Painting in the realm of freedom

There is a narrative of “artist’s life” centred around the ideal of artistic freedom. In this ideal life, the inner experience of studio practice is completely free of any and all pressures of the world outside the studio, both subjective (other people’s thoughts, ideas, beliefs, opinions, judgements) and objective (the market value of artworks, the need for material sustenance of artist-as-human-animal, and the need for raw materials of the craft, etcetera).

When I started my “year in the realm of freedom” experiment in January 2017, my own life was already remarkably close to this ideal.

But it did not even remotely resemble a beginning artist’s dream of freedom, not at all — no sales, no shows, no fame. My work was seen and recognised by a few peers and faithful friends of art from all over the world (you know who you are — and I am grateful beyond words), but there was barely any recognition from the “art world”.

This was a conscious choice: I was following the path of an artist outlined in Boris Pasternak’s poem, one of the life-shaping poems of my life. He writes about sinking into obscurity, hiding one’s steps in it, like a field in thick fog, with nothing to be seen. The Russian word I translated as obscurity is неизвестность; it evokes both being unknown and not-knowing. As so often happens in poetry, this ambiguity is not supposed to be resolved, but to remain in the reader’s mind as an open question, an open space, a gap in the “normal” thinking process — un-knowing.

Elena Maslova-Levin. Unknownness (after Boris Pasternak). Oil on linen panel, 16″×20″. 2016.

He knew, and I accepted, that this state of unknownness is an essential ingredient of freedom. One cannot be bound to the world by the chains of fame and “market value”, and be free of it at the same time. But this is also the dark side of freedom, experienced as the state of not being needed — of your art practice being of no consequence in the world. By the end of 2016, I had recognised that this is the same dark dilemma that we are now facing collectively, as the growing productivity and automation is in the process liberating us from the necessity of labour. The “threat of automation” is often conceptualised in terms of money (“How are we to feed all these unneeded people?”), but that would be a purely technical problem if not for the deeper dread of being unneeded and useless, that is, our fear of freedom.

Even if it was my choice, this doesn’t mean that I didn’t have this fear. I got my wish, I was in the realm of freedom, but I hadn’t fully accepted its dark, shadowy side. I had been hiding from it behind a heap of self-designed and self-imposed deadlines, routines, structures, scaffoldings, and strictures. By design, they were supposed to keep my studio practice, and my life, together, but there was another, not-quite-conscious purpose to them: to sustain the illusion that it somehow matters whether my studio practice exists or not, that it makes any difference in the world whether I paint, or write, or read, or walk, or just while away my days and hours on Facebook (or whatever).

I am not really saying that it does not matter – I don’t know. All I am saying is that you cannot know if the sky is blue or not until you completely wash away the blue paint that covers your windows to convince you that it is, indeed, blue.

Elena Maslova-Levin. Sonnet 102: As Philomel in summer’s front doth sing… 20″x20″. Oil on linen. June-August 2017

As I was reading back my journal for 2016, I saw very clearly, time and again and again, how I kept getting in my own way, turning myself into my own stumbling block with these structures and strictures and habits. All these contraptions looked rather like a dam: designed to generate electricity, but, in the process, wasting the intrinsic, natural energy of the river.

And those were all so called “good habits” (there is a fair number of online programs and courses which would teach you how to introduce this kind of habits into your life, some of them very pricey). To be fair, if I hadn’t have the habit of journaling, I might have never noticed what was going on… But once I did notice it, there was only one possible path forward: I had to accept that I was, indeed, in the realm of freedom, and it made no sense to channel even a single joule of my energy into maintaining the illusion of necessity.

It took me a while to dismantle my scaffoldings, built so carefully and deliberately over the years, and, to be honest, I don’t think the process over yet. Old habits don’t die easily. And there is, indeed, something frightening for a human being in the cold, rarefied air of freedom, its formless, boundless essence, the absence of any landmarks and signposts. Eight months into this experiment, and I am still occasionally tempted to fall back to familiar routines or to design new, better ones. In fact, this blog post started as a journal entry where I contemplated a new, more “effective” design for studio practice scaffoldings. It was in the process of writing it that I witnessed this need to be needed, the fear of freedom, arising within me again, and dropped this idea.

