The return of the prodigal son, or how to face one’s fears

2016-03-08 14.51.37

The temporary exile from my studio didn’t necessarily mean I couldn’t paint: after all, there is all my plein air gear out there in the garage — I could just go out and paint landscapes every day. But I didn’t. It seemed too cumbersome to store oil paintings in this tiny hotel room; and I felt tired and a bit ill, so I decided to just take time to reflect, and to read, and just give myself some breathing space.

And so it came to happen that I didn’t paint for two weeks or so — an unusually long interruption in the painting process.

Back in the studio, I decided to start with my huge Rembrandt study. This kind of communion with Rembrandt felt just like the right way to break the painting fast. As it turned out, there was even more to this feeling that I had anticipated: this return to painting felt exactly like the return of the prodigal son in the parable, and in Rembrandt’s painting.   

It may seem ridiculous — after all, a fortnight away doesn’t seem to qualify for such a grand interpretation. But the truth, there was a time in my life when I abandoned painting for years — for decades even — prodigally spending whatever gifts and talents I was given in other pursuits. This, I believe, is why even short pauses in my studio work tend to trigger fears and doubts: each of them feels, at some level, like that decades-long time away from myself. I am afraid that I won’t be able to return, that Painting won’t take me back, that the door will be closed forever.

Hence the core experience of my first painting session — sensing that Painting does accept me back, with the same unconditional, raspberry-coloured tenderness as the father accepts his prodigal son in Rembrandt’s painting.

And in the course of this painting session, I suddenly remembered that I did see myself in the parable of the prodigal son back then. A couple of years after I had abandoned painting, a poem came to me — a poem where I promised to return, just like the prodigal son did; or to be more precise, a poem predicting this return. It now seems very strange that I had forgotten that poem, and didn’t even recall it when I started this Rembrandt study a couple of months ago. Could it be that this whole hiatus was actually needed to continue this study, to feel my way into it at a deeper level?

But there is more to it… The thing is, I’ve been painting “full time” for many years now. These two weeks for the renovation project have, objectively speaking, nothing to do with the long years of my “prodigal” youth. So why is it that the fears I seem to have overcome when I came back to painting back in the beginning of this century — why do they re-surface so easily, with a minimal “trigger”? Why am I so terrified of even brief disturbances to my studio “routine”, as though each of them is just waiting to transform into a lifetime of exile from painting?   

In an instance of serendipity, or synchronicity (or whatever is the right word for this kind of happenings), I followed someone’s link to Paramahamsa Nithyananda’s book, “Living enlightenment” (at, and read my way towards the chapter on fear. His take on fears is somewhat different from what I have encountered so far — because here, fear presents itself not as something to be conquered, not as a sign of weakness, but almost something to be celebrated. He writes:

<…> fear is a part of the nature of life. You can be fearless if you are already in your grave! Then there is no need to be afraid of anything because you have nothing to lose. If you have something to lose, you will have fear. This is the nature of life itself.

His advice, then, is neither to fight the fear you are facing (because this empowers it), nor to distract yourself from the fear (because then it stays with you, just hidden from your conscious attention), but just to “look at it”, live it, accept it. I guess my favourite strategy all these years used to be not to pay attention to fears. It has the obvious advantage of doing what you’ve got to do in spite of any fears, but it keeps the fears well and alive in your inner space, always ready to resurface.

And when I decided to follow his advice and look directly at my fear of “painting not taking me back”, I saw another, deeper and darker fear lurking behind it: the fear of being completely and utterly delusional about my whole relationship with painting; the fear of being delusional about being an artist. It scares the hell out of me — even now, as I write the words, I feel as though I am making this potentiality more “real” than it would have been had it remained in the darkness, outside the realm of conscious “naming”. But this makes my next challenge clear: to live and accept that fear. Paramahamsa Nithyananda writes:    

<…> fearlessness doesn’t mean non-existence of fear. It means the fear is there, but you have tremendous energy or courage to live with it and face it. Fearlessness means the energy or the courage to live even with the maximum fear — going beyond that fear and being neither attached not detached from the fear.

The next question to live is, then, whether I happen to have this energy or this courage… We’ll see, I guess.

Inside and outside. Appearing and being

2016-03-08 17.31.04There has been an almost month-long long hiatus in my studio life, mainly because we have finally started a long-due “clearance and renovation” project in our flat (which is now almost over — at least enough for me to return to the studio).

