I’m currently reading A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold. A cornerstone text of conservation, this book is one of several pillars that have been helping me build a bridge between my ecological, philosophical, and artistic interests.
Leopold exquisitely describes the conundrum of beauty and wildness: we yearn for it, but in finding it, we often render it tame. Likewise, when we attempt to capture wildness in a painting (or photo, or poem) we inevitably end up with mere surface scrapings of our initial experience.
This touches on an important part of my approach to art and meaning. Leopold’s work reminded me of the philosophy that, honestly, stands behind my entire life choice to become an artist. It’s a concept called esthetic arrest, which I first read about through Joseph Campbell.
I have experienced esthetic arrest in looking up at the night sky in one of the few dark places left in the country, and standing in front of the roaring ocean. This fleeting experience is the ignition of the cosmic perspective. It’s an instantaneous feeling of the most immense beauty and terror, of being cradled and safe while knowing you’ll be swallowed whole eventually. It's the sudden bolt of knowledge that you are an integral, inseparable part of everything around you, and yet completely expendable and inconsequential. Dwarfed and expansive all at once. A brief moment of pure experience and complete understanding, somehow represented by a single object or view.
It cannot be translated. That is both the tragedy and the blessing.
There was a time when I felt ashamed that I wanted to paint beautiful things, found in nature, somewhat realistically. I felt that this was art that anyone could make, that the world is already flooded with, and that wasn’t saying anything new. I felt looked down upon by my friends who made art for social change or to provoke thought on a subject.
Regardless, I couldn’t help but strive to capture the halt of breath that the silent heron in flight precedes. Or the blossom unabashedly glowing over the sidewalk, daring you to brush by it without feeling any kind of reverence. Or, that moment when you round the bend and see nothing but hills hazing into the horizon and suddenly your heart is pounding.
Recognizing this split second of beauty beyond words is what finally gave me the permission I felt I needed to follow that noble pursuit of the impossible.
In my own way, at my own pace, over and over, I attempt to recapture something that is eternally and by its nature lost. To make an imprint of the intangible. I know that I will inevitably fail, and I do it anyway. The creation of a piece of art thus becomes a micro-version of life: suffering in the face of the impossible, persevering, finding peace in having done my best, and moving on.
Painting an object to serve as an ambassador for inexpressible experience is a little like trying to leash a wolf. As Cormac McCarthy so brutally proved in my favorite novel, The Crossing, this can be awkwardly and painfully done, but is likely to end in heartbreak and failure. And yet, there seems to be no other way for us to find meaning in our creative lives, which we seem determined to do. It’s perhaps the nature of humans to put ourselves on the line, to try to convey our inner experiences to each other in outward ways, to manufacture the void we know we've touched or has touched us, finding over and over again that the heart can be sensed but never seen or performed.
Alas, every once in a while, with just the right content in just the right medium, in the right place in time and hitting the right person’s eyes, the unfathomable can be adequately pointed to. Never directly represented, but pointed to by the an arrow of the artist's making. People can be reminded of their own moments of deep connection to wildness through an image, verse, or song. For just that time, the heron or wolf can stand in and speak to that sense of infinity, and we can bow our heads in the recognition that he is absolutely qualified to do so.
The material world is a vessel for the spirit of the wild wild void that we occasionally sense so strongly. In immortalizing an animal or mountain in paint I try to speak to this knowledge, and maybe in doing so, someone hears me. That is enough purpose for me.