Tuesday, July 29, 2008
In his later years Thomas Merton began to study Zen Buddhism to see what relationship or connection it might have with Catholic monastic life. He became friends with D. T. Suzuki and the Dalai Lama and wrote several books on Catholicism and Zen and the search for a deeper understanding of the inner self. The fact that he understood the life of an artist through his father, and was himself an artist, makes me think perhaps he was trying to integrate the two disciplines to better understand the inner workings of an artist. He didn’t say as much because he was, at the core, a God believing religious monk, not an artist. But he did say, “The integrity of an artist lifts a man above the level of the world without delivering him from it.” In essence, an artist’s head may be in the clouds but his feet are still planted on the ground. It is that inner conflict of opposing forces that constantly torments an artist, and I think in some way he may have been trying to define and resolve that issue.
I have read many of his books, picking my way through his Catholic God believing passages, dodging his religious dogma, trying to mine his seven story mountain for small nuggets of insight into the nature and spirituality of art from a contemplative's point of view. However, it must be understood that I feel a spiritual kinship with Thomas Merton the artist, not Thomas Merton the Catholic God believer, - for I, like Picasso, am a non-believer.
With that in mind, I am going to briefly follow Thomas Merton the artist as he worked with his camera in Northern California taking photographs in and around Our Lady of the Redwoods monastery at Whitethorn. I hope to find some of the locations where he aimed his camera. I want to try and paint some of the same scenes from the exact spot if possible. In this way perhaps I will connect with the spirit that was Thomas Merton the artist. Someday I hope to find a clear connection between Zen, religion and art.
Joining me on this pilgrimage will be my wife Alice, who, as always, guides my physical being through all the obstacles that are the roads, towns, motels, restaurants, and things to numerous to mention, to our destination. Joining us also will be our cousin from Detroit, Doug Locke.
In America just the opposite is true. For Americans the target is the only thing. To hit the center of the target is the absolute goal of all American archers. Their bows are manufactured out of aluminum, titanium, whatever metal works best, They have recurve bows, compound bows, bows with counter weights, sights, and they use aluminum arrows, all made in factories by machines. Because the object is to hit the center of the target, no one watches the archer, they only watch the target so that a winner or loser can be determined. America is grounded in winning. Winning is the only thing Americans think about. Winners are everything, losers are nothing.
In American art the same dynamic is in play. Those artists who sell for the highest prices, are praised by the critics, are shown in the top museums; they are the “Art” winners. All the rest are non-artists, - they are just losers trying to make art.
Also in America all emphases is placed on the paintings, like the American archer's emphases is on hitting the target. However, for me the emphasis is on the act of painting. Like the Japanese archer I concentrate on being an artist, not on the painting produced. For me my paintings are like the Japanese archer's target,- just something to catch the paint.
For this project I hand carved a brush out of oak, adding a cross symbol. It rests in a branded redwood case. The boots I am wearing, the “Spirit” boots, I also made by hand. On the right boot is the Chinese character for “Spirit.” On the left boot is the Native American Indian symbol for “Great Spirit Everywhere.” The sole of each boot has been branded with my spiritual symbol, the cross over M. Wherever I walk I will leave a “spiritual” trail.
The rest of my gear consists of assorted hand tooled leather cases and sterling silver hand engraved brushes in a variety of shapes, sizes, and designs.
“Prepare slowly like the buffalo - paint swiftly like the swallow” (Chinese saying)
To clear the mind and focus concentration I have made a portable rock balancing kit. Before painting I will balance a small rock upon another rock. The concentration needed to do this focuses the mind and clears it of distractions. It also concentrates sensitivity into the hands and fingers. Once the rock is balanced one is prepared mentally and physically. The hand is now ready to pick up the brush. The painter becomes nothing - painting becomes everything.
My “Brand” is a cross over the letter M. The cross I use is not a Christian cross but a children’s or “artist” cross. As a painter I have always related to the suffering, (living a life of rejection and forced solitude) the death, (self-inflected as a result of this rejection) and the resurrection, (his paintings are now among the most valuable paintings in the world) of Vincent Van Gogh. For me, as an artist, - because of his religious dedication to art, - the life of solitude, suffering, and death of Vincent Van Gogh, is analogous to the suffering and death of Jesus Christ on the cross at Calvary, - metaphorically speaking of course.
Thomas Merton and I are “men of the cross” but there is an entirely different belief and motivation behind our dedication to the cross symbol. Thomas Merton followed the Jesus Christian cross because he believed Jesus was the true son of God. I follow the Van Gogh artist cross because I believe Van Gogh was a manifestation of a true artist.
I have adapted the symbol of the cross over the letter M as my personal “artist signature.” I have been signing my paintings with that symbol for over thirty years. To me it represents the child-like innocence of art and the serious religious-like dedication needed to be an artist.
Thomas Merton took his photos on the lost coast about halfway between Needle Rock and Bear Harbor. He talked about seeing trucks and people fishing so I assumed I would be able to drive to the exact spot and from there walk the beach looking for the places where he took his photos. I could then paint the same scene in the exact spot.