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
John Cage, 4’33” (In Proportional Notation), 1952/1953. image courtesy of

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.

image courtesy of

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

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
Andy Warhol, “Electric Chair”, 1971. image courtesy of

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

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

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

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
Jorge Mendez Blake, The Melville Monument, 2012. image courtesy of

Hiroshi Sugimoto, “Sea of Japan”1997. image courtesy of

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

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

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.