Beside The River

paro-riverBy the time it came to the edge of the Forest the stream had grown up, so that it was        almost a river, and being grown up, it did not run and jump and sparkle as it used to do when it was younger, but moved more slowly. For it knew now where it was going and it said to itself, “there is no hurry. We shall get there someday.” – A.A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner

Many of us grew up with the tales of Winnie the Pooh, and have relived the stories with our children. There is an ageless wisdom from the characters living at Pooh Corner. I thought of Winnie the Pooh sitting beside the Tassajara Creek. I thought of the simplicity, yet not simpleness, of Rabbit, Piglet, Pooh, and Roo playing the game of “Pooh Sticks” as I tossed two twigs into the creek and watched as the current carried them downstream. It didn’t matter which stick went faster–they will float downstream together for a while, then they may go their separate ways. They will reach their destination, someday, and perhaps meet again in the vast blue sea.

I came to Tassajara Zen Monastery in the Ventana National Wilderness to practice walking meditation and to deepen my meditation in nature. In my hut next to the creek, I woke each morning and drifted into sleep each night listening to the water babbling, constant and calming, like a mantra. During the day, I wandered alongside the creek watching it leap over round rocks and fall down larger boulders. The water deepened my understanding that everything is connected and each of us–my fellow retreaters, the Zen leader, and the Monks living at Tassajara–is alone and yet together, connected: a passing smile along the path, soaking in the hot springs with a calm mind, attending to the current of daily life cleaning, cooking, and caring for the property, or sitting as still as a stone in silence together. We create ripples; we share energy. Being there amongst monks in a working monastery, the importance of ritual made sense to me as I began to embrace the purposefulness of Zen practice. I realize how each person is a part of the whole community; together they sit in silence and together they flow in breath and unity. The creek taught me how all matter leaves traces and that we all influence each other. I realized our interconnectedness with nature.

tass-creek

From rivers we learn to observe the flux and change of our world both internally and externally. Everything changes, all is in flux, and we cannot stop the current of change—therefore, embrace it. “No man ever steps in the same river twice for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” stated Heraclitus.

The rain and snow melt runs down the hills and through the plains into rivulets, brooks, creeks, streams, and majestic rivers flowing into the vast blue seas. The water sometimes runs swiftly, crashing with forceful energy into boulders, pounding the rocks into new formations, eventually breaking them down into sediment. At other times, it drifts at a gentle pace, smoothly gliding over the rocks and boulders, creating a mirror to the sky and trees along the way as it travels downstream. In return, the rocks change the flow of the river. Big boulders form walls creating deep pools, scattered boulders create mini waterfalls in the river’s rapids and a fallen tree limb may provide a restful eddy for upstream swimmers where the water curls into a bend along the shore. Its energy and rhythm changes, sculpting with its continuous flow. Whether fast or slow, it carves into the landscape, flexing and shifting the banks creating a new path from the past and a new one for the future. I wonder, do I change like the river, broadening and deepening?

This leads me to think of a poem by David Whyte, “Where Many Rivers Meet”.

All the water below came from above.
All the clouds living in the mountains gave it to the rivers
who gave it to the sea, which was their dying.

And so I float on cloud become water,
central sea surrounded by white mountains,
the water salt, once fresh,
clouds fall and stream rush, tree root and tide bank
leading to the river’s mouths.

And the mouths of the rivers sing into the sea,
the stories buried in the mountains
give out into the sea
and the sea remembers
and sings back
from the depths
where nothing is forgotten.

Stories of history flow down a river, from exploration to settlement, to trade and transport, to life and death. Water is the lifeblood of our earth. From the Nile, the Amazon, the Euphrates, the Thames, the Colorado, the Mekong, and to the Sacred Headwaters in Canada, around the globe rivers have inspired timeless symbolisms and metaphors. Each river as it winds through the landscape plays a part of human history. In his stirring ode to nature, Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote, “The land and sea, the animals, fishes, and birds the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers are not small themes.” And many a writer, poet, musician, and artist has extolled on this theme to reveal both personal and universal meaningfulness to life.

