So the past couple of weeks at our little Divine Comedy have been challenging. We moved north of Napa back in December and, after the wettest winter on record, we had the hottest summer on record which led to the worst fires, you guessed it, on record.
Our air was thick with smoke and we woke every morning examining the current fire maps. We were rather surrounded – to the north, south, and west at times less than ten miles from the brunt of them. When everything is like a tinderbox and winds may shift at any moment, that ten miles doesn’t seem so far. Some friends transported all of our artwork to Oakland for safekeeping – ‘just in case’ – and our bags were packed the whole time.
Thankfully just in case didn’t come to pass for us. Many others though lost homes, businesses, and even lives. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures – of Santa Rosa, Napa, etc. It’s heart breaking the swath of destruction left by the fire. These extremes are the tangible examples of what climate change looks like and the reality we live in. We’re incredibly grateful that our gardens, home, and lives are still intact.
In the coming month I’ll have some new works to share with you and will also be doing some fundraising for those who lost everything these past few weeks.
The painting above (and the detail below) were made while our air was thick and the light was this weird golden rose color from the smoke filtered sunlight. It was hard to relax into the general painting flow so I worked on some free-flowing pieces, painting over canvases that remained at home.
Here’s to the rain of the coming autumn :)
A walk through the garden. A pause here and there. Persimmons and plums. Grape vines overflowing over the trellis of the bridge. Tomatoes and peppers. Squash and corn. So many different flowers and soft shades on sprigs of green leaves all mixing and dancing and leaving their echoes in me. This little stream that trickles into our pond. The koi that swim about and the damselflies and dragonflies and butterflies and birds that dart to and fro. My cats that follow me around. And I. A steward of this earth and this little corner of life all swirling together doing my best to give it what it needs. The sun sets and evening gold turns to dusky pink. It’s life.
I would like to talk for a bit about the relationship we each have with the world around us – how we experience and engage the world the world around us. More to the point, I will talk about the ways out brains engage in some of the more habit forming elements and various aspects of our cultural framework that support that. Our brain is a bit like our interlocutor with the world. Barring deeper philosophical inquiries into the ‘who’ and ‘what’ we are, where consciousness actually resides, and so on, our brains are, for all intents and purposes, the prism through which we witness and experience our lives, taking in the actions, movements, lights and sounds, the things we judge to be good or bad and so on, and through numerous intricate processes it makes sense of this mélange.
Before we get started, I would like to offer a couple of caveats to you, dear reader. We will be talking about brains and some specific processes and how they relates to the paths we choose in the world but I should be clear that what we know of the brain and it’s functioning is actually somewhat hazy. We understand that different parts of the brain light up in relation to various thought processes and physical activities. We can trace different neurochemical pathways and observe various electrochemical impulses that seem to relate to activities, functions, types of memory, and so on. We know that there are chemical responses when certain things happen or don’t happen to us. Sometimes it seems the best we’re able to do when it comes to knowing how the brain works relative to our identity is simply pointing out these relationships – that some parts of the brain seem to govern some functions while other parts seem to govern other functions. It is very difficult to actually trace memories, cognitive functions, and various other aspects of our identity. We can’t point to a spot and say: that synaptic pathway is you memory of the shirt you wore that one day in 3rd grade. Where are all the memories of shirts we wore? Or of 3rd grade? These are very abstract ideas compared to the actual neurological functioning of our brain.
At any given moment, there are a numerous processes going on in the brain – a multitude of synaptic pathways firing, chemical responses being triggered, etc. – and singling out any one or two as we will do inevitably ignores other important – and quite relevant aspects – aspects of the cognitive functions. Yet, those facets that we hold up for examination – comparing and contrasting – that we have explored through study and research – often help provide answers to some of the questions of how and why we respond to the world the way we do. So, here, I talk only about a thin slice as it pertains to a particular aspect of our lives. It is an important aspect and a relevant slice. But it is a slice none-the-less.
That said, I would also like to add that, while I’m talking about brains as if I know something, I am (surprise!) not a brain surgeon.
