A Passion-Driven Life

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For the last two days I’ve been reading three books on Caravaggio, his life and art. Peter Robb‘s biography is wonderful. He has done his research of available information about the Italian Baroque painter (I don’t think he did anything other than oil painting). Much of his information comes from court archives in Rome and the other places where Merisi had lived (his name Caravaggio comes from the town where his family and family’s patron lived near Milan). Despite myself I think I’m learning about portraiture without even having started to wield a brush!

And I am learning even more about desire and passion and how fundamentally the lives we live are what passion and desire cause us to live! We pride ourselves on choice but I think we’re largely in the control of forces bigger than us. Maybe we can call it God but I prefer not to. It’s not a force or power that is localized enough to have a name. It’s simply the sum total of all the forces, physical and spiritual, that govern everything in a time-and-space-constrained universe. To personalize this totality is to miss the point. There is no point at all!

I have also been reading an old favorite I’d almost completely forgotten, the Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima. He was my entrée into modern Japanese culture before I became interested in Zen and Shinto. His work was considered avant-garde but on hindsight to me it is simply modernism! Like reading Robb (who’s Australian but writing about sixteenth century Italy), reading Mishima I re-imagine Japan in 1912 – before World War I – and get a sense of the Japanese spirit that led to the fateful WWII that had such an impact on the Philippines, America and the world. Mishima was a man who lived his life as art. He committed seppuko after the last novel of his tetralogy, Sea of Fertility, was finished – a complicated human being!

Tonight I downloaded the printer profiles for Costco’s printers. I read a bit about device and computer color calibration. I should know this stuff but I learn a bit then forget. Which is why I think I’ll really only do real work when I’ve found my group or like-minded artists – a shared studio space! I do some of my profoundest thinking alone and in the depths of night but need intercourse – need to have the sharing with other artists and intellectuals for the ideas to bear fruit. After all what is productivity but just ideas turned to action – thought bearing fruit?

Then, too, after years of not even trying, I want to see about finding new friends, maybe even a special person to share life with. Crazy? Yes, but that’s just the way life goes. Up and down, to the left, to the right, but somehow never really going far from the straight and narrow. The apple, they say, never falls far from the apple tree.

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Learning and Breaking Rules

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I went on a docent-led tour at the museum this afternoon. The topic: artists bending the rules.

The docent was a seventy-year-old woman with marked arthritis of the spine. To turn to look at something she had to turn her whole body; her neck  was frozen. She has not allowed her body’s aging limitations to keep her away from her love for art.

One painting that we looked at showed a variety of brush strokes, a variety of ways of applying paint. Much of the area of the painting was laid down with a full brush, the paint thick on the canvas, dripping before drying; a few areas were flat and matte and these surprisingly effectively punctuated the work.

Many pieces that Hilda featured on her tour were huge pieces for public spaces. In this they were like the huge works Renaissance art patrons commissioned for churches and palaces in Florence, Padua, and Venice. Many of these works were executed by American women artists. I found myself thinking how modern art might be called post-modern. Through the centuries, artists gradually learned to give their one-dimensional paintings the illusion of three dimensions. Modern artists, on the other hand, knowing  well enough how to add depth and perspective intentionally create flat images, subvert conventions about light, volume and media, and on the whole create thrilling experiences for us who are inured to reality TV and mobile-device games.

Art, whether in photography or other visual media, often shows the extraordinary effort taken by the artist to create it. One video installation showed the artist trekking through sun-baked mudflat with his Fresno glass scorching lines on the earth. What an intrepid imagination! But doing this under the blazing sun for two days is artistic effort.

The museum currently displays Ai Weiwei’s latest works. One installation memorializes the death of thousands of Chinese schoolchildren in Sichuan after an earthquake. Weiwei collected steel rebars from the collapsed schoolhouses, straightened and heaped them on the floor to create undulating lines of shuddering earth. A database of victims’ names with their dates of birth covered the whole of one wall, a tape recording of hundreds of people softly speaking each victim’s name. Art uses circumstances like tragedy to fire up the creative process.

Art seems to require an organic connection to an actual object or event that the artist transforms through his vision into its equivalent, the equivalent no longer constrained to its figurative representation but presented in the artist’s own artistic vocabulary. While artists before the 19th century worked to try to capture verisimilitudes of reality, modern artists use reality as a springboard to release their own creativity to represent the energy of that reality.

To appreciate modern art one has to cultivate one’s own capacity to listen to our own inner voices, see with our own inner eye, feel what the artist feels that we experience the artist’s experience in our own language. This link to an actual object, an actual event, an actual voice or sound or feeling seems necessary to bound the artist that he does not wander in structureless space. The artist’s native culture or cultures that he acquires of necessity add shape to his work and the sum of these and many other dynamisms pour into the final product: a piece of articulate, articulating art.

