Businesses run on products: product conception, product development, product sales, product redevelopment, and so on. Products products products. If we are not buying a product then we are producing a product or selling a product or discarding a product in order to replace it eventually with another theoretically superior product. These products are largely made for two reasons: to make money for the creator/sales person and to satisfy a utilitarian need that some aspect of our human existence has necessitated. Sometimes that aspect is basic: a shirt to protect us from the cold, shoes to protect our feet, etc. Other times – and this is often the case – the need goes much deeper – products are bought and sold to satisfy a desire to be attractive, to be beautiful, a desire to reflect some part of our perceived identity, and, most importantly, a desire to be loved. In the end, it seems difficult to decipher the difference between ‘basic need’ and ‘desire’.
Artwork, at its purist, at its most whole, is born from the desire – an inner urge – to create. It is the desire of self-expression and bringing something new into the world. That urge drives us forwards – compelling us to always do more – because that which we have already made is never fully satisfying.
From this act of expression arises a piece of work which, if we can let go of the need to show people up, or prove ourselves, or tout our skills, or impress our friends or loved ones… if we can let go of the desire to make a new product, fill up our own shelves… If we surrender instead to that creative flow and just drown ourselves in the act then the work which arises from that pool is a thing of beauty. It may be nightmarish. It may be the heavens unfolding. It is the all and everything. It is, at that point, an act of love.
Art in and of itself is not a product. It can go on products. It can be housed with products and ultimately, it does become a commodity. But in its fruition, in its blossoming into the world – it is merely the act, the creation, the vision. And so when we sit down to do our art, that creation should not be a means to an end. It is not the basic utilitarian urge driving it. It is not and should not and CANNOT be done as a thing merely to make money. Thinking ‘how much am I going to make from this piece?’ merely serves to limit its expression. We put it in a box with a set of conditions and value structures that our brain is constantly folding over it and and we will forever consider: have we put ‘enough’ in for the value it is supposed to have? True art making is an unconditional act.
There is the myth of the Starving Artist. The artist does not starve because he or she is afraid of “work” or because no one is buying his or her paintings. Sometimes, and I have been this artist, the artist ‘starves’ (or at least is thinner and hungrier than most) because everything other than art making seems purposeless. The artist doesn’t wake in the morning saying ‘o how much money I will make today.’ Or ‘I will do a good job and my boss will like me.’ Or ‘I am quickly moving up through the ranks, maybe I will get a raise.’ Everything else is merely feeding the ability to return to art making. So we nudge things along sometimes in order to create enough space to do our work and surrender into the Act.
There is no end product. All art is ever only the detritus being HUMAN. Art is the expression of living. Of breathing. Of seeing. Of one’s own personal vision. Art speaks to and from this act in some way (and this is ultimately why art can be valued so highly but we’ll get into that another time…). Ultimately, though, the end product is the Self Which Has Created The Work. That is Art as Path.
We artists, we often do just enough to create a space for ourselves and hope that everything else will fall into place, just as it does in our work. This is why it can be difficult sometimes for artists, on their own, to also be marketers and promoters and sales people and so on. It is a business to run that fills up the schedule.
Give us things! People ask. Market to us! Because then we’ll know how to choose what is best!
In a world that is constantly pushing consumption with a thousand and ten flashing ads, how do you stand out anymore? How do you even share your creation?
So we go back to square one: art as an act of love. It will shine through. It may take time: the first painting, the first bit of writing, the first moment… May slip under most radars. But then there is the second, the third, and so on. You are playing a symphony all on your own. It takes time for others to pick up on that tune. It takes some patience on your own part.
As a symphony, however, it’s best to learn to play all the instruments. Think of your art as the lead violin. It is, anyhow, the instrument that sings – the one that all of the other instruments are framing. Perhaps the web master hat is the oboe and the accountant hat is the kettle drum and the archivist is the cello and so on. This is learning to play your art and all of those hats as a symphony together, rather than as separate components.
However, this still brings us back to the actual creation of the thing. I have sat with business leaders and motivational speakers and all sorts of people. They tell me the steps I can take to build my email list and get more Facebook followers and create affiliate programs and so on. All of those steps continue to define me as a product, a commodity, with an ideal, a soundbite, a public image, easily consumable and digestible for this fast paced world we are told we live in.
And all of these steps always look to me like they lead away from sitting with the vision, this raw unfolding thing.