Such events tend to disrupt the life-supporting structures of my day, but they also create pauses, gaps in the normal flow of life — and thus an opportunity to stop and have a deeper look at it, as though from the outside. And this time, I’ve decided to try and really take this chance to hit the “pause button” on my life, to create some sort of personal “retreat” for myself.

Fused as it was with the whole experience of clearing the space for renovations and making new decisions on how to design and organise it, it probably wasn’t exactly how “retreats” are supposed to work (I wouldn’t really know, since I’ve never been to any). But it did bring a new clarity — not only in the inner space of consciousness, but also in its immediate outer, physical environment.

A renovation project like this, with all the taking stuff out, discarding all the junk we have imperceptibly accumulated over the last eight years, exposing the usually invisible “cultural layers” — such a project forces one to confront the “inside” of one’s life, all its usually invisible seams and stitches, its tender, dark, ugly underbelly. Not the “inner space” in the higher — mental, psychological, spiritual — sense of the world, but just this plain, mundane, earthly insides, with all the heaps of long-forgotten stuff in the recesses of storage areas, and all the layers of usually hidden dirt and dust: all the insides of life that usually do not appear, which don’t really want or need spectators — like the guts and entrails of a body. The normal flow of life gives one plenty of ways not to see all this stuff, but everything changes once you start preparing the place for renovations, and you begin to wonder whether what is now revealed is more “true”, more “real”, more “authentic”, than what is usually visible — or rather, what you usually prefer to see. A domestic take on the millennia-old philosophical question…

(It turned out, for example, that I seem to have some sort of “cleaning supplies fetish” — there were layers and layers of them hidden behind one another in kitchen and bathroom cabinets, some of them many years old. I never really believed — at least not consciously — that they will have any cleaning effect just by sitting there; but maybe I did believe it at some childish level, hidden even from myself? There seem to be no other remotely rational reason to keep them there, as an army never called to fight…)

However humbling this experience, it brought in its wake a more uplifting one. In some way, this clearing of mind and space, the overall cleansing and renewal, made it possible for me to finally update the private “exhibition” of paintings on our walls. For a rather long time, all the recent paintings remained in their storage places, mostly invisible even to myself. Now, the new paintings are finally out in the open, enjoying fresh air and open space. And this certainly feels like getting my inner space out into the visible outer space — as though my inner world is now reflected back at me from the walls!

And this is a completely different space from the one we used to inhabit before this hiatus: cooler, freer, lighter, easier to breath in.    

Painting sonnet 82: dissolving dualities (January 20 – February 10, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 82 (I grant thou weren’t married to my Muse). 20″x20″. 2016

I grant thou wert not married to my Muse,
And therefore mayst without attaint o’erlook
The dedicated words which writers use
Of their fair subject, blessing every book.
Thou art as fair in knowledge as in hue,
Finding thy worth a limit past my praise;
And therefore art enforced to seek anew
Some fresher stamp of the time-bettering days.
And do so, love; yet when they have devised,
What strained touches rhetoric can lend,
Thou truly fair, wert truly sympathised
In true plain words, by thy true-telling friend;
And their gross painting might be better used
Where cheeks need blood; in thee it is abused.

The beginning of this sonnet painting was rooted in two initial impressions:

First, the way this sonnet contrasts with the previous one, 81: the markedly increased distance between “I” and “thou/you” of the sonnet. If the eight first sonnet suggested that “I” and “thou” are, in a sense, two “selves” of the poet, here they are definitely different “persons”. And the other person is not even the poet’s Muse anymore — this idea is replaced by (not) being married to her.

Secondly, the repetitive juxtaposition of fair and true — and their interaction within the sonnet — reminded me of what Hamlet tells Ophelia about incompatibility of honesty and beauty. And “true” repeated four times within the space of two lines: a conspicuously pervasive insistence on one’s own honesty.

This insistence on truth highlights the major challenge of “translating” this sonnet: its falsehood, in the plainest sense of saying something one doesn’t believe to be true. That’s what happens when you write a letter to someone you are really angry with, but whom you don’t want to anger; you want to let them know how wrong they are, but try to be polite and politic, even to flatter them — but only to get your point across, which makes you even angrier, because all the while you don’t believe a single word you are saying. It is this forced falsehood that finally breaks the all too elegant flesh of the sonnet with the four repetition of true in lines eleven and twelve.

