"In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order."— Carl Jung
You stand before the easel, an empty canvas awaits your command. What will you paint? Within the confines of your mind, a morass of boundless possibilities begins to flitter and stir . This realm within is nebulous and infinite, fuzzy and indistinct, yet in time, form begins to take shape. For a fleeting nanosecond it is completely abstract and devoid of any noticeable frame or semblance, when suddenly, the personified idea emerges distinct and recognizable. You lift your arm to put brush to canvas, blocking-in large tracts of shade and lineation. As the process continues, a landscape begins to materialize. Differing values of light, color and tone are applied. Perspective and texture are defined, bringing depth and dimension to the scene. Composition adds balance; another world comes into being.
What just happened? Was it the Big Bang? Was it Genesis? Well, perhaps I’m being a bit hyperbolic, but seriously...what just happened? Regardless of it occurring on a much smaller scale, from my perspective, that doesn't make it any less miraculous. Because however many times we repeat the same procedure, the possibilities of the outcome are infinite. We have before us an empty canvas and the possibilities of what we can create on that flat void of empty space are literally endless. If we want, we can transmit the thoughts manifesting within our consciousness to detailed fruition and paint representationally... or probe that deeper, enigmatic state, where the thought is not yet fully-formed, where emotion and passion reign, and paint more abstractly— more expressively. Either way, whether you want to acknowledge it or not, what’s going on here is a miraculous transference from the metaphysical to the physical world. In a more simple vernacular : order from chaos.
Chaos usually gets a bad rap and perhaps deservedly so. Okay, I’ll admit it...chaos can be a bastard. Did you fall out of bed this morning? - Chaos. Flat tire on the way to work?- Chaos again. Get some really bad news from the doctor? - Chaos calling! Chaos is almost always associated with bad news. Chaos is everywhere we look. It is persistent, it lurks around every corner, and chaos always catches up with you in the end. But just as chaos is defined by confusion, calamity and disorder, it is also associated with that formless, primordial state which precedes existence: the possibility of future possibilities.
In April of 2013 terrorists bombed the Boston Marathon. Chaos was everywhere you looked. Three people were killed in the initial two explosions and hundreds more were maimed and wounded. In the ensuing days of the manhunt to catch the evildoers, more would die, more would be injured, and the whole of the Greater Boston area would be intimately acquainted with Chaos. I live about 30 miles south of the city. It is hard to describe the palpable state of anxiety which indeed gripped the whole state of Massachusetts that week. Everyone was on edge and everyone was concerned for the victims. In the days following the attack, I wrote the following Facebook post which went nominally viral:
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE WOUNDED OF BOSTON - As a veteran, double amputee, and fellow Massachusetts resident, I'd like to offer my condolences and deepest sympathy to the families of the victims of yesterday's attack. I'd also like to offer words of comfort and support to those whose lives were forever changed yesterday by traumatic loss of limbs. Although it's undeniably tragic , you will recover. And you must have hope that this terrible trauma will in no way stop you from living a full and productive life. In fact, this will be a defining moment in your life. In the coming days, weeks, and months, you will find a strength and resilience you never knew you had. Take solace in the fact that we in the veteran community are recovering with you. Look to the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have lost limbs for support and inspiration.
I meant every one of those words. They come from experience. In 2003, with the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan ramping up, I had personally witnessed the grit and determination of dozens of U.S. Veterans while we recovered together from traumatic limb amputations on Ward 57 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. Many of those Vets have since gone on to live full and productive lives. Surviving a traumatic ordeal such as limb-loss has a funny way of forcing one to focus on the important aspects of life — family, community, perseverance, love and strength to mention a few. While obviously a monumental and cataclysmic event, the process of piecing one’s life back together after any devastating loss can inescapably make one stronger. Hope is imperative , but a new way of thinking is often necessary as well. New values must be established— or perhaps just a focus on long-neglected ones . One is forced to prioritize while also accepting limitations. The old rules may no longer apply. Creative thinking is not only encouraged but essential.
