Leah drawing in the studio, Leah Wilson

I know artists who are resistant to talking about their process of making art. They want the finished work to be considered on its own regardless of the steps taken to make it. For other artists, like myself, the story of the process cannot be decoupled from the finished work. The art is a continual process of being and evolving. The finished work feels like a resting point, a place to pause, reflect and change course if needed.

Process can simply mean the steps that are taken to achieve the final product. The process of making coffee in the morning is not relevant or interesting to the experience of drinking the cup of coffee unless you are a connoisseur. The quality of the cup of coffee resulting from the process is all that matters.

Most process is on a level analogous to the process of making coffee. Plotting out a composition, mixing paint, or choosing a paintbrush does not make a compelling narrative to a finished painting unless you happen to be learning how to paint.

Rolling Listening to the Forest

Preparing a Panel for Listening the the Forest

What about the type of process that can’t be teased out from the finished work? For many of my projects I set up a process specific to the project which enables me to:

  1. collect research and source material to develop into a visual narrative through time;
  2. routinely reencounter a specific place, to engage with it physically, and to deepen my relationship with it;
  3. connect to the place as an integral aspect of the art.

How can this process be distinguished from the ordinary process of making? Does it, or should it, have a different name distinct from process?

Solstice & Equinox Ritual at Watershed 2

Solstice & Equinox Ritual at Watershed 2, HJ Andrews Experimental Forest, Leah Wilson

Artist Lauren Bierly suggests process as ritual. Ritual. Can I accept that? I feel resistant to the word ritual. The place of resistance deserves to be poked and questioned:

  1. Why do I hold resistance against ritual?;
  2. Does the resistance serve any purpose?;
  3. Could I consider the repeated actions that cannot be separated from my art ritual?

I turn away from ritual mostly from habit. Ritual has undertones of ideas of religion that I abandoned years ago. It echos a repetition of actions performed so many times they lose their meaning.

I question those assertions and assumptions, reactions that have become automatic to almost become the ritual that I habitually reject. I fall into my own mindless trap.

Containing Ephemera, oil on panel, 20 x 30 in., Leah Wilson

Beautiful Trash: Containing Ephemera, oil on panel, 20 x 30 in., Leah Wilson

What is ritual?

Perhaps I have a limited, myopic interpretation of ritual. A quick online search for ritual brought me face to face with capitalism in the health and beauty industry. Companies would certainly want to create customers with a daily ritual of taking their vitamins and using their cosmetics – It creates a regular customer base. But is taking vitamins and using cosmetics really a ritual, or merely a habit? Ritual seems to connote more than habit.

Mirriam-Webster dictionary brought religion, rites, public worship, and social norms into high relief. Lastly, ritual was simply ‘an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a precise manner’. on the other end of the spectrum, in psychiatry, when taken to an extreme, ritual can be associated with neurosis.

Sisal & Vine

Sisal & Vine, Leah Wilson

‘Acts regularly repeated in a precise manner’ is akin to habit. My process is not merely a set of repeated acts like taking vitamins. What I do with my art moves beyond simply a series of precise acts regularly repeated in a precise manner, although it is an aspect I typically consider to be a system. It is certainly not a social norm, but neither is it pathological.

I would not say my process is religious. However, if I am to consider the essential part of my process to be ritual, this seems to be the only avenue left. It implies meaning is to be found behind the actions. This type of ritual is done with an intention to transcend. But religions are institutionalized and structured, and the rituals have a more or less standardized protocol. The ritual involves either a congregation repeating the same actions, or a clergy member performing actions as the congregation act as witnesses. Ritual as art practice does not quite fit.

But what if I strip away the problematic word ‘religion’ from ritual? Does it work if I come at it from a position of spirituality? Perhaps…

This inquiry was inspired by conversations with artists Lauren Bierly and Rita Leduc. Follow both of them in Instagram @lbierly and @ritaleduc

Burning soil & seeds for Metanoia Catalyst, Leah Wilson


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