I consider this painting on my easel. It is a painting commissioned by someone. Certainly there is a desire for them to be pleased with it. Of course I want that! But I can’t let that be a driving force: ‘gosh I hope they like this! I hope this reflects the value we have ascribed to it!’ And so on. There are all sorts of thoughts that arise: how many hours am I putting into this? Is it enough? Am I working hard enough? All the stories and the product outcome and the chatter and nonsense. All the self-image and ego and drama and dreams and clutter – detritus of a consumer culture that echoes through my psyche from countless ads, commercials, social norms, and societal structures and, who knows, is maybe just part of the human experience which I am working through in my own way.
Would I make this for nothing? For no return? There are projects I engage in like that – where the cycle of returns has a different value structure. But in the end I do have bills to pay and rent and phone and all the other trappings of modern life – not to mention dreams: owning land, a home, etc. And my time is of value and I’ve spent hours practicing and practicing what I do. And, in the end, I have a thousand other paintings to paint. So we create value systems and we give to each other in exchanges in order to support growth: in ourselves, in others, in the world.
Because of exchanges like that, people say that it’s money that makes the world go wrong. I think that’s incorrect. I imagine that it is love that makes our world go round. Without love, we are useless empty shells, consuming, never-endingly consuming. We are just some more product creators, at that point. Yes, the world will go round, but without the love, it will be a greyer place. Without love, I could never bring this painting on my easel to the place it wants to go – to the place I want it to go. Even if this emotion of ‘love’ is in our imagination – even if it is merely a story I have made up – a feeling conjured up as a reflection to a thing I can call ‘not love’ – then it is, to me, the worthwhile driving force I have found. This love of creation, A love for others. A desire to bring love into the world. Even just the sensation of dancing with the creative act – this sensation that, followed, seems to conjure up, for me, my most ideal self. When I turn away from the canvas, it is what drives me to be more compassionate, to make smarter decisions, to care for others, and to give of myself.
There is only and can only ever be the present moment when making a piece of art and, to find that core passionate creative force – to create from that place in the making of our art – whether it be painting or writing or baking bread or driving a truck or helping others in whatever our paths may be – and whether our work be light or dark, sweet or otherwise – enables us to create something that ultimately feels like a worthwhile pursuit. I imagine that a thing made from a place of loving-kindness is ultimately more nourishing, more valuable, more beautiful than it would be otherwise. It may take a while for the world to catch up to you. You may sit in silence, alone and wondering who hears, but to have played that note, that instrument, that symphony will, ultimately, allow you the happiest life you can imagine.
Were that the place from which all things were made from, I imagine we would have a happier and healthier planet.
Here is a thing that boggles my mind: we need to convince other – we need to argue about – why people should be compassionate towards one another. We need to debate why we should guarantee a living wage? How is the bottom line more important than the basic needs of your workers? We discuss into absurdity why we should pass laws to guarantee that our veterans are cared for. And we need to convince people that we should care for the planet instead of just dumping toxic chemicals will-nilly everywhere. And we have the world we’ve created… that echoes all of these struggles.
Why should we be compassionate and how far should that compassion extend? Just to people who look like us, act like us, think like us? What about the people who are different than us? What about to, say, a tree, a bird, or the air? What’s the use – the utility – of compassion?
We tell stories about a wise sage who told stories about being compassionate. We tell tales with as far out of consequences as possible: you’ll earn karma, have a better spot in heaven, God sent his only Son, and so on. We tell all these stories – over and over. We create religions, stories, institutions… all just to create a reason – why we should feel a little bit of compassion for each other. And for ourselves. How did we go so far from that?
The earth. The animals. Trees, grass, people. The whole planet, the universe, the stars and sun. We run past the homeless person on the street. We can barely fathom that someone of the other side of the world. Our own lives carry on enormous conversations inside of our heads.
Religion: we create these intensely complex forms of spiritual governance all to just stimulate a little compassion for our fellow human – all to give a reason as to WHY we should care for those around us – and, more importantly, those who we perceive to be as DIFFERENT than ourselves.
We see ourselves and everything else. And we have this ingrained idea of needing to struggle to survive and the fittest – not the most collaborative – is the one which will survive. There’s nothing in the capitalistic mindset that says that most compassionate will survive. It’s a dog-eat-dog-world we’re told from the start. Competition is key! The man with the most wins!
The thing is – when we think like that, we stop recognizing ourselves in others. We’re taught to see the differences. Man. Woman. Black. White. Gay. Straight. Old. Young. Blond. Brunette. Red head. And so on. And we’re taught that our survival – in fact: our flourishing – doesn’t depend on their survival.
Yet, like all other organisms, we are self-perpetuating machines striving to perpetuate this human organism. How can we not see that the happiness of others supports our own happiness? And vice versa. We are not individuals: we are separate nodes of a greater organism. And, really, deep down, each of those nodes just wants to love and be loved.
