A coloured state of grace. The recognition and flavour of that sublime experience is the driving force behind my discipline of being a painter and the philosophical and spiritual basis of my life. Experiencing and participating in an activity that elicits pure seeing and loss of self for me is akin to the sacred. Colour is about relationships, but is far more profound than the mere technical juxtaposition of pigments. Colour has a transcendent quality. We are surrounded by colour in our everyday lives as it works quietly and subliminally within us. The dance of light and colour interconnect and create a contemplative space. It is that merging and unity of nature I celebrate and explore in my work.
Cezanne's exercise can be discreetly entered into anywhere, in an urban litter-strewn street, an office, a kitchen, a garden, a place of one's heart's choosing. Beauty unfolds through relationship, in the participation of pure seeing, breathing in the undulating harmonies - we lose our 'self' and gain another. The self that we gain is transcendent and unitive, and shared by all on this planet. Nirvana, Brahman, Christ, Tao, Atman. To quote Rabindranath Tagore: "In each glory of sound and sight and scent I shall find Thy infinite joy abiding." The self that one loses is that which judges, names, separates, forms opinions, our dualistic nature. For in pure seeing the 'suchness' and 'is-ness' of each thing are the characters of its undulation. No boundaries, but interdependence.
As a young woman in search of meaning I sought wise men and women, sacred texts, made pilgrimages, and undertook demanding, esoteric meditative practices. I saw my calling towards painting as a painful thorn of self-indulgence and egotism, a shameful contradiction. I did not recognize similar qualities of yearning in both my spiritual aspiration and my pull towards art and the aesthetic impulse. It took decades to see not only the two as one, but to see that painting gave me the key to my larger search.
Through my own studio practice and observation during my years of teaching art I discovered that the search for content, for subject matter, underlies nearly all artists’ endeavours. Simplistic though this appears, I believe this issue of 'What to paint?' highlights a purely spiritual difficulty that westerners have. What to paint, what to be, who we are is largely a result of being out of touch with a larger perspective. Society fragments, divides, creates boundaries, and makes virtues out of individuality. Yet if we stop, close our eyes, think of nothing and truly see, we find not only ourselves, but the whole world. A world desperately worth caring for and protecting.
It was in desperation that I turned literally to my beloved English garden. After years of earnest explorations of many artistic 'isms', I saw that it was in my suburban garden where my eyes found delight, inspiration, joy, and love. Yet despite having painted for many years, I needed to teach myself to see afresh, not look nor analyse, but to be with what resonated in my solar plexus. To then find ways to get the experience from eye to hand to paper, side-stepping the manipulatory diversions of the canny left brain took many more years. It was during this period that I also discovered that I was not a landscape painter. It was not a representation of a place that I was trying to create, but a sense of place, the experience of being in 'this' place. And I found in my proverbial back garden a sacred place. It had been there all the time, nurtured, and beloved. With that recognition came healing, confidence, a voice.
Einstein wrote that the theory we apply to view and understand the world determines what we see. We are so painfully and narrowly educated in so many theories that we have forgotten how to see. In his book Chaos, James Gleick wrote that "neglecting our deepest innermost experiences makes us lonely. We're driven into coma to experience our totality in peace without the disturbance of our 'normal' insensitivity." We and our planet are not separate, and we desperately need to nurture our ability to see. Intellectual concessions are now made to unified field theory, the inextricable interconnection of all things at a molecular level, but how to get out of our heads and into our hearts through our eyes? This turning is essentially a spiritual one, a metanoia, a change of heart, a coming together of science, the sacred, art, mythology, and culture. Action and seeing should not be separate. Goethe's phrase “the seeing hand, the feeling eye” expresses well the synchronicity.
