It has been a week now since I visited the studio of a friend, painter, and fellow-blogger, Gregg Chadwick, and I have been meaning to post a few words about his work ever since. You'll have noticed that the past few days have not allowed me the time to get my thoughts focused. This morning, perhaps, at last, saving possible interruptions...
Simply put, Gregg has recently been doing paintings of Buddhist monks in saffron robes, often striding forward into a shimmer of light. The series originated in an experience which the paintings themselves reveal only secretly: Gregg was returning home from a trip to Thailand in September, 2001 and, while waiting for a connecting flight in Bangkok airport, found himself watching a television monitor with the disbelief and horror he shared with the rest of the world as the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. Earlier in the day, he had been wandering the streets of Chiang Mai and was enchanted by the sight of some monks on a morning pilgrimage. "The almost incandescent light," he writes, "and the blur of movement seemed to create paintings for me. I just needed to pay attention... For me, these monks are spiritual pilgrims that lead us away from the destruction and waste of violence, racism, and hatred."
The resulting paintings have a remarkable serenity. The figures of the monks lack focus. They exist in an aura of light rather than on some earthly plane. They move through space like transient beings, absorbed in their own silent, meditative isolation. In this way, they seem to project some of the real values of their Buddhist faith: the inevitable passage of time that is at the root of so much human suffering, the illusory quality of what we take to be the real world and, most importantly, the promise of an escape from suffering into enlightenment.
There is an other-worldly quality to these paintings, a sense of liberation from the bonds of gravity that define our physical existence. They celebrate the dedication of the monks they portray and convey some of the quiet joy that freedom from earthly needs invests in them. And yet, too, there is an elegiac tone, a kind of nostalgia for a manifestation of the purely spiritual that most of us can never hope to attain. The paintings are truly captivating in that they invite us irresistibly into their spaces and hold the attention there in their swirl of light and color, suggesting inexhaustible depths of experience for the eye to explore.
I think I have spoken elsewhere in The Buddha Diaries about the "One Hour/One Painting" series I offered in a number of gallery and museum contexts a while ago. The idea was to bring together a small group of people to sit with me in front of a single painting for a whole hour, alternating closed-eye meditation with open-eye contemplation in order to experience the painting as we rarely do, in our habitual rush to grab an eyeful and move on to the next. I left Gregg's studio thinking what a treat it would be to offer a session with one of these paintings that so invite precisely that kind of slow and attentive interaction; and whose effect is to wonderfully elevate the human spirit. It is, after all, as Gregg suggests, a matter of paying attention.