“Reflection Upon Life” feels like one of those paintings where an explanation is quite unnecessary yet offers whole new layers of meaning that could potentially bring the artwork to life. The choice whether to read on or just look at the image or, perhaps, a little of both in whatever order best suits you, is yours entirely and this too is part of its metaphor.
A year in the making, this artwork had driven me to distraction for months by the time it got close to completion and was nearly scrapped many times. It began as a seed of inspiration on seeing one of those oh-so fashionable butterflies pinned inside a glass frame in a shop window in Amsterdam…only this turned out to be no butterfly but, rather, a “humble”- if quite spectacular moth; a Madagascan Sunset Moth to be precise. This easy mistake became part of its metaphor because of the way it made manifest how we tend to assume things and to regard even the most natural things within some sort of hierarchical context (butterflies “superior to” moths, flowers “preferable” to weeds and so on). Here was the most spectacular “butterfly” I had ever seen and it wasn’t even what it looked like; it made me laugh.
It might also be assumed that it has impressively coloured wings when, actually, the most vivid parts of those wings have no pigment at all but are actually made up of zillions of miniscule prisms which reflect the light of the world around it. You could say, it takes whatever is most readily available in its environment and transforms this into what you see before you; this awe-striking display of iridescence. It struck me as all the more ironic, therefore, that this shop-window was anything but its natural environment yet there it was in a shop that was closed for the day, overlooking concrete pavements and all the dreary traffic flow of downtown Amsterdam and it was still the most vivid thing in the vicinity. I often navigate my holidays by interesting sunset scenarios yet this was a new one for me.
When I came upon this moth, a tree outside the dark shop interior was reflecting on the glass of its frame so that, at certain angles, it seemed to be escaping; dematerialising back into its component colours and making its getaway to the outside world and beyond. Or, I also considered, it might actually be materialising before my very eyes, choosing its own “butterfly” wings in daubs of paint-like colour that gradually organised themselves into what I was seeing take shape. Out of the blandest surroundings, it seemed to be aspirationally manifesting itself, choosing its own parts, its particular colours and wishful thinking itself to a pair of spectacular wings…just like a caterpillar does during metamorphosis. You could also say, just as we get to do every day…
Either way, the potential metaphor of it started to present itself to me from that moment and, everywhere I looked, there were butterflies juxtaposed with glass – inside frames or live ones inside greenhouses at the botanic gardens I love to visit….but were these really any more free beneath their glass ceiling than the sunset moth? My encounters with relevant “material” to take this theme further continued for exactly a year across trips to Amsterdam, Stockholm and back to England where, the very week I felt like I was about to finish it but only wished I could just get the colours just a little bit closer to what I remembered (photographs do no justice to what you see with your eyes), we stayed in a small hotel in Hastings owned by a guy who turned out to be quite the butterfly enthusiast. There…on the wall…was another Madagascan Sunset Moth (though even he assumed it was a butterfly), pinned inside a glass frame in a room that only a last-minute impulse took me into five minutes before we were due to leave; I literally gasped to see it there. While I was both saddened and thrilled to find it, once again, in a frame on the wall, the repeat opportunity to really study the wings up close was like a signal that I was ready to go home and complete this painting now, and so I did. It had been one year – to the day! – since I came home from Amsterdam with the burning intention to put what I had encountered in a shop window onto canvas and now it was about to take flight.
When I started work on this one, of course, I began with my photography but it was the experience of that shop window that was really informing my intentions and painting “what is asking to be known” out of an experience is not necessarily the same as going after the extreme realism that a photo could deliver, as some artists do (I long-ago parted ways with making that the aim of my art). The more I kept “true” to the photography, the less the painting seemed to work. The more I followed my own internal map, what I believed I had seen, what it meant to me and what it had to show me at the deeper levels, the more I took tenuous yet profound steps forwards in my painting process. Even then, my frustration ebbed and flowed with this artwork and, at one point, I put it away for probably six months or more, not really knowing if I would ever get it back out on the easel again.
What the painting seemed to want to get me to work through…with my brushes…was my own hemispherical state-of-being and how this was working out for me (or not) as a human being that lives predominantly in the right hemisphere of the brain and struggles most with the physical world. Very quickly, I knew what I was looking at here (in the beginning…) was an almost irreconcilable split, in terms of the way that I experience the world, into two halves that weren’t collaborating as well as they could, however much I like to think of myself as an extremely balanced brain, the artist/spiritual-type with the fully-functioning intellect (and, in tests, I am exactly that). My reality is how that has been extremely hard to reconcile as a unified experience “in the world” and I have found many aspects of being human, not least my physical health, very challenging indeed whilst preferring to lose myself in the other-worldly pursuits that take me away from all that.
