Archive for November, 2007
my life is mirrored in
a morning Glory.
–Arakida Moritake (1473-1549, member of the Shinto priesthood)
Making art is such an adventure. Yesterday at the etching studio I thought my plates were complete but when I printed I was surprised that the images needed so much more work (see draft print below). It’s hard to know until you print, like a mystery unfolding.
Today at the ceramics studio one of my pieces was out of the kiln and ready for glazing. Once you fire your glazed piece there is very little you can do to change it. It’s scary & I’ve heard many people say they always ruin their pieces in the glazing. Glazing requires a blind leap of faith. So much can happen over which artist has no control: Dripping, interesting or unpleasant interactions of color or texture.
This illustrates one of the ways in which art is a spiritual path. In glazing, the artist must face fear. If this is done with consciousness and the intention to grow, the act of glazing is an act of spiritual transformation. By facing fear, it is released and then there is more space within the artist to hold and transmit the Light.
Needs must I tear them out,” the peacock cried,
“These gorgeous plumes which only tempt my pride?”
Of all his talents let the fool beware:
Mad for the bait, he never sees the snare.
Harness to fear of God thy strength and skill,
Else there’s no bane so deadly as free-will.
The most moving thing for me in Grey’s The Mission of Art is his absolute insistence that artists have a responsibility to the Light. The art we create has impact and artists must choose whether to add to the darkness in the world or to increase it’s luminosity. Grey believes that an artist cannot produce works of light if they do not choose the light in their own lives and I agree. No one is perfect, but the intention to do right and be a source of good in the world counts even if we don’t always succeed.
Speaking to the artist Grey says:
It is your responsibility to find the ways your visions can positively influence individuals and your culture…The mere process of fixing imagery onto surfaces or forms does not ensure spiritual development. It is the intention and awareness from which artists create that determine whether their work will serve mammon, ego or spirit. (p. 218)
I love that. It is our responsibility. In our culture we have lost sight of our greater responsibilities to humanity and the Earth in favor of consumerism and greed. This reminds me of the many mystical visions recorded throughout time where the Divine gives the mystic a task to be done in the world, for example Hildegarde of Bingen. These visions have personal meaning for the mystic, but they also offer a greater message for humanity. The experience of the Divine, must not be controlled or secreted away. It is our charge to be a doorway for the Light, our source, to enter into his wold.
Truly, we have no other reason than to serve the Light because this Light is really our Self anyway. Every moment we fight this reality we waste our life force and we call upon darkness. How much easier it is to surrender to our true calling, to pluck the peacock feather as Rumi says, and serve. Artists are blessed with a unique opportunity because art can reach the spirit without engaging the mind and our egos. Art can effect deep and meaningful spiritual evolution in the world.
So I started & finished Alex Grey’s The Mission of Art today. I was very impressed. He really understands art as a spiritual path and articulates well the mystical experience inherent is creation. In fact I have been completely converted to Grey’s work as an artist.
Grey’s work is so luminous it’s almost difficult for me to look at sometimes. Strangely, I’ve always considered him as part of the school of realism. His work has that quality even though he depicts the spiritual body and in his book he often references Michelangelo as inspiration. I’m not too fond of realism although I appreciate the skill needed to do it. But I’ve misjudged. Grey’s work is more like the Islamic Illuminated borders I’ve worked on (See image on left- an authentic 18th cent. Arabic illuminated page). It embodies sacred geometry. When the mind engages with sacred geometry it is elevated and expanded in a particular way. It engages us without going through the feeling body. Much of western art is about emotion and the heart. It is a more Eastern approach to spirituality to travel to God through the Divine mind. Grey’s work engages us in a mystical experience even if our emotions miss it our spiritual body does not.
I must say I am wowed by the possibility Grey’s book & work present of healing and transforming humanity through art. This has always been my own desire and unspoken goal. I think it takes great courage to articulate such a lofty goal. I’ll have more posts coming up about this book once I’ve digested it a bit more…
The act of creation is by its very nature an imitation of the Divine. The artist is the microcosmic reflection of the Macrocosm. Knowing this lays a beautiful yoke upon the artist forcing them to seek Light. It is a yoke that, if we knew our true Selves, would already have been accepted without question.