It seems to take so much for us to just feel some compassion for others. And yet: it’s as easy as extending a hand, recognizing the life in another, feeling some kinship to another, and loving.
Names: what we name things. We name things all the time. Often we are using names we’ve been told to call things. Those names serve the purpose of being a point of reference in a conversation. Sketchbook. Pen. Cat. And then there’s more signifying names: my cat’s name is Figaro. Or Lukki. Or Maceo.
I had a name that was given to me when I was born – Michael – and it accompanied a middle name – Robert, my dad’s name – and Brown, my father’s last name. And that was my identity for many years, tying me to a long family heritage and, on a broader scale, a long system of patriarchy.
In typical male/female marriages, the man always keeps his last name. Conversely, the woman has to give up her last name. This is rarely questioned. Sometimes people hyphenate the names but even that is MaleLastName-FemaleLastName. Few men ever consider taking the woman’s last name. Ask some married couple you know about that sometime. They will laugh, feel uncomfortable, etc. It’s weird.
So when Violet and I decided to get married o so long ago, she said: Let’s take a new name. She declared that she wasn’t interested in just taking my name and perpetuating the patriarchal idea of ownership of the wife. At the same time, we wanted to be creating a solid container and, along the lines of the naming of things and, in a sense, bringing them into being via the name, a hyphenated name still seemed to create a sense of together-but-separate. It didn’t feel like that solid unified container that the contract of marriage created.
Violet suggested we take a new name. The new name would be our new container that we agreed upon together. It would be the name we decided to call ourselves. We are mirrors of the world around us so we wanted the name to reflect how we see the world.
Taking a name from another culture didn’t feel right. Our language is our language and its words and sounds and turns of phrase are a part of its own magic. It’s the language we have grown up speaking and the one we use to the call the world into being. Taking a word from another culture seems to support an imagined esotericism.
Quite importantly, we wanted it to sound right in our ears, with our first names, etc. It had to have a nice flow to it. Like harmonies in song, the last name had to work with the sounds of our first names. I like to feel words in my mouth: feel how they rolls off the tongue. Or not. How they starts and stops. Where they breathe and where they pause. So much meaning – and reflection of the world we perceive – is related through the sounds of words.
Lots of different words flowed through our mouths and ears. Finally we settled on “Divine”. It seemed to fill in the blank of that last name appropriately and would be symbolic of the container of this new family we were creating. It mirrored how we saw the world – all of the world – as divine. This divine life. This divine being.
Sometimes people meet me and they have this idea of me based on my name and on their own ideas of what Divine might mean – and why I might have chosen it. To some, it’s pretentious because the “Divine” is a far off thing or idea and who am I to call myself that? To others, it’s more what-your-last-name-wasn’t-good-enough? because we should be content with who and what and where we are in life. And, for others, it makes me super spiritual, whatever that might mean, because the Divine is so spiritual. The they meet me and they see that I’m really a rather ordinary person. I’m just this guy who sometimes has a rather crass sense of humor. I like wine and music. I like life. And to some, even that is an affront because, in their eyes, it’s not divine enough.
I can’t take responsibility for the projections of others. But I can take responsibility for who I am – and that is a human being, living his life. I enjoy this life quite a bit – with all of its many facets – and try to see it for what it is, whatever that might be.
And if we were to choose a word for that ‘what it might be’ then Divine seems to be a pretty good word.
Under a big tent, sitting on the edge of a stage on the Sunday afternoon of Rootwire, I participated in a panel discussion of artists. Panel is a loose term. About a dozen of us – some of whom spoke, some who didn’t – sat on the edge of a stage fielding various questions in our various manners.
Michael Garfield moderated. He had on his nifty Google Glasses. At one point I was starting to get a bit bored and there’s all these people watching us and I couldn’t just get up and leave so he offered them to me to wear. What a trip! There’s a screen! You can see it! Interact with it! This must be the future! It did take a moment to get it but goddamn! It’s for real and super cool and utterly distracting. I tilted my head back and forth in weird directions, watched the little screen and tried to focus on other things, screwed up the recording stuff, got back on track, and eventually gave them back because I think I was completely not paying attention anymore.
At one point tho, before or after the glasses I’m not sure but I know I wasn’t wearing them, someone asked (to the group):
“It’s nice that you make this art but what are you really doing? People talk about changing the world, about making a difference… how does this help the mother on welfare, or this or that… What difference do you think you are really making?”
Truth be told: I ponder this question all the time. I think about it while I’m driving around running errands and then going home and back to painting. What the hell am I doing anyways?