But how on earth can this kind of falsehood express itself in a painting? A falsehood that sees itself for what it is ? How do you make a painting false, but simultaneously true at a higher level — at the level of faithfully recreating the experience of pretending? This particular experience of pretending because you are hurt, and don’t want to be hurt even more?

These questions connected themselves with the contrast between two “selves”: the more expansive “self” of Sonnet 81, capable of bestowing immortality, and the narrowed, contracted “self” of Sonnet 82, overcome with absurd jealousy to “rival poets” – the “smaller” self, which takes charge when the larger one collapses in response to being hurt, angered, jealous, afraid.

The stronger one’s connection to the higher self, the more painful this collapse must be; one can almost hear the scratching sound of the whole infinite space crushing into a narrow “hole” of limited perception. This is the experience enacted in this sonnet, and this is the experience that had to be expressed in the painting.

2015-09-09 14.27.59This understanding brought with it the initial vision for the painting: an open space expanding from the left upwards to the right, and the small (flat, cubistic, not quite whole) human figure crushed in the bottom right corner. From the very beginning, this painting connected itself to the motive of the sonnet 78 painting — located right above it the future sixteen-sonnets composition: the god-like Muse, who was raising the human up to the heaven, has finally thrown the him to the earth.

Pablo Picasso. The old blind guitarist.
Pablo Picasso. The old blind guitarist.

And then the open space of this concept filled itself with a rainbow. It happened when I caught a tiny glimpse of rainbow on my shower floor. The rainbow presented itself as a way to introduce two — apparently contradictory — sensations emanating from the sonnet: its background tone of a higher, “god-like”, self, and its pretence, its superficial falsity. There had been “signs” of the part a rainbow has to play in this painting before: the couple of rainbows we saw on Saturday, and a later moment when my attention was drawn to the twentieth sonnet painting with its — not quite successful — rainbow (interestingly that sonnet contains the word “hue”, like this one; it may well be that this word naturally brings the rainbow into the imagery of a sonnet). But this tiny funny rainbow in the small pool of water on the floor of my shower was the “last straw” that clarified this idea.

Another aspect of the painting clarified itself on the same morning— not quite directly, but the painting would “refer” to Picasso’s old blind guitarist. That was enough to start the painting process, but this process turned out to be both harder and more rewarding than I had anticipated.

2016-01-26 15.49.33By the end of two painting days, the rainbow looked way more garish than I felt comfortable with. In a sense, that was the intended reflection of the “false sound” of the sonnet, but it didn’t quite work nonetheless. I felt an aversion to the look and feel of the painting, but wasn’t sure whether it’s essentially the same aversion I feel towards the pretence of the poem. All in all, I didn’t like the paintings’ “present”,  and I couldn’t see its future.

2016-01-27 12.54.51The next night brought some clarity: a still vague way of gradually muting the colours of the rainbow, without fully losing its rainbow-y feel. The rainbow was now just an underpainting; if there is a rainbow out there in this space, then the sonnet hides it, rather than revealing it. As I began to implement this new vision, the initial contrast between space and flatness, colour and greyness has softened into some sort of unification. However humbled and degraded the poet in this sonnet, it is still he — not someone else — who generates the space he has fallen from, the heaven he has — temporarily at least — lost. The new composition was barely there, but I finally saw, even if not quite clearly, the future of the painting; and there was a sense of breaking through yet another false duality, the duality of two “selves”. I love these moments of clarification happening inside the process, when the painting is not just an implementation of a pre-conceived vision, but a rightful participant, with its own contribution to the result.

Marc Chagall. Homage to Apollinaire. 1912
Marc Chagall. Homage to Apollinaire. 1912

And another source for this painting (apart from Picasso’s musician) has revealed itself: Chagall’s homage to Apollinaire. There are two shared ideas, which might appear quite disconnected from one another: the dominance of a circle in the composition, and the explicit tension between duality and unity. All in all, the painting of this sonnet turned out to be a private exercise in dissolving and overcoming dualities.

What I initially perceived as the core of the sonnet, the recorded experience of falling into the constraints of smaller, angrier self, has revealed itself to be — not wrong exactly, but too limited, insufficient. Understood too straightforwardly, it led me to what can be justly called gross painting (to use the sonnet’s own words): too direct, too superficial, garish, gaudy.

