April 8, 2010

Retrospective: Transformed by Touch

The following is an excerpt from my undergraduate thesis, a year-long exploration of spirituality through making art.

Over and over when the world offers itself
to us for our awakening, all we have to do is meet it.
–Jack Kornfield

While working on The Direct Experience of God, I became enchanted with fingerprints. I pressed my inked fingers against white paper, marveling in the variation that could occur in multiple prints from the same finger because of how the ink lay differently on the finger’s surface each time. One fingerprint in particular struck me as beautiful. I used a photocopier to blow it up to 200 times its original size. The resulting print, an intriguing visual, hung in my studio for weeks.

In March, ready to begin a new piece, I come back to the fingerprint. What if it were even bigger? I take it to a copy shop and have the large print blown up even more, so that the fingerprint is now the size of my forearm from fingertip to elbow. I sense that this piece needs to remain simple because the fingerprint itself is already so complex. One fingerprint from one individual, and yet it contains multitudes. After a failed experiment with transferring the print onto a piece of wood using wintergreen oil, I decide to simply use the huge photocopy itself. I glue it to a piece of wood. A friend with power tools cuts around the perimeter of the fingerprint so that the shape of the wood becomes the shape of the print itself.

Pondering my next move, I am toying with the idea of building up the lines of the fingerprint dimensionally using the text-and-binder method from The Direct Experience of God. But it doesn’t feel right. Remembering my intention to keep it simple, I decide to enhance the dark lines of the fingerprint with black ink to heighten the contrast between fingerprint and paper. I do this work slowly, on the floor, with a bottle of ink and a fine-tipped brush. Like the stitching I have used in previous pieces, the inking process is deliberate and meditative. I become immersed in the careful process of filling in tiny dark areas with ink to make them darker. During this process it occurs to me that my fingerprint is both unique, because there is no other exactly like it in the world, and universal, because a fingerprint is an instantly recognizable image. Fingerprints manage somehow to be universal symbols of uniqueness.

My fingerprint, now startlingly large and visually bold, makes a statement about the uniqueness of every single one of the billions of individuals currently alive on this planet. We lose sight of that so easily. I remember Annie Dillard’s description of the struggle to comprehend the complexity of all of the individual lives inherent in large numbers of people. Referring to the 1991 death of 138,000 people in Bangladesh, she writes, “I mentioned to our daughter, who was then seven years old, that it was hard to imagine 138,000 people drowning. ‘No, it’s easy,’ she said. ‘Lots and lots of dots, in blue water.’” We cannot comprehend the specific and the abstract at the same time. But I want to attempt to convey this idea nonetheless.

During the creation of this piece, I have been collecting black walnut seeds from the grassy area outside my basement studio. I don’t know why, but I’m drawn to them. They’re huge, just the right size to fit in my palm with my fingers wrapped tightly around the seed. The pattern of lines on their outer shells reminds me of my fingerprint.

Because the fingerprint itself is so simple, I need something more to the piece, an altar of sorts to hang just beneath it. In the final exhibition, there will be a shelf, collaged with teastained text, which will hold a small pile of these walnut seeds.

Interspersed with the seeds will be strips of stained text. The text for both the shelf and the strips comes from Jack Kornfield’s book A Path with Heart, specifically from a chapter titled “Enlightenment is Intimacy with All Beings.” Kornfield proposes that “mindful awareness is itself an act of profound intimacy… [which] is both the beginning and the culmination of spiritual practice.”

It is only through intimate relationships with other humans that we can begin to comprehend the enormity of multitudes of complex human creatures co-existing on Earth. And indeed, it may only be through human relationships that we can recognize the presence of God. Pema Chodron remarks that taking the bodhisattva vow is equivalent to declaring oneself not afraid of other people. I interpret this in my own experience to mean that we must be willing to love and be loved in order to know God.

Chödrön defines the kalyanamitra, or spiritual friend, as someone who makes us see ourselves clearly and honestly, an inspiration to stay on the path. Spiritual friendship can be the primary basis for the understanding of the divine.

Ruminating on the unique and the universal, on spiritual friendship, and on the human urge to make one’s mark upon the universe, I decide to call this piece Touch.

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