Because in these eight months of freedom, my studio practice has transformed into a purely inner experience, detached not only from the outer world, but also from its own material manifestations (that is, from paintings themselves).

The process of painting is often called “art-making“, “creating“, “self-expression”. I could never quite fit my own experience into these result-oriented constructs, but it is only in the realm of freedom that I saw clearly that, for me, this process is rather about knowing than about making. Not in the sense of factual, rational knowledge, and not even in the sense of meaning-making, but rather in the sense of paying attention, seeing, experiencing the unity of life directly. It is not about self-expression, but rather about reception, about the self opening itself to reality, dissolving the boundaries of its identity.

And what about paintings? Is there any difference in them?

Well, I don’t really know yet. And for now, it really, truly doesn’t matter to me — but I have included a couple of in-progress photos here as reference points…


Elena Maslova-Levin. Still life with sunflowers, a lemon and a pebble. Oil on linen canvas. 20″×16″. July 2017.





Painting sonnet 94: lilies as they are to themselves (October 10-14, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 95: To itself, it only live and die. 2016.

They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;

They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but stewards of their excellence.

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself, it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 94

What struck me in this sonnet is this little insight, this line hidden within, almost as an aside — seemingly almost unconnected to the sonnet’s “message”: though to itself, it only live and die 

This tension, the contrast between what a thing is to itself, within itself, and what it is to others, to the world — to the summer. There is a first approach to this tension in the opening quatrain, in that do not do the thing they most do show. But here, while the sonnet stays in the realm of human affairs — the inner world remains impenetrable, unperceived. Unmoved, as stone — this is not a view from within, this is said by an outside observer.

It’s only when the sonnet goes into the realm of flowers — so beautiful, so fragile, so fleeting even on the human time scale — that this trembling, living line, to itself, it only live and die happens. And then, the sonnet closes with proverb-like, objective-sounding generalities.

Thus the structure of the sonnet really enacts its insight: it has a stone-like, unmoved, “objective” outer shell, in its opening and closing lines. But hidden within, there is this living, subjective thing-to-itself. A sudden penetration into the inner world of a flower, as though the poet momentarily becomes the flower’s subjective consciousness.

And so I got myself a bunch of lilies, and tried to feel them from the inside, as they are to themselves, in the painting process. As they are to themselves —without a care in the world about how they appear (or smell) to us. And I enclosed them into this inner frame of flatter, stone-like outer areas of the pictorial space.

Set me light: painting sonnet eighty eight (July 5 — July 20, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 88 (Set me light). 20″×20″. 2016.

When thou shalt be disposed to set me light,
And place my merit in the eye of scorn,
Upon thy side, against myself I’ll fight,
And prove thee virtuous, though thou art forsworn.

With mine own weakness being best acquainted,
Upon thy part I can set down a story
Of faults concealed, wherein I am attainted;
That thou in losing me shalt win much glory:

And I by this will be a gainer too;
For bending all my loving thoughts on thee,
The injuries that to myself I do,
Doing thee vantage, double-vantage me.

Such is my love, to thee I so belong,
That for thy right, myself will bear all wrong.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 88

Reading through my notes for this sonnet, I see that my idea (hope, really) that the previous subsequence, The Paradox of Muse, was the deepest, lowest, darkest part of this journey was both true and false. I am moving faster, that’s true. And it is getting lighter (as in “more light”) — that is true as well. This tells that it may, indeed, be the beginning of the upward leg of this path. But it is by no means easier. It is steep, and dark, and fuzzy, and I don’t know what I am doing most of the time. And this the first time that the process of painting a sonnet had such noticeable effects on my physical body.

2016-07-22 14.59.21Here is this sonnet’s initial colour chart. The colour harmony, it seems, has mostly clarified itself from the very beginning: the dominance of red/pinks, underlined by muted bluish greens.

