I have been off and on with a project of late. I have been focusing on the Nautilus shells I have in my collection. I was first entranced by the images of Edward Weston and his shell studies. I ended up obtaining a couple of nautilus shells to make some early images and later obtained a set of pearled, cut nautilus.
Over the years I have periodically set up the occasional still life of the shells and made an image or two. But recently I have ended up creating batches of images. They seem to unbidden, with little or no input or ideas in mind. I have the shells sitting on a shelf and as I walk into my office, I will see the shells in a certain light or position on the shelf that immediately shouts at me, record what you see and feel!
One of the nice things about using a digital camera is I can use it to not only record an image for completion but also use the digital image as a sketch for what I will record with my view camera.
I have noticed more and more I prefer the inner light and subtleties that film and silver print invoke. There are certain projects where the digital image and the resulting prints are more appropriate but when it comes to still life and other images that are suited for being make with a view camera, I will default to it.
It is nice to have the ability or availability of the varied tools to create the art I wish to share and that best reflects the final print I visualized. In the book The Widening Stream by David Ulrich, he addresses the idea of tools and the creation of art. He came to a realization as he was writing, that the computer and the silicon chip inside “is a metaphor for and an extension of the human nervous system, the human brain.”
He observed, “we are the real medium of our work: we are the instruments of discovery in the creative act. The tools are just that: tools.” As a martial artist who has been involved in many violent encounters both as a police officer and as a soldier, tools are usually what wins or loses a violent encounter. Certainly, strategy and tactics play a great role in the outcome of a violent situation but it is use of tools that give humans an edge in survival situations. And the use of tools in the creation of art is no different, although they are not needed for violence or survival. The goals are quite different, but in the end, it is the creative tools that allow humans to produce art and the trained artist to communicate and create meaningful and lasting feelings, regardless of whether the art is written, visual, musical, physical or a combination of all of them.
The creative flow is exactly that, a flow. It can be slow, meandering, thoughtful, with no real hint of worry or concern. Other times a raging torrent of ideas and feelings demanding immediate action, but which can be controlled and interpreted with an experienced mind, to channel the creative flow into one that is manageable and insightful. And it can be blocked, at a seeming standstill with nothing moving or bringing greater insight. And yet even in the midst of a creative block or standstill, there is much that can be gained from that seemingly immovable block. I have touched on this in a past blog, but there is more I have learned about that block or forced creative rest.
I have thought of the creative flow in terms of a flowing river, at times meandering, or coursing through rapids or coming to a complete standstill due to a blockage or damming of the flow. The backed-up water has reminded me of some eastern philosophy using the imagery of the moon and water.
The Zen master Dogen observed, “Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water.”
Stephen Damon shared the following story of the nun, Chiyono.
“When the nun, Chiyono, studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time. At last, one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free!
In commemoration, she wrote a poem:
In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
Nor more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!
Zen teachers have often used the metaphor of the reflection of the moon in water to illustrate the intersection of the absolute and the phenomenal. The moon represents Buddha Nature and water, even a drop of water, represents the myriad things. In the Genjo Koan, Dogen says that Enlightenment is like the moon reflected in the water. So in our story, the nun, Chiyono, carefully carries her enlightenment experience, her kensho, in an “old bamboo pail,” which describes the impermanence of our frail and vulnerable bodies.
One can imagine the great care she takes in trying to preserve what may have been a brief moment of realization. I am sure that many of us have had the same kind of experience. Even though we are taught over and over again to let go of whatever appears, we often hold onto to our moments of insight. We tend to make theories and philosophies around such experiences rather than seeing that they are as impermanent as everything else around us. We forget that our experience is just a momentary result of the causes and conditions of our lives. The truth is beginningless and endless and is not dependent on momentary causes and conditions.”
Those blocks or dams can and should be opportunities to not only keep looking and working, but to allow the inner feelings time to manifest themselves and become unfurled to our minds in due time. Sometimes the block is nothing more than our inner voice gaining time to reveal itself, unbound by our current creative constraints.
With all of that in mind, I guess it’s just go with the flow and enjoy the ride, regardless of where we feel we should be going or forcing ourselves to go. Life is a wonderful ride and being an artist a wonderful blessing that we can share with others.