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.
24″ x 24″
Oil, cold wax, pastel, marble dust on wood panel
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.
(16″ x 12″, Oil, cold wax, pastels on wood panel)
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
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 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.”
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.
Cynthia J. Lee: Story Unfolding, Oil with Mixed Media