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.
Sometimes, I’m painting and I’m just putting globs of paint onto the canvas, working it out as I go along blending it there rather than on my palate. I think to myself, “How could I really even begin to teach this? Who the hell wants to learn a process that can be so… messy!” It looks like a haphazard approach at times. The dollop of paint gets smeared onto the canvas along with several invisible dollops of faith in the process. All things considered, it usually works out, even when it doesn’t. So how does one teach that? Well, I look at my whole approach then not just the smearing of the glob of paint on the canvas. I have a clear idea of what I’m doing from the start usually. In the exact instance that I’m speaking of, I was working on the kid’s book that has been consuming all of my creative time. The kid’s book has a certain style and approach that I’ve used from the very beginning. Regardless of new ideas I’ve had in the past three and a half years about layering or glazing, I can’t apply them here because it would be inconsistent with the previous panels. I have to stick with the approach I’ve taken thus far in order to see it through. In some respects, this is a good bit of discipline. In the midst of this book that I’ve been working on for over three years, I’ve painted two great paintings and a handful of smaller but still important pieces. Those paintings have allowed me to express for a bit those thoughts and understandings about process – especially The Glass Onion with all of it’s underpainting and layering and such.
And then I come back to this image and right now there is a blue sky backdrop to grandly rolling clouds, a floating cliff topped with a buzz cut of green grass, and two people. I paint a field of blue. I throw on the green. I do this, I do that. But what is the approach, really?
First, I sketch on the basic image onto the canvas. In this case, we’re looking at something that has very distinct components – background, foreground, middle ground and a few objects within that space – people, things, etc. I never use carbon paper to transfer a pre-existing sketch. I always believe that if I sketched it once, I can sketch it again. And if I draw it onto the canvas, I know that I’ll paint over it and have to redo it. The after image is burned into the mind tho. I always have that. Also, I have come to see that a drawing has it’s own boundaries and, by redrawing it, I can push the boundaries a bit further. Besides, we always have to allow for spontaneity. So the canvas gets only a bare-boned sort of drawing. Note: the outline is done with an HB pencil, nothing softer. Softer pencils smudge and get in and leave lines under your paint. You don’t want that. Use an HB pencil. You’ll thank me.
Next, the drawing gets a light outline in paint so that with a few subsequent layers of background over it – it’s easier to get a solid clear blue sky for instance – I can still see my figures. I usually outline it with a combination of dioxanine purple, unbleached titanium white, and burnt sienna.
Then of course, the furthest back thing gets it’s color. In this case – it’s the sky. Now – this is the sky without the clouds first. We are BUILDING A WORLD here. First came the heavens. The sky goes on in a gradient that is, in this case, pthalo blue (green shade) and gesso (it softens the intensity of the blue). We’ll go over it twenty more times after this at least with bolder colors but for now the gesso provides a soft blue gradient of a background. The gradient of course goes from dark to light, top to bottom, respectively.
Next the cliffs. The cliffs are big smooth rocks of the greyish sort so I use unbleached titanium white, pthalo blue (always the green shade), prussian blue (to soften things) dioxanine purple, and burnt sienna. The key ingredient is the unbleached titanium white. Such a lovely color! It’s like unbleached linen!
Anyways, let’s fast forward. The cliffs… etc…
Look how creation sort of goes (from the big bang onwards to the sea of gas that was this planet..) First there was sky, then there was water, then there was rock, then there was growth upon it. Look at the giant peak of a craggy mountain – the giant rock was there first, then the seed settle upon it in it’s little craggy crevices. So first we create the mountain. Then we add crevices and cracks. Then we add the little bits of tree or grass or flower or waterfall where the landscape might allow for it (although we’ve been planning where those bits and pieces would go all along).
I paint clouds in along the way in the background – always churning and forming regardless of what is happening. They are, for the most part made up of titanium white, unbleached titanium white, pthalo blue, and dioxanine purple. I love getting lost in the clouds. On a day at the beach, I could look at the clouds forever. They are formless things always in a state of becoming – changing from one moment to the next, filled with seemingly infinite spirals and jetties.
Maybe, too I paint a big field of grass. I tend towards a grass that is a combination of deep turquoise and cadmium yellow with hints of burnt sienna or unbleached titanium white. Soft grasses with varying levels of green. By blending the green yourself, you can rock it now towards the blue, now towards the yellow, to your liking. I always paint it this way – rarely do I actually use a tube of any sort of green in my paintings.
Anyways, finally come the humans or the things or whatever is the main focus. I paint them in. I paint over things! O that! O that! Such is the nature of painting. None the less I usually have an idea of where things are going to be so I don’t spend too much time on something that is going to be painted over completely (remember that mapped out drawing underneath) but sometimes, it can’t be helped.
Maybe there is a person now with an orange robe. That’s when the paint just starts getting glopped on. The person gets a quick outline (or not, I usually just wing it) and I start layering that cadmium orange in great heaps over the lovely blue sky and the grass. It’s deadly! It just goes! It gets put on in great glops blending from yellow to orange to red and pops against the blue/green background.
Then it dries. I wait. I get back to it. I put in the shadowing, the gradients (everything is gradients, in various directions, one way or another) and eventually, everyone has form.
Then I sit with the details for a long long time. The devil is in the details, you know. I think that where you find yourself. It’s easy to throw lots of paint on to the canvas. It’s wonderful to lose ourselves in that and create big broad strokes. But to focus the mind, to bring ourselves down to the hairs width and understand that it really does make a difference – that takes a dedicated, loving patience. In that quality of focus we can get into the details and suss out the sense of a painting. It is there that magic lies, both in the painting and in yourself.
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.
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