I’m laptopping you from M.V. Mareva, near Chatterbox Falls, at the head of Princess Louisa Inlet on Canada’s west coast. Surrounded by the glaciated walls of sky-scraping mountains, it’s a wonder that we’re getting satellite service in here. The rocky defiles are vertically lined with narrow rivulets and cascading waterfalls, some of them hundreds of meters in height. Today, Chatterbox is swollen and thundering from the melting snowcaps above, producing a mist that hangs out over the glass-smooth inlet like a shroud. At the base of the falls there’s a lush ecosystem of startling abundance. Through the glowing mist, lichen-covered rocks sparkle and shine. Below, at water’s edge, multiple rainbows arch above leaping salmon as in a fantasized mural. Salmonberry, bunchberry, wild rose, maidenhair fern and buttercups dance under the moist forest canopy. Hermit thrushes, unseen, defend their privacy, chickadees kibitz in the cedars, and sleek black slugs take their time along the mossy trails.
For realists as well as poets, this is the kind of environment that asks for decisions: There’s the overall wonder of the place, and then there’s the charm of the details. It’s a choice between a wide-angle and a close-up lens, between spirit and specificity.
What is the meaning of a place? Is it power, majesty, mystery, tranquility? Is it the light — or is it some unknowable thing? Why do we delight in unspoiled places? Is it possible that we simply impress ourselves with the effort we make to get to such places? Is it necessary to ask these sorts of questions?
While we artists may not have all the answers, we are in the business of looking for them. Out and about in the making of our art, we become a part of nature. “To be alone with nature is to be one with nature,” my late friend, the painter Peter Ewart, used to say. Then he would look wistfully at the sky and say, “I can’t complain.”
I’m thinking that being alive in this thundering cathedral is about as close to the divine spirit as I’m going to get. I’m thinking all of this is a cosmic privilege that some of us have been gracefully granted. And making this little item that I dare to call my art is the highest attempt at praise and prayer that slugs like me are likely to emit in this lifetime.
PS: “I don’t dig beneath the surface for things that don’t appear before my own eyes.” (John Singer Sargent, 1856-1925)
Esoterica: Sargent claimed never to paint “scenes.” He painted what was in front of him, without asking for meaning or significance — the corner of a tent, the remains of a campfire, other painters painting. Anything that challenged his virtuosity or aroused his interest. Everything was there to be worked out, studied, scraped off, repainted, until he hit the desired effect. And just to make it look easy, he finished with a flourish. Over several days in 1916 he laboured on a large oil of Yoho Falls in Canada’s Rocky Mountains. He grumbled only about the incessant roar of the falls and the discomfort of snow falling on his bottom during morning ablutions.
Paying attention on location
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, Florida, USA
I love to paint on location, in beautiful places all over the world. I’m spending Wednesday evening contemplating the sunset over at the beach with a few artist friends, then heading to the Galapagos for a couple of weeks. I can’t imagine traveling without my paints. Painting makes it possible for me to be fully present in the dazzling now. I stand with the sun at my back, and paint what’s in front of me. That’s my job — to pay attention.
Being on the mountain
by Dusanka Badovinac, The Netherlands
Oh, how I miss mountains here in Holland! As a child and before I came here, I had a mountain of my own if I may say so. Not very high but very close to Belgrade (city where I used to live), so I spent every weekend there. We had a small house made from wood. Walking through the forests with my dog and searching for the places deep in the woods to be alone with the smell of lives and ground. There is for me nothing that gives such energy for life like being on the mountain.
Glory in human sensibilities
by David Wayne Wilson, White Rock, BC, Canada
In reading your praises of nature’s ‘cathedral,’ it occurs to me that “it takes one to know one” applies here. Without a human’s heart and sensibilities, what glory would ever be experienced in that ‘mass’ of rocks and ice and water? How can we ‘slugs’ really be less than that which we recognize, adore and herald? Leonard Cohen‘s plaintive wail, “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky” overlooks that we are not mere bodies to be measured by pounds and inches. That ‘divine spirit,’ and Peter Ewart‘s ‘oneness,’ are Known to Be when we ourselves participate Therein! The Great All includes, and appreciates us.
Mother Nature, the real artist
by Kevin Sprague, CT, USA
While you were off the coast of Canada I was in Iceland, and I was having the same conversation you had. We slowed down on the picture taking when we realized only the macro close-ups would reveal any truth. The waterfalls, sea cliffs, glaciers, etc. were just too vast, and I dare say too impossibly beautiful to capture on film. (It is also rather difficult to get a good shot from behind a 100m waterfall!) I work with glass, and I found Iceland to be a very humbling experience. When I get comfortable (and when I am uncomfortable) with my abilities, it pays to see a real artist at work, and there is none better than Mother Nature.
by Petra Voegtle, Munich, Germany
Who could not be impressed by a scenery of unspoiled impressive nature such as a glorious sunset, waterfall and all these things which make us aware of our own imperfection and still let us be a tiny part of the universe? I wished more artists and people would be aware of the small things and wonders such as a hornet, sitting on a tiny rock and drinking water from a river that is rather small for a human but must appear like the Amazonas for the insect. Why is it that we tend to be impressed rather by the incomprehensible in its entirety than the smallish things that are natural wonders right beneath our feet? And why is it that we rather tend to paint that glorious sunset in an even more glorious landscape than the beetle that has managed to climb a blade of grass to reach that tiny dewdrop to drink from? Isn’t this the same divine spirit we can thrive from?
