The beach is lined with broken shells. Once the protective homes and exoskeletons of mollusks that resided inside, they now carpet the coastline in shattered fragments. Having been hammered by the force of the sea, they are shards of debris, afterthoughts that crunch beneath our feet when walking the shore.

Consider the pieces: each is uniquely shaped and deeply textured. Their colors are rich and varied, like brushstrokes in a painting. Each is one of a kind and a random variation, a product of the uncontrollability of nature. Taken together they tell stories of the sea.

The mysterious fields of the ocean floor, the majesty of the cresting waves, the rolling peaks and canyons, the secretive currents: All have engraved their rhythm on the shells. Blue and amber grooves line their fortress walls, architected for eternity. Yet when the waves break, so do they. The fortresses fall.

There is poetry in the ruins. Irregular and simple shapes weathered by time, the broken shells are completely natural without any pretense. The fragments fit together in harmony. There is nothing imprecise about them.

If you spend concentrated time with them, looking and looking, you start to see spirits of the ocean emerging: the midnight darkness of the depths, hazy glimpses of sky through morning fog, sun-drenched sands, and all that lives within and without.

By themselves they are broken. Brought together they become whole, a joyful and meditative narrative on the tides of time.

Shells learn geometry when they are young:

the golden mean, Fibonacci curves,

how elegance works and how to blur their markings.

How to be definitive and ways to deceive

as taught by the currents of the earth.

They are lost things left behind. In a moment they are gone.

Creatures self-sequestered, hiding most days,

praying for a way out of winds and breaking waves.

Hoping to be back home.

To the ancients, shells were body and soul.

Sandy love letters where brokenness and beauty met.

I collect them and open up the jagged and the smooth,

reimagining the shattering so suddenly they soothe.

Having spent my entire life close to the ocean, I’ve walked past broken shells on countless occasions without giving them much thought. Nature’s debris on the beach. Then one day, out of nowhere, it occurred to me that broken shells look a lot like brush strokes. I wondered if I could paint with them. This series of pieces is the result of that wonderment, a naive impulse to try something new.

I’ve approached these assemblages through the same lens that I take to my other work: rooted in the principles of poetics and form with emphasis on color and line. The results are fields of textured shapes, primitive and elegant, that speak to a human effort to honor that which is timeless and eternal.

A musician once said: In art, truth and reality begin when one no longer understands what one is doing or what one knows, and when there remains an energy that is all the stronger for being constrained, controlled, and compressed. It is therefore necessary to present oneself with the greatest humility: white, pure, and candid with a mind as if empty, in a spiritual state analogous to that of a communicant approaching the Lord’s Table. Obviously it is necessary to have all of one’s experience behind one, but to preserve the freshness of one’s instincts.

From Jazz, by Henri Matisse. 1947

The Painted Ocean

Paul Valery wrote, “The sea, the sea always begins again.” For the past 3 months, I’ve been working on a painting of the ocean and each time I set out to paint felt like I was beginning again. The canvas is 12 feet long and the inspiration for it came from the much smaller painting above – which was done about 4 years ago in the late fall while I was living in Point Lookout.

For the past 25 years, I’ve lived within a half mile of the beach and have spent countless hours in and around the ocean in every season. It’s by the sea that I am most at home. Such a large canvas (nearly the width of a two-car garage) provides an opportunity to capture and express the ocean’s body and soul in spectacular fashion.

Because the sea is always beginning again, always changing, and because the states of mind and moods that I bring to the beach have run the gamut of human emotions, the question became which beach to paint? The small painting above was painted during a bleak moment by the shore. I’m reminded of something that Ishmael says in introducing himself as the narrator in Moby Dick: “Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…then I account it high time to get to the sea as soon as I can.” So while this painting has beauty, it is for me that melancholy glow of wearied romantic in a damp, drizzly November in the soul.

