Posted in Paintings in Progress

The Memory Theatre-a Reprieve

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First memory station

In his wonderful book,  Little Book of Dreams,  Robert Bosnak says that the best way to enhance dream recollection is the classic memory practice.   This is important for many reasons.  Here’s one:

In a dream I was given a slip of paper on which was written the word HEARTNET.  The image was very clear and when I told Lily of the dream the next day, she suggested I google it.  It turned out to be a heart health website.

Taking this as a sign, I had a checkup and found my cholesterol levels dangerously high.  I became resolved to clean up my act and extend my life.  It gave  me a reprieve.

Tibetan Buddhist teachers say that the ability to consciously enter the dream state-lucid dreaming-is a good way to prepare for the bardo after death.

As I am not ready to face the bardo’s dangerous pathways, attending to the dream message allowed me more time to cultivate the qualities of compassion and wisdom that help to ease the transition.  This, it is said, increases the possibility of a favorable rebirth.


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Blake’s painting teacher, from his visionary heads series

I was thinking of Blake’s vision of Jerusalem as a Golden city of peace, love and harmony that, at some timeless time, was “on England’s pleasant pastures seen.”  Did such a city exist in prehistory? 

Then I read this in Eva Wong’s commentary in the Hui-Ming Ching (Cultivating the Energy of life:)

  When we are in our mother’s womb, we were filled with the primordial energy of the Tao.  In the natal state, original nature and the energy of life are united.

At birth we come into contact with the world.  When air is inhaled through the nostrils, the primordial breath is contaminated and the connection with the Tao is broken.  Original nature and life energy separate, the former moving to the heart and the latter moving to the kidneys.

Posted in Paintings in Progress

The Memory Theatre-an artwork in process

I’ve made some memory stations and begun the memory practice.  Maybe I’ll try to memorize Jerusalem (at least parts of it) by William Blake.  The organization of the space and creating the stations is not separate from the work of sketching out the composition on the canvases.  The placement and spacing are important. DSC02838memory stations 3

I imagine the paintings might take the form of a still life that opens onto a vast landscape. Blake had a vision that beheld the universe in a grain of sand, infinity in an hour and the celestial city built on the rolling green English countryside.  I want my art to share some of this all-encompassing perspective.

The fields from Islington to Marybone,

To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,

Were builded over with pillars of gold,

And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.

I’ve found that memory practice leads to amazing experiences.  It is a way to attune to subtle influences and bring to conscious awareness the too-often suppressed messages from the unconscious.  In her brilliant book, the Art of Memory, Frances Yates quotes Cicero’s recollection of the poet Simonides, who was said to be inventor of the memory art:

…persons desiring to train this faculty (of memory) must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things, and the images of the things will denote the things themselves, and we shall employ the places and images respectively as a wax writing-tablet and the letters written on it.

DSC02844memory stations 9 white

Posted in Paintings in Progress

The Memory Theatre-Idea for my Febuary art exhibition

My next art show is coming up soon.  My idea is inspired by the Memory Theatre. This is an ancient mnemonic device used by actors and rhetoricians to commit long speeches to memory. The memory places are niches, or altars that contain imagery (the more outlandish the better) that facilitate recollection of the text. In ancient times, these features were incorporated into the design of theatres.

My idea is to make this part of the process of creating the work for my show. I’ll start with the basics: clean up my studio and create a series of 10 altars which I will decorate with whatever imagery will facilitate recollection of a long poem. At the same time I’ll prepare 10 canvases which will correspond with each of the memory stations. These paintings will comprise the exhibit.

I haven’t decided on a poem yet but maybe one of William Blake’s medium-length works will serve. This memory process will be concurrent with the creation of 10 paintings inspired by each of the memory stations.  The art show’s theme will be continuous with the theme of the poem.

The whole process from straightening out the studio to “completion” of the paintings will be documented in this blog with photos, text, video and recordings. Stay tuned.

Posted in Books I love

Ah Sunflower!