And here’s what I’ve come up with…
First and foremost – I paint because I love to paint. Period. It is what I love to do – it brings me great joy, this mode of expression that I’ve found, and I’m stoked to do it. So, regardless of how it might or might not be changing the world or whatever, I do it because I love it. When I wake up in the morning, I know that is my path. And if I’m at least one person in the world who is doing what they love, then that alone, I think, is a good thing just by it’s very nature.
So there’s that.
But then I go share it – afterall, I can make all the art I want but it’s really nice to share that dialogue with others – engaging them in their minds, hearts, sprits… having the reflection… To take that vision that I pulled from some deep place within myself and watch it converse with that deep place – that wordless formless space – in others is magical. And for others: to see that form has been given to this mystical experience – color and movement as well – it seems to bring people joy. It seems to make them happy and open something up in them.
There’s not a lot of imagery in our world that does that. Advertising and TVs and all this stuff: it’s just vying for our dollars more than anything else. But it seems sometimes that this thing people call Visionary Art is unique in it’s expression of the mystical experience. But that is another discussion…
So I make art and it touches something in people – it tickles a sense… See, the artwork I create comes from living life a certain way: freely, openly, lovingly, with compassion, with gusto, with joy, with health, with happiness – and learning to do so more fully, on all accounts. So I hope to stir in people a bit of that and inspire others towards a happier and healthier life.
But it’s a mostly insular world that this art is shown in – galleries, festivals, events – things that seem to stay within cloistered social circles. We welcome any and all… but there’s only a few who make it.
Those few who do tho – they have jobs they go back to, worlds they exist in that touch upon all the other icebergs of our society. They plug into all sorts of spots in society. They are social workers, cashiers, teachers, laborers, business owners, all sorts of things… And if they can take a bit of that experience back with them – that sense of openness, health, happiness, joy – if it plants a little seed, if it’s a new synaptic pathway and leads towards being a bit more loving – whatever it is that they might have felt in my work – and they take that and share it with others however subconsciously – the people they interact with, customers, clients, co-workers, students, mothers, fathers – then I think that the art I make does have an effect, however subtle.
It’s one more pass of the proverbial bird over the proverbial mountain with that proverbial silk scarf… and the scarf wears down the mountain ever so slowly… ever so slowly…
Most importantly – my work comes from a place where there is a deep sense of freedom, of openness, of love – and it comes from a place of doing what I love – and I hope that that sense echoes through the brushstrokes. I hope that it reaches others. I hope so much that it inspires others to consider: how can I be more free, more open, more loving… and how can I do more of what I love?
Because, as always, in the end – that’s what it’s about. The love. it’s just love… just love. That’s what I hope to inspire. Take it home with you. Take it into the world with you. Share it. Love – it’s endless. You will always have enough. The more you give, the more you will have to give.
And I hope that answers that question.
I’m rounding the corner, walking home from the organic market that we shop at, and it’s a chilly evening. The sun is well past gone. I have a small bag of groceries in my arm – chocolate, coffee, some vegetables, some coconut milk creamer – and a man pushing a grocery cart filled with plastic bottles and aluminum cans passes me. He looks to be smiling but then again maybe he’s grimacing and I wonder: what stroke of life gave this man a cold evening to push a grocery cart filled with plastic bottles, maybe just trying to find enough to make a few dollars and buy something to eat – and me, walking to my warm home. Sometimes, driving through downtown LA, I end up on one of the blocks of homeless people living in tents, pushing shopping carts that contain everything they own, living in the gutter. I wonder at how it is that I am in my car, listening to music, on my way to a meeting, or a dinner with friends, or just getting on the highway and heading home and they are there, stuck in some all together different way of life. I wonder at how the uber-wealthy end up so high up on that pedestal they place themselves upon, sometimes unable to truly value the little things.
I wonder at this… this world with all of it’s countless threads of lives going on: where some are bombed, others are swaddled, some are cared for, and some are left to be trodden upon, some walk tall, some walk small, some don’t walk at all… I wonder how it is that man is legless and I walk along or that child was born without sight, and I can see. How that person appears to be ahead of me, and that person is behind. The vast multitudes and all the myriad walks of life. I wonder at it and I wonder at how I ended up here: making art, doing what I love, living unafraid, neither angry nor resentful, but loving it. I’m in a wonderful marriage to a wonderful woman, with a home that is warm and, right now, smells like fresh baked bread, with a cat on my lap and soft music playing and soft lighting. I wonder at it all and the only thing I am left with – the only answer that comes back to me, echoing from my heart and what feels like the heart of all things – is gratitude: at this gift, this life.
