Who could imagine a university nestled amongst stands of redwood trees and situated upon a hilltop meadow on the edge of the Monterey Bay. In this aspect, and in many other ways, UC Santa Cruz is extraordinary. Every morning I bike up the hill through the meadow to campus, a worthy challenge, and every evening, work complete for this day, I descend the pasturage, enjoying the emerging stars cast against a Technicolor ocean sunset. When I can take a midday break, I walk to the meadow and sketch. There, amazing Coastal Live Oaks, joined by their companion Bay Laurels and Buckeyes, bridge the forest and the meadow. A particularly compelling Quercus Agrifolia has caught my attention; a massive tree that must be at least sixty feet high, and could be over 250 years old. The change it has witnessed. It’s trunk is massive, contorted and gnarled, its branches an intricate web, and its crown rounded and dense. It sits majestically at the crest of the hill, the redwoods, the meadow and the bay as it’s theatrical backdrop. Beauty was the subject of my last blog and my search, blessedly continues.
It is difficult to take a break from the demands of a busy work schedule, but sketching the tree offers food for my imagination, an opportunity to refresh my soul, and ground myself before returning to my responsibilities. Henry David Thoreau danced on the edge of a Buddhist koan, with this 1859 journal entry “I have many affairs to attend to, and feel hurried these days. Great works of art have endless leisure for a background, as the universe has space. Time stands still while they are created. The artist cannot be in a hurry. The earth moves round the sun with inconceivable rapidity, and yet the surface of the lake is not ruffled.” My friend Chip Sullivan, artist and author, states in Drawing the Landscape that we “draw because it is the act of seeing and thinking clearly…it allows a concept to evolve…it resides between freedom and structure…drawing can also be a meditation…Zen art is the expression of the artist’s own inner state of going nowhere to a timeless dimension.
A few months ago, a very dear friend was reading a book about the National Archives historic photograph collection. The page was open to an iconic photograph taken by Dorothea Lange of hungry people in breadlines in San Francisco during the Great Depression. That single moment, set me on a journey of discovery, a road I still travel – reading about Dorothea and her first husband Maynard Dixon and viewing reproductions of their work in books, films and in museums. In the Fall 2014, PBS American Masters series broadcast the film Grab a Hunk of Lightning portraying the life and work of the masterful artist Dorothea Lange. A section of the film included Lange speaking about the meditative experience of making art:
“When you are working well, it is first of all, a process of getting lost, so that you live for maybe 2 – 3 hours as completely as possible the visual experience…you feel you have lost yourself, your identity, you are only an observer…all your instinctive powers are in operation and you don’t know why you are doing things really. Sometimes you annihilate yourself; that is something one needs to be able to do. There are moments when time stands still. You hope it will wait for you that fraction of a second…beauty appears when one feels deeply. Art is an act of total attention.”