2016-01-29 14.44.49What was needed was to acknowledge that both layers of self are there; perhaps they cannot exist one without the other. Stressing the opposition — without recognising the underlying unity — is but a deeper-level falsehood, another misplaced duality. The same voice both falls from the heaven and generates the heaven. Dissolving the contrast (while still keeping it alive, in a sense) involved changes in colour, in the overall geometry of the painting, and, on the purely representational level, in the change of the hand gesture (it now links this painting to the sixty fifth sonnet painting). And then something strange happened — quite unforeseen, unplanned: the dissolution of the duality between the poet and the muse.

In the future sixteen-paintings composition, this painting will be directly below the seventy eighth one, with its huge Muse supporting the poet in the sky. I assumed this one would then “read” as the defeated poet having been thrown down — but by the end of the day, this painting’s figure palpably identified itself with the muse. In a sense, it is now both the poet and the muse. This was the resolution of the painting’s (and the sonnet’s) conflict.

I left the painting to sit there for a while, uncertain about whether it was complete. And the longer it was sitting there in the corner of my studio, the louder the inner voice of the need to return to it, so I returned to it on February 10, 2016. This day strengthened and clarified the unification of the two contrasting parts of the painting, both in its colour and its geometry. The figure in the bottom right corner of the painting is now not a lonely victim, but also the source of the rainbow-y space. And the rainbow itself has gradually transformed itself from a garish flat curve into a more topologically complex, multidimensional, and mysterious space.

February 10, 2016: a return to sonnet 82

2016-02-10 14.04.43There was a sensation of being scattered about this day, as though everything was slightly out of focus.

The day’s visible core is the completion of sonnet 82. Well, I have already kind of completed it once, but there was a lingering feeling of uncertainty about this — and the longer it was sitting there in the corner of my studio, the louder the inner voice of the need to return to it.

The painting of this sonnet developed from a stark contrast between the god-like state of poet and his crushed, solitary state of isolated self towards a more unified view of these opposing states, their interconnectedness, even a harmony between them. This last day of painting just strengthened and clarified this unification, both in its colour and its geometry. The figure in the bottom right corner of the painting is now not a lonely victim, but also the source of the rainbow-y space. And even though the inner link between the painting and the sonnet may not be immediately apparent, the painting does rehearse the sonnet more clearly now — which is to say, when I look at it, the sonnet immediately begins to rehearse itself in my head.

There was one personal insight, one “aha-moment”, in the process of painting this sonnet. I tend to think of enlightenment, self-transcendence as the destination of a journey; the journey may be long and difficult, but once you arrive, you are “firmly” there. The vacillation between two states of consciousness in this sonnet (and in the painting) made me realise that this is not quite the right metaphor: that the choice exists within every single moment, and needs to be renewed every single moment.   

78-82And one more painting-internal event I want to remember. At one point, there was an ambivalence in my mind about the top right corner of the painting, and how to resolve it. Basically, that was the last unclear aspect of the painting; the last question to be answered.

At this moment, another sonnet, sonnet 78, started “playing” in my head instead of this one. Sonnet 78, which — in this composition of sixteen paintings — will find itself right above this one. I decided to listen to this voice, and to have a look at how these paintings are going to work together — and a clear solution suggested itself immediately.   

Looking back, the development of this sonnet painting involved a gradual transformation of the rainbow — from a two-dimensional curve into a more topologically complex and mysterious space; and this slight change in the right top corner not only linked this sonnet more visibly to the one above it, but also completed this transformation.

The beginning of Rembrandt study and the unbearable lightness of being (February 5, 2016)

2016-02-05 16.18.19There seemed remarkably little to journal about this day.

A strange experience: the day feels full, but it’s completely devoid of stories. It’s been filled with unbelievable, story-less lightness of pure being. That’s the experience I’ve longed for, but it feels strange nonetheless. I wanted my mind to stop working vainly wasting its energy in pointless circling thoughts, and it did. I feel both light — light-hearted, and strange at the same time. I am not quite accustomed to this way of being yet — it’s as though I don’t quite know what’s been happening.   

2016-02-05 13.02.02One thing is clear, though: I finally started my Rembrandt study today, however scary it seemed. I just understood that the emotions stirred by all the preliminary studies of this painting, “The return of the prodigal son” — they created the inner need, the right inner environment, for doing this work, and I could no longer delay it.

My canvas, 60”x48”, is somewhat smaller than Rembrandt’s, but it’s the largest I’ve ever worked on (not counting the whole sonnets compositions, but that’s slightly different). And I started it in a decidedly non-Rembrandt fashion, with a Cézanne-like French Ultramarine preliminary drawing — and with a very vague plan to build up colour from the darks up to the lightest lights. I am not sure yet how dark my background will be — how far the painting will deviate from Rembrandt’s original.