At that point, I thought the painting was going to be a landscape, a Cezannesque pre-cubist landscape. I seemed to see something like a mountain, or a roof, and some back and forth movement of colour: greenish patches receding, and reds/pinks popping forward. But I didn’t see any connection: why should it be a landscape? No idea.

Set me light rang like the key phrase to unlocking this sonnet. It seems to strike such a different emotional chord, out of tune with the rest of the poem.

The structure, the inner geometry of the painting emerged later on, as I was lying awake at night: it was basically the same as in the final painting, only without the foreground bushes. When I saw this structure, there was this sensation of aha-moment, a moment of recognition, but still no conscious understanding of what this structure has to do with the sonnet.

Later, in the morning, I recognised the connection to the spatial tension in the imagery the sonnet: my side versus thy side. It’s a vision of separation, both strengthened and mediated by the longing to be on the other side from self.

The sonnet tries to present one’s own problem — the anticipation of being abandoned, set light — as the other’s problem. The speaker wants to believe that the forsworn lover needs some rationalisation for the breakup, and that he would seek this justification in questioning the speaker’s merit. This gives the speaker a chance to still be “together” with the lover, on his side — because who is better placed to provide such justification than he, who really knows his weakness, and faults concealed? (This sentence about story of faults concealed, interrupted by the line break, somehow evokes Horatio’s speech in the last scene of “Hamlet”: And let me speak to the yet unknowing world //  How these things came about.)

At first sight, this whole conceptual structure seems contrived and disingenuous: who would really want to help the other blame oneself, and find sincere joy in it? But there is a lot of psychological truth to it, for me at least. It’s really the one being abandoned, not the one doing the abandoning, who desperately needs to rationalise what is going on — and “it’s all my fault” seems to be as good as avenue for such a rationalisation as any. At the very least, it saves one from ruining what feels like the best part of oneself, love. And it does creates this temporary illusion of ongoing unity, of being “on the same side”, even in spite of the inevitable separation.

I interpreted my purely geometrical vision as a river, or some other water surface, separating the viewer from the other side. “This side”, then, should be visible in the foreground, blocking the “entrance” to the pictorial space.

The next insight came next night (I was awake for a couple of hours once again). I realised that this sonnet painting is going to be abstract, more abstract than anything I had painted before. It was not an accident that the geometry of the composition was so clear to me, while its representational motive remained vague.

And this realisation ties in with the future of my painting practice more generally: in order to move forward, I have to engage with abstraction more directly (something I had been consciously avoiding for years). In a very experientially clear sense, this realisation does set me light.   

Next day, while walking around the nearest lake, I noticed a group of dark-green bushes leaning left under the wind. This impression is the source for the painting’s foreground: some traces of representational motive, separating the viewer from the abstraction of pictorial space. Once this element clarified itself, I was ready to start the painting. Colour — these reds and pinks which were there from the start — is the unifying force in the painting. It stands for the desperate attempt at unification in the face of separation.

The painting process was difficult and scattered, partly because of the construction work still going on outside. But I wasn’t feeling too well physically either — as though my body was trying to accommodate some changes, but could not. There was a feeling of weakness, some kind of overall weirdness, even dizziness. Whatever the cause, the whole week was filled with this strange impatient tension, the sensation of being out of place, scattered. Could it be the sonnet’s sensation?

One night — awake again — I decided to confront this feeling directly. A huge, dark sadness raised from what felt like an infinite depth. Sadness, despair. I witnessed it with no understanding where it came from. And when this wave of sadness passed, there came an enormous darkness. The void of infinite night, tempting me to fall into it. I stared at this darkness within, trying to neither flinch nor fall into it. Then there was light, and then the tension was over, replaced by the feeling of calm. And I fell asleep.

All these inner experiences come mostly in very abstract form, without “materialising” (or “visualising”) themselves — there are no concrete, specific images; just darkness, and light, and sometimes some colour.

