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Stewart Cubley's "The Painting Experience": Painting for Process not for Product

There is often additional information on the recording that is not in this written interview.  Inspire yourself and listen while you make art. 


My primary goal in these interviews is to inspire you with stories of people who make a living helping artists make a living making art and who consider it a real job. The art professionals I interview here have valuable tales to tell you about how to work with them.
Stewart Cubley

Stewart Cubley is founder of The Institute for Art & Living, also known as The Painting Experience. His work has carried him throughout the world to work with groups in a process of inner exploration using the tool of expressive painting to access the potential within the human heart and imagination. The Painting Experience was founded in 1976 and incorporated as the nonprofit organization Institute For Art and Living in 1982. For more than three decades, Stewart has taught his unique approach to literally thousands of people at growth centers such as Esalen and Omega Institutes, multinational corporations, programs in prisons and countless other public forums. Stewart lives in Fairfax, CA. He is co-author of Life, Paint & Passion, Reclaiming the Magic of Spontaneous Expression, Tarcher/Putnam 1996.

A.C.T.:  What is the mission of The Painting Experience? Please tell us about the journey from founding until now?

Our mission statement is: "We inspire people to find a more courageous and meaningful participation in their lives through the practice of the expressive arts."
I kind of backed into this work. I was originally trained in engineering, physics and mathematics. I went through a crisis in my late twenties where I realized these areas in the hard sciences were not my passion.
I was a year away from my Ph.D. in Geophysics when I made the leap and decided to follow my passion instead of my head. I had no idea of what that would look like, but I knew somehow that it would involve the emotional, spiritual and creative intimacy that I found lacking in the hard sciences. The opportunities that have arisen out of this decision have been richly rewarding and they have formed me both as a person and an educator.

Through my own period of self-exploration, I discovered the painting process - which took me by surprise - as painting was not part of my self-image. The process, rather than producing an end result, intrigued me.
I took up painting and began teaching children in grades one through three at the French-American Bilingual School in San Francisco for about five years. I learned how to create an environment for exploration without comparison that I carried into my work with adults.

In our current workshops, we give people a hands-on experience of painting intuitively where they listen to the internal sources of creativity rather than looking at something outside of us.

The Painting Experience began in San Francisco as a small grass-roots endeavor and grew slowly by word-of-mouth over the three plus decades until today. The emphasis that attracts people is art as process, and the classes and workshops were designed from the beginning to be free of comparison and evaluation. There is no critique or exhibit of the work created.

From the late 1970s until 1997 our headquarters was in the Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco. At one point we had nearly 175 students a week passing through our various programs, which included weekly classes, weekend workshops, five- and ten-day intensives and training programs. In 1996, we published the book Life, Paint & Passion, Reclaiming the Magic of Spontaneous Expression (Tarcher/Putnam). This created a national and international audience, and since then most of my work has been on the road offering workshops and retreats in many locations around the world. I'm currently in the process of establishing a studio in Marin County, where I live.

A.C.T.: What services do you offer? Who do you work with and how do they benefit from your services?

Our classes are open to anyone whether they have experience or not. Some participants may not have picked up a paintbrush since grade school. More experienced artists can explore new avenues and not be bound by what they did before. Our workshops open new doors for the creative process and give everyone inspiration to pursue new avenues in any of their walks of life.  

One of the rewarding aspects of this work for me is the diversity of the participants' backgrounds, career training and experience in the arts. People of all sorts find in the Painting Experience a way to connect with their creative source and develop a trust in their individual form of expression.

One of the main guidelines is that participants are asked not to make any comments on the work of others. This quickly creates an environment in which each person can feel safe to delve into their own personal form of expression without concern for group acceptance and approval. We do not put any importance on talent, skill, technique, prior training or proficiency. The emphasis is upon honesty and the personal growth that grows out of that, and this became the touchstone that drew people back again and again.

Today about 30% of the people in each workshop are returning participants and a large percentage of the rest are coming through word-of-mouth.

We offer weekend workshops in many locations throughout the United States and Canada, five-day retreats at locations such as Esalen, Omega, Kripalu and our annual ten-day intensive at Hui Ho'olana in Moloka'i, Hawaii. I am now also travelling to Europe and Asia, so I'm on the road most of the year.

We also offer online courses and study groups as well as individual mentoring for people working at home. And a new training program will be starting in 2013.

A.C.T.: Are there any differences in the Experience in doing a live workshop, study groups or your book?

The experience of support and stimulation you find in a workshop greatly enhances creative energy. We use high quality tempera paint on printing paper that is used for books.

