It’s Nov. 16th, my birthday, and it seems like the turmoil of the world keeps increasing. My last post of October 22 was written in what feels like a different world. I squint to see through the dust storm of “news” and opinions. It feels like every tiny part of my life is infiltrated by the sharp irritating grains of recent events. How does one remain focused? What must we do? Perhaps in some ways we are all challenged these days to stay on our paths or to leave our paths and find a new way forward.
My birthday gift to myself is to turn at least some of my attention back to my creative process and continue to explore its unfolding.
In the studio I have stuck with my practice in spite of the distractions. I have continued to work steadily on tea bowl paintings of Marc Lancet’s tea bowls, and slowly something is starting to emerge out of “the place of unknowing” I was in back in early October. A line of six of these paintings turned into two lines of 12 of them and as the days went past, a whole collection was born. Now, like with my last series up at the pond, I realize I am making one piece of art rather than just a series of individual paintings. As I put them together they begin to make sense to me, to become coherent. Not rational sense really but intuitive sense. Most of my doubt has been replaced by fascination.
Now in possession of 27 square tea bowl paintings, like tiles, I notice an impulse to configure and re-configure them. There is something special and particular about a collection; humans just love them. What’s up with that? I arrange them in lines, in a big square grid, I search for the best way to see them, to experience the collection. They seem to want to be together. I realize that I painted them from slightly different points of view, with my head tilted subtly up or down and I have ended up with images of bowls “tilting” or “tipping” one way or another. If I put them next to each other they look like they are tipping back and forward as they float in space. I also notice that I painted some higher and some lower in the square foot canvas and I can also configure them to float up and down.
I’ve tried a number of different grids and have fixed on three squares, each with 3 paintings by 3, put together horizontally. That is 27 paintings, 3 high x 9 across. That is the configuration that makes most sense to me. I observe my mind as it tries to organize the grid, scanning for patterns. If the patterns are subtle enough the mind continues this scanning rather than locking onto one particular one. This motion of the mind is a curious feeling and when combined with the variation of the bowls tilting and floating up and down the experience of looking at the whole is quite stimulating. You get a bit of the effect if you stare awhile at the snapshot of the collection at the start of this post.
Unity or diversity: The one and the many
A friend and my daughter came into the studio and saw the collection and spontaneously started playing a game guessing which bowl represents each of them, or certain people they know, or is their favorite. As I watch them play I understand that this work is, at least in part, exploring the question of the one and the many. They are all so different and are totally unique and yet they are also all the same. They hang together. They could be a community. Looking at this field of like-objects, like a crowd of people, you could focus on seeing diversity or seeing unity. Can we perhaps hold both at once? What does looking at many tea bowls tell us about one tea bowl, or all tea bowls?
What makes a painting of something true?
I remember in Florence, Italy, where I learned to paint, studying Sir Joshua Reynolds’ centuries’ old ideas about painting. He said a great painter paints things as they truly are, depicting their true nature, rather than painting “accidents” of nature. One way this is discussed is using the term “local color” as opposed to the “real color”. If an apple brushes against a freshly painted blue wall on the way to the studio, when you see the apple in your still life has a smudge of blue on it, do you paint it? Is it being true to nature to paint the apple “as it is” or to leave out the “accidental” blue smudge? If you are painting a painting of a nude model and he or she comes to sit one day with slight tan lines from their weekend in the sun do you paint the tan lines? Reynolds would discard the tan lines as “local” and not “true”. Painters must ask: What is the truth of the matter and what are the accidents that obscure that truth?
When I look at the whole group of tea bowls I can assert that on some essential level they are all the same. It is as if they all partake of some archetypal tea bowl. That is what makes them all tea bowls, right? That seems true. But when I turn my attention to the difficult task of painting one, coming into real relationship with it, it seems to be all “accidental”. All the texture and color is “local” and as far as I can see, describing that local texture and color is my only path to depicting them honestly (the only way to really “know” each one).
Could this conversation (I have with myself) have wider relevance? We are surrounded by talk of unity and diversity. People, perhaps more than ever, are grouped and categorized as if each group has an archetype, as if we could find a representative member that defines all it’s members. Yet, like the tea bowls, when I really encounter a person and try to understand that individual, it is in their uniqueness that the truth of that person seems to reside. The more I know them the less they fit one category.
This presents an interesting riddle. Perhaps it is mostly the emptiness within, rather than the details on the surface that the tea bowls share…..