CONTEMPLATING THOMAS MERTON’S PHOTOGRAPHS THROUGH PAINTING
In April 2014 I was one of two artists in residence at a conference of The Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland held at Oakham School where Merton had been a pupil in the 1930’s.
I had for a long time been an admirer of his photography, finding affinities with my own work. So I had the idea of doing a series of paintings, each one based on one of Merton’s photographs. It was not a question of taking one of his images and running with it but rather of using his photographs as a visual way of approaching his thinking and his world. The slow process of painting allowed me to contemplate each image, giving me some insight into his prayerful way of working. The series was always about exploring Thomas Merton more deeply.
When I showed the paintings at Oakham they were seen by Paul Pearson, the director of the Merton Center in Louisville, Kentucky and by Christine Bochen, past President of the International Thomas Merton Society who invited me to show the the paintings as part of the Centenary Conference in June 2015 at The Merton Centre, Bellarmine University, in Louisville, Kentucky.
I began reading Merton 35 years ago when my brother, who is a Buddhist gave me a copy of Seeds of Contemplation and I have been reading him ever since, gradually becoming aware of the many different facets of his life and work.
It was some time before I discovered his photographs, in a book by Esther de Waal called “A Seven Day Journey with Thomas Merton.” I remember feeling an immediate connection with them. These were the kinds of things that I wanted to paint, everyday things, rather than artistically approved “subjects”. He seemed to cut through any questions of style straight to the reality. I remember in particular a photograph of a wheel standing vertically with a distant landscape of trees and hills seen through its spokes, so real in every detail, the grain of the wood, each blade of the grass growing over its base and the wild flowers beyond. The image fills the whole page, making a circle within a square and in spite of the very particular nature of what is depicted it has the appearance of a symbol or archetype. What his photographs seemed to be saying was that anything could be beautiful and significant, which as a painter I found exciting.
When I was an art student I looked for inspiration in nature and in other artist’s work but I was also strongly affected by certain writers. In the novels and short stories of D.H.Lawrence there is such vitality and delight in the everyday stuff of life which seemed positively to give meaning and authenticity to my own experience. Teilhard de Chardin’s Le Millieu Divin was the book which opened my heart and mind to religion for the first time and its dedication “ For those who love the world” struck a chord deep within me. Some years later I began reading Thomas Keating, discovering the form of contemplation that he calls “Centering Prayer”. This had quite a dramatic effect on my paintings. They began to empty themselves out. I found myself discarding superfluous details in much the same way as one is encouraged to let go of thoughts during centering prayer. Paring things down to a minimum. There did come a point when I removed the last object and I found myself with an abstract painting. However, I never felt comfortable without some references to the world and the objects in it which I love, so gradually things came back in.
As a painter I have always found subjects to paint in my immediate surroundings, whether they be objects or interiors, landscape or occasionally people and although I do use photographs as part of my process they are always ones that I have taken myself, so it was a particular challenge to do a series of paintings based on Thomas Merton’s photographs. Sticking fairly closely to his compositions, I have tried to ‘translate’ the images into paint using my own particular palette and tonal way of painting. As well as allowing a very direct and visual way of approaching his work, it turned out to be a kind of meditation on, or dialogue between the very different disciplines of painting and photography. Bringing together these two languages made me become acutely aware of Merton’s own approach and the particular choices he made with each image.
In “A Seven Day Journey with Thomas Merton” Esther de Waal quotes him as saying “All our salvation begins on the level of common and natural and ordinary things.” She goes on to say “The monastic life takes the ordinary, the mundane,the humdrum and makes that a way to God.”
There are parallels here with the Shakers, in whom Merton was interested, and also with a particular Japanese aesthetic. Soetsu Yanagi, the great scholar and champion of traditional crafts in Japan (also a student of D.T. Suzuki for a time) describes it as follows; “ A certain love of roughness is involved, behind which lurks a hidden beauty, to which we refer in our peculiar adjectives Shibui, Wabi and Sabi. It is this beauty with inner implications that is referred to as Shibui. It is not a beauty displayed before the viewer by its creator. Creation here means rather making a piece that will lead the viewer to draw beauty out of it himself. In this sense Shibui beauty is beauty that makes an artist out of the viewer. These adjectives come out of a background of Zen thinking and have a pervasive religious flavour of modesty and restraint and inwardness. They describe an aesthetic based upon simple naturalness and reverence.” This is certainly close to Merton.
Writing about Merton’s photographs John Howard Griffin says “In his photography he focused on the images of his contemplation, as they were and not as he wanted them to be. He took his camera on his walks and with his special way of seeing photographed what moved or excited him – whatsoever responded to that inner orientation.”
What was this special way of seeing or inner orientation? I know from my own experience of drawing and painting from observation that something extraordinary happens when you spend a very long time giving concentrated attention to the process of looking. After hours spent looking at a few objects on a table, one’s vision is heightened. Coming back from the studio into the house I am filled with wonder at the beauty of everything I look at – the piled up dishes on the sink, the space under the table,that patch of light on the wall. Everywhere I look I feel a kind of joy in the act of looking. Not just fondness for the objects but more abstract qualities such as appreciation of intervals between things, gradations of tone, the almost palpable quality of light. Going out onto the street the colours and patterns of the tarmac are almost hallucinatory in their beauty. Of course this visual ecstasy does gradually fade but what it says to me about the nature of reality is that everything is beautiful, it is only our own limited view of things as having some particular function or as related to ourselves in some way that clouds it. As Merton says “ we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time.” or as Blake says “If the doors of perception were cleansed man would see the world as it is, infinite.”
Whatever form it takes contemplation affects our perception of reality and I think that Merton’s lifelong practice of contemplative prayer is clearly manifested the moment he picked up a camera, never having used one before. This was certainly not a question of beginner’s luck, but rather of “beginner’s mind.” Merton’s advice concerning photography as quoted by a young writer friend of his, Ron Seitz, was “ You have to stop looking and begin Seeing! Because looking means that you already have something in mind for your eye to find. You’ve set out in search of your desired object and have closed off everything else presenting itself along the way. But seeing is being open and receptive to what comes to the eye, your vision total and not targeted.”
“Keep in mind when you look through that little square of glass, you are the same as a sculptor eyeing a piece of stone, a painter surveying his canvas. All art is abstract, in that you arrange and select and balance the configuration of colours, shapes, objects so that it all fits into a mixed whole. And that’s something to be especially aware of in photography – there’s no particular thing at the exclusion of it’s field that you want to ‘catch’ as figure, as representation. Everything in that frame is Primary, nothing is extraneous. And once you know this, the photograph will show you what you have seen. Believe me.”
Doing this series of paintings has been an enormously enriching experience and has given me an insight into another side of Merton – the silent, non-verbal Thomas Merton.
I would like to end with some quotations by other artists which I think are relevant to the visual art of Thomas Merton.
“Only one thing is valid in art – that which cannot be explained. “
“A maximum of appearances in intimate relation to unknown realities:
that is what I am striving for. When one is in rapport with appearances
( not things ) then one cannot be far from reality, or at least from as much as we can know of it.”
“You see, I have made a great discovery. I no longer believe in anything. Objects don’t exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them, or between them and myself. When one attains this harmony one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence – what I can only describe as a sense of peace, which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation.”
4. Paul Gauguin
“ We must learn to see without understanding.”