Thursday, March 31, 2011

What's on My Mind

I have become pensive, you may say, lately. Painting is taking over my mind. Frankly I am a little surprised by the urgency and encompassing force by which it has gripped me lately. At times I wonder if I'm letting work overshadow more important things. I find myself pausing in midday to catch up on the daily readings. I haven't said a rosary in a long while.

In a way, Lent, the season partially dedicated to meditation, has forced me to re-think about priorities in my life. In the center of all this is the vocation of being an artist. I ask myself what that exactly means, and how different it is from having a simple hobby. The demands of a vocation weigh on one's soul, it asks for more than what I have been giving it. There's no doubt that I have been given the talent, facility, and material means, not to mention a doting husband who would do anything to see me happy. There's simply nothing holding me back from advancing this vocation.

What I don't have, it has become ever clear to me, is devotion.

Devotion isn't something bitter, dour, to swallow and to occasionally choke on. Too often people look at a disciplined, structured approach to life as a negative thing. I don't remember who it was (Pope John Paul II?) that challenged the Catholic youths to strive for excellence. Why settle for mediocrity, when you can be excellent? He asked. Excellence is impossible without devotion. It so happened that art is given me as vocation, an indispensable thread of my being. It follows that I cannot run away from the excellence to which I'm called. The reason I find Flannery O'Connor such an inspiration is how she lived her vocation as an artist, and how utterly devotedly and fearlessly she went about serving the good of her work.

And just to make one thing clear, I've never seen the need to make my artwork religious. I don't, and never will, see myself becoming a "religious artist." I don't want to dwell on the subject because it's just too complicated to be made clear by a few words, at least not by someone like me. You'll have to consult theologians, or aestheticians like Jacques Maritain, whose theories on the subject was crucial to validate O'Connor own thoughts on her vocation as an artist (see also Maritain's book Art and Scholasticism). I, in turn, have found validation to my own feelings in both Maritain, and O'Connor.

Now back to my current re-thinking of being an artist. In the past, my work has been guided by a mechanical production, and by, I'm ashamed to say, deadlines. Needless to say, there was deeply embedded passivity of that type of routine. What's now I see clearly, is the need to break through the comfort zone. I've been in it too long. No artist who sees his work as part of his being is content with repeating himself. The analogy in spiritual life would be the advancement through the chambers of Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle.

Again, art as vocation is not the same as art as hobby. If my work does not mirror what I am, and how essentially I relate to the world, to Creation specifically, then it isn't a vocation. Although I have not treated my work as a hobbyist might have, but I'm far from tapping into the soul of and source of the wellspring of it. Art is utterly unique in that it lays lofty demands on both the intellect and nitty-gritty routines of the artist. Inspiration alone makes nothing. An artist is at once a thinker and blue-collar mechanic or he isn't one. As a fallen creature, my natural inclination is to take the easy way out, or not to get "out" at all. If you look at the dynamics of living one's vocation as constant pruning and cutting away a jungle, the easy-way-out, or staying in the same spot, is no way of survival. In a letter in which Flannery gives advice to an aspiring writer, she plainly calls routine as the means of survival for an artist. I put it in another word: devotion.

So there you have it, the bits of fruits of my latest navel-gazing. It also explains the slow-coming of posts on this blog. I have in effect suspended all other activities (excepting laundry and getting tax done!) for fear of dissipation of mental energies. I have succeeded in painting several crappy pictures in a row, but I'm refraining from pulling out my stealthily graying hair and sinking into moodiness. I'm not even repainting the crappy pictures, like I used to do so as not to face the embarrassment of failure and inadequacy. I'm keeping them. I want to see my own inadequacy and be sober about what lies ahead. It helps also to know that these crappy pictures serve their own parts in the bigger scheme of things, and one day I will have something to thank them for.

As my pal Jan likes to say, over and out.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Merry Annunciation!

Before I even opened today's readings in my Magnificat, I was informed by my friend Jan in her blog post that today is the Feast of Annunciation (that should give away that I open the internet before I do my daily prayers, not to say this is Lent.)

