For some time now I have admired the work of artist Abbey Ryan, an American painter who is well-known for her realist still life paintings and who creates a painting a day. The exquisite rendering of still lifes in her typically small paintings are undoubtedly remarkable but what also draws me to her work is the sense of practice, discipline and presence. The idea of doing a painting a day is a remarkable commitment. To watch one of her live painting videos, as I did last week, is a remarkable experience of seeing the finished masterpiece evolve on a once blank canvas, as if by magic, before our eyes. But to call it magic belies some of the deeper aspects of Ryan’s work: her prolific painting experience, her artistic eye and discernment that comes through as she answers questions on the live chat about her process and art. Further, there is a strong meditative quality and focus to her work – she mentions this herself in her workshops and interviews. It is very apparent in her live painting. Seeing images of her recent exhibit – The Light The Shade – of paintings done in response to poet Robert Lax’s poem by the same name offer further insight into her work. It was a welcome introduction for me to Robert Lax, poet and spiritual luminary and his larger body of work.
I was pleased to note, while reading about Robert Lax, that he followed the teachings of Eknath Easwaran whose writings he is said to have read until the very end of his life. Decades ago, after I moved to the United States as a graduate student in architecture, and was in the process of rediscovering my path to spirituality, it was Eknath Easwaran’s simple and beautiful translation of the Hindu scripture, The Bhagavad Gita, picked up at a used bookstore by the university campus that started my journey back to spirituality after a period of estrangement. I read other books subsequently by Easwaran, always struck by the simplicity and clarity of his words and the wonderful humanity that shone through.
The connections from spirituality to art in its various forms – visual art, poetry, prose and other forms – are seamless in my mind and these connections flow back and forth. It helps me understand why I like Ryan’s work so much. My interest in Ryan’s art is beyond the attraction to its realistic perfection, which is clearly masterful. Rather, it embodies the art of creating presence, of an artist being fully present in making the painting, which somehow radiates whether the viewer is conscious of it or not.
Learning more about Lax led me to discover another remarkable artist and work, Susanne Wiegner. This German architect, artist and animator who has studied in Munich and New York has created some incredible animations that are also about time and presence. A few of these animations are in response to Robert Lax’s poetry including The Light The Shade. You can check out her videos The Light – The Shade and At the Museum (my favorite). What immediately strikes me in watching Wiegner’s animations is their beauty, minimalism, the elements of surprise and an acute awareness of the present moment alternating between stillness as well as the motion of time. It’s amazing!
These are chaotic times of COVID-19, characterized by fear and uncertainty. Most of us are having to learn to center and rebalance and find our way forward despite everything. My art practice is one of the ways I am able to center and reach that calm space that is at the center of a storm. My takeaways from these three artists, Ryan, Wiegner and Lax for our times? Be fully present and create your best work with full focus and presence – it will radiate and uplift others in ways that can’t be predicted!
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