Picturing far, far distances in my mind…really trying to get the space of it. Feeling the vast emptiness between stars, between solar systems. That kind of thing.
Creating mental images as big as planets and throwing them up into the sky and wondering how it is that I was capable of visualizing a planet-sized object in my mind, yet so constrained by the concept of gravity that I couldn’t make it go very high. Took me a while to get past that one.
Breathing underwater…actually imagining inhaling and exhaling liquid, feeling it flowing in and out of the lungs. A bit creepy at first, but pretty interesting once you get into it.
What it would feel like to be compressed down to the size of an electron or expanded beyond the confines of the universe.
What it’s like to see through the compound eye of a housefly.
How it feels to be a maple tree in early March with the sap running.
Things moving in space…an object spinning in multiple directions at the same time. Two streams moving outward in opposite directions. Three-dimensional shapes collapsing into themselves.
What it would look like if everybody just walked away from the incessant nonsense and drama that constitutes the majority of human interaction on this planet.
Making things invisible. Mentally filling in the space around whatever it is I’m looking at until it disappears.
And my current favorite, creating new planets. Invented one recently
I rather liked while waiting at the dentist’s office. Atmosphere the consistency of gelatin, rivers and oceans of flowing sand. It was shaped like a fat mobius strip with three suns; depending where you were on the surface daytime might last 5 minutes or 500 years, or you might never see light at all. Pictured it rotating on its axis like a rotisserie chicken. When I was finished, I wondered, “What type of physics would explain all this?” Then I realized, that’s for the inhabitants to figure out. It doesn’t really matter what they come up with…it works because I designed it to work.
The table, which at first had seemed round, is now long and rectangular. A conference table.
I am alone, waiting. I have a folder filled with ideas to present. A man enters, I shake his hand.
We sit, the room bathed in uncomfortable silence. He is waiting for me to speak.
I reach for my folder but it is gone.
I cannot recall any of the concepts or even the nature of the project. My mind races from room to room, frantically searching for the words I’ve forfeited. I clear my throat, trying to maintain a look of competence.
The man’s face shows the merest flicker of reaction, an almost imperceptible twitch of undiscernable emotion — Disappointment? Confirmation? — and returns immediately to flat burnished marble. His eyes are sharp as awls.
“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
“Of course,” I lie, unsure and without conviction. I feel a primordial shame; blinding, wincing humiliation. I am not prepared.
Molten lead pools in the center of my stomach; this is my one chance, I fear I won’t get another.
I bury my gaze in the burled grain of the bird’s eye maple conference table, stained glowing cigarette-cherry red. Searching for something, anything to say.
I stare deeply, desperately into the patterns of the polished wood; chestnut fire swirling with charred eyes and haunted faces and grotesque birds.
Moments morph into millennia. Time ceases to exist. I cease to exist, shrinking backwards into cramped and squalid quarters I was certain I had burned to the ground.
To my amazement, I unexpectedly find that I am beginning to speak automatically from somewhere outside myself. Words string together of their own accord and drip from my mouth, both of us hearing them for the first time.
“The concept is called ‘Enigmata.’ The thoughts and images are subterranean sigils whose meanings are revealed only upon close examination. The metaphysics of non-intellective communication allow the audience to assemble a message on their own and fill in the details based on their own specific memories and emotions.”
“How will this be executed?”
“The page will be blank.”
The man pushes back in his chair, inscrutable.
Clocks turn sideways as I wait for a response. I feel transparent, exposed. I cast my eyes down, open sores searing black as images embalmed in hand-rubbed lacquer and long dead maple begin to blend and shift, forming scenes from my childhood.
Climbing in bed between my grandparents, the feel of my grandmother’s polyester nightgown against my bare legs. Static sparks. The smell of tissues taken down from the shelf of a cedar closet. A tiny glass giraffe fragile as snowflakes in my hand, unpacked from penicillin blue Samsonite luggage by graceful manicured fingers, an appeasement for leaving me behind.
My voice emerges, unbidden. “The blankness is the medium for unconscious integration, a synesthesia that cements the potentialities of the paper to the texture of experience. The campaign does not promote the product. Rather, the product is manufactured directly in the mind where it propagates indefinitely.”
The man slowly nods.
Reaching into his breast pocket, he removes a fat white envelope, sliding it silently across the table.
I glance at it, then past it, and back into the kaleidoscoping woodgrain.
I’m doing it so I can apply these skills to the paintings I imagine.
I don’t need lessons to paint what I see with my mind, but in these classes I’ve been trying very hard to paint things the way I see them with my eyes.
Which has been somewhat stressful because apparently, my eyes do not see things the way other people’s do.
Sometimes I know I’m completely off the map, but other times I feel like I’ve aced what it is I’m replicating only to be told that the shadow is in the wrong place, or the perspective’s off, or the color doesn’t match.
So I’d rub it out and try to fix it, and usually feel less satisfied having done so.