Here is a painting of The Annunciation by French painter Maurice Denis (1870-1943), one of the few Modern interpretations which I really like. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

My Father's Oldest Sister Has Died

When I came back from Mass this morning, I found a message my younger sister had left on my Skype page, informing me that our oldest aunt, our Dad's sister, had passed away this morning (their Sunday evening).

My Dad has/had three sisters. Dad is the youngest of six. His two older brothers had been deceased, long before my siblings and I had a chance to meet them. My oldest uncle died before the 1949 Communist Liberation, second uncle died after years of beating and humiliation at the hands of the new People's regime for being from a family of land owners who employed and "exploited" poor tenants prior to the Revolution. My three aunts had better times, largely due, I think, to their younger age. My second and third aunts (that's how we address our aunts and uncles in China, by their age ranks,) were involved during their college years in anti-government demonstrations and movements when the Kuomintang (National Party led by Chiang Kai-shek) was in charge of China, therefore showed their sympathy toward the opposing Communist Party. Their involvement proved to be highly beneficial to their later social status and survival under the five-starred red flag.
Since my Dad is not only the youngest, but the only, boy who survived into the tumultuous age known as the New China along with them, my three aunts treated him like their perpetual "baby-brother" until old age overtook their maternal ambitions one by one. Not infrequently Mom and us kids resented their over-protection of Dad, even meddling in our family affairs.

My two younger aunts went to college, taught in colleges all their lives, and are among the "intellectuals" in the clan. The oldest Aunt, being the oldest of the girls, was not given the opportunity to education. In stead, she helped with household work and nurtured younger siblings. She married early, to the same man till the end, who was also college-educated and a life-long teacher. She had six children with him, and remained a housewife all her life. She was less resented by us, mainly because she was too busy with her own brood and hardships of survival to be minding the "baby-brother's" affairs. My two sisters are closer to her than I ever was, because both spent part of their high school years living with her, as a result of a convoluted series of circumstances wherein close relatives are obligated to "lift and carry" one another according to traditional Chinese filial ethics.

I don't want to give the impression that we have bad relationships with my two other aunts. Just the opposite, through thick and thin, we have stayed close and managed to never let the blood be diluted by bitterness. It helps that I have a mother whose capacity for forgiveness is truly inspiring, more thanks to her simplicity than her goodness. The thoughts of these two aunts evoke nothing short of love and affection in me and my brother and two sisters.

My oldest aunt, the one who just passed away, began to show signs of dementia shortly after her husband's death. Fortunately, she had six children who didn't find it hard to share responsibility in taking care of her. As I've said I didn't know her very well, but my limited memories of her are always of a serene, mild, smiling woman, even during her mentally reduced years. Her consistent devotion to her husband and children seemed not to have been affected by modern Feminism which was part of the Revolution. (For make no mistake, despite what you've heard about the sex discrimination and abandoned female babies, Communism embraced various ideologies which declared war to the "Old Society," including Feminism). Although she hardly ever appeared domineering, or even very talkative, she enjoyed a quiet authority and respect among her children.

To appreciate her serenity and un-assumedness, you have to know that difficult personality runs deep and wide in my family lineage, that is, on my father's side. God bless all who care and deal with my two surviving aunts, and my Dad (legendary tempers of my two dead uncles, whom I never met, lived on for years through the memories of their respective children, my cousins). For some reason, this trait seldom manifested in my oldest aunt.

(To be continued. Have company to go fly kites.)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Father Baron on True Grit:

Saturday, March 12, 2011

All That I Ask For

Sorrow for Japan

My heart is with Japan and its people who are going through multiple terrors: earthquakes, tsunami, the threat of aftershocks and more quakes, now the danger of a nuclear meltdown.

One feels so helpless facing disasters of such magnitude. Times as such try our faith: just how real is it? Do I still trust the efficacy of my prayers and petitions, which, we profess to believe to be our very own "nuclear power"?

