“Free as a bird” is an expression that’s been on my mind. The ability to do whatever you’d like, without any concerns is a state of mind. Without restrictions, worry, fear, or regret, what would you do with your life?
Achieving this state of mind certainly takes work. It doesn’t mean that everything is perfect. Things often don’t go according to plan. But freedom lies in not getting stuck in doubt or misbelief. When I catch myself lost in these sort of thoughts, I let go of the looping ideas by being outdoors. Lately, I’ve really paid attention to birds.
“What merits these animals being the most free of all?” I thought to myself as I watched them meander around.
Each bird seemed to have an almost human expression to me. Some appeared worried, others playful.
“Maybe they aren’t as carefree as they seem. Survival takes a lot of effort regardless of your place in the animal kingdom,” I wrote in my sketchbook while at the Grand Canyon.
“But their freedom revolves around two abilities: to be unwavering in the face of uncertainty and to effortlessly travel at will.”
When searching for food or shelter, birds are never consumed with worry of failure. They aren’t thinking about the past of future. Birds may fight for survival and have emotions, but they don’t cling to anything. They simply continue along their way. I admire that.
I also admire birds’ ability to be on land or in air instantaneously. Freedom, to me, is the ability to travel. To see and experience all that the world has to offer . . . there is nothing greater than this.
Recently, I’ve been fortunate to travel quiet frequently. I’ve seen and photographed birds all around the world this summer. After photographing birds in St. Vincent, I wrote myself this note:
“I might not have wings, but I’m not so different than a bird. I have the same ability to float from one spot to another without negativity, without doubt. When I let go of everything that holds me down, I can soar.”
Art has been a lifelong interest. Ever since I can remember, I liked it all – drawing, painting, photography, printmaking. It started with looking at books. I would sit for hours, looking at famous artists’ creations. Early on, I decided I wanted to try to make things as well. Learning different styles is a journey. Every media is so different. And each requires time and discipline to master the technique. It took many years to learn the basics. Developing a personal style took even longer.
Even with years – decades, really – of learning and practice, my style changes. I have periods of time when I prefer a specific media. Or a certain color. There are also periods of dormancy. One time, I stop creating things completely because of labels.
Everyone preaches the importance of labels. We are taught early on that we must pick certain words to express our identity. Artist, photographer, banker, doctor, husband, wife – as if these words could accurately summarize who we really are. When someone asks: “Who are you?”, how could one word possibly answer the question?
I found it difficult to choose an answer. Defining myself in this way limited my materials. But what also troubled me was the issue of legitimacy. Was I only a real artist if I achieved fame or financial success?
If I had to choose – a media, a goal, a specific destination – than maybe I just wasn’t an artist.
For a long time, I refused to define myself with labels. I also stopped producing regular work. It was a period of dormancy. There were many ideas within me . . . but I felt directionless in expressing them. One day, I was feeling very listless. Nothing motivated me. So I went for a long walk with my dog in the woods. We must have been gone for hours. I walked around, tears streaming down my face with frustration. Then, I noticed a wildflower.
My mood suddenly changed. I marveled at how such a thing of beauty starts as a small, dormant seed. It gets buried beneath dirt and manure, hidden from the sun. Yet it persists. It pushes through the soil, and unfolds its delicate petals and leaves towards the sun. It may appear to wilt and die, but it comes back each spring. The flower is never really gone. It just experiences a time of rest from the external word.
The wildflower doesn’t give up in the darkest hours. Instead, it adapts. It transforms. It grows. The stages of the flower parallels every artist’s journey I’d read about as a child. They struggled. They worked across various media. Their styles changed and evolved over time. Most were not entirely understood by the masses. Some were only legitimately discovered and admired after death.
Their work was still important. This wildflower I saw that day was important, too. It reminded me that I can be many things. There will be winters and springs in my life, but I will never be static. One word could never possibly express my identity. I can be whatever I want to be, whenever I’m ready.
Flowers are central to my work. They remind me that change, although fraught with uncertainty and fear, is always possible. They inspire me to keep growing, despite the soil, despite the darkness. They follow no specific styles or decrees. Flowers are the perfect reminder to be wild and free.
Time is one of the great mysteries of life. The way in which moments elapse is fluid. While we have agreed upon a standard time to keep society orderly, the passage of time is deeply subjective. We have all experienced this. Moments of great boredom or anticipation seem to drag on and on, while periods of fun and elation seem to fly by. Even Einstein proved that time expresses itself differently throughout the cosmos with his theory of relativity. The way each of us experiences the passage of time is relative to our environments, momentum, and consciousness. Great athletes and artists agree that time can be slowed down when you become completely focused and total absorbed while competing in a race or creating a work of art. With a clear mind and a singular focus, time can be manipulated.
This slowing down of time is why I love photography. It allows me to capture and share a moment of singular focus. I can catch small moments that I observe – ones that occur at a fraction of a second, like fire burning. It’s also why I love nature. (New to my site? You would like my previous post, The Beauty of Nature.) Time and nature are so inextricable intertwined – the sun passing across the sky, the changing of the seasons. Yet time occurs very differently outdoors without the ticking of a man-made clock.
I recently went on a shoot, and wondered how another photographer might experience the passage of time while working. I poked and prodded him with all of the questions that flowed through my mind. One question, though, seemed most important:
“How do you know when you’ve gotten a good shot? Is it a feeling? Or is there some other verifiable way of knowing?”