Maybe because I’ve come to art so late in life I like experimenting with lights, lines and hues. Someday, maybe when I’m the docent’s age, I may find my own rebar vocabulary. Meanwhile I’ll enjoy discovering art’s rules and breaking them when I need to in the service of creating something fresh and new.

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In Search of Spring

It is nearly one Monday morning. I spent the afternoon at the art museum in search of the wild flowers that this time of the year begin to make their secretive appearance in the nooks and crannies of the museum grounds. Since I spent the evening processing some of the photos I took instead of doing tutorials that I know I should be doing, instead of writing much I am sharing these photos. 
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This is a view of the main museum building housing the galleries on three floors, my favorite the contemporary arts galleries.
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This is the mansion of J. K. Lilly who owned the extensive grounds on either side of the White River before he donated it all to the museum then housed at the Herron School of Art downtown.
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This is a view of the landscape between the mansion and the stream that was incorporated into the canal system running behind the museum.
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This is a view of the arches beneath the outdoor terrace of the mansion, overlooking the river.
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These are Lenten roses, Helleborus, one of the earliest blooms to come up in the spring. The flowers are four inches from the ground so I had to shoot with the camera basically resting on the ground.
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These are very fragrant flowers on a small tree behind the greenhouse. I know most of the flowering trees and shrubs in Indiana but these are so much earlier than the usual fruit trees like cherries, almonds and apples. I don’t know what they are!
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Finally, the flowers that for many people signify spring – daffodils! These white-and-yellow flowers I call narcissus although both names are synonyms but when they have white petals I associate them with Narcissus, the Greek handsome youth who fell in love with his own reflection in the clear water and could not move away so he pined away and died, unable to tear himself from his beloved.
And that’s my first excursion in search of spring – on the grounds of the art museum.
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Perfume from a Locked Room

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I was going to the gym this evening when snow started falling, the brisk wind causing white-outs out my study window. We are expecting 5 – 8 inches of spring snow by morning. I decided to stay in and write.

I have not attended Christian services in years but each time Holy Week comes around the feelings from years ago return like perfume from the room of the beloved now locked shut forever. The feelings are magnified as I have been reading poems in Spanish by Federico García Lorca and his essays, lectures, letters and journal entries on “duende.” He grew up in a village just outside Granada so his imagination, his poetic self, is freighted with the spirit of Andalusia where Arabic, Jewish and Roman Catholic cultures came together in what scholars laud as a high point in European culture – when much of Western Europe was still in its Dark Ages.

Lorca extolled the artistic impetus of his homeland in his own unique way. His lyric images are grounded in the body and its sense organs. Unlike me he writes in sensual, sensory images. Describing a guitar’s songs, he writes:

  • Llora por cosas
  • lejanas.
  • Arena del Sur caliente
  • que pide camelias blancas.
  • Llora flecha sin blanco,
  • la tarde sin mañana,
  • y el primer pájara muerto
  • sobre la rama.
  • ¡Oh guitarra!
  • Corazón malherido
  • por cinco espadas.
  • [The guitar]
  • Weeps for faraway things,
  • A Southern desert yearning for
  • white camellias.
  • It weeps an arrow without a target,
  • evening without tomorrow,
  • and the first dead bird
  • on the branch.
  • Oh guitar!
  • A heart mortally wounded
  • by five swords.

(Slightly modified from a translation by Christopher Maurer.)

His poems were verbal paintings, his conceits tiny stories. García Lorca makes what I write look pale as smelly, dead fish. He knew how to paint feelings with words. He wrote poems, played the piano, and drew in a style reminiscent of Picasso‘s. He belonged to that era in Spanish art and literature peopled by the generation of ’27 which included his one-time bosom friend, Dali. Older was Picasso who was born in 1881. I think what this man could have accomplished if the Nationalists didn’t murder him for his liberal, anti-clerical views and, some researchers say, his homosexuality. Picasso and Dali hid out in Paris during the Civil War but García Lorca stayed on in Spain, proclaiming his views in his poems and plays.

If García Lorca (his father’s surname was García, his mother’s Lorca) didn’t write about outright religious content his poems mixed beauty with suffering and death, a combination I associate with Spanish Catholicism. Philippine Catholicism is likewise permeated with this dark version of Christianity. Just witness the focus of Holy Week in the Philippines. Even visita iglesia is about visiting the Santo Intierro in as many churches as one can go to. And the biggest crowds in church come not at Easter but on Good Friday, the men after the Calvario, the women the Madre Dolorosa.

