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  • Elise V Allan

Talk to the Hands

First posted January 2018


Talk to the Hands, cause the Surface Mind ain’t listening.

As most – maybe all - creative people know, starting work is the challenge, followed by keeping going; then, of course, finishing can be tricky. Yet somewhere in there, there’s a bit where we can fall in love, a little bit of magic that can sometimes happen.  As Constantin Brancusi said, “Things are not difficult to make. What is difficult is putting ourselves in the state of mind to make them.”

As a visual artist, I was always bemused at how different parts of my mind could operate simultaneously at times; the part that sees and knows where to put the next brushstroke, and the part that chatters inconsequential thoughts.* 



Then there are times when I have been lost in that place of surface thinking, with no sense of the quieter creative deeps that lie beneath. I might take myself into the studio and try to steer my thoughts towards deciding where to go next with a painting, or how to start the next piece of work, with purely mental energy, debating, wondering and arguing with various internal voices about what to do next. I would say to myself with a great air of authority, “Right!” as if that would stop me from bobbing about on the surface of my mind like a piece of polystyrene littering a stream. That place is so different from the space of knowing exactly which colour to mix next.

Once, in this mental place, from where we desire control, I remembered that previously, while in the depths of creative flow, I had written myself a note to help me to find my way back to flow the next time I was stranded. Some time had passed since writing the crib note. I sought it out, and read it with great anticipation. It said, “Go under water to see the sun.”  “WT****! Argh!” It made no sense to my surface mind. 

It was when I began to ask for more understanding of life that I met certain people, who helped me to navigate better from


the world of surface mind to the deeper place from where I can create. They weren’t visual artists, but worked directly with life. And I learned that one of my greatest resources was my body. To really inhabit my hands. To feel my feet. To breathe deeply and to know it. To arrive in my guts. It brings the life back in, emotions can shift and clear, and lifeless thoughts can gradually recede.

So as an artist, what to do? Those miracles, our hands, know, given a chance. They have blood in them. They are better listeners to Life, to the Muse, than my surface mind. I thank mine, I bless them. Then hold the pa


intbrush, pick up the paint tubes, mix some colour, move some materials about. Or use pencil or keypad to move thoughts and words over paper or screen. And as I am more able to arrive in my hands, a decision is not something that I have to work out with my surface mind, it is something that I observe.

*At one period in my life I was amused to notice that my surface mind would be repeatedly trying to pronounce foreign names that were unpronounceable or strange to me while my deeper mind was focused on painting. Boutros-Boutros Ghali’s name accompanied me through many a piece of work in the late eighties and early nineties. A colleague favoured silently repetitions of the name Ndabaningi Sithole while carefully crafting handmade books.


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