Easter

Even though one may have doubts about the validity of religion, one must have unanswered questions about the nature of life and the history of mankind. Of course one may choose to ignore those questions and accept that there is no answer.
However, when I attend church with an open mind and a mindful intention to engage in an inner dialog , I invariably begin to process some issues that are normally dormant, possibly subconscious. My approach is not to join or be converted, but to be enriched.
Today’s service opened with this quote from Psalms “When I consider your heavens,the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor . You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet, all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky,and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.”
I hope I’m not alone in wondering what my purpose is in the universe. It would certainly be a great relief to believe I have one, but also a great challenge. Doesn’t one wonder if on my death, will I have made a difference? And in that same thought, what am I to make of all my failings?
One can look exclusively to our human culture to find purpose. In that respect we get education, hold a job, raise a family. Outside of that, any further contributions are optional. If that is satisfactory, then fine. But it seems most people yearn for a transcendent experience or more powerful acknowledgement of their worth. Maybe it’s a genetic glitch or original sin. Or maybe as Plato claimed there is a higher calling, something that draws us toward infinity.
I assert that all religions point in the same direction as Plato, who said we are drawn to a higher reality, and if one is to explore these deeper meanings, each religion can offer insights. And I believe that the quest is ultimately a uniquely personal one. I also suspect that without some philosophical system, one will be lost in the material world, destined to seek unrequited relief in self-destructive or other-destructive ways. I observe that religions offer a template for a wholesome life and provide a community to support people to that end.
Take Jesus, for example, he is described as without sin, the perfect role model for the good mensch. There are many great men to be emulated, but how can any of them make a significant contribution to the human condition? To have an ongoing impact, seems to require organization, doctrine, narratives, myths. Deconstructing Christianity reveals many themes and principles borrowed from previous religions, which proves to me the universal nature of these themes.
I happen to believe religion hasn’t been very successful in reforming the evils of mankind. but I also fear what it would be like without it. At least religion, true religion, stands in the breach between chaos and hope. I’ll not elaborate on “true religion” other than to say it fits the needs of a historical time to advance the welfare of it’s people. There have been heroes throughout history who risked and gave their lives to save others or fight evil. Were they acting from their religion or some even higher calling? Has the goodness of man created religion, or vice versa? Religion has also failed to address the challenge of our time – global warming. It has often been co-opted by tribalism and violence. Our biggest challenges are global and would require a global religion.
OK, so what about Nietsche? I’m not qualified to discuss but will anyway. God is dead. Religion seduces men to a herd mentality. Salvation is achieved by embracing one’s sins and suffering , not expunging them. What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. Strength rather than weakness is to be sought. The Ubermensch struggles against mediocrity. These thoughts join in the mix of ultimate questions and answers. So what if god is dead? Is there a substitute, like money, sports, nature, sun? Nietsche – “What water is there for us to clean ourselves” All the substitutes have been tried before. Nietsche’s vision may work for an individual but not for a society.
God is alive in those who believe in him, and in the writings, stories, rituals but most of all in the behavior of his believers. Symbolically Easter says we can be reborn, that good behavior can impact forever, that Spring is nature’s miracle and we are part of nature. As a personal choice, religion is a commitment toward good.

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Painting from Music

There are many inspirations for a piece of art. Some painters have attempted to translate a musical experience into a painting. Kandinsky was one such that cited music as a source. Matisse’s “Dance” also comes to mind. Disney did a wonderful job in “Fantasia”, but he had the advantage of motion and a soundtrack. Others have reported having synesthesia, the gift of seeing colors when stimulated by sound. Many artists will paint with music in the background but that is not painting FROM music. Other artists have made a subject of a musician or a group in performance, usually adding elements of expression to imply a musical feeling. However these are jazzed up portraits which fail to capture the music itself.

The auditory experience of music is a very different channel from the visual; as the auditory and visual nervous systems are distinct and activate different parts of the brain. Our consciousness brings them together in a state of awareness that is not fully understood and continues to baffle scientific research. A big difference between the two is that music takes place over time and changes within that time. Art is static in the moment, although one may stand and regard it for a while.
So is it possible to express a musical concept visually? A musical painting would necessarily be abstract, although could contain subtle references to real objects. The intersection between music and visual art is in itself an abstract and transient zone of awareness. One might even say a spiritual zone. Any connection has to bridge the gap between the auditory and visual cortex. Both genres display the abstract qualities of repetition, variety, intensity, rhythm, dialogue, balance, unity.

Thus I propose some ground rules for interpreting one’s favorite piece of music. I will ignore music with lyrics as that complicates the matter by adding words with their own meanings. First choose a dramatic passage, likely a repeating chorus. In this way one can fit the idea on a single canvas. Identify the tempo with an eye for using regular rhythmic rapid or languid strokes. The volume of sound can be likened to the values or intensity of paint. Notice how the pitch rises and falls and how the volume varies. Translate this into higher/lower placement of forms with greater/lesser size and intensity.

One can ascribe certain feelings to music, perhaps fast/slow, soft/hard, angry/loving, calm/intense. They can be expressed through choice of color, tone, brush stroke, and subject. For example, darker, somber colors convey a mysterious, sinister or depressed mood. Brighter colors a more hopeful, happy mood.

The musical scale of pitches can be compared to the visual light spectrum. Both have a wave character and physical properties. Continuing the analogy, a musical chord of three notes could be coded into three colors which blend or complement well. If able to distinguish two or three musical chords, express these as a blend of three colors.

Music is a horizontal experience. From beginning to end it is written and performed from left to right and intuitively we feel it that way. The long scrolls of classical Chinese art remind me of the musical score. Ideally one would choose the longest horizontal canvas. Most western music has an obvious and regular beat and tempo. Art normally does not observe this regular dominating tempo but could do so as rhythm is one of the design elements. I imagine some repetition of stroke, left to right, across a canvas.

Music often includes various instruments and each can be reflected in its own texture. Visual textures can closely suggest the different instrumental sounds. Color can also be associated with an instrument’s timbre.
I hope you will put on a piece of music, meditate on it as you choose colors, textures, lines, shapes and rhythm and doodle or paint to match your hearing. A viewer will not necessarily recognize it as music, but it can be a growing experience, even fun. If the music pleases, so will the painting be successful.