Yesterday I read a quote from Yeats on the Symbol Reader’s wonderful blog about symbolism, astrology and Jungian mythos and transformative imagery (my tortured words.) Yeats (for my money, the greatest poet of the 20th century,) spoke of the “one adventure that is the image of his secret life,” and the necessity to preserve its motivating influence.

I won’t bore my readers with details of the “adventure” which opened the door to my own secret life-the door to which I feared I’d long since lost the key. Monika’s post reminded me of it- reminding me not to squander the gift on the same distractions which mired the lotus eaters in forgetful apathy .

Many years ago I encountered a book that (while I struggled to understand its convoluted thought) transformed my inner life. It was Henry Corbin’s book on Ibn Arabi called: Alone with the Alone.

He begins with citing the ancient philosopher Proclus’s meditation on the heliotrope (sunflower.) This flower exemplifies, in its continual sun-ward orientation and movement following the solar path, the method of theophanic prayer.

( I think of The great poet Rumi who, in grieving the death of his teacher Shams [the Sun,] began turning as he composed his verse. This lead to the inception of the Mevlevi Sufi order.)

Corbin speaks of the phrase which opens each Sura of the Koran: Bismallah er Rahman er Raheem, (we begin in the name of the One who is most merciful and compassionate.) The spirit of theophanic prayer is not a petition for deliverance from evil, but a practice where all actions are begun with full awareness of our reciprocal bond with the creator. It is a recognition of interdependence. By intoning this prayer, the faithful proclaim their allegiance to the primordial pact which confers existence upon both Lord (Rabb) and vassal. Our breath is united with the existentuating breath of the all-merciful and allows knowledge of God by a mutual sharing of essence. 

As in Buddhist teachings, it stresses the breath-inhalation, exhalation and the vast space between.

I’ve come to see that all creative work depends on this. It reminds me of the need to strike the right balance of egoistic intent I project upon the world, with a receptivity to what the world has to say to me. This holds true in painting, writing and human relations.

This is the wider perspective Yeats’ words reminded me of-that which makes true, angelic inspiration possible.  It is a creativity motivated and vivified by a wish to benefit all beings.

I thank the Symbol Reader for reminding me.

Posted in Saturnius McWhirr stories, Uncategorized

The Galvanized Emblem of McWhirr

“ Gusts up o 70 miles per hour are possible.”

The bland, melancholy voice on the NOAAH weather radio intoned the dread prophesy with all the passion of a jaded, Norwegian automaton.

Bagpipes wailed over the anchorage at sundown and the grim sight of the northern horizon almost made me cry.  Clouds billowed white over the eastern Straits while, below, the horizon fell into the blackest gloom that ever haunted the nightmares of sinful, erring tars.

I had read in The Complete Anchoring Handbook that it all comes down to the right ratio of depth to scope of anchor rode.

50 feet times 5 make 250…good enough for a Coney Island swan boat.

I went below to lie on the pilot-berth. After a few fitful gusts, the wind fell into a tentative, uneasy calm.

Let’s see, 5 to 1 in 50 feet times…

“Have you paid out enough scope, lad?”

The bass tones welled from Old Hand’s bilges as from the aged, bronzed vessel of oxidized words.


The angular form of Saturnius McWhirr was faintly illumined by the oil-lamp’s amber glow.

“I cast the anchor in 8 fath…” I stammered

“Avast, Ya greenhorn! You don’t “cast” anchors. This isn’t fly-fishing! My gorge rises at such lubberly misuse of sailing language.”

His wrath, like a line-squall, subsided as rapidly as it came.

“Did you know that to raise an anchor you must first let it go?”

“That’s true, sir.”

He always makes these pithy pronouncements like they were scripture.  And, for McWhirr the act of sailing is a religious rite. He hails from Zoroastrian, Quaker stock and, for him, a ship is a vessel to carry his weary spirit ascending through the 7 concentric spheres of corporeality to the final landfall of essential being. He has seen the beatific vision reflected on the sea’s mirror, and it draws him ever northward in search of the true face of divinity behind the mask of appearance.

