Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Sleeping In A Swarm Of Bees.

It was a time of revolution… Crowds had erected barricades at major intersections throughout the city. The crackle of gunfire, and the acrid smell of smoke filled the air. The date was 1848 and the city was Paris, France. The country was erupting into frenzy but the neo-classical painter Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres continued to paint at his easel, carefully blending his brushstrokes on his painting entitled: Venus Anadyomène. The canvas depicted a sensual nude Venus standing doe-eyed in the midst of a swarm of cute baby Cupids…

The absurdity of this scenario is delicious.

I get a creeping wave of nausea in my stomach thinking about this masterful painter obsessively and steadily working on an erotic scene from ancient Greek mythology, while the blood of his real-life neighbors ran in streams outside his studio window. His disconnection from reality has always seemed inconceivable to me, and Ingres has always served as a warning in my mind about how not to behave in times of emergency. Now, in my own young adulthood, the twenty-first century emergency buzzer is loudly sounding around the world, asking me the pressing question: What is on my easel?

As artists, we all share something in common: We have the ability, (or the need) to be alone. From the time we were little children, the ability to quietly go into a trance as we colored with crayons or doodled on our notebooks set us apart from the other kids who simply could not sit still long enough to create. I suspect that people who become artists, no matter how social their lifestyles, would still agree that withdrawing in some way remains a component of their creative process. We hunker down as solitary figures in order to conceive of, fabricate or complete an artwork. At times, the outside real world simply seems irrelevant to the art that we create. (For instance, I must confess here and now for all the world to read that the week Princess Diana was killed, I was intent upon painting a miniature nude figure on an 8x10 inch canvas. I listened to a radio account of Diana’s historic funeral procession as it passed through the grieving population of England, while I leisurely rendered a tiny set of round breasts in oils.)

In the dark days following the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, I was at first so numbed by the video images and news stories that I could not lift my brush. Yet once I could function again as an artist, I found myself painting a four foot by seven foot canvas of a joyous Nepali wedding ceremony ! I had just returned from an amazing trip to the Himalayas a few months before the attacks and I would be damned if a crackpot jihad-stunt would make me forgo the positive depiction of the experiences I had with another culture! My wedding painting was filled with colorful dancing figures and exotic foreign sensuality while the television was filled with images of carnage, the charred remains of ground zero, and seas of mourners waving American flags.

As I painted the coy expression upon the face of the swooning Hindu bride, I suddenly became aware that Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres and I were no longer separated by time and space. He seemed to be beside me, cheering me on, helping me to stay focused upon my wedding scene just as he, one hundred and fifty years earlier, had fiddled with his Venus.

Art and Courage go hand in hand when we are at our highest level of performance. Maybe my wedding painting was like a visual prayer, or a talisman against evil and chaos. Maybe it was functioning like garlic, designed to keep the vampire of fear away. Whatever, the effect was real and meaningful to me. It was positive and comforting and pleasurable. It was proof that the craziness of the world would not eclipse my own faith in life. So would my experience as an artist be like that of a man standing in a swarm of bees, refusing to flinch at the stings? How long could I ignore the reality and unique dynamics of the changing world?

In fairness to me I had to remember that, as artists, our job is not to react in a knee-jerk fashion. Our response may be quick or slow, but it is best when it is honest. Sometimes we require time to formulate our next move and sometimes it takes a while to really hear the buzzing of the bees.

Our time erupts with passion and possibility. The distinct smell of smoke is drifting through our windows. We are being called to consider what is sitting on our easels.