Painting, a New Passion

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Detail from painting by Van Gogh

Writing has always been the primary passion in my life, the thing I love most to do and identify with. I began blogging as a way to share my writing and the things I’m inspired to write about. Art has been one of those inspirations, particularly the paintings I fall in love with.

In one post I compared writing with painting: “Images and ideas are the paint, words the loaded brush, and sentences our brushstrokes. The mind and imagination of both writer and reader is the blank canvas.”

Writers paint portraits of our characters in the minds of readers and place them in dramatic scenes.  We use lighting and color to evoke mood and atmosphere, and prop “still lifes” about them, revealing tiny details that suggest associations and symbols and themes.

The idea of painting has always intrigued me and I longed to try my hand at it one day. That desire became particularly loud when I was sick to death of words. Yes, even writers weary of words. Then the idea of painting, working with pure pigment and brush strokes on a blank page instead of words, words, words–so fraught with meaning–seemed utterly refreshing.

Writing with no words–that’s what my soul sought.

Watercolor drew my interest. I loved the lightness, the fluidity, the transparency of the medium. But when I was finally ready to paint, the only class I could find was in pastel. So I began playing with pastel about a year ago. While a few paintings were successful and deemed wall-worthy, more often I felt frustrated by my efforts.

Finally a class in watercolor opened up and I feel now I’ve found my medium. Nearly everything I’ve painted so far gives me pleasure. Finally my walls are beginning to feel the presence of my new passion.

I’ve found with painting the kind of satisfaction I’ve rarely found in writing. I always wanted my writing to find a place in the world. I wrote for myself, but also for something beyond me. I wanted my writing wedded to a world apart. Few pieces have found that bliss, and even those that have I still view with misgivings as I wrote about in one post.

But painting doesn’t feel that way. It’s a child that never has to find a place outside my own home. I paint for the pleasure of the process, and also the pleasure I feel from the finished product. It’s something I can enjoy that needs no outward approval.

Much of my writing remains an unwedded bride, an unsung song, a bright promise languishing in a dark corner.

But my painting is a child who needs no one but me to love and enjoy her to feel fulfilled.

It’s a rare blessing.

 

 

A Balm to Calm the Troubled Mind

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Cc Palojono Hills of Vietnam flickr-5224736618-original

In these seemingly dark and troubling times, I’m finding that reflecting on the following words of wisdom to be a soothing and enlightening antidote. It’s from a well-worn book that I’ve treasured over the years: Essays in Zen Buddhism, First Series, by D. T. Suzuki, first published in 1949. The following selected passages come from a liberal translation of a poem written by the Zen master Tao-hsin in the 6th century.

Inscribed on the Believing Mind-Heart

The Perfect way knows no difficulties
Except that it refuses to make preference:
Only when freed from hate and love,
It reveals itself fully and without disguise.

To set up what you like against what you dislike—
The is the disease of the mind:
When the deep meaning of the Way is not understood
Peace of mind is disturbed and nothing is gained.

Pursue not the outer entanglements,
Dwell not in the inner void;
When the mind rests serene in the oneness of things,
The dualism vanished by itself.

Tarry not with dualism,
Carefully avoid pursuing it;
As soon as you have right and wrong,
Confusion ensues, the mind is lost.

The two exist because of the one,
But hold not even to this one;
When the one mind is not disturbed,
The ten thousand things offer no offence.

The Great Way is clam and large-minded,
Nothing is easy and nothing is hard:
Small views are irresolute,
The more in haste the tardier they go.

Clinging never keeps itself within bound,
It is sure to go in the wrong way:
Let go loose, and things are as they may bee,
While the essence neither departs nor abides.

Obey the nature of things, and you are n concord with the Way,
Calm and easy and free from annoyance;
But when your thoughts are tied, you turn away from the truth,
They grow heavier and duller and are not at all sound.

Gain and loss, right and wrong—
Away with them all.

In the higher realm of True Suchness
There is neither “other” nor “self”:
When a direct identification is asked for,
We can only say, ‘Not two.”

The infinitely small is large as large can be,
When external conditions are forgotten;
The infinitely large is as small as small can be,
When objective limits are put out of sight.

