Spiritual Art

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Plato claimed that we are drawn to some higher reality of which we see only darkly, and St Augustine spoke of the god-shaped void in man.  In my pursuit of art I have gradually realized that some inner urge or inspiration directs my choices of painting.  “Concept Art” elaborated on this, saying that art is in this seminal idea and not in the execution.  George Inness said “The true artistic impulse is divine.”

I’m sure you’ve asked, “Why am I here?”, “What is my purpose?” “What should I do with my life?” I’ve probably spent some hours searching for an idea for a painting, for a purpose in your art.  My point is that our art is an attempt to transcend the daily grind of reality and logic and to experience that god-shaped void.  I’ve discovered that the fundamental spiritual question is “What is the nature of god?” Likewise, oft asked, “What is art?” challenges us to contemplate the essence of existence.  You may have found that there are an infinite number of answers to these questions, all of them true.

When we discuss painting, we usually refer to techniques and execution.  Rarely do we speak of the original impulse which is more difficult to describe.  This impulse reveals itself in two extremes and everything in between.  One artist is spontaneously smearing, the other meticulously detailing.  Which is the true artist? Regarding the spiritual path, there are those involved in charismatic or meditative practices, others concerned with the interpretation of law.  The Tao resolves this paradox by acknowledging both – the ying and yang.  There is no right way to be an artist, or a person for that matter.

We each have our own spiritual path and personal inspiration. There are infinite revelations to be found – the beauty of nature, the sacred in everyday life, exhalted ideals, the delicacy and colors of flowers, the harsh reality of city streets. Each artist is inspired by his or her private muse.

How do we describe spirituality?  What are the signs – devotion, ecstasy, love, mental discipline, inspiration, purposeful behavior.  How like the practice of art.  When painting I often feel that I could just as easily be composing a hymn, prayer or poem to the beloved subject. Studying the Masters is akin to studying the lives of saints, each revealing a different face of god.

In gothic times, biblical stories were exhaulted to better tell the good news.  During the renaissance, the artist allowed one to feel really present in the scene.  As men gained more control of their environment, they paid homage to great events, persons and principles. Leonardo devoted himself to a feminine smile.  Some artists were devoted to the rich and powerful, gaining esteem as courteurs.  Others, like Goya, David, Millet, Henri, etc. began to protest the inherent unfairness of a class system and to honor the common man.

Impressionism was arguably the great awakening in art, mirroring changes in society.  No longer was the artist ruled by the upperclass but was free to stand alone as an annointed prophet. God was to be found outside church, as Asher Durand wrote, ” I do not attend the church service the better to indulge reflection unrestrained under the high canopy of heaven.”  This freedom found the ultimate expression in modernism where the artist’s inner impulse and the audience’s immediate impressions are celebrated. For Pollack his inspiration came from the non-verbal subconscious.  Yet modernism is a cloistered practice and unintentionally excludes the average viewer.  We could go on and on, and that’s what makes the study of art so amazing, enlightening, revealing.

If god is at work in history, he is revealing himself in more individual, free and unique ways, the better for each one to experience goodness.  If you indulge in art or some creative activity,  wherever you are on the path, whatever your personality, you are part of a grand and transcendental tradition.  Whether it be the crayon mark of a child or the feather touch of Leonardo, it is your creation, your communion with the divine.  Someone may look at your work and be transported to a different place, see something they haven’t seen.  It’s like you have pointed your finger at something (or no-thing) and said, “look here!” And they will look and see your god emerging from the plane.

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Nature in the Catskills, NY

A trip to the Catskills is a trip back in time, both historically and naturally. The natural beauty of the area has drawn people to visit up the Hudson River from New York City since the early 1800’s. The wide and sow moving river is fed by many streams which cut through steep gorges of hard rock, creating many dramatic cliffs and outcroppings. The wetness of the area contributes to a lush deciduous forest and undergrowth which is turning shades of yellow, orange and red for my visit.