Gratitude is like the late afternoon sunshine, touching everything, turning it gold.
“Art is deception that creates real emotion. And when you give yourself over to that deception – it becomes magic.” – Marco Tempest.
This is a nifty little video with a lovely message in the end. It’s true. Art is deception. Paintings are after all just paint and canvas. The canvas is flat but we say ‘Such depth! Such height!’ With the right conflagration of forms and shapes, we can create something that is referred to as magical. Art can conjure up an emotive response – joy, sadness, awe, pain, wonder. To be a skilled artist is to be a skilled magician is to be able to create something out of nothing and have the viewer experience it as ‘real’.
I ran across this quote from Chögyam Trungpa the other day:
“Compassion automatically invites you to relate with people because you no longer regard people as a drain on your energy.”
-Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism
I read the ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism’ years ago and it has forever echoed in my mind. The title pretty much carries it’s message: it’s not about how many mantras or sun salutations you can do or how many retreats you’ve been to or how spiritual you dress or look or what temple you visit or how many holy books are on your bookshelves or how many pictures of holy beings are on your altar – it’s about you and your process, everything else is just icing – a mask, something we identify with. I consider this often when I am in my day to day life – when I am interacting in my day to day world – buying groceries, crossing the street, cleaning out the cat litter box. It’s al just stuff and my buddha statue on my altar is no more or less holy, it’s just a different reminder, a placeholder – an icon to jog me back to – it doesn’t matter what the fuck you are doing – if you do it with compassion and wisdom, it’s awesome.
In any case, the quote that I started this out with is something I’ve been contemplating as it’s arisen in my mind and I’ve been working on integrating it into the habits of my day to day living. I tend to be somewhat aloof by nature. “Nature” of course is all the causes and conditions that made this identity I consider to be me. I don’t need to be aloof but it’s sort of an identity pattern that I fall back on when faced with the challenge, say, of meeting new people. Regardless of that, I also tend towards being somewhat more introverted than extroverted (although I do my best to overcome it). So I sometimes feel drained by large social gatherings. By comparison, my wife, Violet, feels incredibly energized by being out amongst lots of people. For me, it can at times be an effort to stay present and open in that sort of present, interactive manner with people. If it’s with a large group of people I know well then I have a much easier time of it. In the times where I’m meeting new people in large groups, I think that, acting from a place of compassion, returning to one’s heart, can be an excellent way to overcome the tendency towards withdrawing. (Granted, acting from a place of compassion is always the answer – it’s just important to look at specific instances soemtiems)(
More importantly however, regardless of the time and place, is the instance of the person coming up to us whom we don’t want to engage with. We might know this person already even and say to others ‘that person is an energy vampire, I don’t want to talk to them’. Yet, their own set of causes and conditions shaped their identity and they act based on those causes and conditions. Most importantly, they just want to love and be loved.
I think that when one can simply be compassion then there is no drain because there is no end. A drain sucks the last drop out from the container but there is no container. There are only concepts. Ego has a beginning and an end… Life, energy, love – there is no end. Sometimes it is best to simply find a few concepts that work best. Compassion is one such concept. If we are to choose words for things and choose one way of being over another – we always have the choice to either kick the puppy or love it – doesn’t it feel best to choose the compassionate route?
To be fair, in the end, ALL things engaged with a sense of compassion will have healthier and more enjoyable consequences than otherwise. We either engage life from a place of compassion or we don’t. If we notice the places where we aren’t engaging from a place of compassion and push against those walls that hold us back then who knows what we might find there….
To be fair, I, too, have plenty of moments where, in retrospect, I think: well that was pretty uncompassionate of me. But with the right effort, we can move mountains. The results of our work might not be seen in a day, or two days, or a week. But over time, our walls break down. We become more loving creatures. That, in the end, is what it is all about. It doesn’t matter how many grand pianos you have or how many grand sonatas you can play – it doesn’t matter how many spiritual tomes you have read or how many crystals are on your altar – just whether or not you can allow any and all of the myriad things of the world to open your heart, whatever that might be.