And then one class, I just said no.
We were painting landscapes. I was working from a full color photograph, long shadows crossing a country road awash in a sea of emerald, kelly and chartreuse.
I began with the honest intention of giving it a serious go…even mixed 11 subtly different shades of green. Then, midway through, as I held my brush before my mostly black underpainting about to make the first leafy green stroke, I decided I liked it the way it was.
When the instructor came around I announced I was finished and received a raised eyebrow as I took it off the easel. I spent the rest of class smashing the 11 shades of green around on a fresh piece of paper.
Later, I showed this green painting to someone whose opinion I value. They said, “It reminds me of unplanned adventure.”
I have nothing against highly realistic art; I find much of it very beautiful. I admire the skill that goes into creating it.
After having spent many class hours struggling to make things perfect, however, I can’t help but feel like there’s something math-like about it. An equation with a pre-determined correct answer.
Whenever I began one of these pieces with that goal in mind, it felt as if I were just filling in the blanks to achieve a result that never quite measured up.
There are many amazing artists who create work based in realism that is stunningly distinctive. If you think about it though, what makes it so interesting is the artist’s own unique interpretation.
The parts of the painting that do not reflect reality.
When you’re painting entirely abstract, you quickly come to learn that there are a lot of people out there who need to know that you have the chops to accurately reproduce a bowl of lemons or a face or a fall landscape in order to accept the fact that you’re painting things that don’t look like any of the above.
I decided that I’m not so bothered by that anymore.
I wonder if de Kooning or Kandinsky had to submit a portfolio of tightly rendered architectural drawings or photorealistic fruit in order to get into galleries. Maybe they did.
But that’s not what they’re remembered for.
I plan to continue working on shading objects in space and mixing colors and getting my hand to do what I want it to do. Getting a handle on realism is good practice.
That having been said, I’m done killing myself to be perfect.
I hadn’t known it, but it was actually a form of suicide.
Perfect means fitting yourself into a pre-exisiting idea of how things should be, one that’s usually imposed from outside. It’s a great way to set yourself up for vicious disappointment and provides endless opportunities for self-criticism.
I took that approach my whole life with just about everything I did. Screwed myself up big time in the process. In my case, the desire for perfection acted as a governor on my ability to try new things, eventually shutting me down completely. Why bother when I’m only going to fall short of my own expectations? The resultant pain and self-punishment was too much to bear.
Something about painting abstract unhitched all that.
As I’ve gone down this path, I’ve seen first hand how the imperfect can be so powerful and so moving and and go so far outside expectation that it destroys all preconceived notions of what constitutes art.
It showed me just how limiting my perception of reality was. And how limiting my addiction to perfectionism has truly been.
My goal now in these classes is the same as the goal for my abstract work: to make a painting. Wherever that might take me.
After all, what’s the point of going through the effort of getting something on the paper if you end up looking at exactly the same view you had when you started?
Where’s the adventure in that??
Over the years, this and that. A toaster. An ashtray. The miniscule ego in a file on the shelf in the office when I had needed to fill it and didn’t happen to have anything better.
Creation all used up. Blind in my magnificence I put it away and
Divided ice insulated under endless black wait.
On the morning after not sure what, I built visions around what I was
seeing and the rock began to pool.
About the sky was solid cloud, white lightning igniting the distance
rolling with thunder over the feeling to reach farther across the
Images painting freedom flowing electric aquamarine honey,
memories of the feeling cry I want so much.
Severed the many walking homeward,
breathing liquid ecstasy.
Spotlights shatter through pinpricks. Ice flaking off into moist atmosphere.
Hot blood stirs beneath ashen decay.
A talented child, I awoke calm and smooth as a cool pane of glass.
I just attended an art show where all of the work was produced using 3-D printing.
Picture indescribably intricate sculptures made from delicate layers of interlocking filigree, strands as narrow as a hair.
Huge white polyamide shapes reaching into each other with hundreds of slender appendages, woven and entwined in ways that defied logic.
Tiny and ridiculously complicated objects composed of overlapping and intersecting spirals, creating the appearance of phantasmagorical creatures bursting strange horns and disturbing probosces.
The impossibility of the pieces gave the exhibit a surreal otherworldly effect, as if I had entered a different place entirely, a universe of imagination unconstrained by the restrictive properties of existing materials and techniques.
Judging from the results on display at this exhibit, huge leaps have been made in translating human imagination into physical reality in ways that were previously inconceivable. It will be fascinating to see how artists take advantage of the technology as it becomes more prevalent.
A million possibilities spring to mind.
But what if you could bypass the computer design process entirely and hook up a 3-D printer directly to your imagination? What would you create then?
For the sake of discussion, let’s say you wanted to create an apple.
I’m relatively good as visualizing things. Do it inside and outside my head all the time.
I’d say that the apple I create in my mind seems pretty complete.
