The Artist’s Reverence

Judith Reeve, “Snow Ridge”, Oil, 20″x 30″, 2020

In my blog from Nov. 2019, “A New Way of Being in the World”, I attempted to express the artists’ craft as an activity of embodiment in the world. The subtlety of the craft itself allows the artist to find and express empathy for his subject. And conversely, because of this deep empathy, the artist experiences a profound compulsion to create.

Learning a skill is learning to see in a new way where one becomes capable of seeing meaningful distinctions that lie hidden to the ordinary eye. The artist’s very ability to paint, to embody their craft to a high proficiency, creates a space upon which something akin to the sacred may enter. Because of this heightened awareness, that is both practical and intuitive, the artist can experience a feeling that amounts to something like reverence- a reverence for a time and a place, for a person or for an object. The artist’s gaze occupies this sacred space evoking respect for their subject as well as, opening their mind and heart to unexplored possibilities residing within themselves or within the world.

When I am landscape painting and standing upon a road or field, looking out on a ridge of mountains, I find myself awed by the beauty that lies before me. I hear a raven squawking in the distance and a hawk is checking me out from a nearby pole. The cold wind is blowing and I am chilled. The clouds mutate, transforming their shape continuously before my eyes. I am immersed in this very moment. In a sense, holding my breath as I take in the immensity of the world. It is a moment that gives me pause and opens up in my being a space in which I can enter a world that is revered. It turns my activity of seeing and painting into a sacred act.

The Greeks experienced the place of Epidaurus in a similar way. As the great tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles were enacted upon that mountain, the participants found themselves awed, touched to the core of their being. They called this opening to the sacred a catharsis- a moment of profound transformation. The art of participating in the tragedy created the possibility of profound change both individual and societal. Can the artist create that space for the viewer to activity participate in their own sacred transformation?

I often think of Henri’s expression, “My People” as he referred to those he painted. This expression evokes a respect, a responsibility to, and a reverence for his subject. Henri, definitely, thought of painting in this way as a sacred act where he created an intimacy and a clear bond between himself and his subject. Henri in the very act of painting embodied those he painted, and subsequently, his sitters become Henri himself, creating a sacred space in which (either now or in the future), the viewer can experience and participate in. Henri becomes both the creator and the subject and the subject participates in the creation both evoking emotion from the artist as well as those that will experience this moment through the painting itself. The painting therefore, brings the artist, the subject and the viewer out of their isolated experiences and unites them together in a dynamic interaction of empathy, respect and joined responsibility- a sacred space where personal transformation can take place- an embodied and participatory catharsis.

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Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

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