“Painting is easy,” said the immortal Impressionist Edgar Degas, ”when you don’t know how. But when you do know how, it’s very difficult.”
Lucky for me that I didn’t know how. Because
a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
These are words from an Antonio Machado poem, and he says,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?
This was what I was feeling at 22 years of age—a turning point in my life. I was about to graduate from college; I was in a serious relationship with someone I eventually married and shared life with for many years; and I was gulping philosophical and psychological wisdom like my life depended on it.
Among the things I was reading was a book by Strephon Kaplan-Williams on Jungian-Senoi dream work, and so dreams were flooding my world every night, like this one: An elephant is trapped in a glass bottle, and it is MY elephant. I need to let him out. I do, and I’m amazed to discover that he’s like soap. I soap up my body with him and, all of a sudden, I feel power coursing through me. I can skate with the best of the Olympians. I can even do a quad lutz.
A spring was breaking out in my heart. Water of a new life, coming to me.
Lucky for me I did not know how to paint. Because painting is what I did, to manage the overflow, to give it form. Painting, because I was just curious about it and wanted to see what it was like; and also because other forms of visual art (like sculpture, printmaking, photography, and film) appeared to require machines and other complicated instruments and I wanted means that were simpler and more direct. Heart to brush to page.
This is perhaps the very first piece I ever did. I just went for it. Paint on the paper, following instinct and intuition. Red, white, blue, green, black: allowing whatever was meant to emerge, to emerge. In the end what seemed to come out was a water buffalo. Do you see it?
A head full of blood. Well, that’s what things felt like.
Then there was this painting:
I had been listening to U2’s Joshua Tree album, cranked up. Songs like “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “Running To Stand Still,” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The intense music was magnifying my heart. At that time in my life I was a smoker and so while my one hand was working in the brown tones and the green tones my other hand held the smoke and then something happened—I remember the moment clearly—I felt curious about what it would be like to get into things even more viscerally and so what I did was take used cigarette butts and move the paint around with them, apply such deep pressure that I was literally scratching the surface of the painting.
Maybe it was true on one level, that “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Maybe the power and despair of the U2 album was true, on one level. But on another level, look at the image that surfaced, look at what I had inside me: turbulence, yes, but three resilient trees swaying gracefully. Over the years, in fact, I have toyed with calling it “The Three Graces.”
It never stops reassuring me. Grace inside me, a green forest inside….
There was this amazing burst of visual creativity centered around painting, when I was around 22, a turning point in my life. Secret images of my soul disclosed through swirling colors on a page, which I’d introduce by paintbrush or fingers or even cigarette butts. More paint here, less there, until it felt intuitively right to stop and an image had arrived, it had come home.
It was another form of sleep and dreams. Water of a new life, coming to me.
Since then, I have gone to painting only infrequently. Around eight years ago I took an oil painting class at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center and that’s when I learned the truth of Degas’ statement. When you know how to paint, absolutely, that’s when it’s very difficult.
And this is exactly the time to hear writer Sherwood Anderson’s advice to his son (the aspiring painter):
The object drawn doesn’t matter so much. It’s what you feel about it, what it means to you.
A masterpiece could be made of a dish of turnips.
Draw, draw hundreds of drawings.
Try to remain humble. Smartness kills everything.
The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.
This is as much true of visual arts as it is of other forms: music, theater, dance, and other performing arts; literature; and whatever else kind of art there is. And note how each form has two sides to it: the process involved in producing specific artworks, and the experience of being an audience engaging those artworks. Creation and reception. Both integrally involved in art’s salvific power.
But before I go on to explain why, exactly what do I mean, “salvation”? Am I dredging up that old theological term in all its questionable glory? Listen to lyrics from that 1969 hit “Spirit in the Sky”:
Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky
That’s where I’m gonna go when I die
When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best
Prepare yourself you know it’s a must
Gotta have a friend in Jesus
So you know that when you die
He’s gonna recommend you
To the spirit in the sky
Is that how art saves? What do you think?
If you were here last week, I suggested a definition of “salvation” that, I believe, is far more relevant. It’s fundamentally about deliverance from bad or difficult situations; it’s about resilience, strength to face harm and come through with dignity intact. Salvation sustains hopefulness; salvation keeps us fluid and flowing no matter what life brings our way. And then I said, “As Unitarian Universalists, it’s our privilege to choose the words and ways that energize us to keep on showing up. For some of us, a word like God energizes and brings us into a feeling of a larger life. For others, the word takes all the oxygen out of the room, oxygen that comes right back in when they talk instead of mindfulness meditation, or of the Goddess, or of being in nature.”
