Walking down a dirt trail that follows the Boise River on a lovely fall day — what could be better? The warm sun is on my back, light bounces off the rippled surface of the river, and the path is dappled with poplar leaves. What first catches my artist’s eye is the diversity of color, value, pattern, size, and texture of the leaves. No two leaves are deteriorating in the same way. This realization triggers a more philosophical direction in my thinking moving away from the initial fascination of design. The individuality of death is probably true of most organic life, including human beings. Although there are similar aspects of aging, the process is unique for all.
This thought brought to mind a classic teaching of the Buddha. In guiding his followers on developing an understanding of the transient nature of all existence, he encouraged his students to contemplate the disintegration of their own human body after death, following the body through each step of decay to the bones turning to dust. While this may seem morbid to some people, it is a very effective way, with frequent repetition, to build an understanding of the very temporary nature of our own being. One of the Buddha’s most liberating teachings is the deep understanding of impermanence.
As I looked at the poplar leaves on the path they seemed to offer a beautiful analogy of this concept of impermanence. The cycle from green leaves fallen to dusty skeletons of leaf veins were arrayed before me. Since I feel intimately engaged in the aging process, I decided to contemplate the decay of the leaves as a substitute for my body. Painting has always been my tool of contemplation and learning. Use this book as an aid in your understanding of impermanence, or just reflect on the beauty and diversity of the leaves, either way — enjoy.
I sit in my studio contentedly working on my paintings as I do six days a week nearly 52 weeks a year. My iPad is playing one of the many Blues stations I have programmed on Pandora. A piece comes on by Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood live at Madison Square Garden. My mind is taken back to all the Eric Clapton music I have had over the decades — the vinyl, the cassettes, the CDs. I think about playing one of the first Cream albums on the stereo in the shoe store where I worked in the late 60’s while doing my undergraduate art studies — selling platform shoes and listening to Cream — life was good.
I have a couple Clapton albums in my digital collection on my iPad but nothing live, and for me Clapton, like Springsteen, has a special energy live that cannot be found in studio recordings. With the seamless magic of Apple’s world in a few seconds I am sampling the full 2009 album on iTunes – I buy it.
Back in the flow of my work I listen to track after track with pleasure, then Clapton begins Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing. My eyes well-up with tears, I stop my work and am completely absorbed by the sound. It is not only an emotional experience, it is also a spiritual experience. This experience is created by many factors, not the least is the combined talents of three artistic geniuses — Hendrix’s original creation, Clapton’s remarkable interpretation, and Winwood’s symbiotic keyboard work that is so subtle and perfect. There is also something in the lyrics —
Well she’s walking through the clouds With a circus mind that’s running round Butterflies and zebras And moonbeams and fairy tales That’s all she ever thinks about Riding with the wind.
The words seem to embody that brief time in the late 60’s and early 70’s when there seemed an alternative way. A possibility of breaking free of the dominant culture, of becoming more concerned with love than money. Yes, I am feeling loss. Surely not all those involved with the counterculture of the time lost – some stayed with it. But most were quite rapidly absorbed in the powerful current of consumer culture. For the most part I certainly was swept into family responsibilities and career path.
Loss can certainly be part of aesthetic experience. Fast burning flashes of genius like Hendrix or the complex long-maturing richness of Clapton’s talent show us the potential of art to bring understanding of ourselves. I continue to sit at my table and apply paint — washes and overlays. I hope once in a while they might give someone some insight. They keep me busy and I am grateful for that.