Meet Your Obligation

a detail of my latest – and yet unnamed – painting

“I feel like I have an obligation to live,” she said, in response to the question from the audience.

Joyce Maynard was reading from her latest book, The Best Of Us, at The Book Stall, an independent bookstore in little downtown Winnetka. Kerri has been a huge fan for many years but had never been able to attend a reading so we jumped at the opportunity. The Best Of Us is a memoir. In 2011, in her late fifties, Joyce met her “first true partner.” A year into their marriage he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died 19 months later. Her book is the story of their all-to-brief time together.

“It’s not a book about death,” she said, “It’s a book about learning what love really is. What is truly important in life.” She added, “I don’t think people should have to pay 20 bucks for my catharsis.”

An obligation to live. I loved the phrase and all that it implied. Sometimes life collapses. This week, we remembered 9/11. We watched Irma wreak havoc on the heels of the devastation of Harvey. Fires burn homes and lives in the west. Listening to Joyce Maynard read from her book, I felt as if Viktor Frankl was sitting beside me whispering, “See! She is not looking for meaning where none can be found. She is making meaning. She is giving meaning to her path. That is the ultimate creative act!”

It is the fire that burns beneath an obligation to live. To not waste another moment of this amazing life seeking for that which cannot be found; but it can be given.

Save

Touch The Arc

A painting I did twenty years ago of my dad.

Years ago I started a portrait of my dad (we call him Columbus) emerging from – or returning to – a cornfield. At the time it seemed an odd painting, something more elemental than intellectual. Something I had to paint though I didn’t really know why. I thought I’d left portrait painting far behind. Columbus is from a very small town in Iowa so the necessity of the cornfield made some small sense. He yearned to live in the town of his birth and although life took him other places he maintained a deep heart-root to Monticello. For Columbus, Monticello, Iowa was and always will be home.

After laying it out, after applying the under painting, the portrait felt complete – or I felt complete. So, I stopped. I have carried it with me all of these years.

These days, dementia has its slippery tentacles around Columbus. He is a mighty combatant in this tug of war, a war that he cannot win, and feeling his strength waning, his single wish was to one last time visit Monticello. So, this past week, Kerri, my mother, and I – as Kerri likes to say – followed Columbus’ heart around Monticello.

His heart took him three places. The first was to the cemetery. It is the place he will finally rest with his brother, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and friends. He wanted to wander. We followed him as he touched stones and told stories – stories he told to us but for himself: a friend who died too young in a car crash, a kind scoutmaster and mentor, an old girlfriend, a high school pal who flew an airplane and their adventures landing in cornfields. We followed, listening, renewed to the deeper truth that the stories we tell of others, the stories of shared time and experiences, both comic and tragic, when combined, scribe the arc of our own lives. Columbus needed to go to the end place to scribe his arc, to touch the depth and arc of his experiences.

The second place was the house that his grandpa Charlie built. It was the place of his childhood, the place of his greatest freedom, the place where all his stories begin and, now I know, where they return. This house is the cornfield. It is, for Columbus, the font of family and the source of his ideals. It is the symbol of his pride. This small house, with no electricity or running water, no indoor plumbing, this house that was pieced together with found material, smacked together with a handsaw and a hammer, an evolution, this house is Columbus’ holy ground. It still stands, just barely. And although now a storage shed for someone, it holds riches beyond words or measure. Columbus needed to stand in the source of his belief.

Finally, we followed his heart to visit his aunt JoAnne. She is only two years his senior but his aunt never-the-less. She is the last living person to know him through the entire passage of his life. She is his connective tissue, the one capable of affirming that it all happened, that the house and the people in it were exactly as he remembers, that this life, although only a minute long, is bottomless in the love that they share. They are the burning point of family, the front line. When we left her, Columbus and JoAnne hugged and cried, saying to each other but not for a moment believing it, “I’ll see you again.”

Stories told at the end place. Stories told from the beginning place. Stories told that connect the places. Columbus counts himself a lucky man. He knows with absolute certainty the trinity of places that hold his life/story. Sitting on the porch he (once again) taught me that stories – lives – are like a river and the flow transcends a single life. He just taught me that the story, a good life, like the painting, is never really complete.

 

Be An Instrument Of Peace

I asked Kerri which of my recent paintings most accurately represented me as an artist. I was building a new website and wanted my home page to highlight a single painting. Without hesitation, she said, “The one titled, He’s A Stubborn Pain In The Ass.” I’d have protested but I knew my protests would be drowned out by her gales of laughter.

When she could breathe again, she said, “Use ‘An Instrument Of Peace.’ It’s the painting that best defines you as an artist. It’s what you bring.”

I am always excited to enter the studio to work because, for me, it is a place of peace. It is THE place of peace. And, as such, it is the place of clarity. When painting, my mind is silent. Peace is a quiet place. It is dynamic, immediate.

It’s a paradox that I enjoy. Peace is more practical than paradise. It lives beyond the turmoil of story and ideals and points of view and resistance. It lives beyond thinking and striving in any form. It is methodical-miraculous.

