Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Old Guitarist

Standing on his balcony facing south, he looked over the rolling hills dotted with homes and lined with trees, breathing in the fresh air coming in off the ocean. Birds were chirping all around him, and he could hear the faint sounds of light traffic coming from beyond his view. Despite the desperate times caused by the coronavirus pandemic, he was determined to not let the doom and despair felt by so many let him slip back into his old patterns of feeling anxiety. He was determined to just be in the moment, and then to think about what he hoped to accomplish once things had settled.

Yet, lingering in the deepest, darkest recesses of his mind were thoughts of hopelessness and despondence. They were vividly present in his most emotionally-arrested moments because that's just human nature. He couldn't escape the images of forlorn people grasping for relief; the images of every single imaginable individual from every walk of life searching for a glimpse of hope in an otherwise depressing sea of media, news, and social media post. And then he decided to go spend time with a friend. The longing to be social too strong to resist, the idea of having to travel through back roads and hills to see said friend too enticing. He just wanted to enjoy some momentary human contact in order to reestablish a level of normalcy that—though not that far away—seemed unreachable in such a dire time.

As his friend and him chatted about various topics ranging from present life, to the virus, to philosophical ideals, to travel destinations, to overcoming the current troubling times, he was reminded of a love he once had that he sorely missed. A love that only comes once in a lifetime, and was gone just as quickly as it had previously sparked a revelation of newly unknown emotions. When his friend suggested that he was better off alone and not having to deal with the oft bitterly looked upon negatives of being in a close relationship, he scoffed and said that he'd rather have those negatives because of the overwhelming positives that come from a loving relationship. As he traveled back home after his short time with his friend, he thought about relationship. He contemplated how none are perfect and that many are flawed, but he also thought about how, in a time when most everyone is being encouraged to shelter in place, he felt especially lonely because his past love had moved on, and he was now left as solitary as the moon. Perhaps seen from a distance by some, likely ignored by more than can be counted, he felt as if he was beyond enveloped by seclusion.

The Old Guitarist is an oil-on-panel painting by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). It's a vivid depiction of an elderly, blind, and haggard musician wearing tattered clothing while weakly hunched over his guitar playing in the streets of Barcelona (source). At the time, Picasso was in the midst of what he referred to as his "Blue Period", choosing only to use monochromatic bluish tones in his paintings. Also influencing his style were the facts that he was not leading a very healthy lifestyle, and a close, personal friend had recently committed suicide. In the midst of Picasso's desperation and irreparable state-of-mind, he painted what is now considered to be one of the most poignant pieces of art to ever grace our society. Picasso managed to capture pure despair.

Immediately standing out is the skeleton-like body which is feebly propping up the man attempting to find solace in music both for himself and others. He's frail, ailing, and poor, but he's also clearly attempting to bring joy to those in ear-shot during what must be the most troublesome time of his entire life. With his mouth agape, his shoulder exposed to the elements, and his feet ravaged and bare, he infirmly sits up against a corner in order to strum tunes hoping the emanating sounds can distract any passersby from harsh reality.

And that is the moral of this wearily-told story. Even in the darkest of times—even when you cannot seem to find hope—there, just outside of the darkness that you feel has overwhelmed you, is light. Hope and determination and inspiration and much-needed distraction and "the fire under your butt" that you need is right there. This old guitarist sought to bring some light into a dark world, and if he were real, I'm sure he would have. Such is true for you even in the midst of the most tenebrous depths of this frustrating, tiresome, and annoying COVID-19 outbreak. Prop yourself up wherever you can, reach for a talent that you have, and shine some light on the others around you no matter where you are and no matter how exhausted you feel.

I miss the love of my life so very much. So much so that, believe or not, in this time of shelter-in-place—as alone as can be—I am able to find hope in realizing once again what my true feelings are, and in regaining a seemingly unattainable optimism that maybe, if I'm blessed enough, I can reclaim what I once had and so dearly, dearly miss.