So, on one side of the composition is the crisp edged left-brained way of regarding the subject; detailed, precise, scientific you could say, complete with all the typical evidence of its three-dimensional existence, shadows included. On the right, the moth’s form is broken down into composite colours and arbitrary-seeming patterns that refuse to be hemmed-in and seem to want to float away off the corner of the canvas. This side of the moth over-spills its own edges to become part of a broader reality that includes all of nature and the patterns of light that inform a reality that exists way beyond the physical world… yet, as a figment of the three-dimensional world, it now appears less convincing and has become quite the abstract work of art. The shadow is absent on the moth’s right-side – something I found I wanted to celebrate – and yet it has merged almost entirely with the tree so that there is no clear distinction in places; in fact, they have become so interchangeable and both have started to surrender their identity or “label” in this half of the composition. This side of the painting stretched me the most in that it felt closer to what I was trying to convey and yet was harder to make “work” compositionally, which was telling.
What I also noticed was how the reflection of the tree was most distinct “through” the moth; that it was all-but mono chrome where it was reflected in the white areas of the frame but really came to life where it corresponded with the moth’s wing, using the moth’s colours to paint out its own leaves. The resultant patterns are a collaboration of two distinct forms merged in union to the extent they are losing their individual identities yet have become more than the sum of their parts, a theme I have explored many times.
This also seemed to suggest that the way that the impulse for life (that most fundamental urge to express selfhood as matter) will use whatever is most available, without preference, to realise that potential but can only do so “through” living things and will choose the most accessible and abundantly available means to take the shape that it claims for itself. Here that impulse is more apparent where the moth and tree coincide because, you could say, this provides twice as much substance for source to express through. In this way, Pure potential (as explored in my last painting) is literally drawn through living things as the means of exploring and expressing itself and seeing the moth in this pared down version of itself was like witnessing the universal impulse for life take shape before my very eyes.
This harked back to the age old question, does anything really exist except in so far as it appears in relationship with sentient life forms or, you could say “through” us….and what I was seeing certainly supported that the (reflected) world was realised in a much more vivid way “through” the form of the moth rather than the vacant portions of the frame. You could argue that this moth was no longer alive but there is something about the fact that its “butterfly” wings continue to reflect light that made them seem to be alive whatever (and this is perhaps why butterflies in frames are so popular). All of this spiralled into thoughts about the nature of consciousness that I played with endlessly while I painted.
For all the months that I worked on this piece like a painting-meditation, I played with themes like these or, rather, let them play with me and, in doing so, found that I edged ever closer to recognising my own truth. To get even close to completing this painting I had to embrace both realities (“left” and “right” brained versions; you could just as easily say “male” and “female” or “scientific” and “spiritual” or “logical” and “artistic”…) within one “whole” and I knew I was being asked to consider that both sides were viable, appealing and certainly not “wrong” as ways of experiencing the world; in fact, they are entirely complementary, a partnership, joined in the middle like a pair of wings allowing what joins them together to “fly”. In ways that were highly relevant to where I was in my personal circumstances, I was being shown how my human, physical reality was as valid and desirable as anything that I might consider “spiritual” or “other worldly” and that, to get the most out of this existence (or “take off”, you could say), I needed to go after the very same level of integrative balance that I had been seeking with my paintbrush all these many months.
It was about then that the painting got put away as it still wasn’t “working” as an aesthetic piece of artwork for hanging on the wall; something still didn’t look right and I had nowhere else to go with it…for the time being. My inner “spiritual know-it-all” wanted to say I had achieved the ideal in splitting this creature down the middle and allowing both the form and the dissolving of form to be equally valid realities, joined diplomatically in the middle like two neatly enclosed compartments of possibility. To start messing with that status quo in the name of a higher aesthetic seemed to make the painting’s underlying meaning messy and pointless, its metaphor lost. Looking back, I see how a tug of war was still occurring inside of me, my left and right-brained perspectives refusing to reach a workable compromise that allowed for both “sides” to take equal part in the peace-negotiations; they were meeting in the middle yet they weren’t really allowing each other’s perspective into their own. I was still trying to make things far too academic while my right brain was being told it had to continue playing second-fiddle to the left and so I diplomatically put it (the painting and all it represented…) into storage and almost forgot about it for a very long time. Of course, that was my “problem”, my very “stuck-point” (like the pin in the moth), holding me to something that prevented either sides of who I am from taking off and flying.