However, I predict if I hooked up a 3-D printer and output my mental image of an apple, it would likely have fatal flaws. Gaps. As in, well, the color is pretty accurate, and I captured that weird hairy dimple on the bottom, but the backside is full of gaping holes.
Like the artist creating the computer program for their sculpture, I would have to go back and check my design for missing information.
I would spend more time visualizing my apple, trying to capture the totality of it, and then plug into the printer a second time. Hmmmm…this time I got the holes filled, and I nailed those translucent things around the seeds that remind me of fish scales. But I completely botched the flavor.
Back to the drawing board.
I would eat, sleep and dream apple until finally I’d have the complete essence of that sucker down to the tiniest subatomic detail, from the exact curve and composition of the stem to the memory of time spent as an apple blossom. I’d have the heft and the feel and the being of it so thoroughly established in my mind that when I hit the print button, a fully formed red delicious would drop down onto my tabletop.
I had a fascinating conversation with an 11 year old in which I asked him what he wanted for his birthday. His answer led us into philosophical territory much deeper and more insightful than I’ve confronted with most adults.
The conversation went as follows:
11-Year Old: For my birthday I want a parakeet. Or an iPod touch.
Karmic Spiel: Which one do you think you’d use more?
11: Well, obviously the iPod touch. But the point of a parakeet isn’t to use it.
KS: Then what’s the point of a parakeet?
11: You can’t compare something biological to something technological.
KS: What if Apple made a parakeet?
11: It wouldn’t be a parakeet.
KS: What if it looked identical to a real parakeet? Moved like one, sounded like one, acted like one…you couldn’t tell the difference.
11: You could if you cut it open.
KS: What if they grew it like those ears they grow on the backs of mice, and when you cut it open it was full of biological parakeet organs?
11: It would still be technological, because we made it.
KS: What about the ear? We made it but it functions just like a biological ear.
11: You can’t compare a part to the whole thing. The parakeet would have to be programmed. It could only do what they put in its database. It wouldn’t have parakeetness.
KS: What is parakeetness?
11: The thing that makes a parakeet a parakeet.
KS: Why do you think it wouldn’t have parakeetness?
11: Because it could never choose to do something new. Or react in a way that was unique. It could be programmed to do everything every parakeet has ever done for a million years, and make every choice a parakeet has ever made, but it could never come up with something on its own.
KS: So if one day a real parakeet suddenly decided to start making patterns out of seeds, or made a sound no parakeet’s made before, that ability to create something new is what separates it from the technological parakeet?
11: Yeah, they could program the technological parakeet with the new thing, and every time a real parakeet did something new, they could program it in, but they’d always be one step behind. The technological parakeet would always just be a lame copy. It would be dead inside.
KS: What if they programmed it ahead of time to do something no parakeet has done before? Or programmed it to come up with new things on its own, something parakeets don’t usually do?
11: That would be stupid. Then it wouldn’t be a parakeet at all.
I’d be willing to bet that some team of tech heads at MIT is working on a parakeet cyborg prototype even as I type.
And I have no doubt that at some point soon it will be possible to print out an apple that appears indistinguishable from the ones that grow on trees.
But I wouldn’t want to eat it.
No matter how accurate and sophisticated the cunning folks that develop these types of technologies become in their ability to link up amino acid chains and recreate fragrance and texture and taste, the apple they would print would still be synthetic. A dead imitation.
It wouldn’t have appleness.
Still, it will be interesting to see what 3-D printing is capable of when it fully comes online.
But I’m not waiting around.
It’s just another tool, and I manage just fine without it.
Each and every painting I make is something I’ve imagined into physical existence out of nothing. They are not an imitation. They are alive.
All of us have the ability to create directly from our imaginations, we do it all the time. We create this world into being every minute with our thoughts and our beliefs and our intentions and our actions. We don’t need technology to do that. We are the technology.
Who knows what else we can create?
I’ve been spending a lot of time with apples these days, getting to know them on a very intimate level. I’m picturing one right now. Except the one I see in my mind is much more than a mere combination of atoms and elements and complex chemical interactions. It is alive, and unlike any apple that has ever existed before.
It might take me 10 or 100 or 100,000 years. But one of these days I will imagine that apple with enough appleness that it will appear out of nothing and land with a thump on the saucer I plan to have ready and waiting.