The poet Langston Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” as an insightful young man with an old soul telling the interconnected story of rivers he had never traveled on yet sharing the interconnectedness they held for him. This poem reflects on ancient rivers, holding a depth of history older than civilization. These four important rivers of the world were important in human existence; they not only provided passageways for people traveling but also served to traffic humans in slavery from Asia to Africa to America. The lyrical lines in Hughes’ poem flows like the water.

I’ve known rivers
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world
and older than the flow of blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Mary Oliver in her poem “Of What Surrounds Me” sings the praises of the essential presence of nature to inspire her poetics,

Whatever it is I am saying, I always
need a leaf or a flower, if not an
entire field. As for sky, I am so wildly
in love with each day’s intentions, cool blue
or cat gray or full
of the ships of clouds, I simply can’t
say whatever it is I am saying without
at least one skyful. That leaves water, a
creek, or a well, river or ocean, it has to be
there. For the heart to be there. For the pen
to be poised. For the idea to come.

Looking towards visual artists, they too sourced from rivers to create art that shares both a singular resonance as well as timeless messages. From the river they found creative inspiration akin to spiritualism, a sense of identity, nationalism, and union with nature.

sunny-morning-on-the-hudson-river-1827-jpglarge

Thomas Cole journeyed up the Hudson River from New York City to Catskill; enthralled by the natural beauty, he painted sketches along the route just as today, passengers taking the Hudson-bound Metro-North train are inspired by the same beauty to snap images of the scenery on their smartphones. Cole’s documentation of the changing light reflected in the wide, watery surface gained popularity and began an artistic movement known as the Hudson River School, which celebrated the splendor of nature as a spiritual renewal. Sunny Morning On The Hudson River (1827) is one example of his paintings in which he romanticizes the sublime American wilderness and the tamed pastoral farmlands by the river. Focusing on the ominous dark mountain, the stark leafless tree, and the windblown limbs of the sparsely leafed tree creates drama depicting a merciless danger within nature’s throes, while at the same time he shows movement in the wispy fog and clouds which offer a sense of passing of the tumultuous weather. There is a promise of peacefulness in the oncoming sunny skies illuminating the river beyond, surrounded by tranquil pastures. Weather, like the river below, constantly changing, constantly flowing.

German artist Andreas Gursky, in his photograph, Rhine II (1999), shows the Rhine from nostalgia. Recreating the river landscape, he allows the viewer to imagine an idyll: a serene, surreal landscape without trees, buildings, or the effects of urbanization. He manipulates the photograph to create an abstract, minimalistic, painterly image with texture and tone. The Rhine River, to many, is associated with German nationalism. Rhineland is a pseudonym for Germany, and Gursky’s Rhine II, with its horizontal stripes of sky, grass, and river could serve as a national flag.

The Rhine II 1999 by Andreas Gursky born 1955Andreas Gursky, Rhine II (1999) c-print. image courtesy of http://www.tate.org

Anselm Kiefer, also a German artist historically considers the Rhine with a nod towards melancholy, in relation to Germany’s history and identity. With dark ash like marks his drawing Der Rhein (1982) reveals the Rhine through an ominous forest of charred, leafless trees, a devastation of the German landscape, ruins from the era of the Third Reich. For both artists, the Rhine holds importance as symbolic in German history, culture and identity.

der-rheinAnselm Keifer, Der Rhein (The Rhine) 1982. woodcut and ink on paper mounted on canvas. image courtesy of SFMOMA

Olafur Eliasson captured on film the entire 100-kilometer length of the Markarfljot River in Iceland as it winds through mountainous glaciers and broadens, spilling out on the plains until mixes in with he waters of the Atlantic ocean in The Aerial River Series (2000). Eliasson’s photographic series reads more as a study documenting a place before time changes its course. One could say it was a sketch leading to his Riverbed sculpture in 2014, where he brought nature into the gallery, recreating a river with snakelike curves, boulders, and stepping stones. It has a direct link to the Earthworks movement (which I discuss in this essay), particularly Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room (1977). Often when looking at a painting, I wonder, what might it be like to enter into the painting; with Riverbed, the viewer is required to enter the art. The viewer, in fact, is a part of the landscape. Yet, what is Eliasson aiming at? I consider the artwork a critique on how one experiences nature in the world, and how man has altered both nature and wilderness. Is going to a manmade manicured park experiencing nature any more authentic than going to a museum and wandering alongside a riverbed?