At the deepest level, where all random particulars are removed, the sonnet is about blaming oneself for separation from one’s better self — in the hope that that this will somehow restore unity. For me, it turned out to be about the feeling of separation from being an artist, from the artist self of me. From this place, the desire to blame oneself, and with gusto too, seems more than natural — it’s almost unavoidable. This may have been the cause of this weakness, darkness, tension I had been feeling all this time.

I am not sure whether the painting is complete, but this potential incompleteness now seems to be intrinsic to the sonnet, at least in the overall context of the “letting go” sequence: this process, of letting go, is nowhere near complete here (neither is the move towards complete abstraction I have envisioned for myself).

The paradox of letting go (June 29 — July 5, 2016)

The letting go is a real death, a real dying; it costs us an enormous amount of energy, the price, as it were, which life exacts from us over and over again for being truly alive.

Brother David Steindl-Rast

June 29, 2016

Something huge — and very scary — happened while I was meditating this morning.

It began as a sensation of enlightenment, literally: a dissolution of the self into something that felt like pure light. The thought that followed was that, contrary to what I wanted to believe, my life’s purpose — the source of its meaning — is not in painting per se, but something beyond that, something different.

The thought felt like an “aha-moment”, because it clarified — in retrospect — lots of murky, ambiguous sensations and events of the last days, weeks, and maybe even months. And, at the same time, it was scary, big-time scary — because I don’t want to abandon painting. I am scared to let it go, because that’s what makes me feel alive.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 87 in-progress.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 87 in-progress.

In the studio, while painting the eighty seventh sonnet, I realised the connection. I have known for a while that this new composition, the one starting with this sonnet, is about the paradox of letting go. I had long since accepted that this series does things to me, that it is not really separate from my life — so I had a premonition that I would have to let go something huge in the process. I just didn’t think, not for a moment, that it would be painting.

July 3, 2016

I woke up in the middle of the night, and stayed awake for about two hours, meditating, doing my best to listen to what’s going on inside me.

And I understood more about this thing-beyond-painting, the glimpse of which I had in meditation a couple of days ago. It has to do with witnessing and (self)-examining the process of painting: contemplating this process “from the inside”, from within the experience, from the inner space of painting.

This brings together my two “projects”, which have been pulling me, painfully, in two different directions, “Sonnets in Colour” and “Art of Seeing”. Or so it seemed. Now, they feel rather like two pillars of the same meaning, or two sides of the same process.

This is a liberating insight. It intensifies the feeling of meaningfulness and freedom, but there is a catch.

I had to let go of the idea of “being an artist”, let go of painting. It doesn’t mean quitting painting, this letting go in the Buddhist sense: setting painting free, releasing attachment. But it was incredibly hard to do, and incredibly scary: I so don’t want to lose painting, I really need it to be alive. But I knew I had to do it, and I so I did — trying to comfort myself with the thought that you can only lose what you have never had.

July 4, 2016

The first painting session after the letting go experience the night before: I returned to the preliminary study for Sonnet 87, “Still life with check book”. I left it alone a couple of weeks ago, because it fulfilled it’s “study” purpose: I understood, or thought I understood, how I need to paint the still life part of the sonnet painting.

Why I returned to this painting?

One reason is a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the current stage of the sonnet painting itself. On the other, there seemed to be a potential in this smaller painting: it could be more than it currently was.

Lena Levin. Still life with my check book (a study for sonnet 87). 2016.

From the impressionistic study, it wanted to move towards something more “analytical”: analytical cubism, or Filonov’s “analytical realism”. There is something in painting wallets and check books as quasi-aesthetic objects — something more than I have achieved so far. And the still life setting was still there in my studio, since it played a role in the sonnet painting, too.