My process has developed over the years of working with people - the environment I create, the questions I ask and the manner in which I interact with participants as they work. In the workshop there is no casual conversation, no comments on each other's work so that there is a zone of safety from social approval. The quiet becomes almost meditative. Any comments I make are designed to stimulate the inner process rather than the outer reality, in particular on addition, completion or over-working, until the participant reaches that inner balanced state of knowing without judgment.

We noticed that a lot of people would get excited, buy brushes, paint and paper to take home with the best of intentions to make this process part of their life. A year later they would be in another workshop and admit that they had not started.

It's a challenge to keep the process alive at home. It's possible to feel very inspired by the book, and I meet many people who've started painting after reading it.

Online study groups are designed to assist people to continue painting at home after a workshop, as well as transfer the lessons learned in the painting process to creative efforts beyond the studio. In addition to having other participants on the journey a facilitator guides the groups through a blog, conference calls and one-to-one mentoring access through online chats and e-mail.

© The Painting Experience StudioA.C.T.: Tell us about your team and how they qualified to work with you to become facilitators.

The co-facilitators I work with are people who initially "clicked" with the experience and kept at it over a period of time until it became obvious that they were interested and ready to learn to work with others. Their training process has been organic and is hands-on, often beginning with observing me work on the floor, asking me questions about what I do and then getting involved themselves.

© The Painting Experience Co-Facilitators Stewart Cubley & Annie Danberg
That said, I'm now developing a more organized training program that's designed to educate individuals to bring the understanding and practice of the process arts into their own work (such as therapists or educators), as well as train qualified individuals to facilitate the process painting workshops and classes.

A.C.T.: Are there additional requirements for people who seek continuing education credits?

We offer continuing education credits for therapists, nurses and social workers. Our workshops are pre-registered with the California Boards of Behavioral Sciences and Registered Nursing, and no further work is required other than attending, participating fully and completing the course.

A.C.T.: Does the artist's career stage matter for them to benefit? What kinds of issues do they seem to wrestle with most?

Although artists and non-artists alike attend our workshops, I've worked with career artists at every stage of their development.

© The Painting Experience Students
I believe the common denominator is the quest for a fresh perspective and a new aliveness in their work. Often accomplished artists who show up have started to feel stale, either by becoming too wedded to a successful style that's expected of them or just has lost the juice and is no longer interested in what they're doing.

For a person making a transition from another profession or an emerging artist, there's a curiosity and quest for discovering a unique artistic voice without worrying about marketability. The issues that come up often center on the terror of an unsatisfactory result, doubts about personal worth and the fear of risk-taking.   

Getting past these issues produces a thread that the novice or experienced person alike can explore and evolve for quite some time because it comes from emotion and excitement of discovery rather than expectations.

In the environment that we create in the process arts workshops there is no comparison or critiquing of the work, and consequently new directions can be explored without the pressure of it having the finished product "work." This opens many new possibilities that mature later as an artist returns to the studio, whether it's painting, writing, acting or whatever art form.

We never tell someone "what" to do, but we give guidance and permission to access their inner source of imagery and inspiration. We also help the painter confront the inevitable judgmental voices that arise, and to learn the crucial distinction between the instinctive authentic voice and the voice of the mind trying to construct and control the experience.

A.C.T.: What does it take to do what you do? Please describe a typical day, and a typical month so readers can understand how you manage your time, money and energy.

People often see me in workshops and have the idea that I have this romantic dream job where I get to explore the creative process with others and then have a vacation in between.

The actual workshop days are very consuming and exciting, but the "in between" time is about preplanning locations and audiences, writing copy, taking registrations, following up with correspondence, endless emails, etc. It's running a small business and all that entails, so I have an office manger to support me and the facilitators in marketing; updating the data base; sending e-mails to nurture participants' experience so they will tell others; scheduling, buying and shipping materials and making travel arrangements. We maintain the website with a shopping cart, an active Facebook page where we post imagery and helpful quotes.

We are a not-for-profit organization with reporting requirements to the state and federal government, doing payroll and tax reporting. We also have a scholarship funded by donations.

During a weekend workshop, we get into the room at about 10:00 a.m. Friday morning and often require four to six hours to construct a painting studio before the event begins that evening. We create painting stations with paper and brushes for each person; central tables of paint and water. The set up is designed to free people from dealing with or learning about materials so they can focus on the painting process.

