely shows any sign of judgments. She is always supportive about my art.

My paintings are strange. They don’t look like anything I’ve ever done before. They frighten me a little. They are not pretty, yet they are extremely compelling. There is an element of strength that I do not recognize as belonging to me. I want Liz to know these things and to help me understand the paintings.

So I invited her to witness them.

Although I have broken the rule, it feels really great to unroll my paintings and pour over them with Liz. We talk about every detail of my paintings. She honors me with her caring attention and witnesses parts of my inner being that I keep hidden (even from myself).

I do not show my paintings to any family members. I do not show them to my boy friend. I do not show them to other art friends.

Why not?

I am afraid they might judge, critique or analyze them psychologically. When I put my most inner being on paper, it needs to be respected and accepted exactly the way it is. If I do not choose my witnesses wisely, I may be swayed into a position of non-respect, non-acceptance and judgment. And that position can be a huge block to creativity and satisfaction with life.

Now here is an odd thing! I sense that most of the Bead Journal Project members and other blog readers are like Liz. Whether my work is raw or common, many of my blog viewers/readers tend to witness, encourage, seek understanding and share their own personal experiences through their comments. If they verbalize a judgment at all, it tends to be positive. In fact, I am quite surprised by the amount of witnessing I receive through my blog and how important it is to me…. When, through my art and words, the authentic me comes forward in my blog, I often feel tenderly witnessed. I see the same type of witnessing in many comments on other blogs as well.

Conventional wisdom proposed by my process painting teacher (also Julia Cameron in the Artists’ Way and even Pat B. Allen in Art Is a Way of Knowing), suggests that we grow and heal, become authentic and find peace through the process of making art or journaling, especially when we keep it entirely private. At the most, we must choose our witnesses carefully. Wait!!! Doesn’t my experience with blogging go against this wisdom somewhat? So it seems to me.

I find this very curious. It also seems odd that I trust and look for witnessing from the blogging community more than from my family and friends.

I’m very interested to hear your understanding about the concept of witnessing and how/if it applies to your experiences sharing your BJP pages, other art or personal stories and thoughts on your blog. Do you seek and receive witnessing from your family and friends?

* * * * * *

By the way, I looked up the meaning of the word witness and found this:

Verb: To witness is to take note of something, to observe or to gain knowledge about something.

Noun: A witness is someone who has personal knowledge of something or can attest to a fact or event.

Word derivation: from Old English (1300’s) wit, which meant knowledge.

There were also two other slants on the meaning of witness… religious (to preach) and legal (to give evidence in court). These are not relevant to my use of the word in this post.


  1. This is truly something to think about. It can be carried forth in all artforms, although the paintings are definitely more spontaneous. To carry this one step farther, I am going to look at my body of work with a different eye and see if any little inner secrets may have inadvertantly popped out. And if they did...that's ok. Those were meant to happen. It's both a journey and a process.

  2. Anonymous6:16 PM

    Very thought provoking! Sometimes I blog just to get the thought out. Other times the blog is for a "witness" As for my BJP this year it was to be for the weight loss witness, and since I'm not following the plan as I should, I'm not journaling either.

  3. We should all do this more. It would help free us and help us to understand ourselves.

  4. A wonderful post Robin.Very thought provoking. I too rarely share my work with family and offline friends. I stopped and thought about this after reading your post (i didn't even read the other comments yet, so's not to be influenced!), and why I share via my blog I feel is because only interested parties are going to look and comment. If someone is not interested, they move on (without feeling having to say something nice, when they really have no interest or understanding). And I don't have to explain myself to those who do care, and are interested. And I get that all important feedback via comments, that i, and my work, are OK.

  5. "I am afraid they might judge, critique or analyze them psychologically. When I put my most inner being on paper, it needs to be respected and accepted exactly the way it is. If I do not choose my witnesses wisely, I may be swayed into a position of non-respect, non-acceptance and judgment. And that position can be a huge block to creativity and satisfaction with life. "

    Thank you Robin -- thank you for verbalizing what I think all the time.
    I RARELY post any of my work. And when I do, I usually cripple myself with fear.
    It's hard for me sometimes to remember that others have fear.
    Fear -- those same fears that I have. You know, I cornered the market on fear, or at least THINK I did !
    Katie B

  6. Anonymous6:44 AM

    Robin, you always leave a great deal of food for thought! So, I must do just that, think about it, and I will post a real comment later. ;)

  7. This is a very hard nut to crack. I did not make my coffee before, but after reading your blog post. For once I read the other comments before starting my own, to help me think.