When I brought the canvas back out into the light and started to play with it again, it was under the influence of a far less rigid stance (newly arisen out of many month’s personal evolution) allowing that each “side” could now cross over onto the other side and mix with it…in fact the composition depended on it to go any further. With a touch of softening light like gentle clouds passing through on the moth’s left side, a little more solidity, structure and assertion of boundaries on its right, it all started to come together into a newer version of wholeness based upon an interchange of perspectives, an amicable overlap, a seeking of common ground and a reappraisal (or allowance) of each other’s specialisms…making room for both left and right perspectives according to requirement, not some sort of territorial line drawn in the sand.
From this point onwards, I simply painted what looked right from the overall aesthetic, not necessarily what my camera had captured at the time or what was either logical and accurate (on one side) or attractive in a purely abstract way (on the other). When it came to those left-sided shadows, I placed them where I felt they needed to be and allowed that there might be contradiction in that; that the shadow wanted to be deeper closer to the moth’s core and much lighter around the wings (and noticed how this told me something about how we all tend to assume that our shadow is much more darker, more defining than it really is). The photographic references that I had started painting from had long-since been dispensed with and it had been many months since I had even glanced at them. I was working intuitively, applying colour and light wheresoever they felt right and allowing this process to take as long as it wanted; never rushing it to premature conclusion or forcing it to a timetable. In fact, I finished this painting three times, loading it up to my website ready to launch…only to realise something else needed changing or that it wasn’t quite there yet; it taught me patience like no other I have ever worked on before.
The glass frame that the subject was meant to be “in” was a very obvious metaphor but one that had more layers than I originally realised. Of course, it struck me at first how the moth was trapped in there and (ideally) “needed” to get out, to be free. It then occurred to me that, on its right side at least, it already was free and the way I had managed to capture it – merged with the reflection of the tree – had been its way of showing me that its state of being was not conditional upon any circumstance such as so-called “imprisonment” in a physical sense; that such a thing was a merely an idea that could be transcended by consciousness. Then I played with the idea that the moth in its frame was – like all of us – caught up in a reality that appeared to present the sky as the only limit (its “view” open to the tree and the sky beyond) and yet, really, it had a glass ceiling above its head; did it know that? Its reality was also determined by the sides of a frame that prevented it from “seeing” any further than it was “allowed to” (you could say, it was being held in by its belief system and that of the world order that it exists within) and so I continued to play with identifying ways that this kind of circumstance is a limitation to my reality or that of any of us while we continue to hold beliefs and trust that “what we see” is all there is to anything. After all, realising all the boxes we are “kept in”and noticing all the false walls and glass ceilings we are subjected to, then taking steps to exist beyond them, is the first step to attaining unlimited consciousness and true liberty.
The one detail of the original photograph that I left out was the label stating “Urania Ripheus Madagascar”. To start with, my intention was to include this as a way of playing with our obsession with capturing, possessing, pinning-down and labelling things. Did the label define what the moth was, did the moth care that it had been given a label, did its colours shine any differently because of such a label, does the label have any meaning outside of a three-dimensional context, does it actually limit what we know about it? Then I tried distorting or curling-up the label on its right side or, perhaps, blanking its letters out with some of the reflected light. None of these seemed to add anything to the composition; they felt like they were trying much too hard to make a point and so I listened to the more abstract artist in me and dispensed with the label altogether…which, in itself, had something meaningful to tell me about how left and right approaches to art (and life) differ and do so much better together when they actually talk to one another!
