On a beautiful late fall afternoon my wife, Jean, returned from a walk with a story of her first-time encounter with a seven-year-old down the road. Katy had introduced herself and shown Jean a rock that she was using to chip away at another rock. Jeanie asked if Katy was making an arrowhead, and she said, "No, I let the rocks decide what they should be." Jeanie said she thought that was an excellent idea and then Katy revealed a small flat rock. She said that it was the key to another universe. Then she showed Jean a round, white rock, which she said was a unicorn's egg. She said that she'd had another egg, which broke, and a baby unicorn had come out. Then she looked intensely at Jeanie and said, "It's really true, you know." Jeanie nodded in agreement and asked if the baby unicorn had gone into the other universe, and Katy said, "Yes." Smiling at each other, they parted.
I think of how this characterizes our common history and the artist's calling. If we can allow ourselves to empty out the material that represents conditioning, how many of us remember sensing as a child the disappearance of something that was magical? I don't know when it happened to you, that feeling of a diminished innocence and lost connection to a primary source, but I was sensing the shift, the beginning of the loss of a secret power, by the time I was five.
For a lifetime in a state of forced exile from that other place, or "universe," we're all required to bear and manage the loss and fill the void. Fortunately, I had parents, grandparents and teachers who supported the acts of dreaming, imagining, questioning and believing in the power of prayer and faith, and the importance of listening to that still, small, quiet, inner voice. Feeling abandoned by the definition of a primary self, I then understood and discovered as a child that the "key to the other universe" – to reclaiming a union with the "other" – was the imagination.
I was a second-semester college sophomore when I first found myself tempted to consider a studio-art course. I listened and responded to an internal voice that prompted me to test myself in an area where I could form something with my hands. I was totally absorbed when I worked; time seemed to stand still, and I resented interruption. At the end of the course I inquired of the teacher, "Do you think I have any talent, any ability?" She questioned why I asked. "Well, I just wondered if I was good enough to take another course, to continue, to do more."
She said, "I am going to ask you one question and only one. Do you want to do this?"
I responded immediately with, "Oh, yes. Absolutely." Without ever saying that I had talent or ability, she said, "Then just go ahead and do it."
The mystery is that more than four decades ago, the act of applying charcoal to paper totally changed my life. Something in me expanded, turned toward a forgotten time, turned toward a memory. It was a complete conversion.
Today, so many years after knowing this caring teacher (and others who were part of my formal art training), I think with deep gratitude of how they kept turning me toward the light. The one who gave me permission to keep painting by saying, "Well, just go ahead and do it." The one who described the "family of man" with compassion and care, hoping and longing for a better, more perfect and just world, a world that lived up to Christ's challenge. And, finally, the one who felt, along with Wallace Stevens, that the poet was the high priest of the invisible – a painter who managed to reveal "spiritual meaning" in everyday objects.
The question can be asked, "What have I done with this legacy? Does my work share any of the spirit that these teachers acknowledged and attempted to claim?" To find words for what I do in painting or drawing is tempting, but the work alone tells the truth.
In painting I found a means of objectifying a personal truth, a workable way to reconnect with that greater mystery, to be engaged with searching for the lost light – that other "universe" I had sensed and experienced and that I knew as a memory. What I have looked for over these 40 years is a statement that holds the thing that "is" and "is not." I'm talking about the void that rests between the seen and the unseen. Pascal said that "Greatness is not achieved by reaching one extreme or the other, but by touching both at once." I've looked for a painting that holds that place, that moment of stillness and silence where all time collects and is distilled. For lack of a better description, I would say that this is the face of God, the silent language of God.
As composer John Cage said to painter Phillip Guston, in regard to working in the studio, "...the past, friends, the art world, and above all your own ideas – all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave." You leave, dropping to a state of wakeful dreaming, and yet you remain present in the struggle, attempting to break through to that complete memory that doesn't yet exist. And if you're lucky, in the process of forming the work, you'll sense and remember, remember the light. As an act of faith it's like returning home, to the center of who we are and want to be. My commitment has been to try and see into that void of unknowing and convey my hope that, to borrow a line from a song by John Fogerty, "I'll be coming home soon; Long as I can see the LIGHT."