In my own story, creativity has played a major role in not only learning to live with the loss of my arms but also in bringing meaning and purpose into my life. Not only had chaos entered my life but in many ways it had totally obliterated it. However it had also provided a ‘clean slate’ so to speak. Please understand that I am in no way trying to trivialize tragic events here, I am merely trying to emphasize that life still exists— it must go on— and those of us left behind to pick up the pieces have an obligation to do so to our best abilities. We have to rebuild. We have to re-adapt and learn not to repeat the errors of the past. In the wake of chaos we must re-establish order— a new order, a better order— one that can withstand the inevitable return of chaos, even though we can never fully outrun it in the end. And isn’t that the ultimate conclusion? that existence in itself is tragic? that chaos eventually catches up to us all in death? that everything we know and experience will end? that suffering is not the exception but rather the rule of existence? When I first began to fully grasp these truths, I began to better understand why I was so instinctually inclined to fall back on artistic abilities after getting hurt so badly. What is creativity but the innate need to establish order, to make sense of the senseless? We assign values to the things we create. They are beautiful to us. Order is beautiful. And bringing order and understanding into one’s existence can provide meaning and purpose to it.
Creativity can be both a collaborator and a conqueror of chaos. Chaos opens the door for creativity and vice versa. Creative thinking requires chaos. Everyone has heard the phrase, 'thinking outside the box'. What does that phrase mean if not, an upsetting of the established order, i.e., chaos? Creativity uses chaos to bring new ideas into the mix. When the old established order has outlived its usefulness, our innate creativity must re-establish it by using chaos, by harnessing it, and bending it to our will.
If you can absorb the blow that chaos inflicts— the initial shock and confusion as well as the necessary period of grief and acceptance that follows— you may ultimately come out on top. Ask yourself, “ what will you paint?” Better yet, focus on the tools you have left to paint with. What are the potentialities? What is possible? What is impossible? If we meditate on these questions long enough, a spark of hope will undoubtedly emerge. We must nourish it. We must provide this tiny ember of optimism with the necessary combustibles it requires to flourish into a raging inferno. It may flame-out at first, but the coals of that initial promise will remain. We can’t relent. We must rebuild this fire anew and keep it burning. Creativity will be our tinder. Perseverance will be our fuel-source. With that fire now blazing we return to our canvas with new aim and purpose. Our palette is refreshed, our brushes are cleaned and set in perfect order. A fresh, clean, stark-white canvas is set out before us. What will you paint?
“From where we stand the rain seems random. If we could stand somewhere else, we would see the order in it.” ― Tony Hillerman
The above title is part of a quote taken from what I believe to be one of the great creative works in drama of our time: that being HBO’s first season (2014) of the cable television series ‘True Detective’ starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. I recently re-watched the series for the fourth time in six years and it never fails to satisfy my appetite for psychological drama. Set deep in the bayous of Louisiana and running on a split timeline between the recent past (1995) and the present day, the show hearkens back to turn-of-the-century "weird fiction" popularized by the genre’s progenitors like Robert W. Chambers and later epitomized by icons like H.P. Lovecraft. Indeed the series borrows from a shared mythos handed down by these two legendary giants of the category. The two protagonists in the story — Rust Cohle (played by McConaughey) and Marty Hart (played by Harrelson)— could be called anti-heroes. They are both deeply-flawed human beings who encounter, and are then forced to confront and do battle with an unspeakable evil. The anti-hero is someone who has always resonated with myself and in the American psyche as a whole. I would guess that this is due to the intense individuality embodied in this architype. They are symbols of the rugged individualism which has imbibed American culture since the country's inception. What really hooks me though are the show’s philosophical elements —albeit they are often misinterpreted and perverse versions of philosophy. Nevertheless, it is a show that requires a deeper level of thinking, which for someone like me can often lead to a tangent of philosophical ruminating after each viewing. But this post is not a review of a television series, nor is it an essay on the anti-hero archetype. Rather, it is a culmination of the aforementioned "ruminations" kicked off by the quote alluded to in the title of this post:
“Back then, the visions...most of the time I was convinced that I'd lost it. But there were other times I thought I was mainlining the secret truth of the universe.”— Rust Cohle
If you’re not familiar with the term, “mainlining”, it is a reference to intravenous drug use. I can assure you my knowledge of this is not from personal experience, at least not in the recreational sense. You must remember though, that years ago I was hospitalized for months while recovering from traumatic double arm amputations. So I guess I am indeed familiar with it in the medical sense. There was once a world of pain to overcome in those early days of recovery. But the metaphor in the above quote rings as a sort of sequel to the last blog post I made a week back titled ‘My Kid Could Paint That’. It is often that, in the course of our lives, these obscure and seemingly unrelated things can inspire the creative impulse deep within us. In these moments one can feel possessed by an intense need to express oneself. And if you remember, that creative impulse was precisely what the previously mentioned post was largely about. For indeed, that creative impulse, that creative urge, is something that I have been struggling to better understand; something that I believe has immense implications for humankind, as it certainly has had immense implications in my own life. And so it could be said that at times I have indeed felt as though I were digging at certain “secret truths” that have perhaps been lost— or in the very least, undermined— in our current, hyper-technical, pleasure-driven society of instant gratification. For is not the act of creation the very bulwark, opposition, and counter-attack to the chaos of existence?