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A Short Jazz Tutorial

The essence of jazz is improvisation, playing variations on a melody, substituting extra notes and chords. Every musical piece has a harmonic structure; that is, a sequence of chords that fit together, sound good. Almost all musical pieces have a beginning and an end. They may include one or more 7-note standard scales such as C major, E minor, etc. A folk or blues tune will often have only 3 chords, one scale and last 12 to 24 measures. This gives a very simple feel and is easy for people to learn. On the other end of the complexity spectrum is classical music which will be lengthy, cycle through many scales and chords, change melodies, and require some education to appreciate.
Jazz is a term used loosely and rightly so because to create a box called “jazz” would violate the main principle of improvisation and experimentation. Anyone can improvise just as anyone can finger-paint. The best classical composers can improvise on the spot, but using refined rules. The difference between musical finger-painting and jazz is found in the skill and talent of the musician. So the jazz musician must be familiar with all the chords, all the scales, and a repertoire of tunes.
So if we take a tune like “Happy Birthday” and jazz it up, we would add a number of substitute chords or passing chords to the original three chords. Some substitute chords may suggest a change in melody to fit that new chord. Then we would diverge from the original melody at will as long as we play notes that match the correct chord. Each scale sounds right with certain chords and wrong with others. So when we sit down to play “Happy Birthday”, we and others in the band will know the chord sequence and basic melody (or have it written down). If it’s a band, someone will start with the standard melody, other members will support by keeping their notes within the proper scale and chord. The soloist or “front man” will play a number of improvised cycles of the tune, returning to the beginning of the tune each time. The “rhythm section” is usually a bass, drums and piano or guitar, and their job is to maintain the tempo and chord sequence so the band will not get lost. While improvising it’s possible to get off track and not know where in the tune you are. This is embarrassing. Each tune usually ends by returning to the beginning or “head” to play the standard melody.
You can jazz anything up using these techniques. Even though Mozart, Bach and Beethoven were great improvisers and jazz pianists, there were no recordings. So they would write it down and now we play it as written and call it classical music. Today’s jazz genre has grown out of blues, show tunes and dance band. These “jazz standards” are tunes from this tradition, many borrowed from these previous styles, others composed by a jazz master. Jazz standards are 12 to 32 measures long and always repeat a number of times. It can be very practical to repeat many times; thus one needs to learn fewer tunes for a recording or concert. However, the more repetition, the greater the need for real creativity.
The basic three person combo will have written down or memorized a sequence of chords and a melody for many tunes. An experienced group will have hundreds of tunes memorized in this fashion and will have the skill to play the tunes in any key. A combo or band that has more than 2 or 3 front men (soloists) will need someone to arrange the tune, so the piece becomes more orchestral and more fixed, yet allowing passages for improvisation. The big dance bands started this tradition of allowing a skilled soloist to “ad lib.”
Jazz and classical music require about the same musicianship. Both use complex chord sequences and melodies, changing scales, including difficult passages. By tradition, jazz differs in that tunes are shorter, there is a more rhythmic bass and drum, more unusual rhythms, the melodies tend toward a be-bop, be-bob rhythm rather than a da-da-da found in classical, and many of the tunes are familiar as popular songs. The big difference of course is that a classical piece sounds almost identical no matter who or when it is played because every note is written down.
I find listening to jazz is interesting and entertaining, even enlightening because I pay attention to these elements. It helps to recognize the tune, or it is a catchy tune. There are some melodies which are harder to like but the band wrote them; ergo you have to listen. Then there is that beat and rhythm which can make you want to dance or at least move. The virtuosity of a soloist can be amazing or obnoxious, creative or repetitive. Recognizing the tune or getting familiar as it is played, I begin to anticipate the chord changes during improvisation. Thus the soloist may be off on a tangent but I hear the original melody in my head. This is where many people get lost in that we always want to understand the pattern and the soloist may not give us enough predictability. However the icing on the cake is listening to how each player relates to the others and how each fits in to a total sound, how they “cook”. And usually there are little incidental “riffs” played by supporting members that spice up the piece, if you are watching for them. This is all much easier in concert. Another subtlety found in jazz is “pushing the beat” when notes are played just slightly ahead of the regular beat; this tends to add energy, speed and power to the feel of a piece.
GLOSSARY–
Scale – In western tradition is 7 notes, do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. There are 12 major scales, 12 minor scales and other scales defined by the intervals between each note in the scale.
Chord – The basic chord is 3 notes played together such as do-mi-so, or re-fa-la. Notice the space between each note. More complex chords include 1 to 4 notes added to the original 3.
Measure sometimes called a “bar” – a small unit of music mostly consisting of 3 or 4 beats. A piece will have at least 12 measures. “Happy Birthday” has 8 measures and 3 beats in each measure.
Beat – Each measure is divided into beats. Tunes typically keep to a specific number of beats per measure and the drummer will emphasize these beats. There may be 2,3,4 or more beats per measure. A waltz always has three which gives it a wave-like feel.
Melody – usually the high notes played by one instrument that stand out, like the words of a song.
Rhythm – How individual notes are spaced out in time. It can be very regular or irregular and will influence the feel of a piece. “Happy Birthday” is very regular. “Jack and Jill” is irregular and more jazzy. Soul music introduced a lot of irregular rhythms or “funk”. Reggae music tends to “drag” the beat by playing slightly after the beat.

