Dispatches From Mayne Island, Part Two: Conversing with Stevens, Einstein and Carr

“Description,” the poet Wallace Stevens wrote, “is revelation.” Descriptive language has its basis in precision, the attention to detail and concreteness of the unique scene or subject that a writer attempts to capture. There is more than the physical content that the artist tries to grasp and manifest in the translation of creative expression. She is attempting to convey the spiritual core of the physical material of a subject in the essence of language. In other words, both her sense of connectedness to the object of her attention and what lies beneath the surface—the hidden elements and deeper reality that drew her attention in the first place—are what she endeavors to describe.

Entrance Way, by Charles van HeckA few days ago I woke to the sound of rain on the roof. I tried to write, but I found myself mesmerized by the mist drifting over the hillside and the chords of music played by the rain falling through the conifers and tapping on the woodland floor of needles, decaying leaves, fallen branches, moss and stones. This was nature’s string quartet. I understood Albert Einstein’s feelings when listening to or playing Mozart. As Einstein once observed, “Mozart’s music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe.” In those hours of rain, that inner, pure beauty of the universe was revealed.

When the rain stopped, I wandered off to the bays foolishly thinking my camera could capture the images my eyes were drawn to. The moss and flowers growing on boulders that have broken from the ridges and tumbled through the woods, and the knotted trees that have grown in the fissures of those great boulders are difficult to capture in words and images. But this is what writers, photographers and artists do and must do. Simply stated, we attempt to articulate and translate, through recreation, impressions of what is in front of us. In that creative process, the best of artists, writers and photographers are aware of their inadequacy of their talent. “What I see in Nature,” Einstein says, “is a grand design that we can comprehend only imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility….”

As I wandered the island, my own imperfect comprehension and humility began to raise questions:

1) How to I describe the sound of waves breaking over a rocky shoreline?
2) How do I capture the split second hesitation of a hovering seagull descending from flight?
3) How do I capture the cry of a raven’s Cr-r-ruck echoing off a ridge, or his effortless glide on a wind draft, or her flowing wing beats as she passes low close to my head?
4) What words do I use to put to paper the image of a raindrop dangling from a fir tree needle?
5) How do I describe the skipping bounce of a lamb towards a ewe, then watching her suck on her mother’s udder?
6) What words and colors do I use to describe the shadows of an eagle passing over the branches of a cedar tree, then meadow grasses at sunset?

The clay receptacles of words shatter when I attempt to place these sights and sounds within the confines of language. At the same time I ask these questions, among others, I realize their inadequacies and flaws. Their imperfections lay in the very fact I am asking them. Rather than lose myself in the moment of observation, “the grand design,” I am conscious of my response to the design, the object I am witnessing.

Again, Einstein responds to this awareness. “The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self.”

Einstein’s comment inadvertently goes to the heart of the creative process. And here Emily Carr’s perceptive comment offers clarification that is relevant to any creative person regardless of the method of their expression:

“What is the test of a picture?” Emily Carr asks. “Not form or color or design or techniques. It is the intensity of the experience and feeling, the existence of the thing spiritually. If the spirit does not speak, nothing has been said even though the surface forms clamour and clank. If the small still voice of reality cannot be heard above the hubbub of objective seeing, the picture is a blank nothing. Oh to realize that intensity! It is the soul. Oh God give it to me! It is mine already deep within, but asleep. How can I wake it? Oh how?” (From Hundred and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr, “Moving Forward”, December 1, 1933.)

The true value of a person’s creativity is the extent she or he steps outside of the self into the moment of observation and artistic creation. This applies as well to a person’s spirituality and worth as a human being. Spiritually, regardless of whether one adheres to faith in a personal God or like Einstein believes “in a pantheistic God who is revealed in the harmony of all that exists”, we are shackled until we go beyond the self.

The value of art is the measure it makes us curious, draws us out, entices us to step beyond “I, me, mine” into the moment we are viewing both as artists and the audience. Creativity and living the good life depends on the extent “I” can put “myself” aside to be passionately curious. The challenge for any creative person, whether on Mayne Island, or elsewhere, is to refine his or her thinking, to continuously discover what makes “me” curious; then act on that curiosity while recognizing that “I” have no special talents, but “I” possess the capacity to be fully human, fully alive. And in that aliveness, the creative person possesses a desire to translate what has been revealed into description.

All quotations attributed to Albert Einstein in this essay can be found at http://einstein.biz/quotes.php in association with GreenLight LLC and its affiliates and Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Photo Credit:

Entrance Way © Charles van Heck, all rights reserved.

Recent Charles van Heck Articles:

  • The Importance of Color and the Composition of Light: An Interview With Janet Vanderhoof
  • Dispatches From Mayne Island: Lessons on Life, Death and Leadership
  • Dispatches From Mayne Island, Part Two: Conversing with Stevens, Einstein and Carr
  • Dispatches From Mayne Island: Meditations on the Writings and Paintings of Emily Carr – Part One, Possession
  • Intimate Stories from a Two-chambered Heart: An Interview with Roberta Murray

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