Hole in the Universe

Below is the gist of my presentation for the artist’s seminar that preceded the opening of the show at Kerava Art Museum yesterday.

The title and theme for this exhibition is ‘Hole in the Universe’. I don’t know how it sounds in Finnish but the word ‘hole’, in English, can be heard as ‘whole’; with a ‘w’. So the title, when spoken, can be interpreted in two ways. Both are interesting concepts to ponder, and respond to by making art. A hole can be a void, a container or a passage way. To become whole in the universe, complete in mind, body and soul, is perhaps the ultimate artists’ quest.

The question posed to us by Markku Hakuri for this seminar is “Why am I an artist?” For me the answer is easy and simple so I’ll respond at the end of my talk. Also, my answer will require some background information, a few billion years worth, in fact. But before getting to that I have a question of my own which I’d like your help in trying to answer. “When and how am I an artist?” I would very much like to have a list of thoughts, words and deeds that when practiced define being an artist. I think it would be a very useful list for artists to refer to, especially when non-artists ask us what we do. Artists create art, that’s obvious, but what about when we’re not actually “in action”, are we still being artists? Is it a 24/7 occupation or are we allowed time off for good behavior. If it is a calling rather than a job, then it begins to sound like an issue of faith; being an artist. It defines our life, and not just our work.

Other fields of interest and devotion have clear statements of purpose. When my stone mason friend, Sonam Lama, was a boy in Tibet he was sent to the monastery to become a monk. When I asked him about being Buddhist he explained that he was not Buddhist, that he ‘tries’ to be Buddhist. To BE Buddhist one would be like Buddha, or in his words, “lighted”. As a follower of Buddha, he tries to practice the 108 things that when done in concert create the conditions for enlightenment. Maybe we need a list of thoughts and actions for our artist’s creed. 108 would be a bit much, maybe just a handful will do. The type of words I’m thinking of should be, as Walt Whitman instructed himself in making final revisions to his poem, Leaves of Grass, “perfectly clear with positive purpose”. 

(At this point in the talk the audience joined the discussion and offered four words for the list: curiosity, courage, happiness and freedom.)

One way to look at the question, ‘Why am I an artist’ is to reduce it to its essence; ‘Why am I?’. I have my suspicions about that and, not surprisingly, they involve rocks.

After reading Robert Hazen’s study, "Mineral Evolution," published in the  American Mineralogist, the science writer Robert Krulwich summed up the deep and tightly twined connection between rocks and life. In his NPR article Krulwich explains that if we go back 13 billion years, we find that the universe began with a burst of energy, then a cooling, then gravity took over and we got stars. Eventually those stars began to die by blowing up in a blaze of intense heat. And with that the universe got its first 12 or so minerals including carbon and nitrogen; all coming from the dust of dead stars.

Then gravity pulled the dust together, forming asteroids. Those asteroids collided, baby planets formed, became bigger planets, then planets with plate tectonics pulled rocks on the surface down under, melting them, compressing them. By 10 billion years after creation the number of minerals had grown to about 1,500, including topaz, feldspar and iron.

Once our atmosphere had enough oxygen to create rust, it combined with organic chemicals and made creatures with shells and bones. Those creatures died and became rocks. Coral reefs are an example of underwater structures made from calcium carbonate secreted by tiny marine animals. Reefs break down into sediment and decompose to carbon dioxide which gives rise to volcanoes. Volcanic ash spewed on the earth’s surface makes fertile ground for plants to grow.

The food we eat gives us the minerals we need to live. So we need minerals, and minerals need us. The presence of life on Earth nearly tripled the rock population. The more life there is, the more rocks there are. There are now over 4,000 different minerals.

My take-away from Robert Krulwich’s article is that “I am” because rocks invented me, and all other living things, in order to multiply. I’m just future compost for a system of mineral propagation created by rocks billions of years ago. This viewpoint certainly elevates rocks to a new high in the order of things. Or, I can look at “Why I am” from a different angle, one that offers some hope for an existence on earth that is whole in mind, body and spirit. Walt Whitman saw it this way in his poem “Song of Myself”- “...And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheeled universe, And any man or woman shall stand cool and supercilious before a million universes.”

Which brings me to the question of “Why am I an artist?”. I’ll let Walt Whitman answer for me here, as well. He describes best the way I feel about making art in the environment. “Earth! you seem to look for something at my hands.”