One in all,
All in one—
If only this is realized,
No more worry about your not being perfect!

No more worry about the world we live in not being perfect. When was it ever?

No more worry about Hillary losing and Trump winning, when viewing the world from the larger perspective. His presidency will last at most 8 years. In a thousand years what will it matter?

What matters now are creating minds and hearts free from hate, free from clinging, free from worry. When have these negatives ever helped us create a better world?

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be working as hard as we can to create that better world–however we may envision it. It’s just that so many who don’t envision it the way we do are working just as hard.

The trick is to work without attachment to the result. For attachment creates clinging, opposition, frustration, hate and war when things aren’t going our way. And when it is going our way, it creates smugness, complacency, and self-righteousness superiority. And then, after all our striving, the world will turn, and everything is upside-down again.

How to end this vicious circle? Only within our own minds and hearts. It’s the only place we can truly reign, the only place where the good fight can truly be won–not in the outside world.

Working toward our goals with true “oneness” in mind, seeing others as ourselves, as “not-two,” we help free the world just a little bit from the hate and fear and selfishness and greed that cause so much pain and suffering. And the more who do so, the wider the influence. But it starts with us, with the One. We are that one.

So why do I keep forgetting this over and over and over again?

Why do I strive and cling, and then rebel when things don’t go my way?

When will I ever let go and just be?

 

Waking Up in an Alternate Reality

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From Paradise Lost

I woke this morning feeling as if I had  been tossed from the real world into an alternate universe–where Trump had become president. I kept grasping for something that would allow me to return to that safer and saner world where Hillary had won.

How could a man who had said such vile things about women and immigrants, who had mocked the disabled, insulted POW war heroes, bashed Gold Star families, and belittled worthy adversaries become the leader of our nation and the free world?

How could the most qualified person ever to seek the presidential office, who had worked her whole life to help children, oppressed women, and working families, who would in turn break a long-standing ceiling to become the first woman to hold the highest office in our land–how could she lose to him?

I felt sure there must be another reality in which she had prevailed. So why had I and so many unwilling been tossed into this one? Was there something here I needed to learn?

So I grasped at straws, hoping this new reality under a Trump presidency wouldn’t be as bad as I feared.

Perhaps Trump the con artist, playing to the crowd all along, didn’t believe the worst of what he had said and would not pursue the worst of his claims. Perhaps now that he had won and didn’t have to fool anyone any more, his once liberal leanings would emerge–a way to pay back all the Republicans who hadn’t supported him or believed he could win.

Sadly, the belief that this all had been a scam to win the biggest ego prize ever was the only source of hope I could muster for a while. I just prayed that despite this he would keep his promise to help those who have felt left out of the American dream. I hoped he had enough integrity to do at least that much.

A faint hope, but it was all I had.

Until I heard Hillary’s concession speech. And then I cried tears of gratitude. I had never been so proud of her–and of us, as Americans–as I was then.

She said:

“We must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”

“Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power,” she added. “We don’t just respect that. We cherish it. It also enshrines the rule of law; the principle we are all equal in rights and dignity; freedom of worship and expression. We respect and cherish these values, too, and we must defend them.”

“This is painful, and it will be for a long time, but I want you to remember this: Our campaign was never about one person, or even one election. It was about the country we love.”

“To all the little girls watching this, never doubt that you are powerful and valuable and deserving of every chance in the world.”

“Never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”

I knew then that hate hadn’t trumped love, as I had feared when I woke. Even in this seemingly alternate reality where Trump was president.

If this brave, strong, and loving woman could keep an open mind and look with hope and optimism to the future–despite her tremendous loss, then so could I.

Maybe that’s what I needed to learn.

Thank you, Hillary. I can feel my heart starting to heal already.

The Mysterious & Poetic Paintings of Odilon Redon

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Andromeda by Odilon Redon

I’ve become fascinated by the paintings of Redon (1840-1916), a French artist and Symbolist working mostly in charcoal, pastel, and oil. I included one of his paintings in my last post called “La Barque.”  I even went so far as to paint a study of it in watercolor as a way to loosen up my own work and let imagination and feeling help free me from an over-reliance on realism.