I approached the painting with the intention, a request to myself, to “channel” the experience of analytical cubism. In the process, it transformed into a return to the long-running motive of “colourful cubism”, the quest to reconcile these opposites. There was also a palpable influence of having spent two last weeks with Matisse’s remake of de Heem’s “A table of desserts”: the painting moved in the direction of dark versus light contrasts distributed all over the picture plane. The underlying inner experience is an experience of separation. This painting day “flattened” the pictorial space (as expected from the “cubist” approach), but also “broke” the picture plane (in defiance of cubism).

July 5, 2016

There was an Awakin Weekly letter in my inbox this morning, with an excerpt from an old essay by Brother David Steindl-Rast. He writes:

This inner gesture of letting go from moment to moment is what is so terribly difficult for us; and it can be applied to almost any area of experience. […] The letting go is a real death, a real dying; it costs us an enormous amount of energy, the price, as it were, which life exacts from us over and over again for being truly alive. For this seems to be one of the basic laws of life; we have only what we give up.

This is a better description of these last few days than I could write myself.

Stepping back (June 18 — June 30, 2016)

Lena Levin. Trees on Alameda Creek. June 2016.
Lena Levin. Trees on Alameda Creek. June 2016.

The intention for the whole “Sonnets in Colour” series was to find the space of unity between language and colour, between poetry and painting. The space where this duality dissolves. I suspect I received exactly what I wished for, albeit not in the form I expected…

I sometimes catch myself measuring my life against a somewhat vague ideal of a “real grown-up” — who knows exactly who they are, and their rightful place in the world. In other words, someone who knows everything there is to know.

When I write it down like this, it seems utterly absurd: the ideal I compare myself with turns out to be a self-satisfied, decaying fool. Because who but a fool can “know all there is to know”, and what one can do but decay once this enviable state is achieved?

It is useful to step back occasionally to witness (with frustration and amusement) this kind of absurdity in one’s own thought processes (and one’s own life).

And this is a large part of what I was doing over these last two weeks — apart from doing my best to keep up with the established rhythms of activities: the bi-weekly rhythm of “Sonnets in colour” series (it’s been sonnet 87 these two weeks), and the weekly rhythm of writing for my “Art of Seeing” project — an attempt to share my way of interacting with painting: painting as seeing (and feeling), painting as being, painting as doing.

Oh, and I got myself outside once for this one plein air painting.

Looking back — and re-reading my notes from these days — this one plein air session feels like the most intensely and self-evidently meaningful event, a peak experience. But this is not quite true — there was another intensely meaningful moment, which felt very scary and, seemingly at least, in direct contradiction with this experience: the moment when I understood that painting isn’t enough, not for me — not for what I vaguely feel I have to do.

In a nutshell, this is the reason for this stepping back. My only “compass” for moment-to-moment choices in life is the inner sensation of meaningfulness; the intuitive distinction between meaningful and meaningless moments. At its core, this sensation doesn’t depend on any outer circumstances. It is in feeling and being, in letting oneself be open to as rich and full flow of sensory perceptions as possible. And, for me, this means painting.

And yet, at another level, I feel that that’s not enough; in the same sense that breathing in is not enough without breathing out. If I stay with this private, inner sensation of meaningfulness, I will have failed to live up to something. The inner need for expression which isn’t satisfied with painting alone, which calls for writing — almost drags me towards writing against my own will.

The intention for the whole “Sonnets in Colour” series was to find the space of unity between language and colour, between poetry and painting. The space where this duality dissolves. I suspect I received exactly what I wished for, albeit not in the form I expected (isn’t this always the case?). Now I have to acknowledge this, and to learn to deal with it. Which basically means, I have to learn how to write…         

Painting of the eighty sixth sonnet (June 7 — June 17, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 86. 20″×20″. 2016.

Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
Bound for the prize of all too precious you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse,
Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?
Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write
Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compeers by night
Giving him aid, my verse astonished.
He, nor that affable familiar ghost
Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,
As victors of my silence cannot boast;
I was not sick of any fear from thence:
But when your countenance filled up his line,
Then lacked I matter; that enfeebled mine.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 86

June 6-7, 2016

This is the last painting in this nine-sonnets collage. The Shakespearean tradition refers to these, not without some justification, as the “rival poet(s)” sonnets. But this theme, albeit obviously present in the sonnets, is just an opening into the depth of stuff much more fundamental to the experience of art.