And then I will pick it up, cradle it gently in my hand, and take a big freaking bite.
the hood of a red 1972 Eldorado with a white vinyl roof after a hot
summer day parked on the side of the road by a thin stretch of beach
where you got out just to look at the waves for a bit to clear your head and
then the clouds darkened across the lake and you could feel that whoosh
of hot wind that comes when the storm is building up steam and you
wanted to stand there and watch the thunderhead roll in and see the
tiny ripples grow into whitecaps while you bathe in the wild electricity
as the sky turns purple and black and green beneath a yellow veil but
you don’t because you’re wearing your best silk dress the one with the
long red sleeves and the white sailor collar that you bought with your
very first paycheck back when you used to care so you run run run up the
narrow path through the brambles and the dirt worn to fine powder by
the footsteps of hundreds of bare feet of all sizes running the other way
toward the sand where they played and built castles for endless summer
afternoons and you get to the car just as the first drop hits the hood and
you can hear it and smell it and taste it in your mouth and you stop
struck dumb by the feeling and you think you could never feel anything
so pure and then the next and the next and the next raindrop hits and
you fall asleep in the joy and promise to never forget exactly this moment
or how you felt because you’re not sure that it will ever really get
better than this and that’s okay because this is pretty damn good so you
hold the thought and get in the car and start the engine and drive.
I typically do them fast, usually in a series of 6 or 8 or 10 at one sitting. Black acrylic on drawing paper.
They’re not trying to be anything. They’re not trying to convey anything. Pure unfiltered stream of consciousness.
I don’t intend to make them relate to each other, but often certain themes appear. A particular shape might show up in more than one piece. Or morph from one to the next. It’s fascinating to see what comes out in the moment.
You could call them sketches, and occasionally ideas come out of them that show up in more formal paintings. But I don’t do them with that purpose in mind.
I do them to do them.
When I finish a batch, I tape them together into one giant painting, hang it up and look at it.
Since I have no particular direction in mind when I start, and each section is painted independently, it amazes me how frequently elements jump the edge of the page and combine in completely unplanned ways, creating new compositions I wouldn’t have thought of intentionally.
These usually end up being my favorite parts.
Did I create them or did they create themselves?
An unanswerable question.
One thing I know for certain…if I had never picked up a brush, they wouldn’t exist at all.
It’s true that you can compare one piece to another along specific criteria; e.g., a Rembrandt is a more accurate reproduction of reality than, say, a Jean-Michel Basquiat. But to say one is better than the other is misguided.
It’s like trying to compare an oak leaf to a rhinoceros.
Hidden at the core of such comparisons, buried beneath the so-called objective measures used to justify them, is nothing more than opinion.
So who gets to decide what is “good”?
When it comes to your own work, you do.
I like what I like. You like what you like. It’s all personal preference.
The key word is “personal.” The notion that a group consensus should even exist with respect to something as individual as artistic expression is equivalent to granting a monopoly on creation.
Why on earth should anyone else’s personal artistic preference take precedence over your own?
For years I used the perceived “betterness” of others like a meat hammer to bludgeon myself into not creating. In a world where Salvador Dali, Picasso and a million other amazing artists exist, how could I dare to pick up a brush?
It’s one of the primary limitations that stopped me from starting to paint. Even after I started, the fear of the inevitable comparisons prevented me from showing my work to other people.
As an art appreciator, I always liked what I liked regardless of what other people thought. In fact, I got a great deal of enjoyment out of liking things most people thought were ugly or didn’t understand. But when I began making art myself, I was confronted with the reality of just how deeply I had internalized the trope that there is some objective outside measure of “good.”
Once I started painting, I was forced to address this every time I stood at my easel; every time I looked at someone else’s work.
I became conscious of just how many times a day I was comparing myself to others, not just in terms of art or painting, but with everything. I saw how this had crippled me my entire life. Held me back. Kept me small.
I began to ask myself where these standards came from. Whose standards were they really?
I held high internal standards for myself, which is healthy and positive when used as motivation to be your best self and produce your best work…it inspires a person to keep pushing. But when those standards are externally imposed, they act as a trillion-ton boat anchor on the soul.
I have this note to myself hanging on my easel so I can see it every time I paint:
WHAT OTHER PEOPLE CREATE HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ME.
This has been the one of the most difficult things for me to learn. I’m still learning it.
As this phrase sinks in on deeper and deeper levels, I’ve begun to free myself from the stranglehold of negative self-comparisons. It is a conscious effort, and I have to make that effort over and over. But the more I paint, and really look at what I’ve painted, the easier it gets.
I’m becoming progressively more comfortable with what I create. How I feel about it is based on my own criteria, not anyone else’s.
Sometimes, other people’s preference overlaps with your own. When you love what you created, and discover that someone else does as well, it’s a very, very nice feeling.
Of course, there’s a massive and entrenched attachment to betterness out there. You run into it all the time, especially when you’re experimenting outside the mainstream. In those instances, if you are able to genuinely like what you’re created and draw satisfaction and pleasure from that, it doesn’t matter what anyone else might think.
So I added a corollary to remind myself of that truth, which I also have hanging on my easel:
WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK ABOUT WHAT I CREATE
HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ME.
It has to do with them. Where they are at. What their preferences are.
I create. So do you. The outcomes are as different as you and I.
Each creation is as unique as the individual who created it. It’s what makes living in this place interesting.
As you keep going and exploring and becoming more confident in what you’re expressing, be it art or writing or whatever it is you truly want to create, magic happens.
