The fine art of staying seems to have vanished somewhere along our route.
For over 40 years, the German born artist Josef Albers juxtaposed squares of varying colors. Not circles or triangles. He studied squares—over and over and over again. He is said to have chosen this particular shape because it was a “simple human construct.”
Exploring intensities in interaction, Albers made over 1,000 variations on the square in order to test his theories in color. Staggering to think of the number of occasions in which this visionary sat patiently with this informal figure. Yet, in his act of staying with his study he was able to, in time, arrive at the lesson he was meant to teach.
Museums all over the world are adorned with the proof.
The poet Mark Nepo suggests that “If you try to teach before you learn or leave before you stay, you will lose your ability to try.” While Albers commitment to his study certainly embodied this poetry, our culture seems to be wandering in a rather contrasting direction.
The trick these days is the quick master rapidly followed by the rush to publish that book, record that song… to teach the world. While our shortcuts occasionally gift us glimpses of mastery and a few bravos along the way, can we honestly say they crown us as teachers?
What is lost in these shifting habits?
Does the shortcut simply lead to the common?
Are we losing the ability to try?
I should talk…
In my own creative endeavors I’ve not been much in the habit of staying.
The wrapping of a shoot generally finds me itching to share the contents of my memory card. Yet this past year or so has found me reconsidering my process and instead staying put. I find myself—loosely—mirroring the commitment of the likes of Albers and in turn waking up to the many rewards to be had in lingering with the stationary.
My “square” is a rugged barn perched in a small New England town.
There, I’m interested in the light and how it trespasses in through the structure’s flaws and then fixes itself to my subjects. I make frequent trips here with assorted companions just sitting with the light and waiting for it to direct me in my probe. Not so long ago I would have wrapped up this observation after a couple of visits confident that my work was done. These days though, I am certain there’s more learning to be had under the roof of this hallowed structure.
I am not quite there with what needs to be said. So, return I will until the lesson is fully absorbed.
Without a doubt, my many years of practicing yoga and my buddhist studies. Tadasana, Uttanasana, Chaturanga Dandasana, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana. Tadasana, Uttanasana, Chaturanga Dandasana, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana. Tadasana, Uttanasana, Chaturanga Dandasana, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana and so on.
Over and over again visiting those same poses year after year.
The physical practice unfolding hand in hand with the common sense of Siddhartha Gautama. The repetitive nature of both—yet with each pose or simple tale I encounter a small awakening. Always some new variation to unpack and embrace in their repeating choruses.
I see now, the learning is simply higher when I stay.
While grand new ideas continue to taunt, this powerful understanding has come to subtly imprint my process as an artist. I find myself a bit empowered to temper their distraction. I carry on with the canvas before me. I can’t say that I will remain with this study for a thousand variations, but for the moment with this project I will tarry until one day I arrive at some message which merits my professing.
So what’s my line here?
Perhaps all that I am suggesting is that before our games begin we re-visit an old literary classic, linger with a masterpiece or offer our complete and undivided attention to some of these champions of ice and snow we see in Sochi. In doing so we reflect on the practice of the quiet ones not so much motivated by spectacle but rather fueled by some fierce wonder.
What happens when we take a cue from their heightened discipline and level of patience and we (re)consider our process? What happens when we just inhale a spot of their humbler momentum? The clean slate of a brand new year gifts us each a golden opportunity to look in our mirrors and ponder the speed at which we study.
In honing that “ability to try”, might we each experience a new quality to the gifts we bring forward?
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Assistant Editor: Alicia Wozniak/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: author provided