2016-02-05 15.03.43For now, I was just surprised by the flow — how light and easy this work has been so far — just trusting Rembrandt, and my brush; listening rather than thinking. I see that my brush deviates from the original quite strongly, but still — in some other sense — stays with it at a deeper level. And it somehow happens “on its own”. I had thought this study might take a year, but now I think I’ll just dedicate the whole of the next week to it, and see where this takes me. It changes some other plans, but that feels like the right thing to be doing.

2016-02-05 16.18.06I had assumed I’d limit myself to blue outlines during the first day, but then colour started to introduce itself, with the background faces. There is a certain risk in painting them without the support of background colour, but this study has always been a risk to begin with…  For now, I just enjoy watching this painting emerge.

Painting sonnet 81: vacillation of “self (January 9-14, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 81. 20″×20″. 2016.

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

The first glimpse of the eighty first sonnet painting appeared on January 9th, 2016. Not exactly “out of the blue” — I had been staying with this sonnet for quite some time, but unexpected  nonetheless. It might have been blocked by the crisis with the previous one, and just appeared when this block was finally removed.

2016-01-04 13.07.02-1Even through this crisis, I did contemplate the sonnet: it’s somewhat controversial meaning, it’s ambivalent relationship to truth, its ambiguous addressee; and I made a colour chart, in an attempt to access its colour harmony. But there was no structure, no imagery — nothing to start a painting with. The glimpse I saw on January 9th was of the painting’s basic geometry: the contrast between a large, Turner-like circle of light, and the rough, earthly, stony foreground; and the core colour effect: flickering oranges against shiny greys. I started the underpainting for this sonnet on January 11th.

This sonnet is one of the rare occasions when the modern reader is also its character: we are its eyes not yet created, we are its tongues to be. The sonnet’s promise of immortality is thus apparently upheld by the very act of reading it, but with one caveat: this is Shakespeare’s immortality, not anyone else’s. In particular, not his young friend (or lover, or patron) to whom the sonnet is traditionally supposed to be addressed.

It is not the first time in the sequence its speaker promises immortality-through-art to its addressee, but this is the first time (as far as I recall) that this promised immortality is so explicitly opposed — twice! — to the speaker’s own mundane mortality (the earth can yield me but a common grave). It is this opposition that makes the poem’s promise an apparent lie.

This contradiction puzzles the mind, and suggests — to me at least — that the traditional reading (a poet addressing a friend) misses something fairly important. There must be something else going on here: the conventional interpretation just doesn’t work, and there are two more aspects of the poem that make it fall apart. First, the opposition between the listener’s immortality and the speaker’s mortality is introduced by although and though — as if their mortality (or immortality) are expected to be intrinsically linked to one another. Well, they are, in a sense — insofar as a poem’s immortality and the poet’s immortality are essentially the same thing. But that’s exactly what this poem is denying. And secondly, it’s the name of the addressee that the sonnet is supposed to immortalise (your name from hence immortal life shall have). But the name of the young man is never ever mentioned in the sequence! Dante might have immortalised the name of his Beatrice, and Petrarch, the name of his Laure — but Shakespeare left the name unnamed!

That’s why I cannot believe this poem is (a part of) a conversation between the poet and his beloved. In some way, it must be a conversation between two different “selves” of the poet (and here, momentarily, the mind is tempted by all these theories of alternative authorship: one person’s verse is immortalising the name of another). “Two selves” might sound like introducing too much modernity into Renaissance poetry, and maybe it does. But, after all, isn’t that the point of artistic immortality — Shakespeare holds a mirror up to everyone, reaching far into the future, and I am no exception. But I don’t  really think so, because of the context of this poem in the sequence: the context of a relationship between a poet and his muse (and a muse is, arguably, a version of another self). This context gives a key to the puzzle of the sonnet.

2016-01-11 13.54.05At this stage, the painting was envisioned as a contrast between earth and air (picking up the sonnet’s theme of “breathing”, and the implied link between breathing and inspiration). It continues the strand of juxtaposing Turner with cubism; geometrically, it’s a juxtaposition of straight lines and a circle, harsh lines and subtle variations of colour.