The centerpiece for all this splendor is Kaaterskill stream with it’s multiple falls and fed by a scenic lake. A surprising geographic feature is that the Hudson is walled on the west by sheer cliffs which give the falls their dramatic vertical drop. A nice double lake feeds the falls and is fed in turn by the hills beyond. These falls and views of the forested mountains and river were the draw for artists of the 1800’s, some of whom set up studios nearby. They painted many landscapes of the area and became known as the Hudson River School. Their landscapes were intended as a testimony of God’s majesty in nature and a protest against the growing exploitation of the region by pioneers and industrial commerce. These paintings were all the rage in New York until the Impressionists pushed them into obscurity.

Today the Hudson River has been cleaned up and various parcels preserved. Roads in the area follow their ancient meanderings and speak names from early days of the nation like — sleepy hollow, game farm, red brick school, mountain house, mossy hill, stoney brook, rip van winkle. Sadly, few ancient names remain such as — Cohotate, Oneonta, Onteora. Wooden houses are mostly sprinkled throughout the forested region and mostly hidden from view except those along the major paved roads.

I spent some time sitting by the Hudson at the riverpark in Athens NY and admired the broad slow-rolling river and thought of “Old Man River” just keeps rollin along. I imagine natives traveling in their canoes, frontiersmen in boats or rafts, later paddlewheel steamers carrying goods and resources up and down to the newly developed towns and cities. In an age of trucks and airplanes, we forget that rivers were once the freeways of the land. Traveling overland through forests and over canyons could be arduous and winding, whereas rivers are smooth. And rivers and streams are made of that miraculous compound, water. The three critical ingredients of life are water, air and sun. If there’s anything sacred it should be these.

I’ve also been thinking about small towns like Catskill or Athens, which seem to be dying because commerce has centralized to a few locations connected by planes and trucks. It would be a much better quality of life if we lived in smaller communities rather than disconnected suburbs. Nature’s grand design is set up that way with each biosphere supporting itself and interacting with the next. What is it with “bigger and more is better?”

I spent a day hiking along the cliffs which face the Kaaterskill falls and the Hudson. Getting back to nature is always worthwhile and makes me wonder at the wisdom of human progress. When hiking in such lush surroundings, each step, each glance is a revelation, a devotion, a prayer, an inspiration. I watched an insect dancing around on a brook and wondered what he was doing there. It’s impossible to describe in words or pictures the view of the wonderful rocks, trees, moss, brooks, lakes, streams, vistas, etc. An artist (forget who) once said, “You can’t paint reality, only suggest it”
lake_church3s sunset_rock13s

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A SONG FOR YOU – From Song to Picture

One day I had the bright idea of combining my two loves – music and art.  A number of famous artists have expressed musical themes in art, Kandinsky for example; however his “visual music” leaves me puzzled.  At one time I tried to translate the musical scales and chords into related colors.  And that didn’t add up either. I’m not one for seeing colors in music although there are those who report having that gift.

Then I realized that my favorite song titles could suggest paintings. So consider using song, movie or book titles as springboards for visual images.  This opens up possibilities of imagination and abstraction which may not arise when copying a photograph or reproducing an actual subject.  Given my love of jazz and swing, I made a list of my favorite tunes.  Some of them suggested specific images, others more abstract.  For example, “Seven Steps to Heaven” may suggest a bright light with a stairway or perhaps a series of colors resolving in pure white, or even a mountain scene.  “Song for My Father” suggested farms, pickups and tractors.  Using this method you can go totally from imagination or borrow from reference photos. My painting of “Moonlight Serenade” is attached below.

Many songs tell a story, e.g. “Butterfly Kisses”.  So you can approach this like a stage designer who builds a visual scene around the story.  As you recall, the past masters often illustrated biblical, historical or mythological stories. And it’s an exciting challenge to our creativity to recreate a known event in art.  Think of David’s “Marat” or Goya’s “May Third”.

