“Painting is easy when you don’t know how,” said the immortal Impressionist Edgar Degas. “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 23 years of age—feeling a turning point in my life. I was about to graduate from college and start a new career; 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. Here’s one of them: An elephant is trapped in a glass bottle, and it is MY elephant. I need to let him out. I do, and it transforms into a bar of soap. I soap up my body with him and, all of a sudden, I feel power coursing through me. I can figure skate with the best of the Olympians. I can even do a quadruple lutz!
A spring was breaking out in my heart. Mysterious dreams announcing this fact. Water of a new life, coming to me.
So, again, lucky for me I didn’t know how to paint. I avoided being like the caterpillar who can’t walk because he’s thinking too hard about the technique involved in moving all his little legs all at once. The priority was giving my emotional overflow form, and using paint freely to do so. Other forms of visual art (like sculpture, printmaking, photography, and film) appeared to require machines and other complicated instruments and, again, I had no patience for that.
I just wanted to go from heart to brush to canvas. Direct flight; no stop-overs.
This is perhaps the very first piece I ever did. I just went for it. Paint on the canvas, following instinct and intuition. No attempt whatsoever to represent anything external to me. Red, white, blue, green, black: allowing whatever was meant to emerge, to emerge. Stopping when the result seemed to take on a life of its own, and you could see form and movement in the colors and shadows. Different people seeing different things.
What I saw in this particular piece was something like a water buffalo, and he is in a strange landscape lumbering away from what seems like water, towards the viewer, and his head wreathed with horns is bloody but unbowed.
What did it mean? I don’t know. But it felt satisfying.
There happened to be a University-wide painting contest at the time, and I said “Why not?” and I submitted the painting. I ended up with second place. So maybe others saw something interesting too.
Then there was this painting:
While creating this one, I was listening to music from the rock band U2—their album entitled Joshua Tree. The volume was cranked up to 11—or it would have been if stereo manufacturers of the time paid any attention to the movie Spinal Tap. The music filled me 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 music magnified what was on my heart. At that time I was a two-pack-a-day smoker and so one hand worked a paint brush while, from the other, a cigarette dangled. But there was a moment in all of this when I felt something click and I put down the paint brush and scooped a couple cigarette butts out of the ashtray. I took these smelly butts and I dabbed them in the paint and I used them to spread it, so that the paint ended up mixed with tobacco leaf and ash. The whole process felt true exactly because it was gritty and messy.
This was happening—this whole improvisational experience which was unexpected and intense—while sounds from the band U2 washed over me—their cries of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The year was 1990 and George H. W. Bush had just become President and the Gulf War had begun and I remember the angst and horror of that time. The passionate despair and longing of the U2 album spoke to me. But when I was done with the painting, I looked at the image that had surfaced, and I realized that what I was looking at was what was inside me: turbulence, yes, but three resilient live growing trees swaying gracefully.
I don’t usually give my paintings titles, but this one titled itself: “The Three Graces.”
It never stops reassuring me. Grace inside me, a green forest inside, no matter what the external world is like, with its wars–and now, today, with its worldwide coronavirus pandemic.
As a German proverb says: “Art holds fast when all else is lost.”
I was personally realizing the truth of this proverb when I was 23, a messy yet transformative 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 paint there, until it felt intuitively right to stop and an image had arrived in all its fullness and complexity, an image had come home.
It was another form of sleep and dreams. Water of a new life, coming to me.
Since then, my track record with painting has been inconsistent. Around 15 years ago, I took a formal painting class and that’s when I learned directly the truth of Degas’ statement that when you know how to paint, that’s when it’s very difficult. Soon after finishing the class, I gave it up. No more painting, for years. It’s only been in the past two years—another transformative, turning point time in my life and you are part of that—when I’ve started painting again, and doing so by aggressively ignoring perfectionistic technique, and just allowing paint to do its thing on the canvas without me imposing expectations. Just staying curious about what’s trying to happen through me….
The Mystery unfolds
I pray this prayer constantly in every part of my life—and especially so when I paint…
So when, in the course of my general reading, I discovered a letter by writer Sherwood Anderson to his son (an aspiring painter), which he wrote in 1927, it made me happy. I felt a congenial creative spirit in these words which we all heard a moment ago:
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.
This is as much true of visual arts as it is of other forms: music, theater, dance, and other performing arts; poetry and prose literature; and whatever else kind of art there is.
Try to remain humble. Smartness kills everything.
The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.
If you read about all the various plagues of history, as I have been reading, there is at the very least one lesson to be learned: art is immortal, and so is the impulse to create it. It is a way of saying and saving what is best in humanity.
It is a pathway into the sacred.
I will in fact say that in art is salvation. By this, I mean that art helps to deliver us from bad or difficult situations; art is about resilience; art is about strength to face harm and come through with dignity intact. Salvation in this sense sustains hopefulness; salvation in this sense keeps us fluid and flowing no matter what life brings our way.