“Look at this arm.”

Like some cloaked tragedian in a nautical horror show, he furiously tore his sleeve to reveal the tattoo of an anchor engraved upon his sinewy fore-arm.

“I carry the fouled, cold-forged, emblem of hope engraved upon my soul.”

He leveled his eye at me as thunder rattled the wheelhouse windows.

“Have you any family, Mister Spencer?”


“Do they weigh upon your heart; do you feel their woes as your very own?”

I was too unglued by his interrogatory glare to answer.

“Are you willing to set aside your pleasant, little cruise to do service if called upon?”

“I don’t know if I’d call it a pleasant cruise with this weather.” I said defensively.

“Would ya be able to leap into the maelstrom to save a foe?”

“If I had a PFD,” I answered lamely.

He fell into deep silence. His spectral image receded into the oaken bulwarks of unfathomable woe.

“Then you are no shipmate of mine,”   Said the fading echo of his baritone.

From the infinite distance came a low, thrumming tone that set halyards frapping on the mast. The sound rose steadily to a piercing shriek-as if all the denizens of hell had let loose one frenzied howl of pain.

Old Hand skewed violently in the blast.

I rose from my bunk, put on my foul weather gear and ascended the foredeck.

Let’s see 50 x 10 = 500…that’s 10 to 1…for 85% holding power…

Not bad odds.

Posted in Old Hand's northern voyage, videos

East Sound storm

Lily hurt her foot when we docked at East Sound for our dance.  Then yesterday, a storm blew up from Southeast, blowing a good 35 knots with gusts to 40.  Old Hand took a hammering at the public dock while Lily lay below getting seasick.  But the local EMT team were there in no time to get her off the boat, up to the nearby Oddfellows Hall where we had a wonderful event despite Lily’s injury.  It was a sweet circle praying for peace in this stormy world.

Posted in Paintings in Progress

Raven Visitation

raven windowraven window

I’ve gotten to work on my November art show, beginning with an image inspired by an encounter with raven.

In waking life, while walking in the forest I heard the a rush of a raven’s wings beating the air overhead.

Later, the same sound woke me from sleep. The clear call pierced my dream and I suddenly woke  in my bedroom with nary a raven in sight and the doors firmly shut against intruders.

A visitation, a call? The light-bringer moved between worlds with a sign for me to to transpose into the language of art.

So this is where the work comes in.   It is a Art Deco stained glass window motif I thought appropriate Raven’s boundary-crossing spirit.  It is a spirit that, as James  Fielden puts it in his beautiful post,  A Lapse of Time, “pushes against the edges of mystery.”

Posted in videos

The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

I shot this video yesterday while cruising slowly down Bainbridge Island’s east shore toward Point Monroe and Port Madison beyond.  Although my speed was a mere 2 knots, it was one of those days where all came together in a perfect moment.  The only sign of wind I saw wind was along my course-

…on me, alone, it blew.

Posted in Saturnius McWhirr stories

Esoteric Sailing 101-The Gnostic Gibe

The light north wind wafted over the sound and sent cats-paws scurrying across the blue surface of the water .  We were sailing down wind, up Colvos Passage down Colvos Passage before the wind, in the afternoon before the flood.sailing Old Hand 08 002

“Not yet,! Wait until I say helm’s a’ weather!”   Bellowed McWhirr.

The big sail had collapsed in at heap on the fore stay with the forlorn aspect of a nihilist’s nose-rag.


Then it luffed, as if thinking it over.

“… up a point.”

Old hand flew into the wind. The sail rose.

“Now bear away a touch.”

“Bearing away, sir.”

The genoa curved lovely over the port bow as  I nudged the helm up, and Boreas’ own sweet northerly began to pull Old Hand slowly across Colvos  on the opposite tack.

“That’s better lad. Ye’ll be another Joseph Conrad before long.”

I leaned against the anchor box to rest.sailing Old Hand 08 006

We flowed down the pass up sound…or is it up the pass downsound?

The gentle breeze caressed my face.