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Years ago, there was a young man who suffered a loss so great, it changed the course of his life. Vibrant, daring, dream-filled, and willing to push hard to achieve what he wanted, he worked with steely determination to earn his right to be successful at two very difficult careers: law enforcement and professional acting. As each were budding and about to take off, his mother passed away from cancer. In the 3 years she spent battling the disease, he would often spend time in his room screaming at God to give him the disease and spare his mother's life. For the life of him, he could not fathom why God would want to take someone so precious and beloved, and so he sank into an abyss of self-hatred and worthlessness.

When the young man's mother finally passed away and upon hearing the news, he did not cry. He was more relieved than anything else having seen the incredible pain she had suffered. It wasn't until her funeral when the young man approached the podium to speak. As he attempted to read a passage from Romans in the Holy Bible, he was only able to get halfway through the first verse before the deluge of tears began to flow from his eyes. Knees buckling from the gripping sorrow, he was unable to continue and was eventually helped down from the stage by his brother.

In the years that followed, the young man struggled to be who his mother raised him to be: a caring, sincere, honest, and loving man toward others. Because that was who she was. Instead, he let the angst and anger of his mother's untimely death lead him down a long, dark path toward being prideful, stuck-up, and stand-offish with others. Eventually, he found himself in his late-40s, unmarried, alone, and looking back upon what he could have done differently in order to achieve the "American dream" of having a spouse and a family. The notion was sparked by seeing a couple of college friends celebrate their 19th wedding anniversary on social media, and he sat there enveloped by regret as he contemplated how his behavior after his mother's death must have alienated so many who could have been more important or significant in his life.

The regrets of his past caught up to him in that moment. He never really was one to ponder regret or curry favor with it when it wanted to rear its ugly head, but in that instance of seeing people he knew for over 2 decades announce their years of wedded bliss together, he couldn't help but give in for a moment. The words of Henry David Thoreau danced inside his head: "Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh." And yet, something felt off about the notion. That's when the words of C.S. Lewis popped in: "Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind."

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787) is an oil-on-canvas painting of the infamous parable that Jesus gave in Luke chapter 15. With incredible attention to detail portraying the youngest son kneeling with regret and seeking forgiveness from his loving father, the moment is captured with gentleness and warmth. For those who know the story, it comes as no surprise that the father obviously appears wealthy, garnished with some of his finest clothes and jewelry. In stark contrast, the son is shirtless, wearing ragged pants, has disheveled hair, and is garnished with a rope as a belt from which a bowl hangs seemingly being the only item he owned which he likely used to peddle for money on the streets where he had partied too hard and squandered away his inheritance. It's a gripping piece and a gripping moment about a parable that means to tell a tale of great regret, and the indescribable forgiveness that follows without question or stipulation.

That's how life can be, right? In one moment, we embrace our successes and good fortune, and in the very next moment, we're looking back on some of the things we did not manage very well feeling regret and wondering what could have happened had we behaved or acted differently. Just as C.S. Lewis said, though, there are better things ahead than any we leave behind. Why? Because time is linear for humans and it cannot be changed or traversed in order to right past wrongs. To sit and embrace regret is to waste one's time and energy on the impossible. Therefore, as Thoreau suggested, taking inventory such that you don't move forward and make the same mistakes again is good, but to dwell and let regret have an influence on who you are today would certainly not be living life afresh.

As the man who is the subject of the opening of this piece is now sitting here typing these words, know that I am not without flaw. In the solitude that my past behavior likely caused, my worst enemy is my own mind. Writing, like I am now, is a lovely distraction, but most days I am forced to fend off the darkest parts of my mind in order to look forward with any semblance of optimism. I feel regret some days, and I hate feeling regret but I am also not opposed to it in order to make sure that who I am today is a lot better than who I used to be. Especially toward others. I ache with brokenness, and yet, I am glad I am broken. For how else would I know what mistakes I made and how best to hold myself accountable for them? In the end, indescribable forgiveness awaits at which time I too will kneel with nothing but myself and a heart that longs to never feel regret again.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Sistine Madonna

As my father has gotten older, he has slowly embraced understanding life's value. It wasn't as if he had avoided the idea through much of his life, but that in his retirement years, he knew he needed to get outside of his boxed-up world and see what else is out there before it's too late. So, with his passport in one hand and a map in the other, he began to gallivant around the planet. From Ireland to the UK, from the mid-west of the US to Canada, from the Everglades to Cuba, my father set his sights on his bucket list and began checking things off.

