Near Chiang Mai there’s an important temple known as Doi Suthep. It’s reached from a mountain highway and a funicular which rises several hundred meters to the level of the temple. Here, near the top of a golden spire, in a glass and gold reliquary, lies a splinter of Buddha’s leg-bone. Before ascending the funicular I purchase for forty baht a small cage containing four finches — active and eager to be free.
When I arrive at the top I release the birds — they buzz off in all directions. Within a minute a bird of the same species lands on my head. The bird stays with me as I proceed around the temple. It’s under my collar, into my hair. When I unfold my French easel it sits on the top of the canvas and makes a contribution to my palette. I realize my small friend is a seasoned professional in the free-the-bird business.
Beautifully dressed children holding lotus blossoms are slowly circling the temple. In the late sunlight it’s an opportunity for a Sorolla-like vignette. I try to grab the essentials of the procession: simplify shapes, one in focus, others less so. Light through the material will come later — after glazing. For the time being I use a system I call “overshoot and cut in.” It’s magic in acrylic. The faces, arms and hands are a warm and oversize smudge. They are then cut in with the dark negative shapes of the background around the faces and the light negative shapes of their robes around the arms and hands. My little spirit rocks back and forth with the action of the brush on the canvas. My little spirit is not inclined to interfere with my painting. My little spirit just stays and stays. I have the curious thought that we’re being with each other because we want to be.
A woman comes around. She has a big cage with many birds in it. She looks at my painting and then helps herself to my bird. I say, “Thanks for the loan of the spirit.” I’m not sure she understands.
PS: “You have no cause for anything but gratitude and joy.” (Gautama Buddha)
Esoterica: Knowing that someone, something, is with you, in spirit or in reality, motivates. Perhaps it’s the implication of a higher purpose, the connectedness of life, or simply the energy of the universal “thank you.”
The following are selected response to this and other letters. Thanks for writing.
by Jo Scott B
Your story of “freeing the spirits” recalls one of my most magical painting weeks that I experienced last year. Having come through an exhausting series of emotional times, I retreated to my studio at Lake Okanagan. In that sparkling early spring, with bird song cascading from a deep blue sky and breezes whispering through golden green leaves, I took my easel outside. I was staying alone, the summer neighbors nowhere in evidence, nor did the human sounds of hammers, boat motors and radios disrupt the rhythm of nature. In those magic filled days, a deer came to lie in the golden remnants of last year’s grasses at the end of the deck, and a little red headed finch regularly flew over to perch on my easel, cocking his head to watch me when I stepped back to assess my work. My paintings flowed from my muse and created marvelous canvases and I felt healed and joyous. It is memories like those which will help if dark days return again.
by Joseph P Blodgett
What you’re talking about here is a mascot. It is the concept of having a small dog as a courage-giving spirit to a flight squadron, a parrot on a sailing ship, or even a chromium goose on the radiator cap of a car. The chosen animal empowers the unit it oversees. Your gentle, freedom-loving but complicit finch was invested with that power.
Flag as mascot
by Jordan Frew
For several days now I have had a flag flying proudly from the top of my canvas. It’s a constant reminder of the value of freedom — freedom from fear, poverty, hunger, tyrannical religion, and all forms of unjust oppression, aggression and terrorism. It’s really not meant as a nationalistic statement, but rather the hope in the eventual dominance of good in the human spirit. The flag I’m flying is the tricolor of Afghanistan.
Traveling with spirit
by Geoff Taylor, UK
My life takes me to Germany quite a lot (from the UK), and I have been fortunate enough to have lived in both Germany and the USA working in the car industry. I have also been lucky enough to have traveled in Korea and Japan. Thundering south on a bullet train from Tokyo to Hiroshima, passing endless miles of ‘habitation’ (by humans) is an unbelievable sight. Then the return journey in the evening of the following day, and seeing the neon Christian crosses burning in the suburbs, a reminder that Buddha does not have every soul. There is something very tranquil about these massive timber Buddhist temples that is reflected in your latest ‘escape.’ Travel is the one great ‘leveler’ of society! It certainly humbles me to appreciate how lucky I am in this little world of ours.
