Saturday, April 3, 2010

Liminal Lines: Life, Death, and Art

Last Sunday, I visited a friend of a friend, who was in hospice with terminal cancer. I'd spent maybe half a dozen times with Brian and my friend Lois, joyfully eating late afternoon snacks, drinking white wine, and talking about the great questions of life. Brian was in seminary for some of that time, contemplating some of the wild cats of modern Christian theology - I remember a long conversation about John Shelby Spong, a favorite of my friend, who's argued that Christianity needs to radically change or it may just die off. It was always interesting to participate in these cross-religious dialogues, to consider Jesus as an outsider, and to have outsiders consider Zen and Buddhism with me.

During the visit, it was clear that Brian was fading. He tried to talk to us, but really couldn't muster the strength to say anything coherently. I remember looking into his eyes, and saying "I miss our talks" and I'm almost sure he tried to say to me "Maybe we'll have another." Well, we won't. He died Thursday. Not even 60 years old, he still left a small mark on the world by staying on his path, and doggedly pursuing the mysteries of this life (even with cancer ravaging his body, he stuck out his seminary studies longer than most would have).

The painting above is by another man who died young, but left a mark on the world. Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis was a Lithuanian painter and composer who, despite living only 35 years, composed nearly 250 pieces of music and completed almost 300 paintings. A contemporary of people like Kandinsky and Franz Marc, Ciurlionis was highly inspired by both spirituality and nature. His paintings, like the one above, are frequently bursting with intensity, while also almost being so liminal as to slide into abstraction. Some credit him with beating Kandinsky to the punch when it comes to modern abstract painting, although the American painter Arthur Dove also hangs in there as an early experimenter with 20th century abstraction.

Some of Ciurlionis' paintings are like Zen koans - images you cannot grab onto with your rational mind, like grains of sand sliding through your hands. At times, they contain reference points that might lead you to think "I've got it!" But then, as you take the image in a little more, you realize that you don't got it, and probably never will in the way you usually do. This guy seemed to always be on the border between this life and another, just as my friend has been over the past few years.

Really, we're all like this, don't you think? Maybe it's not in our face as much, or that we have to work a bit to keep the liminal alive in ways that Ciurlionis, Brian, and others out there didn't have to. But it's there regardless of how much you or I miss it - those little and great crossings between here and there (whatever "there" is), the footsteps we take between our many homes.


Kerry Slavens said...

Nathan, thank you for this very moving post and for introducing me to the work of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis. I keep coming back and looking at this painting. I really enjoy your blog...

Nathan said...

Hi Kerry,

He was an amazing artist who did so much in a short life.

Glad you're enjoying the blog.


Anonymous said...

May Brian be in a place of Peace and Happiness. May his friends and family find peace and comfort.