Then again this is the paradoxical mix that is at the heart of my own aestheticism so I am a product, like Federico García Lorca was of his, of the land of my birth and beginnings. It’s the insight I later encountered in Zen and the Japanese theme of wabi-sabi, beauty in the fleeting moment; and the insight of encountering Baudelaire and the French symbolists and their admiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s dark, beautiful poems and tales.

Perhaps only the music of a dead yesterday can bring to life unspeakable beauty.

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Through the Suburbs First


Has your computer ever eaten your CD and refused to spit it back out? If it has, you can try holding the C key while booting up your laptop. Your computer will try to use the CD as the start-up disk. When it finds that there’s no OS there, it should eject your CD.

Computers, or for that matter, any of the sophisticated technological tools we have e.g. LCD TVs, DVD players, DSLRs, computers, of course, are wonderful. They make short shrift of tasks that used to take hours or days or took several people to accomplish.

I remember when I was a child how our household required one person just to cook, another person to hand wash our clothes, another to keep the yard swept, etc. We had no refrigerator so Baye Tambok (Fat Woman – spoken with affection, not derision) would go to market everyday to buy staples for each day’s two big meals. Another woman spent the day at the artesian well rubbing and wringing clothes, heating water for the white sheets, dipping shirts into liquid starch, pinning clothes on the line to dry, then, in the evening, ironing piles of clothes for the work or school day in the morning.

But technology is great only when it works. Anything made by man is as finite as the day is short. Parts don’t work or the energy powering the device shorts. Any number of things can go wrong. When any of my devices – and I have tons of devices for my computer and camera systems – don’t function I about go crazy. I wouldn’t sleep until I’ve at least figured out what to do next. It is heaven and hell rolled into one glorious life!

PBS tonight had a program on the two superpowers after World War II racing to make the most powerful nuclear bomb. The scientists mandated by both governments to mathematically create the behemoths couldn’t predict all the consequences of their project because they were in virgin territory. America’s B bomb was meant to be 15 megatons but an unexpected chemical reaction involving lithium 7 magnified the blast threefold. Dozens of natives of the Marshall Islands where the test blast happened suffered from radiation sickness and many died. To this day Bikini Atoll is still uninhabited. The atoll lost its bikini! Where there was land there is now a deep lake. Sakharov, the Russian scientist who devised Russia’s mega bomb went against his orders and reduced the strength of the bomb from 100 megaton to 50 but the destruction was still so massive that he became a vocal opponent of nuclear bombs. In the 1970s he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

We’d like to think we know what we’re doing. We’d like to think if we did A, B would follow. But in everything we do there is  always the element of surprise – especially if we are venturing into new territory.

To my mind, art should never stand still. An artist can’t follow a formula to produce work after work. He has to always aim for something new, a new vision of the same old things we’ve known through the centuries. For me this is why art is so exciting – and scary. We do learn techniques and over the years acquire a core of tools to use but we have to put these to work in a transformative way each time we start a new project. At least that’s my idea of an artist.

The same works in our plans for our lives and careers. We know patterns so we can project into the future what to expect from steps that we should take but what materializes is seldom exactly as we planned. The element of surprise is always present. This to me is what makes life a constant challenge, a terror and a joy!

My young nephew wants to come to America and earn his living through his painting. He doesn’t think his savings would last him while he established himself in New York City’s congested market. I told him, if you really want to come to America and live here you may have to modify your strategy. Get your green card as soon as you can. Once you have that you can take an art-related job to support yourself while you’re building your art career.

Sometimes the road to Rome is not direct but meanders through the suburbs before making it to the Palatine Hill. Technology notwithstanding, in life as in art, we have to make elbow room for surprise, for virgin consequences.

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Mother of Ten Thousand Things

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It’s half past midnight on Sunday. I’m having one of those days of magical energy that I get maybe once every six weeks. There’s no accounting for how it comes about, the only response one could have is gratefulness when it comes.

I went to bed last night after one, woke up at seven, went back to sleep for what I thought would be just another hour or so but when I did wake up it was one in the afternoon. I had slept twelve hours!

Maybe the body was making up for the previous two days when I shorted myself on sleep but I think it has more to do with some mysterious cycle in the brain related to energy and creativity. Energy goes up and down, like circadian rhythm but that is more lunar in both scope and length. I liken these cycles to the cycles of a woman’s fertility that waxes and wanes with the phases of the moon, the tides and the tilting of the planet on its off-center axis.