Each session begins with a group circle -- a time to present the philosophy of the method and to field questions and reflections that people have about their experience. Then we paint for two to two and one-half hours each session, during which the facilitators circulate and work individually with people in front of their painting.

© The Painting Experience Student Eve

A.C.T.: What peak moments big and small - have you had through and with The Painting Experience?

Over the thirty plus years I've been facilitating this process I've had many "peak" moments, but I must say what never loses its luster for me is the thrill and magic seeing a painter get out of their own way, lose self-consciousness and enter the state of creative flow.

I know that something has happened at that moment that will influence the rest of that person's creative life, as if a portal has opened and one steps through to join the stream of a destiny waiting to be revealed.

I have many, many people come back and tell me that they don't understand how a particular experience they had in painting could have made such a shift in their lives. I feel I have found my place in being able to contribute to that experience so it never gets old.

© The Painting Experience Student Emily

A.C.T.: How do you define success?

I define success simply by the fact that someone is willing to stand in front of the blank canvas and meet their creative potential first hand. I consider each color, form and image that appears in the process to be a celebration and a gift.

A.C.T.: What obstacles have you encountered in your business and how have you handled them?

In the beginning I had self-doubt until I learned how to work with people. I had to be willing to make mistakes and figure out what I could have done. Through learning how to handle mistakes I increased my confidence in being able to meet people individually in each moment, rather than from a technique.

One obstacle in this business of holding seminars is continued registration. This involves marketing, networking, writing and generally trying to find the right conduit to advertise your product - which in this case is "no product."

Over many years of doing this I have come to understand that the best marketing tools are integrity and care. If someone feels that in your work -- and by care I mean thoughtfulness and personal attention -- then a feeling is generated that radiates out more meaningfully than any amount of publicity. A person who genuinely feels cared for in their exploration will tell others, and this is the main source of our clientele.
© The Painting Experience Student Patrick
Over the years this has meant that I might travel a great distance to lead an "undersubscribed" workshop in terms of numbers and finances. But it never mattered that much to me, because I loved what I was doing, and I trusted in the values it represented.

A.C.T.: Who are your role models and mentors? What was the best advice they gave you?

As a young man I was very taken by the philosophy of Krishnamurti. And in middle age I was greatly influenced by the bodywork of Moshe Feldenkrais.  Both of these teachers questioned the herd-like nature of human consciousness and challenged me to embrace the unique individuality that the creative life permits.

Common to their teachings was the concept of internal listening and the understanding that to dare to express one's individual way of being in the world was inclusive and integrating, not alienating or selfish.    

A.C.T.: What is your marketing strategy? What promotional materials and actions do you use most often?

What brings people to their first experience (and then to return) is the direct word-of-mouth transmission -- people talking to people. Our primary way of communicating is e-mail to our own network, built up over the years, to remind people of what's coming up.

We have a Facebook community that's now 7000 strong. This format, with its options for great visuals, videos and personal feedback has become an important part of our marketing. It's again people connecting with people. It also takes continuity and presence to keep it from becoming stale.
We also have a a successful DVD (and now YouTube video) that takes people inside an actual workshop to see what's going on.

You can read more about us here:

Article - Art and the Challenge of Change:
Interview (with Shared Vision, Vancouver, BC)

A.C.T.: How do you fund your scholarship program?

We are a nonprofit arts education organization, and we rely on tax-deductible fundraising from within our community to support those who would not otherwise be able to attend our workshops.

A.C.T.: What advice would you pass on to artists who want to succeed in any economy?

One of the challenges for cresting an artistic lifestyle is not to put the cart before the horse, i.e. not looking for what will be successful in the world before you find what feels successful to you. It takes a lot of courage to be willing to go your own way to find your own method and form of expression; ground yourself in that before you discover whether the work is marketable and accepted by the art world.

Find your passion and follow your heart. And don't be afraid to enter those dark places where your internal voices try to turn you back. Oddly enough, our passion is often just on the other side of what seems to be taboo.  In our workshops we encourage expression of the frightening and discouraging voices in their full color and glory. To dare to put them out on the paper -- to even exaggerate them -- is incredibly liberating. Then they're seen as just paper tigers, whereas before they seemed like actual scary demons. The power of creative expression is that what was held inside you is now out of you and therefore no longer defines you. And then you're left with the ever-deepening question of the true artist - who are you after all?

I believe your services provide a wide-range of support for individuals seeking to embrace creativity as a vital way of being in the world both personally and professionally. The real-life stories of the artists you present and the examples they provide makes the creative journey more credible and accessible for all of us. Good work!