Not long ago, my father decided that he wanted to include his children in his worldly adventures, so he graciously offered to take each of us wherever we wanted to go. When it came time for us to decide, we wavered between returning to Ireland, seeing Iceland, or going all out by traveling to New Zealand. We just couldn't decide. Even Germany, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland were on our radar. But it wasn't until I had an epiphany one day as I sifted through a sea of travel brochures that I knew where we were going to go. As my father sat there open and willing to go anywhere I wanted, I shamefully never once thought about what he wanted. Fortunately, it wasn't too late so no cardinal sin of selfishness was committed. I then asked him, "What's at the top of your bucket list, Pop?"

"Venice," he replied. Now, at the time, my brother and his family were thinking Italy, but they balked at the trip because they felt their teenaged kids might not enjoy it as much as traveling somewhere else. Once I had my brother's assurance that he and his family weren't interested, my dad and I started to plan our trip. About a year later, we landed in Rome to begin our northern tour of Italy. From Rome, we visited the Isle of Capri, Florence, Pisa, and then finally Venice. It was the most amazing trip I have ever taken and I will never forget the experience. Italy is a magical country literally filled with ancient history that no human alive should ever miss. At no point were my eyes bored of what they were seeing.

Venice was the final city we visited. I wanted it to go that way because I wanted my dad's final moments in Italy to be in the most important bucket-listed destination. One day, we were informed that one of our scheduled tours of a local site was postponed so we had a whole evening to kill. When you're in such an awe-inspiring place, it can feel overwhelming. There are just so many things to do and to see that your mind goes haywire trying to pick something. That's when I suggested that we take advantage of our multiple-day water taxi pass, find a boat with seats up along the bow, and just enjoy the cruise in and around Venice and its neighboring islands. And so we did. It was relaxing, breathtaking, and the most poignant moment of our trip. Not just because of what we were seeing and enjoying, but because the idea of my dad's bucket list and us being in the one city he wanted to see the most all culminated in that one experience.

Sistine Madonna, by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (a.k.a. Raphael—1483-1520), is an oil on canvas painting of Mary, the mother of Jesus, holding the baby Jesus in her arms, flanked by Saint Sixtus and Saint Barbara, and being observed by two cherubim. It was a piece that was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1512 in honor of his father, Pope Sixtus IV, to be set as an altarpiece in San Sisto, Piacenza. It is also one of the last Madonnas painted by Raphael who is one of the most talented artists of all time.

The haunting yet soothing image is remarkable in detail, and has long been adored for its implied hope. So much so, that in 1754, Augustus III of Poland purchased it and had it relocated to Dresden. There, it sparked many positive cultural and religious debates, and was hailed as being "divine" and "supreme among the world's paintings". What often goes unnoticed, though, is the sea of cherubim that surround Mary and Jesus. Overall, it's composition, detail, and inviting colors give most viewers a sense of calm and order; a sense of eternal significance and of wonderment.

Whether you believe in an after-life or not, knowing that the life you have now is the only one you get isn't too difficult a thing to conceive. And as my father likes to say, everyone has to face their own mortality at some point, and death is 100% for all. His sage words got me thinking about my own bucket list. Currently in a rather scrambled state, I definitely do spend time contemplating about the places I'd like to see before I have to face death. Most of the time, I'm adding things to my rudimentary list as they arise in conversation or have been inspired by something I've seen. Ireland (I'm Irish by blood), Iceland, Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy (again, please!), New Zealand, Vietnam, Malaysia, French Polynesia, Fiji, Costa Rica, Madagascar . . . my list goes on and on. Like I said, it's a scrambled mess, but after my experiences in Italy with my dad and thinking about his beloved bucket list which is growing shorter and shorter as time passes on, the value of all of this world's beauty has exponentially grown. I cannot wait to see things I never thought I'd ever see.