How often do you find yourself scratching around for a catchy title for a piece.  Well, that’s because a bowl of fruit may be just that.  I’m suggesting you start with the title and let your imagination take a trip from there.  Voila! Clever title ready made! Do you need some help?  For fun, let’s expand the idea to any title in music, film, theater, or books — like artistic charades.  Here are some provocative titles.  See what images come to mind — “Gone with the Wind”, “Les Miserables”, “Autumn in New York”, “My Favorite Things,” The Glass Menagerie”, “A Foggy Day”, “Music of the Night”, “Casablanca”, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, “The National Anthem”..

As John Lenon said, “Imagine.”  Something may come “Out of Nowhere”.

moonlight_serenade13s

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Quotations About Art

Image“Art happens – no hovel is safe from it, no prince can depend on it, the greatest intelligence cannot bring it about.”  JAM Whistler

” The vast majority of English folk cannot and will not consider a picture as a picture, apart from any story which it may be supposed to tell.” JAM Whistler

“A true consevationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers but borrowed from his children”  J J Audubon

“One’s art goes only as far and as deep as your love.” Andrew Wyeth

‘What you see is what you see.”  Frand Stella

“You can be watching TV and see CocaCola and you know that the President drinks coke, Liz Taylor drinks coke and just think you can drink coke too.” Andy Warhol

“Copy first the works of God, then the works of Turner.”  Edward Lear

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” Aristotle

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple,  that’s creativity.” Charles Mingus

“Look at nature, work independently, and solve you own problems.” Winslow Homer

“The marble not yet carved can hold the form of every thought the greatest artist has.”
Michelangelo

“My line is childlike, but not childish.  It is very difficult to fake.” Cy Twombly

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”  Pablo Picasso

“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” Pablo Picasso

“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”  Leonardo da Vinci

“Art is never finished, only abandoned” Leonardo Da Vinci

“It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.” Vincent van Gogh

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Edgar Degas

There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.” Mark Rothko

“Every good painter paints what he is.” Jackson Pollock

“A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.”  Goethe

“If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” Edward Hopper

“Creativity takes courage. ”Henri Matisse

“The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.” Robert Henri

“Great art picks up where nature ends.”  Marc Chagall

Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.”  Martin Luther King, Jr.

“And now, I’m just trying to change the world, one sequin at a time.”Lady Gaga

“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” Pablo Picasso

“I was very pleased when I discovered that sunlight cannot be reporduced but that it must be represented by something else – by color”. Cezanne

“You must suggest to me reality – you can never show me reality.” George Inness
“The true artistic impulse is divine”.  George Inness

“The true use of art is, first, to cultivate the artists own spiritual nature, and, second, to enter as a factor in general civilization.”  George Inness

‘I do not attend the church service the better to indulge reflection unrestrained under the high canopy of heaven.” Asher Durand

“That is a fine picture which at once takes possession of you – draws you into it.  You traverse it, breathe its atmosphere, feel its sunshine and you repose in its shade without thinking of its design or execution, effect or color.” Asher Durand

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God and Evolution

ImageI have tried for years to reconcile the concepts of god and evolution, and its seems natural for there to be a tension anytime there is a duality like this.  I have spent time trying to live in both camps, dividing my attention between the two.  Maybe you never thought much about this issue, or maybe you just positioned yourself with your friends on one side or the other. If so, I’ll apologize for being either boring or disturbing. I think I have finally realized there is a grand theory that unites evolution/science and religion.  To consider this communion requires carefully defining God and demoting the authority of many biblical texts.

