These weeks have brought thousands of letters from artists worldwide, offering encouragement, experience and information regarding Dad’s predicament. Within the messages have been recommendations for special doctors, special procedures, special mushrooms, special air, and special attitudes. Among the latter is a thing called Gestalt Therapy, which encourages personal responsibility by focusing on current experiences and being in the present moment.
Last January, while in Melbourne, Australia, I had the experience of many who travel to new places. It’s called “a return to awareness.” New surroundings have a way of returning attention to areas that may have become rote. For example, in Melbourne I must remember to look in the opposite direction when crossing the road. Crossing the road, even though it requires alertness, becomes an almost unconscious act where I live in New York. Have you ever driven home and then wondered how you got there? Do you remember the sequence in which you brushed your teeth this morning? Things we do regularly become buried with habits, and we lose the ability to extract their powers to inspire.
In the antipodean summer, there’s a delightful upside-down-ness to things. New creatures are seen wearing coloured helmets, or their own front pockets, or are heard munching in foreign accents from the branch of a squeaky Gum. Ideas bubble differently when we’re forced to inquire about the obvious. To return to awareness is to notice this new world with baby-eyes, and to appreciate her strangeness.
Perhaps being sick is another way of travelling. Old tasks bring new tasks with new styling. This week Dad started painting from a lying-down position. He settled on the studio sofa, nestled among his papers, books and Dorothy. He tilted the canvas on his knee. I squeezed his colours, and brought and took what was needed. He entered his zone and drifted into the quiet rhythm of the dips and dabs of his sable.
After a few hours of total bliss, we took a look at his lying-down-paintings. There’s comfort in knowing that even when things are being taken away from us, a new world waits, to be discovered, in an upside-down place.
P.S. “The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware — joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” (Henry Miller)
“Work cures everything.” (Henri Matisse)
Esoterica: There’s a Michael Moore-style documentary to be made about the phenomenon known as “cancer treatment.” This pandemic disease, which interrupts the lives of so many, bamboozles all but its most devoted students. Uber-specialized oncologists and their passionate outriggers in alternative medicine vie for disciples, with data and hope. Our movie would be full of exam-room Q and A’s conducted by Dad — the explorer, humourist and patient. When the Doc leaves the room Dad cracks a smile and says, “There’s a letter in this.”
by Peter Lloyd, Blacker Hill, England
I’m not religious, but nevertheless (after all, I just might be wrong!) I will pray for you — what are principles compared with support for someone I have admired for so long? And one who thoroughly deserves a miracle for all the help and pleasure he has brought so many over the years. Lacking miracles, a bloody good doctor — they do exist, for one has just enabled me to ramble freely over the Yorkshire moors again after three years deterioration, ending in being housebound and virtually immobile for the winter and spring of this year and being advised to choose a palliative care home in which to spend my last days!
My very best wishes, my thoughts are with you, small sparks among the blaze of the support from the thousands of your correspondents.
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The lessons of change
by Mary Susan Vaughn, Charlotte, NC, USA
There is a lesson in change — albeit one that we would prefer not to face. Like Renoir, who continued to paint regardless of his failing health, confinement to a wheel chair, and crippling arthritis… he had his family tape the brushes to his hand and help him with his painting and mixing, right up to the end of his life. It is a beautiful place we artists go to when we are in the “zone.” It is a place all our own. For your father, no doubt, even in a reclined position — reaching that place of joy, the “zone,” is the one place he can go that will place him firmly in the “present” where there is no illness, no problems, no worries, no stress. His “zone” is his life in perfect balance with nature, family, and this world. By learning to adjust to his new circumstance, he is learning to find grace in the upside-downness of his canvas and the new view from below his painting. I applaud you, Sara, for continuing in your father’s legacy. It is obvious, at least to me, that you are your father’s daughter. Your father continues to “give” so much to this world we live in. His legacy will live on, long after we have all found new ways to return to awareness.
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Living a love story
by Helen House, Marquette, MI, USA
Ever since a near death experience I had a few years ago, I’ve been playing with this idea that Birth and Death are lovers in a long-distance relationship. Sometimes they live closer… other times further apart… yet no matter the distance from one to the other, we are the living correspondence they write back and forth. When I read today’s letter and the previous one, ‘The Bomb,’ I got a flash that we artists are the illustrators and interpreters of that correspondence for those who don’t know they’re living a love story. You have illustrated and interpreted this life beautifully — through your letters, art, and generous spirit. Thank you for how you’ve nourished the artist within us all. May the potency of this time enhance the sweetness of every moment, whatever the outcome. Live well.
