Sometimes we yearn for something, for a person, or education, for an experience, or travels, for a rest or a new skill. If we can identify what it is we so desire, sometimes that very thing arrives. And when it does, it feels like a little miracle, appearing at the exact moment you need it most.
This happened one week ago, as I read the New York Times article, “The Ghost House of My Childhood” by Alan Lightman. His description of specific objects leads me to think of him as a visual artist, in addition to being a writer and physicist. His each and every word – a brushstroke or mark, an outline or shadow. He creates visual images in the reader’s mind that demand we see the objects in his memory. His words create simple visual cues leading us to understand complex ideas, such as the line, “My body is a distant, cold moon” which he stated when discovering his childhood home had vanished.
I realize most writers are masterful at choosing words to create visual imagery for readers. In this case, the images and ideas presented by Lightman happen to perfectly match the ideas I aim to convey in my paintings. I’ve yearned for this very article. The imagery he creates with precise words helps me learn how to better paint the ideas I’ve considered for the past two years.
The author helps readers understand that once things are gone, the only evidence of the past is in our minds. “And on the ground where the house was, new grass. Not a single brick or splinter or piece of debris.” Inspired by Lightman’s article and his eloquent words, I spent the week in my art studio continuing to dig at ideas: composing work that shows the figure in a space or setting indicating the lost past, a history, and the idea of memory defining us and binding us. While painting, I consider the past is only in our minds and that everything we think and see is partially “real” and partially “imagined.” While I struggle to achieve and communicate these ideas in my paintings, this week I moved a bit closer thanks to Alan Lightman.
He writes of memory and of neurobiologists’ description of memories. This painting (here, to the right) positions the figures with abstract shapes that interrupt, cover, and participate with the figures. The circular forms are like the flowing molecules Lightman refers to when describing our ever-shifting memories and perception of the world.
The two paintings below allude to several ideas: the view that every life is fleeting, that everything we look out and see is a partial image altered by perception, that all things fade as time passes, and that our experiences and perceptions are layers obscured over time.
The author’s handling of air immediately struck me as powerful and ignited specific methods I can try in painting. Of air, he writes, “I slide through the air,” “I can see right through the empty air,” “The air had a stillness it never had before,” “but there is only the silent, dead air,” and my favorites because of the unorthodox combination of words, “this empty corner of air,” and “I can see through the slab of air.” I’m not sure how I could paint these exact examples or if I even want to try, but they teach me that when something is missing or gone, what remains is more than nothing. The missing thing or the faded history is replaced by a vacuum so tangible, so acute in the mind of the memory holder, that saying the space is empty or only full of air, is not enough. A “slab of air” evokes the expression, “slab of concrete” which is something so solid and something Lightman yearns to see. In fact, of the former house he writes, “I try to will it into solidity.” The use of the word “slab” makes us hyper aware of what is missing. Perhaps this is what I find so enthralling about Lightman’s writing – the startling inversions he creates cause the reader to truly sense what he is experiencing.
One of the most beautiful as well as haunting passages in the article is when Lightman writes, “Some philosophers claim that we know nothing of the external world outside our minds – nothing compared to what sways in our minds, in the long, twisting corridors of memory, the vast mental rooms with half-open doors, the ghosts chattering beneath the chandeliers of imagination.” Now that image could make a great painting, a painting that resonates like the well chosen words of Alan Lightman.