Many years ago I started to keep a journal. The inspiration to start writing was specific. I was about to leave home. My family had lived in the eastern end of Trinity College on the campus of the University of Toronto for six years. The mid-nineteenth century building was saturated with character, age and history, and home to large black rats that haunted the cellar where simply thousands of books were turning to dust! It was summer. I was home alone and one day a mysterious painter/teacher showed up at the front door. His name was Ted. That evening Ted was exhibiting a decidedly feminine side to his character. He was insistent, passionate, urgent even. There was a film showing at Convocation Hall across the campus and he wanted me to see it. It was called “Civilization”, narrated by Kenneth Clark. It was a series that was also set in book form – a book I bought several years later from a sidewalk vender on upper Broadway in New York City. The first film Ted and I saw celebrated the Italian Renaissance. Being young, impressionable and a virtual volcano of repressed creative energy that I was projecting out into a world cloaked with romantic mystery and less than romantic terror, I was naturally knocked off my unchallenged pedestal until I was gasping in awe. When I got home I blindly looked for paper, eventually invading my father’s secretary’s office where I found the minutes of a meeting I never bothered to note. I simply turned the paper over and started to write. One name, one man, one force had me shaking. I could not write in full sentences. It was Michelangelo who had grabbed my heart and reached into my mind and then unleashed the fury of a single idea, a single reality: “accomplishment”.
But of course, it was much more. I could not fathom how he had managed to orient himself either for the David or the Sistine Ceiling. He woke me up as if from a fitful disease called ‘sleep’: the sleep of the soul; the sleep of the mind; the sleep of fear capable of paralysis – until I was in a torment of wakeful uncertainty. Clark reminded us that periods of great human accomplishment come and go like the tides. And even then, only a few seem to be possessed with the requisite magnetism by which the spirit of the time can flow, accumulate and transform into works of genius. Staggering beneath the feet of these giant beacons, people like me must learn how to stand upright and search. At times I felt more like a thief than a seeker. I was stealing time from the hum drum; playing chess with tedium – and always hoping I would win.
Ted wanted me to taste the whole procession of appearances that Clark had chosen to highlight until my inauthentic ego had begun to transform. Extraordinary. The first truly great assault on an ego enclosed in a cavern of mirrors is unforgettable but is not yet any victory for the Self. Patience is a monumental virtue and was not something I was born with.
One other place; one other phenomenon seized me in an equally mysterious way – perhaps more so than Michelangelo. When Clark dealt with the Cathedral of Chartres I experienced something I had not experienced before. I felt I knew Chartres even before I learned its name. I felt I knew it already. I succumbed to the distinct feeling that I had known it from the beginning, quite as if Chartres existed before it had been built; as if I had been a pilgrim before there was a shrine to visit.
The recent Cathedral was mostly accomplished between 1134 and 1220 A.D. It was repaired and altered in some respects after that, but not the main ground plan and the bulk of its massive structure. Two great fires punctuated the resurrection of the old church into the new Gothic Cathedral: one in 1134 and the other in 1194, exactly 60 years later. A period of 60 years was called by the mysterious African tribe known as the Dogon, as one “sigui”. A sigui meant nothing less than the renovation of the world and in their mysterious world of spiritual initiation, it was connected to the binary star system that we call Sirius A and Sirius B. Sirius B is a white dwarf that collapsed into a super-dense star with no light and a diameter about 80% that of our Earth. All time seems to be blessed with a context.
For the ancient Egyptians a sigui was equal to two Seds. The Sed also went by the name: The Sed Festival of Regeneration. There was an outer demonstration of the festival known to the public. But there was also an inner expression of the 30-year ritual that belonged to the secret life of the Egyptian Temple for which special crypts, chambers and sanctuaries were built for human beings specially prepared to undergo very special rites – obviously shrouded in as much mystery as ignorance, since few records were kept describing these mysteries. However, the Pyramid Texts of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties offer a plethora of clues of what was accomplished in these secret ‘rites’. In short, a context of 30 years was ancient. I could smell it before I knew anything about it. It is mentioned more times in Parzival than any other period of time.
But what was important to me at that time in Toronto, was the inner conviction that this one mystery that seemed to envelop all times and all places was the birthplace, the source and the womb from which Chartres had sprung. It was as if Chartres were an archetype known to all of us a priori. All of us collectively had been carrying this archetype within us and the archetype had been carrying us within it – long before it was concretely shaped over the sacred and ancient mound at Chartres starting around 1134 A.D. But I could not easily put this conviction into words. I felt far more like a tabula rasa than I did an oracle pregnant with design. I felt like a baby-faced neophyte with a secret urge to die the death, uncertain why.