Many of his paintings feature boats, the sea, and underwater images, which no doubt is why I first gravitated to his work. But I think his musical compositions, his richly saturated colors, and his turn toward the poetic–the mystical and mythical–also drew me. Even perhaps his interest in Eastern philosophy, in Buddha and Hinduism, the indeterminate and invisible. In all these ways he is an artist that speaks to my heart.

Many of his paintings are dream-like. They evoke reality rather than depict it. On his painting entitled  “Underwater Vision,” he wrote:  “You will feel the poetry of the sands, the charms of the air of the imperceptible line. While I recognize the necessity for a basis of observed reality… true art lies in a reality that is felt.”

His earlier work, mostly in charcoal and lithograph, was dark and sometimes seemed demonic (a spider with a human head, for instance.) But later they became full of light. One art historian says that Redon began to want his works to portray “the triumph of light over darkness.”

Redon wrote: “My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.”

Here are a few of his works that inspire me and show a range of his subjects.

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Pandore

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The Yellow Sail, Final Journey, Guardians of the Soul

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Underwater Vision

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Homage to Leonardo da Vinci

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Homage to Gauguin

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Evocation of Butterflies

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Buddha

Soul-Searching in a Sea of Images

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Painting by Erin Gregory

I stayed up late last night, way past my bed time, searching Pinterest for images to save to my boards.It was a quiet and soothing experience, punctuated by intense pleasure when I came across something that spoke to me, made my heart sing, or feel a deep, abiding resonance.

It reminded me of the pure pleasure and satisfaction I felt when I was living aboard La Gitana, foraging beneath the sea for food–pin scallops, lion paws, conch. There’s a certain mind-set you acquire when searching for something that lies half-hidden among all the other equally beautiful and arresting shapes of sea life. While swimming along the surface of things, your mind is keenly tuned toward just that precise shape and color that you know will yield what you are looking for. And when you see it, you dive down deep with knife and net in hand to retrieve it, before resurfacing to continue the hunt.

In the case of image collecting, the “food” I seek is for the mind and soul, something that touches me in such a way I feel blessed for having found it, for allowing my eyes to feast upon it, for letting what it was the artist sought to articulate speak to me.

In addition to that deep-souled searching is a more practical pursuit as I learn to paint with watercolor and pastel–a need to understand why certain images affect me in certain ways, and how the artist induces those felt-responses. How do colors and shapes and textures, certain strokes and effects, delight and move me the way they do? What makes the images arresting? What makes my eye linger here and not there? To feel such a connection that I want to “save” it, so I can return again and again to bask and meditate?

What creates this resonance, and what does it say about me, and about the artist?

I want to learn to apply paint to paper in a way that expresses my own delight in things that will move others as well. How do we share what’s deep and meaningful and enriching  to us with others? Especially when what we find so striking or moving lies half-hidden within, not something we can clearly put our finger on–only feel.

So much to muse upon.

Here are a few of the paintings that moved and delighted me last night as I swam and dove among a sea of images on Pinterest.

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Ocean Light II by John Hulsey

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La Barque by Odilon Redon

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A Wedding in December by Bill Gingles

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The Parkway by Henri Manguin

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Liminal Moment by Bobbette Rose

For Love of Chaos – My Viking Binge, Trump, & Wrecking-Ball Politics

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viking-from-the-vikings-maxresdefaultSince becoming the full-time nanny for my little granddaughter, my reading tastes have taken a decisive darker turn. Instead of the lyrical literary novels I’mm usually drawn to, I’ve been on a Viking binge.

It started with Bernard Cromwell’s The Saxon Stories, upon which the acclaimed BBC series “The Last Kingdom” is based. It continued with Judson Roberts’ “The Strongbow Saga“, Giles Kristoan’s “Raven Trilogy”, and James Wilde’s books about Hereward, the English hero that some claim the Robin Hood tales were based on.

The question puzzling me for quite some time is why this dark turn toward such violent reads? What is it that draws me to them and keeps me reading?

I may have found at least a partial answer in one of Kristian’s books, when the young Viking Raven muses on “the love of chaos.” How even in the most life-threatening moments, when absolute silence is needed to keep death from descending and destroying them all, part of him wants to cry out and “turn that still night into seething madness.” Part of him wants to “break through the thick ice of that mute terror, for even chaos would be better than waiting, than expecting the fire to reach out of the night and eat your flesh.”

