A Kinship with Rocks
Obsessions and inspiration have to start somewhere. My current
preoccupation is with rocks (or stones, depending on your preference
or definition). They have been emerging in my paintings recently,
and, so far, I have fourteen pieces with rocks in them. You
can see three examples in Gallery Chapters Two and Three on
Why rocks? It began a year or two ago, during a conversation
with my friend Cathy Egan. She talked about rocks-they had become
a personal symbol for her. She recited a verse that extolled
the virtues of rocks. She invited me to think about rocks and
put them in my paintings. I hadn't thought much about rocks
until then. I had made landscapes in the past, with rocks painted
into them. I live in New England and every spring, winter has
spawned a new crop of rocks. My husband is a gifted dry stone
wall builder, and since my studio looks out on hundreds of feet
of stone walls, I am surrounded by superb models. I look closely
and see faces, figures and odd creatures residing there.
However, shortly after that talk with Cathy, I made a painting
with rocks. I do not plan my paintings, and I am influenced
by the power of suggestion (Cathy's, in this case). She made
me rethink rocks. As I painted, the rocks had risen to a level
of meaning beyond their physicality and their beauty, beyond
their being an integral part of any landscape or imagescape.
Rocks had suddenly moved themselves into the group of symbols
that repeat themselves in my paintings: birds, houses, fences,
spheres, and ellipses.
But what do rocks mean to me? Why do I let my brushes and palette
knife lead me on, while I watch rocks assemble themselves on
canvas after canvas? What is my kinship with rocks?
My habit is to begin to answer questions by looking things
up. While I still believe in doing research, it occurred to
me that I could begin another way. It might be taking the easy
way out to read what others wrote about rocks as a symbol. I
would be fitting my symptoms into their diagnosis. I wasn't
looking for rock obsession support yet. I forced myself to list
what they meant to me and came up with these ideas:
- barriers - rocks can be what keep me from getting to or
getting on with what I need to do. They represent problems
meant to be solved.
- delineators - rocks give definition to an area. They offer
boundaries and create a manageable space within which to work.
They are part of a larger picture.
- stability - rocks are solid and steady; rocks are dependable
and classifiable; rocks are knowable and unknowable. They
are like the BIG IDEAS that support artists and writers, such
as love, death, chaos, strength, and courage.
- rocks are us - mineral, solid, finite. We contain more
than trace elements of rock: we both change with time; we
erode and break; we disintegrate; we regenerate; and as hard
as we try to camouflage ourselves, we are embarrassingly unadorned;
we can be useful, but are not necessary. This is our kinship
The "rock" entry on page 415 of The Complete Dictionary
of Symbols [Jack Tresidder, General Editor, Chronicle Books]
listed these ethical and religious meanings: "dependability,
integrity, steadfastness, stability, permanence, strength and,
in China, longevity...biblical metaphor for reliability...In
Chinese painting, rock is a Yang (male and active [!]) symbol.
Rock sculptures, notably on Easter Island, in Egypt...[and]
Mount Rushmore...convey the same emblematic meaning of power.
Gods were reputedly born from living rock in several Near Eastern
religions, notably Mithraism."
It is difficult to say how long my preoccupation with rocks
will remain active, or how many paintings will finally feature
them. Writing about painting sometimes tames my muse, and she
becomes silent as a stone. I'll discover the effect next time
I step up to my easel.
In July, I will explore a practical question: How do I decide
what artwork and/or writing to send "out there" to
journals, competitions, or exhibitions? You can email me about
the use of symbols in your work or share your criteria for selecting
work to be submitted for publication or exhibition: email@example.com.
See you next month.