The approach I have chosen for this series sonnets splits it, with some degree of randomness, into fourteen compositions, fourteen “chapters” of a story. About a year ago, already fully immersed in the series, I realised that the title of each chapter ought to follow the pattern “The paradox of X”. And right now, as I am writing this down, I realise that the whole series might be called “Paradoxes of love”. Or “Fourteen paradoxes of love”.

There is a certain ring of truth to this idea of the sonnets series as a sequence of paradoxes, unresolvable puzzles of human condition. But I didn’t have this kind of title for this, on-going, chapter, not till is very end. I called it, for myself, “Poet and Muse”. Now, the title is “Paradox of Muse”.   

Since this is the last painting, it has to complete the overall composition. The sonnet contains, in a sense, a summary of the whole nine-sonnets subsequence, and ends in a complete breakdown of “matter” (then lacked I matter). In the future painting, I imagine, it is represented as a cubist-like breakdown of form. The colour harmony is largely determined by the painting’s role in the composition: it leans towards reds, to complement the others. This is a very abstract, very vague vision, but it’s a beginning.

The sonnet continues the previous sonnet’s theme: the challenge is not the very existence of someone else’s great verse (or great paintings, as it happens), but the suspicion that the experience you have to express is already expressed, so there is nothing to be added. This reminded me of something Lidia Chukovskaya once said: that being a younger contemporary of Anna Akhmatova prevented her from becoming a poet — not because of Akhmatova’s great verse, but because it was filled with shared experiences.

June 8, 2016

By this morning, I somehow had the image for this painting in my mind: a figure, lying on the back, with raised knees, with the head towards the viewer (almost perpendicular to the picture plane). The details are vague. I might need some figure drawing of reclining nudes to go forward.

June 10, 2016

I am still struggling with the composition, the pose — still no idea where it comes from, what it is about, where should I look for the source for this pose.

June 12, 2016

There was a long waking period this night, marked by a new experience in meditation. It’s an experience of a well-lit space rushing towards me, almost about to drown me in itself — somewhat dizzying. I tend to flinch when something unexpected like this happens in meditation, to resist the experience, but I (almost) didn’t this time.

And I finally understood the pose, the figure in the painting which I’ve been desperately trying to see more clearly: this is the pose of a person who sees him/herself, lying (probably at night — there are repeated references to nighttime in the sonnet). So what I need is to study myself in this position, with both the knees (in the background), and the hand/arm — closer to the foreground — within the square picture plane. It also means there is no head in the picture (one doesn’t see one’s own head), so the head ought to be “cut off” by the edges of the painting.

I also realised that the future composition is organised around a grand triangle, with side edges along the legs and the hand/arm, and saw some glimpses of blood-like red brushstrokes. The way these paintings are emerging in my field of vision feels as though each painting already exists, and my only challenge is to see it — at least enough to start painting it.

June 13, 2016
Sonnet 86 in-progress
Sonnet 86 in-progress

The first day of painting. The composition is established and, structurally, it seems to work with other paintings of the collage.

There are things that came up in while contemplating the painting, but are still not present — or not present enough — on the canvas: the cubist treatment of space and form, the dissolution of matter; the blood-like bright-red brush-strokes, the barely visible hints at the motives of earlier sonnets (sail in particular). But the triangular composition seems to work, and the motive of hand rhymes with the first sonnet of the collage.

As I was painting today, suddenly a poem by Boris Pasternak floated to the surface of my consciousness (the link above goes to a rough translation, but the original is there, too). It’s about how he didn’t know just how serious this whole thing — art, poetry —  would turn out to be in the end, in his old age — how Art would be over, and Soil and Fate would be breathing in his lines instead. I felt as though that I am approaching the moment, where this experience becomes genuinely true for me, where I know what he meant — where my life is at stake. Can this be that this motive is present in this sonnet, too?