When I grasped the full meaning of evolution, it was akin to a conversion.  Let me summarize.  Evolution explains with physical evidence where man came from and how he came to be like he is, in detail, with proof.  Once genetic evidence was discovered, it became clear that we contain the historical evidence of all of life from it’s beginning. The Bible goes back about 5000 years; my genes have chapters written 3 million or more years ago.  All living things share a genetic essence, just as all matter shares atoms.  So there is transcendence in nature as in religion. Sadly, evolution cannot console the individual.  There is no one looking out for me in it.  Evolution doesn’t care about my welfare only about my contribution to the gene pool by reproducing.  Considering mankind in evolution, there is a rarely acknowedged reality that man and all creation are still in the process of evolving. Logically, man will not be the same in the future. The definition of a new species is “one that can no longer reporduce with it’s ancestor”.

Turning to religion, there are common themes in religions which include ideas of eternity and one’s place in it.  Also there is a creator who is everywhere, including dwelling in each person in some form. There is right and wrong behavior which doesn’t reference an individual’s will but some higher good.  It is commonly believed that one continues a life after death. And just to show you how even-handed I am, I also had a relgious conversion, became born-again, heard voices.  Much of it was connected to a realization that I was part of something grand as opposed to banging around on my own. So it is possible to line up the tenets of religion and evolution and find some striking similarities, similar ideas under different names. They are both seeking some higher good for mankind, some common mission and suggest some tranformation is in the works. Where it gets difficult is when considering specific doctrines of individual religions;  for example miracles, walking on water, virgin birth, emaculate conception, disappearing/reappearing, and all those claims where the laws of nature are violated. I’m afraid I have to let most of them them go as exaggerations for a good effect, like in the movies.

To reconcile science and religion, one must reinterpret these miracuclous events as metaphors.  And under the sacred principle of science, one should also be willing to conceive that some day an explanation for these miracles may be proven.  One must also relinquish the idea that God will intervene in my life in a specific way according to my known needs and wishes.  This is not altogether foreign to religion as one may be advised that sometimes God answers prayer with “no”.  But this also resolves the dilemma about god allowing bad things to happen, one of the rocks on which many faithful have been shipwrecked.  One  reading of the old testament, makes it clear that god makes the rules and does not break them for individuals.  To reconcile one must also consider that man may not aways be the favored species in the universe or that our will may not please god.

Getting to my main point, there is a set of priciples that evolution is founded on. First, evolution abides by all the known physical laws of nature. One of the debates in evolutionary thinking is whether evolution has a direction or is truly random.  I chose to say there is a direction because when you analyse the outcomes of evolution it clearly favors certain qualities such as prolific reproduction, efficient use of resources, inspired behavior, resilliance to disease or harm, complex organizations, and creation of new forms. So if you extrapolate from the present into the future, you can imagine how a more perfect being might look.  If evolution includes the creation of the inanimate physical universe, which I believe, then the laws which constructed the universe also predestined life and all life forms.  This sounds like a grand plan or intelligent design.

Plato suggested that there is an ultimate “form” or “idea” toward which we are attracted and that form is perfect, where we are not.  He said we only have vague notions of this higher reality.  I have to stop here as I don’t know much Plato.  A more recent psychologist, Abraham Maslow, taught that “self actualization” was a higher priciple that drew men through various stages of development to a higher plain.  He described this state as being free from worldly concerns, acting beyond the normal laws of society, the absense of striving, dedication to universal good.  This idea is present in all religions and all people. Even those who strive for fame and fortune at the expense of others often reach a point of rededicating their energy to universal goals such as art, education, hunger. This doesn’t mean that science and religion are going to be comfortable in bed together; but they are joined at the heart and it is a great joy to embrace them both.

I conclude by inference that there is definitly “something out/in there” and we haven’t arrived there yet, may never. How can there be proof of god, if we can only partly observe him/it? Probably no proof of god in our present state of being.  Even science needs imagination to hypothesize the next theory. Looking at the theories of physics and astronomy, I am startled by their wild explanations. Many feel the same about evolution, beyond my comprehension. It’s probable that on this earth only humans have the cognitive power to have religion and science.  I that case evolution has created a state where our species can contemplate something higher, more abstract, universal, eternal.  Does our cognition hold the key to the advancement of evolution?  Humans have to a great extent conquered and manipulated nature to where our beliefs and intentions may be guiding the next evolutionary process. What we believe, affects our behavior (maybe) and then we change the environment, which in turn alters the conditions of the next evolutionary adaptation.  Starting to sound like “Will the circle be unbroken?”

