The first Monday of the New Year and I return to work. In the dim light of a cloudy day I open the door to my studio and am met by 35 paintings of the tree by the pond. I see the captured moments stretching back in time to the brisk breezes of last May, through the hot summer months and into the golden fall. When I left for winter break, the pond was at an all-time low and now is full and overflowing. Time has moved on and I am in yet another new present moment in the cold of January, in the rain. I sit and look at the paintings and feel a calm come over me. They are a gallery of green and golden doorways and I feel like I can enter each one, like I am traveling as I look at them. I can laze in the dry golden grass, nestle into the cool shadows or delight at the play of light on the water. I am comforted by the silence, stillness and permanence that these paintings offer. I feel the security of total certainty that everything will stay exactly where it is.
and by virtue of this, each one has been made precious. On this 4th day of 2016, every day and week and month of 2015 is galloping away from me, save for these now-crystalized moments.
As I live each day my essential experience is of constant change and passage of things into the past. This is basic, reliable and obvious. Many of us feel this vividly in the first days of a new year. Optimists, romantics and children look forward, spending some of their present dreaming about the next thing, anticipating and expecting something more and better than the now. They do not mourn the time they are losing as each minute, day and year, goes by. Others fear the future and worry about it. I have heard it said that the enlightened live in the now always, experiencing time as an ever present unity. I don’t imagine they would want paintings of the golden warmth of last summer to transport them out of a dreary January day, for they experience no separation between the two. (Eckart Tolle: “Nothing has happened in the past; it happened in the Now, Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen in the Now)
But for most of us past, present and future are in fact distinguishable. So when paintings of a living moment, when the light and air and all of life is just so, are finished they become paintings of the past. Indeed, I have been hard at work painting the present, but somehow I find I have also been painting the past.
Perhaps these paintings only represent the past for me because I was there. I sweated and strained to develop skills to package that passing moment and carried it with me all the way to the “now.” My studio walls are a gallery of memories for me. When I look at the images it is a kind of reminiscence. If I sit and stare at my paintings am I dwelling in the past and thus leaving the fullness of the present? I don’t want to dwell in the past.
If you look at the paintings now for the first time they become again the present. For the fresh viewer the paintings are an invitation to experience something in the moment. So are paintings always as much an invitation to experience the “now” as they are a kind of time machine that takes us back into the past, the then? Are these paintings teaching me something about the eternal quality of the present by bringing now and then together in this way? This seems like a rather magical property. They both awaken us to and offer escape from our present. Maybe lots of things in life are like this. Maybe it is up to us to choose.