The Memory of Things

Here’s something I’ve been wondering. Is it possible to feel an artist’s intention through a work of art? In other words, does art hold the memory of the hands that made it?

Stop Making Sense

Yes, I know I’ve been missing in action for a couple months (no, not ready to go there yet) and now I’m hitting you up with this bit of metaphysical silliness. But the idea that things carry the memory of their creator has been on my mind for some time now.

Maybe it’s this time of year, my favorite time of year: short, cold days and long quiet nights that beg for stories to be conjured. 

And so, here are a few winter stories, just for you…

One: The Art of Sushi

Jan Weiss Sushi Manifesto
"Sushi Manifesto" by Jan Weiss

Years ago, my friend Quang Ho and I were eating at a sushi place we love. We sat at the bar, in front the owner, Toshi, who was making the most beautiful plates of food, each morsel a tiny mouth-watering sculpture.

Needless to say, we ate until bursting and then ate some more. Quang and Toshi, who had known each other for years, caught up on family and friends and the art world. But Toshi was visibly irritated throughout the course of our meal.

Suddenly, he nodded toward a chef at the other end of the bar and said he would never eat that man’s food. We were puzzled. The offending chef was gregarious and had the couples in front of him in stitches. Toshi shook his head, disgusted. He said that people in Japan will wait in line for hours to order sushi from their favorite chef because each chef puts his intention into the food. The gregarious chef, Toshi said, was not paying attention to his work; he was more interested in being the center of attention. Because of this, that chef’s food would surely induce indigestion.

Two: The Sound of the Ocean

I am 7 or 8 years old, standing on a beach washed in the guazy light of a summer sun, the sound of the waves lulling me into drowsy contentment. 

Here, give me your hands, my father says. I reach up and he sets a conch shell on my open palms. The magnificent shell is sun-bleached on the outside but as I turn it over there, inside, it is smooth and pink and curves and spirals in on itself. What a beautiful puzzle.

Hold it to your ear, I am told. Shh. Do you hear it? That’s the sound of the ocean, the  sound of the waves. The shell remembers the waves and sings when you hold it to your ear.

How sublime! And yet how sad to carry a memory as a song for anyone who picks you up to enjoy while you wait helplessly to be returned to your home.

"Luminous Conch," Stephanie K Johnson

I don’t know why I looked up this phenomenon of shells and the sound of waves, but according to an article in Live ScienceTrevor Cox, a professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford in the United Kingdom explained it this way:

“The seashell is like a wind instrument. It has a set of resonant frequencies where the air inside the shell will vibrate more strongly. Hold the shell to your ear, and it is those frequencies in the ambient sound that get amplified. Because the sound changes, your brain pays attention to it.”

Yeah, whatever, Trevor… 

Three: The Song of a Soul

Jump ahead for our next story. A tale from this summer past, remembered in the twilight moments before I drift off to sleep, my dog Buster lying next to me, his old, achy body curled up close to mine. He is warm and asleep in moments while I try to get comfortable without disturbing him. Finally, I lay a hand on his back and breathe with him, slow and deep. 

In the morning, I wake carefully feeling him next to me. He doesn’t stir. This is new. He is always the first to wake but now he sleeps late and waits until the last possible moment before leaving the warmth of the bed. 

He is here this week then back to stay with my ex, who doesn’t let him sleep in the bed. But even after he leaves, it’s like he’s here because I see him in the usual places and talk to him before I catch myself. Oh, right, I am talking to a memory.

How surreal, to feel his presence in his absence, in the middle of the night and throughout the day, to catch a glimpse of his ear twitching from where he normally sleeps on the couch with his paws resting over his nose. 

Maybe it’s nothing more than my deep desire to have him back but the memory of him is so vivid that, for a few unhurried moments before reality comes sharply into focus, I know he is with me. 

It was selfish, maybe, to keep him alive for so long. But what a burden to make a decision for a being who cannot express his own desire. His heart was giving out, the vet said. Yes, but he’s still eating and happy, I replied. My boys agreed and added, He’s happy and active, so why are you writing him off?

Looking back, I think Buster kept going because it was his job to watch over us. On the day he passed from this world, I held him and told him we would be ok, he could go. I didn’t believe a word of it.  

It’s been months and here, in the heart of the winter, the physical sensation of his presence is still sentient. And no, I don’t believe in ghosts, not exactly. What I’m suggesting is that I think people, animals, and even certain objects carry a spirit–an echo, maybe–that we can feel and connect to whether the living, breathing body is there or not. 

“Dogs come into our lives to teach us about love. They depart to teach us about loss. A new dog never replaces an old dog, it merely expands the heart.” -Erica Jong

Four: The Here After

My friend Cathy came over a couple weeks ago. Late afternoon coffee turned into dinner followed by cups of tea. We curled up like cats on either end of the sofa and talked into the evening. At some point, I can’t remember why or how, the conversation turned to the afterlife.