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Trompe L’oeil and the Conquest of The Senses

The practice of art was preceded by the art of language which communicates in symbols representing real or imagined things and ideas. The first artists drew symbolic images of animals imbued with the idea and behavior of the real thing, but still a fantasy. But with the advent of photography, video and now internet, audio-visual images have proliferated to the point where much of our lives is spent in fantasy. By fantasy I mean that a photo or video is not the real thing but a conjured image that looks real. As in painting, these fantasies often have a touch of reality. But many people are influenced by false images that have been “photoshopped”. The term “trope l’oeil” is French for “fool the eye” and refers to the way in which visual arts often give the perception of a three dimensional space on a two dimensional surface.
Much of our symbolic life is dominated by advertising, aided by government tax breaks. The universal themes are sex, violence, prestige and above all consumption. So “buyer beware!” Pop artists like Andy Warhol, explained how art and commerce are now united. Art has always been subject to patronage by the rich and powerful but only in the modern age are visual images available to all and also unavoidable. One can cling to the belief that “true art” is not commercial; however, the old masters usually painted scenes to support the reigning status quo such as religion, royalty, or wealthy bourgeois society. After all, the artist has to eat. Today there are true artists who use their creativity to seduce you to consume. One can say they have “sold out” but we cannot ignore their art. Every person now has access to this art.
In contrast, abstract and minimalist artists offer a real alternative and a path to experiential reality. They say, “Here is paint. Here is an object. Love it for what it is.” Primitive peoples are shocked when they encounter a photo of themselves. “How can one be in two places at the same time? Has part of me been stolen and trapped on paper?” These people are naive to the symbolic world of art but wise in the experience of reality.
To cleanse ourselves from our commercial audio-visual environment we would have to cloister ourselves in silence and prayer. We would still struggle in meditation with the myriad images that continue to reverberate in our minds. The Chinese scholars meditated on nature, one sure guarantee of reality. We need more of this.
In the face of the commercial invasion of our senses and manipulation of our thoughts, we artists can create our own reality. In so doing we set a path for independence and dignity. The artwork we create comes from our unique vision but also reflects the milieu in which we live.