My own chosen path is “Artist” and my chosen art form is painting. One aspect of the way I work is that I often find myself piecing together seemingly disparate elements to create a unified whole. I tend to look at other parts of life in a similar manner: social, political, or economic structures, art, movies, music, architecture, magazines, advertising, and so on – all of these echoes of our human impulses and urges – and finding the places where the threads of one disparate element weaves with the others. Even the seemingly most opposite of facets of the systems we’ve created stem from the basic human experience. We could talk about font choices for business and ancient control mechanisms used by the dominant socio-political structures. We can discuss religious systems and psychological urges towards control. We could explore color theory and sexual impulses. I think about the homeless person on the street, the not-so-homeless person taking a vacation on the beach, the slope of a skyscraper, the Cape Code-style houses that pepper Newport Beach relative to the SoCal style that peppers Venice Beach, and so on.
So many different facets… So many pieces of this human existence: wars and celebrations and births and deaths. It just goes on and on. We can’t pick any one thread and not have it branch outwards – in multiple directions in time and space – into ten thousand more occurrences seemingly ad infinitum. In this way, I often just sift through it all, seeing how things fit into arcs and patterns and, invariably coming to the conclusion that, ultimately, it – all of it – is one unified whole – this life, this planet, this universe, inside and out. We live our lives trying to make some sense of that – creating world view relative to a mutable identity we establish to move through it with.
For many people, the end-all be-all dominant structure- the umbrella of all things – beyond governments and economics, is religion. Their chosen religion gives them a belief system that imbues their lives with meaning as well as a basic end goal. It gives them a sense of where they are going, where they have come from, and a basic litmus test for right and wrong. When we read the descriptions of God’s love, the passion of Jesus, the pure lands of the Buddhas, Mohammed’s heaven, or whatever the spiritual belief, they all have this in common: they are trying to imagine and share the most beautiful thing possible (even if it is someone else’s painting of that picture), using it to inspire its adherents to a more fulfilling life.
On the other hand, ‘most beautiful external thing’ finds it’s counter or foil in ideas like karma, original sin, hell, and other various ways of saying “we humans have fallible human minds that just keep chugging along doing good and bad and here is why…” This not-so-beautiful thing is usually seen as a diversion from that most beautiful thing and we are taught various ways to atone for our inevitable diversions.
I think that we can understand it much more succinctly and less abstractly than that – this sense of the beautiful and how we relate to it – and, in so doing, we can find a most beautiful thing in the here and now that offers a greater sense of present tense well-being than future post-death rewards.
The other day, I had the privilege of listening to James Cameron (director of Avatar, Titanic) speak to a smallish group of us. He is someone who has been phenomenally successful in his creative endeavors and is actively reinvesting his earnings in finding and sharing more sustainable ways of living – aquaponics, solar and wind energy, education, working with indigenous peoples and much more. That is great but what was more prescient – and inspiring – was, for me, the deeper underpinnings of his inspiration and motivations.
Capitalism with it’s competitiveness and lack of forward thinking is killing us, he said. While there are innovations that stem from capitalism, those innovations result in design and technology that lasts a year, two years. No iPhone is designed to last 20 years. Compassion is what we need to guide us.
Capitalism has no compassion for others. It is through compassion that we actually change things, where we actually reach people. In all truth, we will be the last generation to know what abundant coral reefs look like. The human population has, he said, tripled in his own lifetime. And humans have changed the globe in a serious way.
There was a time when our model of expansion was simply to take what the next person had – whether you were the Greeks conquering neighboring countries or the British with their expanding empire or whomever. Constant expansion was possible because there was always a next person. Eventually, though, you meet yourself on the other side of the globe and there is no one to take from but yourself. A bacterium in a petri dish expands and expands and fills the dish and then, when it can no longer expand, it dies.
That is where we are at. This is a serious thing. We have met ourselves and we are now only taking from ourselves. We are adaptable though and, to many, it is evident that the current model does not work. Given the chance, or the necessity, we are also innovative. They come up with solutions. We don’t want a future where we just get by – where we can just sustain. We want a future where we can thrive. So we need to reinvent how we do things. For example – how we feed people. There’s no ‘food crisis’. That’s just the result of Monsanto and big agribusiness companies with their monocrops and over-fertilized soils that perpetuate drought and weather patterns. Then we go on to throw out food in one place, over consuming, and leave others hungry growing all the corn we need for soda and livstock… the cycle just goes on.
