Saturday, June 29, 2013

What Elephant Seals Taught Me About Art

On June 14, after months of rehabilitation, four stranded North American elephant seals, abandoned by their mothers, rescued, and brought back to a healthy weight, were released into the ocean at Paradise Cove in Malibu, California.

I met three of them during my visit to Santa Monica in May.

My nephew volunteers for the California Wildlife Center, and he invited my husband and me to accompany him on a tour of the facility.  Jonsie Ross, the Marine Mammal Rescue Coordinator of this center, rescued one of the seals at Dan Blocker Beach in Malibu.

Here are a few photos I took of the three pups that were in their care when I was there:



Weighing about 80 pounds when rescued, the emaciated and dehydrated pups were treated for infections, taught to feed themselves, and reached a goal weight of 150 pounds before they were released.

Click here to view a video of the release: Video

These seals, and the people who help them, illustrate the relationship of art and life.

Jonsie told me she volunteered at the center for three years.  When she kept doing it and, as she put it, “they couldn’t get rid of me,” they hired her.

My nephew, Mikey, a statistician, told me he volunteered because he liked being outside and enjoyed the gorgeous scenery of the southern California coast.  He felt inspired by the effort and enthusiasm of his co-workers as they performed the difficult, sometimes dangerous, and often strenuous work of rescuing and rehabilitating these mammals.  He learned how to net them, lift them into crates, and carry them over slippery, jagged rocks, up steep sandy banks and uneven wooden stairs, to a waiting van. 

When I visited, I looked into one seal’s big, round brown eyes, and could grasp why Mikey told me they were intelligent creatures with individual personalities.  Then, when I watched the video of the release, I cried. 

I asked myself the same question Hamlet did as he watched an actor perform: “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba/That he should weep for her?” 

Why was I weeping for joy over a seal pup going home?

Here’s why.

When I teach you and others to appreciate a work of art, the importance of doing this work resides not merely in the color on the canvas, but in the “clues and cues” to the art in living the work provides. 

On October 21, 1984, La Salle University awarded the degree, honoris causa, of Doctor of Fine Arts to Violette de Mazia.  In her acceptance speech, she said:

The principles that govern art, the qualities, the human values, that make art art are there in life itself, albeit diluted there by the practical concerns of having to live.  Qualities that pertain to art: order, unity and variety within that unity, an overall guiding purpose, an intrinsic appeal to and a stimulation of the mind, an individuality, a link with the past, a seeding for the future, an expression of meanings and feelings of an individual’s reactions to the world we are all given to live in, and a sharing of these meanings and feelings with other human beings: every one of these features and still others that are concentrated in the work of the artist can, should and would likewise prevail in our daily living, and do prevail, if and when our daily living is to be –as it can, indeed, be—itself a work of art.

That is the possibility that art affords to each one on earth—the possibility of making art and life kin.


To answer this question, I will revisit the painting I discussed in my last post, “The Poop in Plein-Air Painting.”

Bauman, Lake Louise, 2007, Private Collection

This is how I described the aesthetic visual information recorded in this picture:

1. The picture divides into 4 quadrants, demarcated by an X-shaped composition

2. Mostly vertical multi-colorful bands that were pine trees and/or reflections build a series of decorative motifs.

3. The top pyramidal quadrant (that was snow-covered mountain) recedes slightly.

4. The two side quadrants push forward.

5. The bottom V-shaped quadrant (that was the lake) displays a rich, cool series of greens, blues, and lavenders. This unit slides back in space while the pyramidal dock and red dome-shaped rowboats on it move forward and hang, suspended, in the foreground plane.

6. Within each quadrant rhythms of stripes and bands move back and forth in space reinforcing the picture idea.

This new color world opens to us because we know its language: we can read color.

The picture has an order, a compositional plan, which structures the visual meanings expressed.  It has unity, one idea varied.  The idea expressed in this picture is a series of multi-colorful geometric quadrants containing a variety of decorative stripes and bands that move back and forth in deep space.  Those banded brush strokes derive from Cézanne, but unlike Cézanne’s brush strokes, they do not build heavy, massive, set volumes.  Instead, they rhythmically enliven the surface with eye appealing variety.  I shared my discoveries with you by painting the picture.

A long time ago, when I attended a class taught by Edward L. Loper, Sr., he overheard me saying to the student next to me, “I feel stuck.”  I did not know what to do with my painting, and I felt frustrated.  “Enjoy your suffering,” he said.

An odd comment, that.  Do we enjoy suffering?  Negative feelings like frustration, anxiety, or fear, however, when understood and felt to be necessary and inevitable, according to Laurence Buermeyer, converts the bitterness of defeat into the peace of resignation.  “We possess at least this much of the lost good: a sufficient understanding of its nature to enable us to see what made its realization impossible,” he said. (The Aesthetic Experience, p. 85).

In simpler language: “it’s all good.”  No matter the feeling, once we perceive a universal quality and the relations this perception engenders, we feel the peace (satisfaction, delight) which comes with complete understanding.  We see the big picture.

As you practice the objective method, as you uncover by effort and concentrated focus the art in art, you also gain the ability to perceive the art in living.  You are able to subject any life experience to your interest and, by “seeing” the relationships and order in each seemingly random, ordinary everyday life experience, you can feel “this peace of mind, this domination of desire which comes when desire is imaginatively grasped and its purpose comprehended.”  You remake the world according to your heart’s desire.

When I felt exhilarated to see three seal pups scamper into the sea, I connected many pieces of separate events into a whole.  I knew how they were rescued and by whom.  I knew the degree of intensity, the quality of commitment of the rescuers.  I knew the rescuers learned to do what they did by practicing it, by training to do it, and by perseverance. 

I knew how fragile the pups were when they were rescued.  I knew that many others died, and many more would die.  I knew there were complicated reasons why so many seal pups were starving and dying.  I knew that the best efforts of the most committed people could not save them all. 

I needed to understand why the video moved me to tears.  Writing this post, telling my story, Buermeyer says, “is the consolation which art offers for our relatively infirm hold on the real world.”  































1 comment:

  1. This is a beautiful description, Marilyn. I love the way you bring it all together - real life experience, the method and why we do this work. In your classes, I often felt a pull toward the "why" question, as in, "how does this relate to the bigger picture for me personally." I did figure that out eventually. Thank you for such a moving and clear explanation about how it's all connected.