Everything that is created in this world comes from the Divine Womb. To create the artist must access this uncreated well which gives birth to Being and Light. Therefore act of creation is itself and act of Light. To be successful as artists we have to choose Light in everything we do to secure our own creativity. This doesn’t mean the superficial avoidance of anger, pain or sadness because this avoidance is actually darkness. The Light artists must seek is found only by embracing chaos, by diving into pain and sorrow in order to emerge in the Womb. This Light is the complete surrender of self to the yoke of the Divine (and I don’t mean religion). Without this surrender God seems cruel and unforgiving; with it the Divine becomes the fecund well that nourishes the artist without ceasing.
The goal of the spiritual artist is to be the microcosm of the Creator. As written by Rabindranath Tagore about above and below:
This song of mine will wind its music around you, my child, like the fond arms of love.
This song of mine will touch your forehead like a kiss of blessing.
When you are alone it will sit by your side and whisper in your ear, when you are in a crowd it will fence you about with aloofness.
My song will be like a pair of wings to your dreams, it will transport your heart to the verge of the unknown.
It will be like the faithful star overhead when dark night is over your road.
My song will sit in the pupils of your eyes, and will carry your sight into the heart of things.
And when my voice is silent in death, my song will speak in your living heart.
The Divine stream of creativity which flows into this world is the milk of life. It is nourishment. Art can heal; art can transform; art can nourish and succor the world. As artists, it is our choice to make.
I’ve decided to expand my reading list. I’m never going to abandon the succor of the medieval mystics, but I just ordered a dozen books by and on modern & contemporary spiritual artists. The first to arrive is Alex Grey’s The Mission of Art. Grey is an interesting artist who charts the spiritual energies of the human body in a very technical way (see image on right). His work has value and power, but much of it seems very cerebral and controlled. I don’t believe God can be controlled so I am excited to see what he has to say. I’ll report promptly, but for now, he begins his book with this amazing quote from Beethoven:
There is no loftier mission than to approach the Godhead nearer than other people, and to disseminate the divine rays among humanity.
Beethoven’s work is so clearly suffused with the Divine. However, I’ve always questioned the metaphor of traveling nearer to the Godhead. The early Kabbalists used this idea interestingly. They meditated on the chariot of Ezekiel to make the mystical ascent to God. I guess because I suffer from over thinking this metaphor, beautiful as it is, engages my brain too much. I would rather say removing the veils or polishing the mirror to reflect the Divine more clearly. How’s that for cheek- arguing with a genius!
The Moonlight Sonata
Mechthild of Magdeburg is a 13th century mystic. I love this poem she wrote:
Of heavenly things God has shown me
I can speak but a little word,
Not more than a honey-bee
Can carry away on its foot
From an overflowing jar.
This is the goal of the spiritual artist to harvest the tiniest drop from an overflowing jar.
I seem to have Meister Eckhart on the brain lately. I came across this quote from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams & I’m sure Eckhart would love it.
The Babel fish,” said The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy quietly, “is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe… if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language … “Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindboggingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
“The argument goes something like this: ‘I refuse to prove that I exist,’ says God, ‘for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.’ “‘But,’ says Man, ‘The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.’ “‘Oh dear,’ says God, ‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly vanished in a puff of logic.
This is Eckhart’s call to release “God” to find God, the Via Negativa. I love it because writers on spirituality often forget about fun. We tend to get serious very quickly!
Actually, as strange as it sounds, reading Adams as a kid was my first introduction to spirituality. Even though I am descended from a long line of spiritual ancestors, on one side Elder William Brewster and a slew of Baptist ministers & missionaries and on the other some solid Catholic stock, I was raised with no religious or spiritual guidance at all. When I read Adams’ idea of “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things,” it blew my mind because I instantly knew it was true. I didn’t have a name for it yet but I felt the connection. It was only later I discovered that connection is God.
Sometimes when I get in my head too much (which is often!) I have trouble working. I get disconnected from my materials and the physical world. When this happens, I like to read the poet Theodore Roethke. His poems are so grounded in the beauty and processes of the natural word. Everything about them is connecting from their imagery to their rhythmic pulse. One of my favorite Roethke poems is the root cellar. Try reading it out loud.
The Root Cellar
Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.
I believe this is a depiction of a womb, the hidden process of creation. The manure & etc. are the blocks we must transform into fertile ground to produce healthy work. I just adore this poem.
I’ve been thinking about a comment Gartenfische left on my post exploring St. Francis’ early illness about pain being a constant, but suffering being a choice. What makes us suffer over some things and not others?
I have a condition called scleroderma which has caused my hands to contract almost into fists. However, I don’t suffer over it at all. In fact the only time I ever think of it is when people stare. On the other hand, I suffer greatly with my menstrual cycle but only for a few hours a month. The first thing effects everything I do and yet doesn’t move me, the second effects me a few hours a month and takes a huge toll.
