elephant

16″ x 20″ Oil on Board

I love elephants. I see them as wise, intuitive, devoted, patient, and perceptive. I see these qualities in myself sometimes, and sometimes I just aspire to them.

Wisdom is big concept and an easily-tossed-around word. In the spirit of not over-thinking things, I sought to be in touch with a wisdom that an elephant might have. Mysterious, deep, timeless. It is not analytical or clever. Wisdom comes from a place deeper than my intellect and my emotions. It comes from a clear and eternal place within.

My paintings were originally inspired in part by animal deities of the Hindu tradition. I couldn’t help but call to mind Ganesh, the elephant-headed God, when I began this piece. At first I imagined my wisdom painting would depict references to ornate and colorful religious iconography, but the more I allowed the idea of wisdom to percolate, the simpler I wanted the imagery to be.

When I half-jokingly googled “wise,” I found magi silhouettes, owls, and photos of Ghandi, but the one I responded to was an old sepia-toned photo of a weathered Native American man who looked to me a shamanic character. He had a simple dark cloak with no reference to culture or status. There my elephant got his clothes.

For the background I took inspiration from the pastureland near my hometown, which, in younger days, seemed to be the most peaceful and splendid place on Earth. (Not that I’d seen that much of Earth.) But to this day if I were asked to imagine a place of serenity, memories of those fields come to me. One of my favorite painters is Andrew Wyeth, and although his depictions of the fields near his home are barren and unsettling, his masterful voice reveals a wisdom about life that moves me. So I painted a spare field of grass, resonant of both home and Wyeth.

I read somewhere that some Native Americans are proud of their weathered wrinkly faces of old age because they are slowly becoming more like the landscape that they love and that will someday bury them. Talk about wisdom! I thought of this lovely and refreshing thought when painting the many furrows and folds of the elephant’s skin.

I couldn’t even begin to talk about wisdom if I didn’t mention a Higher Power.

When I was 12 years old my mother told me about her spiritual beliefs. For the first time in my life the idea of God didn’t seem so impossible. I’d been to church every Sunday with Dad and attended Catechism on Thursdays after school, but nothing I’d learned about Catholicism registered as sound truth to my young mind. It would take many years to developed broader abilities at abstract thinking before Christian ritual made any sense to me. In her brief talk with me, Mom explained that God was like a force. It was everywhere and in everything. I don’t remember a whole lot more than that, but there was something in it that seemed plausible enough to excite me. I could believe in God now, and for the rest of my life I was curious enough to pursue a better understanding of what that meant to me.

In the decades that followed I found that no matter how my concept of God morphed as I changed and grew, my definition was never adequate. The more I sought and grew in my connection with a Higher Power, the less I understood or could explain what that power is and how it works. I did, however, grow in faith. Whether I understand it intellectually or not, I have experiences that prove to me that I am not alone, that when I am lost I will be found, and that something amazing can save a wretch like me.

I used to think that wisdom had something to do with having all the answers and being peaceful all the time. As I grow in wisdom (brought on by gaining faith and humility through life’s lessons) I am more comfortable not having the answers. I love a quote from the movie, The Physician, when Ben Kingsley’s character says, “How pale and tedious the world would be without mystery.” As for being serene all the time, I’m not, but I am a lot more than I used to be. With some effort at nudging myself in that direction, I’ve cultivated some behaviors and attitudes that help. And here’s a few:

  1. I go on silent retreats at Christian, Yogic, Buddhist, or secular monasteries and have found them to be the most luxurious of all “vacations.” I’ve done a painting on this subject so you’ll have to wait for the full explanation. No spoilers here. But for a little sneak peak I’ll say that they are the steroid shots of serenity enhancement.
  1. You hear all the time how creativity is chicken soup (or even key lime pie!) for your soul. I’ve been writing and making art for a few decades, and I am still astounded at how creativity transforms, heals, unites, uplifts, and inspires. I want to shake someone and say, “Do you understand how miraculous this is?” I see it happening in myself, but I really see it in my students. There’s so much to say about it I think I’ll do a painting on that subject, too.
  1. I am better at setting boundaries, but I have to work at it. In her research on shame, resilience, and vulnerability, Brene Brown discovered that the most well-adjusted, compassionate people have the most boundaries. I get it. The more I make sure my space, time, and energy are well-cared for and not given completely away to other people or distracting activity, the more stable and present I am. Then I also am much more friendly and caring when I do engage with people.
  1. I’m less drawn to linger with people who are mean or pessimistic, but I am more tolerant of them in general. Since I have been both mean and pessimistic in my lifetime, I can understand why one could get that way. I wish the grouchy ones well but don’t set up camp with them.

That’s enough wisdom thoughts for one blog post. I know the L word should be mentioned, (that’s Love, not Loofah) but I’ll save that for another painting. On another note, I can’t help but be terribly distracted by the thought of Saturday Night Live’s sappy parody commercial called “Deep Thoughts.” It has been a cautionary tale throughout my entire inner investigation. I’ll probably end up painting about being a cornball, and then I will have faced my fear of being sappy.

As for my aspirations of wisdom, I find I have a continually increasing desire to pursue a deeper connection with the Infinite. I have many avenues that explore and expand this union, and it’s always profoundly rewarding. Many of my paintings have depicted the duality of my nature, and of the obstructions that hinder my access to inner wisdom. As I proceed, I’m finding myself gaining curiosity about the parts of myself that are not congested with old habits and pain. I am seeing possibilities about them evolving into my paintings. My process is best left to the Unfolding, so I look forward to seeing what comes next.