Scientifically the vote is still out whether our species will propagate further or will wither away as a blind alley.  Science predicts catastroophe; business/politics fight back with keep it the same. It’s possible that rats and cockroaches are closer to that higher form which evolution seeks and which resembles god.  The strictly random evolutionary position would say that we may just be an oddity in the great mess and all our beliefs to the contrary are just mutual admiration, that nature doesn’t need our philosophy, our self contemplation.  Some even argue that there is no choice or free will, that those notions are simply ways our minds entertain us. I don’t think the random evolution view is valid, although many things seem random, This issue goes deeper than I’m prepared to go. I feel and believe there is a direction because of the progress I perceive over history,

I started this writing thinking I could explain the unity of religion and science. Hope I did.  Now I realize that I’ve arrived at the existential revelation.  One can only chose what to believe.  Most people chose to believe in the “higher power” form.  Most people continue to strive for more of something.  Evolution shows evidence of progress. But why are things so hard?  If we have all these talents and resources and 2000 years of practice, why are things still so screwed up?

Well, looking deep enough at self or others, reveals there’s something terribly wrong with the human race.  We all have it but don’t know it.  Like having HIV before they discovered the culprit, like sitting in Plato’s cave and watching the world as shadows on the wall. Many of us chose to ignore the flaw.  Ignoring doesn’t make it go away; it just means that the causes of one’s problems would be unknown.  Others name it and blame some group or system.  In so doing they give different facets of the devil, but are unable to find it’s core. Many boogymen come to mind–The Devil, corporate greed, socialism, child abusers, criminals, my childhood.

It’s like a genetic flaw,or original sin.  I’ll call it “the flaw”.  Can we individually or as a species, fix this flaw?  First, our perception of it is warped by its active presense; like the virus in a computer, it lurks unknown in the memory and tweeks the ongoing processes.  Secondly, each of us, seeing only a piece of the taget, we flail out against it in many directions, causing a fair amount of collateral damage.

So, can it be fixed?  Can mankind engineer or evolve or attain a higher form that would rise above our sin?  Here’s where religion reeps a great harvest by giving an air tight answer to that question.  The answer is “NO”, not wihout sustantially altering the laws of physics or by dying.  Now, wow!, religion and science are finally heading in the same direction, but different languages.  Maybe god IS trying to tell us something.
The scientist is saying we could genetically or bionically alter ourselves and enhance the species. So we would engineer or cultivate our successor, and “human” as we know it would be a sub-spiecies, or an ancestor. So the flaw would be reduced or eliminated in successive generations. Religion says salvation happens at the end of the (known) world, or when someone assends to a transcendental plane. Either by science of religion, there would need to be a “singularity”, an unpredicted transcendental event.

How does one live with the awareness of the flaw which I can’t see but am confronted with it’s effects quite frequently.  It’s like boxing in the pitchdark with and opponent with night vision. One can live in hope that someday a solution will be found; meanwhile muddle through. As said before, one can ignore the issue. One can also do knightly battle with those windmills, thinking them to be giants. Indeed it is impossible to not-find someone who is unrewardedly driven toward/away to/from something they perceive as prescious or contemptable.

So, I have looked into the existence of something that draws us to it’s perfection and something that repulses us by it’s chaos.  Both “somethings” have one meaning, that the answer is in transformation. Transform our genes.  Transform our culture. Transform our consciousness.  Transform our planet. The scientist is altering in one dimension and the religious is altering another. In the end they will both survive together and continue to live on in the new transformed state.  (This is getting pretty abstract and ho hum, how does this affecet me?)