The work on this painting continued on January 12, but the painting session was shorter than expected, because I didn’t quite know what to do next, and didn’t want to move forward without more clarity.

2016-01-12 13.32.59This painting session contained an “aha-moment”, an insight into the deeper meaning of the sonnet. Not “the” solution to its puzzle; this puzzle, like most of Shakespeare’s many puzzles is probably not there to be “solved”, but rather to puzzle the mind, to make it give up and let go. What Shakespearean puzzles remind me of is a Buddhist teaching practice, which amounts to offering the mind something so absurdly paradoxical and incomprehensible that it gives up, and “goes away” for a moment at least, opening the gap into a direct, “untranslated”, perception of reality.

So my “aha-moment” wasn’t the solution, not the answer to the question of who is the “you” who can be immortalised in Shakespeare’s poetry while its “I” remains completely, earthly mortal. Instead, I remembered that, in the act of creation, the usual sense of “I” is suspended. The “I” who is creating is definitely not the everyday “I” navigating in the world. In poetry especially, by all accounts, the ancient mechanism of suspending the “left-brain consciousness” to let another voice  speak audibly still works. That’s how great poetry emerges — by listening, not by “talking” or “arguing”. So this tension between two “I”s, two “selves” is inherent in the process of writing poetry.

But this tension is not just the relationship between a poet and his Muse. The “I” who is talking here is more complex, more ambiguous: on the one hand, it knows itself to be fully, completely, earthly, humanely mortal; on the other, it speaks of all breathers of this world with a mind-boggling detachment, as though it’s not one of them. There is a vacillation between mortality and immortality, between the speaker and the listener, between two “selves” — all throughout the poem, like the very rhythm of breathing in and out.

The painting was completed on January 14, or at least as “completed” it could be before all its “sister paintings” (other parts of the same sixteen-sonnets composition) are here. The final insight was that the painting shouldn’t try to be the solution to the puzzle of the sonnet; rather, it should be as puzzling to the mind as the sonnet. And this puzzle is not about mortality versus immortality (both of them, after all, are rather boring) — but rather about the vacillation between two “selves”: the experiencer and the witness, the story-telling I (the left-brain consciousness in Julian Jaynes’s sense), on the one hand, and something larger than that. With this insight, the painting changed. From the painting “about” earth and air, it turned into something about this trembling, fascinating vacillation between two “selves”, where you don’t quite now, at each particular moment, which one of them is “you”.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 81 (preliminary photo).
Lena Levin. Sonnet 81 (preliminary photo).

When I first envisioned this composition, I was confused about the location of the circle (or rather, the location of its centre): sometimes, it wanted to be right in the middle of the painting; other times, slightly off. In the current version, there are two circles with different centres, even though the eye of the beholder might be puzzled about it. And a similar re-affirmation of ambiguities, ambivalences between alternative “solutions”, happened to other aspects of the painting, too (greys versus blues, curves versus straight lines).

And the painting process was itself an instance of vacillation between the experiences of two selves. I berated myself for this for a time, because I believe that the authentic painting process ought to come from this larger, deeper version of “self”. But then again — if I am to paint this trembling, this vacillation, akin to the motion of breathing in and out, then I am bound, in a sense, to experience it in the process. This is the experience the painting comes from.

Life-hacking (looking back at the month of January)

There were lots of different things happening over the last three days, but one of them was this: I was chasing a dream of re-reading all my January entries and making sense of this first month of the new year.

The dream was to “summarise” these into a single blog post, or newsletter — but I cannot seem to do it, at least not right now. But the essential point is — a lot of meaningful things have been happening in all areas of my life, much more than I would have ever imagined possible just a short while ago. There was a definite, palpable “shift” of gears somewhere around the turn of the year, moving the whole experience of life to a different level.

I don’t think I can trace this shift to one specific cause, but I believe the new approach to life I’ve been experimenting with, and the accompanying new “structure” of the day, have a lot to do with it. And so I’ve decided to just summarise it here for now — because this structure has been pieced together, gradually, from a variety of sources, and among them from people sharing with the world, in books or in blogs, their own approaches and “daily routines”. So, I gather, mine can help others, too. I am very far from thinking that a single strategy can “work” for everyone, so there are no guarantees, but maybe you can find something useful for yourself.

But first, the cornerstone of this approach.

