There are no clouds in the sky; it is a colorless backdrop for white frosted trees and piled rocks. I’m staring out the window, squinting. A fine shimmering mist falls slowly like crushed diamonds. There is almost no wind. Yesterday, as I climbed rocks and stepped through ravines with my daughter, the land looked nothing like this. Trying to beat the sunset, we made our way over dirt and pine needles to a flattened summit with five jars of yellow sand in tow. We were there to finish a site-specific artwork that I had started a few days prior. As we kneeled to pour sand into shapes in the rocks, the wind curled around us, making an undulating sound in our ears. We imagined we were on top of our own castle, king and queen above a vast landscape filled with creatures, friend and foe.
Two years ago in Germany, I began to respond to patterns I find outside by highlighting them with color. My friend calls it “patternism.” I call it seeing. Shapes on tree bark, puddles on a trail, a meandering line on a hillside. It is always curious to me why my eye is captured by a combination of forms that makes me pause. I have drawn and painted most of my life, but I’ve become curiously more comfortable working outside the confines of a studio. It’s taken many years to realize I never much liked the control that an artist possesses to create. It makes me slightly uncomfortable. I’m unexcited about the precision of representation. When people say of a sunset, “that looks like a painting,” I don’t understand their comment. Much better to witness the actual sunset if you ask me.
Thomas Merton, in an excerpt from Writing as a Spiritual Calling, writes:
"And here the radical difference between the artist and mystic begins to be seen. The artist enters into himself in order to work. For him, the "superior" soul is a forge where inspiration kindles a fire of white heat, a crucible for the transformation of natural images into new, created forms. But the mystic enters into himself, not in order to work but to pass through the center of his own soul and lose himself in the mystery and secrecy and infinite, transcendent reality of God living and working within him."
Merton talks further of the danger of an artist foregoing an experience of great value in order to “interpret” what he/she is encountering in a deeper spiritual realm… “his art will be tempted to start working and producing and studying the “creative” possibilities of this experience. The artist will run the risk of losing a gift of tremendous supernatural worth, in order to perform a work of far less value. He will let go of the deep, spiritual grace which has been granted him, in order to return to the reflection of that grace within his own soul.”
And maybe this is the reason I like to work in nature - it feels immediate. It doesn’t allow me to impose a process or concept or work up a strategy. It’s me and the land all that comes with it. I am grounded in where I am at the moment and nothing more, tied to the physical reality of my location. I forget, for a time, my own identity and blissfully surrender the weight of creating out of my own contrivance. If I will embrace and hold the deep spiritual grace Merton speaks of, I can enter the valuable place so elusive to most artists – of only listening and responding. Of passing through myself.
As my daughter and I poured yellow sand, the sky changed and the wind began to howl. Clouds furled above us and small snowflakes began to flutter past on to trees and rocks and the work we had tried to complete. By morning our unfinished work will be covered by snow and cold and I will have to wait until it melts again to continue. There is nothing to create or control.