Tag Archives: spirituality

Reading ““Crow Mountain”” by Can Xue

Crow Mountain.” Translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. Asymptote, July 2015.


When you read Can Xue’’s story ““Crow Mountain,”” you’’re reading about a young girl who wishes to investigate a place. It’’s called Crow Mountain, but it’’s really a derelict building. Still, it holds some allure for her. Why is it called Crow Mountain when it’’s really something else? When her parents first show her the building, it’’s as if they are introducing her to the enigma, but they pull her away, perhaps because they know she is not ready for the experience.

Eventually, the girl, named Juhua, meets an older friend, Qinglian, who knows about Crow Mountain and offers to take her there. Qinglian tells Juhua that her uncle is actually the gatekeeper at Crow Mountain, so she has an in. Juhua admires her friend very much. Qinglian is older, more sophisticated, and quite beautiful. Beside her, Juhua feels very plain. There’’s also the matter of Qinglian’’s art form—–the embroidery that she practices in secret with her widowed mother. One day Juhua catches a glimpse of something that takes her breath away–—a double-sided embroidery with a waterfall on one side and the sea on the other. Qinglian quickly hides the piece in its basket, saying that it is not for Juhua’’s eyes.

Nevertheless, Qinglian makes good on her offer to take Juhua to Crow Mountain. They travel to the old building on a city bus. When they knock for the uncle, no one answers. The door is ajar, and Qinglian says that it is all right to go in. That’’s when all hell breaks loose. Nothing on Crow Mountain is as it seems. For Juhua, it’’s a complete loss of reference points. However, Qinglian seems to be having a completely different experience. She’’s comfortable on Crow Mountain and climbs confidently up a path. Juhua is terrified and yet intrigued by floors that aren’’t really floors; by a beam of light that, when pierced by a hand, causes a cawing of unseen crows; by small birds that fall in the beam of light; by a lizard-like thing that can float in the air, by an uncle who is a giant with legs as large as columns. She loses Qinglian, feels an electrical shock through her body, gets bitten by the lizard, and is even unconscious for a brief period of time.

At the end of the story, there is a return to the ordinary world. The uncle really is a gatekeeper with a small room where he sleeps beneath a mosquito net and reads ancient books at a table. Qinglian talks a little bit about her experience on Crow Mountain. She has picked and eaten cherries. She has, perhaps, been to the summit, whereas Juhua wandered around in darkness and saw something completely different. They return home by bus–—a return to ordinary life.

Despite her fear, Juhua feels that she now shares a profound secret with Quinglian, that something extraordinary actually happened to her, and that she is eager to explore more new things in spite of the danger. She also decides not to tell her parents about the outing. It’’s as if she fears that they would disapprove and forbid her ever going again. Qinglian warns her not to talk about it nor ask too many questions about what she saw there.

This story, like many of Can Xue’s stories, is about a character who takes off to investigate something intriguing or interesting, and then finds herself in a place where the usual rules of human life don’’t hold. There’’s a skewed strangeness in these situations. Yet there’’s also an upward striving toward another kind of knowledge. During these interludes when the individual ceases to engage in herd behavior, another order of experience always intervenes. The ordinary world falls away, and the characters catch a glimpse of their spiritual selves, the selves that haven’’t necessarily been conditioned by the use and wear of everyday life.

For me, the story is about the journey of the artist. In order to create, the artist must supersede both training and a priori ideas. She must purposely place herself into a situation in which the world is not solid, into a world that is as yet undefined and unmade. “Crow Mountain” is about human capacity, not so much about conscious imagination, but about the human capacity to receive, to make contact with that unmade place, and then to experience there things that are fresh, perhaps pleasant, perhaps frightening, maybe even oddly skewed. Certainly the authentic experience of Crow Mountain turns out to be unique–—nothing anyone else could have actually told or predicted ahead of time.

One characteristic of Juhua is that, unlike Qinglian, who is more adept and perhaps the true artist, Juhua is concerned about status. She compares herself to Qinglian. She tries to judge things. She doesn’’t understand why Qinglian doesn’’t show off her beautiful embroidery or brag about her uncle who is really a giant. She thinks these things would be worth telling everyone about, and the result would be that others would be jealous of her just as she is jealous of Qinglian. Yet in the end, she decides to keep her own secret and she doesn’’t tell anyone that she has gone to Crow Mountain. It feels too personal and almost sacred. She has gained an interior space that didn’’t exist before.