Aft, large eyes peered from the vegetation along the shore. Primeval beasts watched hungrily as we sailed back eddies past a dense jungle.

A derelict lumber mill hove in sight as we approached the opposite shore; it’s decayed pilings looked like a dejected stand of petrified loggers who had just cut down the last tree on earth.

“Ready to gibe, Mister Spencer.”

“Ready to gibe.”

“Helm’s a’ weather.”

The sail fouled in a hopeless tangle as Old Hand fetched up on the bank  with a low rasping sound. She  collapsed suddenly in a pile of flotsum.sailing Old Hand 08 003

She went down, by god.

“Ya scow-banker! I never saw such lubberly sail handling!”

With a volley of abuse, McWhirr grabbed a top maul and came at me like blue blazes with a bad attitude.

But then I had a flash. I saw that this whole maritime catastrophe was a mere shadow-a play of light.   All the stormy seas and foul currents fate pitches at this corporeal vessel are no more substantial than an Arctic aura; and no less sublime in scope and meaning.

I really had it over McWhirr.

I was Captain now.

I flew into the sky as McWhirr tied a bowline on a jib sheet and tried to lasso my leg.

“Come back down here ya square-headed haddock! I’m more real than ye’ll ever be!”

My heart pounded in my ears.   I looked up to see Old Hand nearing the shore.

“Ready to jibe, Mister Spencer.”

The sawmill had vanished in the blinding sunlight.

“Let’s put her about shipshape this time.”

Posted in Saturnius McWhirr stories

Ahab meets Aeneas

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The sound of waves whooshed over the sandlot playground where, high overhead on the screen,  elongated tars sang from the Pequod’s rigging. Dad had piled the crew into the wagon to see the awesome spectacle of Moby Dick unfold on a 50’s drive-in movie screen.  Gaunt against the dusky tropical light, Ahab glowered over the taffrail, the very image of the leaden god that circumscribes our meager efforts on earth.  Is that when I first heard the  lydian call of the Siren’s sea?

“Ready about! We’ll never make our offing if you don’t wake up!”

McWhirr stands on the foredeck, grasping a weather shroud against the roll.

“ Ready about!”

The wind freshens, and Old Hand pounds into seas steepened by the brute contention of wind and tide, hell-bent on clearing the boulders awash off Skiff Point.

Why must we hurl headlong into the tide-race at Neptune’s mercy, when we might be lounging, beer poised, before the latest remake of the same old sea story, remote from the possability of drowning? At the question, the mind can only wander, and flow with the kelp’s sinuous curves into deeper soundings past the headland to the west…oriens

Dad, from his wheelchair on the  Laguna Beach hills, held lookout for whale-spouts on the gold-burnished horizon.  A watch he may yet hold, in his heart. His stout heart, relic of the an ancient clan, has either been occulted into the rarefied vaults of the holy ones or lost in a cluttered closet on Dawson Street.

Then, in a dream, I found a a copy of the Aeneid among carved wooden heads on a laural-shaded altar. A sign? A waypoint that marks the passage of another life?

“We are becalmed, mate.”studio etc 010

McWhirr’s foghorn bass, seems far away.

The boom swings overhead. A clatter of gear from below rouses me in time to see an abomination of a container ship off Jefferson Head turn southeast around the Sierra Foxtrot buoy.  I turn the helm alee, past sodden fishermen bent over gunwales, looking bereft of hope for even an enemic cod.

“3 fathoms. Let go here, mister Spencer!”

“Aye sir!”

I drop anchor and Old Hand slowly turns toward the flood. The east turns blue/violet, then slate-gray above the  Cascade range.

“Have I ever told you that dream about Aeneas?”

“Who’s he when he’s at home?”

Let it go. That was another life. Another has signed on as swab this voyage. I was but a nipper who saw the hollow face of Saturn in the light projected on an L.A. drive-in movie screen. Just as now, he’s rough-hewn on the rocky peak yonder.  He limps his sluggish round while the laurel tree’s shadow circles over the household gods, ever counter to the golden sun.