After all, these people live thousands of miles away, mostly anonymous to us; apart from electronic/digital images and sound-bytes, we do not physically see their suffering and destruction. We carry on our daily routines and move around our own clocks. It's unlikely, to say the least, that we would be on our knees offering urgent petitions as if our beloved's very survival depended on them.

But maybe we could?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Good Readings for Lent

Excerpts of what I read during my morning "Happy Hour" in front of the Blessed Sacrament today,  from My Way of Life, Pocket Edition of St. Thomas, the Summa Simplified for Everyone (all italics mine):

"THE ROAD THAT STRETCHES before the feet of a man is a challenge to his heart long before it test the strength of his legs.  Our destiny is to run to the edge of the world and beyond, off into the darkness:  sure for all our blindness, secure for all our helplessness, strong for all our weakness, gaily in love for all the pressure on our hearts.

IN THAT DARKNESS beyond the world, we can begin to know the world and ourselves, thought we see through the eyes of Another.  We begin to understand that a man was not made to pace out his life behind the prison walls of nature, but to walk into the arms of God on a road that nature could never build.

LIFE MUST BE LIVED, even by those who cannot find the courage to face it.  In the living of it, every mind must meet the rebuff of mystery.  To some men, this will be an exultant challenge: that so much can be known and truth not be exhausted, that so much is contained in the pool of a human mind.  To others, this is a humiliation not to be borne;  for it marks out sharply the limits of our proud minds.  In the living of life, every mind must face the unyielding rock of reality, of a truth that does not bend to our whim or fantasy, of the rule that measures the life and mind of a man.

IN THE LIVING OF LIFE, every human heart must see problems awful with finality.  There are the obvious problem of death, marriage, the priesthood, religious vows;  all unutterably final.  But there are, too, the day to day, or rather the moment to moment choices of heaven or hell.  Before every human heart that has ever beat out its allotted measures, the dare of goals as high as God Himself was tossed down: to be accepted, or to be fled from in terror.

GOD HAS SAID SO LITTLE, that yet means so much for our living.  To have said more would mean less of reverence by God for the splendor of His image in us.  Our knowing and loving, He insists, must be our own; the truth ours because we have accepted it; the love ours because we have given it.  We are made in His image.  Our Maker will be the last to smudge that image in the name of security, or by way of easing the hazards of the nobility of man."
... ...

"THERE ARE MEN AND WOMEN who do not know God.  They are made for happiness; every perfectly designed item of their sublime nature strains for that fulfillment which is happiness. Ignorance commits them to frustration; they have eager hearts, pushed to the breaking point by all of nature's demands for happiness, but therese hearts have only the wrong places to go.  In a very real sense, there is a kind of knowledge of God buried deep in every man, as deep as his demand for happiness.  Frustration here is basic, soul-searvhing, catastrophic.  Man makes his way to the illusory havens offered by false gods, but always through a sea of tears shed by his own individual nature."
... ...

"YET THE LITTLE  that we can see of the infinite perfection of God is an entrancing picture; to escape it, one must glue his eyes to something close, tangible, and blinding;  The infatuated see little of anything, and even less of God." 
... ...

"THE MYSTERY OF LIFE'S END, and the even grater mystery of life's beginning, the ebb and flow of things beginning and things ending, the steady succession of the sadness of Fall and the glad promise of Spring, prevent the unfettered and uncluttered mind from missing what these were meant to make clear:  a life without beginning to explain all beginnings, a life without end to explain death; an infinite Creditor of life to explain all the reckless loan of life to the living."

My Note: that last sentence goes right through my heart, our God is indeed reckless in loaning His creatures patience, mercy, and freedom.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Nothing Much

  • Today is International Women's Day. Didn't get a chance to ask my sisters/nieces if they got their 1/2 day off, or a free ticket to a movie. That was what we used to get.
  • Today is also Fat Tuesday. Around here we will be cooking beef stew. Yum x2.
  • That also means tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. I just got done reading in One Hundred Years of Solitude the part when the Buendia boys received ashes which turned out to be indelible. The  permanent ash crosses on their forehead in later years served as targets by their enemies. 
  • The above is no more than a trivia. It has nothing to do with the coming Ash Wednesday when I will join millions (or more?) of mortals to receive the reminder of our mortality, which, even smart phones and Facebook can do nothing about. 
  • This new video by James O'Keefe of his undercover social with a couple of NPR big potatoes is killing me. 

