“What do we do in times like these? We’re glued to our newsfeed, continually catapulted into these media tunnels, looking for answers, for meaning, for understanding. Ricocheting like this, we are commonly subsumed by disruptive emotions. My friend called me and said, ‘not since 9/11 have I been trapped like this. I have been hypnotized by television and social media. I would wager money that productivity in major cities has decreased since he took office.’ What advice do you have for those of us eddying wildly in the media maelstrom, and how do we rise above it and do the best possible work for ourselves and for humanity?
“It’s not easy. But what we have to figure out is how to disconnect ourselves from the circle of fear, and the circle of contempt, and the circle of panic, and settle down and make something that matters instead. What should you have been doing in the weeks after 9/11, or whatever tempest that has gone before? What will you realize you should have been engaging in when you reflect on our current moment? As James Murphy said, the best way to complain is to make something. ” -excerpt from Debbie Millman talking with Seth Godin.
Here is 400 colorful square feet of my best complaint! I just finished my largest murals to date in Wynwood, Miami and they have been challenging and illuminating and invigorating. Like most of us, I am either confused or unclear about what actions to take at any given moment to create the world I want to see. I have incredibly few ideas of my own, and I latch onto expressions from the smart voices I trust, and these ideas of making something that matters as a route toward effecting change, and creating beauty as a form of therapy, now stand at the fore of my explicit motives for making art. Which is not to say, at all, that I was without motives before encountering these ideas (flow-state doodling since age five has never been jeopardized by lack of articulate philosophy), but they help tremendously in situating my work and sense of purpose as I commit to being an artist, especially in the current climate. While I am currently not inclined to make art with explicit commentary, I do see every day, in doing public work, how art can affect people. In a basic, and I suppose Buddhist sense, I think of Right Mind leading to Right Action. If you behold something that affects you positively, you are more likely to then make better choices out of that state (although in this case, most people walking by my murals have continued right into the popular donut shop next door. (Shoutout to the homies at Salty Donut)
In part, this mural represents a type of Right Action. The image of the dervishes were among the potential murals that I have been wanting to paint since I saw and sketched them in Turkey. That was in the middle of my 19 months traveling abroad, an odyssey which I have multiples lifetime's worth of imagery to draw from and where all my current work stems. At the outset, let me say clearly: I paint things because I know they can be great images. All attendant descriptions and motives are subordinate to that. For now, and this could easily change here or there, I am not driven by verbal ideas as an artist, I am driven by potential images. That means precise compositions, color palettes, and forms are what I want to see realized, not so much explicit messages. I share explicit messages in my charged conversations, usually around nutrition, and in my writing. That being said, writing about my art provides doorways into stimulating research, and I usually weave subsequent meaning into the work after learning more about it. Do the dervishes contain significant personal meaning to me? Sort of, and now, after painting them, they do even more. But stepping back one degree, they are a distinct point in one of the most transformative chapters in my life to date, which is my travels. Do they serve as an entry point into topics that are meaningful to me? Yes. Spirituality, reverence, embodied wisdom, and to a lesser extent the complex and troubled position Islam and religion inhabit are the chief ones.
When talking about this painting with family and friends, the potential topical nature of the imagery came up, and, while not a primary motive, was a small factor in choosing this image. Trump’s “Muslim ban” (which is not strictly what it is, as one of the major criticisms of it has been the muslim-majority countries it exempts, and I doubt that perpetuation of that phrasing is ultimately helpful) drew as much ire and protests as any of his policy changes, and celebrating one of the most spiritually developed sects of Islam through this mural can be seen as resistance to the monolithic image out there of muslims as dangerous. Additionally, I’ve learned that Sufis (such as the dervishes), like so many millions of imperiled muslims, have increasingly been a target of the various forms of militant Islam, so in hindsight it could also be seen as highlighting the parts of Islam that are praiseworthy, and more importantly, the crucial potential allies within muslim communities. But that last part was something I've learned afterward. I’ve decided this is not the place to get into all the issues regarding Islam, even though I am thinking about them. The art is not really about that.