There is no compassion in the current business models. In the thralls of Wall Street commerce, compassion is smirked at as a novel passe idea. But that is what is killing us. We understand the world at a global culture level. We have all met each other now. We can’t not see how we affect each other. Our minds and intellects are excellent at understanding and identifying problems and coming up with solutions but we need to let compassion guide us. It is the only way we can actually create a world both present and future that will allow the human race to thrive.
This is something I was thinking about while painting tonight. Often I leave things in my paintings rather ambiguous or suggestive. There are shapes are suggestive of things – animals or plants or clouds or structures… And they are all inspired by countless things I see through the course of my days. O, nature and it’s multitudes of fractal qualities – the curve of the leaf of the succulent in my garden or the window of a cathedral I might happen upon (for the cathedral, like the anthill, is an echo of nature). All of these things become part of the visual language and an artist can draw upon these shapes – even just the step of an edge or the clip of a curve – and use them to inform the work.
Now, the more you know – the more shapes and curves and lines and movements that you store in that visual memory – the more you can take your sense of ‘I don’t know what this is going to be’ and simply shape it and allow it to take form and be informed by your visual memory and the feelings evoked by the different shapes you run across. Granted, it takes some practice to allow for the space to allow that through but with effort and practice (a sketchbook helps) you might find that this comes more easily than you realized.
I think we get so caught up in things ‘being things’ that we forget to allow them to simply be what they are. Early on we get taught that if we’re going to draw a cow, it should look like a cow and so on for everything else. But it doesn’t have to be that way. All of life – it’s a huge sea of energy, moving and coalescing and taking form and we perceive it and name things and assign them a thousand responsibilities – to make us happy or sad or turned on or repulsed. Likewise, we look at our paintings and say ‘It must be SOMETHING!’ But there is a grace in following a train of thought to it’s natural finish without forcing upon it a responsibility to be a certain thing. In that, there is generosity, acceptance, and, ultimately, I think, joy.
Granted, if the thing is supposed to be a horse and the horse is simply not coming out right but it really should (because of the vision) be a horse, then perhaps you should spend some time sketching and drawing horses. However, the ambiguity which I speak of is really more along the lines of the places where there isn’t a horse and there isn’t a landscape and there’s simply paint we’re simply working with it…
At that point – it’s even more effort sometimes to cut out what isn’t working and to work what is. We get so attached to our lines sometimes! That’s fine. But still… ALLOW…. Breathe space into your work… don’t force anything… be patient…
BUT more importantly – if you’re not sure what it is, don’t just let the mud take over – don’t just be content with a muddy composition – MAKE THE CHOICE. In choosing it, sculpting it, shaping it, in all of it’s ambiguous beauty, you will quite possibly find sublime beauty and echoes of your life in ways you hadn’t imagined possible.
The thing is, at 3am you’re up and you’re getting something to eat and maybe a drop to drink and you notice: the plane of the wall meets the plane of the ceiling and the busy-ness of the spice rack to the planar composition of the stove top sort of off sets the shifting perspectives and it’s so sublimely perfect that you really just want to go wake everyone up but you know that you and you alone might be the only one to ever have appreciated this corner of reality. Blue to burgundy to beige to gold and you can’t help but want to run to the type writer – the keyboard – the pen and the pencil – and get it down – that inspiration. Maybe you just study the lines and do your best to remember it.
To the casual observer that sounded like a lot of hokey artspeak. But you and I: we are not casual observers.
That’s the thing though. As you go about your life growing into the mindset, the framework, the vision, of being an artist and really living it, you find that you live in this constant aesthetic appreciation of everything around you and you see it everywhere. You live gradations. You feel lines. You breathe curves. When you see a fine version of some archetypal shape, you can’t help but mention it. When you see a fine composition of not so obvious forms you can’t help but admire it. The lines of the situation are juxtapositioning with the lines of the symmetrical metric and it’s all masterfully done…. it’s lovely and you love it.