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Zen Art

An Artist Revisits “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
While stumbling around in the art world, I finally tackled Pirsig’s rambling autobiography that includes a review of classical Greek philosophy, and more importantly, tries to reduce and unify all human thought to its source which is zen. And approaching the book from an art perspective, I found his discussion of “quality” or “gumption” to resonate with my experiences of inspiration and creativity.
Quality is something everyone can recognize but cannot define or teach. We experience this quality when we first conceive of a subject, massage the scene in a sketch, stumble upon a technique, or arrive at a solution to some troubling problem. Zen is that state of mind from which our inspiration springs. One sees zen in many creative endeavors such as the composition of a song, the creation of a new business, religious clarity, or love of another.
Pirsig advises, when faced with a motorcycle problem, one must spend time looking and waiting. I recall a professional artist saying he spent more time thinking than painting. in art this means meditation, as “thinking” can be easily contaminated by the rules we have been taught or other social motives. Our thoughts become dominated by the rules we learn from parents, teachers and peers; for example the rule “it must look like a physical object”, or “it must qualify you for a job”. Ignoring these rules is hard and requires tuning into an inner nature, valuing our sensations or feelings over thought, reacting rather than planning. This will not guarantee quality but it takes a step in that direction. Picasso said it best, and I paraphrase, “it took a lifetime to learn how to paint like a child”.
When impulse and training coincide, true art may flourish in a zen moment. For we cannot escape our training, our culture, our history. My art teacher once said “context is everything”. For art or any creative event to have meaning it must relate to the other elements of our lives. Neuropsychology has proven our perceptions are guided by a powerful pattern recognition system. Our mind seeks to identify known patterns in order to react properly. In art there must be a balance between the familiar pattern and the surprise. This balance can only be found intuitively and individually. No art critic can tell you where your quality is, only where it is for them. However, we all wish to communicate with others, and therefore feedback can reveal the patterns that are best recognized by others.
In music the most popular tunes are those with repeating patterns. However, the mind becomes bored with too much repetition. When a musician plays an altered version of an old song, incorporating his unique voice into the familiar pattern, then some zen has emerged. Inversely, the zen listener may react to a familiar pattern or tune by noticing something different, by “hearing for the first time”, by connecting a new riff or sensation with that great body of patterns already installed in his mind. The child psychologist, Piaget, noted that when a child connects a new idea with his existing understanding, he laughs.
The role if the art teacher is fascinating and challenging. Is the teacher a disciplinarian or an inspiration, a therapist or trainer? What can be taught is analysis, rules and techniques. The human relationship with ones teacher transcends the rules.The great trend in western civilization has been to quantify, measure and define everything, to mass market. Pirsig describes in detail the limits of the scientific and logical methods and concludes that quality is overwhelmed by data. You may have noticed that businesses don’t answer phones anymore; its done by electronic algorythm. Where is the quality in communicating your concern with another living mind? I must warn that quality, like nature, will not in the end be ignored. Pirsig recalls a period in his life as being “the wolf”, the one who refuses to accept training, the revolutionary, the devil’s advocate, the outsider. Primitive societies which struggled daily with nature, freely indulged in superstition, magic, myth, and irrational values. They adpoted animal personas because they were in communion with animals. Many modern artists have touted the value of primitive art. Their zen was in the context of a wilderness envirnment. Our zen is in quite another context and I think we lack the perspective to evaluate the patterns inherant in our society.
It is difficult within the limits of language to provide a sure path to finding your zen and putting it in perspective with your history and training. I find that spending time alone is essential. Others have argued that seriously adopting any of the many spiritual practices is the way. Each must find his own path.

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TIPS FOR ADULTS WITH ATTENTION DEFICIT

This article is dedicated to my son and wife who provided all the content.
1. Understand what the condition ADD means and that it is permanent. It can’t be cured. Trying harder doesn’t work. Other people don’t understand because they don’t have it. ADD must be accepted and can be managed. It will affect how you deal with life. The biggest challenge is getting things done that aren’t naturally fun or interesting. Keeping commitments and deadlines can be hard. The mind wants to wander. One approach is to take your self off-line for a while every day; like when you take a dog for a walk. Plan to procrastinate. Figure how much time you waste in a day and just plan to be free for that amount of time. After all, you’ll waste it anyway.
2. When in group or classroom situation, try to sit at the front or where the speaker can see you.
3. Set short deadlines and plan for short spurts of work. Use a timer. Break tasks into small pieces and work them each for a short time. You can even bounce from one piece to another. Organize projects in folders. You can pull a folder to work on, then switch to another when you get bored.
4. Reward yourself for a time spent working, not for completing the whole project. A reward can be a coffee break, talking to friends, computer time, etc. When a task is completed, cross it off your list but add it to a “goals met” list; this lets you see how much you have accomplished.
5. Make a promise to someone else that you will complete a task. This will increase the motivation, especially if and the other person is handy to keep you on task. If you are serious about a big project or career priority, enlist someone to be your partner or assistant. If you have the resources, delegate the busy work to someone else. Schedule regular meetings to review your goals with your support group or your boss.
6. Say “no” when people ask you to do something. This will prevent your becoming over-committed. They will either find someone else to do it or they will argue with you and that will increase your motivation. “No” as a default will ensure that you only take on the important jobs which will be more interesting.
7. Develop a ritual of keeping lists of tasks and a detailed calendar. Schedule short times on the calendar for small tasks. Make the calendar large or put it on a white board. Break each day into many blocks to represent major activities like eating, work, relax, communicate, travel. Or use a planner that can be kept with you. Keep paper by the bed and write down anything that you think of. Get it off you mind for the night. Tomorrow you can decide what to do.
8. The reason we call it “work” is that it’s hard. Don’t expect it to be fun. It might even be painful.
9. When surrounded by alligators, attack the biggest one first. One often avoids the important issues by taking up time with little jobs.
10. Learn what environments are best for avoiding distractions. You might work best in a closet or in a bus station. At your job, take work to another area if your office is full of interruptions. Keep your work area free of distractions. You may use headphones with music or white noise.
11. Work standing up. That will focus you on short tasks. Sitting down invites the mind to relax and wander.
12. Practice “mind mapping” to organize your thoughts. Study the “Getting Things Done” approach. Find them online.
13. Ritalin and other stimulant drugs have proven useful to focus the mind. It wears off after a few hours so it is best used when you plan to be productive. Like any psychoactive drug, you should observe its effects and manage the dose.  If you have an intense 8 to 5 schedule, taking it every workday may be best.  You may find it helps you manage responsibilities but doesn’t feel good.  Sometimes there’s a trade-off between feeling good and doing good.
14. Some people concentrate better when hearing or seeing rather than writing. Visual images like pictures, doodles, diagrams, or mind maps may work better. Here is where a white board can be great. You may like an audio channel and record your voice or a meeting to play back later. You can leave yourself notes on voice mail.
15. Plan some exercise everyday. It’s good for you, clears the mind and reduces stress.