You begin to trust in who you truly are.
Fe was floating.
Surrounded by an impenetrable blankness so dense it seemed to obscure even the possibility of light and form.
Fe had been alone for a very long while. So long that it could not be measured in time.
Was she floating in space, or was she space itself?
Was she tiny and finite, or enormous and everywhere?
She had considered these and other such unanswerable questions for eternities.
Fe could not be sure, but it began to feel like she was moving. There was emptiness in front and also in back, so it was difficult to tell without a fixed point of reference. Nevertheless, it registered as a sensation.
Having been accustomed to timelessness and nothingness, the sensation felt good. It represented the potential for change.
Fe contemplated this sensation and let it sink in. So many implications to consider. Motion connoted direction…up down catty corner backwards. And time…was here, will be there. The possibilities suggested by the concept were intriguing; delicious.
The feeling of motion that Fe had begun to experience ignited a sense of action, of one thing moving into another. Into what, she knew not. Yet the feeling held a certain attraction, especially when one had been floating on their own, motionless, for as long as they could recall.
Infinities passed, if you could call it that, as infinity doesn’t pass, it just is.
And then everything changed.
Fe sensed a presence.
She was not frightened for she had no reason to have developed this capacity, but her curiosity was stirred. Curiosity that had been dormant due to the lack of anything to become curious about.
Prior the arrival of the presence, Fe had assumed that she was all there was. If a presence existed that was other to her, then she must be other to the presence, which implied separation. Edges. Defined space. She began to wonder if she had borders.
The presence drew closer.
Fe experienced another new feeling. Anticipation. Things within Fe were rearranging, resulting in cracks and fissures that birthed wild and thundering oceans of thought and emotion.
Fe, who had been the same forever, was now becoming different. Moving into previously unimaginable territories of experience. Fe sat with the feelings, rolled them across her being, swam in them, dove down deep, digested them, tried them on and took them off, played with them, nurtured them and allowed them to take root and to grow and to flower.
Her thoughts turned opalescent to examine all this. In her delight (which was yet another new sensation), she forgot all about the other.
And then they collided.
She felt it bump right up against her. This new feeling created an emotion so titanic and indescribable and passionate and muscular that she felt that she had exploded, creating vast swathes of new space all around her, moving into them, and then creating another wave outward.
Fe became aware that she was capable of inventing space to an infinite degree. Her question as to whether she was tiny had been answered.
Despite the unfolding of distance, the two remained connected.
No message passed between them. They simply floated, side by side, each pondering the significance of the contact.
The presence of the other meant that space existed outside of Fe’s self. It stood to reason that the other could also invent space infinitely at will. Suddenly her concept of size and self and other and space imploded into itself and reconstituted as a clear white light screaming into the emptiness.
Color and shape began to form inside Fe. Each accompanied by its own particular flavor of emotion. Without conversation, the colors and shapes were received by the other, who then responded with different shapes. Unfamiliar colors.
Space around the two beings began to change. It came alive with rivulets and rays and thick broad beams of electric music that roared and laughed and expanded and launched like great vessels, sailing through existence leaving universes in their wake.
And then, after what seemed like only an instant because Fe had wanted it to continue forever, the two beings were jarred into the awareness that they were definitely moving. Going someplace.
Rising from where they were to somewhere else, shooting relentlessly upwards like irretrievably misfired missiles.
For the first time, Fe was afraid. Cold creeping horror trickled through Fe as she realized that the pair would be ripped apart by the violence of the ascent; that she would once again be on her own. Before the other, Fe hadn’t been lonely. But now, the concept swept over her like an icy wind.
As she felt the presence of the other being torn away, tendrils of thought reached in and left a small mark deep within Fe’s consciousness. A tiny point of blue light.
Fe breached the surface alone.
“May the road rise to meet you” and other expressions that seem to be metaphorical but turn out to actually be quite literal.0
This morning as I was driving I got the very definite sensation that I was fixed in place and the road was flying toward me.
I was cruising along at 70, so I know I wasn’t standing still. But it sure seemed that way.
A couple months ago, someone said to me “You’re trying so hard, you put so much into it, and that’s good. But you need to be okay where you are. You need to let your future come to you.” A rather personal observation, especially since I had literally just met this person and she and I had only spoken casually for a few minutes.
Yet the comment was spot on. I had been trying very hard. For the past year, I’ve spent every waking moment and most of my sleeping moments trying with everything I’ve got to create a new life for myself.
Some of the people closest to me hadn’t picked up on this, at least not consciously. But somehow this stranger did.
This exchange came at a moment when I was feeling somewhat stuck. Stalled. I had been doing everything I could to keep moving forward but felt like I was not making progress.
So I tried harder. Still nothing changed.
I was pushing on a spring.
All of my efforts were compressing the coils, tighter and tighter.
Things had begun to move again, but backwards. Into thoughts and feelings I thought I had left behind. Part of me knew this was bad juju. Yet another part was pleased. At least things are moving, right?
