I’m still thinking back on our Earth Walk concert. My good friend, and audio engineer Andrew Kremer, recorded the concert and recently sent me the files. It’s been great listening to the music and reliving the stories and commentary that went with it. One thing you can’t hear on the recording is the painting of Michael Anderson. The attached photo shows him in the process of his artistic creation. What I did hear on Andrew’s recording was the conversation Michael and I had during the concert as the audience observed his artistic process.
I asked Mike how he knew what to paint on his canvas. After all, he had no visual reference, just the music, words and dance as the concert progressed. Here’s how Michael replied: “Actually, I’m like a jazz musician creating from my imagination. Imagination is the key. Even when I’m painting outdoors I have to imagine what I’m putting on the canvas. It’s all a matter of what you have in your mind and how it comes out through your hand and brush. Then the ‘laws’ of painting take over. Who knows where you go from there.”
It was as if Mike was a part of the band. As we played the notes, he brushed the canvas. Swaying back and forth, he caught the rhythm, absorbed the melody and used our improvisation as a catalyst for his imaginative improvisation. Since the music, dance and stories focused on Mother Earth, his painting captured the colors of creation in the context of creating.
As we neared the end of our concert Mike was putting the finishing touches on his work. He told the audience that he had been studying the ancient Chinese masters and how improvisation was at the heart of their painting and calligraphy. Painting during the concert he felt “inspired to lift up the Spirit of bamboo, plum blossom, birds, fish and the sky.”
And that’s what improvisation is all about. Whether it’s jazz, painting, or any art form, the artist listens to the wellspring of imaginative spirit percolating from within. With that inspiration he or she can begin to create—something out of nothing. Which is, of course, the way God fashioned creation. No, I’m not suggesting that artists are gods, merely that we co-create with the Creator transforming our imagination into visible or auditory form. It takes practice, discipline and deep listening to bring imagination to life. That is the art of improvisation.