Past cultures and some of the present have philosophies which encourage non-dualistic seeing. All have a profound element of sense of place, such as the highly sophisticated spatial/spiritual vision of Australian Aboriginal traditional culture. Similarly, Native American Indians view and respect the all-pervading, intrinsic presence within all things, not differentiating between animal, plant or mineral, human or non-human. Spirit, presence, soul. For thousands of years, Indian and Asian spiritual philosophies have been poetically articulate about the oneness of soul and spirit, inner and outer, the all-pervading, nameless centre, "unseen but seeing, unknown but knowing" as expressed in the Hindu Upanishads. The Carmelite nun St. Teresa wrote in Life that "It is like water falling from heaven into a river or fountain, when all becomes water, and it is not possible to divide or separate the water of the river from that which fell from heaven; or when a little stream enters the sea so that henceforth there shall be no means of separation." But how to experience that sublime unity when we have had less than spiritual role models, and materialistic, competitive influences surround us all of our lives?
Learning to see holistically is a beginning, and if valued sufficiently, a radical, revolutionary tool. It is its simplicity that is perhaps the difficulty, for it creates food for the soul, not the ego. The most essential element is recognition, remembering to stop, to look in order to see. Not many people on our sub-divided planet have the luxury of a sublime landscape to gaze upon. But seeing is a magical, creative, Mandelbrot-like experience. It can occur within a single bloom in a plant pot on a window-sill overlooking a brick wall, in a tiny beloved garden, in the bush or in wilderness. Nature evokes smells and sights that ground us back into ourselves and the real world. Once we have had the experience, the valuing, it can occur through memory or literature in the magical evocation of place through poetical juxtapositions of words.
In each of my experiences of sharing a simple exercise of holistic seeing I have witnessed a contemplative, meditative space permeate the room. The beauty of the banal is revealed whether the exercise is done in studio life rooms that are notoriously devoid of 'life', or in nature. It is often not an obvious, spectacular subject, object or place that gives the greatest reward, but the peripheral, often subtle and at first unseen which can kaleidoscopically reveal intricacy and move the solar plexus to become one with that which is seen. Suddenly, there is no viewer, only the presence of life. Once a taste develops for wholeness, it becomes readily available, entered into like prayer, with a hunger for reality.
To find the space and generosity to view life as a holistic ever-revealing process allows one to see that life and creativity have periods not only of reflection, but also of chaos. As above, so below. The outer and inner are mirrored. Devastating, wrenching, inner storms can blow away old layers of past identities. Unrequested, but ironically often prayed for change occurs in guises for which we are unprepared. The path that change takes is often more creative in retrospect than trying to figure out, the logic of ‘if a then b’. If we can embrace the seismic quality of a naturally creative life, and grasp the impermanence of an ever-changing self and world around us, both globally and in its delicate minutiae, then we could perhaps begin to understand why our lives and emotions are by their very nature unpredictable. We would develop a sacred respect for interactions which allow for pure seeing as muse - not just as a phantom of inspiration, but muse as life, a creative playing field, 'being' in process, the highs and lows being the same action, the finished piece comes out of the terror of all the indecisions that allowed the work to find its brilliance. For it is in the denial of seeing the wholeness of our life and our connection to the whole world that we expect from ourselves unrealistic outcomes, whether it be in terms of masterpieces alluding us, relationships being unfulfilling, energy never being quite enough. Within the creative process, the sacred can merge into us in a way we normally see as restricted to monastic pursuits of another time or other cultures. Allowing time to slow down for seeing, reflection, integrative action, acceptance – allowing life to flow through us to produce interaction that are real, constantly fresh, never expected. The discipline is simply in the intention and attitude, becoming congruent, inclusive, viewing boundaries as non-existent, no edges, undulating nature, the petite sensations that Cezanne sought to capture upon his canvases.
