On Collaboration as Spiritual Practice
Anne Emmons, Tim Timmerman, and Kiki McGrath
Inside the Diving Bell is a series of collaborative paintings by Anne Emmons, Tim Timmerman and Kiki McGrath. The title alludes to an image poet Christian Wiman used to describe the creative process, a metaphor for protection while descending to unknown depths to form a work of art. Our practice required a spiritual descent as well, with faith in each other as artists and fellow sojourners seeking God.
It was at a Glen workshop in Santa Fe in August of 2015 that our workshop director Tim Lowly inspired me to ask Kiki and Anne if they would want to work on a small collaboration involving a set of six pieces that we’d work on over the course of that week. We each began two pieces and rotated the work twice between us. For example, a piece I began could move in a rotation of Tim, Kiki, Anne, Tim, Kiki, Anne. Each of us began four of the twelve with an initial impulse or concept. I intentionally began my first two with a singular figure or image, leaving the rest of the page white, where in my second two I began with a brightly colored wash layout to see how that would change the conversation. Conceptually all of mine were begun with the notion of how one represents God engaging with us.
The mediator is both receiver and giver, occupying the complex fertile middle ground of the collaborative process. After the workshop ended we continued our practice at a distance by sending work through the mail. Each artist added a new layer of imagery and materials while exploring initial sources, artistic visions and abiding spiritual questions. The process was dynamic and created a dialog over time, full of surprises and humor. On the back of the paper we noted our additions and changes and shared technical notes while yielding expectations of control. We agreed to trust the decisions of the other artists, knowing the end result would look less like any one of our respective works. While painting on the middle passages I tried to honor the initial concept of the piece and to add tension by pushing the color palette or developing spatial elements. I also drew in fragments of images and art history references to add forms or chaos for the next artist to work through.
The enigmatic phase of completion is always a challenge. I view the last 15% of the work as the most difficult. When is it finished? Have I fulfilled my concept? Does the work express that first fresh impulse that caused its genesis? Is there something crucial that is still missing, after pondering all the complex decisions, and expanding questions? I found that completing in collaboration was different in some ways. My decisions extended from my initial concept of reclaiming the person in various perspectives, working with the face and figure using transparent layers of color to conceal and enhance. Finishing the work called for a careful inquiry into the ideas and images of Tim and Kiki as the paintings developed. I felt an obligation to remain true to the aspects of the piece that seemed to be most dear to them, as well as to my own sensibilities. Completion was more free, and more fun, as I exercised creative sleuthing to uncover and recall what each of us offered in the making, and to converge the wandering directions we had taken along the way into a happy return.