The above image was captured at Stinson Beach, California on the night of the winter solstice.
When clouds are slivery grey, lying low, I feel introspective. When they are wispy thin like delicate paintbrush strokes, moved calmly by a whispering wind, I feel dreamily contemplative. When the sky is speckled with billowy, fluffy white forms drifting playfully, fantasy floats into my mind. When the sky turns dark with thick looming masses, I am infused with crazed energy. And, on clear, blue-sky days where the sun beams powerful brilliant rays upon me, even though I bask in the warmth and a happy-go-lucky-naught-a-worry-in-the-world glow, I miss the divine afflatus in the clouds. Inspiration, for me, is more easily evoked in a cloudy day.
The artist Vik Muniz, who creates illusionary forms from dust, chocolate, or even garbage, must also believe that a blue-sky day needs a voluminous drifting white puff to loft our spirits. He put a smile on the sunny New York City sky in the form of a cloud. For his 2001 Creative Time project he ‘drew’ clouds in the sky creating vaporous joy, then capturing the transient moments in photographs.
Preceding his Creative Time project, in 1993 he created a series of cloud like forms from cotton, including the below image of praying hands imaginatively referencing the spiritual; perhaps as angels drifting skyward bringing one nearer to heaven or bringing visionary form to the formless as in the Sambhogakaya realm of Vajrayana Buddhism, beckoning one to the goodness within oneself.
Clouds transform landscape and are nature’s most elusive realm. Serving as an awakening for living in the present, confirming that this moment, now, will never come again-take notice. All is malleable; everything is in a constant state of change. What was the past is only a memory, fleeting and altering, like a cloud transforming shapes from a face to a fish, sometimes a serpent, or a rose before my eyes until the wind carries the airy illusion away. Diaphanous clouds metaphorically nod to life’s permutations and impermanence. One need only beckon the natural world to remind us, it is here, right now, that we must pay attention, because in a flash it changes. The present beauty, the present experience, whether joy or sorrow, is evanescent.
Another contemporary artist, Jim Hodges, has been both inspired and daunted by nature’s most elusive realm. He once stated that he missed living amid the closed in caverns of New York City’s towering buildings, and that living up in the Hudson Valley, with its broad, open expanse was “too much vastness and sky”. Even so, those skies brought forth from him great art. Was he paying tribute to nature’s beauty or subconsciously condemning nature for being the master of beauty that no artist can replicate? In one immense piece, Untitled (One Day It All Comes True), 2013, he dramatically recreated a majestic cloudy sky with swaths of denim. In another, Untitled (Scratched Sky, I), 2011, he slashed his photograph of cloudy Hudson Valley skies, gesturally lashing out at nature’s exalting beauty.
Joseph Mallord William Turner and John Constable arguably may be the most well-known painters of clouds. Turner’s famous mood altering paintings hold an almost divine illumination. They are masterpieces in color and light, calling upon passion in the viewer and inspiring future Impressionistic and Abstract art.
Constable, on the other hand, was known to be obsessed with meteorology. His ‘sky sketches’ were untitled but offered descriptives of the natural weather conditions, such as, “morning under sun-clouds silvery grey, on warm ground sultry. Light wind to the SW fine all day-but rain in the night following.” His cloud paintings were done as studies to hone his painterly skills and represent the shape of looking, a visual truth, while also being aesthetically appealing. Today these works are considered finished paintings, examples of texture, color, and atmosphere, capturing for many dreamy illusions.
Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes’s paintings from the late 1700s, whose landscapes are more skyscapes may have inspired both Turner and Constable. The scale of the diffusive clouds in relation to land serve as visual signals to call to mind the humility of self.
Artist Joseph Wright’s dramatic painting Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples, circa 1766, renders fantasy, dreams, and Surrealism. Wright captures nature’s dominating power on canvas, the human presence in Landscape, Storm is both diminutive and barely discernible; its appeal as a reminder to what is mortal in us is essential in life’s temporality. Clouds are signs of motion and metaphors of instability.
Wright’s painting brings to my mind a work by Ken Fandell, a contemporary artist who merges science and art in unsettling illusions, Days and Nights, Dawns and Dusks, North and South, East and West, Mine and Yours, 2008. It is dizzying to look upon it, similarly vertiginous as gazing up at a Tiepolo ceiling. Like Constable, Fandell’s sky photos began as a simple exercise in photographing, transforming into a visual diaristic demarcation of time, and evolved into a Surrealistic, mesmerizing, disorientating collage of the sky from hundreds of PhotoShopped digital frames.
Clouds have been muses for inspiration to poets, painters, and great philosophers throughout the ages. Several artists in visual and literary form, before and since the 18th century, including Milton, Thoreau, Whitman, and also Shakespeare pondered, studied, and attempted to capture form from the clouds pregnant with perpetual change.
In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, after Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium and nearing his death, says to Eros:
Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world,
And mock our eyes with air.
Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra (IV, xii, 2-7)
Arousing visions of Eros, The Metropolitan Museum of Art describes the Indian ink, watercolor, and gold drawing Andhrayaki Ragini: Folio from a ragamala series (Garland of Musical Modes) ca. 1710. with amorous illumination. “Within the palace interior a lady reclines on her bed, restlessly pulling her hair in frustration at the absence of her lover. Her maids are outside, sheltering themselves with their saris from a great thunderstorm that fills the sky. The dark swirling clouds are riven by bolts of lightening. The drama of the storm serves as a metaphor for the turmoil of love.”
I am continually guided by words from Henry David Thoreau. In an excerpt from his journal, dated 01-June-1852 he expressively contemplates the evening’s transience form…
“The sounds I hear by the bridge: the midsummer frog (I think it is not the toad), the nighthawk, crickets, the peetweet (it is early), the hum of the for-bugs, and the whip-poor-will. The boys are coming home from fishing, for the river is down at last. The moving clouds are the drama of the moonlight nights, and the never-failing entertainment of the nightly travelers. You can never foretell the fate of the moon,-whether she will prevail over or be obscured by the clouds half an hour hence. The traveler’s sympathy with the moon makes the drama of the shifting clouds interesting. The fate of the moon will disappoint all expectations. Her own light creates shadows in the coming (advancing) clouds, and exaggerates her destiny. I do not perceive much warmth in the rocks.”
Amongst the many exaltations to honor mood forming clouds, I must include John Milton who coined the phrase ‘silver lining’ in Comus (A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634).
I see ye visibly, and now believe
That he, the Supreme Good, to whom all things ill
Are but as slavish officers of vengeance,
Would send a glistening guardian, if need were
To keep my life and honor unassailed.
Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night?
I did not err; there does a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night,
And casts a gleam over this tufted grove.
Thus, I know why I am summoned by the clouds-I believe in silver linings.