Object Meditation

Nearly eight months ago I quit my career to be a full-time artist. It was an extreme transition affecting just about every area of my life. As I have struggled to find my voice and to achieve a new level of maturity and coherence in my work, I have also needed to muster the strength to weather the change and do a much-needed “mental house-cleaning.”

I started a formal, daily meditation practice a few months ago, only to discover that I had been meditating all along in my studio practice.

My paintings and drawings are –and always have been – meditations. My creative process is deceptively simple: I like to have in front of me an object – simple, still, and “there.” I paint it and contemplate its place in the world. I travel through the layers of meaning it holds, starting with its origin and moving on to its history, its memory, and its cultural implications. Before long, those assigned meanings fall away to reveal pure materiality. My mind relaxes as I explore the play of the light, the color, the essential character of the object. I believe there is an applicable Buddhist term for this: one-pointed concentration. It is the path to wisdom.

I think this is why I am so drawn to marbles lately. Small and graspable, they nevertheless correspond to the cosmos in the way they mimic the shape of planets and contain miniature replicas of galaxies. According to B.K.S Iyengar, “you cannot consume the infinite. All you can do is taste its essence through the particular.”

“Marbles in Sunlight,” Acrylic on Paper, 6 x 12 in.

An artist friend recently suggested I read an essay by Rebecca Solnit entitled “The Color of Shadows, the Weight of Breath, the Sound of Dust.” In it, the writer explores the meaning of an object as “a collective symbol, as a pebble is a private sign of a place, a pressed flower of a lover.” Objects such as souvenirs and keepsakes are the means by which the past is recovered:

“The Object restores to the viewer lost memory, experience, emotion: it is one’s own inner life, not the object, that comes back to life in this act of recognition… We part with so many objects in life, from thrown-out letters and fingernail clippings, to lost keys and stolen cameras, like Hansel and Gretel’s leaving intentional and unintentional trails behind us, trails eaten by time and others as their crumbs were by the wild birds so that we cannot find our way back, either to who we were or to the objects that accompanied that moment in time.”

“Blue Lure,” Watercolor Pencil on Paper, 8 x 8 in. (Fishing lures awaken intense associations for me, memories of spending summers on a lake in Minnesota fishing with my father, enthralled by all the colors of the lures in his tackle box). 

And yet, the material world of objects is full of illusion. It is confusing and constantly in flux. The only real thing is the soul, which is eternal. This is why Solnit suggests that, even as we cling to objects as simple, clear reminders of what is important to us, only the spirit is easy and eternity simple.

That is why there always comes a point in my painting when the object before me suddenly seems alien and unknowable, before I retreat back again through the layers and recover this world. It is almost a reversal to what I experience in my formal meditation process, which is characterized by a retreat from the material world.

I think that’s why my “realism” is a little off. In the end, my concern is not to mimic reality. There is a tension produced by this push-pull process, unmooring the subject from the context it begins with. Sometimes the colors are electric and objects dance and float.

I want to more actively explore this aspect of my work going forward this year. I also want to explore the tension between what can be knowable and unknowable about objects. While some things are sentimental and connected to personal history, others have lost histories, which invites fanciful interpretations about their origins (such as my antique store finds). Heirlooms, too, can tempt conjecture. It is impossible for me to know what feelings my grandmother, for instance, might have really harbored toward a knick-knack or piece of jewelry handed down to me. And what if I were to meditate on things I have lost over the years? What avenues can I open up by the act of mentally retrieving something vested in and composed of memory rather than rooted in materiality? What if I were to transform them back into something graspable and material –  in other words, turn that memory into a painting I can look at and touch?

Look for the fruits of my continuing search for the meaning of objects…

“Cat Eye,” Graphite on Paper, 6 x 6 in.
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