    Blogs, and especially the BJP have a lot to do with letting people witness through art and thoughts presented, and they have a whole lot to do with trusting people. You can't help granting some insight into personal issues, but that's alright, because you yourself decide how far you will go. And it is such fun and so enriching to witness co-BJPers' work and verbal contributions! Ergo: Witnessing is an important part of life.

    Although you are very open, I can understand that you showed those paintings to one person only, Robin.

    A major way, for me, to let persons witness my life is to write letters. Every one (i.e. every witness) enjoys reading them, but what do I get in return most of the time? "The kids are growing up, the weather is fine." Yawn!

    Best wishes,

  8. Witnessing.

    When I share my work "in person" rather than on my blog, I would almost prefer for someone to judge or criticize rather than the "oh, how nice..." kind of comment or the "my God, how do you find the time to sew on each little bead...I don't have the patience for that" and move on...I think it's the moving on...the lack of witnessing that actually occurs when I share my work "in person" that leaves me feeling empty after the experience...not the judgment or criticism so much -- to judge or criticize means you actually had to spend time with the work and evaluate it in some way.

    Interestingly enough, my online blogging has helped me connect better with my family and friends who choose to read. Those non-stitching friends have begun to understand what I stitch, why I stitch and how important it is in my life. It helps us skip forward to a "real" conversation starting point, like...."it was interesting when I read about your Mom and tea, my family always has tea...." you get the idea.

    In fact, many folks ask me about the fear of opening up so publicly -- and I would probably say, because I HAVE chosen to be more public, the benefits have FAR outweighed any negatives. In fact, my public witnessing of myself and my own feelings leads to others witnesses not only my feelings but their own as well. Some of my favorite online exchanges have occurred because of my most private, public posts.

    On line, we have time. I know not to read a bead journal post if I don't have time. I save them until I can spend time with them...until I can taste them, swallow them up and digest them...until I can give some type of meaningful response. I read them as a testimony and KNOW that i must bear witness. I must take time in getting to know the work of my other bjp'ers and I would agree that they do the same for me. They are also the folks whose comments "hit home" the most...which I find interesting as well.

    As for publicly blogging, I made a decision when I first started that my blog was going to be about me. That I wanted a record of sorts of my life and that I wanted to print out each year and keep them as my "visual journals" -- it works for me, I love photography, I love combining the pictures and the writing and I like that they are small snippets of life and my feeling on a particular day. It's also what I enjoy about the bjp -- it's art as a reflection of me -- and it belongs...

    I tend to agree with Jo. If someone is interested in witnessing my life, they comment. If they aren't, they move on. We tend to attract those who have the same values and are struggling with the same issues. We, as a "market" of bloggers tend to group ourselves and that is a beautiful phenomenon. So, rather than us choosing our witnesses, our witnesses choose us. They choose to spend the time getting to know us and writing a meaningful comment -- because they care and they want to -- and those feelings are real and very, very healing, supportive and loving.

    To those who have a fear of being so publicly open, try it just once. I know it will be hard. When I'm struggling with a particularly tender and private piece, I ask my husband to read it first. If I'm not saying something well, he'll protect me by letting me know. Then hit "publish" and sit back and wait for your witnesses to show up. Because they will. And when they do, I agree with you Robin, it feeds my soul and my art in a way that I do not receive from most of my family and friends.

    Phew. I've GOT to go do laundry! Love and thanks to you for making me stop and think about this...xoSusan

  9. This is very thought provoking, Robin. I grew up in a family that was very loving, but very opinionated about everything. There were certain "rules of behavior" that you followed, and if you didn't, even if they didn't say anything you knew what was on their mind. I know, that even now, I can always hear the disapproval in my head and it inhibits my creativity. I married a wonderful man who came from the exact opposite kind of family. He has always been my biggest supported and I trust him to always be non judgemental. My daughter is also someone I can always trust. They are the two people I allow to witness my work. I run ideas by them and show them what I'm working on as it progresses. I identified immediately with Katie B's comment. I could have written the same thing.
    This is something I think about a lot because of my fear of failure and fear of judgement. Thank you for allowing me to talk about it with someone other than my family.

  10. Witnessing has always been very very important to me. A validation of time spent pouring out my heart of hearts. When shown to non-artist family members the responses are just not always what I need. I guess I'm always looking for validation. When shown to a fellow beader, or artist, responses as you said are honest and they are different. They seem to really appreciate the finer details, understanding just the minute things that one is trying to get across. A small comment where paying attention to the teeniest of things is appreciated and valued! Sometimes I marvel at what people pick out when they have witnessed one of my art pieces, thinking that only I know this teeny secret, but so happy someone else has discovered it. Many times a witnessing will determine whether I continue with a piece, make more or just QUIT. It is very important to me who my witnesses are.

