Yes, the title of this piece is the number 52, at least that's the main title. There are 52 titles in total, one for each week of the year. I am 52 years old this year, so there's that too. 52 is also fitting as a way to honor the wise and eloquent poet/philosopher, John O'Donohue, who died in 2008 at the ripe young age of 52. Two of the titles of this piece come from O'Donohue's poetry. I'll list all of the titles that have been given so far (I'm still adding more) at the end of this post.
The painting is big enough that it helped get my whole body moving in the making of it. This is a 4' x 4' canvas, and it began with a digital print of a photograph I took and then revisited and painted with clay paint from Bioshield and sumi brush pens. Since finding clay paints, I have been hooked. The texture of the paint has a sort of powdery, chalky, visceral quality that contributes as much to creations as the colors themselves. The colors are subtle, but simultaneously vibrant because they come from nature.
I finished 52 after a period of intensive meditation with Upaya Zen Center this past winter, and I will be honest, it was a period of grieving. At the end of 2021, we said goodbye to three close friends, none of whose deaths we were prepared for, even though we knew that each of them had their own health challenges. Week-after-week, as I did zazen and did the walking of kinhin, a sort of rawness was gradually peeled back and allowed to be as it was as I stayed and stayed and stayed with body sitting, body breathing, body walking...moving through the graceful dance of carrying the compost out, etc...
Among the insights I had was that those who had "left" had never really left at all, and I still experienced them in moments of presence. Without it being paradoxical, I also had many instances of seeing who I think I am, a continual movement of thoughts and preoccupations, and seeing I am not that. If anything, I could most honestly say that I am Seeing itself. I am that freedom. These are not insights unique to me, and I hear them echoed from fellow meditators, students of Breema and yogis. In fact, verifying this truth is one of the things that people sometimes discover on retreat. The winter practice period with Upaya culminated in late January with sesshin (A very intensive practice period in the Zen tradition) and there was both grief for the current state of "othering" going on in the world of humans and for the natural disasters of an earth that is changing in dramatic ways. I feel that 52 expresses some of the chaos at this time we are living in and also the inherent, unperturbable harmony that always Is. As has always been the case, sitting (as we call seated meditation in the Soto Zen tradition) was cathartic and also supported a sense of satisfaction and gratitude for my ordinary life. To simply eat breakfast with Oliver and Alana was at times an abundant feast for the heart.
When I came back to working on 52, it was with fresh eyes and fresh energy. Painting is always a meditation for me, so when I began working earnestly on this piece, I wished to be present. It might sound strange, but there was great fulfillment in washing paintbrushes, squeezing the hairs at the end of those smooth handles with an old sock wrapped around them. There is an art to gently pressing thumb and forefinger from base to tip on each brush before dipping into fresh colors as I register my feet on the floor. If I am careful, each part of the process is genuinely part of the painting.
My favorite way to create is to preserve the opportunity for many surprises. Sometimes I do this with methods like those of the surrealist painters, defining forms I see in random textures by using paint brush to coax a recognizable shape from an amorphous swirl of paint. This process is sort of like cloud-watching with the option to alter what you see - a stroke here and there to emphasize or draw out the rorschach-like forms into bird shapes, face shapes, hand shapes... This interplay of art as meditation with art as a treasure hunt is endlessly gratifying to me. It is fun to allow spontaneous, fully-bodied movements with big brushes and lots of paint and just as fun to gingerly-craft and investigate minute details with a teeny tiny brush. In all moments, I have an underlying wish to include myself, to experience my body moving, having momentary postures and letting go of unnecesary tension. There’s always something to learn, and because I forget that underlying wish to be present, there are many opportunities to remember and start again!
For example, one day I was just standing and staring at a particular area of 52, kind of fixated and unsure what felt right to do next. I was a bit frozen or you might accurately use the term constipated. When I saw that I was so caught in thoughts and trying to figure out what to do (body tight with uncertainty, and frustration) I asked myself, well, what can I do that’s simple? What can I do right now? Right away, I saw a different area of the canvas that was “asking” for red. I knew I wanted to paint in that area, and I knew how to begin. So I started working there. That was like tapping into a vital spring. When I finished that spot, I was inspired to keep going in this same way, doing what was clear to do, doing what there was no question about. When I finally came back to the area where I’d been stuck, it was with fresh eyes and new clarity about what was needed. I see this lesson can be applied to other situations in life when I am trying to use force to solve or figure out a problem.
Below you'll find the current titles of 52, which are a work in progress themselves. I welcome your comments and invite you to consider buying a print of the work in my Store. Thank you for reading, and I wish you well.
Current Titles of 52, as of July 5 2022
1. “Complications are auspicious. Do not resist them.”
- From The Song of the Jewel Mirror Awareness
2. “Cosmic purpose must be fulfilled. Cosmic harmony cannot be disturbed…”
- Heard at the Breema Center
3. By falling asleep, I may wake up
4. ”A watched pot never boils.”
- From my grannie and countless other grannies.
5. Stay The Course
6. Always and Everywhere, Divine Love Emanates
- Self-Breema title
7. Not thoughts, but thinking
8. ”Expect nothing, gain everything.”
- Old Chinese adage
9. The sun is 93 million miles away and here on my face.
10. “Not one and not two”
11. God is a basket of birds
12. The cure for othering is in the othering
13. Particle and Wave, No Difference
14. All Drops Are Included in the Ocean
- Self-Breema title
15. No such thing as a separate self.
- From many teachings
16. The Father, the son and the holy ghost walk into a breath…
17. “Into the Grace of Emptiness”
- From John O’Donohue’s blessing poem, “For Freedom.”
18. Earth Means You
19. “Cell membranes serve as barriers and gatekeepers. They are semi-permeable, which means that some molecules can diffuse across the lipid bilayer, but others cannot.” from www.nature.com
20. “Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking.” Black Elk
21. Unseen Sees Seen
22. “Opening the Imagination of Wings”
- From John O’Donohue’s blessing poem, “For Freedom.”
24. Totem Hole at The Front Door of Waking
25. (Insert Title Here)
26. “See…and See…and See.”
-Rumi’s reply to someone who asked him what his teaching was in a nutshell.
27. Perfuming the seeing of the tranquil world - page 64 of The Shamanic Bones of Zen from the incense offering verse, by Earthlyn Manuel
28. Third Planet Musical Ensemble
29. Diversity in Unity
30. Unity in Diversity
31. "I know that if I come into my mind, I will become afraid that the branch will snap. In the meantime, I am a bird." - page 69 of The Shamanic Bones of Zen by Earthlyn Manuel
52. The great Inuit story of creation. Of how mother whale breached the horizon of the the sea and provided the world as she wanted. (This title was added by the owner of the painting.)