As I wrote in my last post, this year I participated in San Francisco Open Studios for the first time, at the beginning of the month. This was my first time doing any kind of formal exhibition (aside from participating in group shows), and so I wisely dialed down my expectations.

If it was only my friends who came, that would be ok.

If I didn't make many (or any) sales on the weekend itself, that would be ok.

Even if nobody showed up at all, it would still be ok.

As long as I got a chance to practice talking about my art, or at least displaying my work, that would be enough. And, while I was waiting for 11AM on Saturday November 3rd (the official opening time), I looked around at all the art I've made this past year, and it felt really good. I had already pre-sold about a third of the original artwork, so I knew that this was my last chance to be near some of my paintings. Every painting carries a lot of meaning for me. Each is filled with memories of what I was doing and thinking and feeling at the time of its creation. It's a trite sentiment, but it's true: every painting carries a piece of me, and there is one kind of bereavement when it is finished, and another kind altogether when it is sold.

 Composite Landscape IV (2018); 9” x 12”, watercolor on paper (Sold: Somerville, MA).  References: Ithaca, NY; Shenandoah National Park, VA; Mount Davidson, CA.

Composite Landscape IV (2018); 9” x 12”, watercolor on paper (Sold: Somerville, MA).

References: Ithaca, NY; Shenandoah National Park, VA; Mount Davidson, CA.

As it turned out, that weekend comprehensively exceeded the expectations of my most optimistic friends. Every secret hope I cherished, when I wasn't busy wisely lowering my expectations, was left in the dust.

Friends (including friends and acquaintances I hadn't seen in over a decade), strangers, curators, and neighbors filled my studio for the greater part of the weekend. Orders from social media flooded in. One woman, who had done her research on my portfolio and who I had never met before, bought a piece of art that wasn't even up for sale: I had to dig it out of my closet and come up with a price on the spot. They came in waves. I was often so busy answering questions and making sales that my wife had to help. Altogether, about a hundred and fifty people stopped by. Given how far into the San Francisco residential boonies I am located, and how far away from any other artist's studio, I was amazed. I'm still amazed.

This wasn’t my first venture into selling my artwork. The tarot deck I created, and which was published via a Kickstarter in 2013, has continued to sell, reaching more than 36 different countries across all seven continents. I write each one of my customers personally, and they often respond, explaining why they felt drawn to my artwork, telling me about their home town or home country, and describing the creative ways they use the deck—in their psychotherapy practice, improv groups, performance art, theater troupes, retreats, workshops, meditative and creative practices, and the classes they teach. I've never managed to habituate myself to how touching and wonderful this experience is, no matter how often it’s happened. Every time a customer writes me back, even if it's just to say a quick thank you, I think about how they are using something I made, making it their own, and interpreting it and using it in ways I could not have imagined. I am humbled, I am grateful, I am honored, every single time.


Now the same things are happening with my paintings. Original paintings and limited edition prints are now hanging on the walls of friends, strangers, neighbors; they are now part of their home, their daily life. Frequently, I have gotten to meet these customers in person. As they integrate these pieces into their daily consciousness, discuss them with their family and friends, and share them with their children, my artwork will come to belong to them as much as to me. To me, this is the best thing about being an artist.

 Limited-edition prints of “Lacewing x Maple”, “Beetle x Rambutan”, “Flowers”, “Moth x Iris x Columbine”, “Cicada x Catalpa”, “Brimstone x Thistle”, “Mantis x Orchid”, and “Locust x Locust”. (Sold: Bodega Bay, CA)

Limited-edition prints of “Lacewing x Maple”, “Beetle x Rambutan”, “Flowers”, “Moth x Iris x Columbine”, “Cicada x Catalpa”, “Brimstone x Thistle”, “Mantis x Orchid”, and “Locust x Locust”. (Sold: Bodega Bay, CA)

To use a somewhat crackpot metaphor, seeing a piece of art that I really love is like finding a poem I wrote when I was nine (my first really good piece of writing, which I have never posted or published and probably never will), inscribed on a tablet in a ruined temple on the steppes of Mongolia. It has always felt like a miracle that someone I have never met and with whom I have little in common can reach right into my secret soul, through the exquisite meaning and beauty of a single piece of art.

I always try to learn about the artist, if possible, after I have seen their work. Sometimes I find an unrelatable personality, an ugly story, or an individual I wouldn't even like to meet. Maybe this sounds strange, but I am always pleased when this happens. It is rare, but I find a terrible person behind the art I love in maybe one case out of forty.

It is painful to find so much evil in the world. It is discouraging to be around people who do not share my values, and to read true stories in the news that are full of violence, hatred, and selfishness. Finding that a person who is otherwise hateful (say, Richard Wagner) has nevertheless produced a work of sublime beauty that has moved and inspired me is, well, comforting to me.

I believe it is a very human temptation to slide towards the annihilation of everything we find morally repugnant: ignoring the homeless, neglecting the ill, smugly denigrating the ignorant, or disowning killers, rapists, and abusers as human beings. Like many human temptations, this one runs contrary to the work I want to do in the world. Every wonderful work of art, music, or writing, every groundbreaking scientific discovery, every advancement we as a whole make towards truth and kindness and courage gives me hope. A person's works do not redeem their moral transgressions—the exquisite music Wagner wrote does not excuse him from mistreating the women in his life, nor from his contributions to Nazi ideology. However, it does remind us that we share a common human nature, which is, was, and always will be capable of the most hideous evil, world-changing accomplishments, abject cowardice, astounding strength, and profound love.

Dream Architecture

This is my monthly art-related newsletter/blog. It tends to be about the new art I've made, news about exhibitions, and other art-related ideas I've been thinking about.


Art News

1. Biggest news of the year: my open studio weekend is THIS WEEKEND. If you'd like to see the artwork I've been doing for the last year in person, buy an original or a print, say hello, eat some homemade snacks, or pet some cute cats (I can't make any promises about the new kitten, who is a bit shy, but Buster is everybody's best friend), please stop by!

Please come to 110 Santa Clara Ave. in San Francisco (an easy walk from West Portal MUNI station, lots of street parking), on November 3rd and/or 4th, Saturday and Sunday. Stop by anytime between 11AM and 6PM on either day. San Francisco Open Studios is a public event, spanning five weekends, divided up by neighborhood. Some weekends are in very focused locations (Weekend Two was at Hunter's Point Shipyards, where I could just park and go wander through 40+ artist studios), and others are more spread out. My weekend—Weekend Four—is all over the place, from the Sunset to Fort Mason! To be honest, my studio isn't really close to any other studios, and I have no idea who (if anybody) will show up. Maybe some fancy gallerist will come by, maybe just my friends, maybe a whole bunch of strangers. Either way, it'll be good practice for presenting and talking about my art—a skill I will definitely need as I work towards a bigger online presence and/or gallery representation. So, come help me practice talking about my art! I promise to be entertainingly awkward.

 Moth X Iris X Columbine (top), Brimstone X Thistle (bottom), ink and watercolor on paper.

Moth X Iris X Columbine (top), Brimstone X Thistle (bottom), ink and watercolor on paper.

2. My favorite Insect/Flower painting, Cicada X Catalpa, is currently on display at SOMArts (934 Brannan St. in San Francisco) through November 11! The exhibition also includes hundreds of other gorgeous pieces by local artists participating in San Francisco Open Studios. Please stop by, and support your local artists (and catch some of them at Weekend 4 and Weekend 5)!

3. My tarot exhibition at Azari Vineyards is up! Azari is at 1399 Springhill Road, in Petaluma, and the estate, grounds, view, and wine is excellent. If you live in the area, they are definitely worth a visit, and fifteen of my favorite tarot paintings will be up through the end of the year.

 Azari Vineyards, Petaluma

Azari Vineyards, Petaluma

Anybody familiar with the kind of art I do knows that I make ample use of personal content—memories, fantasies, experiences, my favorite literature or music, and especially the bizarre ideas and images from my dreams. I’ve been sketching and thinking and preparing for my next art series about architecture and environmental planning. I am particularly interested in the philosophical and spiritual aspects of the built environment, and the ways in which they are designed to touch our collective desires for a better life.

The recurrent features in my dreams are almost exclusively architectural. Of the familiar places that pop up in my dreams, there are four buildings that appear with consistency. I am starting to use these buildings, which have come to have great and complex symbolic meaning for me, as a basis for designing other structures or architectural interventions. For instance, the “Bird Blind” below is a kind of analog to the Hostel. The “Sunken Ship” is my interpretation of the Outbuilding.

The prototypes:

1. The Bathhouse is a large white building, with neoclassical architecture and a grand staircase. Inside, there are many bathing rooms, often arranged in a "moat" with ferns and tropical plants hanging over the water while the bathers swim beneath them. The water is warm and steaming, and the baths are lit from within. There are two rooms on the lowest level with very deep baths called "cisterns", and which seem to be fifty feet deep or more. The deep water is never frightening; it is a gentle, intense blue, and there are weights available for free diving, which (in the dream) is meant to be therapeutic. I always see this building at night or in the very early dawn, when the sky is just barely light.

2. The Hostel is a large, barn-like building, set on a hill and illuminated by street lights. It is always late at night when I arrive, and I always arrive alone, as if for the first time. The Hostel generally holds a handful of transient strangers: artists, musicians, travelers, scholars, poets, and so forth. I never feel uneasy around these people, it's more like a feeling of comfortable isolation. There are sleeping rooms filled with cushions and blankets, rooms to store luggage and musical instruments, and large common rooms with kitchenettes and pianos and rough wooden desks and old paintings. I always feel a little lonely there, but I also feel a sense of complete belonging (a feeling I have never had in waking life).

 The Bird Blind, ink and graphite on paper.

The Bird Blind, ink and graphite on paper.

3. I always see the Outbuilding in daylight: the kind of lazy mid-afternoon sunlight, filled with buzzing insects, dandelion fluff, and swirls of dust motes. It is always located behind my childhood "home" (a house that never resembles the actual house I grew up in—moreover, we never had any kind of outbuilding). The Outbuilding is, without exception, a portent of something sinister. Sometimes I find myself inside it without knowing how I got there. I become aware that it has not been inhabited for many years, and this is followed by a feeling of terror and a need to leave (however, nothing ever happens to me there). However, if I see the Outbuilding from a window of my "house", I know that something very bad indeed is about to happen. The Outbuilding is a simple house-shaped structure, with grey shingles, few windows, and simple charcoal-painted wooden trim.

 The Sunken Ship, graphite on paper.

The Sunken Ship, graphite on paper.

4. The Temple on the Hill is an impossibly vast, palatial building, set on the tip of a very high hill overlooking a beautiful, green valley, which is sometimes partly filled with an inland sea. The climb up the hill is arduous, but shaded with trees and refreshed with cool wind from the valley. The Temple itself is a quiet, peaceful place, illuminated by many windows and skylights, and filled with objects of beauty and mysterious artifacts. I am generally there alone, or sometimes with someone I love. The dream generally ends while I am still in the Temple, standing before a certain large window that looks out over the valley. When I encounter this window, I know that I am about to wake up.


In the words of my artist's statement, the art I make is always about the miracle of shared private experiences. When I start constructing versions of the places I've only seen in dreams, and a total stranger looks at my art with a shock of recognition, it's like a broken circle completes itself. To me, that experience of familiarity and beauty, found buried within the howling wilderness of the world outside ourselves, is the best part of human experience.

Impossible City

This is my monthly art-related newsletter/blog. It's generally about the new art I've made, news about exhibitions, and other art-related ideas I've been thinking about.

Art News

1. This year, I am participating in San Francisco Open Studios! This means that my studio will be open to the public for a whole weekend. My neighborhood's weekend will be on November 3rd and 4th, from 11AM - 6PM both Saturday and Sunday. My best artwork from the last year will be up for view (most of it will also be for sale), and I'll have a limited number of signed and numbered pigment prints for sale as well.

If you live in or near the San Francisco Bay Area, please come!! I would love to answer your questions about my art, say hello (even if I haven't met you yet), and/or graciously leave you alone if you want to look at my art in peace. There will be snacks and nice places to sit, and a weird-looking white kitty to pet.

The address is 110 Santa Clara Avenue, San Francisco. This is one of those unusual neighborhoods that has plenty of parking, AND is an easy walk from public transit (the West Portal MUNI station).


2. Fifteen of my original tarot paintings will be on exhibition through the end of the year at Azari Vineyards in Petaluma, starting in mid-October. The estate is an incredibly lovely place to visit—they even have a guest house!—and their wine is really and truly superb. You could take advantage of this beautiful autumn weather to plan a day trip to taste some wine, look at my paintings, admire the beautiful views of Petaluma Gap, and take a stroll around the grounds.

For those of you who don't know already, I published a tarot deck in 2014, and despite zero advertising on my part, sales continue to be pretty great (thanks to the photos, reviews, and videos posted by my amazing customers!). The only continent right now that doesn't contain any of my tarot decks is Antarctica—anybody know a tarot-lover in Antarctica?


 “Treehouse”. Graphite on paper.

“Treehouse”. Graphite on paper.

As for the art I've been working on recently, I seem to be on a little bit of a hiatus. I'm done with my insect/flower paintings, and I've got a really big, interesting idea for my next series, but the idea hasn't finished cooking yet, so to speak. I know from experience that I can't rush these things. I just have to keep scribbling notes and sketches in my sketchbook and thinking about what it is, exactly, that I want to make.

When I'm developing an idea, I start chasing other people’s art. I spend hours in libraries, thumbing through picture books on history, urbanism, botany, ecology, neuroscience, marine science, or whatever. I spend hours in museums, sometimes spending all my time in one room, scribbling furiously in my sketchbook about a train of thought originating from a single sculpture and then racing home to look something else up.

Sometimes nothing else will do except wandering around the city at some odd hour, listening to the strangest and least music-like recesses of my music collection.

I don't yet have a good explanation for the new idea I'm working on, but I'm going to try anyway (after all, I suppose that's why you're here, reading this). I want to make art about impossible urban places: architectural interventions that make cities more accessible, more surprising, more imaginative. In particular, more human and less...institutional, I guess. Huge cave-dwellings, stretching out and interconnecting below the basements of skyscrapers. Treehouses installed in the recesses of highway overpasses. An entire apartment block gutted of its rooms and floor subdivisions, a shell for an empty, quiet, cathedral-like space, cut through by shafts of light from the vast wall of windows, with ladders and hammocks and bunks and bookcases covering the walls.

None of these ideas are in any way feasible, or even desirable, in real life, but that's exactly what I like about them.

I think there is something in me, as an artist, that has a great antipathy to anything practical. Perhaps this secret dislike extends farther than myself: maybe it’s shared by general scientists, or people who work in pure mathematics, or unpopular philosophers, or kids and teens who want nothing to do with the grownup world of trading 40+ hours a week of the only life they'll ever have just for the privilege of continuing to survive.

Anyone else? The rococo aristocracy, hobos riding trains, island-owning billionaires, anarchists foraging for meals in restaurant dumpsters and squatting in condemned buildings: people who try to place themselves far above or far below the mundane concerns of modern mainstream survival?

I certainly don't mean to propose generalizations. It remains difficult for me to imagine the variety of different reasons a person might have to long for the freedom of a permanently unrealistic world. I know that most seek to contribute in material ways to the world around them. An architect feels pride when she sets foot in a building she designed, and observes how the occupants use it. The world is full of research scientists who long to find a cure for cancer, a way to reverse global warming, a new innovation that will end world hunger.

I am no exception. I would not be able to live with myself if I didn't keep trying to find ways to positively impact the people and places around me. But I do think there are those of us who, while we know there must be practical innovations to change the world for the better, yearn for a world of pure ideas, where everything is possible.

To be honest, that kind of world really doesn't sound important, even to me. It sounds like the insipid fairyland of a very spoiled child who never managed to grow up (welcome, by the way, to the deepest of all my fears about what I really am).

Nevertheless, brain scientists and psychologists tend to believe that it is important. They describe us as existing within a "layer of thought", which acts a neurological buffer between our own impulses and the sensory information we receive. Our ideas, our beliefs, our worldview, and our moment-by-moment experiences are often largely intellectual in nature. The social sciences are full of studies illustrating that people get by on dreams even more than they do on realities. Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz, knew this. “Ever more people have the means to live,” he wrote, “but no meaning to live for.” Not only does this world of impossible ideas help us survive, it does so by being the most desirable part of human experience—by imbuing it with interest, joy, meaning.

I always end up believing that this impossible world is important, and not because of all the scientific, political, and moral arguments backing it up, either. I just believe in it because I can't help loving it, even if I and everyone else turns out to be wrong, and it really is just a waste of time.

It is my own core belief. If this isn't true, then nothing is true.

Death is Young

This is my monthly art-related newsletter/blog. Usually, its contents include new art I've made, news about exhibitions, and other art-related ideas I've been thinking about. However, August has been pretty rough, and so I wrote about pet death, family, and life history. If you'd rather look at the art I've been working on, please check out my new art-only instagram account, @edengallanter.


This month my sweet, two-year-old cat died of cancer.

One day she was running and playing, and jumping into my lap every time I sat down. The next day she started acting sick, and after two subsequent visits to the hospital, the doctors told me that she had cancer—lymphoma. It was incurable, and she was only going to get worse. We arranged immediately for a vet to come to our home to euthanize her, and she died in my arms. It was so shockingly fast.

If you've ever had a pet to whom you have a special connection, who follows you around the house, who trusts you, and just wants to be near you all the time, you already know that this pet feels like family. Whatever the world family has come to mean to you, it acts as a soft, warm cocoon around your heart. Family, whether made up of biological relatives, caretakers, close friends, partners, or pets, is one of those parts of life that appears to me to be fundamental, and vitally important for survival.

I am very close to my parents, and I know how lucky I am that this is so. Many people I know have bad luck in this regard. They have parents they are unable to connect to, or unable to respect. Some have parents who were cruel, or violent, or neglectful, or who abandoned them. I am fortunate to have parents I can love and admire, and who have always, always strived to be loving, supportive and faithful to me.

 My Father. Charcoal on paper.

My Father. Charcoal on paper.

My parents are also quite old—especially my father, who turned ninety this year. I am writing his biography. This is both intensely pleasurable for my father, and incredibly difficult. There are few happy memories of childhood and youth to detail; an overwhelming number of his recollections are marked by loneliness and tragedy. It is an incredibly intimate experience to do this with him. He has now told me stories he hasn't told anybody else. Sitting with him, holding his hand, sometimes crying with him, while listening to these memories that have been buried for so long, touches me deeply.

In writing a story, we are always haunted by the story's end.

Both my parental grandparents died suddenly of cardiovascular disease in their fifties, his elder brother in his forties, and my father himself survived a triple bypass when I was in the third grade. Nevertheless, he is ninety, and I couldn't help wondering what it would be like when my dad passed away, as I was spending my last remaining days with my sick cat.

 Anushka. (August 2016 – August 2018)

Anushka. (August 2016 – August 2018)

There is no real way to prepare for tragedy. I believe that the best we can all do is try to face the inevitable, and accept the fact that the world we live in gives us an illusion of control on a truly immense scale. There was no way for me to prepare myself for losing a very young and beloved pet to cancer. All I could do was focus on what mattered, when it happened. I wasn't ready to say goodbye, but I knew that the most important thing was my responsibility to take care of her. In this case, that meant protecting her from suffering any more pain. I stayed awake every night to sit with her. I could barely eat—food choked me. Grief can fill you up and bury you at the same time. The world around us faded. I couldn't even feel the chill of the house, sitting on the floor with her at 4:00 AM. I sat there, with my dying cat leaning against my leg, and I thought about what it would be like to lose my father.

The culture I live in has shielded itself from death. Death happens in hospitals and dark alleyways. Open casket funerals are increasingly rare in this country. The processes of mortality are more secreted away from us that they used to be. But isn't death as natural as the ocean? Can't death be as gentle as the wilting of cut roses, which leave behind a subtle fragrance even after they have faded? It seems to me that life is very short. Living in perpetual fear of tragedy isn't realistic, but at the same time I believe I ought to make the most of whatever time I have with the people I love—my little family, my close friends, and the small number of people who have profoundly inspired and changed the course of my life.

I don't have an answer for grief, or for the inevitability of future grief when you let yourself love someone. Grief is a living creature, with its own logic, its own desires, its own food. All we can do is care for it as tenderly as we would care for anything else we loved.


Life is an old man carrying flowers on his head.

young death sits in a café
smiling,a piece of money held between
his thumb and first finger

(i say “will he buy flowers” to you
and “Death is young
life wears velour trousers
life totters,life has a beard” i

say to you who are silent.—”Do you see
Life?he is there and here,
or that, or this
or nothing or an old man 3 thirds
asleep,on his head
flowers,always crying
to nobody something about les
roses les bluets
                              will He buy?
Les belles bottes—oh hear
,pas chères”)

and my love slowly answered I think so.  But
I think I see someone else

there is a lady,whose name is Afterwards
she is sitting beside young death,is slender;
likes flowers.

- ee cummings, Tulips & Chimneys


This is a monthly art-related (or at least art-adjacent) post about what I've been doing and thinking about. Welcome to the month of August!

General News

1. One of my tarot paintings, "Love" was accepted to a group exhibition at The Studio Door in San Diego! It will be on view from August 3rd to 26th. If you're one of my tarot customers and live in the area, it's really worth seeing the original painting, and it looks like it's going to be a wonderful show!

2. My drawing "The Sparrow and the sparrows" is up on view at Arthaus Projects gallery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania! Exhibition closes on August 11th.

3. I am participating in San Francisco Open Studios this year! Open Studios is a series of five weekends where local artists open their studios to the public and sell their art. The weekends are divided up by neighborhood, and my weekend is November 3rd and 4th. If you're going to be in the bay area, mark your calendars and PLEASE COME! I'll be posting more details as the event gets closer.

 Painting in my home studio, photo by Jessica Palopoli (

Painting in my home studio, photo by Jessica Palopoli (

It's been a weird weekend. Over the last year, I succeeded in tracking down the movie that scared the everloving shit out of me when I was four years old, and I finally watched it last Saturday night.

If you ever have the opportunity of revisiting movies (or stories, songs, amusement park rides, pictures, or any other innocuous thing whose fearsomeness derives from the unformed and imaginative mind of the very young), I recommend doing so. You will find that you remembered some parts with surprising precision, and that other parts (in my case, most other parts) were largely fabricated. It is a glimpse into how utterly unrecognizable the same event can be when experienced by different people. I often think how miraculous it is that any of us can communicate with each other at all.

 Me wearing my favorite elephant bathing suit (I still think the Pink Elephants song from "Dumbo" is one of the best things Disney has ever done), summer of 1983.

Me wearing my favorite elephant bathing suit (I still think the Pink Elephants song from "Dumbo" is one of the best things Disney has ever done), summer of 1983.

Now, of course, you would like to know what the movie was.

Embarrassingly, it was "The Horror at 37,000 Feet", widely known (among Shatner fans, at least) as William Shatner's worst movie—a made-for-TV production that first aired in 1973. The plot featured a haunted airplane, and ended relatively tamely, with two gore-free human deaths and one frozen dog. It was apparently still making the rounds on one evening during the summer of 1983, when my parents took me to their friends' home for a dinner party. The household children, who were several years older than me (and I imagine were secretly hoping to be entertained by putting a little kid into hysterics) were clustered around the TV, and of course I joined them. It appears I made it through almost the whole movie before silently leaving the room and rejoining my parents.

I need hardly say that William Shatner's worst movie was not, on second viewing, especially scary. The interesting part wasn't the movie, it was watching prototypes of all my nightmares since age four march across the screen for 90 minutes. Although I had apparently invented several scenes, my inventions had done a strangely excellent job of capturing the story and the characters' state of mind—better, in fact, than the actual movie did.

To conjoin a pair of disparate dictionary definitions of the same word, "artifact" (an unintentional or meaningless by-product of, say, a scientific experiment or photograph) turns out to be a valuable treasure-trove of historic information. Making up stories is an essential part of the pattern-recognition processes of the executive system. Our minds come up with a plausible narrative about what is going on and even who one is. These narratives never quite match with reality, but that is not their purpose. Without our stories, we would not be able to learn, to remember, to sympathize with others, to recover from negative emotions, or even to recognize ourselves. We would have no coherent identity.

I'm not exactly saying that such mental artifacts are either desirable or destructive—it really depends on the mind that's making them, I guess. Although every story we can think of is in some sense true, not every story is equally useful. However, I am surprised by how often our memories turn out to be deeply insightful fabrications, if that makes sense. Because isn't this, too, a form of art? Isn't reconstructing reality in a more human-sized way, in a way that distills its importance and meaning for us, what art is? And our minds do this all the time—it is fundamental to our functioning in the world. Many scientists even argue that this storytelling part of the brain is the cornerstone of consciousness.

 Locust X Locust ( Chortoicetes terminifera x Robinia pseudoacacia )

Locust X Locust (Chortoicetes terminifera x Robinia pseudoacacia)

Speaking of finding important truths in trite places, the idea for my latest painting came from a misunderstanding I have always cherished. When I first heard the word "Locust", I thought the teacher had said "hocus" (as in Hocus Pocus). The association is now immovable; I always think of magic—of fairytale, joyfully implausible magic—when I hear the word Locust. Magic then becomes the foundation for all the word's other associations: penny-slice leaves clattering in the breeze (the black locust tree), destruction and ruin (the plague locust insect), species invasion (the tree), the dry, muffled snapping sound of the swarm (the insect), creamy and delicately scented cascades of blossoms (the tree), the judgment of God upon Egypt in the Book of Exodus (the insect), and so on.

The best part of making something new is always over as soon as it is finished. Artists and makers who feel the way I do tend to make the most intricately detailed things, because we don't ever want it to end. More opportunities for new artifacts, too.

The Life-Cycle of the Angels

Many tarot books describe the first 21 cards of the deck following the Fool card—otherwise known as the major arcana—as the "Fool's Journey", in which the Fool progresses through 21 stages of existence. In the Cheimonette Tarot, one could just as easily call this the Angels' Journey. The Fool transforms into the Angel in two ways, both of which are represented in the narrative sequence of the major arcana.

The Biological Life Cycle

            If you have been following my recent work, you've seen my recent botanical/ entomological paintings, which experiment with different pair relationships: morphological (maple tree samaras resemble the wings of lacewings), geographic (the Southern Catalpa and the tredecassini 13-year cicada have intersecting habitats), morphological (maple tree samaras resemble the wings of lacewings), and chromatic (the petals of white columbines have the same hue—even down to their rose-mauve shadows—as the wings of the white moth). As I learned more about each of these species, I became familiar with their life cycles, which are often incredibly detailed and bizarre. For example, periodic cicadas remain underground in their larval stage for the majority of their lives, progressing through several morphological stages as they feed off the sap from tree roots. At last, they "hatch" out of their hardened larval bodies into the large, singing imago (the winged adult) at which point they mate, reproduce, and die over a span of only a few weeks.

 Magicicada tredecassini x Catalpa bignonioides, (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Magicicada tredecassini x Catalpa bignonioides, (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

 Acer circinatum x Chrysopa perla (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Acer circinatum x Chrysopa perla (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

 Aquilegia vulgaris, Iris sibirica x Haploa reversa (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Aquilegia vulgaris, Iris sibirica x Haploa reversa (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

The Cheimonette Angels

            The 21 cards of the major arcana organize different primary concepts of human experience. In the Cheimonette Tarot, the Fool (card 0) takes two overlapping routes to become the Angel (card XX): in one sequence, the Fool simply grows wings (card XII: the Hanged Man) and finally reveals the Angel nature it had all along (card XX: the Angel); in the other sequence, twin angels divide (card VI: Love), separate (card X: the Wheel) and converge (card XV: the Devil), and finally combine to become a single Angel (card XX), by appropriating the human qualities of the Fool.

 The Fool (2002). Ink on paper.

The Fool (2002). Ink on paper.

            These two parallel life cycles of the Fool/Angel can be thought of as interrelated, symbiotic life cycles of different biological species: sometimes mutually beneficial or harmful, sometimes competitive, sometimes parasitic, sometimes merely commensal. The two angels in Love (VI) are locked in a shared gaze of mutual support, trust, and safety: the perfect foundation for great freedom, experience, and exploration. In the Wheel (X), the angels have separated to form two independent bodies, working together to turn the wheel of time, dreaming their private dreams. In the Devil (XV), separation has become painful and the angels are reuniting catastrophically, seemingly in the act of annihilating each other. Only by becoming human can they be whole again, and they at last take on the animal characteristics of the Fool (its two tails), and resurrect as a single being, with the flower of immortality from the Tree of Life growing from its body, and the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge for a heart.

 VI: Love (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

VI: Love (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

 X: The Wheel (2003). Ink and watercolor on paper.

X: The Wheel (2003). Ink and watercolor on paper.

 XV: The Devil (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

XV: The Devil (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

            The other life cycle is simpler and gentler. It represents not the fall of a God, but the apotheosis of a mortal. Even though the Fool and the twin angels have different characteristics (the Fool has its tails, and the angels have their wings), they are arrestingly similar creatures: bald as an infant, androgynous, and seemingly sexless. This insight is personified by the Hanged Man (a card I should have renamed as gender neutral), hung by its own tails in a window of one of the Moon towers (which appear in both the Priestess and Moon cards). The Fool in the Hanged Man is clearly not compelled into its position: as a symbol of its freedom, it holds an unattached chain between its hands as a plumb weight. Out of its back grows incipient wings. It is passively waiting for its transformation to occur, suspended between the strange world within the Moon tower and the outer world occupied by us, the observers. Its eyes are open—which shows that waiting is perhaps not so passive as it might seem. It believes in its own potential for divinity. In the Angel card, we can see that the Fool's conviction was justified.

 XII: The Hanged Man (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

XII: The Hanged Man (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

 XX: The Angel (2004). Ink and watercolor on paper.

XX: The Angel (2004). Ink and watercolor on paper.

            Plants and animals tend to have precisely as much as they need—and no more—to survive. If their lives are hard, they usually have the ability to endure those hardships. Animals are exactly as intelligent as they need to be, and so are we. Our own phases of existence are less apparently intricate than those of the 13-year cicada, but they are profoundly detailed nevertheless. The world we live in today is both of our own creation as well as far beyond our control. We experience reality as a web of probabilities: a fine mesh made from our own sensory experiences and from trusted authorities we use as outside sources of information.

           But I believe that these probabilities rest on a set of core beliefs. Whether those beliefs are religious, scientific, philosophical, or emotional in character is of little importance. What is important is that there is a fundamental particle, somewhere, in all of us, that will bear no division, no scrutiny. Our blind spot.

"If this is not true, then nothing is true."

Not all of us must reach that part of our life cycle where we are called upon by circumstances to shatter our fundamental beliefs. When we are, we often become even more hard and immovable, so that our shells may be the easier to shatter, our hearts more easily broken. To allow the possibility that the imago, winged and singing, may emerge from the ruins of truth.

The Tree and the trees

A few months ago, I began reading about something called "visual release hallucinations".

In neuroscience, the term "release" has always fascinated me. It denotes that the phenomenon preexisted, but up until now, was held back by the inhibitory functions of the brain. In receiving sensory information from the external world, the brain copies, analyzes, and reinvents the information it receives, and then treasures it up for future use. In a very real sense, there is a whole other, invented world, housed inside our minds. Visual release hallucinations, otherwise known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS), tend to concur with the partial or total loss of eyesight. What this means is that, in the absence of external information, the brain simply supplies its own.

            People with CBS (unlike people with psychosis) are usually aware that their hallucinations are not real. CBS hallucinations also have some characteristic qualities—they tend to be composed of objects and spaces that are plausible, but almost never familiar. This is because they are thought to derive from a categorical image library in the brain, without much participation from the brain's emotional centers. They are purely neurological hallucinations.  They derive from a lower level of visual perception, where there is a dictionary of what researchers refer to as proto-objects or proto-images. Proto-images are a set of generic objects and object features—similar to a wooden art manikin, or those how-to books for drawing everyday things. By filling in common components of one's normal environment, visual models made from proto-images greatly speed up visual cognition. They facilitate object recognition and guide visual attention. However, by themselves, proto-images have no emotional or intellectual significance—they are simply building blocks for visual perception.

            One man with Charles Bonnet Syndrome saw a red double-decker bus drive through his living room. Close inspection of the bus would reveal any amount of detail, but there would not be anything surprising, or unexpected, to see. The bus was a generic bus, composed of the thousands of red tourist busses the man had seen any number of times on his daily walks through London. It was likely modelled on the very first such bus he could remember seeing— his image prototype, later elaborated by all the red tourist busses he saw subsequently.

            The most interesting part is, what we see is primarily composed of proto-images, not from the world around us, as we suppose. The brain, even before it perceives the environment, creates a model based on what it expects to see. This provides a rudimentary impression and directs our visual attention to discrepancies between our proto-image model and the real world. For instance, the bedroom we see when we open our eyes in the morning is the bedroom we expect to see. If the cat has knocked over a lamp in the night, we see it at once because the room then fails to match up with our visual model. The external world is thus used as a kind of memory storage. When we use language, we are accessing our brain's library of words, phrases, and grammatical templates. In visual perception, the "memory" we refer to is sensory data, continuously supplied by the external world.

            I didn't know it at the time, but I actually started making art about visual expectations back when I was an undergrad in college. The director of the art department had sneered at my portfolio, calling it "illustrative" in the same tone of voice you'd use while wrinkling your nose at an overdone dish and ordering the waiter to take it away. I loved making the intensely detailed drawings I'd always made, and I would make as much work for myself as I could possibly fit on the page. The end result was hardly important. I'd sit happily, drawing tiny details for hours, using whatever imagery came to mind. I never used any reference, and, while I certainly recognized that drawing from life improved my technique, life drawing never felt like art to me—it felt like practice. I discovered that I had to reconcile a heavily stylized aesthetic with the big, abstract ideas I wanted to explore.

 "Cascadilla" (1999). Graphite on paper.

"Cascadilla" (1999). Graphite on paper.

            I didn't think much of the art director himself—even at age 20, I could see that a person who assumed that certain styles of art couldn't be about big ideas, must be using snobbery as a foil of some kind. Nevertheless, I knew I had to start thinking about how my work might come across to others; I had find a way to connect my inner world to the shared outer world. My solution was to combine drawing from life with drawing from my imagination, to start exploring what exactly the difference was. I started drawing maps of familiar places from memory, and overlaying them on top of real maps. I got interested in how the things from my imagination did and did not line up with the things from life.

 "Tree" (1999). Acrylic on canvas.

"Tree" (1999). Acrylic on canvas.

            The best thing I made at this time was a painting of a tree. I painted what I thought of when I thought of a tree, the way I was used to: from memory. Next I went in search of real trees on campus (I was lucky to be attending Vassar College, whose entire campus is actually a large arboretum) that seemed iconic to me, reminding me of the Tree of my imagination. I color-coded them, and plotted out the different trees over the top of my proto-Tree, following their branch structure and internal architecture, trying to fit them together. It was the first piece of artwork I valued for its own sake, not just for the delight I got in making it. I gave it to a very dear friend four years ago, and I've made other artwork that I've loved since, but in many ways "Tree" will always be the most special and meaningful, and the most beloved art I've ever made, because it was the first.

 "Generation" (1998). Ink on paper.

"Generation" (1998). Ink on paper.

            In a sense, all the art I made after that was an effort to fit the style I had developed as a kid—madly doodling angels and devils in my school notebooks—into the world around me. When I learned about the brain's library of proto-images, I felt strangely vindicated. There isno such thing as real life. What we see begins with what we expect to see. Our world is unavoidably framed by our own content, supplied by the vast content of our imaginations. What the artists of the Italian Renaissance called "artifice" forms the foundation of how we experience everything around us. Objectivity is what is really artificial (Ceci n'est pas une pipe!), but why should we expect ourselves to be objective? Why not embrace the insights and beauties of our human, subjective understanding?

            In the visual-cognitive loop, our minds are in continual conversation with the world around us. We assemble a model of what we expect to see, receive sensory feedback, and modify our model, again and again and again.


The mind's model and world will never match, but they will always strive to meet.

And the mind and the world will always strive to meet, because they will never match.

The Composite Series

It's been a long time since my last post. For the past two years, I have been in a Ph.D. program, training in neuropsychology, and I haven't had time to do much artwork.

Then I got to a point where I became completely overwhelmed. In the aftermath of this, I realized that art really needs to be at the center of my life—no matter how valuable or interesting I might find other careers, my heart can only be in one place at a time.

So, I dropped out of school and went back to being an artist. The best part is that I got to keep my position in neuroscience research, and am still working in that part-time. Science feels a lot like art, except that the execution of an idea requires different materials than I'm used to using.

Anyway, here's what I've been working on recently: a series of seven paintings that take a Kantian approach to objects as transcendental schema—finding the "Tree" within three overlaid individual trees (in this case, Baobab, California Live Oak, and Dawn Redwood). Here is the finished painting (shown first), followed by previous iterations of watercolor underpainting leading up to it, in chronological order.

 Trees (2017). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Trees (2017). Ink and watercolor on paper.

I also did another piece based on a similar concept: "Islands", which depict three overlaid islands, both from perspective view and an aerial view. They are loosely based on an island in the Stockholm Archipelago (which is one of the most beautiful places I've ever had the privilege of visiting), Tuckernuck Island (part of Nantucket), and Föhr, an island on the Danish border of Germany, and the birth- and death-place of a beloved lifelong friend of mine named Tilly, who died at age 96 last year.

 Islands (2017). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Islands (2017). Ink and watercolor on paper.

I've started another one, "Bridges" which is by far the largest watercolor painting I've attempted. I plan to complete seven of the series in total, with "Towers", "Birds", "Ships", and "Tunnels" yet to come.

In any case, it's good to be back. And, as always a big "thank you" to my fans of the Cheimonette Tarot. Your continued patronage, kind words, and enthusiasm has given me the confidence to return to making art. If the Cheimonette Tarot continues to be so successful, then maybe I can make more things that people will love.

Lots of Love,