"Every act of creation is first an act of destruction" — Picasso
In my last post I had started to work out a theory of the creative personality. With the help of the early 20th century Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank and his emphasis on the trauma at birth as constituting the root of all anxiety, and responsible for what he termed as forming the “nucleus of consciousness”, I have come to view the genesis of the creative impulse in human beings as a direct response to the separation anxiety we all experience when we are born. In the subsequent development of the child, creativity becomes an act of individualization —a continual act of separation from that state of “oneness” we experienced while in the womb. Through nurturing creativity, we begin to constitute our reality as a separate individual. The more we develop our individualism, the more we repress the initial, primal terror and chaos of separation. But at some point a funny thing happens: we learn about death. And the more we begin to realize the impending annihilation of our individual Being, the stronger that creative urge becomes. Creativity now becomes an attempt at immortalization. It becomes a force to combat that impending demise of individuality.
When the creative urge manifests itself, we begin to create order out of chaos. We assign value to this manifestation of order and call it beauty. Through the creation of beautiful things we bring meaning into our lives. The creative personality is not limited to artists, poets, or musicians alone. Likewise, the concept of beauty is not limited to art. Creative people exist in all facets of society just as beauty manifests itself in all facets of life. The scientist, the carpenter, the teacher, and yes, even the police detective utilize their inner creativity everyday. They bring order and beauty into existence and in doing so find purpose, significance, essence, justice, meaning and dignity.
"Every one has experienced how learning an appropriate name for what was dim and vague cleared up and crystallized the whole matter. Some meaning seems distinct almost within reach, but is elusive, it refuses to condense into definite form. The attaching of a word somehow (just how, it is almost impossible to say) puts limits around the meaning, draws it out from the void, makes it stand out as an entity on its own account." — John Dewey
The first season of True Detective was full of symbolism. Perhaps this is why a weekend of binge-watching the show got my creative juices flowing to write this post. The philosophical ruminations that followed paralleled my previous post and made me want to expand upon it. Though not apparent at the surface, the Creation theme is prevalent throughout the story. The ancient symbol of the spiral is recurrent as the mystery unfolds. The spiral is one of the oldest, primitive symbols of creation, evolution, of the universe, and of consciousness. It can be found in ancient cultures dating back as far as 20,000 years. In the closing scenes of the final episode, Rust talks about their ordeal as being part of “the oldest story...light vs dark”. It is fitting that the final episode is titled ‘Form and Void’. So I guess it’s not a stretch to link these themes of creation and of the overcoming of evil prevalent in that story to themes of creativity and of overcoming adversity in my own story. To be clear though, I don’t necessarily view the adversity of losing my arms as a wholly negative thing. That is to say, I don’t necessarily view adversity (chaos) as a wholly negative force. For without void, there would be no form. Without dark, there would be no light. But that my friends would be a whole other discussion for a whole future post.
"It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child."— Pablo Picasso
"My kid could paint that." — it's a common refrain of the armchair critic in reaction to viewing any painting that isn't purely representational and does not depict a polished version of reality. The statement is blurted out so often that it has become a cliché (there was a 2007 documentary film titled after it) and is generally lobbed as a pejorative toward any artwork —particularly abstracted work— the viewer finds objectionable to their good judgement and taste. Often the offended party sees themselves as an authority, possessed with a vast knowledge and experience as to what constitutes a great work of art and it is you, the perpetrator of the crime, the crime of having the audacity to create, acknowledge, exhibit or promote such an aberration, that needs a lesson, or at the very least a refresher course on the subject. As an artist as well as a dealer and gallery owner, I can tell you I've heard it more than once myself. In the case of abstract expressionism , I have often heard patrons express an outright hostility towards that style of work.
But should it really be considered an insult ? Should the statement "My kid could paint that" reflexively be taken as a negative? After all, what parent has ever expressed anything but sheer delight and admiration after their young child presents them with a painting or drawing they've completed? Well, perhaps not every painting or drawing, but can any parent deny that on at least one occasion they have been completely blown away when the child has successfully rendered some subject or idea through artistic expression with that unique quality of wonder and discovery that only young children possess ? What parent, or any adult for that matter, after looking at the young child's masterpiece, could so cooly and glibly remark, "A monkey could paint that" ? That person would have no business judging anyone's art. For it is that very state of child-like wonder and discovery that every artist, grown or otherwise, struggles to both attain but more importantly maintain in their work. That "state" is the true subject of any great artwork; anything else produced is but a by-product of that state. It is what gives life to a work of art. That primitive state of being, of understanding and creating form and order in reality, is what makes art art. It is the very essence of existence and the very mode of being that brings meaning to it.