  11. I tend to agree with jo and blog is particularly for my bead and other art work and those who are interested comment and other folks just pass on by. I know some of my beading friends also check it out occasionally, but they also see the work in person and I trust them to witness it with understanding and appreciation of the thought and work that goes into it.
    On the other hand, until I started doing the BJP, my work was not consciously autobiographical, it was more about the actual process of beading and what I was going for was something that would click with me visually (usually color related). Now that I'm working more intuitively, it's been an interesting experience to look back and try to figure out just why I picked that particular bead or that specific color...and how they might be mirroring actual events in my life.
    I owe a big thanks to robin for opening my eyes to a whole side of beadwork I'd never experienced before.

  12. I have to agree with Bobbi. BJP has made it possible for me to share my inner feelings in my work. As I look over the past two year's pages, I see the changes that have occurred in me, as well as my work. I spent most of my life fearing what others thought of me. My work is more free and indicative of my real feelings now. I can also share in writing more of how I really feel about things. I am blessed with my friends in that we share many common traits and understand each other very well. Their witnessing my work is not always positive, but is always constructive in the best way. As I have added more texture to my pages this year, I have also added more texture to my life by reaching out to join groups and to make my work so others can benefit from it. Thank you, Robin, for making that possible for so many of us.

  13. Anonymous2:05 PM

    I'm back after much pondering and reading the other comments. I think there may be as many opinions about this as there are people who do artwork.
    I don't fear that my work will reveal something personal, be critiqued, or bring negative comments. I've had different kinds of feedback over the years and have learned something from all of it. So I share freely with family and friends, then make it public on my blog, in guilds, and in shows. It's not that I "seek witnessing", it's just that I truly believe art is meant to be shared.

  14. We are all different and private to some degree. I still maintain that most of what we are, is hanging out in the world even when we go to great efforts to conceal it.

    Why would I say that? Because I believe I know a great deal more about any individual I take the time to really look at and desire to know. I often have people come up to me and tell me something they want no one else to know. Usually I've never seen them before. Sometimes they are long friendly acquaintances. How do they choose?! By the same radar that most of us jam up in ourselves and don't listen to. My experience has taught me (and this is my favorite definition of self-esteem) that what I want to know about a person is all there for me to see. Whether I make the effort to bring it to a conscious level is another whole ball of wax. And there is the kicker, I think. For I believe that most human beings tend to go through day after day hiding from themselves and so gradually grow away from who they are and who's they are. Simple as that. And then we have to work to find out who and who's we are.

    Fear is the great motivator of the human race. It makes us hide from authenticity, in ourselves and everyone else. In the end we pretty much end up doing that which we think and say and, I believe, we earnestly desire, to be real. All of us need lessons from the Velveteen Rabbit. It takes a great deal of love to be authentic. That is the biggest "dare" of all in life. Being authentic each moment.

  15. WOW! Robin you opened a whole can of worms here, but GOOD ones!
    okay, since you ask...
    For me personally, writing out loud and showing my BJP pages and other art I may attempt has opened up a whole new confidence for me that was always squashed by my family when I was young. My "young"
    life was a "don't draw attention to yourself in any way." People see my parents going for a walk, and they are never looking up and AT people to say hi. They always are looking at the ground. Blogging in particular has allowed me to SAY everything I need to say and has given me a confidence through others witnessing my thoughts and giving heartfelt comments. It has enabled me to look back at a particular BJP page and see what others see and therefore look into my particular meaning. I do think we all "hide" in public and show the face that is expected of us and the real authentic people are the ones we are drawn to. and so it is with our art,to those who care to witness it and study it, the real and authentic is there for those who can recognize it and care to recognize it.
    If I would not have had my blog this past year, I would not have had the courage as much as I did to feel out loud too. I am way more able to share with my husband and daughter now, my feelings and my art. You, dear Robin, have opened a door for many of us that we didn't know was closed in the first place!

  16. This was such a thought provoking post. I am relatively new to beading and will be starting my very own blog (after lurking around the BJP blogs for the past year) this month. I so agree with many of the comments above. Susan's comment about people looking at her work and remarking on the patience part of it or the mechanics of it rather than its spirit. As I began beading, because obviously I was learning, my work was all about the techniques. Now that I am into it - my work is more about the inner me - what I want to capture in the piece rather than how the piece is made. It is frustrating to hear the 'oh that takes so much patience' when I want people to 'think' about the piece and be drawn into the spirit I'm trying to capture. One thing I try NEVER to do is let those nasty thoughts like 'will others like this' or worse yet, 'will someone want to buy this' -- that's not why I bead. I do think however that witnessing when it comes from the viewers heart and spirit, when they are really and truly engaged with what they are looking at - can be a motivating process. It opens not only me up to them, but them up to me and that is a gift that they give to me also. P.S. can't wait to join the 2010 BJP!!!