I give you one of my flaws as an artist: I have no pedigree. I haven’t studied with any famous artists (although I’ve met a few). I can’t tell you any stories about how such-and-such the Great Master came into my studio late at night, declared I was doing it all wrong, and then proceeded to show me how to do it right. I haven’t attended any prestigious art schools. (Although I’ve lived near them!) My paintings are owned by only a few collectors with any notoriety (though I’m not going to say whom for the sake of privacy) and so far my work has yet to show up in any museums. I fall into that icky grey area for collectors and galleries alike: “talented but self-taught”. It bothers me at times that I get pigeon-holed and judged in this way and feels like a prejudice – a strike against me – as it comes up even within my own ‘scene’. While the art world of LA has it’s own cliquey snobbery and it’s LA Schools of Thought which I will likely never be assimilated into – the David Hockney/Baldessari hub for instance – this visionary art community has it’s own cliques and circles which galleries do take note of and, in that community, I am at times still sort of disregarded because of my lack of schooling, lineage, etc.
What I find interesting is that the movements which gave birth to this art of the inner world – the early modern art movements of Impressionism, Futurism, Surrealism – all eschewed the academy as it was. They were seeking to create art for arts sake and explore beauty as it is. They were more interested in the dialogue that the artist has with life than the dialogue between artist, academy and art critic. In time however – through the 40’s and 50’s – the ‘academy’ and the world of art criticism adopted and co-opted the movements for their own. Eventually, this Contemporary Art that one sees glorified in too many museums became the norm. These days, the fact that the artist who painted the large panels just one color attended some art school and studied with someone who also had some pedigree themselves and who had already been deemed notable by the academy suddenly imbued those solid color panels with some mystic sense of importance and lineage, even if that lineage is full of shit. If the panels were just presented by Joe Schmoe Nobody then the ‘art world’ at large would’ve laughed them off.
Yet, to be honest, if the artist had perhaps not had any schooling but had instead had some deep revelation, had worked through multiple demons, had their lonely nights of solitude, and simply decided, off in non-art creation, to paint these large canvases and simply gave personal reasons for their coming into being… I think I’d pay attention a bit more.
Me – I left college after two years and it wasn’t even art school. My biography on my website sort of glosses over that whole bit. The short of it: my pragmatic parents, living in coastal suburban Connecticut, a world of yards and nine to five jobs, worried that I wouldn’t get a good job if I skipped out on the important liberal arts education and instead went to art school. At the age of seventeen, the middle child, and ultimately not entirely sure what I wanted, I ended up agreeing with my high school guidance counsellor in a fit of I-could-care-less and found myself enrolling at Syracuse University in upstate New York.
There, amongst an entire enclave of not fitting in or knowing what they were doing, I was blessed with a couple of surprise gifts. For one, as a student with a work-study arrangement, I got a job in my second year working in the slide library of the Fine Arts department in the main library. At that time – this was 1995 and the internet still had yet to be of much use – the library had an extensive collection of slides of seemingly every important work of art, photography, sculpture, and architecture that had come out of the Western world dating back to pre-Renaissance times. Lucky me, I got to sit at a typewriter and type onto little labels the name, date, etc, for each slide. Oh, god, was it tedious. I wasn’t much good at typing either, all things considered. Still, after the labeling was done, there was the organizing. People would take slides out (presumably for art classes which I never got to attend) and I would put them back in the drawers upon drawers of slides. I could sit at a light box and study all of them. I could look at them with a magnifying glass or a small projector that you hold up to your eye. It was magical and I would get lost in them for hours. I saw everything and was able to piece together the dialog that art had had with itself for the past thousand years – from Le Corbusier to Gehry to Kandinsky to Pollack to Goya to Da Vinci to all and everyone.
It was in those days that I began to incorporate the kaleidoscopic nature of cubism and futurism with the dreamy associative qualities of surrealism while sticking to the psychedelic spiritualism that I knew so well. The echoes that the images left in my mind found their way through my meandering pencil and sometimes rather addled vision.
Another thing which offered a vast amount of inspirational fodder were the studies in comparative religions during my second year of school. Syracuse had, at that time anyhow, a noteworthy Department of Religious Studies. Houston Smith taught there which gave it some weight in the academic world. Mr. Smith (Dr.?) was a scholar of comparative religions which is the study not just of religions as institutions and the histories thereof but also of the archetypal human spiritual experience for which religions become a framework. Through the focus in comparative religious studies I was able to gain some understanding and perceptual grounding for my own personal experiences as well as begin to understand the more archetypal human experience as it related to ‘spirit’.
My doodlings, my fledgling paintings, all reflected these thoughts and inquiries. In my second year of college I painted my first ‘great’ painting and called it ‘Surrender‘ (I think I wrote about it here another time). I painted it with acrylics because, I think, I’d started painting with water colors years before and understood the water/wash techniques. Besides, oils took longer to dry, required more pieces to their puzzle, and, to a poor college student, seemed to cost a fair bit more. While painting that piece, I had this experience: A book opened up inside my head and it flipped through pages upon pages of artwork that I had apparently created and it was my life and, I’m not kidding, a voice in my head sort of said or simply resonated – “you can do this for the rest of your life if you want. You just have to give away everything you have, leave school, trust in the way and it will all open up for you.”