Missing the outdoors
by Chris Bingle, Gloucestershire, UK
Thank you for a blast of Canadian fresh air. I came home to this after a day spinning plates, after a week spent getting my studio together for the annual Open Studios event, The Stroud Valleys Open Studios, in between teaching, looking after my teenage kids facing major exams, trying to keep my house from descending into complete squalor and sorting out my husband’s birthday next weekend. Somewhere in the midst of this is my painting life, and last week I realised that although I live in a beautiful county, Gloucestershire in England, I haven’t been for a walk to look at it, breathe it in, watch it grow, watch the light change… for months!
Spirit in the details
by Marney Ward, Victoria, BC, Canada
I don’t believe we have to choose between spirit and specificity, the details contain the spirit. Like “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” the unmanifest force underlying all creation is in every detail of creation, just as the colorless sap is in the green stem and the sharp thorn of the rose, as well as the delicate pink petals. If we try to capture the abstract spirit alone, we are missing the glory of this diverse creation. Every artist is attracted to some aspect of what lies before him, usually an aspect that resonates with his own spirit, that makes it vibrate and well up into a feeling that is more powerful and tangible than usual, and this is what he chooses to paint. It will be a different aspect for each artist, but each aspect contains the essential spirit of the place. The measure of the artist is to have the eye to see the spirit underlying the particulars, and the skill to capture both in paint.
Serious plein air in the Rockies
by Ron Gang, Israel
I did a camping trip with my brother through the Rockies 24 years ago. No one can help being overwhelmed by the majesty of those incredible places. I fantasize about being able to get back there with a lot of time and the material means to do some serious plein air canvases and pit myself against those awesome (in the real meaning of the word, not today’s cliche) scenes.
I work from my nearby environs in the less-than-spectacular semi-desert of my home, yet, with feeling and observation, it seems to make for good painting. Maybe the Rockies are just too good? Maybe it’s hopeless against some of Nature’s most amazing creations, and paintings would be just a poor imitation of the real thing. Am I really equal to such a task? I cherish and enjoy a book of J. E. H. MacDonald’s oil sketches of Lake O’Hara, and he has definitely brought back a lot of that grandeur. So the dream of being able to make that sojourn still exists.
Human designs not natural
by Mary Ellen Crowley
Nature is free of human production. All other creatures build from instinct and the results are invariably beautiful and always considered natural. Why aren’t ours? I think we are the only life form on this planet capable of making “ugly.” Even the most beautiful man-made objects pale next to the sparrow’s nest, the bee hive and clusters of crystal. Our most intricate designs cannot rival the complexities of the simplest natural product, be it animate or inanimate.
Our cultural, religious and political constructs and our need and ability to control our environment move us ever further away from nature and create even stronger yearnings to be one with it. I think art is one method we have for trying to bridge the divide. The results are feeble, but it is in the trying that we sometimes glimpse the spiritual garden from which we were expelled and forever after denied admittance.
Prayer in painting
by Brian Simons, Victoria, BC, Canada
I found your article on “Spirit and specificity” very moving and was especially touched by the last paragraph where you likened your painting to prayer and praise of the Creator. I’m a Baha’i and in the Baha’i Writings it says that “art is worship.” I share this quotation from the Baha’i Writings with the participants in my painting workshops and thought you and your readers might appreciate it as well. “ when thy fingers grasp the paintbrush, it is as if thou wert at prayer in the Temple.”
Gratitude for the process of creation
by Brenda Hofreiter, Winter Park, FL, USA
You have come closer to expressing my art experience in this topic than anyone ever has. When the inevitable art questions overcome me and I start wondering why I am driven to create these pale edifices to nature, the answer eventually comes to me in the form of gratitude. Gratitude that it is art that has taught me to be totally present and alive in the beauty in front of me. It is during the process of creation that I become one with nature and can join in wordless communication with the spirit that animates all. It is like taking a long soak in Spirit. It is this experience of creation that is vital to me as an artist. It is this gratitude that inspires me to create my artwork. Like breathing in and breathing out, it is a gift to be truly thankful for. It is the essence of an artist’s life.