Wounded, as if I were of the lineage of Hephaestus, tossed in desperation from the pantheon of an unearned privilege, I left Trinity College and the city of Toronto on a bicycle headed for Nova Scotia, armed with a sleeping bag, a tent, a sketch pad and some pencils. In short I was terrible as an artist. I had feeling, but my eye lacked all method and my heart lacked all patience. By the time I had reached Nova Scotia I had a few sketches and no money. In desperation I shipped out on a small freighter ready to split its seams at the first ruffle of wind and helped cart dynamite and bullets to shady government agencies in South America. We picked up 180% over-proof rum to bring back and were assured by Panamanian authorities that the rum was many times more explosive than the dynamite. It was an eerie feeling to watch the ships all waiting outside the harbor as we silently slid alone through the canal careful not to bump even so much as a cork. And so began an unexpected journey that has lasted to this day.
The painting below taught me something permanent. I only managed a few of this series and then the whole inspiration vanished in the twinkling of an eye. These pieces were done in a single sitting. I combined India ink, watercolor and enamel – premixed in a Japanese bowl. I used hand pressed Italian paper. I started with a fine pen filled with India ink. I prepared myself ritually in a way that was unique to this series. I did not start until I was in a specific flow. I required complete insulation. Within that insulation I waited until a certain ‘quantum’ of energy had built up. When it was approaching a threshold, I prepared the color. I then set up the paper and charged the pen with ink. I then continued a physical ritual by which I achieved a state of flow as if the paper were about to become a microcosmic extension of the dance moves I had just put my body through. I had no design in my mind. When my mind was empty, I then faced the void and began to dance with the pen as if I were in the ancient Orient. Sometimes I had associations that would seize my mind – such as the sounds of Mahler’s Song of the Earth. Other musicians would also flit like birds across my mind – such as Kitaro – and if the music became too vivid I would shut it off in my head before it had a chance to distract me from the movement in the void.
Once the design was committed to the paper – miraculously without error – I would then test the color medium to see if it had started to thicken a little. I wanted it to stand out and catch light from the side in order to cast slight shadows. As the color dance proceeded, I realized what I was doing, but had to be careful that the concept did not gel too quickly, or I would over-commit to a detail and ruin its wholeness. I was trying to catch a ‘web of circumstances’, not a ‘thing’. It was a process, a dance, not a fixed object. The drama was the product of an elusive dynamism, it was not the cause of the dynamism. So the web of interconnected dots and shared waves of energy was everything – the reality itself.
I became aware that I was attempting to unite macroscopic behavior with microscopic behavior – well before I had been willing to delve into the science of quantum mechanics. The large, upper sphere was supposed to represent a particular planet at a special phase of its cycle. This was the universe of Kepler and Newton, real and measurable.
Meanwhile, between it and the creative perceiver – me, the witness of the paradoxical marriage of two quite different forms of behavior – something was happening in a shared field that I could see with an inner vision but had no idea what its form was. And so I simply created some familiar macroscopic forms that linked large and small into one dance. There was the feeling of something permanent giving birth to something impermanent. But what was permanent was not visible. The cause was the act itself, not a pre-design and yet there was the feeling that a pre-design was forever waiting in the wings to enter the stage – awaiting a threshold like an envelope of multiple possibilities – pregnant with uncertainty.
I called this piece “Coming to Meet”. I meant that the large comes to meet the small and the dark comes to meet the light and something temporary is born and yet remains connected to what is permanent.
It was at this point – thirteen years after I had begun my journal – that I felt once again that art was a special activity. I felt the artist was, on occasion, a lucky creature, able to see directly into the miracle of the ‘real’ in a way that science cannot see but yet wishes to see. Mathematics is the seeing-eye dog of science. A brilliant imagination can see in the dark the picture that mathematical rigor etches over the void. Like art, when the math gets too specific and too precise what it is describing is not very real. Meanwhile, the real itself remains elusively not very precise. Infinite values abort fundamental attempts to close reality up into a box that can be neatly labeled. Grand Unification eludes both measure and form. It is this that makes us breathe. It is this landscape that beckons the human spirit, urging us to grow, to communicate, to search and to inspire even if the rewards we receive are quite unexpected.
All images copyright 2010 Bruce Lyons. All Rights Reserved.