Horatio and I have often talked of entering the studio and disappearing into work, of becoming present. In other words, we stop ‘becoming’ entirely and simply ‘be.’ The epicenter of the paradox: creating in the absence of striving. It sounds like an ideal, doesn’t it? It sings like an impossible hippie aspiration or a Bob Dylan lyric. The Buddhists have a shorthand phrase for this practical peace: chop wood, carry water. In other words, it is not found in what you do. It is enlivened by how you are within what you do.

Krishnamurti wrote that if you want peace in the world you first must be peaceful. The phrase, Be Peaceful, is appropriately redundant: you will be peaceful if at first you learn to BE.

The trick, as someone once taught me, is to make all the world my studio. After all, it is not the place, not the studio. It is me. I can’t think of anything I’d rather bring to the world than to create as an instrument of peace, to –maybe- be an instrument of peace.

The new website: davidrobinsoncreative.com

 

Be A Nart

My latest: A Day At The Beach

John inadvertently coined my favorite word of the week. We were sipping wine, watching the fire burn in the chiminea, and he was telling us about a recent trip to the Milwaukee Art Museum. It was his first visit and he was thrilled by it. In a moment of brilliant thought collision, he said, “I’m a Nart.” His eyebrows knit and eyes crossed at the force of the collision. “What I meant to say,” he said, shaking his head, “is that I am not very well versed in the arts.” We laughed heartily. A new word was born.

Nart (noun) – a person not well versed in the arts.

When people talk with me and Kerri about their encounters with the arts they often include a disclaimer as if we are, as artists, universal experts (and critics) of all artistic experiences. I told John that, even as an artist, I feel that I, too, am a Nart. I’ve studied it, experienced it, practiced it, rejected it, claimed it, been lost in it, found in it, baffled by it, thrilled by it, transported, disappointed, confused, bored, energized, fed and starved by it. The longer I do it, the deeper into it I walk, the less I am able to put my arms around it.

It is impossible to contain. It is impossible to plumb the depths of it.

In my younger years I was intimidated by this vastness. I thought my job was to grasp it. It was – and is – a calling and I felt inadequate to the call. Now, I understand that my job is not to grasp or contain or to know. My job is to experience it. And, to relate what I experience. I will never be able to express all that is living within me. I will never have enough life to find its (my) edges.

Art is intimate and public, deeply person and intrinsically communal. It can heal or destroy. I have never been more lonely than when standing empty in front of a canvas. I have never been more fulfilled that standing before a finished canvas wondering where the past few days went.

Roger once told me that, where the arts are concerned, there are levels of sophistication. Shakespeare, like fine wine, is not immediately accessible. It takes time for black-and-white thinkers to develop a socket for metaphor to plug into. Art, after all, is not a thing. It is a relationship. The more time you give it, the more experiences you have with it, the more rich and complex it becomes. It opens. You open. If you are lucky, it is a yoga (a practice) that is necessarily personal in a never ending pursuit of greater range and flexibility.

Greater range and flexibility can only be found when you are a Nart. Relationships are made vital in not-knowing. Those who think they know have stopped seeking. They have stopped relating. To believe you know, is to stagnate.

Although I didn’t say it, it would have made John re-knit his brow, but he is lucky to be a Nart. I hope that will always be so.

Don’t Ask Why

DR 002

From my archives. I call this painting Alki Beach.

When I woke up this morning, researching the color blue was not on my to-do list. Did you know that in Belgium blue is the color associated with baby girls? Pink is for boys. To be blue in the German-speaking world means to be drunk rather than the English assignment of depression. Color associations are cultural.

I jumped down the rabbit hole of color symbolism and meanings because I’ve been building a new catalogue for my paintings. I’ve been revisiting the eras of my work, looking at every painting I’ve done (those that I documented…). A few days into my cataloguing Linda asked me why I never paint with the color blue. Linda loves the color blue. She is a veritable celebration of blue in earth, air, and water. “You never use blue!” she exclaimed. “Why?”

BlanketOfBlueSky

A Blanket Of Blue Sky

“I always use blue,” I sputtered, convincing no one. Since my move from Seattle to Kenosha my paintings have been more earth tones, umbers and sienna. The blues are there but certainly not dominant. Linda has never seen the work from my blue period.

“Why don’t you use more blue?” she laughed.

‘Why’ is one of those words that can either bring you to clarity or will drive you crazy. Knowing ‘why’ is useful in a Simon Sinek seminar or valuable in the pursuit of a purpose driven life but is near-to-impossible when attempting to articulate an artistic choice. The top two responses are conversation stoppers: 1) I don’t know, and 2) It feels right. I suppose there is a third response, the anti-why: 3) why not? It, too, leaves no room for discourse and is generally a lousy explanation.

IslandDreaming

This one is called Island Dreaming

“Why don’t I use more blue?” I asked Kerri. Without looking up or missing a beat she responded, “Why don’t I use seventh chords?” Leave it to my wife to hit me with a musical-zen-koan.

Horatio often reminds me that to enter the studio is to also enter stillness. Working in and from stillness precludes all questions of why and how.