by R P Shelby, UK
People of all cultures have frequently believed in the value of an accompanying talisman or amulet which gives enhanced insight or even guidance to the activity at hand. Whether in the form of a crystal, lodestone, tinkling bell or dicky-bird—the value must exist in the mind of the owner. This culturated habit which has arisen from our anthropomorphic past, when our ancestors found power even in stones. These animistic states of mind continue to attack us, woolify our brains, and have little to do with the production of quality work.
by Barbara Kerr, Inverness, Florida, USA
Once when we were sailing to Bermuda — out in the middle of the Atlantic with no land anywhere — a tiny sparrow flew onto our boat and landed on the toe of my shoe. He (she?) rested there for around a half-hour. I was amazed, and kept my foot quite still. When the bird flew off, I remained amazed at the connectivity of beings far from shore.
Elephants reduced to begging
by Susan Spoke, Chelsea, Quebec, Canada
Since the King put a moratorium on logging in Thailand several years ago, thousands of working elephants have become unemployed and been reduced to working for tourists or even begging in the streets (their mahout has bananas and you buy them and can then give them to the elephant.) It’s extremely sad.
Animals in Thailand
by Nathan Kurtz, Los Angeles, Calif, USA
Buddhist practices in Thailand have been corrupted. An example is the Thai tradition of buying little cages or boxes with wild birds, fish or turtles and then setting them free. Through this act the buyer is supposed to gain “merit” for his next life. This has become a thriving business resulting in the death and torture of animals that is contrary to fundamental Buddhist beliefs. Animals, if they survive, are quickly recaptured, ironically to continue the cycle. Gibbons and macaques are chained at Buddhist temples in order to attract visitors and hence more donations. Some temples have cruel and substandard zoos on the premises. All animals in Thailand get little respect — they are there for the pleasure or appetites of the people. Consider this observation by Alan Rabinowitz:
“There were buckets of frogs in the marketplace. I watched as women skinned them alive, then severed their legs from their bodies to sell. With eyes bulging, the still living naked torso was thrown into a separate pail to be discarded.
‘Why don’t you kill the frogs before you dismember them,’ I asked. ‘It is not right for Buddhists to kill,’ I was told.”
Copyright and Visual Art
by Myra Mandel
I want to register 10 of my paintings with the US copyright offices. I have downloaded everything from their web site, but there is so much info that is not relevant to visual artists that it’s hard to understand. My question is this, I have heard that it is possible to register 10 paintings with 1 application and pay 1 fee. Is this true and how do I do it?
(RG note) US artists can register a number of paintings with one application and one fee — following certain guidelines. This is government, remember. Yup, it’s big. The information is at http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl115.html
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 95 countries worldwide, have visited these pages since January 1, 2001.
That includes Janice Robertson who says, “My sister is my most supportive spirit.”
And Jocelyn Goodman of Calgary, Alberta who says, “I too am spiritual as it adds more meaning and mystery to life.”
And Gil Dyck of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia who says, “Let your fears be based on sound evidence and take care of each other out there.”
And Deborah Russell who contributed the following poem:
Wing Or Feather
Clipped bird’s cry in winged anguish begging for but
a wing or feather, echoes a lighthouse deep mournings
a widowed fog-horn’s soulful cry from the shore
washed among the scent and sounds of seas
in the labor of ebb and flow, birthing wave on wave
announcing every misconception each abortion
anguished reverberations and silence
relinquishing to this midnight hour
consumed by and opposed to death
unlike a single day in divine memory
when I called gulls to the water’s edge
two by two, a wooless flock
when I was bestowed great powers
on that very shore, for in that day
I had a visa, a true pure poetic license
when I became one with the sun in nature
and it was I, alone that called the gulls
in glorious matrimonious celebration
as was written, they came and did oblige
ugly was emptiness, meaningless as war
above me, the sky became frivolous
and adorned me with sequins and silk,
waving a white hand in quiet signal
at once the flock began to take rise
I, again mere flesh and bone, was witness
to this most natural epiphany