A state of grace infiltrates the transition into wakefulness. Boundaries of dreaming and geography become more fluid. Intention permeates the edges of painful self-consciousness. Edges create barriers which self and others cannot penetrate. Through a subtle alchemy that produces cataclysmic external workings and infinitesimal inner shifts, different futures unfold. For me, that alchemical agent is love, relationship, not just with a single person, but the world and all its more-than-human inhabitants. Perhaps to name it as ‘love’ is to limit its mystery for its metaphysical components are profound and beyond description or rationale. Recognition seems to best describe the inner movement. Not a déjà vu, but a rightness so appropriate as to be mystical. To grasp after or wish to possess another person, thing or experience brings a painful stop as the ego moves to make the activity its own. The temptation is to accelerate, to intellectualize, to end by coarse action and effort the insularity of separateness, to do rather than be. Yet it is grace with intent that allows movement outside of our limited boundaries to occur. Not doing, simply being, seeing.
My identity now has a soft-focus, no longer having a plan or role model of how to be with the world or myself. There are still propensities to default to old paradigms, but there is also a tiredness associated with them, as if they wish to convey that their course has run. A new vision emerges that gives no clues as to its manifestation. Distractions will still abound, redundant garbs and old identities tempt, the spaciousness of time will sometimes befuddle and confuse. Empathy and compassion for oneself are needed, for the void has its own agenda, of union, pure seeing, being and doing in ethical, congruent harmony. There is often a fear of loss of self, and yet it is that very self which excludes with boundaries of judgement the very flow of life that contains the seed of healing and wholeness. The writer and psychoanalyst Marion Milner had a profound experience of pure seeing and recognised the 'play of edges', Cezanne's undulations, and queried why we obsessively insist on boundaries of lines in paintings and drawings. She inferred that it was to protect oneself against the other world, the world of the imagination. For there is fear. We forget, and do not see. We need courage, and grace.
To reflect upon grace recalls memories of prayer and meditation. Yet in each of those activities there can be a moving away to protect oneself from real life. Sufficient is an opening up of each present moment, making sacred of what is rather than ritualizing an activity. Interior silence has no words, and takes practice. Glimpses, calmness, peace, and a sense of belonging result from doing spiritual practices, but a greater sacrifice is needed to bring the alchemy of non-self into the world. We feel vulnerable, fear pain, and fear fear itself. We are told that nature abhors a vacuum, but it is our egos with their endless conditioning that fight off the void. We slip, fall into the realm of the vanities, question our sanity, are tempted to join a spiritual group to distract our self from the integrity of simply being for its own sake. As in nature there are no straight lines. But there is movement, even in stagnation. The only action required is perseverance, for pain passes, as does joy. What is constant in our universe is change.
My painting is constantly evolving through an inner vision, never quite achieving. I pursue a language of integration and wholeness through colour, light, and space derived from a contemplative seeing of the unity of nature. It has many influences and passions, from the vibrant yet subtle colours of individual flowers, to the lightening of dark, the darkening of light, water still, water falling, reflecting, layering realities, vistas within vistas, harmony spontaneously self-sown rather than imposed.
The response of entering into nature, whether it be losing one's self in the unfolding of the petals of a flower, falling into its deep interior realms or merging with the vastness of sky or sea – no effort, simply intention and aspiration. Microcosms become macrocosms, the minute and the majestic mirror each other's splendour. As in nature I have accepted a process in my paintings. To want instant blossoms from a seed packet is the effrontery one recognizes in a week-old painting. The nurturing often arises from active contemplation and letting be. When the time to take action is right one intuitively knows. At any one time many paintings exist in this dormant stage to allow for the individual 'Aha!' to occur. At times some need a gentle nudge, others a severe pruning, some do not survive the process – the ones that got away often have such lovely beginnings...
A Coloured State of Grace
Shut your eyes, wait, think of nothing. Now open them... one sees nothing but a great coloured undulation. What then? An irradiation and glory of colour. That is what a picture should give us, a warm harmony, an abyss in which the eye is lost, in secret germination, a coloured state of grace.
Cezanne, quoted by Peter Fuller in Art and Psychoanalysis
© Photograph and text copyright Victoria King 2022