One Small Pot

potExcerpt from “A Painter’s Garden” book

Chapter “A Yard of One’s Own”

There is a beautifully illustrated children’s book my son and I love to read together. It is a Chinese folktale, “The Empty Pot.” An Emperor has no heirs and announces that he will give his kingdom to the child who can grow the most beautiful flower. the children flock to the palace. Each child receives a seed and races home to plant it in a pot. One little boy, Ping, has an especially green thumb and is sure his flower will be the most beautiful. He plants it in rich soil, waters it faithfully, and waits excitedly to see it blossom. But nothing grows. A year passes. All the children return to the palace carrying pots with lovely flowers. Ping is ashamed. His pot is empty. His father encourages him to take the pot to the Emperor anyway. He says. “You have done your best, and your best is good enough for the Emperor.”

As the Emperor surveys the crowd of children holding their pots full of beautiful flowers, he frowns. Finally the Emperor confronts Ping with his empty pot. Ping apologizes profusely, telling the Emperor how hard he worked to grow the seed, but that the seed just wouldn’t grow. The Emperor slowly smiles and warmly embraces Ping. He tells the gathered crowd that he had cooked the seeds and that only Ping is honest and courageous enough to appear before him with an empty pot. He makes Ping Emperor of his kingdom.

When we take on the task of doing the best we can within whatever limits we face, there is often a rich reward. The results of our efforts may not meet our expectations. They may surpass them, or most likely, they will take a form so unlike what we anticipated that it takes time before we recognize them as our prize. Starting small with whatever resources are at hand works for most everything—writing a book, growing a business, learning to cook, making art. If there is no land for a garden, grow a flower in one small pot and see what happens.

When I was in my early twenties, I took a drawing class from a wonderful artist and teacher, Michael Meyers. I had a full time teaching job and worked additional hours on several evenings and Saturdays for community art programs. My resources were limited because I was helping my first husband through law school. I was frustrated because I had little time to draw or paint and had no studio or extra money for art supplies. By taking Michael’s class, I guaranteed myself a few hours a week devoted to drawing. Michael introduced me to a method of working that has kept me making art over the years, even during difficult times.

He told me to work small enough to complete a drawing in whatever time I had available. For subject matter, he suggested I use whatever was convenient –my name in script, for instance. I began making six inch square drawings on white paper with colored pencils using shapes found in my signature. I would arrive home late from work, sit on the couch and draw. If I had only a few minutes and couldn’t complete a six inch drawing, I’d divide the square into grids and make one inch square drawings. Gradually, the drawings demanded more from me, and somehow, I found the time to give to them. I set up a card table in the living room and worked on two foot square drawings that took weeds of evenings and Sundays to finish. Whenever I could, I’d put a classical album on the record player and draw. The shapes derived from my signature evolved into marks and symbols inspired by the music. As the drawings became more dense and layers, I experimented with other materials, finally settling upon layers of plexiglas painted with acrylic and held together by frames I designed and had fabricated. One of those paintings was the first piece of mine exhibited in a museum show.

Over the years, I have returned to working small and within limits imposed upon me or defined by me. The “start small” method always serves to solve the immediate problem –which is usually how to keep making art in whatever circumstances –and it invariably leads to new insights and eventually produces a strong series of work. I heartily recommend the “start small” method. It’s easy to do. You just begin.


Excerpt from “A Painter’s Garden” book


A letter to a friend has grown into this gift of images and words—a present wrapped with the insights and encouragement my garden has given me. On opening, it reveals the joys of living a creative life and coming to terms with one’s gifts and limitations.

Many years ago, I imagined a place surrounded by nature to grow a family and do creative work, hoping to fulfill that dream within five years. It has taken eighteen. As I write this, I am living the life I visualized as an artist, a mother, and a partner to a wonderful man. We live and work at home in the country. A friend’s off hand comment led me to reflect on how I found my way to this place. On the phone one day, Amy said to me, “You’re living your dream! How did you make that happen?” Her words settled into me and nudged out questions: What is it that sets one on a creative path and keeps one pushing forward in spite of entanglements? What steps must we take to fulfill the promise of our intentions? In other words, how do we make our dreams come true?

Daisy WatercolorIt’s not enough to dream, although it is necessary to have a clear vision. Parents and teachers praise hard work, but many of the wise advocate effortlessness. Faith ranks high, but one’s faith is always tested. Good luck counts, but not without the bad, because that often heralds good fortune. Talent, knowledge, and skill in one’s chosen field are required, but naivete and an openness to learning sometimes bring profound insights and a wealth of good ideas. Regardless of the paths we take, getting “there” never ends up being exactly where we think it is going to be. Creativity is not a simple step-by-step process, but a cycle. Much like plants need the seasons, we need to establish and feel creative rhythms that let us root and flourish, lie fallow, and bloom again. Whether making paintings, writing songs, or growing a business, it is the creative life that is being formed, not just the products of our hands and minds.

Strawberry watercolorI began cultivating a garden to have a subject for my paintings. Now the garden more than inspires my art; it offers me, daily, a way to grow and change. One afternoon, while shoveling turkey manure, I realized how much the act of gardening is a metaphor for the creative process. As a gardener, one is always learning from nature, the great teacher, who says it’s okay to be out of control, a little confused, a tireless worker, and a reflective spirit. In the garden, one may make mistakes and not be too oriented toward results. However, for the garden to flourish, tasks must be tended to every day or so throughout every season, and we must notice what’s going on. We may have ideas about how we want our garden to be, but it tells us quite clearly how it intends to grow. In nature’s hands and our own, matter is changed from seed to plant, compost to flower and fruit. Gardeners have faith in transformation, in return for which we receive the gift of seeing a little more today than we did yesterday.

Berries watercolorAs I continue on the journey reflected upon in this book, becoming a more accomplished artist and learning each day the joys and perils of an interior life expressed through an artistic form, I thank the garden for the way it nourishes my art and renews my spirit. I hope the following essays and journal excerpts offer you companionship as you travel your creative path. And, as much as possible, I wish all of us bountiful gardens to contemplate in solitude and celebrate in friendship with one another.

This blogspace is devoted to painting and gardening, to the creative process found in nature and reiterated in the studio. I’ll be posting chapters from my book, A Painter’s Garden: Cultivating the Creative Life,” and new investigations in the garden and studio. The garden is fertile territory for painting and also for contemplating life’s mysteries, feeling its sorrows, and celebrating its joys. I hope you have an actual or metaphoric plot of your own to cultivate, and I hope you’ll join me here in the virtual garden and studio.