  17. Another thoughtful post, thank you. I appreciate thoughtful witnessing and filter out the rest...I often get comments about the intricacy of the work and the patience it takes. That's a given, but any art takes patience and skill. I think beadwork sometimes frightens people who can't be quiet with themselves for very long.

    It's such an interior activity - even if you're beading a commercial design rather than expressing your own inner spirit, that spirit is imbued into the work. You can't focus on something with your hands, mind, and heart for the length of time it takes to do bead embroidery and not leave traces of spirit there.

    Am I willing to share my spirit, in a spirit of aloha, on a blog? I started one, but don't write there too often yet. I hope people will be kind. I've experienced so much joy from reading other blogs, felt such a kinship. I'd like to share back.

  18. I come to this blog of yours robbin to simply "witness" the beauty that I find happens when your fingers work towards a completed piece. While I may not often be here and while I may not often comment your pieces always touch that part of me that I find hungers to here I am witnessing another moment of pure joy! "your blog" Your Art"


  19. Your work is beautiful. How did you start? I would definitely be a beginner. What type of beading is this called? I looked at your flicker pics and they were terrific.

  20. Sorry, I just read all the beading info from you side list. Too bad I do not live close to the workshops. I am sure Atlanta will have something similar.

  21. Well, just off the top of my head, it seems to me that "witnessing" each other is what blogging is all about. My take on it anyway. Nice to catch up with your posts today...take care. pat

  22. Having someone whose work I REALLY admire visit my blog and take time to leave positive comments fits every definition of witnessing you talk about here. Thanks so much...I check your blog daily and take great comfort in the whole river concept...

    Gerry K.

  23. I think this is the third time I have read your entry. What comes to me as I read it is an incredible gratitude for our friendship and the trust we have with one another.
    We have over 30 years of friendship and trust that has developed over that period of time. You know me better than anyone in my life and by "know" I mean the inner me, the me with all my fears, hurts, anger, judgments, anxieties, worries, blind spots, terrors, mistakes, triumphs, let downs & elations. You have been emotionally & psychologically with me through the important things and the traumatic things. I think the journey we are on and what we have lived through together is what has made it safe to share with each other at deeper & deeper levels. I also think that sharing who I am with you and being heard and accepted is one of, if not the most, important gifts in my life. I am honored by the trust you have in me and have a tremendous gratitude that we continue to deepen our friendship through witnessing each other. I know you were talking about art work in particular. It has been easy to trust you with my artwork, journaling, and private stories. You genuinely love art and you find something to value and treasure in any piece of work. It's one of the things that makes you such an incredible witness peoples' process and truly find delight in it. I have seen people light up with happiness after showing you something they have made. Your loving accepting seeing of me has helped me to grow and blossom. When I journal (write morning pages)you have encouraged me to write "I do not have to be perfect" & "I forgive myself for all my mistakes, every one of them." Writing these words has helped me accept myself more and to be more forgiving towards others. Robin, I am so honored to be someone you trust to witness your work and I am glad that you have found a community that also offers you a safe & accepting haven.

  24. Dear Robin
    I almost missed this post. I am so glad that I didn't. I am quite selective about who witnesses my inner feelings. My most recent post is an example of that. I posted my BJP on depression, with no depression tags. In my mind I was limiting its availability to only the BJP participants and friends, even though I know others will read it. Most that commented got exactly what I wanted to come through. Others gave me more insight and thought provoking comments. Still others sent me personal e-mails with helpful information. The last group, left comments but held back. Either fear of being misunderstood, or had no understanding at all of what I was expressing.

    So, witnessing is important both to the poster and the witness.

  25. Hi Robin. I'm a fairly new member of the CCBS and I recently checked out your book called One Bead at a Time from our library. What a treat! It's so much fun to read and look at, like your blog: very colorful and thought provoking. My good friend Arline L. taught me to bead embroider. She changed my life. She's been doing BJP for some time and her pages are incredible. I think I am going to give it a go next year. I'm so excited to try. So far I enjoy making big beaded cuffs the best and I love learning new techniques. Thank you for your candid discussions about your personal bead journey in your book. I've been going through some trying times the past few years and I'm glad I had my beads to help me work through them.
    I'm also thankful for all the wonderful friends I have made through beading and look forward to the BJP experience. It's going to be a blast!
    Heidi C.


Thanks you for joining the discussion on this post today!