Lately I am fascinated by a phenomenon of nature:  the instantaneous motion of birds in a murmuration.  The flock moves in concert, creating ever-shifting shapes across the sky. These twists and turns are thought to be communal fear reactions to escape a nearby predator—an avian “circling of the wagons.”  When one bird moves, so do its closest neighbors in a reaction time under a tenth of a second.  The connected flock is “a system poised on the brink, capable of near-instantaneous transformation, like an avalanche or a ballet.”  (Dawna Markova & Angie McArthur in Collaborative Intelligence)




And I wonder:  Do human beings react this way?  Do we express our communal fear, anger, horror in a kind of murmuration?  We seem to jump from one fear or outrage to another, provoked by news reports and online posts.  Our social media responses travel near the speed of light and tend to cluster—rather like a flocking behavior.  “Look over HERE!  NO, look over THERE!”   We swoop nervously through clouds of uncertainty, trying to make sense of information which may have serious consequences.  We are continually on edge in these edgy times.

We humans feel our solitude deeply. We float on this planet, shifting with currents of change.  We gather together, drift off on our own, and gather again.  In the experience of profound emotions, we seek out other people to calm and center ourselves within the safety of a larger community. These human murmurations allow us to move forward together, profoundly connected and no longer alone—better able to cope with whatever difficulties lie ahead.



Murmuration, 16″ x 12″ (oil, cold wax, pastels on wood panel

Political Pulls

During this 2016 campaign season, political rants move from one extreme to another, fueled by constant media attention. Like many Americans who want to stay informed, I feel the contagion and the dilemma:   to tune in or not!

I’m reminded of a wonderful Ted Talk on creativity, given by novelist Amy Tan.  In it she says,  “There is no certainty, never complete answers.  You become aware of hints from the universe.  These become the focus.”

As an artist I explore pulses which resonate, whether from within or from what’s happening around me. Today I hear voices in the universe shouting. So I guess it’s no accident that my current art reflects opposite moods. On one hand, I crave boldness, dramatic color, and random lines. I paint quickly, tapping into an energy that wants to leave the painting completely. Unusual shapes arrive out of nowhere. Rules of composition beg to be broken. It is not a boring process.

 “Opening Night” (oil, cold wax, charcoal, marble dust on paper)

On the other hand, my soul yearns for stillness and quiet meditation. I want a respite from the noisy energies around me. I am painting over old work which no longer speaks to me. I may scrape here and there to reveal a bit of the history underneath. But the top layers are mostly quiet and reflective, with pastel colors, lots of negative space, and soft lines.

      “Morning Meditation” (oil, cold wax, collage, marble dust on wood panel)

At the moment, I cannot choose between these two creative impulses. Both are triggered daily, and compromise eludes me. Both pulls seem necessary to some forward movement I do not yet understand. But I trust that I am not alone in trying to make sense of our intense political scene as we head toward November’s election. Until then, I’ll tune in and out, breathe deeply, take long walks in a nearby forest, and paint on.


Hands On


Last October I bought a 70-year-old wallpaper brush, with an oak handle, old tin, and bristles worn into a wavy edge.  I love its age and imperfections.  And its size is great for painting large art panels.  My whole body gets into the act as it travels the surface.


wallpaper brush_opt


This is the second antique brush I’ve bought in recent months, and I realize there are reasons behind this impulse.

Full disclosure #1:  My current focus on hands no doubt can be traced to a recent (and fortunately minor) fracture of my left hand at the base of a finger.  I have gained new respect for all our hands do for us— how very important it is to grasp and to hold.

Full disclosure #2:  My mother turned her hobby into an antique business in her later life.  She found beauty in common objects, especially those forged, whittled and sewn by hand.  She loved to learn about their cultural and industrial contexts.  Her birthday is just around the corner.  I miss her, and thank her for sharing her deep appreciation of human history and artifacts.

Like her, I find wonder in an object created or used by another’s hands.  I’m drawn to ceramic bowls, cups, pitchers.  I want to touch every wood, metal or stone sculpture I’ve encountered.  I love to run my fingers across fabrics of wearable art and old quilts.

This strikes me as more than an appreciation of the work of artisans and more than a well-developed kinesthetic sense.  Touching something others have touched brings a reminder of continuity and connection.  Other fingers were here.  Another life touches my own.   Our histories merge across time.

Today, I paint with an old brush.  As I hold it I sense the stories of others.  What were they thinking as they used it, I wonder?  Where did they live?  What kind of lives did they lead? Others join me in my studio, and open me to new creative energies.  And I am grateful for the company.

Across Time and Space_opt

Across Time and Space (30″ x 30″ Oil with cold wax, marble dust, pastels)


Writing on Water

During these warm September days I am grateful for an outside pool to swim laps. With the flow of water and the warmth of the sun on my skin, swimming becomes a meditation.  My mind’s chatter fades.  I am inside a rhythm, turning from side to side, reaching with long arms, taking a quick full breath.  A wavy pattern of sunlight reflects on the bottom of the pool. Edges of light vibrate and dance below me.  I am fully in the moment. There is music here, and poetry.


The centered, peaceful energy I find in water is the same state I try to reach when I paint. Like other artists, I know when I’m in this zone.  The process is more spontaneous, fueled by a passion that is quiet and true.  I return to the rhythm and flow of swimming, sensing an undulating line—like the upbeat and downbeat of a conductor’s baton, like a wave writing on water.  Inside that motion I connect differently to time and space, to my essential self, and to something much more profound.

