I recently travelled to Princeton to interview an artist I’ve long admired, both for his technical skill and for his insight. For many years, he was the only artist—as far as I can tell—who was discussing beauty and its home at the center of art. In his essays and in his work, he did the humble work of reminding all around him that our work with various media must be about more than simple expression—about something more like a “reaching out” toward that which reaches out to us.
Many years ago, I got to watch him paint on stage, but at this studio, I got to watch him work up close. If I could describe the experience, it would be in two words:
There was nothing about his pacing, movements, process that indicated anything but careful, considered response to his materials. He didn’t seem out to execute at all. He wasn’t out to do something, it didn’t seem. He was observing the elements of his media, and then responding. It was a familiar relationship, but also a peaceful one. He may as well have been leaning in to smell a blooming rose. His act of creation was a careful, contemplative, quiet, simple, delicate caress of his material, a slow cultivation, the first stages of a midwife, awaiting the advent of something new creeping into the world.
It was beautiful. It was like watching someone pray a rosary. Divine dancing with the tactile.
Perhaps it struck me the way it did because my own work in these past several months as been anything but quiet, contemplative, simple, delicate. Our team has attempted something just over the horizon of possible, considering our constraints, and the result has many times felt a bit more like slash-and-burn than rosary meditation. God bless everyone’s commitment, talent, and virtue, but it hasn’t been without a few frantic tones.
But even so, as I orient myself for quieter work in the coming winter, as I intend something more contemplative and delicate, I hope that the slash-and-burn might leave the soil fertile. I think my recent process might end up being a sort of negative grace—a severe mercy (to wildly overstate it), the anxiety from which nudges me toward something more of a contemplative, prayerful approach. At least, it makes me desire more deeply such an approach.
I’d rather be buried under the light of of contemplation than under the choking fluorescent of meetings and lectures and strategies and plane rides.