People would have a hard time trusting Qinglian. She just is this thing. She has the capability of guiding Juhua to Crow Mountain, but once there, Qinglian has no control over what Juhua experiences. We tend to want our literature grounded in the “real” world–—in a world that most people can understand. Stories have trajectories. There are rules to follow about plot and characterization. We want the offering of a scenario and a resolution that satisfies our need for order. We want a clear understanding of motive and a solid realization of the place where the events are occurring. This is not what Can Xue offers. Instead, the real story is hidden and can seem incomprehensible. But it is not completely hidden.

At the end, we know that while Juhua returns to the safety of her parents’ home, she still has a hunger for Crow Mountain and is probably already determined to return with or without Qinglian. Once the bird has left its cage, it’’s had a dizzying taste of freedom, and so Juhua i’s not likely to return to her old ways of dealing with the world.

In fact, all the characters in the story could be read as different aspects of a single character. After a striving upwards that seems to disorient our perceptions of every-day reality, there’’s a kind of balance that asserts itself in the end. Each division of the self is necessary–—the guide, the pilgrim, the uncle, the mother, the father. Each has a role to play in the life of a fully alive and creative human being. It’’s a lot to think about–—and that may be the point. Crow Mountain is not about our usual ways of thinking at all. To enter Crow Mountain is to open our selves to the unknown.

Qinglian guides people to Crow Mountain. She does not control what they experience there. She can’’t put limits on it or define it. They experience something that they might find pleasant or unpleasant—–something that is so personal that they probably cannot put it into words. In some sense, Qinglian is a bit of a bully. She refuses to answer any questions about Crow Mountain. She takes Juhua there but she doesn’’t even try to help Juhua make sense of her experience at Crow Mountain. In fact, she tells her not to talk about it. It is something that just needs to be lived.

Russian Icons

Archangel Gabriel from Rostov Region, circa 1600

Archangel Gabriel from Rostov Region, circa 1600

The Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, is housed in a building so beautifully constructed, largely of wood that I’d like to move into it. I feel I could live very well there. The rooms are spacious but not palatial. The place has a human scale. Even though their subject matter is meant to plumb the sacred and holy reality of Christianity on an almost cosmological scale, the icons also have a human scale and are extremely approachable. In fact, they invite me to come closer for a better look. Some paintings are provided with magnifying glasses so as to better view their exquisitely small details.This museum houses icons—religious images painted on wood—usually executed in egg tempera in which the ground pigments are bound together with the whites of eggs. It’s a delicate medium that yields a smooth glazed surface and has the potential for almost microscopic depiction. The layers of paint are semi-transparent and reflective. Some paintings executed in egg tempera almost seem to emit light.

Icon of Saint Luke painted circa 1530

Saint Luke, circa 1530

For the faithful, these images are sacred objects. Many icons, but not all, depict the Virgin and her precious Son. Some icons reputedly weep or bleed as a response to tragic events. Some have been carried into battle. The icon connects the worshiper with the larger realities of the faith. The painters who created these objects were expected to serve the perfection of God. Many remain anonymous and leave behind only the work, made lovingly, created with respect and perhaps even rapture. This is an alien concept in our art world where making a splash and being different is the norm. We value a kind of individualism that has no meaning in this environment where angels are moving forces and participate actively in human life.

These vignettes happen at a juncture between the visible and the invisible. Many references root them credibly in our concrete world, but the space behind the figures is often defined by gold leaf that urges the viewer toward a dimension that lies on the other side of the mundane. The communication of the spiritual is achieved partly through use of vibrant color. The brilliant cadmium reds and the cobalt blues in some of these works vibrate. I experience the deeply expressed hues in a visceral way. The characters in the paintings possess bodies and facial features idiosyncratic enough to represent real people. But they are also saints inviting me into another order of human experience—one where knowledge, faith, and belief meet up with ideals of supreme effort and sacrifice. Their gazes are always serious, and they look out at me as if in admonishment. It is hard to find contemporary works of art that exude this kind of power or confidence. That may be our loss.

“Horseman and Dog” at Boston’s MFA


Horseman and Dog

“Horseman and Dog,” terracotta, Italy (Sicily), Late archaic period (500 BC), The Museum of Fine Arts

Almost every time I visit Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, I have a look at this small sculpture. It’s a favorite, and I often take guests to see the piece in the Greek galleries. The terracotta figurine is a funerary object made for a grave. Presumably, the young boy depicted with his horse and dog has already passed into another world. I go to this sculpture because it so captures some in-between place—a moment balanced between life and death—somehow found and preserved. It finds that exact place—an exuberant place—and it stays there telling me the truth: This is what life is. This is also about death.

My late thirties were characterized by loss. Three young people from my milieu died suddenly—two through unrelated murders and the other because of a heart arrhythmia that took him as a young man. It was a time of grief and also of rebellion against what had occurred. My feelings went beyond sadness or questioning. I felt rage. It seemed unfair. These things were not supposed to happen at all, and, certainly, they were not supposed to happen to anyone who was close to me!

Gradually, the anger and the sadness gave way and something else replaced it—the beginning of a new kind of vision—a new world seen through the tears of loss—a kind of hyper-vision infused with light. I saw in a way that could make a glass of water look like the loveliest thing in the world. I could look through a paned window at the branches of a tree and weep.

I’m not sure scholars would agree with me, but I identify the expression on the boy’s face as having something to do with the “archaic smile.” It is found on other Greek sculptures from this period, especially on the faces of highly stylized statues of young boys called kouroi. The meaning of the smile is both debatable and debated by those who speculate about cultural expression. I’m okay with that. For me, the archaic smile always represents the ultimate in serenity, a kind of confidence in both life and death. In the case of my horseman and his dog, the memory is about three beings who were once very alive and then were taken. That’s enough to give the piece its sad and joyous meaning.

On Reading Black Elk Speaks and Seeing Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky

For those who don’t know, Black Elk Speaks was written in 1932 by the poet John Neihardt, based on his translated conversations with Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota medicine man. Black Elk, who died in 1950, was a witness not only to the Battle at Wounded Knee but also to the end of the tragic transition, begun decades before, of his people from their traditional life to the circumscribed life of the reservation and cultural genocide.

I read this book after seeing Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, a magnificent exhibition at the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. The show was an impressive and beautiful presentation, conceived as an attempt to illuminate and give us entrance to a culture that thrived on the Great Plains. The exhibition was filled with carefully documented articles of decorated clothing as well as other personal and ritual objects that brought to life a way of being, a spiritual connection to the land, and a code of values.

Going through room after room, I knew this was a different way of seeing the world. Where in my culture does art deliver this level of meaning? How is our art integrated into the needs of people for recording history as well as for expressing a vision that impacts both the individual and the community? Do we surround ourselves with beautiful things that were made by us or for us as an expression of personality or relationship? And then do we take care of these things for a lifetime or even over many generations?

For Black Elk and his people, art was not something separate visited in a museum. It was intrinsic. Songs were ways of knowledge. Images offered a connection between the inner world of spirit and the exigencies of physical reality. As with most indigenous cultures, it is nearly impossible for us to enter into the state of mind in which these objects were created and used. That’s our loss. We have no way of melding reality, dreams, hopes, and history, and then somehow realizing our limited selves in terms of all these.

We might appreciate and appropriate the aesthetic qualities of so many things displayed here. A marvelous wooden horse is the signature piece. Wonderful imagery is painted on deerskin and buffalo robes that have survived, ostensibly, because someone valued them. But we do not enter so deeply into our lives that we might “see” what it would mean to be completely integrated into both an environment and a community as individuals.

Okay, I’m sure that we wouldn’t want to go back to that time with its challenges and privations. After all, we’re part of the culture that overcame the Plains people. We have everything that is meant to protect us from knowing some of the things they knew and from the many discomforts they must have suffered living closer to the land and the weather, but at what loss? I myself would not successfully return to that time nor would I wish to live in such a prescribed way as a member of a particular tribe. I am happy to benefit from a multicultural perspective and set of possibilities.

But there was something enlightened about this approach to the world that commands my respect. We don’t fast for days, sing for the spirits to come, or cry for a vision. But the consequence is that maybe as artists and as individuals, we don’t dig deep enough. We think life should be easy. We’re moving very quickly through both time and space. We don’t believe that we have the hours required to carve a beautiful object out of stone or wood without power tools. The sheer speed at which we live our lives can seem good, but it simply may not allow for the meditative, slow work that might lead us in a truly promising direction.

Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, opening March 2, 2015.

Read Sebastian Smee’s insightful review of the show, Plains Indians Saga Finds Artistic Expression at the Met, published March 28, 2015, in the The Boston Globe.

Rufino Tamayo—The Creatureness and Spirituality of “Seres Humanos”

In many of his figurative paintings, the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo makes human beings look strange. We have to look at them as if we’ve never seen such creatures before. He portrays human beings—in Spanish, seres humanos—as creatures and as the sum of their anatomical parts. A swath of red paint with four fingers at the end becomes an arm even when it is partially detached from the squared body, which (looked at as a separate detail) can actually appear to be a window.

In “Two Personages,” painted in 1961, the faces are mouthless ovals attached to shapes that might be torsos. We recognize the ovals as faces because of the white circles drawn into them that are obviously meant to suggest eyes. Sticks of red paint suggest arms, and that’s OK with me. These are paint people. They’re always missing some of their parts. And yet . . . I believe in them perhaps because, in some way, I am used to “seeing” some people who are missing some parts. None of us is truly whole.

This sense of play—of one thing morphing into another—or multiple or ambiguous meanings makes me go back to Tamayo again and again. By emphasizing the symbolic nature of anatomical parts and separating them—by making creatures of paint—he gives me a kind of anthropological distance on the human condition. I’m thrown off-center. I feel my own “creatureness” more deeply. I also feel some sense of the spiritual—the sense of a mysterious and great energy surrounding and enveloping these bodies. They become more than they might have been had Tamayo done a literal depiction of the human body.

He paints the purely physical, but pares it down and distorts it so that I might see it more clearly. Tamayo forces me through the canvas to see what is beyond. He makes me look hard for the situation/condition/circumstance that is whole and that is not merely a dismembered sum of parts.

In “Piano Virtuoso,” painted in 1984, the musician at the instrument possesses an oddly shaped skull-like head. It’s so wrong and impossible anatomically that it immediately draws my eye. It might very well belong to some extraterrestrial and not to an earthling sitting at the keyboard. The piano keys are a mere white strip splitting the canvas. They’re like a beam of light thrusting itself into the darkness rather than like anything solid. The blackness of the instrument occupies the whole lower left quarter of the painting.

Obviously, we’re witnessing a musical event. It happens in a room/space without furniture or other occupants. Who hears the tune or is an audience for the sonata? Relief in the dun-colored background is provided by hints of violet that show through as life from another place. The figure, with its strange head, is awkward and badly proportioned. The torso is ungainly; the arms are too long; the hands are insane with fingers splayed above the bar of light as though they’ve been broken or bent into shapes that might be hands but really might be “something else.”

It’s the “something else” that interests me. There is here some loss of control, some necessary skewing that yields more and more information. The action is made to appear odd. I’m forced to think about what is happening here. This creature—prehistoric in visage and almost reptilian—occupies this space and is engaged in this activity. He is pressing on the bar of light to create music. The result of the action is sound, but we can’t hear any sound.

I’m forced to consider something about the nature of reality. This thought process and need to look deeper and to pursue is what gives me pleasure when I look at my favorite Tamayo paintings. I’m knocked off a certain pedestal. I have to remake my world because he has offered to me this “made” thing, and while the scene is recognizable, still it does not look like anything I’ve ever seen before.

Tamayo’s “Flute Player” (1945) has a sort of pink keyhole at the center of an orange circle of “face.” Does this circle represent a small head? Is that mark an oddly shaped nose? Or a keyhole? The arms—again misshapen and too long—might be those of a monkey. And yet, this “animal” is engaged in a creative pursuit. There is, of course, no sound emanating from the picture and yet, I know that music is sound and not only is it sound but it marks time, as we mark time, as we understand ourselves. We “creatures” like Tamayo’s paint people live and measure time.

Find out more about Tamayo’s work:

Del Conde, Teresa, ed. Tamayo. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1999. [See the following:  “Two Personages” (1961), p. 164; “Piano Virtuoso” (1984), pp. 187–188; “Flute Player” (1945), p. 185.]

Some reproductions in Wikispaces

The painting “Children’s Games” from The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Painting entitled "Cathedral" by artist Jeri Griffith

“Cathedral,” acrylic on canvas, 30″ x 30″

Cathedral belongs to a series of paintings I’ve been working on for the last year or so. These 20 images on canvases measuring 30″ x 30″ had their genesis in sketches I made at the Asian Civilization Museum in Singapore in 2013. As I’ve worked on them, the original images have either come forward or have been destroyed and transformed.

I always work on many paintings at one time—usually at least 10 or 12—because the solutions to different problems resonate and reverberate among them. Also, my method in acrylic is to achieve depth by layering patterns and transparent layers of color. The earliest renderings and markings recede and are gradually replaced. Sometimes I block out whole areas of a painting with either white or black, retaining only the parts that feel alive to me or somehow right. Then I move on from there.

In the end, each of the works is a synthesis of influences. I might marry one of Matisse’s color schemes with a sketch of an Indonesian shadow puppet and then touch the work with a scattering of New England maple leaves observed on my morning walk. Medieval cathedrals involved a similar synthesis of ideas. The architects’ intention was to create a sacred space that embodied spiritual tenets. On a less grand scale, Cathedral is also about sacred space, color, and light. The birds of the imagination are released to fly freely. The ghostly figure touches light and air with extended fingers. Something happens. There’s a juncture . . . a moment that connects the material world with something ineffable and mysterious that seems worth investigating.