By that time, it was around late January of my second year I think, I had moved off-campus claiming to the housing administration that the dorm lifestyle was impeding my flow which, perhaps, it was. I’d spent my first year in an incredibly debaucherous haze. The highs and lows were sort of startlingly self-destructive and yet, not entirely unpredictable, considering that I was caught between trying to please my parents, experiencing some sense of freedom for the first time, not sure what the hell I was doing, and trying to figure out who I was anyhow. My roommate that first year had left school after the first semester and I was never assigned a new one so I had a large room and a lot of everything else. My grades plummeted. My artwork dawdled and grew and, in copious sketchbooks, poured out of me. There were a lot of hangovers, a lot of long crazy nights, a lot of everything that wasn’t school work. So, at the time of painting ‘Surrender’ in my second year at school, I had found a small community of hippie types, was living with a friend and my girlfriend who was a few years older than me who also had a year and a half old son and we lived in a house in a crummy neighborhood near campus that was a mix of students and broken homes and I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
Come summer, that experience during Surrender was nagging at me. Because my parents had agreed that after two years of ‘liberal arts’ I could pursue art school, I’d gone to see someone at Syracuse’s School of Art. The woman I talked to suggested that I look into pattern design (Northeasterners are so pragmatic!) and I was left feeling a bit disappointed. I had vision! Drive! I wanted to make and create! I didn’t want to get lost in a sweatshop designing upholstery fabric! So by summer, I was living in Syracuse still, working a job at a book bindery. I was in an unhealthy relationship. I had no idea what the fuck I was doing. All I saw was a tangential downwards spiral that continued to pull me away from any real goal – from my path, whatever that may be.
So I did it – I listened to the voice. I left school. I gave away almost everything I had. I moved back to Milford, CT, where I’d grown up. I cried a bit when I told my parents that I wouldn’t be going back to school the following year. Ever practical, they suggested that I look into trade schools. I felt I had disappointed them – I am the oldest son and my dad, the oldest in his family, had never gone to college nor had any of his siblings. There is a certain amount of pride that I knew I’d never be able to fulfill. No, I said, I would never be going back to school. That’s what made me sad – that they would never get to see me graduate. Well that surprised them a bit but they didn’t push it. While they told me that I was on my own (fair enough) they also knew they wouldn’t be wasting any money on school. Maybe they even saw it as saving two years worth of tuition! In any case, I got a job bagging groceries at a grocery store in suburban Connecticut. If I told you it was amazing, I would be lying.
But I had friends, you see, and I have always been able to count on a beautiful synchronicity with my friends and my community in ways that I can never fully articulate. A good community is one that seems to respond to you when you haven’t even reached out to it. As someone who didn’t have much in the way of friends through grammar school, I learned to not take that brotherhood of friendship for granted. So my friend Ryan called me up and said he’d been living in Vermont the past winter, having left school (he has since gotten his PhD in mathematics) and did I want to join him and some others and spend the winter living in a house at a ski mountain, working, skiing, partying, skiing, painting (if that was my thing) etc?
Of course I would.
So that was that. It surprised my parents a bit – how quickly I got swept up my a new boat but that was just the beginning of many years of flowing journeys and magical moments and long lovely interludes. But one way or another the fact is: something in me said I should go paint and so I did.
That’s the story of my pedigree – my early training. What happened after Vermont? Well, there was a summer of cross country back packing and traveling and then another winter of skiing, then moving into the countryside of Northern Vermont rather semi-permanently. There were lots of parties, lots of painting, lots of walking in the woods, then more travel, lying on beaches, then something else, met lots of people, then another thing, then yoga and meditation, more parties, more travel, another thing and another thing, lots and lots and lots of painting and drawing, and eventually I was in California rather regularly and eventually SoCal caught me and I met this girl and we got married and, fifteen years later, here I am.
I truly feel that a great painting is not painted with concepts and rigorous research but is instead painted with experiences. I never had anyone tell me how to paint. I taught myself. I studied old masters. I studied not-so-old masters. I went out and practiced seeing. I sat alone on hillsides for hours just looking at the light. I tasted horizons and studied gradations. I looked inside my mind and studied light and poked it and prodded it and pushed through it. I learned to apply what I saw to my work. I got it wrong. I did it again. I got it wrong. I did it again. I got a bit better. I did it again. And on and on and on. Until now.
