‘Night Blind New Moon’
TIME SPENT WITHIN is a habit formed early. Where do any creatives get this taste for the “otherness” of the world? How is it startled into awareness? In the midst of Covid19, I am reflecting on the wider meanings this moment in time might offer. As I bike daily to my New York studio (PAUSEd not, as I’m a solo shop) – and unable to go to the countryside that nurtures me, my work – these rides have offered the kind of ruminating space that strolls in the woods also provide. A chance for the brain to slosh in its own sloshing, synapses connecting in new patterns.
Inside the studio, the mind expands. Long hours here serve not just toward the production of new work, or the preparation of work for exhibits. It processes things on its own terms, outside of the banter and onslaught of media. It discusses things: time, the sweep of the second hand moving now along its mysterious continuum. The passing of those the heart knew. Their absence is a presence in the studio. The long hours in the studio give the gift of is-ness: now-ness. The mind makes friends again with the imagination, out of sight of the shoulds, woulds, that whole cousin-hood of what ought to be taking place. There is very little purpose to the floating on the inner pool that the mind takes to the studio.
My life began on a dairy farm, and it is this place, this way of growing up, that formed my deep connections to the natural world. When I was little, Ma gave me an experience that is still crisp and present. I was playing in our living room, by myself as the three siblings had gone off to school. I was not old enough to go with them. She called me, and we went outside together. It was early spring, some time in March. The snow had nearly left. A bird had flown into her kitchen window and stunned itself. She bent and picked it up, holding it gently so that I could see. The little heart was beating very fast; we knew it wasn’t dead. After a few moments, it seemed to come round, moving its head, blinking. She let me touch it. After a few more moments, she opened her hand and it flew off. I don’t remember any words from this experience. But something happened in my heart – the creatures of the air came to own it that day.
I was in my twenties when I remembered a recurring dream I’d been experiencing for a long time. On our farm, there are forty acres of woods to the east. Our cow pasture bordered these woods: the cows would go down into the swamp to stay cool on hot days. I was probably about eight or nine when finally allowed to tag along with the boys. I’d go with them to fix fences, and to find the cows that had gone off to calve by themselves. In the winter, there was wood-cutting: with the swamp frozen, we could move around easily. I came to know those acres well. The woods had a varied terrain; swamp at the east end near the line fence, streams cutting a “Y” through the center, and at the North end, hemlock and spruce copses. At the north edge there was a small meadow, created when the land was surveyed. A crooked stone fence fell inside the new line. In my dream, I’d be walking to this meadow. Sometimes the journey was straightforward, passing my favorite clumps of trees, and pleasant. In other iterations, I’d struggle to get through a dark wood, to find the open stretch. Always a doe would meet me. She would appear near the end of the dream, at the edge of the meadow. Sometimes I would touch her, or she would lift her nose to my face. I don’t recall words in these dreams, just powerful sensations – the understanding that all would be well. I was watched over, safe.
During this time, I also explored and worked in a smaller twenty-three-acre wood, down, across the road. Pa fenced five acres of it as a summer horse pasture, reasoning that it would be closer to home, easier to get the team out if he needed them. The woods provided income: Pa select-cut mature timber for veneer contracts. He understood how to care for the woods, taking trees that were in danger during wind-storms, cutting others that helped open a section for new growth. One spring, we planted a hundred spruce. Somehow he knew about the state programs, when free trees were offered. We went to the woods in the evening. His shovel went into the ground; he’d pull it back, I’d put the tree in. Shovel out, foot pressure to push the dirt back together, and on to the next one.
During my high school years, there was greater freedom of movement. I had a pony, Ma had an Arabian mare. I rode each of them whenever I could, most of the time bareback. Weekends, I’d explore old logging trails all around the neighborhood. The pony knew the back forty well – we’d spent some years getting the cows up for milking in summer afternoons. He was always up for a flat-out run up the field to the barn, like a rubber band snapping back to its home shape. It was during this time that some presence began to assert itself. It would rise into me, like a blooming hot flash. On full moon nights I’d take the pony out, sometimes down the road, sometimes across fields. The presence gripped me completely during these rides: it gripped Blacky, too, and the bond grew tight between us. I had no idea what to do with this presence. But I knew it was asking for visibility: it needed expressing. It was at this point where I began painting, and the poetry habit. I became a letter writer in my third year, after a beloved art teacher moved away. Journals began to appear. Another high school teacher put that habit in place. Senior year, the other art teacher gave me morning space and an easel in the art storage room. I could work on whatever I wanted to. By this time there was very little question as to what to do. Leaving the farm for college was necessary.
