"She smiled and said with an ecstatic air: "It shines like a little diamond". "What does?" "This moment. It is round, it hangs in empty space like a little diamond; I am eternal." Jean-Paul Sartre, The Age of Reason.
This moment. This rock. This broken fence.
The heart wrenching color gradations of a white blue sky. The tiny little friendship I have with Zelly.
The small breaths. The sudden flash of big-picture ecstasy. The small steps that got us here.
I draw and paint small things . . . no matter how big they are. Because the small-things moments are beautiful, and because they matter. Because joy lives there for me, where my eye falls and finds it: where the shadow disappears behind the door and the garden gate subtly and completely defines the space beyond it. Where the bed lies beyond the curtain and the light pours in, from some invisible place, evoking everything.
What I have learned
I enrolled in two art classes in my last year of college, a long time ago: a basic drawing class and a basic painting class. In the first, we drew lines on newsprint and the the folds in an old coat. Over and over. In the painting class, we used egg tempera on newsprint and painted fruit. Oranges. My teacher, Vincent Castagnascci was ferocious and brilliant. Someone may have learned everything they know in kindergarten, but I learned everything from Castagnacci, however accomplished I have ever become.
- that you work on cheap newsprint as a beginner because you are a beginner, and you trust, looking forward, that the small will become big, and already is;
- that the sphere provides every lesson you will ever need: the absence of line and the presence of all dimensional space; the changing edge, the infinity of a single color;
- that you practice drawing small, simple rows of straight lines because every single thing about any drawing you do after that depends on getting those lines right: they are the foundation of light and dark, near and far, big and small. It is a discipline that will carry you forever, will guide your hand and your eye and your heart and your knowing what lies before you and, later, on the page;
- these small things -- tempera, thin newsprint, spheres, the weight and spacing of lines -- move one toward the ephemeral, the ethereal and the eternal.
Walking through my garden
I am stopped in my tracks by a rock on a stump. Because it is solid, because the bamboo leaves behind it float in the air, because it is at rest, because it contains everything, because it is small, imperfect and perfectly there. Because when I look very closely at it, it fills up all the space I can see. Because its edges shift and its dullness reflects and its colors are infinite. Because it's with me, in this world, and it matters.
In the same year, I took those art classes, I began to meditate at a Zen community in Ann Arbor. I learned to do nothing but breathe, look at a wall, count my breaths. I have spent many silent days in meditation retreats since then and the practice never changes: sit quietly in this moment; pay attention to your breath; feel your body tremble, relax and burn; watch your mind flow, sputter, fly across the sea; experience your emotions rise and fall, expand and contract. Repeat.
Draw the lines, paint the orange; draw the lines, paint the orange.
Learn to look.
Small things matter. Beautiful small things. Beauty. Matters.