Lecture at Davenport College, Yale University, New Haven, CT, February 4, 2006.
Deciding to call this show "Encounters and Memories," seems to have been a multi-determined choice. The memories part of the title obviously refers to the flood of recalled experience that occurs when someone revisits a place that was extremely meaningful. Now, as a result of the recent renovations to the college buildings, it's quite clear that although Davenport College still has the same street address, it's not the same place at all. For example, we now have this nice new little gallery adjacent to the Common Room, and this show, in part, represents an alumnae way of celebrating it.
The emotional power of this particular address, however, was not evident to me until this fall, when my son as a sophomore moved into the lower courtyard, where I lived during my own sophomore year. And, when I see how the beautiful new underground recreational rooms have so transcended their former life as the steam tunnels – and that the Davenport Press now occupies a beautiful stone-lined suite – it convinces me that alumni should encourage change by all means.
When I entered Yale, it was undergoing a different sort of renovation: the first year that it decided to open its doors to women. There is no doubt in my mind that the process of adding women to an institution that had epitomized male leadership for over 250 years sparked a major renewal of energy and excitement. This made it a particularly stimulating time to be on campus. And more than most entering students, the 288 female freshmen had little idea of what to expect. Certainly, I hadn’t expected to become an artist when I started here. I just got lucky and found the art department during my search for an interesting diversity of classes. So, I guess the first lesson I'd like to point out is that it is good to be open to unexpected opportunities. It just might be that you select a class because it sounds like a diverting elective and it turns out to be what you spend the rest of your life doing.
So, I encountered a campus in change, made friends, and found a profession that I could pursue. But there's another kind of encounter that I want to discuss. Recent brain research has confirmed what artists and writers have observed for a long time–vivid memories are engendered by strong emotional encounters. For visual artists, this kind of encounter starts with looking at something or someone with a lot of intensity. In a way, the drawing or painting is the memory of the artist's engagement with the subject. In this talk I'm going to discuss two specific encounters in my life, both starting here at Yale and both with ongoing effects on my artwork. One encounter is with a philosopher, Martin Buber, and one is with a tree here in the lower courtyard at Davenport College.
In terms of the philosopher, it started with a frustrating experience during my freshman year. I had come here hungry to read everything that I could and the Directed Studies program presented me with a wonderful menu of offerings. One of the many assignments in my philosophy section was Martin Buber's work, "I and Thou." Although I generally enjoyed digging into the philosophy assignments, this work was impenetrable to me. It was clearly one of those moments when one feels "I don't belong here since I can't make any sense out of this." And so, I put the work aside for a while, quite a while, in fact. And then last year, when Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, who is preparing a new translation, offered a course on "I and Thou" at my synagogue’s Lehrhaus, I signed right up. At last, I'd get the chance to open that wooden box of Buber's thought. And, after a lot of re-reading, I've now found a way into some of the book's passages. I have to say that it still helps to have a knowledgeable guide, just as it did in college.
The part that I want to touch on today is Buber's description of the world “relation,” which I will explain in a simplified way. Buber distinguishes between two ways of viewing other beings. We can encounter another being as an object, as an "it," or we can encounter that being as having an alternate presence and power, as authentic as our own being. Buber calls this second kind of relation "I-You," or archaically, "I-Thou." There are three levels of encounter: the first and most accessible is with nature; the second is with other humans; and third is with the divine. Each of these levels prepares us for the successive level. So that in practicing authentic encounter with nature we gain the knowledge of how to progress to other people and into our search for God. This is a very Jewish approach in that one seeks God in the world, by going through the world rather than withdrawing from it. But this also echoes what most religions teach, which is mindfulness.
For me, art-making is a form of mindfulness. And luckily for me, the example selected by Buber to represent an encounter with nature is: a tree. Louis Ginzberg has remarked that "A reader discovers nothing in ancient texts that the reader isn't already looking for." And so, although I had been looking determinedly at trees for many years as I drew or painted them, I was still startled when after 37 years I read again Buber's words, "I contemplate a tree."
Three of my paintings here show trees near my studio. This sycamore is across the street from it. The apple tree painting has my neighbor's house in the background. The blue bamboo grove I depict is from the Huntington Gardens in nearby San Marino, California. But most of my drawings in this gallery are inspired by one particular tree, which is very close to you, the large Ash in Davenport's lower courtyard.
I photographed this tree when I was visiting last October and these works are based on my encounter with the tree during that visit. Now, when I was an undergraduate, I probably walked right by that tree hundreds of times and I don't think that I was truly aware of it even once. It's likely that I noticed its budding in the spring and its color in the fall, but it remained just one part of the campus background, a thing between the pathway and the brick wall that separates Davenport from Pierson College. The tree was an IT – not really significant as something in itself. But when I returned last fall, full of the sentimental swell of seeing Davenport College again, I realized how students come and go but the trees stay on, sometimes even during the extensive renovations that the Yale campus has been undergoing. With that recognition, the tree turned from being an IT to me, to being a YOU, or a “Thou.” The tree now has a different kind of presence in my mind.
I wanted to find a way to share my experience of this tree with you, to awaken you to an appreciation of this individual tree. I wanted you to become conscious of it not just as part of the background surroundings but also as a being in itself. So, I made these these artworks because it is the best way that I have of communicating my experience.
Buber catalogs the various ways a tree can be experienced, all of which eventually dissolve away before the full acknowledgement of the tree as another being. I'd like to read a brief excerpt, from Walter Kauffman's translation of Buber –
"I contemplate a tree...
"I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground. I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air-and the growing itself in darkness ...
"There is nothing that I must not see in order to see and there is no knowledge that I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused.
"Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars – all this in its entirety. . . What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself."
While my artwork is frequently influenced by my reading, this book and this set of drawings have a stronger correspondence than usual and so I felt comfortable borrowing quotes from the text to name various paintings. For example, one drawing is entitled Conversation with the Elements and another is called Conversation with the Stars.
Now what I am hoping is that when you go outside you have a heightened comprehension of that tree. And if you see that one tree differently, then you will carry with you the possibility of a keener awareness of each and every tree that you walk by.
Finally, there is another thought I'd like you to take with you this afternoon and that is about a sense of continuity through our cultivation of trees. This tree was planted well before my time and it has been enjoyed by at least fifty years of students. Similarly, the desire to study philosophy and art were planted in my childhood and nourished substantially here. Some of you are new to Yale College, relatively speaking, but it is now up to you to think about what you are planting in yourselves and what trees you wish to plant outside yourselves for others to enjoy after you have moved on.