We can very fittingly compare the nature of the soul to a very fine feather or very light wing. If it has not been damaged or affected by being spoiled by any moisture falling on it from outside, it is carried aloft almost naturally to the heights of heaven by the lightness of its nature, and the aid of the slightest breath. But if it is weighed down by any moisture falling on it and penetrating into it, it will not only not be carried away by its natural lightness into any flights in the sky, but it will actually be carried down to the depths of earth by the weight of the moisture it has received.
In the same way our soul, if it is not weighed down with faults that touch it, and the cares of this world, or damaged by the moisture of injurious lusts, will be raised (so to speak) by the natural blessing of its own purity, and carried aloft to the heights by the light breath of spiritual meditation. Leaving things low and earthly, it will be transported to those that are heavenly and invisible.
St. John Cassian
"St. Thomas Aquinas says that art does not require rectitude of the appetite, that it is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made. He says that a work of art is a good in itself, and this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten." -- Flannery O'Connor
"To become attuned to art is to become attuned to the pure sensation of being alive, because you are seeing it embodied in all of its mystery."
-- Kent Jones
In these, our apparent last days, no artist that I know of is thinking of creating art for the ages. It seems we are all working with remnants of nature or some sadly remaindered aspect of our dying culture. In my work I am seeing only the last bits and pieces of our once thriving planet against the background of the now ghostly geometry of abandoned city streets.
I was born with the gift of slow eyes, tuned in to another pace of living than the one willed on us by today’s culture. Delacroix said that if you see someone falling from a second story window you should be able to draw him before he hits the ground. But Delacroix was a visual journalist who covered the wars. He chronicled what was happening in the active world. I am more interested in the inactive world. I would like to chronicle what doesn’t happen, or what doesn't appear to be happening. Like Giorgio Morandi, who painted the way that dust and light settled on his shelves. Another world is encountered at this speed. No roving tigers or slashing scimitars, only the gentlest movement of the rotation of the spheres and the settling of motes in sunshine.
Reliquaries were created in Medieval times for the preserved remnants of Apostles and Saints. The merest finger bone of one who was known to be holy was held sacred, and a box or container of some sort was fashioned to house it.
Today, we don't do that so much anymore. As Bob Dylan once sang, "It's easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred." Or held sacred anyway. In our culture we tend less towards preserving what might be holy than towards destruction of... almost everything. As Joni Mitchell (almost) once said,
We paved Paradise
Blew up the parking lot
The level of violence in our times, towards each other and the planet itself, is unprecedented, leading many to look around in despair and begin to wonder where all the holiness went. I believe that it remains all around us, often at our very feet, in the rubble of our destruction, in the residue of our culture, for holiness is inherent in all things, however abused and mistreated. For those of us called to sift the detritus, I would like to share a Buddhist story:
It was the job of a young monk to rise early every day to sweep the temple, and he was growing weary of the work. So one day he set aside his broom, approached his master and said to him, "We hold that the Buddha nature is inherent in all things, even in the smallest speck of dust, but if this is so, why must I sweep the dust from the temple each day?" His master replied, "It is true that the Buddha nature is inherent in all things, and you do well to take note of it. Our job is simply to make it more apparent. Please keep sweeping."
Creating this art, for me, is a lot like temple-sweeping. The purpose is to make the inherent holiness that I see in all things more apparent for anyone who cares to look.
The central focus of my artwork is a particular contemplative gesture. It is the quiet gesture of the centered, straight-backed monk, deeply rooted in the earth, joyfully uplifted in the world.
All contemplative work is countercultural. Today's American culture is awash in over-stimulating, under-nourishing imagery. Most of us live in visually busy cities. We drive cars, go to the movies, and (of course) watch TV. Most are also online, confronted daily with the stimulus on our computer screens. The scale of this assault on our senses is historically unprecedented. Today’s eyes, relentlessly taxed with the effort of sorting this bombardment of emptiness are sorely in need of a more contemplative visual engagement.
The challenge for any artist in the twenty-first century is to contend with the ubiquity of imagery and to meet the growing need for something more substantial for viewers. Unfortunately, much of what surfaces in the world of fine art contributes to the problem rather than to a solution. It tends not to be contemplative, more often mirroring the neurosis of the culture that produced it. It is an unacknowledged tragedy of our times. What happens when so much of the use we make of our eyes is to fend off overstimulation? We do little but sort and define and clarify the seemingly endless barrage of information. What happens when there is no relief for the eyes, no gift from the artist that allows for rest and restoration of our busy and abused vision? How are we to find peace in the midst of chaos? When our eyes do not rest, neither do our spirits. When our eyes are abused, so are our hearts.
However there is also art that is good to spend time with, art that arises from a deep and full visual engagement. This is art that creates space within and apart from the chaos. It has a restorative and calming effect. It is quiet, but engaging, soft spoken, yet articulate. It creates space wherein we can breathe. This is work that, when seriously absorbed, restores the spirit and brings goodness to the heart.
This is contemplative art. Though it is all around us, it is usually not readily apparent. It needs to be sought out. Like a hermit monk, it will not be found unless it is looked for. It is effectively invisible to any but those who search, though it is nonetheless real and alive. Sometimes it hides in plain sight, easily missed because it does not compete for attention. It is nonaggressive. It has no agenda and does not demand to be seen. I have often noticed that when I visit an art gallery the art that I most value in the end is the art that I don’t see on my first walk through the exhibit. It is the soft-spoken piece that asks nothing of me, but tends to be hidden, like a short poem in a long book.
The artwork I make is intended for just such cultural invisibility. It Is not meant to be discovered by the unquiet eye, the encultured heart, but to feed the engaged and honest seeker. I do not ask it to be easy, but to bring ease to the struggling spirit.
I am an artist. I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota.