A Vertical Axis

2412156385_7c6e9828e8_mThe other day, I finally saw it. I had been searching for it since I moved to the mountains 4 years ago, but had yet to observe one- where supposedly it is common – an altocumulus lenticularis – a spectacular cloud formation that occurs when air is forced upwards as it passes over a mountain. It has the appearance of snow piled on a rock in a stream, the snow being shaped by water and wind, crisp on the edges but soft on top. How dramatic and majestic it rose spiraling upward upon itself , moving and expanding, transforming itself by hidden forces.  At once you are a part of it and at the same time it is greater than oneself and even the world.  I felt an expansion within myself, a greater sense of vitality. This lenticularis becomes a vehicle to rise up and stand upon the heights. “…everything that rises becomes awakened to and involved in being ” (Gaston Bachelard, Air and Dreams, p.74 )  writes the phenomenologist, Gaston Bachelard.  “Height is more than a symbol. Anyone who seeks it, anyone who imagines it with all of his imaginative power, which is the driving force behind our psychic dynamism, recognizes it is materially, dynamically and vitally moral.”(ibid,p.61)  This desire for verticality  is inherent in everyone. We all desire this  motionless and dynamic  voyage within.

Bachelard states again, “I believe that the true axis of the vertical imagination is directed upward. To put it another way, we imagine the upward elan and we know the downward plunge. The fact is that we have great difficulty in imagining what we know.”(ibid. p.60)  A great example of this is described in Jules Verne’s  “Journey to the Center of the Earth”.  Here is a piece of fiction that takes the reader on a journey literally into the earth. We are lead to believe it is strictly for the sake of science- yet it clearly becomes the great “nekiyia” of modern man. A journey to the deep underworld where one encounters great mythical creatures and the process of confronting the myth of oneself. Even here where vertigo seems imminent, Harry, the narrator, speaks of his moment of ascent, “…my imagination carried me away into wild hypotheses. I was in a kind of waking dream. I thought I saw on the surface of the water those enormous antediluvian turtles as big as floating islands… Higher up, near the leaden granite sky, were immense birds, more powerful than the cassowary…which spread their wings and fluttered against the huge stone vault of the inland sea…My dream was of countless ages before the existence of man…The whole panorama of the world’s life before the historic period seemed to be born over again, and mine was the only human heart that beat in this unpeopled world !” (Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth, p.170)

Although, the axis of verticality of the imagination moves both north and south, it is truly the upward ascent that brings us life and hope. “By becoming conscious of our powers to ascend we become conscious of our destiny as whole… we know that we are matter, a substance filled with hope.”(Air and Dreams, p.60)

The waking dream- immense and intimate simultaneously, gives us the wings for flight, whether experienced in the clouds or in our own voyage to the depths.

Does it have life?


I often ask myself this question when I am working on a piece. Does it have life? Is there an inner vitality that emanates from every part of the figure? Does it take on a life of its own beyond my initial conception?

Where does this life derive from? Does it not come from every line, color and movement expressed in every part of the painting. When one reflects upon the sublimity of the figure, is it not expressed directly through gesture to attain an intensity of feeling? The writer and photographer, Eudora Welty expresses it as such, “I learned that every feeling waits upon its gesture; and I had to be prepared to recognize this moment when I saw it”. Every internal reflection , thought has its outward gesture. Man’s mind is in a constant state of flux. When one observes the figure, one must find the moment when the emotion and the outward expression or attitude of the figure coincide or converge.

Observation by the artist is central to his ability to craft a thoughtful image. But strictly adhering to observation alone leaves the image unadorned. It has yet to rise to a symbolic level. Delacroix reflects in his journal,” that to be successful in the arts is not a matter of summarizing but of amplifying where it is possible and of prolonging the sensation by every means.”(Journal of Eugene Delacroix, p.214.)

The artist must not only observe but generate a language of gesture. William Blake is a perfect example of this quality of generation. His figures take on cosmic proportions by the sheer magnitude of their expression. The artist must work it until it truly speaks beyond words and beyond what is almost practical – surpassing the obvious expression and seeking an internal intensity, an immensity or vastness of being.

In Baudelaire’s “Journaux intimes” he writes: “In certain almost supernatural inner states, the depth of life is entirely revealed in the spectacle, however ordinary, that we have before our eyes, and which becomes the symbol of it.”(p.29) The artist, being attentive to these things, can reveal in the very ordinary observations of reality a vastness of being that in turn opens up the soul to an immensity of life and the world that they could not have otherwise experienced. Is this not the true vocation of the artist – to reveal this experience for others to partake of ?