Whatever it was, it was really frightening, but I felt like I was ready to face it, to take it as it comes. For now, it’s just me and this painting — today was a good start, but there is a lot of work ahead.

June 14, 2016
Sonnet 86 in-progress
Sonnet 86 in-progress

It seems that I’ve brought the painting to the stage where I don’t really what to do with it. At some level, it seems complete. At another, it needs clarification, simplification, cleaning up of colours.

June 15, 2016
Sonnet 86 in-progress
Sonnet 86 in-progress

Working on strengthening the triangular essence of the composition, and the tension between contours, colour, and the dissolution of “matter”.

The lack of matter, combined with a dreamy vision of one’s own body in reclining position. The painting comes close to the vision, but there is a lot of work to do. The angularity of the composition need to be strengthened and some of its reds, muted.

I painted less today than I thought I would — there was a slowness to the process, some lack of clarity — I didn’t really know what to do. Or, to be more precise, there were intermittent moments of clarity in the midst of uncertainty. Could it be that the theme of the sonnet gets itself involved in my painting process?

June 16, 2016

I’ve decided to let the sonnet painting dry a bit today — there was no way I could do what needed to be done on the surface this wet.

Lena Levin. Still life with a Chinese cup. In progress.
Lena Levin. Still life with a Chinese cup. In progress.

So my studio time went into a small (20”x10”) painting from life, a still life with a Chinese cup.

I really needed to paint from life today — as a way to reconnect with reality. I don’t know whether I will return to this painting later on, or maybe I’ll just scrape it away, and start something new on this canvas. In this case, the meaning was fully in the painting-as-process, and I have no idea whether the result can turn into a painting-as-thing. The intention was pure connection — painting what I see, not what I know; not reconstructing anything, not aligning anything, just pure impressions. A novel object in the still life — the Chinese cup — introduced to intensify the process with a new challenge, and also as a way to understand the Dutch flowers experience better (they loved using Chinese vases for their flowers).

June 17, 2016

The eighty sixth sonnet painting is complete, which completes the whole composition, “The paradox of Muse”. Most likely, there will be more work, once the paintings are arranged together as a collage — there usually is, but they have to dry a bit first anyway. At this point, I don’t think there will be much to do, though, since I’ve been constantly looking at them together while painting, but I’ll have to look at them afresh in a couple of months.

Looking back at the long months of work on this composition, I see some themes I didn’t anticipate — the rhythm of hands, the interplay of circles and triangles. The painting experience has also shifted in the process — I am now better at paying attention to the flow of thoughts emerging in response to the painting, at really listening of what I want to tell myself.

I used to think of this flow of thoughts as a distraction, the product of “monkey mind” — and, in many respects, it was (and, occasionally, still is). But I’ve learned this “mind hack”, which is as counterintuitive as almost any other “mind hack” — instead of following the temptation to trying to shut up this stream of partly verbalised thoughts (which usually doesn’t work anyway), the really needed mental gesture is a shift towards attentive listening. Once I concentrate on listening, the non-sensical or unrelated mental noise fades away, and if something remains, it is usually worth listening to and directly relevant to what I am doing.

On fears, and courage, and how a painting declares itself complete

Lena Levin. Paradox of Death (Sonnets 10-18). 60"x60".
Lena Levin. Paradox of Death (Sonnets 10-18). 60″x60″.

The last two weeks have been centred around a rework of the second composition from the sonnets series, Sonnets 10-18. And although I did write about the process in my private journal, I said nothing about it here, in this public “Studio Journal”. This is because this particular process stirred just way too much “personal stuff”, the raw story of my life. Its specifics seemed so completely irrelevant — and so potentially painful to people close to me — that I decided to leave them silent, unsaid.

But there was a doubt lurking behind this decision: isn’t it really motivated by my own fear: fear of being too vulnerable, too naked in eyes of men? There is this theory that all our fears are ultimately, deep down, the primordial fear of death. And this composition is actually very much about death, and the fear of death. Its working title, for now, is “Paradox of Death”.