  • Now let's get back to the studio. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

New Bible

The UPS man has just delivered my newly purchased, pocket-size, Douay-Rheims Bible. Leather cover, gold gilt-edges, lovely on the palm.

The thing is, I will need magnifying glass to read it. Even if my eyes will recover at sundown from painting and staring.

I also have prescription glasses tucked away somewhere which I've tried not to wear since the day I got them. If I want to keep this Bible, I'll have to change my mind about the glasses.

The Book really is lovely.

Work and Routine: Survival in the Studio

Today is the first Monday since my teaching work ended for the school year, and I have been in the studio painting. Taking a break because my eyes were beginning to see double of everything outside the still life during the intense staring sessions (that's really what it is when you paint from observation, you stare, long and hard, sometimes, you even drool while staring).

Having a routine is absolutely necessary when you're on your own: there's no class time to make, no supervisor to report to, no deadline to meet. When you work from your own house, there are always other things to do, the things that are better-defined than a painting you haven't met. Laundry is the most familiar, no-brainer, even comforting activity. Sweeping the floor or dusting lamp shades requires little to none brain power. Even putting on mud-caked boots to help farmer husband work and feed cattle can be light entertainment, not to mention sitting in front of the computer, or crouching in a double recliner with a book called The Story of Art, or One Hundred Years of Solitude (speaking of which, my for-the-moment one-word response to the latter book is extravagant).

Painting is none of that. I don't have time to go through the agonies and boons of the creation of a painting. Suffices it to say that unless you paint to get your mind off things, which is why a lot of people paint, you find yourself enclosed in endless decision making. It's from what to paint, the rationale of painting something, inclusion of technical issues such view points or composition, to whether to use soft or hard edges, yellow or violet drapery, etc., etc... Very seldom do I have clear vision of any of these at the time when I start the work. The result is either spontaneous success or defeat half-way due to the lack of clear purpose. Other less intangibles crop up right during the work, those questions artists deal with near-existential anxiety but hardly conscious of at the time of their ambush: Why am I doing this? Am I painting things or relationships? Is the picture an object or a lesson? Are brush strokes natural or affected? Am I falling into a detestable mannerism? Do I hope to express or to charm? Of the lengthy history of art, East and West, where do I belong? What about, and who is, my audience? Will I ever be successful? Or, is success even in the equation?

No technical manual, fancy art theories, not even biographies of your favorite artists, can answer these questions for you. As sure as death and tax, neither will they ever go away. And if I may add, ninety percent of the time, you are in this all alone. There's just no way around this alone business in what you do in the studio. In fact, if you can be perfectly alone (which isn't that easy), you might even get somewhere.

The only light (albeit dimly) I have in getting myself out of the dark hole of arty existentialism, is to meet it half-way and drop myself loose in a counter attack. By accepting the unknown, I get a chance of turning it into the rabbit hole Alice finds herself falling into, and to have a time of adventure.

In other words, when in doubt, work.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Dog Chair

Our dog Barney prefers a canvas armchair to fluffy doggy beds. 

Summer 2010

March, 2011

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Thought Sprout: Pre-Lent

That I am enjoying solitude so much is a little scary to myself. But since Lent is drawing near, I'm making the best of it. I have been weary of excessive navel-gazing, but in context of the kind of dissipated existence I've lead lately, introspection is in order. The coincidence of the need to sit still and the season of Lent is a welcomed one.

I'm looking forward to the end of my teaching season. I've much cleaning up to do, both figuratively and literally. The studio life is in bad need of a routine. More than anything else (excluding prayer and liturgical routines), the cultivation of an art habit must be front and center. Until now my production has been dependent on show deadlines and commitments, rather than the art issues themselves. It would require a fundamental shift in concept and center of gravity, and the highest possible standard. 

It was an exhausting day. Sleep sounds good.