The Ebb and Flow of Art and Life
by Izabella Orzelski and Brenda K. Savella
Visualize for a moment the waves of the sea crashing on a sandy beach. As the day progresses, the water slowly recedes until it finally reaches the lowest point. Then the process reverses until the waves return to the beach. This is ebb and flow. In metaphorical form it reflects the creative process every artist encounters. As practising artists and visual art teachers, we are investigating this phenomenon to gain better understanding for our own practice as well as to share with colleagues and students.
This article grew out of our weekly collaborative meetings saturated with steaming tea, laughter and inspirational conversation. The discussion focused on the complexity of art making—a deep philosophical discourse that led to ponderings about the connection between making art and living life, and how they mirror natural cycles.
Idealistically, everyone wants to live in a state of passion, excitement and creative flow that comes with ease. As art teachers, we seek to inspire passion in our students. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that in reality this is not always possible. There is a natural cycle of ebb and flow that is inherent in art making and all learning as well as in life itself. Our insight was that this is a natural part of the human condition for artists, art educators and art students alike.
So, what do we really mean by ebb and flow? Ebb and flow represents a natural occurrence that involves the phases of the tide or any such movement of water. In ebb, sea water retreats down the shoreline, while in flow the water rises again. Both processes take time in a repeating cycle. As the water retreats, it goes back and forth until it reaches its lowest point and then repeats the same back and forth motion to reach the highest point. The water never remains at a highest or at a lowest level indefinitely.
Unfortunately, artists and student artists do not often understand the importance of the metaphorical meaning of ebb and flow as it applies to creative process. They need a clear understanding that they must move with the flow when it is present and depend upon discipline when it is not.
For example, we begin a painting with a great passion and the final product is fantastic. We ride the wave of success to the next artwork, which is also a winner. Then, slowly our creative ideas begin to wane. At first, we try harder but the results are discouraging. Over time, we begin to doubt our talent and artistic abilities. We hit a low point. If we don’t give up, our creativity will slowly but surely rise again. In another words, our art making now encompasses the dual process of ebb and flow. Without understanding this naturally occurring process, individuals may easily give up when the flow is not present. Therefore, it is essential to continue creative output despite meagre results during the ebb phase. We can still collect ideas, work in sketchbooks, on unimportant or experimental pieces, or simply take a break and relax. Interestingly, this phenomenon relates not only to art making but to education in general and to life itself.
Another example is our career as teachers. We work diligently and exert consistent energy to create stimulating, inviting classroom environments where diverse needs are met and students succeed. Yet sometimes a malaise envelops us and we question our effectiveness and purpose. At the end of the week, with lesson plans and marking piled up to the celling, it is hard to pretend that we have more to pour out before the weekend begins. Truthfully, we are more at ebb than flow. Time spent with family or friends, hobbies or just a short break can allow the flow to begin to return. In all the many facets of a teacher’s work, even though we love what we do, we must accept that it is ebb and flow that rules our professional lives.
It is important for us to help our students learn about the reality of ebb and flow. In doing this, we remove unrealistic expectations and give them the tools to balance their lives and learning, which allows the natural rhythm to occur. Passion for something enables us to make a start, but discipline and commitment carries us through to successful accomplishments. This way, we prepare our students for life, relationships and careers that will all be ruled by the law of ebb and flow.