Sometimes the work turns you inside out, but you have to keep going anyway.
I spent the past six weeks working on two pieces addressing topics that were both important–and deeply unpleasant. The first was a piece reflecting on the American Museum of Natural History’s recent renovation and re-installation of their Northwest Coast Hall. This was the AMNH’s first cultural hall, first conceptualized–and installed–by none other than Franz Boas himself. To write the piece, I had to first catch up with developments in Native American and Indigenous history and studies, with the history of museums and collecting, with debates on restitution and repatriation, and with the history of anthropology. The second was a piece nominally about cultural heritage in wartime Ukraine, and was really just prep for an interview, but it took me through the literature on cultural heritage and war crimes from the Napoleonic Wars through the many wars that marked the early twenty-first century.
It is a strange cognitive dissonance to spend so much time reading about death and violence as spring blossoms all around me.
It was hard to write.
It was hard to think.
When it got to be too much, I sat at my dining table and painted.
I painted, to take the “self” out of myself, to lose my consciousness in the absorption of the work.
Early modern still life paintings, like the Zurbarán that accompanies this essay, were intended to serve as the objects of absorption and contemplation, to draw the viewer into a meditative state, perhaps even propel them into a state of mystical ecstasy. We know quite a bit about how these paintings were supposed to work on the viewer, but comparatively little about how the production of these paintings (which were often quite small, intended for personal spaces rather than grand public displays, their small scale conferring a somatic quality of intimate intensity) affected the painters themselves, if the work of creation drew the painter into a state of meditative absorption as well. There is evidence that an older body of painting–the miniatures known as ‘pattern’ or ‘carpet’ pages–worked this way on both painter and viewer. “The carpet page,” the art historian Lynda Coon once wrote, “presents a story without actors and a theology without words.” The act of creating such a page was itself a meditation, an aesthetic ecstasy experienced by both maker and audience.
The condensation of attention–and consciousness–into the present tense of beholding, of the back and forth of looking and of painting–of moving hand and brush, brush and water–somehow stills the tumult within, clears a space. It is like meditation. It is like therapy. Or maybe it’s both meditation and therapy. In either case, the work of painting returns me to myself, and I keep going.
Sometimes, the only way I could get through the research was by drawing my bedroom shades and shutting the city out. Working in that womb-like space, I wondered at how others could make a profession out of looking straight at these things. I felt like a teenager again. Open. Raw. Uncertain of my own edges. Full of such thoughts as: How do you keep believing in life when all you see is death? And also more primal surges of emotion, almost untranslatable into words. But I kept going, anyway, kept plowing through the reading and writing outlines and notes, because I knew–for me–there would come a stopping point, where I could step away. It would come when I finished writing those pieces, and I could only get there by getting through here.