Naropa Magazine Fall 2018 masthead
Home / 2018 Fall Magazine / Features / Art as a Contemplative Practice

michael franklin sitting
Photo: Sofia Drobinskaya

Art as a Contemplative Practice

Drawing on his experience as an artist, contemplative practitioner, researcher, and cancer survivor, Michael Franklin’s Art as Contemplative Practice: Expressive Pathways to the Self (SUNY Press, 2017) provides a welcoming and instructional guide to art as contemplative practice. In his foreword, Christopher Key Chapple writes, “The reader will be edified by the wisdom contained in these pages and perhaps inspired to pick up a pencil to write a poem or create an abstract or even literal form or design to give voice to the feelings welling up from within. Art in its myriad forms holds the power to heal. Michael Franklin invites us to explore that power.” The following are excerpts from Franklin’s book. 

cover of michael franklin's bookAscent, Descent & Imaginal Space

As a child, growing up in Miami, Florida, I would often go fishing. While trolling on Biscayne Bay, schools of dolphins would appear. Like shiny metallic sewing needles, they would stitch the sea by diving deep, disappearing for a while, eventually surfacing to breathe and then dive again. Watching in amazement, I would wonder about the vast seen tabletop of the water contrasted with the dark, invisible world below. Later I came to realize that the dolphins were plunging and reappearing similar to the way visual symbols behave, from unconscious to preconscious to conscious awareness. Recalling now how the dolphins sutured the sea continues to reinforce this germane teaching.

Visual symbols are the transportation between unconscious inner realms and awareness. They provide graphic embodiment for unknown felt material to manifest as relatable content. Symbols help to rebalance psychological forces by materializing discrepancies within the psyche. For example, craving riches in day-to-day life, yet dreaming at night about nonmaterial spiritual adventures, conveys the point. When received and embraced, symbols serve as compensatory messengers to help break patterns and recalibrate personal values.1


Solidity, Form & Descent

art exhibitMichael Franklin’s gallery show, ‘Small Places to Pray: Silence, Surfaces, and Clay Reliquaries’ at Naropa’s Cube Gallery last fall. 

The beauty of a dark, waiting, underworld beneath rocks or within caves summons us closer to obscure spaces. Yet we tend to favor habitual security by going inside as night falls, avoiding the lush veiled subtlety of darkness. What is counter to habit is good for the development of intuition; perhaps the most important ally in artistic work. There are moments when it is time to step off of the edge of safety, plunge into darker unknown spaces, and take healthy risks. One way I learn about these leaps of faith is to enter unfamiliar landscapes with intense curiosity.

When possible, I seek out caves like at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park in Montana and experience these fantastic dimly lit places. One enters into the cavernous darkness with respect, knowing that the ground, walls, and canopy consist of delicate rock formations patiently sculpted over millennia. The temperature quickly drops, light fades, and one soon realizes that tactile knowing is an indispensable way of receiving information. Gently feeling into the darkness and tenderly touching the cool stone surfaces reveal the contoured language of rock and time. The face feels moisture while the ears hear the expanding, viscous silence. Though foreign to usual perception, this “down there” darkness, too, is home.

Figuratively speaking, spelunking is a skill for the contemplative artist. To journey into emotional spaces where it is silent, dark, perhaps even hellish, can reveal ripe opportunity. Like many dialectic relationships, the freedom to ascend and descend does not imply contradictions of either-or, positive-negative undertones. If willing, we can go toward counterintuitive, prohibited subjects and mend the splits of dualistic thinking, while participating in the discovery of personal wholeness.

The exploration of formlessness promises revelation. In alchemy, the empty space of ether is the prima materia, or the original material from which all forms and ideas emerge. From the emptiness, a soon-to-arrive unborn moment emerges bringing the assurance of manifestation.
Art teaches us to fall in love with the physical world including what is easy to see as well as what repels us. Dead flowers are as interesting to look at as a living bouquet. Mindfully perceiving with full sensory awareness deepens participation in any life event.

When I worked inpatient psychiatric care with hospitalized teens, they often announced their boredom. “How can you be bored?” I responded to them. “If you are bored it is because you are boring.” Yet they had a point as many were deprived of any sort of arts education. So I would teach them how to see through paper towel tubes, photograph with homemade pinhole cameras, and investigate their surroundings with magnifying glasses. We found ways to experiment and build small dreams such as drum sets and life-sized guitars out of cardboard and thrown-away ice cream store barrels. Over time, boredom moved into remission. The teens became emotionally and aesthetically engaged and excited about their sensory capacity to receive the world, feel their feelings, and step into the emptiness of blank canvases and cardboard remnants in order to create their stories. Most encouraging, they repeatedly requested new, more complex assignments. They were alive and they knew it, learning that persistence always yields results when attempting to manifest unseen ideas. purple naropa seal to end article

1 Harding, M. Esther. ”What Makes the Symbol Effective as a Healing Agent?” In Current Trends in Analytical Psychology, edited by Gerhard Adler, 1-17. London: Tavistock, 1961.

Michael Franklin, PhD, is professor and chair of the Graduate Art Therapy Program at Naropa. He is the founder of the Naropa Community Art Studio, a research project training socially engaged art therapists while providing services to diverse populations in the Boulder community.