river-seriesOluar Eliasson, The Aerial River Series, 2000. image courtesy SFMOMA

en-louisiana-dkOlufar Eliasson, Riverbed 2014. image courtesy of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (www.en.louisiana.dk)

Susan Derges created photograms of water’s movement and form by submerging large sheets of photographic paper into rivers, using the night sky as a darkroom and the moon and a flashlight for exposure. Within these still images, she apprehends an almost ghostlike effect, the trace of a life within the river that remains as a palimpsest. These photograms capture the dynamic, imaginative, and magical word of nature.

danzinger-gallery

Susan Derges, Waxing Moon, 2013 30X17 inch digital c-print. image courtesy of Danzinger Gallery

Two British artists, Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy, are both considered part of the Earthworks art movement in which the intention is to use material from nature (mud, stone, water, twigs, leaves) to create impermanent sculptures that depend upon earth’s elements to decompose and alter the artwork. Ideally, these works are made site-specific or outside the traditional gallery setting. Richard Long paints on walls using his hands in place of a paintbrush and mud sourced from the Avon River in lieu of paint. The Avon River runs through Bristol, his childhood home; perhaps with each new rendition he is performing a ritual to memorialize his origins, leaving traces behind of his past along with the traces of history residing in the sediment.

richard-longRichard Long, image courtesy of pinterest.

Similarly, there is a form of ritual in his performance and subsequent art piece, A Hundred Mile Walk (1971-72). In this interactional performance within nature, he documents in photograph and words things seen and thoughts evoked while walking a circuitous route along a river in Dartmoor, England. His art is a true discourse between the artist and nature, he records his perceptions, both internal thoughts and external sounds, for example, “In and out the sound of rivers over familiar stepping stones” (Day 5)

hundred-mileRichard Long, A Hundred Mile Walk, 1972. offset printing on paper

Andy Goldsworthy (not unlike Pooh and his pals) gathers leaves, makes ropes or chains from them, and sends them adrift in rivers floating downstream creating a chain that ebbs and flows with the current and eventually dissipates, each leaf eventually going its own journey to the sea. For Goldswothy, nature is his material and he recognizes there is no perfect beyond nature, yet he works with that ideal form to create his manmade ‘natural’ object. This, too, he knows will be reformed and changed by nature. Within hours, perhaps, days, his work leaves little to no trace. In the end, nature claims the process of the artist to change its form. Both artists in their own way express beauty in the certainty of impermanence and, in their manner, a performance or ritual with nature.

goldsworthyHazel leaves each stitched together to the next with grass stalks gently pulled by the river out of a rock pool floating downstream low water. SCAUR WATER, DUMFRIESSHIRE 5 June 1991. Andy Goldsworthy

Albert Einstein advised to “look deep within nature and then you will understand everything.” These artists, in word and image, reveal varied and multiple meanings, metaphors that sprung from observation of brooks, creeks, and rivers. We are reminded of history, of letting go, going with the flow, and allowing everything to drift on by.

Returning to Tassajara, while there I read a Zen proverb about two monks and a woman by a river.

t-creek

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side.

The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.

Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on his 
journey.

The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them.

Two more hours passed, then three, finally the younger monk could contain himself no longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not permitted to touch a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?”

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As I sat by the creek watching the two twigs drift downstream, I let go of my thoughts, allowing them to drift away. By letting go of the thoughts from the past and planning for the future, we can better be (inter)connected with the world around us. Most importantly, we should be mindful of the present. What we contribute to the flowing waters have an effect on what is downstream just as those who contributed to the waters upstream affect where we stand now. River time is now time, the water flows by, and each moment drifts by with it. Be with it.

Enya, The River Sings video

Head, heart, and soul in the Clouds

Sun veiled by Northwest Clouds

Cloudy day with veiled sun and humid gleam of light over Puget Sound

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.