I have to ask why? And, then, I will have to ask what I need to polish within myself to clear the way for God. My attachment to suffering is like dirt on a mirror. It keeps me from fully reflecting my Source in my life and through my art.
So there are 8 minutes left in Thanksgiving. Every year I find it funny how uncomfortable everyone seems with giving thanks. Even suggesting we go around the table and say something we are grateful for elicits groans and muttering. Honestly, I can’t understand it. We have so much in this country.
A couple years ago we instituted “gratefulness” training in our house. I call it training because it’s surprising how hard it can be to focus on what is good in life. This is what we do: each night during diner, we go around the table and say three things that made us happy during the day, three things we have to be grateful for. We are not allowed to judge or comment on other people’s things, we just listen. Guests are given the choice to participate or not. So far everyone has joined in.
Some days, it feels like a herculean task to come up with even one thing. But when you force yourself you discover there really are things to be grateful for even on the worst days- the beauty of a tree, a smile from your child, the taste of tea in the morning. The many things in life to be grateful for are easy to miss if you are not looking. Thanksgiving is a day which reminds us to look.
What does this have to do with art? Everything because making art is an act of gratitude.
There is an interesting article on Between about the Futurist Art movement and spirituality. It focuses mainly on the image content. This article has made me think I am guilty of discounting visual content too much. I honestly don’t believe it is the imagery that makes a piece spiritual, but certain images do have powerful spiritual content. They act like doors to access archetypal spiritual energies. I think this is particularly true of people who are not consciously on a spiritual path; religious images act as a signposts directing them more deeply into the Spirit.
There are certain images that cannot fail to move me, regardless of how they are painted, for instance, depictions of the Virgin Mary… Every Mary I see strengthens my feeling of Divine connection. There is one painting of Mary which particularly dear me (see this blog’s sidebar). Why is a topic for another post, but the painting itself is no masterpiece. Yet this image never fails to cause my heart to leap. I have the same reaction to certain mandala pieces. I think I must go back to the very basic alchemical tenet: “As above, so below.” Images can echo the Divine, mirror them imperfectly. But I would still say a truer and deeper measure of a work of art’s spiritual nature, is to be found in the artist’s process, not the artist’s product.
Today is Meister Eckhart appreciation day! Meister Eckhart is a 14th century German mystic. A Domincan Friar, who was extremely controversial in his time even being tried for heresy. He is a true Neo-Platonist, who see God as fundamentally creative, overflowing ceaselessly with life. Much of Eckhart’s work focuses on the via negativa- finding the Divine in absence. He points us always to the state of pre-being, of Nothingness, which births forth Being.
Sometimes I have spoken of a light that is uncreated and not capable of creation and that is in the soul. I always mention this light in my sermons; and this same light comprehends God without medium, uncovered, naked, as he is in himself; and this comprehension is understood as happening when birth takes place. (pg. 198)
This “uncreated light” is the womb of God. Eckhart tells us that it is within each of our soul’s. If, as artists, we can connect with this deepest place within us, our creative process will resonate with the Divine. For more click here.
I just ran across this wonderful quote from one of my favorite filmmakers Andrey Tarkovsky on the creative blog in effigy.
Devoid of spirituality, art carries its own tragedy within it. For even to recognize the spiritual vacuum of the times in which he lives, the artist must have specific qualities of wisdom and understanding. The true artist always serves immortality, striving to immortalize the world and man within the world. Andrey Tarkovsky: Sculpting in Time
I love this. Even film making can be a spiritual discipline.
Following up on yesterday’s post about the sacred in contemporary art, I’d like to say a few words about alchemy. Ancient alchemists sought to turn base metals such as lead into gold. But many people fail to realize that gold was not the main goal of their endeavors. A key tenet of alchemy is found in this phrase from the Emerald Tablet: “As above, so below”: the microcosm reflects the Macrocosm. By effecting change on a physical level, alchemists believed they were creating a corresponding change in their souls. The search to transmute or “perfect” matter into gold was really the search to perfect their own spiritual natures.
The alchemist and the spiritual artist are kindred spirits. We work through matter, whether it be clay, paint, or video, just as the alchemists did. We both change and transform matter, perfect it, to align with our visions. And finally, like the alchemists, it is our engagement with the material world that grounds us and gives us the ability to enter deeper into the Divine and be transformed ourselves.
For more on alchemy check out the Alchemy Website. It is an amazing resource!