These multi-sonnet compositions emerged in the process of painting this series almost on their own, one might say, accidentally. When we were organising an “open studio” exhibition of my work three years ago, it crossed my mind that arranging the first sonnets in this kind of “collages” would be the only feasible way of hanging them. That done, there emerged a unity I hadn’t anticipated. In terms of pure geometry, this was a result of the consistent use of a certain way of structuring the squares along their “golden section” verticals and/or horizontals. But there was more to it — barely visible to me at the time.

As the series progressed, I gradually started to work towards these compositions more consciously — while still keeping the individual sonnet paintings relatively independent of one another. And then, two more things happened.

First, I realised that I had to return to the first sonnets — the sonnets themselves influenced my painting too strongly in the intervening years; the first compositions were not quite compatible with the later ones. Some rework was needed (although I did not yet see how much). I understand, with some trepidation, that this decision, once taken, can put this series into an endless cycle of rework. I don’t know how many times I will have to go back to keep the series coherent. My friend and fellow artist, Terrill Welch, tells me that she knew from the start that this series will be my life’s work — thankfully, she decided not to share this knowledge with me back then, when I just started. Now, I am ready to accept it — there is no point in “timing” this process, or attaching “measurable goals” to it. This isn’t about “productivity”… Still, it would be really lovely to have the series completed by the time of my death, and this means, the time will come when I will have to make the decision that it is complete, and to let it go. And this decision itself will be the end of a huge part of my life, a death before the death.

Secondly, the unifying themes for these accidental “chunks” of the sonnets sequence began to emerge, gradually revealing a new interpretation of the whole sequence, and making comprehensible and clear what used to be mysterious and puzzling before. And the theme of this second composition is — as I have mentioned already — Paradox of death. A paradox, because the death — which presents itself to us an ultimate end, is also the origin of everything meaningful in this life. There are many theories about the origin of human consciousness, but they all seem to converge on one undeniable “cause”, one point of departure: the humankind’s awareness of individual mortality. Which is, in a sense, just another way of saying that it’s the fear of death that underlies all our fears and generates our actions.

And this particular painting process ended (that is, completed itself) in quite an unusual way; an experience I’ve never had before. I had been working on this composition throughout the last week, and every single day of the week, I felt like the painting is almost complete, nearly there — that this day would be the last. And invariably, by the end of the day, I felt that I am nowhere near the end of the process — lots and lots to be done yet. In fact, I was beginning to suspect that this whole experience of being almost over, and then not over after all, is, in a sense, an enactment of the theme of this composition, the paradox of death. So I decided I should avoid introducing any impatience into this whole process, and even thinking about when it would be complete.

But it seems to have happened within a single painting session — even less, in barely more than one hour. I am not yet quite certain about this, because this experience is unprecedented for me. As I started working, I was thinking about fears, fearlessness, courage. I am convinced that courage is the single most important thing in being (or becoming) an artist, but the question that was playing itself in mind was: what kind of courage? Where does this courage ought to show itself? For example, does my unwillingness to share the raw specifics of this process show the lack of artistic courage? Or should the locus of this courage be — for a painter — in painting, and in painting only?

Frankly, I don’t like it when these seemingly irrelevant trains of thoughts interfere with the painting process. It usually indicates that something has turned awry… But I have mastered — or almost mastered — a paradoxical technique of dealing with this kind of mental “noise”: rather than chasing the thoughts away, I concentrate on listening to them. When listened to, the noise fades away — and sometimes, there is something important to hear. Like in this case, when I heard, loud and clear, an unexpected answer to my question: And sometimes, courage shows itself in declaring the painting complete and letting it go.

It was so clear that this answer pertains to this particular painting, that it momentarily threw me into a feat of panic: there was so much I still planned to do! And yet, I knew that I had to listen — so I stepped away, looked at the painting from afar; and decided to leave it alone, for now at least.   

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.