We live in a world where I can literally say any two absurd words together and instantly be bombarded with images of those words. Anything I can think up. It is fascinating, fun, and profoundly tragic. As an artist and a person I think about these kind of things. A lot. I think there is a connection between our image saturated society and our declining interest in the spiritual as a culture.
I am, mostly, an abstract artist. I did not start this way, and in fact I love realism. I love drawing hyper-realist portraits and still lifes. My sketchbook is so tight even I don’t think I made it. Give me a pencil and my lines are crisp and unyielding; I love the challenge of making my pencil exactly, precisely describe something. But my paintings are abstract, or abstracted to be more accurate. When I am painting there is no need in my conversation with my work to embrace the challenge of realism in its traditional sense. It’s just not interested in visual realism.
I am, however, keenly interested in un-visual realism. On the reality of things we don’t see. I was once giving an artist talk about my work to a crowd of people in Richmond, VA. Artists know that this can be a dangerous and painful endeavor and is highly ill-advised. But it is necessary and if done correctly can even be cathartic. On this particular evening I had spoken, shared a few current pieces and then opened the floor up for questions (again, ill-advised). I spoke about my process, my training and how I landed in my current place of abstraction. An older well-mannered gentleman in the front row raised his hand and asked, “But I don’t understand. If you can paint something that looks like something, then why don’t you? Why don’t you paint barns? I like barns.”
I promise, I did not laugh then; but I can’t think back to this without a giggle and a polyp of anger welling up in my throat. I will never forget the image of this genuinely confused man telling me he liked barns ergo I should paint them. There are so many things wrong with his question. And even more ways to look at it. But here is how I tackled it.
“I am not, as an artist,” I said quite adamantly, “interested in the barn. I am not interested in conveying to you how the barn sits in the sunlight, how the shadow falls idyllically across the door or the weight of the slats on the roof. I can take a photo of the barn if I like the look of it. I am, however, very interested in why you like the barn – the connection, the feeling, the unspoken relationship between you and the barn you like. As an artist I want to explore the connection part, not the object of the connection.” Or I said something like that.
Now, I am not an expressionist. My work is not all about emotion as color and form tumbling into a painting. But that is a convenient way to discuss why I do what I do. We can all agree that something like an emotion exists – love is real – but is unseen in and of itself. It get’s a bit trickier when the thing we are attempting to give form to does not have a prescribed feeling or name. But it is real and true all the same. Rothko referred to it as the Sublime; in fact many of the founders of Abstraction talked about the Sublime, the Spiritual. The Other.
I firmly believe that creating is a form of spiritual practice. It is beyond the brushes and the paints, beyond the feel of the bristle on wood or canvas. It is not just a physical action, it is a spiritual endeavor requiring more of me than just my hands and eyes and body. And in turn it’s result in imbued with more than just the physical. If we are lucky, so very lucky, that will be apparent to others. A piece will have the effect of stopping someone in their tracks because it speaks to the unseen within that person.
In today’s world where we have access to any image we’d like to see however absurd, we can lose the connections between what is seen and what is unseen. When any bizarre idea can be made into a visual (and probably has been), we forget that some things cannot formally represented. They are without tangible form. We – our minds and our souls – need abstraction. We need the space it provides to let our souls identify with the other, to connect, explore and be spoken to in a way which must be deciphered. Abstraction provides a respite to our being. It provides a freedom to connect and acknowledge the unseen and the platform for curiosity and interaction.
To counter the sad image of the barn man I will share another interaction, this one from someone I have never met. An artist commented on Instagram the other day how he/she kept feeling strangely drawn to the work I was posting. They then went to my website and immediately understood why –‘it’s the spiritual in your art that I’ve been seeing’ they wrote to me. What a humbling, beautiful thing to be a part of.
I will always be an artist who is interested in exploring connection, relationship, language and the unseen. My work may change, my subject matter shift, but my foundation will remain. We are all much more abstract that we care to think we are, and in desperate need of seeing the unseen.