I’ve learned to take a few moments when I enter my studio to swim into the room, leaning into the creative current and letting it take me where it will.

Leaning In  (16″ x 16″ oil with cold wax)

Sotto Voce

I awake earlier these days, somewhere between 4:30 and 5:30 AM—-hours I saw in my youth only from the other side, after very late night adventures. Perhaps it is a function of getting older. Maybe my unconscious self understands that time is more precious and I shouldn’t waste a moment more in sleep.  I used to refer to these as “the Stephen King hours” when little gray anxieties arrive to torment and refuse to leave. But I’m changing my attitude.  Surely there is a silver lining here in the dark.

Old:  My mind starts abruptly and I begin to ruminate over errands to do, people to contact, art in progress.

New:  Instead of trying to quiet my mind’s chatter, I get out of bed.  I focus on the quiet peace in the house and the absence of morning traffic sounds.  I listen closely to the silence and savor the pale gray hint of daylight in the sky. I think of walking in the mountain woods on a cool summer morning. This is a time for reflection—universally understood and worthy of respect.

I head downstairs to my studio, curious to see what I might paint in these peaceful hours.  It could be a revelation.

Sotto Voce 24

Sotto Voce
24″ x 24″
Oil, cold wax, pastel, marble dust on wood panel

Unknown Territory

It strikes me as no accident that I am re-watching a particular film lately.  It’s a documentary about the musicians who collaborated on “Lost On The River:  The New Basement Tapes.”  Each worked on composing his or her own music for early Bob Dylan lyrics.  All added their ideas, voices and instruments to the songs composed by others.  Pressure was high.  The lyrics were written by a legend, and they had only a week to produce a finished album.

What fascinates—and reassures—me is their honesty in confronting their fears about the music they were creating. Watching the film, I commiserate with their stops and starts, and their anxieties, large and small. I celebrate their breakthroughs and their joy when they connect to one another through the music.

As I move in a new direction with my  own art—toward the bolder and “edgier”—I am nervous about the art I am pulled to make at this particular time.  It’s scary, but a good scary. I am not sure I can pull it off, but must try.

Ian Roberts in his fine book, Creative Authenticity, says this:  “The wonderful and terrifying truth is that expression of your authentic voice takes courage—courage to face the fear of failure, ridicule and incompetence.”

I take comfort in this, and in the work of other artists who bare their souls, hope for the best, and move forward once again into unknown territory.

Jumping In

“Jumping In”

(16″ x 12″, Oil, cold wax, pastels on wood panel)

Mythology: Poem and Painting

I find the myths and folklore of other cultures very fascinating. There are so many common themes in our universal human journey to understand ourselves and our world.

Last year I was inspired to do a series of paintings based on hiking in the Smoky Mountain woods near Asheville, North Carolina.  As part of my process, I researched the Native American tribes who inhabited the region thousands of years ago. Their rich mythology and cultural symbols resonated deeply for me, and found their way into an original poem and an abstract painting.  I’ve shared both below:


Mythology (18″ x 18″, Oil with Mixed Media)





In these mountains, six thousand years ago,
ancestors told stories of a cosmos divided
into layers:

an upper celestial world of weather and objects
of light in the sky; a middle natural world with
flora and footed creatures; and a lower world,
dark and dangerous, filled with strange beings
who could travel the three worlds at will,
crisscrossing permeable borders
in a layered universe.

Their ancestral themes remain intact,
channeled into the present under new names,
like multiple universes, where we move across
dimensions on a space-time continuum, and
we (like those before us) try to make sense
of dense black holes with string theories,
yearning to understand, while our souls
(like theirs) glide across time, untethered

  —Cynthia J. Lee


Last autumn during the week of my son’s wedding on the East Coast, I had the opportunity to see Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting at the Princeton Art Museum. In the exhibit book are statements by two artists about their intentions for the art they created:
Karel Appel (1921-2006): “We live always in tremendous chaos, and who can make chaos positive anymore? Only the artist.”

karel-appel-Dance-in-Space-before-the-StormKarel Appel:  Dance in Space Before the Storm

Paul Jenkins (1923-2012): “The role of the artist is to serve as conduit, or ‘medium’, through which memories, emotions and experiences pass directly onto the canvas.”

1992ENDLESSQUEST Paul Jenkins:  Phenomena Endless Quest

Like other Abstract Expressionists, Appel and Jenkins were influenced by the massive cultural, political and technological changes following World War II.  Today’s artists, too, respond to the pulse of the times in which we live.  At exhibits of contemporary artists from around the world I often find similar themes reflected in the art.  Forms are incomplete.  Shapes dissolve.  Layers of complexity are punctuated with random lines and scratches.  All these seem to suggest the fragmentation and uncertainty of our globally-connected Digital Age.

Artists are always engaged in a search for meaning about the world around us.  Those who experience our art know when the art is good, for it resonates.  Others can see and feel something of their own lives in the art.

For me, the role of artist as “medium” is both challenging and deeply rewarding.  I begin a painting to explore some undefined question, some feeling I don’t yet understand.  Eventually, the painting reaches a “There, that’s it!“ point where both question and answer are present.  It says what I wanted to say and communicates what I felt.  Later, when the painting resonates for another person, I realize I was not alone in this exploration.  For a brief moment in time my art connects us and, together, we make some sense of our world.

Story Unfolding_emailCynthia J. Lee:  Story Unfolding, Oil with Mixed Media