If I pull myself back to the now – to this time – and think of everything that has and is going on – the Pandemic that affects our very breath and leaves us gasping – the breath of life that was stolen from George Floyd and Eric Garner too – the echo of ‘I can’t breathe!’ that runs around our social media and graffitied throughout the world – I can ask the question: how do we wish to experience this world?
Our planet itself is choked — with atmospheric pollution, plastics in the ocean, and a fever inching ever upward. She is struggling to breath as well. And now, we face an epidemic where many of us will also experience a loss of breath, and struggle to continue breathing. Do we breathe with her? What state will we court, invite, inhabit, in our lust for experience? This is the essential thing that shapes the world: this quantum mechanical particle that tunnels through the walls of discrete separations and makes light at once particle and ray. Our state of being determines our experience. It’s a choice. The challenge is to retain one’s inner self, to not give it away to the digital world. When we put on the outerwear of the digital, we also assume something that was a fundamental nutrient to the making of the digital: cynicism and its cousin, the disingenuous.I am suggesting that there is a deeper, and broader linkage. A common metaphor (breath) unites our planetary population. It is no subtle metaphor, nor a delicate suggestion. It’s hammering. If we fail to notice this time, well, then we fail.
How do we give form to the immaterial? How do we invoke transcendence? Some discuss this idea as though it were a conscious jockeying. Art can be tagged as emergent with religion, and arising through a dependency on faith. Earlier forms of art, recent ‘movements’ (think Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism) retained a connection to those realms still illuminated by faith. If that word has toxic connotations these days, it is because its muscles and ligaments were attached to the clear understanding that some things in the world are sacred. It can be argued what those are, and who gets to decide these things. The positive contribution of individualism is that you yourself get to decide, and how is equally up to you. When we accept the presence of the sacred in this blue envelope of a planet, we are consigning cynicism to a corner, and putting the dunce hat on its head. It’s a dim view of experience if cynicism is allowed a primary role. What consilience might we arrive at?
The distinction I am making is this: my self, my being-ness is not merged with the economics of this world. Am I within those systems? Yes. But they are not within me. I retain my own distinctness. However false or impossible that may be, it is the thread that connects me to the worlds of faith. This choice is mine.
For a long time I searched for a way to suggest, in the language of paint, that something was more than just physical. In the late 1980’s I began painting exclusively on the tondo form. This idea was gifted to me by a very wise friend, who has also created all my support panels for most of my professional life. He brought me a scrap of tondo on one of his delivery rounds, and the irksome challenges I was having with one composition vanished when I tested the idea in the round. I never looked back. In the early ‘00’s, I repeatedly experienced an urge for a more dynamic surface in the work. I made a suite of prints using silver ink, and swooned when I cleaned the plates and the silver pooled, separated, and created gorgeous patterns. I tried gold ink. I bought silver, gold, and pewter oil paints. I kept experimenting, never quite satisfied. One day it dawned on me that I might try gilding. After several months of frustration with self-instruction, I found a teacher and learned. The gilded ground gave me exactly what I was wishing for: a dynamic surface that suggested an other-worldliness, that implied a meta-physicality to everything in, on and around it.
What is the nature of energy – what we know about it, what we may not know. Its kinds, as varied as the view of clouds in their sky: measured, harnessed, felt, seen, heard, experienced. Energy is the coin of the realm in this Universe. It is as invisible and as pervasive as the very air that sustains us. Now and again it is tinted and wafts into the visible arena, lighting a dark sky or fluorescing in a forced explosion. Energy plumes, courses, and combines into transforming flows. It gets stuck. There are consequences when it mingles with the humming within our bodies.
Energy is at the core of my work. Whether I create using the visual language in a way that might precipitate a direct experience of energy, or work with runny paint in a way that embodies the energies of flow, energy is what I pay attention to. Energy is simple; energy is not simple. It can be taken at face value, but like so many things in the culture zeitgeist, face value is undergoing erasure. Few things can be taken as they appear.
The breath of life is a powerful thing. This energy bridges the physical and the metaphysical just as music is a bridge between heaven and earth. (Says the ever-wise culture of the East.) Breath is life. Turning that upside down, the momentary nature of living is revealed. When it arrives, poetic justice is not always satisfying. It is truthful, and we can always purify that truth. Knowing, seeing, breathing, acting.
As the season turns, I am wondering when I may go back to the farm. With a Shed waiting, I’ve a place to live and work. It sits next to a garden I’ve worked with for 22 years. This return heralds a continuation of work begun during this COVID sequester. Those energies that rose up in me so long ago have ripened, and they are asking, gently maybe, insistent yes, for an out. They need to be reconnected to their place, with my experiential thumbprint included as a link. Sometimes metaphors serve as a trumpet of change. Now or never, what will we do with our next breath? May the new work be a bridge forward uniting the vast lake of light and breath that we inhabit.
JUNE 2020 Karen Fitzgerald MONK