Perhaps we’ve all felt a bit of that “love of chaos” at some time in our lives. Felt in the face of some extreme danger a wild giddy urge–to run the car off the edge of a dark winding road, to step off the edge of the cliff into the wild-blue thrill of free-fall. Perhaps all extreme sport enthusiasts harbor a bit of this in their hearts when attempting their death-defying stunts. The mad desire to push past the edge of all reason into a wild unknown.

Maybe my turn toward these violent reads is a dormant “love of chaos,” the urge to experience, if only vicariously, that death-defying thrill. To travel with these warriors into a dark unknown as they risk death and destruction in a daring quest for gold and glory. To risk all to see what great gain may stand on the other side. Or not.

I can’t help seeing some of this “love of chaos” playing out on the political stage today in what some have called a kind of “wrecking-ball” mentality in some American voters. Their impatience with restraint, nuance, diplomacy, and what they see as political correctness. The wild urge to tear it all down, all apart, and see what rises out of the ashes. They see Trump as wielding the wrecking ball that will destroy the status quo in the wild hope that out of such chaos will come gold and glory.

I’m far from being a Trump fan, but I do understand that wild impulse. In certain seemingly hopeless situations, throwing caution to the wind has a strong appeal. The desperate hope is that chaos itself will become the cauldron out of which a new, better world will emerge.

This urge toward chaos has strong a strong corollary in nature, in the violent upheavals that impose a new order:  The shifting Teutonic plates that broke apart to create the continents and seas that sustain life today. The glaciers that ripped away vast chunks of earth to carve out spectacular canyons and riverbeds. The wild-fire that brings so much destruction, yet germinates new seeds for future forests.The list goes on.

“Out of chaos the dancing star is born.”  So sang the poet.

Perhaps this love of chaos is etched into our DNA.  We can’t escape it, but we can try to understand it, in ourselves and each other.

I’m hoping our better angels, our more reasonable natures, will prevail in the November election, and we do not trust our future to the chaos of wrecking-ball politics. But it’s important to try to understand what gives rise to these desparate tendencies. To not make the mistake of thinking we are above it all, that only the others, the so-called “deplorables,” have such dark urges. Hate, racism, xenophobia, terrorism–if we look deep enough into our own hearts and minds we will find the seeds of each, whether lying dormant or on fertile ground. We have to see this, and understand it in ourselves, before we can understand it in others. And learn to rein it in.

Young Raven learned to rein in his urge toward chaos that dark and deadly night, and he and his companions lived to fight again for gold and glory. Learning when to let our wilder urges move us forward, and when to rein them is what will move all of us closer to our own common goals, whether they be of gold and glory, or peace and prosperity and a better world.

 

Music is More Feeling than Sound

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Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 by William Blake 1757-1827

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by Alfred A. de Pass in memory of his wife Ethel 1910 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02686

From “Peter Quince at the Clavier” by Wallace Stevens.

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music too.

Music is feeling, then, not sound
And thus it is that what I feel
Here in this room, desiring you

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk
Is music.

Time and again, I’ve found that something I’ve felt and have tried to articulate has already been beautifully captured in one of Stevens’ poems. My last blog post on music touched upon this, the sense that music is more feeling than sound–the way you feel as you play and the music moves through you,  and the way you feel as you listen to and are played upon by the music.

This poem is more about desire than music or feeling, however, or perhaps more about how desire plays out on a palette of color and sounds and rhythms. Stevens has been called a “musical imagist,” but he also notes the close correspondence between poetry and painting. In particular he’s known for his idea of the “Supreme Fiction”–how the mind/imagination “creates” reality.

When you read the poem posted in full below, you may not fully understand or appreciate all it implies as it references Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night Dream and relates the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders). But the feeling of the images–the sounds of the words and the colors and shapes of the images as they sweep through your mind–is dreamlike and moving in a way that speaks to some truth that lies just below consciousness. As dreams often do.

Music is like that too. We feel its “truth” although we may not be able to articulate it.

