I was driving by the frozen river on a winding road on my way to cross country ski with my dogs last Sunday. The sun was shining and flakes of snow were falling off of the trees and catching the sunlight. Some high, echoing piano notes were repeating on the radio. I used the Shazam app on my iPhone to find that the song was “Wash.” by Bon Iver. The notes sounded poignant and lilting and like a memory. They sounded to me like light green, and the sound matched the feeling of the flakes of snow catching the sun, and described the heartache of loss. I knew then exactly where to go with the canvas that had been sitting unfinished in my studio.
The painting, a 6’ x 9’ panel, was faintly sky blue covered by layers of dark drips. While listening to the song I got the idea to cover the blue with a spare, transparent wash of light spring green, turning the painting into a fresh forest, but one that is melting and dissolving and haunted by a few out of season snowflakes flying amidst the greenery. The snow over full green represents the sad fact of our climate turned upside down: snow in summer, heat in the winter, freezes in the tropics, heat at the poles, tornadoes and storms and all of the upheavals of a pained planet. I want the piece to be sensuously beautiful but to also give the viewer a jab, like the feeling you get when a beautiful bird smacks your window and falls. I want the piece to look delicate but slightly wrong, and to be evocative of loss. I want the piece to be eloquent and poignant.
Surely everyone feels some pain when they think about what is going on with the earth. Surely on some level we all do, or we are actively turning away from the pain, or feeling anger at the possibility of being made to feel pain or guilt or sorrow. I know I feel it. We have defaulted on our obligation to the planet. I sat on a beach in the Virgin Islands and cried because all the reefs we saw were dead. I could not focus on the margaritas and sunshine alone.
While I want to address the topic, I don’t want to make art that makes the viewer turn away. I don’t want to repeat or augment the ugly or the ugliness, or to wag a finger, or to miss the sensitivity of the situation. I want to engage the viewer, to have them lean in and look and feel, and then notice that wait, it’s melting, its not quite right, it is beautiful but broken and yes, I feel that too. I hope that this art creates a space in which we can share our compassion and acknowledge our feelings.
I was explaining my artwork to Matthew Frum, (Stillness Daily) a Buddhist artist, designer and mediation instructor who pointed me to the work of Joanna Macy. She is a PhD, an Eco-philosopher and scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology who said, “Don’t be afraid of the dark. This is a dark time, filled with suffering and uncertainty. Like living cells in a larger body, it is natural that we feel the trauma of our world. So don’t be afraid of the anguish you feel, or the anger or fear, for these responses arise from the depth of your caring and the truth of your interconnectedness with all beings. To suffer with is the literal meaning of compassion.”
Do I myself even have the “right” to these feelings? Really my lifestyle is as destructive as anyone’s, and what effect would any small change I could make really matter anyway? A sense of impotence in the face of such an overwhelming situation makes people want to turn their focus away from the matter completely. Matthew pointed out that it is like the death of your mother. You want to be there for her until the very end, doing whatever you can, giving her all your love. You don’t turn away because she is dying, and it is the same with the earth. So true, and so well said.