Did you know that blue is the most commonly used color in corporate identity and that it is a color rarely found in fruits and vegetables? It has more complex and contradictory meanings than any other color. Among the seven billion people on earth, roughly 4 billion of them prefer blue to any other color.

This morning while entering images into my catalogue – most were predominantly blue – I heard the echo of Linda’s question. “What’s up with blue?” I asked myself. Abdicating all responsibility for internal answers, I did what we all do at such moments: I turned to Google.

Did you know that blue is generally embraced as the color of heaven?

Why?

 

Shared Fatherhood

My latest: Shared Fatherhood.

 

Dance With Parallax

My favorite word of the week is ‘parallax.’ Horatio pulled it out of the word bin during our latest conversation about art and artistry. We were discussing the difference between what an artist sees in their work and what others see – and how artistic “sight” changes over time. I scribbled the word along with the phrase, “the difference in what you see and what others see. Perspective over time.” After our call I looked up the word in my dictionary:

paral-lax (noun) 1. Apparent change of position. 2. Angle measuring star’s distance from Earth.

Many years ago in a fit of vulnerability I showed my mentor, a great theatre and visual artist, my paintings. I lined them all up for him to see. I followed him around the room as he quietly studied each piece. Finally, after taking in all of my work, he asked, “What’s the meaning of the spheres?” I was dumbfounded and had no idea what he was asking. “Spheres? What spheres?” So he led me back around the room, revisiting each painting, showing me the three spheres that appeared in EVERY single painting.

“What’s with the spheres?” he repeated, knowing that there wasn’t an answer but there was certainly a vast new question. My universe spun a bit that day so astounded was I at my inability to see the unifying principle in my own paintings.

I needed his eyes to see my work. Isn’t that the point?

When I think back on that day, on that younger version of my self, I revisit the fear, the raging vulnerability I felt in sharing my paintings. I feel again the deep doubt I held against myself. I recall the nausea of inviting someone I admired into my house of doubt. I somehow believed that, to be an artist, I had “to know” what I was doing – yet knew with certainty that I had no idea what I was doing. I knew with certainty that he would see through me to my lack of knowing.

And, he did. Thank goodness. “What’s with the spheres?” Such a simple question yet it spun my universe and pitched me through the portal of a new perspective.

I learned that day that artistry has nothing to do with knowing. Life has nothing to do with knowing. Knowing is an illusion, temporary at best. Knowing has everything to do with hiding.

Making a life, as Master Marsh just reminded me, is an engagement with the unknown. It is to have experiences. It is to make meaning of the experiences. If you are lucky, you learn to have the experiences first, and make the meaning second. It is to understand that, in this dance of knowing and not-knowing, sight and blindness, chaos and order, consciousness and unconsciousness, there are no fixed points. There is dance:

dance (noun) 1. An act of stepping or moving through a series of movements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

fine art prints available at society6.com

my original work on zatista.com

Save

Change Nothing

a detail from In Peace I Pray.

Thoughts from the mountain.

I grew up with these mountains so it should come as no surprise that I get quiet the moment I step into them. Like a too-tight coat the chaos I wear in my day-to-day life simply drops off; stepping into the mountain is to step out of the noise. Literally and figuratively.

Tom once told me that people change when they are ready. Rich once told me that people change when the pain of staying the same grows greater than the pain of making the change. Change when you are ready, change when you are in pain. Skip taught me that a business intending to change people was destined to fail. It is a fool’s errand. Business is about business not change. I loved this bit of advice from Skip because he is a natural-born change agent, a mentor of mentors (and, poetically, entrepreneurs). In a moment of frustration Kerri told me that people don’t change, they simply become more of who they really are. The masks drop off and we unwittingly reveal ourselves. Change as revelation.

As I hike through the snow toward the summit I wonder if change, at least the human notion of change, is as made-up as the rest of the stories we tell. It is in the forest, which is a festival of the cycles of life, that ideas of different ways of Being seem…superficial. Disconnected. Within seasons there are plenty of changes that roll around and around and around again. Perhaps this thing we call ‘change’ is nothing more than a recognition of the cycle, a readiness to release our dedicated resistance to life? A readiness to release our stories of limitation and division.

Kerri caught me staring at the mountain

Toward the end of his life, Joseph Campbell said that he suspected that all life (energy) was consciousness. There is 1) energy and 2) the forms that energy takes. Although seemingly disparate, seemingly separate, all forms fall back into energy. He said, “The universe throws forms up, then takes them down again.”He might have said that change is nothing more than the cyclical movement between energy and the forms it expresses.

Jim taught me that the art of acting was the art of being present. I know that when I stand in front of a canvas and begin to work, all notions of time disappear. Another day on the mountain, sitting in an adirondack chair midway up the slope, basking in the sun on warm day, we watched Kirsten snowboard. She flew by us several times. When she rides, it is clear, there is no other place, there is no past or future. There is now. She is vital, alive. In that place, riding the present moment (the only place that actually exists), the noise drops off. I know, and Jim knew, when fully in this moment there is no need to pester yourself with misplaced notions of being somewhere else, being anyone else.

 

a blast from the waaay past: August Ride. I lost track of this one and if you know where this painting is, let me know.