Any meaningful “work process” has its own curve, its own timeline, which includes, almost inevitably, a stage of “struggle”, of diving into the very depth of something (I am not quite sure what). But once this depth is reached, there is an impulse to act, to swim back upwards as it were. It’s not unlike the process of breathing in and out — and just as it makes little sense to force oneself to breath out before one has breathed in, it’s pointless to try and force oneself to act, to make something, before the stage of struggle, of “deep dive” has been accomplished. There is an art to riding these waves of “struggle” and “flow” — and I am by no means an expert in this, I am just learning.

But one thing I do know: that a strict schedule, a pre-conceived “plan” goes against the grain of this organic process. Because if there is an impulse to act on one thing (say, X), and I have another (say, Y) in a pre-determined “plan”, it’s the weakest point of the whole arrangement: the point where procrastination kicks in, and neither X nor Y is actually happening: X doesn’t happen because I feel obliged to do Y, and Y doesn’t happen because there is an impulse to do X. So the cornerstone of my new way of life is not to have any Ys, as far as possible, but to act instantly on X when the impulse arises. And I must say, it works miraculously…

Having said that, this is supported by a certain “structure” of the day, which helps me “keep track” of all the various processes I am juggling…   It has three components, for “morning”, “midday”, and “evening”.

  • Morning
    • “Day creation” journaling begins with writing some notes of what has transpired, what has been understood, since the last evening (in my dreams, or in the waking periods of the night). The next stage is to re-connect with what I am doing here, and why. What is it that I want to accomplish in the long run? This is followed by revisiting all the major processes going on — all major work and life areas. After that, I decide what I want and intend to do today, and when.
    • “Day creation” is followed by a half an hour of meditation.
  • Midday. It doesn’t necessarily happen midday, but it’s really simple: a walk in the nearest park.
  • Evening. Journaling, which consists of two parts: reflecting on the events of this day, and re-reading and editing the journal entry from the previous day, in case there is something relevant to my studio practice to post here.

And that’s it, basically…

January 30, 2016: dissolving dualities

2016-01-29 14.44.49Today’s painting session, a roller caster of ups and downs, but I believe the painting is as complete as it can be at this stage. Perhaps more important have been the accompanying shifts and insights into the meaning of the sonnet.

Marc Chagall. Homage to Apollinaire. 1912
Marc Chagall. Homage to Apollinaire. 1912

There is an additional, more hidden, source for this painting (apart from Picasso’s musician): Chagall’s homage to Apollinaire. This understanding crossed my mind a couple of days ago, so I looked at Chagall’s painting this morning. There are two shared ideas, which might appear quite disconnected from one another: the dominance of a circle in the composition, and the explicit tension between duality and unity.

All in all, the painting of this sonnet turned out to be a private exercise in dissolving and overcoming dualities.

It started with my struggle with two layers of the sonnet — one corresponding to its overt, “literal” meaning, and the second, “deeper” one: the speaker recording himself lying, in a futile attempt to please the person he is angry with. A couple of days ago, I reread Helen Vendler’s analysis of this sonnet, and was struck by the complete absence of this second layer in her interpretation. At the time, I decided to disregard this, since it was so obviously incompatible with what I perceived as the core of the sonnet, the recorded experience of falling into the constraints of smaller, angrier self.

But it didn’t quite work, did it? Understood too straightforwardly, too forcefully, it led me to what can be justly called gross painting (mentioned in the sonnet): too direct, too superficial, garish, gaudy.

What I needed to move away from that was to acknowledge that both layers are there, and that they cannot exist one without the other. Stressing their difference — without recognising the underlying unity — is but a deeper level falsehood, another misplaced duality. The same voice, the same being both falls from the heaven and generates the heaven. There is no choice of one over the other, and if imposed, it leads to another “gross painting” (remarkably, I had nearly forgotten the couplet, with its mention of “gross paintings” in the process).

Lena Levin. Sonnet 65. 2014.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 65. 2014.

Dissolving the contrast (while still keeping it alive, in a sense) was the essence of today’s work on the painting: in colour, in the overall shared compositional movement, and — on the purely representational level — in the change of the hand gesture (which links this painting to sixty fifth sonnet painting). And then something strange happened — quite unforeseen, unplanned: the dissolution of the duality between the poet and the muse.

2015-09-09 14.27.59In the future sixteen-paintings composition, this painting will be directly below the seventy eighth one, with its huge Muse supporting the poet in the sky. I assumed this one would then “read” as the defeated poet having been thrown down — but by the end of the day, this painting’s figure palpably identified itself with the muse. In a sense, it is now both the poet and the muse. This was the resolution of the painting’s (and the sonnet’s) conflict.