I had spent years inwardly focused, so the discomfort was strangely comforting; a nest made of barb wire.
I had taken a serious detour.
Have you ever just gotten in the car and starting driving, with no specific destination in mind?
That pretty much sums up what I’ve been doing since last January.
It’s a cool thing to do. You see some pretty interesting things along the way.
And when you find yourself on a long empty stretch of highway and open it up to about 130, it’s a real rush, I can assure you.
But occasionally you find a fallen redwood blocking your path.
Different people deal with obstacles in different ways.
Some might try hacking at it with a plastic knife they found in the glove compartment, or by yelling at it to move, or waiting for a helicopter with a winch to magically appear and move it for them.
Or if you’re me, by burrowing deeply into the redwood, setting up camp and living there for a month or two.
There are plusses and minuses to this strategy. To the positive, you get to know everything there is to know about a redwood from the inside. On the downside, it’s dark in there and you don’t have a light.
So you have to create your own.
Once you figure out how to do that, the redwood explodes into matchsticks, spontaneously ignites and turns to ash.
You’re back on the road.
And then one day you’re driving along and suddenly you are fixed in place and the road is flying toward you.
All that energy stored in the spring you’ve been pushing so hard for so long has finally let loose with enough force to cause the laws of physics to go on vacation.
You realize it only felt like you were standing still. You are actually moving faster than the speed of light.
And what you’re seeing is your future coming to you.
You look around, searching for clues as to why you are here. Something, anything that tells you how you ended up in this place.
The room has nothing to offer. No detail to grab onto.
It is generic, featureless; worn down into bland submission by an endless stream of faceless travelers, each with their own story, none of them worth reading.
You do not belong here.
You walk to the door. It is locked from outside.
You reach for the cord to open the curtains, only to find that they conceal not a window but a wall hung with a single painting. A cheap print, yellowed with nicotine and age, curling away from the frame at the edges. A beach scene; wooden raft drifting away from shore.
You feel the breeze rustle your hair, water lapping at the edge of the raft. The lake is calm, a sheet of rippled glass covered with sunset and floating leaves.
You step off the raft onto beige carpet. Sodden, your footprints fill with murky liquid as you walk across the hotel room floor. On the cigarette scarred nightstand you find a note written on a grease-stained paper bag. You don’t recognize the handwriting, but you know it is a message to yourself. It says “Remember who you are.”
You see a suitcase on the bed, open, filled with photographs. You flip through them, uninterested. Faces of people you don’t know, doing things you do not care to know about.
You push them aside and look back to the painting.
You peel back the corner. The paper, stamped to look like canvas, lifts away in a single sheet to reveal another painting, a cityscape at night. Specks of red and yellow and green reflected in puddled sidewalks and oil slick streets. A fistful of scattered gems against rain smeared ink.
You shiver. Wiping a strand of wet hair off your forehead, you clutch your arms and step into the crosswalk. You wander cold empty streets until your bones turn to ice.
You check into a cheap motel. Bed, nightstand, sticky beige carpet. Nothing on the walls but a dingy yellow rectangle where a painting once hung, framed by even dirtier yellow.
You sit on the bed to examine the blank space. Decades pass.
Suddenly the yellow turns transparent and through the void you see something you’ve never seen before. A piece of yourself that you had hidden long ago. You reach in and grab it.
This time you are not coming back.
Everyone who’s seen it thinks it’s ugly. A few have come right out and said so, bypassing diplomacy altogether.
Even when someone tries to go the polite route, I can tell by their reaction. There’s a sort of flinch. A mental recoiling backwards.
I call that a success.
There’s something to be said for getting a visceral reaction out of people, regardless of which direction it goes. I find this much more satisfying than a tactful but dispassionate “that’s different.”
Do I think this is a great painting? No, I do not. For one thing, it’s small, only 9 by 12 inches. Now if it were huge, say, 9 by 12 meters, I might feel otherwise.
Then it would be monumentally ugly, which would definitely take things up a notch or two on the impact scale.
Maybe next time I’ll experiment on bigger canvas.
They are massive, ominous; set up sequentially in a continuous line spanning the entire distance of the universe, streaking red and cobalt blue and ice white shards of light, shrieking cold friction shattering the darkness.
Flowing into the machine is the raw material of reality. The substance before it is defined.
Transparency funnels into the top right side, and space and time exit beneath, unrolling to the left. The machine is fixed in place.
I am outside this process, viewing it from a safe distance. I see the wheels turning ceaselessly, compressed against each other spinning like mlllstones made of indestructible material; oppressive, inevitable. I sense that it wants me to feel frightened…or somehow ashamed.
Watching the machine perform its endless work I feel nothing. No fear. No sadness. No anger. Nothing at all. It has nothing to do with me.
As I look closer at the product as it unfurls, I can see clouds and blue sky and buildings and trees. I see my street, my house.