Each of us has an elephant trapped in a glass bottle, not just me. Art can release it—all that power it represents.
“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 puts you into sync with the sacred origin of things. You yourself get to be a sacred 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, your ultimate concern.
It happens in art that is more personal and abstract, like mine, and it definitely happens in art that is more public and activist, with an opinion and point that wants to be clearly heard.
Think with me about one powerful example of this: the AIDS quilt. The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt is activist art at its finest, meant to remember and celebrate the lives of people who died from another pandemic this world has seen. It weighs an estimated 54 tons. It is the largest piece of community folk art in the world.
Here’s how it came about. Go back to the early 1980s, to that awful time when HIV/AIDS epidemic was beginning but the Reagan administration dismissed the seriousness of it—sort of like what we have seen from the current presidential administration and its initial dismissal of the coronavirus.
But the Reagan administration’s dismissal was even more foul, because Reagan folks cracked jokes about AIDS. They actually joked about it. There’s a transcript of press conferences from 1982, hosted by Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes, and they reveal this.
Journalist Lester Kinsolver: Does the president have any reaction to the announcement by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta that AIDS is now an epidemic in over 600 cases?
Larry Speakes: AIDS? I haven’t got anything on it.
Lester Kinsolver: Over a third of them have died. […] It’s a pretty serious thing. One in every three people that get this have died. And I wonder if the president was aware of this.
Larry Speakes: I don’t have [AIDS]. Do you?
The transcript goes on to say that, by now, everyone in the press pool is laughing….
That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
HIV/AIDS deaths would go on to skyrocket around the world, as we know all too well. So many dimensions to this tragedy. One specifically was how people dying of AIDS-related causes often did not receive funerals, due to both the social stigma felt by surviving family members and also due to the outright refusal by many funeral homes and cemeteries to handle the deceased’s remains.
This is when art stepped in: in a time when the President of the United States did not care about his people dying, and his staffers were cracking jokes about it; in a time when HIV/AIDS deaths around the world both skyrocketed but were also stigmatized and went without public memorials and celebrations of life: this is when art stepped in.
Wikipedia helps me to tell this part of the story: “The idea for the NAMES Project Memorial Quilt was conceived on November 27, 1985 by AIDS activist Cleve Jonas during the annual candlelight march, in remembrance of the 1978 assassinations of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. For the march, Jones had people write the names of loved ones that were lost to AIDS-related causes on signs, and then they taped the signs to the old San Francisco Federal Building. All the signs taped to the building looked like an enormous patchwork quilt to Jones, and he was inspired.”
Think again of the metaphors of the creative act we discussed just a moment ago: opening up a space, being a receptacle, being like an empty bowl. AIDS activist Cleve Jonas looked at the signs taped to the Federal Building and a creative idea came and he held it, he received it, he gave birth to it.
It was and is so powerful.
Each panel of the Quilt is 3 feet by 6 feet and this is approximately the size of an average grave. In light of the fact that memorial services and grave sites weren’t going to happen, the Quilt became the way—the single way–for survivors to remember and celebrate their loved ones’ lives.
It also served as an open rebuke to a government that had failed its people. It served as inspiration for building organizations and networks that would do greater justice to the lives and needs of LGBTQ+ people. It served as a goad to landmark social reforms that were long overdue.
It is the German proverb, again: “Art holds fast when all else is lost.”
Art helps to tell the story like nothing else, and it makes you never forget, and because of it, things happen.
And what of the activist art of our day? What is the story it is telling?
Perhaps the story here is how “normal” America works for some and not for all. How the coronavirus pandemic has made even more obvious the racial and social inequalities of this country. “Our pre-corona existence,” writes Sonya Renee Taylor, “was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return.”
But now take a look at this next piece:
This is Dr. Li Wenliang, the doctor censured by the Chinese government for trying to warn colleagues about the outbreak, who eventually died of Covid-19. It’s art that reminds us of the old, old story of cover-ups and propaganda coming from entrenched power, when plagues come upon us.
But old, old stories can change. New stories can happen.
When Antonio Machado writes in his poem,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?
this is not necessarily water of a life that is purely private. It can be water of our collective life. It can be a water that overwhelms entrenched complacency and systems of unfair power and floods them out, washes them away, leads to national and even global transformation.
As things fall apart around us, says Sonya Renee Taylor, “we are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”
You and I are going to work to help make this happen, I swear to God.
We are going to do this together, in ways we are uniquely capable of, in the time we have to share.
This is something I am promising to you, and I want you to promise that to me.
I need to close, and I will do it with one more of my own personal paintings. Not activist necessarily, but suggestive:
This is one of the last paintings I did at 23 years of age, at that messy and potent 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. 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.
The “spring was breaking out in my heart,” and it never ever wanted me to forget: that I and we are stronger and more resilient than we know.
This is our souls’ truth.
“Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.” (Stella Adler).