Then, of course, there was that all-important pin through the moth’s middle – a detail I felt as quite the personal affront when I first saw that such a beautiful creature was stabbed into its frame by a dressmakers pin as if it was no more than a brooch on a hat. Yet it felt so important to include it here as part of the context for the composition. It seemed to remind me of oh-how much we all feel pinned down to something, how it feels just like that thing goes straight through the heart of us and yet we usually feel there is absolutely nothing we can do about it (we all seem to have that thing). But then, the more I worked on the painting, the more my indignation softened because I came to realise how small and insignificant that pin was; it was nothing to the “whole” consciousness I felt like I was now representing with my brushes; a wholeness that sees things from both within the physical yet also from the infinite perspective – simultaneously. From such a viewpoint, no pin, nail, circumstance or handicap could ever be sufficient to hold you down to anything you didn’t agree to be held down to; it can all be overcome and turned into the best thing that ever happened to you when total collaboration of all perspectives is fully embraced. The complicit nature of consciousness; the level where we all consent to whatever is presenting as our “limited” reality, became tangibly manifest to me as I continued to work on this piece and I felt myself as though lifting out of the box as I understood this at the deepest level of my life so far.
My own biggest reconciliation came in the form of recognising the beauty of both sides of the composition but, especially, being forced to acknowledge how the moth was perhaps the most beautiful of all on the side depicting its wings in three-dimesional detail, conveying something of how those wings use tiny prisms to reflect and so work with the available light to create unlimited and ever-altering, iridescent combinations of colour formatted to every possibility imaginable. What this represented to me, in physical terms, excited me and reminded me how to be excited about the physical form we happened to have manifested as; even those of us without “butterfly” wings. The moth reminds us that the more light there is, the more those colour possibilities expand…endlessly; so, heading towards the light opens possibility up, for all of us. The moth had presented to me our human condition in its most fundamental terms; we are only ever limited by what we feel capable of reflecting out from ourselves using all the abundant light we gather along the way and we get to make of that light whatever colours, shapes and creations we choose.
Here’s another parallel with the human condition: it struck me that this was the most spectacularly colourful creature I had ever seen yet I sensed its complete oblivion (whether alive or not) to just how stunning it is. Did it ever see itself as we see it, our jaws dropped in awe; did it have any idea how arresting all the ever-changing colours of those wings are? No different to us really…we are all of those things that we see when we gaze at the wonder of a sunset but how many of us really see ourselves in the true light of all our sunset glory or even notice all the vast quantity of colour and light we reflect out into the world?
This three-dimensional “side” of the moth was so challenging to convey with any degree of authenticity – which bespeaks just how challenging it is to reproduce the natural, physical world using three-dimensional skills such as holding a paintbrush; it is quite astonishing how beautiful these moths really are “in the flesh”. Yes, even the shadows are a crucial part of this side of the moth, contrasting with the colour and light, creating its depth, enhancing its credibility as something of substance that you can hold in your hand and making it relatable to all other living forms because we all possess a shadow, don’t we? We can’t escape it; it is part of the deal of being here and to try and lose it is like running away from ourselves, making an enemy of the very thing that is allowing us to have this extraordinary experience of being alive. It came as a timely reminder to me to notice how the side of this composition that depicts the kind of physicality that I have long had such an ebb and flow relationship with (the shadow side being all of the issues I have had with my health) was actually my preferred aspect of this artwork and the one I came to respect the most having spent so long working at it. This realisation came just in time for a key stage in my own healing journey as I overcame aspects of my physical health (and to do with my desire to be here in human form…) that have long been a hindrance to fully functioning existence.
The final epiphany came as I was finishing the edges to the canvas, painting them white to complement the background. I only use “box frames” for certain paintings now, preferring to use such thick sided canvases on the rare occasion they are called-for as a complement to the subject and, for this one, a box-frame seemed most appropriate. It was only as I painted the deep sides of the canvas white at the end that I realised it seemed as though the deep-inset frame that the original moth was held “inside of” had been seemingly turned inside out in the process of painting it; an origami trick that made the inside become the outside and, in the process, releasing the moth from its glass-ceiling. My profound sense that the painting process had, indeed, aided the escape process through the well-travelled metaphors of my mind felt complete with this final realisation. The feeling was of something much more universal than “just a moth” having worked its way to new-found liberty via this process; in other words, my metaphor had much broader implications for both me and for where we are as a world at large…for we are all, in so many ways, working our way “out” of things that feel like they have held us pinned-down for so long. As such, I felt the sheer power of the journey it had taken me on much more so than the satisfaction of a painting finished, though I was glad to be able to say (at last) that it was done and so “release it” in the most literal sense that I know as an artist.
“Reflection on Life” can now be viewed on my art website www.helenwhite.org
The photography that inspired this work can be seen in my Flickr album Glass Butterflies here
For more winged themes in oil on canvas visit my website