I see myself sitting at my kitchen table, eyes closed, head in my hands, lost in thought.
At last, I open my eyes.
And then I am back on the other side of the machine.
It looks different now. Smaller. Less sure of itself.
I know something about it, and it doesn’t like that.
Inside I am smiling.
Not Twilight Zone different, but enhanced. Switched on.
Where each object you look at is outlined with a thin hair of black ink with an even thinner white highlight. Crisper than crisp. And the colors sing to you, and the textures hit your eye through a magnifying glass, and everything calls out your name, and you suddenly see the spaces between things as if they too are things, with weight and volume and meaning.
The air around you feels alive, ions crackling against your skin as you swim through it…if you squint your eyes you can almost see it sparking.
You drive down the same familiar street you’ve driven down a million times, and on this particular day the trees come rushing up to meet you, arms wide, waving their leaves hello as you flow past. And the road looks like it leads directly into the sky, and you feel like you could fly up among the clouds and float there as long as you wanted.
Welcome to today.
I hope you’ve had days like this. It’s quite a fantastic thing.
If you have, on occasion, had one of these days, you might have asked yourself, “why do things look so different today, when yesterday they looked dull and flat and gray by comparison?”
Being of rational mind, you could probably spend half an hour and come up with a dozen plausible reasons why yesterday looked ordinary and today you want to roll around in everything you see.
It might occur to you that perhaps it’s a trick of the light, sunshine intensified by a solar flare. Or, you might recall that yesterday you felt crummy, but today you feel great so of course it all looks brighter.
But then, you wake up on another morning, and the sun is muffled behind gray gauze and you feel sort of average and you look out the window and see a mysterious and fascinating landscape reflected in polished silver. The trees have taken on a shimmering graphite haze, the leaves rubbed into soft focus. The colors have shifted, and now you see smoked lavender in between the branches, whose texture is soft as the velvet of a deer antler.
The stunning sense of aliveness is still there, just like last time, but there’s a different charge in the air, as if the sky is holding its breath and what you’re feeling is the electricity of the stillness. It’s daytime, but you see the aura of moolight. Everything seems filled with quiet magic.
And then you ask yourself…so why do things look different today?
You could no doubt spend another half hour and come up with another twelve explanations, all well-grounded in science and psychology.
But you would be missing the point:
You’re seeing things differently because you are SEEING things differently.
Something inside you, whether you’re aware of it or not, is DECIDING to see everything differently.
One day it sees things one way, the next, whammo.
Whole new ballgame.
If you can find that capacity inside yourself that decides how you see things, and acknowledge it and encourage it, you can get it to grow.
If you understand it for what it is, you can learn to control it.
You will begin to see things differently on a consistent basis. Your life will begin to change in magnificent ways.
And every day will be a beautiful Monday.
My friend remarked, “Most artists spend their life trying to master realism. Picasso had already done it. So where do you go from there?”
Where DO you go once you’ve seen reality for what it is, and found it obvious, facile, and frankly, boring?
You ask yourself “what if?”
Picasso was the master of “what if?”
What if you’re seeing everything through a bue veil?
What if all the curves are angles?
What if you can see the face from three sides?
What if there’s an eye on the elbow?
What if, what if, what if.
Picasso never stopped asking himself that question, and that’s why his work never ceases to be fascinating.
If I had to name the one thing that seems to limit people’s perception the most, I would point to a lack of basic curiosity.
It constantly amazes me how uncurious people are, almost willfully so. They seem to want to accept what they are presented with, even when they don’t particularly like it. In fact, they will go to the wall to defend their acceptance of even the most negative situations and beliefs and feelings rather than honestly ask themselves what if it didn’t have to be this way? What if it were different? And then, “What might that look like?”
Even naturally curious people, who do ask questions and don’t accept the basic premise of everything as it appears, often reach a point where they’re satisfied with the answers and they stop asking. They managed to get themselves to a place where they can see things beyond the accepted view, but then the walls slam down and they neglect to ask the next question.
And then there are those who continue to ask the next question, but only in certain arenas…they confine their curiosity to specific slots. Science, for example. Or questioning the official story of things, but then not applying that same level of curiosity to other areas of life because, well, that’s just how things are over there.
I’ve often thought that the invention of the wheel was the worst things to happen to the human race.
After that, it was all wheels.
What to do with wheels, how to use wheels, how to connect them up to do more things with wheels, how to make better wheels.
Of course, the wheel worked. It made life easier.
Suddenly, people had a thrilling new avenue to channel their curiosity. Those with vision could instantly see the power of the wheel. They could transform existence. And they did.
Since there were infinite possibilities for what you can do with wheels, it soaked up the curiosity of many, many minds.
Thousands of years later, despite the massive expansion of technology, it’s still pretty much all wheels. Even the computer, which was an astonishing leap of innovation, resides within this framework.
It has become the new wheel.