Whatever it is the phenomenon has always intrigued me. I wish I could predict when the cycle goes up so I could accept when it falls but maybe it is simply the human condition that we go must through these ups-and-downs willy-nilly. Change is essential to our nature, essential to the very nature of what ancient god-believing peoples called “Creation.”

When energy awakens like this I feel a cornucopia of possibilities. There are countless things I want to do and doing them feels absolutely feasible. The feeling is fantastic because I also know there aren’t enough hours in a day, years in a lifetime, to do them all. Maybe the lesson it pushes me to learn is how accomplishment is not the high point of my life but that all possibilities exist within but I am not the sole realizer. No one owns possibilities; we borrow what we can but the totality belongs if they belong at all to all living things, through multitudinous aeons of lives.

In the ancient Chinese collection of aphorisms we know today as the Tao Te Ching (“Book of the Way and the Power”), the very first section refers to this profound mystery:

  • The Way that can be spoken of
  • Is not the Way;
  • The name that is named
  • Is not it.
  • The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth;
  • The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
  • Rid yourself of desires to know its secrets;
  • Allow yourself desires to see its manifestations.
  • These two are the same
  • But differ only in how we call them.
  • Being the same they are called mysteries,
  • Mystery upon mystery –
  • The gateway of the manifold secrets.

(I have modified the 1963 translation of these verses by D. C. Lao based on the many translations into English that I’ve studied through the years.)

The Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing in modern Pinyin) is the equivalent of the Bible in China’s indigenous mystical religion, Taoism. It does not speak of God as instigator of the “ten thousand things” as the Torah and many other Middle Eastern scriptures do. It goes instead into the heart of what fascinates men and women through untold ages: the nature of being and how it is manifested in our experience.

The part of this mystery that most concerns us as artists is the nature of creativity, bringing forth out of chaos something that we can name, a product of our living force that others likewise can experience. To create something of beauty or truth is to enact what deists believe God himself does – bringing forth from nothing something.

To create is to cut a piece of seamless reality that our senses see it as a piece apart from the Whole though in reality it never leaves its mother, the mother of the ten thousand possibilities. As humans all we do is borrow for a moment what we can never own but in the magic of desire we name and call it our own.

As indeed it is when we come to realize we too are a part of the Nameless although having learned Words we come to believe we know and therefore exist. Just because we give it a name does not change what it really is ; Reality defies our meager attempts at understanding.

So we work at creating Art or Literature or Science or Philosophy; we put our hearts to work and materialize possibilities – because it is in our nature. We act in finite time with infinite hopes.

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Without Beauty, without Joy

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Locating beauty in human experience and creativity is an immemorial conversation in the world’s history of thought and one perhaps that only becomes relevant when an individual or society succeeds to a level of independence and maturity; otherwise its consideration is mere speciousness. Or is it?

Is beauty the same from generation to generation? Is it the same for all individuals in a society at the same instant in time? Is it even the same in an individual from the time his or her mind begins to recognize and generate concepts of beauty?

Is beauty based on our experience of nature only or does it occur solely in what we as artificers create from those experiences? Is beauty intrinsic in objects outside us or does the mind create it from templates the organism inherits from culture and modifies through experience and contemplation.

Is beauty what makes us like or love an object or is it nothing more than a fable we consume because authorities tell us something is beautiful or not? Is it the same quality in an object of the physical senses as in a psychic experience, in a sunset that everyone experiences or a gesture from a friend or lover or a thought that elevates us momentarily to noble action or inaction?

Is beauty of the intellect or of emotion, of both or neither, of affect and conation and a simple statement unadulterated by an impulse to act or desist from acting?

Whole libraries can be founded on works devoted to these questions and more questions about this strange puissance we call beauty. The subject is compelling as I grow older. Is this because beauty is something that like wine mellows and grows complexity and subtlety with age and experience?

Or because we realize that beauty and happiness are conjoined like Siamese twins, happiness consisting of finding beauty in tiny moments of each day as we navigate with growing awareness the temporality of lives, of endings and beginnings and the exquisite plurality of thought that must cease if we are to know what we are?

Tonight, as I write these words down, I want to run recklessly with Plato and Aristotle, with Baruch Spinoza and Kant and Hume, ponder points from the Buddhist Abhidhamma and Islam and join the swirling flood into profane words about the unspeakable, the indefinable, the mysterious.

But seriously, a dialectic on beauty is too formidable an undertaking with morning just hours away. All I can do is locate a bench on my private island where I can sit down again to see into sunset or this wilting flower, a bit of unrhymed poetry, this piece of stolen pie.

Maybe beauty becomes a natural object of meditation when we begin to lose our way from the way of the madding crowd. We can think, feel and act for ourselves, and life is too precious now to live it without awareness, without beauty, without joy.

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