Meditation like no other
by Linda Muttitt, Fort Langley, BC, Canada
We are so busy in our lives, focused on a million details of things, but not much on the simple beauty that demands nothing of us. The human race has done some selfish taking, toying with the balance of things, changing some spaces so they can never be reclaimed and moving others to appear as if nothing natural was ever there. From that level of disrespect, how could we not feel moved when in an unspoiled oasis? It’s like the natural world has breathed into us with a prayer and a hope that some sense will come to us, some new clarity and wisdom, some deep, abiding dedication to protect it. When everything around us is peaceful, and we have no distractions of things we have to do, it’s a meditation like no other. Life in its purest beauty is inside us like through a spiritual osmosis, and we are alive and pure in those moments along with it.
Living in a magical place
by Marta Rode, Jasper, AB, Canada
I can eliminate one of the queries — it’s not “that we simply impress ourselves with the effort we make to get to such places.” I live in a place of equal power and inspiration — Jasper National Park. I’m surrounded by endless snow-capped peaks reaching to touch the embracing sky, lush wide valleys abundant with wildlife, ancient glaciers and fresh mountain springs and rivers, and I still wake up every morning and look outside and think that this is heaven. I think that I have done something right in a previous life to have fate brought me to this magical place to live my life.
Another thing I find interesting in actually spending every day in this place is that you can see the spirit in the specificity. When you’re first exploring the place it’s the ‘wide angle’ that really catches you and connects you to the divine, but as time goes on and you start to focus in on individual aspects of the ‘view finder,’ you see even more beauty in the surroundings. I think that’s why I enjoy watching weather go through the mountains so much. It takes away the distraction of the ‘wide angle’ and forces you to look at bits of it — which really feels like God giving you a personal glimpse of the detail that went into making the big picture.
Silence and Freedom
by Max Elliott, Banff, Alberta, Canada
Water, rock, ice, clouds. Why is it that we can feel least encumbered in the high, wind-scoured, barren and most desolate of places is it because they are stripped bare, in stark contrast to the meaningless sea of choice with which we are sometimes confronted in daily life? Is it because our senses are stimulated by constant change, though as we stare at the glacier’s headwall, imagining its movement over time, we know that to all appearances it will remain almost exactly the same? Perhaps it is the recognition of a sense of age, and of one’s small place in the workings of this wondrous planet. Or maybe it’s just a matter of savouring the Silence and the Freedom.
Spirit resides everywhere
by Peter Ciccariello, Providence, RI, USA
“Spirit and specificity” beautifully resonated with me; I swear I could feel the spray mist of Chatterbox Falls drifting through my monitor this morning. “What is the meaning of a place?” you asked, and what are our responsibilities as artists and as human beings when presented with such a profusion of physical sensations as you experienced on Canada’s west coast. I have been very interested in these issues lately, especially how, as an artist, we determine specific subject matter in the face of the natural beauty that surrounds us. Even urban life, which is closer to my own experience at the moment, contains an overwhelming system of exquisite details that beg for closer inspection and offer themselves up for possible inquiry. It seems that to ponder the meaning of place, to capture seemingly insignificant details of experience as expressions of the temporality of our existence is all we can or need to do as artists.
My own recent work has been focusing on language as object, and language as landscape, actually not so distant from your experience at Chatterbox Falls. Sky, mountain, and terrain meld with language to form a synesthetic experience that is neither a textual narrative nor a visual one.
I am most comfortable in these types of tactile, illusory spaces. I like the associations of specificity that appear ambiguous at first but yet upon second and third glance begin to form meaning in a completely new way. The reader must rely on visual clues in the image and title for meaning and context. The title is a line from a starting text; the text contents are mapped into the forms of the landscape. This instills the language with plasticity and points to the “soundlessness” of the spoken word. The visual then becomes a spoken poem. The same spirit that you sensed in Canada is there in the darkened corners between building, and in unexpected life surviving in unlikely places, yet it is tempered with a sense of sadness and seems to yearn for something that resembles balance.
Spirit, I think, must reside everywhere, even in the crumbling urban landscape. The artist (and the poet), through a process of filtering and selectivity, must uncover and reflect that humbling sense of awe that is so evident in your lush, evocative description of the spray mist of Chatterbox Falls.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Adan Lerma who wrote, “If anything comes close to describing why I paint Austin’s Barton Springs and Town Lake so much, this is it. ‘The highest attempt at praise and prayer.’ ”
And also Curtis Long who wrote, “Could it be that we, as artists, use art as a means of asking the questions for which we are seeking answers?”
And also Jim Cowan of New Westminster, BC, Canada who wrote, “Bertrand Russell once quoted (maybe more than once) Spinoza: ‘True piety for the universe but no time for religions made for man’s convenience.’ ”
And also Sandy Westling of Minneapolis, MN, USA who wrote, “I sent my aunt a photo of a violet trapped in the rocks on the shores of Lake Superior… How that plant fought for survival and persevered and won a place to live in this beautiful world and add its own beauty.”
And also Janice Vogel of Senden, Germany who wrote, “Thank you for your poetic description of a place that many of us will never have the chance to see.”