Foreboding clouds over Puget Sound
Foreboding clouds over Puget Sound

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.

image courtesy of www.creativetime.org
image courtesy of http://www.creativetime.org

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.

Vik Muniz, Durer's Praying Hands, 1993. image courtesy of www.artarchives.net
Vik Muniz, Durer’s Praying Hands, 1993. image courtesy of http://www.artarchives.net

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.

Jim Hodges, Untitled (One Day It All Comes True), 2013.
Jim Hodges, Untitled (One Day It All Comes True), 2013.
Jim Hodges, Untitled (Scratched Sky, 1) 2011. image courtesy of www.gladstonegallery.com
Jim Hodges, Untitled (Scratched Sky, 1) 2011.
image courtesy of http://www.gladstonegallery.com

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.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775-1851. Inverary Pier, Loch Fyne: Morning. ca.1845
Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775-1851. Inverary Pier, Loch Fyne: Morning. ca.1845

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.

John Constable, Cloud Study, ca. 1822. image courtesy of www.collections.frick.org
John Constable, Cloud Study, ca. 1822. image courtesy of http://www.collections.frick.org

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.

Valenciennes's  A Rome: Etude de ciel de Nuages, ca. 1778-86. image courtesy of www.fr.muzeo.com
Valenciennes’s A Rome: Etude de ciel de Nuages, ca. 1778-86. image courtesy of http://www.fr.muzeo.com
Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, Landscape, Storm, ca.1817. image courtesy of www.bbc.co.uk
Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, Landscape, Storm, ca.1817. image courtesy of http://www.bbc.co.uk

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.

Joseph Wright, Vesuvius in Eruption with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples, ca.1776-80. image courtesy of www.tate.uk.org
Joseph Wright, Vesuvius in Eruption with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples, ca.1776-80.
image courtesy of http://www.tate.uk.org

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.

image courtesy of www.tonywightgallery.com
image courtesy of http://www.tonywightgallery.com

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.”

image courtesy of www.metmuseum.org
image courtesy of http://www.metmuseum.org

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.

drama of the moonlit cloud over a St. Lucia night
drama of the moonlit cloud over a St. Lucia night

Listen to Silence

Is silence golden? When I imagine silence I don’t see gold. I more likely see black or even white. How does one visualize silence? And, why do certain images come to signify silence?

Silence is conceptual. Even though, as composer/artist John Cage stated, “There is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound.” And he sought to prove this in his 1952 performance 4’33”. In fact, pure silence is not obtainable or feasible; even though, we often sense it, feel it, and maybe even see it.

John Cage, 4'33" (In Proportional Notation), 1952/1953. image courtesy of www.moma.org
John Cage, 4’33” (In Proportional Notation), 1952/1953. image courtesy of http://www.moma.org

With a constant bombardment of noise–data, images, gossip, news, opinions (including blogs like mine)–hurling at us on our computers and smart phones, silence is precious, like time.  I, again, quote Cage: “There is no such thing as an empty space or empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”

Silence thus is stillness, calmness. Silence is not necessarily a lack of sound as it is a cultivation of interior peacefulness, a stilled and quieted soul. Silence is the sound of breath. Silence is the sound of the wind, the sound of nature. Silence is an undisturbed, singular focus and complete absorption into something in the present moment.

How does an artist capture the concept of Silence?  How does one depict in an image or object the essence of silence? The artist must produce a ‘void’, a feeling, a resonating, a relation to language, something dialectical.

see-no-evil-hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil
image courtesy of http://www.allposters.com

The 1980s Pop artist, Keith Haring, loudly proclaimed a political sound to silence. Influenced by the ancient Japanese philosophy of the three wise monkeys which commonly portray that seeing and saying nothing is virtuous, Haring counters that belief by stating its opposite in a work from 1989: Ignorance = Fear / Silence = Death.

Keith Haring, Ignorance, 1989.
Keith Haring, “Ignorance=Fear”, 1989. image courtesy of http://www.haring.com

Also politically charged, Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair (1971), a series of 10 silkscreen prints, stages a bleak, empty electric chair in his usual colorful Pop Art fashion. While some see profound silence and emptiness, I hear an echo that radiates of protest, pain, and a dispiriting atmosphere of power instilling hopelessness in the name of justice. Both artists relate silence to death, the former illustrating that by keeping silent you are an accomplice to death and the latter depicting, although ambiguously taking a stand, that capitol punishment shall provide the ultimate silencing of the contrarian, nefarious voice. Yet, even death cannot silence. Through memory and art–the recording of a life–the deceased are not silenced.