Exposing myself to roots of religions while traveling was a primary directive from my mentor; and the whirling dervishes, whom I saw in Konya, their city of origin, were not to be missed. Known as the Mevlevi order, the whirling dervishes were founded by followers of the famed 13th century Persian mystic, poet, and philosopher Rumi, who is the most popular poet in America today (Robert Frost? Maya Angelou? Allen Ginsberg? Nope. Rumi.) I also visited Rumi's tomb in Konya. According to Rumi scholar Franklin Lewis, “the story of the creation of this unique form of dhikr, or prayer, (meaning “remembrance of God”), tells that Rumi was walking through the town marketplace one day, when he heard the rhythmic hammering of the goldbeaters. It is believed that Rumi heard the dhikr, spoken by the apprentices beating the gold, and was so filled with happiness that he stretched out both of his arms and started spinning in a circle. With that, the practice of Sama -the whirling - and the dervishes of the Mevlevi Order were born. Sama represents a mystical journey of man's spiritual ascent through mind and love toward the "Perfect". Turning towards the truth, the follower grows through love, deserts his ego, finds the truth, and arrives at the ‘Perfect’. He then returns from this spiritual journey as a man who has reached maturity and a greater perfection, able to love and to be of service to the whole of creation.” I remember reading about this in the pamphlet I got at their performance. At stages, they remove pieces of clothing that symbolize ego, death, and so on. Rumi offers Seth Godin’s advice of disconnecting from circles of fear and contempt, in 13th century Sufi language when he writes "stay bewildered in the sacred and only that. Those of you who are scattered, simplify your worrying lives. There is one righteousness. Water the fruit trees and don't water the thorns. Be generous to what nurtures the spirit and God's luminous reason-light. Don't honor what causes dysentery and knotted-up tumors." This type of language is not entirely precise enough to implement in modern, everyday decisions, but if notions of spirit and righteousness and god have personal meaning to you, it can be. It essentially means: don't use yourself for things that are not worthwhile. Are you making something that matters? Are you nurturing your wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around you? If most of us are on our devices, bludgeoning our attention spans, reposting inflammatory headlines and being consumed by indignations, where is that taking everything? “Staying informed” and “educating others” is not the same as scrolling through your highly biased facebook newsfeed 24/7 frying your hormonal regulation. Rumi scholar Fatemah Keshavarz, in her conversation with Krista Tippet, says that “one major concept that the Sufi tradition and Rumi in particular have to contribute to our current culture is value in perplexity, the fact that not knowing is a source of learning, something that propels us forward into finding out. Longing, perplexity, these are all very valuable things. We want to unravel things and get answers and be done, but as far as he's concerned, it's a continual process. We can't be done. And that's good.” Now, I’m not sure the corrosive perplexity of “alternative facts” and our post-truth madness is what Rumi had in mind, and I, for one, sure wouldn’t mind getting answers and being done with this Russia scandal, but I understand the benefits of developing confusion stamina. We have to develop new skills and healthier states of being to navigate this environment.
One of those states, which this mural visually embodies to me, is the endangered notion of reverence. I’ve been listening the wonderful Irish poet John O’Donohue and his audiobook on Beauty, where he states, “we need in our culture to rediscover and develop the art of reverence, because we’ve lost all sense of reverence. It is a notion full of riches that we now desperately need. Put simply, it's appropriate that a person should dwell upon the earth with reverence. Something that is not to be reduced to social posture or merely an attitude of mind; it's a physical attention of the body that shows that the sacred is already here. Reverence is the midwife of humility. When we enter into reverence we are aware of the deep beauty within things. Our modern consumerist mindset has squandered all reverence, and that’s why it's so lonesome and empty. The earth is full of thresholds where beauty awaits the reverent presence.” When I hear this, I’m struck by the dearth of reverence in my own life, and the lives of those around me. I mean, when was the last time you felt this way? When do you put yourself in a place to be truly awestruck? You begin to see how shriveled our lives can be, how atrophied our aesthetic sensibilities are, that we’ve forgotten how to see, and even how antagonistic our urban environments can be to cultivating reverence. Which brings us back to the essential role of something like public art. I think the dervishes exemplify a “physical attention of the body that shows that the sacred is already here”, and with this concept in mind, can prompt us to consider ways to inhabit reverence.
Additionally, the dervishes symbolize to me the transcendence of intellectual knowledge into embodied wisdom. Keshavarz adds, “Rumi comes into the (Sufi) tradition with all the intellectual legacy, but he says that's not enough, you have to do something else with it. ‘You've read the text. You know the words. You've looked at the history. Now transcend all that. Put it aside and live it. Encounter it. Face it, play with it, dance it, bring it into your everyday life.’ In a way, the whirling is exactly a reflection of that.” In Konya I was at a point, and still am, where, while no bookworm, I wanted to live whatever wisdom I’d come across, and not necessarily reach for more text or podcasts or information. None of that gave me spiritual growth. My sister, after doing a Vipassana retreat, returned and said she “never needed to read a book again.” Again, how are you living all the exquisite ideas you’ve come across? I mean, everything stated so far I embody perfectly. Errr...maybe not perfectly. Guess who, under the perceived duress of deadlines and insufficient experience for the scale of this project, stopped meditating, stopped his breathwork practice (five kickass weeks into the Wim Hof course), and stopped exercising? Yeah, me. What the fuck. My muscles and mindfulness are almost gone. Such habits were not as inveterate as I thought. So, it indeeed might not be easy. But we know we have to make things that matter. And as Debbie Millman closes with: we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.
Huge thanks to Bar Works and everyone involved for the opportunity and support!