Sunday, January 30, 2011

Pilgrimage and Painting: Influences on my Work

With two artist’s talks scheduled for late January, and two more in the spring, I spent the early part of the month learning Power Point, which may seem easy to those who have newer computers with no internal glitches.  Let’s say it was a challenge for me and for my computer.

In the end, once I figured out how the program worked, and with the help of my daughter and her husband as well as the use of their computer, the whole process turned out to be incredibly enjoyable.  It gave me the chance to look at the hundreds of photos I take every time I travel, reliving them and considering what I learned on each trip.  Each feeds into my life journey and the trajectory of my work.  I loved the creativity involved in putting the photos together, making a slideshow movie, and adding in music that I had brought back from each trip.  I decided to call the talk: Pilgrimage and Painting: Influences on my Work

The idea of going on pilgrimages began for me before I had actually named the trips as such.  Pilgrimage is defined as a journey to a sacred centre, and/or life viewed as a journey.

In 1994, at the Ontario College of Art and Design, I was enrolled in a class called “Symbol”. Our assignment was to find an important personal symbol on which to focus our work for the semester. I struggled with this. That same fall, I went to Greece for two weeks.  On the island of Crete, I became obsessed with the huge, ancient, pottery vessels that were still standing on the archaeological sites.  I began actually dreaming of them.  One night, I dreamt for the entire night about a light-filled vessel that had a sacred pattern around the edge.  When I came home, ‘vessels’ became the obvious symbol that I began to paint in my class.  I understood it to be a universal symbol, almost archetypal. That image was a container for many ideas: nurturing; the body; the earth; the spirit.  This image continued to feed my work for several years.

I realize now, looking back, that the idea of pilgrimage or journey constantly informs my work, whether directly or indirectly. In this slideshow presentation, I show images of my journey to India with Andrew Harvey, a mystical scholar and author who was born in India and began his spiritual journey there.  He led a trip in 2006 called “Shiva’s Dancing Ground” to South India where we visited sacred sites and prayed in incense-filled temples.  However my pilgrimage to India really began for me the year before, when I traveled on a tour to North India.  The focus was on visiting tourist sights.  But India is sacred.  You can't avoid it.  Each journey there becomes a pilgrimage. We visited the Holy City of Varanasi and plied the Ganges at dawn, lighting small candles in leaf boats that floated away with our blessings inside.

At the nearby burning ghats, we had to walk around a dead woman who was laid out on the pathway, soon to be creamated.  She was dressed in a fine sari with a marigold in her mouth. I won't ever forget her. We hide death in our Western culture.  Ignore it as though it will go away if we don't look. 

At Sarnath, we circumambulated a stupa. Buddha preached his first sermon here after he attained enlightenment.  Every stupa contains at the very least a life tree and holy relics:"When a great teacher passes away, his body is no more, but to indicate that his mind is dwelling forever in an unchanging way in the dharmakaya, one will erect a stupa as a symbol of the mind of the buddhas" - HH Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

                                                     SOUTH INDIA

In South India, in 2006, we chanted as we circumambulated the sacred mountain, Mount Arunachala, where holy men, sadhus, begged for food. Mount Arunachala, made famous by Sri Ramana Maharshi, is said to bestow enlightenment and moksha (liberation from reincarnation) to the pilgrim who circumambulates its base. We meditated often each day.  The journey became an increasingly swirling experience of incense, chanting, meditation and blessings. I fought to keep my feet on the ground.  That feeling continued after I came home. I wasn’t able to paint for months and struggled to integrate what I'd learned there.

“It is not enough that one surrenders oneself. Surrender is to give oneself up to the original cause of one's being. Do not delude yourself by imagining such a source to be some God outside you. One's source is within oneself. Give yourself up to it. That means that you should seek the source and merge in it.”  Sri Ramana Maharshi

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