Andy Warhol, "Electric Chair", 1971.
Andy Warhol, “Electric Chair”, 1971.
Andy Warhol, "Electric Chair", 1971. image courtesy of www.propofs.com
Andy Warhol, “Electric Chair”, 1971. image courtesy of http://www.propofs.com

Silence can be unsettling. Most surely you have felt that pregnant pause or an awkward silence. Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona, an artistic psychological thriller, bares the angst-ridden and mentally tormenting aspects of the act of silence. Marina Abramovic’s performance art channels that same psychologically unsettling feeling, such as in her 1974 work titled Rhythm 0. For six hours she stood silently in a gallery space while an audience of participants chose from a variety of objects ranging from a feather to a loaded gun in which to taunt her out of silence. This performance illustrated both the committed passive/aggressive action by the artist to remain silent, and the audience members reacting from their inner desires (or demons) in response to her silence. Less disturbing, Abramavic performed The Artist is Present in 2010 at MOMA, where she sat face-to-face with a rotation of participants in a silent stare-off. Some say silence is a void. Contrarily, Silence is a presence.

Meditation, mindfulness, and Silence are actions. With attention and focus, one cultivates inner silence, blocking out both exterior and interior noise. In Kimsooja’s videos A Needle Woman (1999-2001/ 2005), A Beggar Woman (2001) and Homeless Woman (2001), all political and peaceful, the artist is seen standing still and silent amidst a sea of people hustling hurriedly down a crowded city street, or lying in a quiet, meditative state amongst crowds of curious onlookers. Watching her videos, I consciously stop; I am present experiencing an almost existential feeling. I, as a spectator become still, mimicking Kimsooja. I completely absorb the moment, not distracted, quietly contemplating and awakening to the beauty of her silence, becoming aware of how inattentive many of us are to those around us as we rush to and fro, day to day.

If Silence is not golden can it be beautiful? Shea Hembrey captures the concept of silence by summoning the beauty of silence–the softness, lightness, and calm—on canvas and in sculpture.

Shea Hembrey, "Dark Rain III", 2012.
Shea Hembrey, “Dark Rain III”, 2012.

With painterly bravado, Hembrey’s series, When Eyes Are Closed (2012), illuminates what we see when we close our eyes in the night, in the daylight, or in a room with artificial light where dark, light and thought can seep in. These paintings capture the silence when shutting out the world to our inner thoughts. In his canvases we can see, remember, the moments when, if we try, we shut off our mind to the noise of even our inner thoughts into a state of meditation.

Shea Hembrey, "Font", 2013.
Shea Hembrey, “Font” detail, 2013.
Shea Hembrey, "Font", 2013.
Shea Hembrey, “Font”, 2013.

Hembrey’s voluminous sculpture made from feathers, Font (2013), captures how I would imagine silence would feel if I were able to touch it. I imagine a calmness of sinking onto or into his feathery sculpture where all else around or inside me rests. I envision a stray feather, shed unawares from a bird flying past, floating down from the sky (in the case of Hembrey’s Font, a mass of feathers from a passing flock). Hush (2013), a smaller sculpture made from hundreds of butterfly wings, withholds the silent sound of fluttering butterfly wings. In form resembling a Chinese scholar stone, an image to inspire dream-like contemplation.

For some silence may be golden; for me, silence is the between; it is essential. Seek silence in art, in nature, in your day-to-day by simply noticing the clock ticking, the whir of your computer’s static energy, the noise of a distant siren, your breath. Be still and notice the silence in the midst.

Shea Hembrey, "Hush", 2013.
Shea Hembrey, “Hush”, 2013.