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PHOTOGRAPHY AND ART

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We’ve heard a lot about how the advent of photography impacted the world of painters. Now 150 years after the invention of the film camera I think we have adapted to the camera to the point that many artists use both photography and paint. The two media have cross-fertilized.

I began my artistic explorations with a camera. In fact I had never set foot in an art museum. That could undoubtedly be said for the majority of today’s iPhone picture snappers. So even as photography had co-opted the artist’s role as recorder of people and events, it has empowered the masses to begin to see the world in artistic terms. Prior to the camera, very few people could become skilled in representing reality on a surface. In my case I learned a lot about light, color, depth and composition by shooting pictures. And many of the principles discussed in photography magazines were developed over the ages by master painters.

Now the motivation to create a lasting image must be similar for the painter and photographer. I’ve often felt that making a picture was an attempt to capture something interesting or beautiful, fixing it for all time. For the abstract artist that something would be more from a fleeting imagination, now made permanent and unchanging. Like renaissance painting, photography began by making accurate representations of people and events. And like painting, photography has grown to embrace the creative and abstract.

Imagine painting without a camera. Every painting would have to be in vivo, en plein aire, with live model, etc. The ephemeral photo is indispensable for many of us. As a model, it can sit there for many hours or weeks without aging, moving, darkening or changing. One must be alert to the limitations of painting from photos. The camera has only one eye where our two are better at perceiving depth. Painting on a flat surface is also like having one eye and artists have developed various tricks to imply depth. Both film and digital photography cannot register the range of color and value that the eyes can. And likewise paint cannot reproduce emitted light, like the sun or TV screen, only reflected light. The artist must then be fully aware of media and consciously manipulate it, be it paint or digital, creating an image that cannot be real but must be stimulating to the mind.

One might argue that there is something more organic in painting from real life, that the camera interposes a machine between the artist and the scene. The camera itself cannot take in a full panorama, nor can it smell, hear, or interact with a model. But hold, I’m being too petty as paint and brush are as inanimate as the camera. Photographers work in milliseconds and must be hyper-alert for that right moment. Painters can take more time. More in tune with modern reality, the photographer will grab and run, where the painter is more contemplative.

Photography is akin to printmaking as it is designed to make multiple, even endless, reproductions. So painting still holds that vaunted position of being the “one and only”. Still photography, like the industrial age that spawned it, challenges the artist to seek inspiration rather than repetition.

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