That’s what it is to be an artist. You can’t help but every so often want to shout from the roof tops about just how beautiful the hue is right now or the color of the sky or the arch of a tree or the crack in the pavement. It’s a hundred million colors and angles all conjoining at once to create this composition so breath-takingly sublime that you wonder just how no one else stops to notice it.
After a while, you realize that everything is aesthetics. When we are talking about the good of the environment, or the health of another, or whatever the vision of the future is: it is that which looks most beautiful to us and satisfies our aesthetic sense in the way that a mathematician might speak of an equation as ‘elegant’. The best solutions often have a clean and elegant quality to them, no matter how complex. The things we find beautiful in nature have a similar quality, regardless of their complexity. Likewise, in our own lives, we seek out things which are beautiful or satisfy our vision thereof.
Cultures have different value systems around beauty and the styles of one group can completely contradict that of another. It’s as true to nations and societies as it is to cliques in high school. Yet. Yet, I feel that there are certain qualities that become truly and transcendentally beautiful. Things which lead to health. Watching someone move with a graceful awareness. Sweet smiles. Happiness. Peace.
As we tune ourselves to this appreciation we might find that, while the big things seem so obvious, the small things become more and more obvious too.
There: in the way that the angle of the wall meets the corner of the room where the buddha sits as a statue of bronze and is all the more pronounced due to the fact of the crown molding and nobody notices – no one pays it much mind – but you.
There: in the way that, while sitting at a stop light, you notice the dogwood tree blooming and it’s branches frame the hillside behind it like some kind of Japanese Zen painting. The blue of the sky to the pink of the flowers to the crisp lines of the branches make you sigh and your heart feels a sweetness.
There: in the rows of houses. There: in the lines of mountains. There: in the cavalcade of color which is the crashing ocean reflecting the sunset.
Love it. Love it. Love it.
I’ve sat in thousands of locations. I’ve been in cars and clubs and cafes and restaurants and dreams and bedrooms and offices and lobbies and alongside street side vendors. I’ve stood in front of urinals and wandered alleyways and knelt beside mossy mountain brooks and circumambulated stupas all white and gold and marveled at archways built to the glory of the heavens and through them all there have been these moments of appreciation of aesthetic quality, this beauty. In the things which have come about without the hand of man it can feel so natural, so sweet, so grand. In the things that we have created: it is one more marker on the road of humans reaching towards the highest expression of their most highest aim. Ground touching sky. Heaven meeting earth. Self and other recognizing the same and in that – in that space – where beauty is as natural as the breeze – It’s such a lovely thing. A most sacred thing.
We have such a strong desire to greet that which is unknowable and to touch that which is untouchable. In our art we can experience a bit of that. In the art of others, we hope to taste a little of what they have tasted. In the styles and forms that are given to us as popular and cool: we might even see it there as well.
Pay attention to the corners as much as the spotlights. Appreciate the alleyways, marvel at the pattern in the tree bark, marvel at the highway overpass.
Marvel at the beauty of your own dark demons.
Love it all.
A number of excursions recently to downtown LA – a place of a thousand flavors- it’s dirt and it’s grime, it’s old art deco buildings and the motifs that sometimes get lost amongst the construction, the plywood, playbills and graffiti. Here, in this foyer, a ceiling of mosque-like moulding leading to pricey lofts extolling the virtues of the thriving Downtown LA art scene. There a bit of an art deco sidewalk, half of it left, beneath a layer of old bubblegum, ten billion foot prints and car soot still shines tiles of red and gold and white and blue, partitioned off by golden brass fronting against a store selling stereos, karaoke machines, congos and trumpets. The neon signs and blitz and bling reflect on the 20’s style lines underfoot. Around the corner you see a curving arch overhead, twisting and twining with intricate grandeur, welcoming you into the marketplace of a dozen shops selling nintendo knock offs, hair extensions and piñatas. Delicate corners and cornices drop down to boarded up windows, the smell of urine and mexican grocers, sewing machine repairs, and parking garages, art galleries, sushi restaurants and a 50’s style diner replete with jukebox and checkerboard tiling. This is the old town of Downtown LA – the part that came before the sleek glass and steel and polished granite high rises exuding modernity and shunning this dirtied rough and tumble corner that moves into the fabric and fashion districts, lying in the shadow of the business centers. The corner where, with a bit of dusting off, one might find architectural treasures, if only one knows how to look.
