The Terracotta Soldiers, perhaps the most famous collection of funerary art, symbolizes the mass armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. The physical site is an unmatched visceral sensation. But despite its great archeological importance to human history, it’s also a reminder of human arrogance and our fear of death.
“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.” — Albert Camus
Recently, I’ve been deeply distressed over what happened to a painting I’ve made. Working to rediscover myself in this traditional medium, I was quite pleased with what had developed, which makes this story all that much more difficult to share. The sessions that built up to that point of arrival was filled with challenges; experiments with technique and expression, huge emotional ups and downs, the struggle with the medium itself. Each day was a full-on battle, and at the end of the war, I was completely exhausted from the cumulative exertion of energy. The near-final results showed promise.
The painting I made and lost. With the technique and approach I take, working very fluidly and dynamically with the medium, what once was is no longer. (I took this only photo from the side to avoid the glare on what was then, very wet paint.)
The problem occurred the next day when a sudden urge to “repair” a small area in the painting (forgetting that imperfections are what makes an artwork unique) drove me back into the foray. And this happened on a day that was not even scheduled for painting; my paints were put away and I usually take the painting off the easel for drying but in this instance I didn’t. Therein, came the disaster. I was already not in the right mindset and being physically spent from the hard days before, the mind and body fought hard against my heart. Add to the dilemma of having run out of the original paint I was using —I needed to re-mix some of the colors, one which came from a new brand of paint, a sienna whose potency turned out far greater than expected — it’s now clear I set myself up for failure. Upon applying the “fix” something went wrong and one fix led to another as I altered things on the fly, and before I knew it, I lost both the sense of the painting and myself. Sixty minutes later (and it’s always quicker to destroy than to create) I awoke to find myself lost, akin to the experience of suddenly realizing that you’re driving and not knowing how you got there. Except this time, I crashed. The painting was ruined.
The famous Jean-Luc Picard face palm has been an excessively dominant and recurring expression of mine in recent weeks. Image from the brilliant science fiction television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation.
You can imagine the panic that ensued. This panic and soon to be massive frustration and regret led to an obsession with the past result — a result (in a photo!) that looked better and better in comparison to what was now there in front of me. For the past two weeks, I could not regain the freshness and feel of what I had no matter how desperate or valiant the effort. I was so certain that I could bring it back but it was gone.
“Doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is absurd.” — Voltaire
This was real life and there are no do-overs. Unlike working with digital mediums, there was no magical “undo” button or previously saved file. I felt like an athlete who delivered on the hardest elements of a performance only to trip just at the finish line. I was this attached to the results of the past experience. Many days of agony ensued. Why didn’t I leave it alone?
Self-Portrait by Edgar Degas . Degas was one of the most skilled and devoted artists in history, a man obsessed with capturing the beauty and honesty of life with his brush.
My experience brought to mind the story of the master Impressionist Edgar Degas, who was so obsessed with a painting he’d done that he broke into his client’s home to steal the painting back to make the changes he wanted to it. I guess I’m not alone in my craziness. And perhaps you can say there are worse things to be obsessed over than a piece of art. But still, I couldn’t seem to grasp why I couldn’t get over what was first, the expectation and obsessive desire to make things “perfect” (which wrecked things in the first place) and then subsequently, the regret and obsession with what had already passed (which dragged out the mistake and the pain).
After a small reprieve from painting and taking a moment spared for absorption and contemplation, another story came to mind — that of the practice by Tibetan Buddhist monks in their tradition involving the creation and destruction of mandalas made from colored sand, a ritual that symbolizes the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.
Tibetan Buddhist monks create these gorgeously intricate sand mandalas, which are subsequently and ceremoniously destroyed. From the beautiful documentary, Samsara.
It had finally hit me. I had to move on and not try to re-live any past pain or glory (the two states seem indefinitely intertwined). It’s my job and joy as an artist to always be moving forward, to build something out of this experience and each subsequent experience. Artistic creation, like life, moves in cycles and phases. This realization — the profound truth that every moment and element is unique to its own time and place — is what makes life so incredibly beautiful and special. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget that! And in this age of global mass production and contrived uniformity of tastes, imagery and material obsessions, it serves as a stark and powerful awakening of what it means to be alive.
“The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.” — Epictetus
A most powerful scene from Tony Kaye’s 2011 film Detachment, starring Adrien Brody, on the importance of being aware and avoiding attachment to the false ideologies outside of ourselves. (Please be warned that this scene contains mature language)
To know the noble truth that nothing is permanent is actually incredibly liberating, even if it take something as trivial or insubstantial as a troubled painting to remind us. But switch the experience of painting to an important project at work, our core relationships, or the health of ourselves and our family, and the same lessons apply. Living detached from results and being focused on process is the only way to be truly happy.
The fact that events and material items can’t be fully preserved emphasizes the importance of what is actually there in front of us now, in real-time. The past is merely memory, the future only an unforeseeable possibility. Living in a digital age where EVERYTHING is recorded, there’s more urgency to capture the moment than to live it. The more we hang on to things — possessions, ideals and expectations — the more we create conflict with our environment, our fellow human beings and within ourselves. My experience these past few weeks reminds me again of the wisdom and power of art in its ability to reflect the truth of who we are and what we can be.
“And never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world.” — Albert Camus