Tuesday, June 08, 2010

A Walk in the Woods

I live in Vermont halfway up a hill. Being an artist is a quiet life and mostly I like it that way because inside my mind and imagination things are anything but quiet. I have more ideas for paintings than I could get through in three lifetimes. Sometimes I don't leave the hill for a few days in a row and don't even notice: I'm busy, I'm thinking, I'm painting. And also I'm walking the dog. Up the hill from me, near the top but not quite at the top lives my friend Jasmine. She is an herbalist/nutritionist/energy healer/plant spirit medicine practitioner, you name it. Jasmine's house has an incredible view, much bigger than mine, and I like to think that that is because she is a seer. Practically every day we leave whatever it is that absorbs us, yield to the "big brown eyes" of our respective pets, and go outdoors to pace the familiar paths of our little world. There is a patch of woods at the very top of the hill; one of the exquisite pleasures of spring is walking that path and watching the fresh greens emerge: first from the ground, then from the trees, step by step, as the snow melts, the brook swells and the birches leaf out.

This year spring came early. In late February I felt the light and the air shift and knew that spring was on the move. One unusually balmy day in early March I went up to the orchard, pruned the apple trees, and cut a bunch of forsythia. I brought a huge pile of these bare cuttings into the studio and propped them up in a bucket. It was like having a tree indoors. I took a birch log from the woodpile and made it my model, standing it on end in a shadow box draped with midnight blue velvet. Then I grabbed a 6' x 4' canvas and for the next six weeks as spring unfolded outside and the forced buds bloomed in my studio I painted what it feels like to walk in the woods.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Empty Boat(s)

“This notion of Emptiness thus...concludes that all known realities are constructed realities whose identities are merely intellectual conveniences used to order the world so that it can be understood.”
from Buddhism by Kevin Trainor

Last summer an old friend commissioned me to do a painting as a birthday present for her husband. She wanted a painting of her husband's favorite story, a Buddhist fable known as The Empty Boat Story - a story I had never heard despite the fact that my brother was a Buddhist monk and my mother is a practicing Buddhist. There are various versions of the tale but the consensus is that a man is out in a boat; it is either dark or foggy- depending on the version - but basically there is no visibility. All is peaceful until suddenly the man's boat is rammed by another boat and he becomes quite angry until the clearing fog (or emerging moon) reveal that the offending boat is empty; his anger collapses in the face of this revelation.

Like all great stories this one can be read in many ways. Possible readings range from advice on anger management to a meditation on the nature of reality. At its essence I believe it is a story that questions whether we can know what is real.

At first I was quite daunted at the prospect of this commission: the story was interesting but not really a painter's story. But I really like this friend of mine and I didn't want to disappoint her. Plus I needed the money. So I brushed up my Buddhist chops, thought deeply about the tale, and even spent a day out drawing boats. Then I did what we all do - threw it aside and just painted. And once I started I couldn't stop and, instead of one painting, did two.

In the first a boat emerges from the mist and appears to move towards the viewer with the force of intention but the shifting atmosphere reveals that it is, in fact, empty. The empty boat is like an angry emotion that rises up unbidden during meditation. When the meditator gains the awareness that that emotion is an illusion his consciousness expands. The second painting shows tis hieghtened state: here the scene has shifted to a moonlit night and the illusion of logical reality falls away like torn paper, revealing a luminous center – or is that too an illusion?

I gave my friend the option to choose either painting and she chose the first one, the realistic one. I was left with the semi-abstraction and after awhile I copied it and did a larger version.

The experience left me thinking about how painting, like Buddhism, deals with "constructed realities" and how paintings are used to order the world so it can be understood. And from this began a new artistic journey...