Today, I add “art” to the list of what might oxygenate.
Each of us has an elephant trapped in a glass bottle, not just me. Art can release it—all that power it represents.
And with this said, let’s get back to the two sides of it: creation and reception, starting with creation.
“What art offers,” said the great novelist John Updike, “is space—a certain breathing room for the spirit.” Put away the smartness which kills everything. Let the big voice of ego which huffs and puffs and dominates everything soften and allow the little voices at the margins to finally be heard. Experiment. Play. “The artist,” said Picasso, “is a receptacle for the emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.”
Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching says it this way:
The Tao is like an empty bowl
Which in being used can never be filled up.
Fathomless, it seems to be the origin of things.
Whatever metaphor you prefer—space, receptacle, empty bowl—the creative act that’s alive and not killed through smartness puts you into sync with the origin of things. You yourself get to be an origin, “which in being used can never be filled up.”
That is an inherently spiritual feeling. At-one-ness with the Tao.
And once you assume that position of humility, that openness, what you begin to discover—through the artistic process—are the deep roots of yourself, the enduring themes of your being, the objects of your most intense struggle and care.
A great example of this is the art of Marc Chagall.
Born 1887, died 1985, Chagall was one of the very greatest. A pioneer of modernism and a major Jewish artist. “When Matisse dies,” Pablo Picasso remarked in the 1950s, “Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.”
In the painting before you, entitled “Over the Town” (which is so appropriate and sweet for Valentine’s Day), just look at that crystalline color, the deep greens and blues. The lovers are high overhead, wrapped in each other’s warmth; and then, below, there is the city, built mostly of wood, filled with churches and synagogues. That city in some form or fashion appears in many of his paintings. It is the city he grew up in, Vitebsk, which later in life he moved far away from. “Why did I leave you so many years ago?” he says. “I did not live with you, but I didn’t have one single painting that didn’t breathe with your spirit and reflection.”
Another of his paintings is “Time is a River Without Banks.” There’s Vitebsk again, in the background. The open space of the canvas allows his identity (fused with the city of his birth) to be seen and known. And not just this, but seemingly strange symbols in deep blue, in shimmering red and gold. A flying fish, a pendulum clock, a fiddle fiddling away all by itself, lovers embracing. The painting is all about celebration and mourning. In Chagall’s village, the fiddler made music at cross-points of life (birth, marriage, death); and Chagall’s father worked tirelessly in a fish factory, so the fish commemorates him. Time is a river; time flows forward and brings with it sweetness but also pain. But the particular thing to sense here is how intensely Chagall is able to express this, through scenes of childhood repeatedly invoked, invested with intense energy. Every painting augments his being. Every painting reminds him who he is and what he cares about.
That is salvation art, on the creative side.
But what about the reception side? What salvific things happen when we engage with artworks already made?
The writer Marcel Proust has said, “In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discover what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says in the proof of its veracity.” That’s what Proust says, and note the paradox he lifts up. The novel “puts a finger on perceptions that we recognize as our own, but could not have formulated on our own” (Alain de Botton).
But why can’t we formulate the perceptions on our own?
Because we are just moving too fast through life, trying to do too much. Because we’re snubbing the world in favor of our mobile phones, or what’s called “phubbing.” Because we are caught up in habits of heart and mind that have hardened and so we’re cut off from a wealth of other possibilities and we don’t even know that. Because we’re stressed and tired. Because because because.
“Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.” (Stella Adler).
Therefore, says Proust, read. Go to the theater, go to the movies, absorb the art that adorns the walls of this building. Be reminded that you have a soul. In particular, recognize perceptions that you have not formulated on your own but they are in fact possible for you and, in the having of them, your world is expanded, your world is renewed….
As a German proverb says, “Art holds fast when all else is lost.”
This is one of the last paintings I did at 22 years of age, at that turning point in my life, and I have loved it ever since. Like all my paintings, it started with simple curiosity about what would happen if I put a blob of paint there and then spread it. What felt good to do? Go straight, or curve it? What textures? What colors? Just making a space for play, just letting that dream elephant out, just being the empty bowl of the Tao … and what came up was a scene with lilting curves, all against a backdrop of translucent blue. And in the foreground, in a way reminiscent of that other painting of mine we saw earlier, The Three Graces, here are three figures in white, and they look like they are in graceful motion, swaying, dancing—and by this I am reminded of who I am, by this my being is enlarged, by this I am saved from a life that can beat down and crush.
May art lead you, too, into the truth.