The Art of the Matter by George Merrill

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My first excursion into art was through photography. I didn’t know then that photography was an art. I just thought it was fun. For over sixty years I’ve accrued hundreds of photographs.

Some, like the accompanying picture, I particularly treasure.

I took it at the Baltimore Museum of Art. A workshop was being offered that day to community children. A good number of children attended, with supervising elders guiding and facilitating the children’s budding efforts to create. The kids were having a grand time.

When I began writing essays later in life, some focused around certain of my pictures. I was sure they had a story to tell me, in the way sculptors believe that, in the stone they are about to carve, there’s something within it yearning to be freed. The sculptor’s task: to give shape to the yearning and thereby liberate it. In whatever artistic medium, the same principle applies; the materials of artistic creation become the expression of things inward and spiritual. Sacraments, like works of art, are defined in this way.

I’m sure this child won’t remember her day at the museum. I remember it vividly. I experienced what legendary French photographer Cartier-Bresson once identified as the “decisive moment.” He describes this as being drawn to a scene in which something fundamental to life is being dramatized right before your eyes. The photographer sees it and he snaps the shutter. A moment – a once and for all – is plucked from the continuum of time to become timeless in the form of a silver-gelatin print, the photograph.

At the museum that day, I sensed that the child painting and I were both engaged in something fundamental to life; the urge to create. I saw in the child, some of the yearning that I, too, have known. She is trying to give her own particular shading, form and color to some matter of the heart that she feels within her. The yearning spurs her on, but offers little specific guidance. She has to find her way. How does she do it? How do any of us engage in the sort of midwifery that facilitates the process of emerging possibilities? Inspiration comes first, encouragement next and then practice. It can be summed up this way: follow your bliss. It’s often first discovered during decisive moments.

The child was totally absorbed in what she was doing. It was all about her, her own inner vision; everyone has an inner vision, but many remain unaware of it. Her expression, as I read it, didn’t have that strained or frantic quality – the kind of hyper-alertness or frantic anticipation that I see in the faces of children on cell phones texting or calling. They are as absorbed on their phones as the child in the museum was in her painting. There is a difference. I believe the child at the easel was more in tune with her inner voice or vision than a child on a cell phone is. Some of her radiance showed it. The energy in texting is primarily outwardly focused, reactive; an artist in the act of creating is both inwardly and outwardly focused at the same time. Maintaining an inner vision while expressing it outwardly by craftsmanship is the practice of an art. It has a meditative character.

Art has many mediums. Art is a process that represents the works and activities resulting from human creative skill and imagination. Einstein formulates the stunning equation E=mc2. While the equation is mathematical, it’s also, at a deeper level, an aesthetic statement. It was created by an inner vision. Einstein first visualized the cosmic dynamism in his imagination before making any of the computations.

This remarkably terse statement of three letters, a number and an equal sign captures the essence of an infinitely stunning and interconnected universe. It’s similar to the way the fourteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich spoke of the hazelnut she once held in her hand. “And in this [God] showed me a little . . . hazelnut, lying in the palm if my hand. And it was as round as any ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding. It was answered generally thus, ‘it is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness.” Good art sees things with the eye of understanding.

Art is an attempt to release the eternity hidden in the grain of sand. It illuminates the nascent grandeur inherent in life’s “little things” that we rarely notice. Art renders them visible for everyone to see. Art keeps truth and its beauty visible saving it from falling to nothing. Art, as the product of our imagination, offers infinite possibilities in the way we see.

One of the rewards of making art is the experience of discovery it offers. I think it’s generally true of the visual and literary arts that what the artist first sets upon to do looks little like the final product. While the essential vision first imagined remains, it gets hewed, tempered, altered, pressed, burnished and polished in all kinds of ways before it takes its final shape.

I do not know what the child was envisioning at the museum that day. I never saw what she finally painted. It was enough that she was trying to claim her vision and give it shape, form and color.

That’s the art of the matter or perhaps more pointedly, the matter of the art.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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