A few days ago, poking around in my laptop labyrinth, looking for something completely different, I stumbled on Helena Eitel's lovely short film, Swim. Helena was a student in my Embodied Magic: Drawing into Life class at Dartmouth this summer, who brought with her an amazing willingness to open up her already quite accomplished drawing & painting skills to a more improvisational way of being / seeing / working / playing. Swim was her independent final project. I share it here, with her blessing & her artist's statement (below), as a beautiful example of "embodied magic," and of the kind of skillful, devoted ease I've been singing the praises of here, there, and everywhere.
Thank you, Helena! You're a marvel, and I'm glad I know you.
Drawing Into Life: Embodied Magic
Final Project: Swim
Swim is a stop animation film made up of painted stills. Each frame is painted in acrylic on a clear, hard plastic sheet with LED lighting underneath. At first, I started out painting each frame to completion and then taking a picture. I was looking to express the beauty of my memory of humpback whales underwater in this new medium that I think captures underwater scenes well. After awhile, however, I remembered that this was not only about my few experiences underwater with humpback whales. It was also about communicating my love of the ocean and water, the seemingly magical way that water inspires me, and my daily swimming practice. Suddenly, so many more options opened up for me and I felt less cramped and anxious about executing my perfect humpback whale animation.
On my daily swimming practice: I expected this task be a chore or be unpleasantly cold some days. I learned that almost every time, it was only getting there that was a chore. The unpleasant part was only getting to the river and getting all the way in the water (past the uncomfortable transition to the cold temperature that happens when I jump or wade in). Each time when I left, I felt significantly better physically, but also emotionally. To document each of these swims, I would take some photos and then record a video of myself talking to my phone about how I felt after the swim. This method of recording my swims never got less awkward (although I think it helped me be less anxious about my calling a friend from home everyday practice). In general, I don’t think it did a very good job of capturing or expressing what each swim was like for me.
Swim is my attempt to try a new form of expression to communicate all of this. So, instead of continuing to paint every frame to completion before each photograph, I listened to my recordings and improvised a new painting on the plastic, taking pictures often with a tripod. Afterwards, I started playing with the audio on garage band and added some clips from my post-swim “speeches” over the dream-like river and ocean painted scenes. The combination of my words and the images I hope will give a sense of what’s going through my head when I’m swimming (although this in itself might be a little confusing).
In the midst of all the stress of finals period (or final projects period for me), it was really scary to be working on an improvisational project. I think I got really choked up and apprehensive about the outcome and focused too much on the beautiful, perfect, underwater imagery. After only a few hours I was really tired of this, and I’m glad that I relaxed my grip on the trajectory of the project and allowed for a different style of painting animation to flesh out the film. I ended up choosing the storyline of me starting and finishing a painting, because I think it echoes the idea that swimming, to me, is much like the feeling of being immersed in a painting. I don’t think I ever would have made this connection or had this insight without allowing myself to improvise.
Swim isn’t necessarily the perfect outcome I was looking for, but I think the evolution of the process took me further than that perfect animation of whales. It has also left me more satisfied. It has elements of a really satisfying short scene of whales as well as exploratory work that comes in layers on top. This class has really pushed me to let go of my output-oriented mindset and I’m so glad. It has allowed me to remember what it’s like to just enjoy painting for no other reason than to paint, and it has also really widened the possibilities for my work. This class has helped me to start thinking about things that I feel like all artists (everybody) should be thinking about: what do we do and why? What is satisfying? Thanks so much for a great term!
Helena's blog is here. You can contact her directly at: Helena.S.Eitel.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.