This color palette and the rhythm of the paint are very much of the North Atlantic Ocean that surrounds Long Island. Here the Atlantic is a moving mix of grayish blues, sod greens, smatterings of indigo and of course foam that ranges from a sandy tan to the white of snow. These are mature colors, seasoned, and even at it’s most inviting there’s a reservation to it all. On the brightest, most placid summer day, it will still whispers of raging winters. All that being said, the North Atlantic is the ocean I know and the one I set out to capture on canvas.

2 months into the work, something unexpected happened. My family and I took an impromptu trip to the west coast. For 9 days, I lived next to the Pacific Ocean, from Monterey to Big Sur to Cardiff-by-the-Sea. Long, lovely days on beaches, cliffs, balconies, piers – always with my eyes upon the Pacific. What beautiful colors! Turquoise, aquamarines, sun-drenched cyan, navy intermingling with denim and a dash of the sky. A tapestry of azure that had a warm sweetness to it, vs. the cold, salty beaches I call home. 

This Pacific rainbow of blues came together in long, rolling waves that sculpted themselves as avalanches of elegance careening to the shore. As we surfed and watched others surf, the thought occurred that water as a symbol of god’s presence is never more acutely felt than from a board in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by waves of water. It reminded me of the great Philip Larkin poem that begins, “If I were called in to construct a religion, I should make use of water.” Each day the color and the rhythm of the Pacific became more palpable and deeply absorbed. I took it home with me and began again to paint. 

The large canvas is now complete, the image appears below. It’s a love song for the sea, where eternity begins and ends with every wave, and where an infinite rhythm reminds us that the living moment is everything.

The Vast Sea

Dominican Motherhouse #7

About 2 years ago, I stumbled across the book Drawing to Find Out, By Michael Merrill. It was late at night and I was on Amazon.com. I can’t recall what I was looking for, but for certain it was not a book on architectural drawings. This was one of those barely linear escapades whereby I kept following Amazon’s suggestions that “Readers who bought this book also bought that book.” It’s amazing the gamut one can run abiding these recommendations. So multiple clicks along this trajectory brought me to Merrill’s book. I purchased it on a late night shopping whim.

The book documents the creative process and drawings made by architect Louis Kahn in preparation for the building of a convent. The project was called The Dominican Motherhouse and it was never built. The Nuns backed out of the endeavor before construction began and Kahn moved on to other projects. The book describes Kahn’s engagement with the Dominican Nuns and the way he and his colleagues envisioned and developed their plans for the building, which was to be built on a large tract of forested land not far from Philadelphia. The text sheds interesting light on how complex the relationship between an architect and client can be, as this relationship hits upon utility, identity, finances, aesthetics, and ego.

Two things about the book captured my interest. First, the book is beautiful and is filled with intricately detailed drawings by Kahn and his architectural colleagues. The early drawings combine qualities of primitive geometric abstraction and thoughtfully engineered doodles. Below are a couple of the drawings. I had not seen anything like them before. They struck me as being frameworks for abstract thinking with a lot of loosely constructed data embedded throughout each one.

Click Images To Enlarge

The second element that drew my interest was Merrill’s insightful writing on Kahn and Kahn’s philosophy of “uncompleted things.” A couple of Kahn’s quotes along these lines include:

The value of uncompleted things is very strong…if the spirit is there and can be recorded, what is lost?”

“Recording of that which has not been done must be made much of.”

“That which has not been built is not really lost. Once its value is established, its demand for presence is undeniable.”

I was immediately fascinated by this philosophy of uncompleted things and the applicability of this idea far beyond the world of architecture and into the very fabric of my life. Often I find myself discouraged when considering the ocean of uncompleted things in my life. But are they uncompleted if I carry the fully formed ideas with me? What a radical shift in thinking this represented.

One more quote that Merrill includes, this one from Martin Steinmann (also an architect/critic), “One aspect of our fascination with good architectural drawings is that through a combination of precision and incompleteness, they make us collaborators in the process of making.”

This idea was my launching point. I decided to approach these drawings as exercises in perceptual learning and abstraction: looking deeply into these drawings, extracting and reducing lines, forms, and movement, and then building upon the perceived patterns and frameworks with ink and paint. Here are a few of the results:

Click Images To Enlarge