So break it down, “Don’t worry so much about the rewards and punishments”; they’re just keeping each other company.  “Treat everyone as you would be treated”.  That’s a hard enough job.

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Art and Exploring Your Inner World

Art, Retirement and the Inner World–
We’ve all heard about and probably experienced first hand how retirment signals a major life change.  Full retirement is as psychologically challenging as leaving  home was in the early years. When I retired I could think of nothing but starting a new career, something to give life meaning and purpose.  The best advice for retirees is to remain active, join clubs, volunteer, take classes, exercise, be connected.  In many ways this is an attempt to preserve our dignity, to give meaning to life after work. However these activities may distract us from the opportunity to experience freedom and to explore our inner world.  Involvement in the arts is one way that folks can bridge the need for structure and purpose with the heretofor neglected inner self.  
Let’s note that art is often constrained by one’s health and income.  Many are not as fortunate to have a secure income and good health in retirement.  In fact many cannot retire until health problems demand.  How may older artists do you know who are continually struggling with pain, medical appoitments, surgeries, recovery, etc.  Furthermore many seniors are living on a very restricted income and are challenged to pay living expenses. It’s not hard to see how this inteferes with ones devotion to art.  
Yet there are numerous examples of great artists who were challenged by health or income and continued to produce in spite of hardship.  I explain this by saying these masters became committed or obsessed early on with the inner world, the creative world, the world of their own creation.  In fact the masters share this one trait, a singe minded dedication to their art which overrides personal discomfort and other priorities.  
Herein is my point.  Though most of us don’t presume to be famous or exceptional, we can take inspiration from whose who show you don’t have to be having a good day to express your inner creativity.  Munch, Matisse, Van Gogh, many others come to mind. Retirement is a great time to explore this inner world.  Aging will eventually rob us of our external world and abilities, so I say it’s time to get self-centered, “slip the surly bonds earth”, and play with paint!

10 Steps to Unlock the Inner World with Art

When discussing the inner world, you can only talk around it.  It’s like the negative space in our lives.  Have you noticed how your persona changes when you shift from a subject to the background? The subject ties us to reality but the background is infinite. The inner world doesn’t have a calendar or list of rules. But how to escape these rules?  There are a number of good books on the subject but I will offer here my own gardening tips for freeing your creativity.
1. Paint during your prime time, not after all your chores are done!  
2. Recognize imitation.  Immitation is not bad; it can be very instructive and fun.  The desire to copy something beautiful is a form of reverence.  However it is rooted in the obsessive perfectionistic mind and will stifle the inner world.
3. Recognize your inner critic and practice saying “thank you for that hurtful thought”. How many times have you admired someone’s work to have them only criticise it?  
4. Practice saying “yes”, and “good” as you work.
5. Listening to music can help unlock a creative impulse.  
6. Make time to play with paint with no subject.  
7. You must “waste” materials.  Expect to throw away experimental work.   
8. Practice mindful moments of expanded awareness outside your habitual pursuits. Some might experience this in prayer.  I find this hard to do by command or plan but it helps to break the habit by going someplace new and sitting alone until something pops up.  Bring along a sketch pad. Plein air sessions are also good opportunities.  
9. While I’m on the subject, have the sketch pad on hand wherever you go.  There are often unexpected waiting periods when anything can happen.  
10. Now, if you’re really crazy about art, you can do contour drawings, even expand them into finished works! I won’t go into the instructions but you can read “Drawing on the Right Side of The Brain” and get the full deal.  In short, contour drawing is drawing without looking at your hand.  It results in a very abstract image, and will neutralize your perfectionism (or drive you carzy).  

Be prepared to get no compliments for your inner world work.  You may wish to keep this work private.  However you may be surprised to find some great paitings as a result and certainly some fulfilling experiences. 

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self portrait

self portrait

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