Juxtapose all of that with the rocky coastlines of Sonoma and it’s an intense contrast. There – there is no ‘modern’ vs ‘rough and tumble’ – no new cliffs that transition to mexican grocers and burrito shops and the odd stylie sushi bar. There – the cliffs are the cliffs. There is no difference from the top to the bottom other than the smoothness of the lines – how much one section has been smacked and sculpted by the crashing waves more than another. The waves come churning in – wham! bam! ka-boom! Into little inlets that drop down between the rocks and then up! – up along the sides of great jutting corners – no angels or gargoyles upon those corners, no sculpted fleur-de-lis. Just raw rock, at times sharp and craggy, at other times stippled – pock marked like sand after a hard rain and then dried to a hardened shell. Along these lines, echoing the rhythms of sea, wind, and storms, we might cast anthorpomorphized suggestions of a face or the reminiscences of a body, a hand, a heavenly choir. All of it left to the imagination of one or another and the ground left to the cast offs of the ocean- kelp and other types of seaweed, smoothed by the sea driftwood, the elbow of a lobster, red and dry in the sun, or the body of a crab, brittle and speckled in delicate patterns, waiting to be divided up and cast back to the sea.
Later we walk amongst tall tall redwoods – 1200, 1400 years old – walking inside them where we were silent and still. Their stillness is comforting. It is like an ancient blanket knit by thge most compassionate and caring of elders that doesn’t stifle but instead incites within us a sense of ease, a sense of peace and envelops us in a holding that doesn’t constrict, a grandeur that doesn’t yell from the rooftops but instead whispers in rounds and creates one long bass note bottom vibration that is supportive, nurturing, warm. It is a subtle mystical experience.
I take those experiences with me onwards into this life that I lead. The Downtown LA cityscapes with their business suits and dirty streets, the homeless and the hipsters – the cornices and pillars – the cliffs and crashing waves – the salt air and deep fogs – into the sunny San Francisco skies, hills and valleys, gold rush era granite mason buildings with their own sense of urgency that has been tempered with the passing of time into the friendly neighborhood cafe (one of which, the Blue Bottle Cafe, where I was led that last time I was there, had the best cappuccino I’ve ever had.) – and on and on and on into the redwoods and their solid spirits and delicate undergrowth of sorrel and sword ferns to the cab driver who is new at all this to a morning talk, in the fog of the Pacific, with the white bearded old man, herding his sheep, sharpening his knife, talking to me about the doves that live in his barn and how lovely it is to take the squab (a young yet-to-fly dove) add a nice dry rub, stuff an onion up inside and bake it at maybe 350 or 400 degrees. And now I know… And all of the experiences, and how they are perceived, support a movement – onwards, upwards, inwards – through life.
But what of our fearless adventurers? Adventure: One man’s adventure is another man’s walk in the park. Wherever we find our edge – therein lies the adventure.
I found Violet’s hiking edge while we were making our way back to the trailhead in Bryce Canyon. We’d decided to hike the Fairyland Trail – an appropriately named trail that leads in and out of the “hoodoos” as they are called that make up Bryce Canyon, Utah – tall sandy spires, sometimes many stories high, looking like a series of towers in some child’s drip sand castle. The spires glow with an orange/sienna sand stone, streaked now and again with white or subtler colorings of green or purple or red from mineral deposits. Dappling them here and there are twisted gnarled trunks of juniper, bristle cone pine and, deeper into the base of the canyon, Douglas firs, thick-trunked and towering over the little washes and scampering chipmunks.
We arrived the evening before when we set up camp, and showered at the main visitor area/store/etc. We were rather beat from three full days in Arches and Canyonlands – lots of hiking, play, sun, and late night star gazing. Plus I always tend to wake with the sun so I’ll usually go out for an hour or two hike in the early morning by myself. The angle of the sun and hue it casts upon the world at the hour – a sort of golden fuscia – is too precious to miss. I treasure those early morning hikes through the awakening world – usually undertaken after my morning espresso by the Coleman stove and then transcribed through notes and sketches in my always attendant sketchbook (The by-now-default Strathmore 5.5″ x 8.5″ recycled paper sketchbook).
