The Tibetan tradition of viewing a successful work of art doesn’t rely solely upon technical or aesthetic merit. A work has value by how much the artist changes through the process of making that work.
My return to painting in early 2018 began with what I call a process of unlearning. This process began by employing the use of my other hand. This allowed me to suspend the inner critic. It also allowed me to paint and write prose without the fear and constraints of artistic excellence.
Revisiting Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth sparked an interest in creation stories and archetypes. Could I paint a creation myth? What would my Hero’s Journey* look like? Who are my archetypes? Are they universal or personal? Is what I remember what really happened, or what I perceived to have happened? How will the story end? Will it be heroic or with a whimper?
Turning to personal history for the answers, I mine a collection of family photos that encompass my 60+ years of life. Confronting my canvas, it’s not enough to represent a moment in the literal sense. It is more important that I am able transfer the feeling of that memory onto the viewer. Setting the tone with flat background color, I then rely on gesture, posture, a weight shift or a shadow to bring to light the back story of what is being witnessed. Throughout the process of telling these stories, I have been able to come to terms with my journey. This is not necessarily about healing or therapy. The scars are permanent, the arthritis crippling.
Maturity gives me the lens to visit ancestors, lost loves, long gone friends and youth without the burden of actually reliving events.
I grieve and at the same time, breathe. I remember who I am.**
In narratology and comparative mythology, the hero’s journey, or the monomyth, is the common template of stories that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis, and comes home changed or transformed…
**“Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are. We believe in a personal, unique, and separate identity — but if we dare to examine it, we find that this identity depends entirely on an endless collection of things to prop it up: our name, our “biography,” our partners, family, home, job, friends, credit cards… It is on their fragile and transient support that we rely for our security. So when they are all taken away, will we have any idea of who we really are?
Without our familiar props, we are faced with just ourselves, a person we do not know, an unnerving stranger with whom we have been living all the time but we never really wanted to meet. Isn’t that why we have tried to fill every moment of time with noise and activity, however boring or trivial, to ensure that we are never left in silence with this stranger on our own?”
― Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying