Space. Presence. Connection.


Portraits of the Homeless, Part IV: First There Is a Mountain

"First there is a mountain

Then there is no mountain

Then there is"

I've heard that this is an ancient Zen proverb. A friend told it to me once, and now that I try to look it up on the internet, all I can find is Donovan's name popping up in relation to a song he wrote that uses similar lyrics. And, indeed, through pop culture it has popped into our collective consciousness. But perhaps that is a rant for another time...

I use it here because, whether actually an old proverb or not, I feel as though it's fairly applicable to my position in painting the homeless portraits. I am currently at the state of "there is no mountain." Which means that I am still in the midst of my "climb" through the project. What looked so plain before me (the mountain, the task at hand) has no longer kept its original form. To continue to use the hiking metaphor, it's no longer a structure standing before me, but a path that I stare at five feet away, noting each individual rock and tree root in the dirt, bird sounds above my head, sun on my neck, thirst on my tongue, and ache in my muscles as I put each foot in front of the other. Up the switchback I go. This is not a mountain. What is it? It's a million details up close of nature and my physical body in it. This is not a homeless portrait. What is it? It's a million details up close of how the paints I am using react while in a certain humidity. It's all the thoughts that light up through my brain while trying to capture the ever-so-elusive curvature of a human nose.

What do I have to show (bottom line) for my efforts thus far? Two portraits are at the frame shop. The third is drying and still needs a couple more hours of tender loving care after the oils have hardened. Number four, the last of the portraits, is currently a few shaky pencil lines on a blank canvas outlining the size and general tilt of the face, ready for the same amount of energy that I had two months ago for the first portrait.

Time to eat some GORP and get moving. The summit awaits me. And from there, I look forward to gazing down and seeing that it is a mountain after all, but not the same mountain that I saw from when I first stood on level ground. And at the same time being one and the same. It is knowing that sense of accomplishment that lies ahead of me that keeps me moving right now. Yes, there is altruistic good that is happening, and shouldn't that be enough to keep me motivated? It motivated me for the first two paintings. But now I find that I tire. My deadline looms. Accomplishment. Success. These two things, they are not worse than Altruism. For don't I want the same for the people whose likenesses I am painting?