This hits on something I’ve been struggling to explain in my own life and indeed project, however subtly, in my own art. If you’re reading this post, you are probably aware of the fact that I lost my arms while serving in Iraq in 2003. What you might not know is that I came very close to dying in that incident (another soldier, Spc. Paul J. Beuche of Daphne, AL, actually did die ). And in fact, since the official reports state that I had lost six units of blood and had to be resuscitated twice, I could technically say that I had indeed died and came back to life. Don’t worry, I don’t have a God-complex. I am not claiming to have been resurrected— although symbolically that it is exactly the point that I am driving at. Perhaps redeemed would be a better way of putting it. This may explain my obsession with the Dickens classic ‘A Christmas Carol’. Since recovering from the ordeal, I’ve read the novella many times and have probably seen just about every film version made. I’ve also dragged my wife and kids to many local stage productions throughout the past seventeen years at Christmastime, trying to make it a family tradition of sorts. The story resonates with me profoundly. My family never quite shared my enthusiasm. But I digress, the point I’m trying to make is that my outlook on life changed drastically after that brush with death. It’s almost as though I have lived two lives; the one before, and the one after the incident. I see things— ordinary things— in a whole new way. I experience ordinary moments similarly. Sometimes the most mundane subjects stand out with amazing clarity and wonder. In the aftermath of that confrontation with death, the instinctual need to express these observations through creativity was so strong that it is very hard for me to explain in words. Nevertheless it seems immensely important for me to try. My ‘Artist’s Statement’ on this site points out the fact that I had always felt a strong creative drive. But in the previous life, creativity was more of a way of dealing with existence. In the present life, creativity is the very essence of existence.
So for me, creativity has been at least in some part tied to existentialism. Is it the same for everyone? In my own case, the strong creative drive I feel today seems to have been a direct response to trauma and the confrontation with death. But where did that creative drive come from before that experience, in my so-called prior life before suffering that trauma? Is there some deeper, more primitive trauma or anxiety innate in every human being from which art and creativity flows as an instinctual response? What about children? Could it be the same for them? What is art? What is the source of creativity in the human psyche? These of course are deeply philosophical questions that cannot possibly be answered in one blog post. But consider the fact that among the great psychologists and philosophers of the 20th century, the father of psychoanalysis himself, Sigmund Freud is quoted as saying “Moreover, the act of birth is the first experience of anxiety, and thus the source and prototype of the affect of anxiety.” In doing cursory research for this post, I came upon an article in Psychology Today which referenced the Austrian psychoanalyst and disciple of Freud, Otto Rank who expounded on this view. From the article:
all human beings suffer trauma by virtue of being born and of the inevitable, violent, physical and psychic separation we suffer at birth from our mother. Rank believed that the physical event of birth, where the infant moves from a state of perfect harmony and union with the mother into a painful state of separation resulting from the traumatic and violent circumstances of birth, constitutes the earliest anxiety that a human being experiences. That anxiety, according to Rank, constitutes the blueprint for all anxieties experienced later in life. In his theory of birth trauma, Rank echoed Freud's idea when he wrote that we are born into trauma and that trauma forms the "nucleus of the unconscious" and the essence of who we deeply are. The way the infant experiences this early separation from the mother, Rank wrote, becomes the foundation for all anxieties experienced later in the individual's life.
Boom! That’s the sound of my mind being blown. In the past two years, I’ve done a good amount of reading, delving into many great books on the subjects of both philosophy and psychology in which Rank’s name is mentioned frequently. I’ve yet to read anything he’s authored exclusively. I can now say that he’s going to the top of this year’s reading list. I discovered that in addition to his writing on trauma at birth, he’s written extensively on the psychology of art and the source of creativity in the human psyche. The excerpt above holds immense implications, the first of which would mean that death anxiety (our innate sense of mortality) is secondary to separation anxiety (the trauma of birth). This could mean that children—as well as adults— do indeed have this trauma and anxiety deep down in the well of the soul from which the fountain of creativity springs forth. Could this repressed, primal source of terror, anxiety, and chaos be the impetus from which we, as human beings, cry out against and create order and beauty in the world?
