A quote from Annie Dillard:
"A nun lives in the fires of the spirit, a thinker lives in the bright wick of the mind, an artist lives jammed in the pool of materials. (Or, a nun lives, thoughtful and tough, in the mind, a nun lives with that special poignancy peculiar to religious, in the exile of materials; and a thinker, who would think of something, lives in the clash of materials, and in the world of spirit where all long thoughts must lead; and an artist lives, of course, in the spirit. So.)"
From Holy the Firm
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 love artists who don’t see themselves as artists, art that makes no claims on being art. Someone recently sent me this about Michael Grab. He appears to make no great claims for his art, but he has taken rock balancing far beyond what I ever imagined in my gentle Stone Poem gestures. One of my favorite images of his is this humble arrangement. It would take a mean person indeed who would find no beauty in this work, wouldn't it? Or to deny that it is art?
There are many more extravagant arrangements in this article, including a delightful video of Grab at work:
I picked up a journal at the bookstore this week. It’s called Parabola. Have you come across it? I remember seeing it years (maybe decades) ago, so when I spotted it this week I picked it up. I think I have a new favorite artist now.
I don’t know her name. She’s identified only as an old lady in an article by Ram Dass. Here’s his story:
I remember lecturing in a hall once, back in the early ‘70s. Most of my audience at that time was young, and they tended to wear white and smile a lot and wear flowers. I wore my Mala and had a long beard. In the front row there was a woman of about seventy, who had on a hat with little fake cherries and strawberries and things like that on it. She was wearing black oxfords and a print dress, and she had a black patent leather bag. I looked at her, and I couldn’t figure out what she was doing in the audience. She looked so dissimilar to all the rest.
These talks were like a gathering of an explorer’s club, where we would come together and just share our experiences. I started to describe some of my experiences, some of which were pretty far out. I looked at her, and she was nodding with understanding. I couldn’t believe that she could understand what I was talking about. I was describing experiences that I had using psychedelic chemicals, experiences that involved other planes of consciousness. I’d look over at her and there she was, nodding away. I began to think maybe she had a problem with her neck and maybe it had nothing whatsoever to do with what I was saying. I kept watching and getting more and more fascinated and getting more and more outrageous, and she kept nodding and nodding.
At the end of the lecture, I just kind of smiled at her so intensely that she just had to come up and speak to me. She came up and said, “Thank you so much. That makes perfect sense. That’s just the way I understand the universe to be.”
And I said, “How do you know? I mean, what have you done in your life that brought you into those kinds of experiences?”
She leaned forward very conspiratorially, and she said, “I crochet.”
Do you love that story as I do? And the woman? I hope so. I read it on the bus yesterday and nearly laughed out loud with delight. God, it seems to me, comes to whom he will, in the manner in which he will. But he seems to enjoy finding people at work with their hands, in a contemplative engagement.
WHAT DOES SILENCE LOOK LIKE?
I don’t know if contemplation requires silence, but it seems clear that silence requires contemplative attention. And it seems natural for those inclined towards contemplation to seek out silence.
So I seek it out.
Annie Dillard, in an essay called, “A Field of Silence,” describes an experience of seeing silence. She tells of a day in a barnyard, after the rooster had crowed, when she looked away.
“When I was turned away in this manner, the silence gathered and struck me. It bashed me broadside from the heavens above me like yard goods; ten acres of fallen, invisible sky choked the fields. The pastures on either side of the road turned green in a surrealistic fashion, monstrous, impeccable, as if they were holding their breaths. The roosters stopped. All the things of the world -- the fields and the fencing, the road, a parked orange truck -- were stricken and self-conscious. A world pressed down on their surfaces, a world battered just within their surfaces, and that real world, so near to emerging, had got stuck.
“There was only silence. It was the silence of matter caught in the act and embarrassed. There were no cells moving, and yet there were cells. I could see the shape of the land, how it lay holding silence. Its poise and its stillness were unendurable, like the ring of the silence you hear in your skull when you’re little and notice you’re living, the ring which resumes later in life when you’re sick.
“There were flies buzzing over the dirt by the henhouse, moving in circles and buzzing, black dreams in chips off the one long dream, the dream of the regular world. But the silent fields were the real world, eternity’s outpost in time, whose look I remembered but never like this, this God-blasted, paralyzed day.” (From Teaching a Stone to Talk, pp. 135-136)
I recognize myself in her description of youthful awareness. And I recognize those fields.
I have also seen it in certain paintings.
In this country we see people driving cars to the gym in order to work out - then vying for the parking space closest to the door. Once inside many who would never dream of riding a bicycle to work or to shop will ride stationary bicycles for long stretches to... nowhere at all. Working out has replaced work, exercise has replaced manual labor, and efficiency has replaced engagement in our culture.
In the same way, we see people who may have posters of fine artwork hanging on their walls, or even original artwork, but it’s their televisions that absorb their attention. Looking has been replaced by watching.
Contemplative art is unlikely to play much of a role in our lives unless our culture finds a way to become more contemplative. Perhaps as fossil fuels become less tenable and manual labor more important, a slower, more satisfying engagement with our environment will evolve, and people will learn, once more, the importance of looking at the world and at art.
My good friend, Brain Dykhuisen, is a quilt maker, living and working in Kalispell, Montana.
He recently sent me this photo of his most recent creation.
I thought it a good image for the last day of the year.
I send it along with blessings and hope for deep goodness for all in 2013.
I am an artist. I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota.