The Art of Learning; step toward the unknown

Hiker looking up the Lakina River, Wrangell-St. Elias, Alaska

A backpacker/hiker stands and looks up the Lakina River drainage to the Lakina Glacier, on the side of Mount Blackburn. Wrangell mountains, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska. Please click on the image above to view a larger version of this photo.

Hey Folks,

If art is exploration, then perhaps one of the best modes of “practice” we might undertake is the challenge of the new; stepping outside our comfort realms and engaging something new. Stepping toward the unknown.

The process of learning is stimulating in itself, but I think it’s more than that, too. It’s stepping back and revisiting how to learn. Going through the process of picking up at the beginning, and working toward building a comfort level with some kind of form.

Art involves, essentially, that process. With that in mind, I find it great practice to pick up something I’ve not done before, something I know nothing about, and step into it. This winter, for example, my goal is to learn to telemark ski. I’d fooled with it briefly last year, but didn’t really understand or know the process. Also, as I found out this fall, had all the wrong gear for learning on. So, I’ve set myself up this winter with a nice rig, and taken some lessons.

The good news; what started out as essentially a “Special Ed” class is gradually molding into something resembling telemark skiing. It’s great fun, and quite a workout. On top of that, it’s stimulating!

Now, it’s simply practice time, putting in hours on the skis, running up and down the mountain, working on repetition, repetition, repetition. Do it again, do it again, do it again. Learn what it “feels” like. Let the rhythm sink into my body. Get past cognition to where it flows. It’s not a “grind” at all, but an exciting time of voyage into myself, and where I can go with it. Good stuff!

Learning to play music is very similar to this; going over a scale or a voicing over and over, feeling it, hearing it, experiencing it. The scale or passage becomes more than an exercise, a thought, and something inside of us.

Photography is like this too, but in a different way. The technical side of photography is always more cognitive, I think. But the art, the seeing, the vision, can most definitely improve with repetition; through repetition a kind of cleansing of the vessels helps the flow of seeing, I think, and we become more attuned to the sights, the patterns and shapes, colors and tones, around us.

Another way a new practice can REALLY help our art, I think, is the humility of it. Hearing the words “are you OK, mister?” from a passing 10 year old child humbles a grown man in a whole new way. One has to laugh at one’s self.

Humility is essential to making art, because of the fear involved in putting pen to paper, and fear of the unknown. We never really KNOW what’s about to come out when we pick up our instrument, our camera, our brush. We have to trust that the process of doing that is itself worthwhile endeavor, because we know the likelihood is that what will actually come out won’t be very good. Most art that any of us create is dumped in the trash before it’s hardly begun. The ‘keepers’ are few and far between for even the greatest artists.

Courage is required to make art, and with that, the acceptance that we are, after all, imperfect creatures, and make imperfect art.

More so, perhaps, is the humility required to step into the unknown, rather than the ego-boosting world of the comfortable. We could, of course, reshoot the same ole thing, the scenes we know, the style we know, the gear we know, to the audience we know, but I think we lose when we do this. We benefit most when we step forward, and embrace our misgivings, our weaknesses, our fallibility, and start to learn. Learning is an absorption process, as is art making. A friend of mine, a wonderful painter and writer, describes artists as “sponge-like receptors”, and in this sense, we’re constantly learning, receiving information.

So what are you learning? What’s your new endeavor for the winter? Your aim for the spring? Pick up something you’ve never done before, never tried, and work at it. It’s good for ya.



3 thoughts on “The Art of Learning; step toward the unknown

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