My dad won't live forever, I know this. As much as my heart aches at the thought of life without him around, I'm also reminded that the life he's led has helped influence me to be who I am today. If I were to boil down all of my dad's fathering qualities into one singular outcome in me, I'd have to say curiosity. Through his leadership, discipline, sense of adventure, and willingness to appreciate this gigantic world around us, I'm now someone who has to sate his curious nature through mediums such as this. You wouldn't be reading my blog if it weren't for my dad's influence upon my life. And now I get to further my curiosity by growing my own bucket list which I too hope to significantly shrink over time.

Pop, I hope you know that every adventure I go on, I dedicate to you. As my curiosity finds satisfaction, it will be in your honor. Thank you for this wonderful gift that never stops giving.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)

There's an old, timeless adage that goes, "Life is too precious." It's been used hundreds of times by many dignitaries and influencers around the globe for eons coupled with reason. Life is too precious to give up. Life is too precious to not pursue your dreams. Life is too precious to ____________.

Feel free to fill in what matters most to you.

No, seriously. Fill in something and think about it for a bit.

Over the past couple of years, my life has taken some odd turns—to say the least—which I couldn't have anticipated. Life-changing moments which have, and are currently, shaping who I am. Willing to acknowledge that I am, in fact, in my mid-40s, I guess I should probably admit that I do believe learning and growing never really cease. At the same time, though, I fear many who have not endured a life-threatening experience may be missing out on the more important message. (Bear with me.)

Most people go through life never having to face the true meaning of 'sudden death'. In fact, recent studies have shown that in the U.S., Australia, and Germany, at most, only 15% of the population will go through what psychologists refer to as an NDE (near-death experience [real or perceived]). That means that roughly 85% of the population is left to sympathize, rather than empathize, with the notion that life really is too precious. Granted, I shudder at the thought of anyone having to face death and live to tell about it. It's a horrifying, degrading, life-altering, often shameful experience that leaves many sufferers with residual psychological defects, malfunctions, or worse, never-ending scars that have to be contended with on a near-daily basis.

To those who haven't experienced an NDE, allow me a chance to try and explain why clinging to the "life is too precious" adage is incredibly important:

1. You don't know your destiny. You can try to gauge what it might be, try to put your life on a trajectory to achieve a certain destiny, even force yourself into life-altering situations in order to better shape your future self to become better; but you never really know what will happen tomorrow. Or in the next minute. Anything can change at any moment, and your best bet is to be prepared for the worse while planning for the best. (Yes, another adage.)

2. When you don't see life as being too precious to let go to waste, you're essentially embracing an apathetic view of you, your potential, your future, and, believe it or not, everyone who is in your life. Your parents likely hoped for a bright future. Your grandparents may have even spoiled you in hopes of instilling hope into your own life. Your significant other (hopefully) sacrifices energy, time, and emotion in order to both support and encourage you. To disregard life being too precious is to spit in the face of everything and everyone else. Harsh? Yes. True? For some, yes again. Offended? Good! It might be time to reevaluate who you are, what you hold dear, and what you hope for, as opposed to becoming defensive.

3. By holding onto life as being too precious, you automatically install hope in yourself. Remember the scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Red was reading Andy's letter he'd hidden by the tree? "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." True words, and by allowing yourself to value life regardless of circumstance, you allow yourself the opportunity to hope for, and accept, improvement.

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), by David Hockney (1937-Present), is an acrylic-on-canvas, "pop art" piece he created in 1972 after visiting the Los Angeles area in 1964. What was originally started in 1971 was soon abandoned based on his distaste for the original composition. After a lot of traveling and research, he picked it back up and completed it in a manner of months.

Broad strokes and water-color-like effects stand in stark contrast to the areas in the painting which show greater pointed detail. For instance, the swimmer, in action, is clearly less detailed than the young lad standing poolside. This implies that the eye should be comparing the two, landing on the detailed male in order to finalize analysis. As well, the background shows the Southern California flora in a wide array of detail, seemingly implying that we tend to take our surroundings for granted.