I paint. I love to paint. Some of my highest most sublime moments have been had while painting. Painting, not a methodology or an academy, not a who’s who of name-dropping – Painting is the path. How do you make truly great art? Simply by practice- every day, every night, in your mind, in your life, and on the canvas.
I’ll tell you where the four winds dwell,
In Franklin’s tower there hangs a bell,
It can ring, turn night to day,
It can ring like fire when you loose your way.
– Robert Hunter
It’s all about ringing that bell. THAT is what I am here for.
Around 2am I usually just can’t paint any more. Sometimes it’s a tad later. Sometimes a tad earlier. But usually it’s about five or six hours in and my hand is cramped and my back is aching and my eyes are starting to blur and my brushstrokes start to lose their precision. The good things is that once I get like that I usually feel pretty good about my work for the night. It means that I covered a lot of ground. Painting is about ‘the process’ as much as ‘the product’. Sometimes, it’s just a lot of blanks to fill in. You see, the story is written. The path is clear. I’m just following a dotted line that leads to an inevitable conclusion. There are nuances to be explored, and colors and lines to be enunciated but the gist of the piece – this piece that I’m working on right now anyhow – was decided long ago. I am merely completing the vision.
While I paint, my mind wanders through many worlds and my heart travels through multitudinous emotions the way one might try on different outfits. And there are pure zen moments where I’m not thinking about anything. Or elated loving moments where my heart is suddenly sort of glowing. Don’t dwell on it, though! Such feelings are mere feelings and as ephemeral as the clouds. But I do appreciate those moments. It never hurts to simply center one’s sense of consciousness in the center of one’s chest instead of in the center of the head, where we tend to look out at the world from.
O painting, it has taught me so much – so many little things that apply to my life. So many big things that have opened up inside me – grand a-has! – sublime epiphanies – eternal love – sweetly understood connections.
Here are some thoughts on painting that have tended to have metaphorical meanings to my life:
1. The color on your palate will not be the color on the canvas. That color, so carefully mixed, will likely end up looking ten shades different once you place it between the blue and the orange. Is that the color we were looking for? What thoughts do we have that are actually incongruous with reality?
2. The epiphany does not always occur when one is painting the representation of the eternal light. Most times, it is when one is in the corners, the crevices, the shadows, working out the details, trying to understand the mystery.
3. Be prepared for the unexpected. Go with it. It might lead somewhere great. However, always be prepared to completely disregard it. Sometimes the great tangent leads only to distraction. Which leads us to…
4. Sometimes, all of your hard work leads to an object that needs to be one inch to the left. Or an entire field of color that is a shade too dark. Or an entire array of minuets who must be two inches higher. Or whatever. In any case – sometimes, after five hours of work, you might step back and say: I did it wrong. If you don’t paint over it, if you don’t take the time to do it right then you will always look at it and know that the painting wasn’t quite what it could have been. And if you know this, then so will the whole world, whether anyone can put their finger on it or not.
5. When you get over the self-criticism, and do away with the self-doubt, you can create a sense of beauty that soars. How do you overcome these things? By practice. By showing up. By allowing all the voices to have their say but, in the end, following only your bliss.
6. Finally, few great paintings were ever created overnight. The painters of the greatest paintings lived their entire lives before them. They laughed with them. They cried with them. They curled up inside them. They burst out through them. They were transformed by them. Yet, we do not paint for just ourselves. We live our lives through our art in order to allow ourselves to be the shining lights that we are. In this way, by being that living art, we can be a catalyst of beauty.
To a true artist, the work comes as naturally as the breeze or the shine of the stars. Walls block the breeze from reaching our skin. Walls block the shine of the stars from illuminating our gaze. By breaking down the walls that hold back that flowing nature, we can reach deeper depths and higher heights and great NOWs.
There is a story of a bird wearing down a mountain by passing over it once every hundred years with a piece of silk. This is a long time. Think of your painting process like that. Every day, every hour, every minute, that bird is passing over that mountain. It is wearing down those heaps of self-criticism, of self-doubt, of fear of whatever, and every day the sunrise on the other side of that mountain is revealed just a bit more.
Occasionally we may burst through that mountain with heaps of dynamite. The heaps of dynamite are only successful if we are open to allowing it to do it’s work. How do we become open to that? By every day allowing for that bird to fly over the mountain. By showing up.
If we complete all the little details of the painting and bring them to their highest height, then the grand thing of the painting will be the absolute grandest thing. (until we paint the next painting. And the next painting.)
In the end, we are maybe just painting the toenails of eternity with reflections of itself. There is nothing wrong with that, especially if we do it with love.
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