Birthday Musings on Unity and Diversity

Work in progress: a collection of 27 tea bowl paintings 3×9 against the studio wall

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 Most of my doubt has been replaced by fascination.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?

img_5204When 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…..img_5189





13 thoughts on “Birthday Musings on Unity and Diversity

  1. Interesting reflections on the nature of the individual within the community and the power of art for inspiring recognition and insight. Thanks for sharing. And, happy birthday…yet again!


  2. Adam: I just got off the phone with you, where we discussed the state of the world and the awareness of our profound privilege. When there is so much suffering and lack in the world, for some, our cup runneth over. How very perfect that you are painting tea bowls at this time. I looked at the images you’ve painted and thought, Wabi-Sabi. Decided I needed to know more about this intuition, so I went online (as one does nowadays) and found information on the history of Japanese tea bowls and this little paragraph stood out to me:
    The Japanese tea ceremony developed as a “transformative practice,” and began to evolve its own aesthetic, in particular that of “sabi” and “wabi” principles. “Wabi” represents the inner, or spiritual, experiences of human lives. Its original meaning indicated quiet or sober refinement, or subdued taste “characterized by humility, restraint, simplicity, naturalism, profundity, imperfection, and asymmetry” and “emphasizes simple, unadorned objects and architectural space, and celebrates the mellow beauty that time and care impart to materials.” “Sabi,” on the other hand, represents the outer, or material side of life. Originally, it meant “worn,” “weathered,” or “decayed.” Particularly among the nobility, understanding emptiness was considered the most effective means to spiritual awakening, while embracing imperfection was honored as a healthy reminder to cherish our unpolished selves, here and now, just as we are—the first step to “satori” or enlightenment.
    I am so grateful for your friendship. For reminding me that the glass is half full. For showing that the container holds emptiness. For your unrelenting examination of beauty and form in nature and the world. For your perseverance and passion in creative expression. For your capacity to be bold and committed to ideals. For your gifts and talents and skill. For your kindness, generosity and compassion. For your sweet soul.
    Happy Birthday Dear Friend!
    May we find time to take tea together in the not-too-distant future.
    May your day be filled with celebration as you are surrounded by loved ones.
    Thanks again for your blog and the beautiful paintings.
    I am with you in spirit!
    Much love -Heather


  3. Always stimulating and entertaining to read your blogs. As a human, I would love a “collection” of them. G
    reat seeing you on Sunday, and happy birthday.


  4. Happy birthday Adam! How nice to think of you as the moon rises over the day of your birth. Just flew coast to coast finally home after three weeks,and all I hope to do tomorrow is soak in the esalen baths! I hope your birthday season brings light into the world as it certainly did when you were born.


    Sent from my iPhone



  5. The accidental and true.Interesting differential.It sounds like the difference between Ideal/platonic and naturalistic/as found accident or no accidents.not sure where I side in this matter.Both perspectives filtered through our irreducible subjective perceptual lense,slightly different for each individual.Yet having something in common with all beings(human)that is.As always your musings stimulate thought philosophical,aesthetical,psychological.Good show!


  6. hola Adam I join you in celebrating your anniversary … wishing you the BEST..I send you a warm chilean hug…

    Great to see you in such nuce path and thank you for opening your heart and for sharing your current collection of tea pots…happy to learn that you are exploring a New North… Hoping to see you sometime sooon … santiago

    Sent from my iPhone



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