Jessica Helfand | The Self-Reliance Project

On Whispering

Looking. Listening. And Lessons from Quaker Meeting.

The Cushing Project. Color studies, 2019.

There is an intimacy to painting, and an athleticism to it, too. You’re wrestling with pigment and its capacity to portray an idea. You’re calculating the alchemy—how color captures light and likeness—considering the totality as you labor each detail. One moment the paint is luminous, dazzling. The next, flat and inert and wrong. Along the way there are countless sketches and studies, mutations, mistakes, and everything in between.

It’s the in-between that intrigues me—all the things unseen.

Recently, after a fitful weekend in the studio, I began doubting myself, and the body of work I’ve been obsessed with for the last year. But as I began to unpack the operational madness in my sketches, I discovered a series of color studies that revealed something else. Backlit like X-rays, these small paintings are raw, gestural, ghost-like. They whisper their stories.

Mistakes are to opportunity what weeds are to flowers: out of context, they seem wrong, until they aren’t. You need time to reconsider the permutations of your practice, space to liberate yourself from the traps of unmet expectation, and silence to enter into dialogue with what comes next.

Silence itself surprises us by its power to shift focus, to redirect the gaze. Not always welcome, but sometimes: revelatory.

Recently, my son shared a personal essay with me, in which he writes about his experience of attending Quaker Meeting, something he has done for several years, while farming. Here, he describes the beauty of stillness, the humor and humanity of a fitful baby.

My happiest memory is sitting with these farmers, he writes, exhausted from a long week of work, suppressing our laughter as we listened to a baby trying to tell us something important about the light within.

I had no idea about any of this. (He went to Meeting?) Nor, perhaps, should I: the experience itself is personal and reflective, meaningful precisely because it is personal and reflective.

And theirein lies the refrain. A fitful weekend in the studio. A fitful baby in Quaker Meeting. Restlessness is natural and necessary and human.

As is reflection.

In this year of incalculable loss, we’ve been obliged to stop moving in that outward-facing way that we’ve been groomed to equate with achievement. (Andrew Howard calls this standing still and digging deeper.) You don’t have to go to Quaker meeting to do this, or even to go to your studio: indeed, you don’t have to go anywhere.

But it’s worth remembering that looking benefits from silence, that digging benefits from stillness, and that light can come from unlikely places. A surprise encounter with a new voice. The slow unraveling of a hidden narrative. Our capacity to change course, to deepen awareness, and perhaps most of all, to locate—and celebrate—new sources of illumination. If this year has taught us anything, it has taught us that.

Jobs | July 19