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by Tiziana Manierka, Glen Williams (Halton Hills), ON, Canada
I am so inspired by the courage and grace with which your father and yourself are facing and dealing with this terrible disease. Thank you so much for sharing those lovely little paintings too. A quiet, noble battle depicted in colourful serenity. Shakespeare was right about art (literary or visual) being triumphant over death (and disease). “As long as men can breathe and eyes can see, so long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Thank you for touching me so deeply.
Start dancing now
by Karen Blanchet, Legal, AB, Canada
It is a delight to know this present moment is filled with so much joy. Awareness is crucial. Occasionally, when I come out from the swimming pool in the morning, I am confronted with the magnificence of creation, even in a city parking lot. Sunrises take my breath away. I start dancing and invite everyone around me to rejoice. So few respond. Life is good.
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Tips for horizontal workers
by Connie Cuthbertson, Fort Frances, ON, Canada
After reading your latest letter it brought back memories I had forgotten about. Laying down painting was something I also did when I had cancer. I have a lazy boy chair and had it in full recline on my off days… it was known as my throne. :) On days I couldn’t sit/stand in front of my easel I could be found surrounded by heaps of brushes, paints and sketches. I worked mostly from the sketches I did from Rhodes as I had recently returned from there when diagnosed.
Something that also helped me was taking pictures of my painting in progress. On the viewfinder I could easily see the values and structure when the image was smaller. I couldn’t get up often for proper viewing so this really helped. I am a floor walker when painting and like the back and forth rhythm of viewing my work in progress from a distance. There is so much to learn in this life. Not only about art, but of life too. Actually, for me the two are so intertwined — I now see art in everything I do and see life in everything I paint.
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Don’t burn them this time
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
I love the backlighting in second one. Who was the artist who painted in bed? He had large canvases hoisted up over him and lowered close enough for him to reach with his brushes while lying down. I thought it was Matisse… but that doesn’t google. Robert probably knows — unless, like me, he can’t remember names. We are the same age, after all. But it’s strange how creativity can overcome illness, or if not overcome it, at least continue to animate us, sometimes forcing us to discover new subjects or techniques. As long as we’re making something, we know we’re still alive! While I was laid up with back problems a couple of years ago I filled up a book with ballpoint pen drawings — I mean a printed book! ( The Painter’s Workshop by W. G. Constable, a paperback that happened to be within reach). I called it Drawings From the Lower Back. I hope Robert will turn out a truckload of those horizontal gems — and please don’t burn them!
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by Fredda Williams, Fredericksburg, TX, USA
I cried from the first letter I ever received from you. They were happy tears. It was so wonderful to read things that I felt about art but did not know how to express. Thank you, thank you. I cry a lot now because I do not know if my biopsy will be positive or not. I do it quietly because it makes my family so sad. I do not want to spend my days this way. How do you do it? When you paint lying down where do you keep you paints so you can get to them? Think I will try this before I need to do it. I loved you from your first letter.
(RG note) Thanks, Fredda. I’m right-handed. With smaller paintings the ideal is to recline on a narrow couch with the palette beside on a low table at about hip distance. I have the medium and swizzle water on the floor a little closer. It definitely helps to keep busy. I wish you the very best of good luck with your biopsy. If you share with your family they will rally and make it easier and actually quite fun.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Donna Robertson of Beaufort, NC, USA, who wrote, “Listening to Eckhart Tolle yesterday I thought about how fortunate we are to access awareness and Presence in the act of painting. This is so obvious in your father’s work. Tolle says there is only birth and death. “Life” has no opposite. A good thing for us all to remember.”
And also Jeanette Zaimes of Milford, DE, USA, who wrote, “I love Robert’s lying down paintings. I struggle with chronic illness. When I was first diagnosed a wise friend said, “For everything you lose, replace it with something you love.” I see you’ve done that, and so successfully!”
And also Rami Scully of El Paso, TX, USA, who wrote, “In El Paso we hunger for the colors of fall — cottonwoods yellow and Bradford pears turn that nice red and gold glow. If I don’t paint them when they first appear they will be brown by the time I get there. You have warned us multiple times of the importance of now, and once again we see the fruit of it. Thank you.”
And also Luc Poitras of Montreal, QC, Canada, who wrote, “With you guys, there’s always a letter there. ;-) And that is good. Well done. To your dad, “Hang in there, Robert, and thanks for leading us to a new process, that of plein-air-lying-down. My only problem is that my ceiling doesn’t seem as interesting as yours.”
Enjoy the past comments below for A return to awareness…