Whatever art is it is more than just an expression of beauty. I believe it runs much deeper than that. Beauty is but a consequence of art. And after all— as the saying goes— beauty is subjective.
"The modern artist is working and expressing an inner world —in other words— expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces." — Jackson Pollock
I've added 4 new prints to my giclée inventory. Click on any image to purchase. Framed versions will be posted in the near future. You can always request a framed version of any print by emailing me at email@example.com.
I can't begin to tell you how honored I am to have been chosen to do this painting. I can only hope that my particular painting style does the day justice. My aim was to capture the hopes of all those who have served this great nation that their commitment and sacrifice to the cause of liberty will not be forsaken. Because make no mistake, each and every service member who dons the uniform and takes that solemn oath to defend the Constitution is indeed sacrificing a portion of their liberty, their safety, and in many cases their entire lives, so that others may live and prosper in freedom. We as a nation must never forget that.
The children in this painting represent the future. In dressing up in camouflage and sailor garb, they salute each branch of the armed forces as a whole. They are engaged in a common practice these days of decorating a field or clearing with little American flags in honor of Veterans Day. The subject of children planting flags is one I've painted many times now. I find it to be a moving and poignant symbol of hope, I hope you will as well.
I want to thank the folks at Google for giving me the opportunity to honor our Vets. But on a more personal level I want to thank the Veterans who sprang into action to save my life in a dusty, bombed-out aircraft hangar in Balad, Iraq some 16 years ago. I also want to thank the military doctors who resuscitated me, who operated on me, and who cared for me for the next 15 months while I recovered. I also want to thank the fellow injured Veterans I recovered with at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for your perseverance and inspiration. I want to thank those who have made it their life's mission to honor and provide for the support and care of our great Vets. Lastly, I would like to thank all the Veterans who serve to protect this great nation— past, present, and future.
Happy Veterans Day!
Ret Sgt Pete Damon
Top: "Brockton Bay Windows" by Peter Damon, Bottom: Three Hayley Lever NYC scenes
Though I have many, many different art influences, I would have to say that the artists who've had the most significant influence on my work are the early 20th century American realists. Artists like Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, George Bellows, Edward Hopper, and so many more have had a profound effect on my painting style. I have a good sized library of art books to which I am constantly adding and from which I am forever referencing. As a largely self- taught artist, I have essentially taught myself to paint by constantly studying these past American greats. Among this group is an Australian- American painter named Hayley Lever. I presently own two publications on Lever which are filled with vibrant, color reproductions of his unique style.
Lever arrived in New York City in 1912 and painted views of the Hudson River, Times Square and Central Park. Upon discovering the American east coast, he painted in Gloucester, MA for several summers and at Marblehead, MA. He developed a spontaneous, bold painting style, and he was accepted into a circle of those aforementioned emerging greats including : Robert Henri, William Glackens, John Sloan and George Bellows. He exhibited with this group regularly, but eventually left New York to settle in Massachusetts.
From 1919 to 1931, Lever taught art classes at the Art Students League of New York where he maintained a Gloucester studio and often traveled to paint on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. He offered this message to his students: "Art is the re-creation of mood in line, form and color. If I were confined to my own back yard for the rest of my life, I'd still have more pictures in my mind than I would have time to paint. Art is nothing but having a good time."
Lever was inflicted with arthritis in his right hand in later life, which prevented him from further travel and forced him to concentrate on still-life subjects instead. As his arthritis advanced, he taught himself to paint with his left hand. However, following the death of his wife Aida in 1949, Lever was confined to his home, where he continued to paint from 1953 until his death in 1958.
So fast forward to 2018, when a 45 year old artist and disabled veteran (me) suddenly gets some attention on the national news and a NYC art collector sees the coverage, decides to search the artist out online and purchase a painting from him. The collector hangs the piece in his hallway amidst a triad of Hayley Lever NYC scenes (a subject matter of his highly sought after).
I can't begin to tell you how much this means to me. On some level, it is akin to having one of my paintings hanging in a museum. It validates the last 15 years of my life. To have one of my own paintings hanging in a space among such an icon of modernism has literally left me speechless and I am forever grateful to all those collectors out there who have invested their hard-earned income in my work. It is the artist's goal to make a connection with the viewer and when it genuinely happens, there is nothing more gratifying.
Welcome to my new website! In the weeks and months to come, I'll be posting any new original paintings, prints, and news events here. Click the 'ARTWORK' tab to see what's available now. I'm offering free shipping for the rest of July. Allow two weeks processing and delivery on giclee print orders.