Thoreau’s Wisdom

 

I often look to the trees as symbols of life. I see them as wise, in their presence I am reminded of my humbleness. They are sanctuaries and shelter for humans, birds, squirrels, snakes, insects, frogs, and so many more creatures. They tower to the skies as beacons of strength, providing shade, oxygen, and a place for rest to leopards and koalas. As a child, when I would climb up a tree, I felt a sense of adventure, and safety, and solitude, and power that no other place on earth has or can equal. I hope these words from Henry David Thoreau inspire and guide you into the new year.

Bainbridge Island tree

Thoreau’s Journal: 30-Dec-1851

Walden Pond tree

This afternoon, being on Fair Haven Hill, I heard the sound of a saw, and soon after from the Cliff saw two men sawing down a noble pine beneath, about forty rods off. I resolved to watch it till it fell, the last of a dozen or more which were left when the forest was cut and for fifteen years have waved in solitary majesty over the sprout-land. I saw them like beavers or insects gnawing at the trunk of this noble tree, the diminutive manikins with their cross-cut saw which could scarcely span it. It towered up a hundred feet as I afterward found by measurement, one of the tallest probably in the township and straight as an arrow, but slanting a little toward the hillside, its top seen against the frozen river and the hills of Conantum. I watch closely to see when it begins to move. Now the sawers stop, and with an axe open it a little on the side toward which it leans, that it may break the faster. And now their saw goes again. Now surely it is going; it is inclined one quarter of the quadrant, and, breathless, I expect its crashing fall. But no, I was mistaken; it has not moved an inch; it stands at the same angle as at first. It is fifteen minutes yet to its fall. Still its branches wave in the wind, as it were destined to stand for a century, and the wind soughs through its needles as of yore; it is still a forest tree, the most majestic tree that waves over Musketaquid. The silvery sheen of the sunlight is reflected from its needles; it still affords an inaccessible crotch for the squirrel’s nest; not a lichen has forsaken its mast-like stem, its raking mast,—the hill is the hulk. Now, now’s the moment! The manikins at its base are fleeing from their crime. They have dropped the guilty saw and axe. How slowly and majestic it starts! as it were only swayed by a summer breeze, and would return without a sigh to its location in the air. And now it fans the hillside with its fall, and it lies down to its bed in the valley, from which it is never to rise, as softly as a feather, folding its green mantle about it like a warrior, as if, tired of standing, it embraced the earth with silent joy, returning its elements to the dust again. But hark! there you only saw, but did not hear. There now comes up a deafening crash to these rocks , advertising you that even trees do not die without a groan. It rushes to embrace the earth, and mingle its elements with the dust. And now all is still once more and forever, both to eye and ear.

I went down and measured it. It was about four feet in diameter where it was sawed, about one hundred feet long. Before I had reached it the axemen had already divested it of its branches. Its gracefully spreading top was a perfect wreck on the hillside as if it had been made of glass, and the tender cones of one year’s growth upon its summit appealed in vain and too late to the mercy of the chopper. Already he has measured it with his axe, and marked off the mill-logs it will make. And the space it occupied in upper air is vacant for the next two centuries. It is lumber. He has laid waste the air. When the fish hawk in the spring revisits the banks of the Musketaquid, he will circle in vain to find his accustomed perch, and the hen-hawk will mourn for the pines lofty enough to protect her brood. A plant which it has taken two centuries to perfect, rising by slow stages into the heavens, has this afternoon ceased to exist. Its sapling top had expanded to this January thaw as the forerunner of summers to come. Why does not the village bell sound a knell? I hear no knell tolled. I see no procession of mourners in the streets, or the woodland aisles. The squirrel has leaped to another tree; the hawk has circled further off, and has now settled upon a new eyrie, but the woodman is preparing [to] lay his axe at the root of that also.Flanders trees

Image: Rodney Graham, Flanders Trees, 1993, courtesy of http://www.artnet.com

Our world would be upside down without trees. Today, look up to the treetops and be inspired to grow.

Take Me to the Water

JWM Turner, “Two Seascapes” circa 1820-30. image courtesy of http://www.tate.org

Summertime, sunny skies, and warm weather all of these lead me to water. They trigger my desire to plunge into a cool lake or a frigid stream, float down a lazy river, or surf the ocean waves.