When something works, has many useful applications and appears to make life easier, eventually other alternatives are no longer seriously considered. The door closes. This scenario is played out across all levels of human existence.
People become entranced by the tyranny of what is, and stop asking “what if?”
The term “Reinventing the wheel” means drafting off what already exists, basically duplicating or adding a slight variation to something.
People forget that at one time, the wheel was a stunning break from the way things were. They lapse into unconsciousness and forget that other possibilities outside the context of reinventing the wheel could even exist.
It’s a pattern that’s been repeated throughout history.
“Here’s how things are. Work with that. Be satisfied with that.”
Picasso didn’t accept this. No true individual is willing to accept this.
The painting at the top of this post is from a class where we were riffing on the work of 20th Century abstract artists. Not copying a painting, but painting in “the style of…” It was interesting to try seeing through the eyes of another artist, in this case Picasso during his cubist period. It was the first time since I started painting that I wasn’t actively trying to do something new.
I was reinventing the wheel.
It was surprisingly easy, and kind of fun, especially when you’re just starting out like I am.
But like Picasso and all of the other modern abstract artists who have taken that wheel and deconstructed it and splattered it and covered it with fur and stretched and mutated and smashed it until it was completely unrecognizable, I wouldn’t want to make a habit of it.
Flew out of LAX at midnight, fell asleep as we took off, woke up as we were making our approach to land. I’ve never slept that hard on a plane.
As we descended still well before dawn, I watched the lights of the cities and the suburbs flow past, innumerable gold and silver coins lit from within, glowing warm and orange and whiter than white against darkness broken by lighter patches of snow. I was mesmerized by the shapes of the light, and the dark spaces in between, outlined by fiber optic freeways extending to the horizon; staggered by the incredible beauty of light seeping into the shadows, spikes of brilliance refracted by snow surrounded by not snow.
And then the whole scene shifted.
I was no longer looking down upon lights on the ground, I was looking at a vast space hung with glittering spheres, like stars suspended in a substrate of clear gelatin. The hot points of light and their diffused and overlapping luminescence took on a sort of mass, transforming from something familiar into something else.
No longer merely man-made sigils that delineate the borders of civilization, the network of streetlights and stoplights and headlights acquired a raw physicality, bursting to life like the phosphorescent nuclei of energetic cells surrounded by illuminated protoplasm, all connected into some radiant otherwordly organism that extended itself in three dimensions, hovering above the ground and reaching up to the sky and out into space in all directions. It was alive.
At the precise moment this crystallized, I felt a feeling I have never felt before. That I was seeing for the first time, like a baby out of the womb. I suddenly unsaw. And then I SAW. At this moment of revelation, the feeling was so overwhelming I began to cry, a deep sob from somewhere lost long ago. For that brief, magnificent instant, I felt I had never seen anything so beautiful.
We touched ground, and I stepped off the jetway into the airport and as I walked I could hear every sound, even the ambient noise we learn to ignore, as if it were a separate note played in some gorgeous symphony. I heard the whole and the parts simultaneously…the murmur of a thousand conversations sounded like water flowing over rocks, strains of voices rising and falling, mixing and separating into syllables, so fresh to my ear that I was transfixed. Each individual soundwave was clear and distinct and at the same time merging and blending to create the most fascinating music I had ever experienced.
To say this was a profound experience is a severe understatement.
This is going to be a very good year.
I said “Yes, and the more you look at it, the more you will see.”
It’s true. There really are hidden messages in it.
Except they’re not coming from me.
When a person looks at a painting, they see what they want to see. They see their own mind reflected back at them. They see messages from their own consciousness.
The next time you look at a painting, think about what you see.
Ask yourself how you could see it differently.
And then see it differently.
You might learn something important that you have hidden from yourself.
Six pieces of paper painted separately and joined with masking tape to make a whole.
All of my paintings are my self portrait.
When I have 20 or 30 of them hanging on the wall, I feel that I am seeing my mind. The mind beneath the mind that navigates through the world and processes what it encounters.
Each time I put paint to paper, that “mind beneath mind” flows out into this reality. Every thought, every dream, every impression, every feeling coalesces at the tip of the brush and reveals itself in shape and line in two dimensions.
My mind does not look like this world.
Looking at the paintings of others, I see their minds as well. Some are instantly graspable. Others hold secrets that cannot be discovered if you stared at them for a million lifetimes.
There is information and experience and emotion to be gained from both, but I prefer to look at the paintings that don’t reveal themselves so easily.
These are the paintings that speak to me, mind to mind.
They show me things I had never imagined. Things that have never existed. They show me not just what is possible, but what is impossible.
What I love about art, and abstract art in particular, is that if you let it, it will show you something beyond the brushstrokes…a glimpse of something new that you have never experienced before. Something that inspires you to envision the potential of something more.
Once you see that potential, you will start to see EVERYTHING else differently.
And then if you let yourself, you will do something about it.