January 27, 2016: muting the rainbow

2016-01-27 12.54.51I was not sure the would be any painting happening today when I went to sleep last night — I only had time for a short painting session, and the day left me with foggy, ambivalent feelings about the painting: I did not know what to do with it, and whether I even want to see it again.

But there was a long waking period this night — I have them, occasionally, and I stopped thinking of this as of insomnia, because these are, almost invariably, very fruitful times, filled with insights and discoveries. This night, it felt like a barrier has fallen (or been broken through); the sensations of lightness and joy, as though I had been carrying a heavy load, and now it somehow disappeared.

I didn’t even think of the painting, but some clarity has emerged anyway — a way of gradually muting the colours of the rainbow, without fully losing its “rainbow-iness”. The rainbow is just an underpainting, it turned out; if there is a rainbow out there, then the sonnet obscures it (rather than reveals it).

Since it was a short painting session, this new vision hasn’t quite been implemented yet, just started. But there was also an emergence of a new structure — revealed just by scratching away bits and pieces of paint. The original contrast between space and flatness, colour and greyness has softened into some sort of unification. However humbled and degraded the poet, it is still he — not someone else — who generates the space he has fallen from, the space he has — temporarily at least — lost. The new structure is barely there, but I see something now — I have a hope for this painting. There is a sense of breaking through yet another false duality, the duality of two “selves”.

There are lots of theories, and all of them from good authorities too — about how much you’ve got to see of the future painting before you can actually start painting it: anywhere from nothing to everything. As for me, I love this moment of clarification inside the process, when the painting is not just an imperfect implementation of a vision, but a rightful participant, with its own contribution to the result.

As I edit these public “Studio Journal” entries (usually the day after they were written), I leave out whole chunks of my private journal entries. And I am not sure this is quite justified, since these other processes going on in my life — especially in my inner life — undoubtedly “feed into” the painting process. It compromises the intended rawness of the data, but I have not quite found the way to talk openly about thoughts and processes that touch, in one sense or another, other people; overlap and intersect with their own life stories. This is the current unresolved question…

January 23, 2016: the first vision of sonnet 82

2015-09-09 14.27.59Both Friday themes — the Rembrandt detail study, and the eighty second sonnet — continued on Saturday.

2016-01-23 12.56.12I didn’t really plan to paint on Saturday — the plan was a long walk in the park, and the sky was beautiful. But it started raining, and this created a “window” for a brief painting session, some more work on the Rembrandt study. I wanted to focus on the periphery of the portrait, the breathtaking colours of his clothing, but noticed some mistakes in and around the head. The experience was much less unambiguously positive than yesterday — a fair bit of struggle and frustration; not quite the joyful flow of yesterday. It seems the very mode of “correcting mistakes” is not really conductive to the flow, and I don’t quite know what to do with it (given that mistakes do happen, and have to be corrected). I will probably return to this study — and to this question — later this week.

What I really wanted to happen to me this week is a vision of the eighty second sonnet painting, and it did. By the end of the walk, I was overwhelmed (crushed almost) with the anxiety and fear about a sore spot on my gum, and the accompanying anticipation of all the visits to my dentist this might lead to — a petty fear that managed to completely break the miraculous experience of unity with nature.

But however unpleasant and humbling, this clarified two things for me. At some intuitive level, I know this gum can heal without any involvement of the dentist — but for that, I need to let go of pride, the sensation of which lives somewhere between the throat and the forehead. This little sore place in my body is not a nuisance, it’s a signal. I’ve noticed lately that I almost completely lost the ability to feel “negative” feelings (like pride or fear) as emotions — they are felt as physical sensations in the body.

On the other hand, this experience clarified the theme of the sonnet: here was this collapse of a god-like “self” (in Shakespeare’s case, of someone capable of bestowing immortality and conversing with muses) to a small, pitiful one, overcome and crushed with anger, fear, and petty jealousy. This is the collapse I’ve got to paint.

And so I have the vision for the sonnet: a space expanding from the left upwards to the right, and the small (flat, cubistic, not quite whole) human figure crushed in the bottom right part. And this one will “rhyme” with the painting located just above it in the future sixteen-sonnets composition (and at the top of this post — Sonnet 78) — as though this god-like muse has finally thrown the human to the earth. Something to work on tomorrow, and for the whole week.