There’s a new book out called “The Jazz of Physics” by Dr. Stephon Alexander. He writes about how the structure of the universe is like a musical composition, both arising from a “pattern of vibration.” I haven’t read the book yet but a review in the New York Times by Dan Tepfer concludes with this quote: “[T]he reason why music has the ability to move us so deeply is that it is an auditory allusion to our basic connection to the universe.” Tepfer sums up: “This not only feels true; it is what musicians live for.”

Dr. Alexander may be on to something. One of the most beautiful verses in the Bible refers to the creation of the universe as “when the morning stars first sang together.”

We humans have been alluding to a powerful connection between music and the universe for a long, long time. Is it any wonder we feel music more deeply than sound?

Stevens’ poem in full.

Peter Quince at the Clavier
I
Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna:
Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt
The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.

II
In the green water, clear and warm,
Susanna lay.
She searched
The touch of springs,
And found
Concealed imaginings.
She sighed,
For so much melody.
Upon the bank, she stood
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
The dew
Of old devotions.
She walked upon the grass,
Still quavering.
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
Yet wavering.
A breath upon her hand
Muted the night.
She turned–
A cymbal crashed,
And roaring horns.

III
Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Came her attendant Byzantines.
They wondered why Susanna cried
Against the elders by her side;
And as they whispered, the refrain
Was like a willow swept by rain.
Anon, their lamps’ uplifted flame
Revealed Susanna and her shame.
And then, the simpering Byzantines,
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.

IV
Beauty is momentary in the mind —
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies; the body’s beauty lives,
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of Winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden’s choral.
Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death’s ironic scrapings.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.

 

Primary Wonder, Age Three

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Primary Wonder, Age Three

Walking with our granddaughter
Whispering and waving
Our wings
Sniffing for bats.

What do you smell grandma?
Trees
What do you smell grandpa?
Clouds

by Deborah J. Brasket

Inspired from a backyard outing with our granddaughter after re-reading this poem by Denise Levertov.

Primary Wonder

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.

And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.

by Denise Levertov

Learning to Play (Again)

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piano-801707_960_720I played piano as a girl and always regretted giving it up. Lately the thought that I may never play again, never again experience the pure pleasure of music playing out through my finger tips onto the keys–to lose that forever– seemed too sad to bear. So I bought myself an electronic piano, something I could set out on my dining room table to play.

Nothing so romantic as a baby grand–but it has the touch and feel of the real thing. I can close my eyes and listen and imagine that heavy-breathing instrument bowing beneath my body as I play it.

The music I want to play is the kind that sweeps you away–Chopin, Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven . . . . What I yearn for, and seem to remember, is the kind of playing where body and music meld, where the notes sway through my body and spill out on the keyboard, like some lover I’m caressing. A musical love-making.

Of course, it’s a fantasy. I never played so well as a child, and I can’t imagine that the clumsy relearning I’m now experiencing will ever evolve into that. And yet I seem to “remember” something like this happening as a child when I played, perhaps at some rare moment when it all came together immensely well.

How my fingers, my whole body, knew where to go without thinking, without reading the notes. How it was almost as if the music was playing me, and I’m as much its instrument as is the piano. Or even more, as if we were playing each other–the score, my body, the piano–all playing together in unison, to create this “thing” we’ve become.

I don’t know if concert pianists feel this way about their music-making, if this is a memory of how it can be, or just some intense pleasure-making I’ve imagined when listening to some music that moves me, when I feel it flowing through me as if I were part of it, or it part of me.

And so I’m learning to play again, in this very painful, clumsy, halting way that all beginners experience, even those who once played before. Yet it’s still a thrill, touching fingers to keys, hearing the sound it makes vibrate through me.  I know I may never play so well in reality as I play in my mind/memory/imagination, but then I don’t have to. I already have it. That experience. I’m already “it.”

This patient, clumsy practice is just the homage I pay to what could be, and to the tremendous hard work needed to reach that point of perfection. Playing well is a rigorous undertaking. And the outcome of all that practice is not guaranteed.

But this thing I’ve heard and experienced when listening to the music of those who have reached this pinnacle, makes me want to at least attempt to master some measure of that kind of music-making. I want to practice enough to feel at some point the table turn, and my fingers become the mute instrument of the music at play.

Do you play a musical instrument? Does it play you?