I’m not sure that anyone had asked him this before. Silence blanketed us like falling snow in winter. The question was as much for me as for him. Suddenly, every moment where I had taken a photo flooded my memory bank. Years of trial and error, the good shots, the bad shots – they all made a sort of mosaic in my mind. Time suspended. We both smiled. I felt like I was floating over canyons and rays of light, traveling backwards through time to arrive at a future answer.
While it’s true that I can capture images at fraction of a second, I still feel something when I take a good photo. A mood, an emotion – something more than just idly clicking the shutter button. Then, the answer came to me so suddenly that I must have blurted it out:
“For me, I know when I get a good shot because of the way I feel. I get goosebumps and feel a sense of . . . nostalgia. The goosebumps happen because I see how perfect and beautiful the moment is. Then I snap the photo. I look at it happily, but then feel nostalgic. . . because that beautiful and perfect moment is now over. It passes so quickly. As fast as I have caught it, it has already disappeared.”
While the answer may seem melancholy, photography is such a joy for me. I enter that state of singular focus, where all I see are perfect little moments of beauty around me. While these scenes and moments may be fleeting, I’m so captivated by their charm that I lose all sense of time or identity. Time ceases to exist.
Jay Griffiths, a sociologist and author of “A Sideways Look at Time”, explains that the deepest, most ecstatic experience of time is when you lose it.
“In prayer, in meditation, in art, and in love, that is where people lose that frightful ticking of clock time. And what you fall into is something transcendent. All that you have to have done is to love somebody to know that. And to hold them for a half an hour, you can know that that half an hour has lasted an eternity. . .the moment meets the eternal. That is all that matters – just the moment that you’re holding in your hand.” (Jay Griffiths)
After listening to Griffiths’ ideas of time, I sat around and looked at the photos from my shoot. I studied them carefully, trying to summarize the ineffable feeling they evoked in me. Then I smiled as these words came to mind:
“It is a paradox – every perfect moment somehow lasts forever.”
Drawing and painting are very different expressions for me. Each offers me a different way to “say” what I am experiencing, very much like speaking a different language. There are many words and phrases in some languages that don’t exist in others. For example, cafuné is a Portuguese word that means the act of tenderly running one’s fingers through someone’s hair. What I express in a drawing versus a painting is exactly like this. I capture something in a drawing that is untranslatable in another medium. Over the years, I’ve noticed this in my own work. This summer, I decided to explore this idea after a day drawing in a park.
I sat silently, completely absorbed in drawing little snippets of the vegetation in front of us. I like making little cartoonish studies of what I see with black pen and some crayons. For me, drawing helps me catch form. I like focusing on shapes, how they relate to one another, and how they inhabit empty space when I draw. Drawing tends to be form over substance, for me. While I can capture an overview of the environment, it lacks an accurate account of the feeling of the place.
How often do we sit with another person and describe what we see? As I walked through the whistling grasses with my dog, I admired how the delicate blades turned from green to sliver as the wind flickered through them. The small wildflowers swayed in the cool breeze, and I saw their jigsaw-shaped petals and leaves fit together perfectly. The little park exuded peace and serenity. Perhaps you’ve never seen a park the way I’ve described it. But I’ll bet that you have felt the calming benefits of a walk outside.
A cloud passed through the sun, the wind subsided, and I wondered how I could paint that feeling. That’s a difficult task, isn’t it? Emotions are abstract. They are beyond language, because they are intangible . . . ineffable. Linguistically, the term abstract nouns are used refer to objects you can experience with your five senses. They can identify concepts, experiences, ideas, qualities, and feeling that can really only be hinted at. The word makes sense if you have felt that experience.
Painting is where substance over form can manifest for me. There is just something accurate about portraying a mood in paint. Maybe it’s because the colors can be mixed together to create the perfect hue. Maybe it’s they way the surface can be layered over and over again with different colors. Maybe it’s the perfect combination: an abstract medium to represent an abstract experience.
Truthfully, it’s all of those things. But it’s also something else that I haven’t quite identified. I know when I’m finished with a painting because of the way it makes me feel. At this stage of the painting (below), I really felt that I was finished. I captured all of the lush, verdant blades of grass, how they turned silver and bent in the wind, and even suggested at the small wildflowers that bowed their heads gently into the landscape.
It all made sense to me. I stepped away for a few weeks. Yet a nagging thought kept popping into my head – what about all those people who can’t see what I see? How could I allow them to see what I see? This would require me trying something new. To show everyone the flowers and blades of grass that I see, I decided to highlight them. I covered my favorite spots of the painting, the ones that really felt like a landscape with tape and paper. And then I painted the background black.
The result? I think you can experience it for yourself, but the wild garden came to life.
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ —a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Albert Einstein
- I no longer have to focus on the misfortunes of the past or on judging myself.
- Each moment, I can direct my focus towards the pursuit of happiness instead of tearing myself down.
- It takes courage to be the person what I want to be, but I believe in myself.
- In finding the courage to believe, anything is possible.
As the photo shoot progressed, I felt like I was living a major moment in art history. All of those books I read about my favorite movements, like Impressionism and Pre-Raphaelite art, were swirling around me. I was living art. Finally, I was proud of who I was. Everyone around me was living art, too. It was so liberating to see each person as who they really were – a beautiful soul in the artwork of their own body. There was no shame or judgement. There was only appreciation and joy. And that is the only way I choose to live.
“Dare to love yourself as if you were a rainbow with gold at both ends.” ― Aberjhani