Vija Celmin, “Untitled ( (Big Sea #1)” 1969, graphite on acrylic ground on paper. image courtesy of  www.hammer.ucla.edu

Vija Celmin’s ocean surface drawing with no point of reference, horizon, or depth of field, captures the magnetism and infinitude of the water’s perpetual movement. Celmin meticulously draws how the light of the sky creates shadows and illuminations on the waves. She has said that she could continue, forever, recreating the waves, maneuvering the drawings ever so slightly allowing her subconscious to seep into them. A friend, who is also an artist, exclaimed to me, while art is often emotive, inspiring, and transformative—nature is always powerfully awe striking and magnificent.

Herman Melville begins Moby Dick expatiating upon the lure of the sea.

“Right and left, the streets take you waterward…Look at the crowds of water-gazers there…What do you see?–Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries…But look! Here are more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive…Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues–north, east, south, and west…Once more. Say, you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries–stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region.”

Jorge Mendez Blake creates ‘Literary Monuments’ which are conceptual memorials or homages to favorite authors. In The Melville Monument, the artist made “editions” of Moby Dick in which the only text in these books are of the Melville’s original 350 sentences pertaining to the word ‘sea’. Mendez Blake then drew a scene of the sea, placing all his created materials on a book shelf making a ‘sea scape’ in homage to Melville.

Jorge Mendez Blake, The Melville Monument, 2012. image courtesy of www.galeriaomr.com
Jorge Mendez Blake, The Melville Monument, 2012. image courtesy of http://www.galeriaomr.com

Hiroshi Sugimoto, “Sea of Japan”1997. image courtesy of http://www.c4gallery.com

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s seascape photographs possess a tonal richness with an expanded palette of grays, whites, and blacks. They can be seen as abstract paintings of water and air. Patience and time allow for Sugimoto to capture his moments with nature. He has said that he will spend at least one week and sometimes three weeks witnessing the sea and sky to record his homage to nature. His seascape photographs encourage the viewer to pause, as does the stillness of a calm sea or serene mountain lake. This photograph of the Sea of Japan particularly brings the viewer to a Zen-like state. Sugimoto has said, “Every time I view the sea, I feel a sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home; I embark on a voyage of seeing.”

Robert Longo, “(study for) Gotterdammerung”, charcoal and ink on mylar, 2004. image courtesy of http://www.christies.com

While one artist sees the sea as security, another sees it as dangerous. Robert Longo, using charcoal on mounted paper did a series of wave drawings aptly titled “Monsters”. In his art Longo often looks to images of power and authority. He captures the forcible ark of the moment before the wave crashes, an expression of reverence towards nature’s authority.

I, too, feel the magnetic pull toward water. Looking out at the sea, meditatively (and again, I quote Melville, “…as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”) watching the constant motion of waves gently roll in or thunderously crash onto the shore presents both calmness and an awareness of danger. Looking out on the vast ocean offers a sense of infinite freedom, yet also, an acknowledgement of how vulnerable we are, a realization of the force of nature, and a fear of life being overcome by the powerful, great ocean.

I consider the pendulum of my moods from tumultuous to serene while standing at the edge of the sea, where the waves rush in around my feet and then sweep back into the ocean. If I keep my eye on the sea, I can keep my balance standing in the shifting sand as the tide rolls in and out without being swept away or knocked down. But I must keep alert to the waves and readjust as the sand shifts beneath my feet to keep my balance. I must never turn my back to the sea or I could be caught by surprise from an incoming wave.

This is how I must navigate and remain steady. I must keep my balance by looking at what is coming at me (the ebbs and flows, the highs and lows, the joy and pain) and by readjusting when the ground from which I am standing shifts.

James McNeill Whistler, “Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville” 1865. image courtesy of http://www.gardnermuseum.org

James McNeill Whistler’s painted Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville while studying with Gustave Courbet and indeed the figure in the painting is Courbet. His use of thin veils of soft palettes of color to paint the expanse of sea, sky, and sand suggest a quiet calmness while the colors in the sky and sea reveal shifts of light in the water and sky, which foretells the constantly changing elements, which elicits changing emotions that come and go like the tides and the winds.