The morning we drove to Bryce, Violet had been up late the night before, tracking Jupiter through her telescope. I, the early riser, beat from a long day, a tasty and satisfying dinner plus wine, and the warming orange glow of the campfire, had retired to the tent before her. I was up early too, enjoying the still crisp desert air. After we had breakfast and fnished packing up, we drove through the emptiness that seems to be most of Utah, segmented every now and again by ‘reefs’ – staggered and steep rifts in the earth looking as if the ground had been wrenched in two then shoved back together recklessly by some careless deity, leaving jagged cliffs rising out of the generally rolling landscape.
Traveling to Bryce on a Sunday left us with little in the way of replenished veggies and other rations – supermarkets all seem to be closed in Utah on Sundays.
“Mormons,” we muttered.
After setting up camp, showers, etc, we checked out the canyon. Yep, it was a big canyon. We went for a drive. We saw some antelope. They were shy, kept to themselves, did not respond to our entreaties. We made our way back to camp, went to bed early.
In the morning I chilled for a while, drawing and enjoying the crisp morning forest air and tall trees that surrounded us, a somewhat different environment than the Moab desert we’d left the day before.
When Violet awoke I made pancakes with apples and bananas and topped with syrup and strawberries a- good hiking breakfast. Then we packed up for a good hike. It was going to be 8 miles, not bad. I like a good long hike. The hike itself – somewhat uneventful. Bryce is certainly beautiful and I think if I’d not just spent the past few days enraptured by the iridescent quality of the sandstone and colors of Arches, then I would have found the soft glow of Bryce more inspiring. As it was, it was interesting, but not oh-my-frickin-god-this-place-is-amazing. Ah well. The landscape was gorgeous none-the-less and, the next morning when I trekked out early for the sunrise, the morning glow over the spires and hoodoos was quite a remarkable scene.
Well – it turned into a hot day, with occasional clouds coming passing overhead, a lot of hiking up, a lot of hiking down. Somewhere around mile six Violet said to me: “This is no fun.”
Admittedly, she is shorter than myself, with a shorter stride. I would think that maybe my 8 miles of walking is equivalent to her 5. The passage from Chogyam Trungpa’s “Training the Mind” on Exertion occurred to me. Here was the part where the fun was gone – the joy gone. Pain creeped up the leg, the feet were tired, the knees worked, the old track injury begging for respite. Yet, the car was not in the sight, the end not quite near, and so one had to push on. Where to find the joy? Where to find the energy of exertion?
We all have our edges. I might like to push myself with a good long hike and even when my own feet are tired, I rarely complain, but a few days before I’d had the most difficult time sitting drawing a landscape.
Some time back, my friend Robin and I were hiking to a waterfall in the mountains northeast of Ojai. The path edged over some very loose gravel and the edge of the trail dropped off rather sharply. She found herself without the ability to put one foot in front of the other. Joy: gone. Yet, she spends much of her life working with others doing spiritual counseling walking them through difficult mental traverses, and doing the same for herself. Yet, here, a physical manifestation of that experience and she was without a next move – without the will to put one foot in front of the other. The
It’s interesting how we all find our edges and when we push ourselves a bit further – we sometimes find an opening, a new view, a new vista. One way or another we come to know ourselves, the world, Life, just a little bit better, even if there are no words for that experience and that new found knowledge.
Granted, by the end of our journey, Violet found herself hurting a bit and a tad exhausted, but whatever doesn’t kill us just makes us stronger, yes? And she didn’t kill me for taking her on a long hike, so that must’ve made me a bit stronger as well!
The next day we left for the Grand Canyon and, after a circuitous trip to a grocery store, we set up camp at a reserved camping spot on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, looking out onto a softly fluttering grove of aspen, fortunately missing any of the heavy rain that that clouds seemed impregnated with. We cooked burgers of free-range buffalo over our fire, had a drink, went to bed.
And yes, the Grand Canyon is actually quite big. But more on that later.
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