And therein lies the impression that this work of art has given to me. Having recently faced what I perceived to be death not just once, but four times in a row, has left me reevaluating my own existence. The young lad represents where I was prior to my NDE; staring at activity, ignoring detail, taking for granted the beauty in life all around me. Sure, some details of my "previous" life never really went unnoticed. But as I sit here breathing and thinking and feeling, I'm shocked at how my growing apathy and lack of believing that life was too precious have left me now having to heal, correct, grow, and learn.

If I were that young man by the pool, I'd be telling myself that doing more to better myself would mean that I would also get to pave the way for greater greatness. And I wouldn't stop there. Just beyond is a breathtaking view which this lad is ignoring. Thusly, I'd finish the one thought and then immediately move on to take in the vista. By doing that, I'd be allowing myself to inspire the hope within me to flourish while being reminded that though I am but one, insignificant person in this giant world, I am still a life that is too precious to waste.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A Short Break

Dear Readers and Art Lovers,

As you may have noticed, I've been absent for a bit. The Christmas and New Year's break contributed to some of the excuses I have. But the biggest excuse is because I completed my first book while on holiday. It's something I have been working on for about 10 months now, and I'm beyond excited to feel like it's in a good place and completed. Well, not thoroughly completed as I am currently focused on going through the entire book and making any necessary edits before I follow through with the copyright and publishing processes.

There is still plenty of art out there to enjoy so keep looking, stay strong, and I'll be back here very soon.



Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Punishment of the Arrogant Niobe by Diana and Apollo

In Greek Mythology, Niobe was the daughter of Tantalus. She was married to Amphion and together they had seven sons, and seven daughters. One day, Niobe was attending an annual celebration in the city of Thebes to honor of Leto (Latona) and her two children, Apollo and Artemis. Many people assembled to pay tribute offering up frankincense to the alters while paying their vows. Niobe is said to have arrived wearing extravagant clothing and jewelry, and upon entering the area, she began to protest. She went on and on about her and her husband's power, the fact that they had fourteen children, and the fortune for which they had amassed. She was, in a word, arrogant.

Leto was not pleased and in her rage, she ordered her children to kill Niobe's sons and daughters. Apollo is said to have found the sons practicing athletics where he then began to snipe each one, one-by-one, from the eldest to the youngest. When word reached Niobe and her husband, Amphion immediately became overcome by grief and plunged a dagger into his chest. Niobe, meanwhile, rushed to where her sons lay, embraced their corpses, and taunted Leto again. But as her daughters began to attend to their brothers' bodies, Artemis arrived and began killing them as well. It is said that Niobe, with one daughter left, pleaded for her life but it was to no avail.

I'd be remiss to not mention that there is some back-and-forth disagreement as to how many children were actually annihilated. But one thing does stand: Niobe's pride and arrogance were destroyed. In the wake of this massacre and according to mythology, Niobe is said to have fled to Mount Sipylus in her homeland of Phrygia where as she grieved, she turned into stone. Since she was weeping so unceasingly as she transformed, it is said that her tears continue to pour from the rock to this day.

The Punishment of the Arrogant Niobe by Diana and Apollo, by Pierre-Charles Jombert (1748-1825), is the oil on canvas painting depicting the chaos that had befallen Niobe and her children. It was originally titled this and created as a oil on canvas sketch which won Jombert First Prize at the Prix de Rome in 1772. Jombert would later go one to complete the piece featured here which was much more exquisite and detailed.

In it, we see Apollo and Artemis in the clouds above loosing arrows into Niobe's seven sons and seven daughters. Meanwhile, a despondent and desperate Niobe clings to her last remaining daughter as she seemingly pleads for her life while futilely attempting to shield her. Given the time and era, this piece was quite graphic but certainly represented the lore. Notably, Apollo and Artemis exhibit determination in their expressions, while below, the faces that remain alive exhibit horror and disbelief. Among the motion, shadow, and incredible use of light is a very vivid painting that is beautiful to behold and frightening to conceive.

An old idiom that's often expressed is, "How the mighty have fallen." It's actually derived from Scripture in 2 Samuel 1:27, but over the years, it has evolved to become a phrase used to remark about how someone who exhibited a lot of arrogance now faces the consequences of his or her actions. Niobe--for lack of a better way of saying it--had a big mouth. She had power, she had beauty, she had it all. Yet, seeing others celebrate a goddess and her two children was more than she could apparently handle. Rife with pride, she bellowed about how she deserved the attention and adoration more than Leto, and that led to her downfall. Not every arrogant jerk will face such immediate peril for their actions, but over time, most do lose their grip on power and prestige. What baffles me is how examples like this and so many others don't cause more people to make better choices. Even if they are graced with great wealth and a large family, it is pretty safe to say that an arrogant, entitled attitude toward everything and everyone else will only lead to destruction. Logically speaking, therefore, humility seems to be the safest, smartest way to live. Don't you think?

Sunday, November 19, 2017


During World War II, a man named Tuvia Bielski, along with his brothers Zus and Asael, were called up to serve in a military unit to fight against Nazi Germany. Just as their units were being assembled, the Luftwaffe flew over and decimated their town. As they scrambled to regroup, they were ordered to assemble in the woods about 5 kilometers away. So they did. And as they did, another wave of planes flew over and dropped more incendiary bombs on the forest setting it on fire. When they finally caught up with their commander, he told them they were on their own. Grabbing their other brother, Aron, they fled to a small village in western Belarus where their parents lived.

Not long after, the Nazis made their way through the village rounding up Jews to move them to a ghetto in Nowogrodek. The brothers managed to escape into the nearby woods where they remained elusive. After a few months had passed, the Nazis murdered the rest of their family including their parents, two of their other brothers, and many of their extended family, wives and children included. Defiantly, the brothers remained in the woods and as they moved about, they began to encounter other Jews who were hiding. So they banded together and provided them with protection, shelter, and food. Over time, the group began to grow and their reputation started to spread.

Their efforts, despite all the odds, all the heartache, all the suffering, ended up saving over 1,200 Jewish lives. So astonishing was their story, Hollywood produced a film about them starring Daniel Craig.

Unknown facial expression study, by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783), is a marble sculpture of the artist's own face, and one in a series of busts meant to catalog "canonical grimaces". I've featured Messerschmidt before and mainly because his incredible attention to detail is, for lack of a better term, mesmerizing. Other than seeing a human make this very expression, I feel the only artist in history to ever be able to capture the very essence of an expression in pure detail is Messerschmidt. Bold statement, I know, but just look!

Just like The Vexed Man, the labored efforts to capture this particular emotion is almost frightening too real. In animation, I can picture kids in the store or on a playground who refuse to obey their parents or teachers. In adulthood, I see the look of a heart that refuses to let injustice, evil, or oppression prevail. I like the latter much more than the former. It's speaks to a time when this was the heart of a birthing nation, the heart of warriors in the heat of battle, the heart of explorers seeking to map the earth, the heart of inventors who were told it couldn't be done. And it's worrisome to me that inside my own heart, I wrestle with which picture to behold despite knowing which I appreciate the most. They flip-flop back and forth thanks to the taint of today's selfish, bombastic society, and my love of history, art, and success against the odds.

I picked the story of the Jewish brothers not just because of the film, but also to highlight the word defiance. Our world has too much of the adolescent appeal with millions of individuals feeling entitled, wrestling with low self-esteem, and clinging to rampant, unappeased ideology. They stare at others with the animated version in their hearts. Sadly, their version of defiance will fail and lead to further emptiness. Whereas, those who step up to do what's right and stare in the face of evil will find triumph regardless of outcome because their defiance is not unlike the kind our forefathers had when this nation was borne; theirs is not unlike the concerted efforts of soldiers who face horrific enemies who use women and children as bombs; theirs is not unlike those who took to uncharted seas to find new worlds; theirs is not unlike the researchers, scientists, and doctors who cured polio, fight to treat cancer, and save lives that would otherwise find death if it weren't for their tenacious expertise. Again, I like the latter much more.