How I get to know myself — and the world — thanks to art
We feel the changing relationships among people and between people and nature are at the core of our modern problems. How that relationship can be restored is an ongoing theme in Ode. In Resurgence, a valuable magazine that is true to its name, we read a surprising article about how art can contribute to this effort. – The editorial staff
I am a painter fiercely in love with the world. I have devoted my life to art and have come to understand that I am part of a miraculous universe of connections. This is why I believe there is an unmistakable link between art and ecology. Art is a process of discovering connections both within us and in the outside world. Ecology is the study of interactions among living beings and their environment. So both are really the study of relationships.
One of the fundamental problems of our time is the scarcity of attention to how things are related. The modern marketplace, television, and so much else of contemporary life does not foster connections. Our thoughts and actions are fragmented and we see the world as an assortment of objects rather than one interconnected whole. To live well and sustainably, I believe, we must learn to reconnect.
Painting constantly challenges me to connect and reconnect with my creative process, my work and myself. I’ve found that this can best be done by asking questions. What is wrong or right with a painting? How can a composition be strengthened? How can I best represent this experience? What is the real subject? What do I want to say and why? A life of art is a life of questions.
For me, a finished paintings is not so much an answer as it is questions, re-framed, refined and repeated. A question is an invitation to connect, to build relationship. But these days it isn’t considered productive to spend a lot of time asking questions. When something goes terribly wrong in our society, like the September 11 attacks, people want answers. Asking questions is considered a sign of weakness and a lack of resolve.
Yet there is so much in the world we don’t know! What would it be like for our culture to respond to a passionate call for contemplation and questions? We might all move more slowly, more carefully, more creatively, do less damage, have more time. Questions take time. Creation happens slowly. Moving quickly is usually not decisive but destructive.
My life of painting has taught me a great deal about reflection, contemplation and self-study. It sounds paradoxical, but I’ve noticed that to look outside yourself is to look inside yourself. As years go by I look back on my work and realize with the clarity of hindsight, what my limitations have been. Through this process of self-study I experience myself as an evolving dynamic being. I paint the same view year after year and notice that I change just as much as the world changes around me. Experiencing our own dynamic nature can be the first step towards understanding the dynamic nature of all living systems.
One of the qualities of a great work of art is that everyone who is drawn to it and talks about it become themselves the primary subject of their own critique. Speak to me about art and I will learn more about you. Nature is also like that. When you look deeply into the natural world you look deeply into yourself – when you describe nature, you describe yourself. We create the world with our senses as much as it makes us. The more we understand ourselves, the more we understand the world. This understanding is important in deciding how to live in the world without destroying the fragile ecological networks that sustain life on Earth.
During my first ten years of painting I thought that one day I would arrive at a kind of mastery and that the process of seeing my own limitations was just a phase in my life as an artist that I would eventually get beyond. Now I am starting to understand that making art will always involve a process of self-realization about limitations. An artist’s life is spent studying process, which is really a complex and evolving network of connections and relationships. This is the true work of art and requires a Gandhian approach, which acknowledges that the path is the destination.
My art has led me into deeper relationship with the Earth. When I am outside painting the landscape I often feel part of it – not just a spectator, but a participant. Perception is participation. The more we perceive, the more we participate. The more we participate, the more we are connected. With connection comes caring.
Some years ago, I began to try to make paintings of the place where I live, returning over and over to the same subject. This practice has taught me something about reverence. One cannot look deeply into nature and not feel reverential. Revering the world around us leads to revering ourselves, and from this springs the realization that both are part of a greater whole.
I have grown to care about what I paint. When I care about something or someone or some place, I experience feelings of generosity, gentleness, appreciation, delight, sensuality, selflessness and self-transcendence. Artists must care about their works of art or they become meaningless. When I connect to something, it takes on greater meaning for me. When I come into relationship with something, it becomes more meaningful to me. Complex webs of connections hold real meaning for us and the more we see and feel them the more significant life becomes. This is the process of moving from fragmented thinking to holistic thinking, a shift that can lead to restoration and healing of the earth.
Adapted and edited with the permission of Resurgence (March/April 2004), an attractive magazine from the United Kingdom that provides refreshing views on ecology and spirituality six times a year. Information on subscriptions: Resurgence Subscriptions Manager, Jeanette Gill, Rocksea Farmhouse, St. Mabyn, Bodmin, Cornwall, PL30 3BR, United Kingdom, email@example.com, www.resurgence.org.
Adam Wolpert is a painter, teacher and director of the art
programme of the California-based Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. His paintings can be viewed on www.adamwolpert.com