Do you believe in reincarnation, I asked, sensing she was headed there but unsure of whether to broach the topic. I do, she said, yes, I do. In fact, she added, I’ve learned I had past lives.

I do like the idea of reincarnation, partly, because I was raised Catholic and never felt satisfied with the tight-laced answers the church offered. I am now more of a traveler through other mythologies and have come to believe that if there is a god and a divine order to life, that god would have to be, first and foremost, hysterically funny and second, way, way, waaayy smarter than all of humankind put together.  

So, why not past lives and the recycling of souls? It’s a rather comforting notion, isn’t it? I’ve even read that, in the ranking of past lives from young souls to old souls, when you make it to the level of dog, you’ve reached your highest incarnation and can finally come to peace. I like this idea best of all. 

Five: A Creation Myth

Let’s say we are surrounded by souls and that we are souls on our own private journey just trying to figure it all out–that the physical body is a vessel from which we will move on–could that also mean that we can impart our spirit (or the impression of our spirit) into the things we touch?

People bring their own baggage to every experience especially when looking at art. I talk about this in my blog, Defending the First Artist In. But I’m not sure that fully explains the abrupt sensation an onlooker has when standing in front of certain works of art. The same can be said about music, literature and poetry, though I think visual art, because it doesn’t move past you in the same way, allows viewers to tune in differently. 

"The Horse Rider," Marc Chagall, National Galleries of Scotland

Six: What the Dickens?

Maybe it’s the Ebenezer Scrooge effect. You know how Scrooge denied the first ghost of his dead business partner by telling him he was a bit of bad porridge? It took three more ghosts before Scrooge could see the path he was blindly headed down and how he had missed the true joy of connection with others. But it’s never too late!

So, what about this? What if, in the process of creating art, an artist surrenders to a truth, which is the authentic voice of his or her soul? And what if, in doing so, observers throughout time who come with open hearts and minds can take part in the experience the artist had in the creation of this art? Is it possible then that looking at art might be akin to walking with spirits?

Yes, maybe art is simply a shell that, instead of echoing the sounds of the shifting winds blowing past, reflects the mind looking in. 

I think, though, because it’s winter and because I like a good tale, that maybe the objects we make with our hands, the things that we pour our life’s knowledge, understanding, intentions, and love into, maybe those things carry a piece of our soul, which can be felt and heard without words by those souls who are open and ready to settle in for a long winter’s eve to hear a story.

Wishing you the happiest of holidays. And, as always, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below. 

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Curator, writer, and strategist for artists and non-profits, Rose Fredrick has spent the last three decades producing exhibitions that have not only raised considerable funds for scholarships and education, but have also launched artists’ careers. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications and her essays and interviews have been used in workshops, college courses, and museum exhibitions. She has won the National Endowment for the Arts grant, Rock West Curator of the Year, Denver’s The Big Read, Best Multicultural Book from the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards, and was a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards.

10 thoughts on “The Memory of Things

  1. beautiful Rose! here’s a thought….you wrote…
    “could that also mean that we can impart our spirit (or the impression of our spirit) into the things we touch?”
    What if we ARE those things, projecting whatever our thoughts and beliefs are…..???? thoughtful stuff here, thanks!

  2. Sandra Eckstein

    Happy Holidays !! Interesting stories & viewpoints !! The soul of an Artist does resonate throughout years ….or so I believe. Reincarnation : I will be happy to be return as a dog but I truly want to return as a Male Racehorse who wins the Triple Crown, and gets to retire to a warm comfortable stable of brood mares !! (Just a thought I had while working two jobs to support my son & myself ) Thanks for the good reads !!

    • Thank you, Theresa! Now I’m curious about other cultures who embrace this mindset. I suspect a lot of people individually think of cooking as a way to pass on one’s love for the people who come to their table. I know I do.

  3. There is a painting that I visit and have done for about 40 years. It’s a late Rembrandt self-portrait in London’s National Gallery. It is a painting of a man looking at himself with honest unflinching eyes, eyes that had seen a lifetime, and eyes that were responsible for some of the greatest paintings ever made. 450 years or so old, the paint is indisputable and fresh as morning. The face that looks back at you is one that holds so much understanding and humanity I have found myself for searching it for answers. I stood in front of it before deciding to move to the States, and when my father’s health was failing. Who is it I’m in silent conversation with? The artist Laurie Anderson floats the idea that when someone dies, they turn into something else. Could this be a poem, music, or an ordinary object so infused with memories it becomes charged with meaning? Surely this painting has full memory of its maker, and maybe more.

    • I think this is exactly right, that we become something else. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests this same thing in that the body physically transforms into something else–it is never really gone, just in a new form. I think this is what makes authentic art so important: it’s like you recognizing and understanding your own circumstance in a Rembrandt; art lives to connect us with the past and with our humanity.

  4. I don’t know if others feel the intention that I put into my paintings, but whenever I see one, I remember what was going on when I was painting it. It is almost tangible, and I wonder if others feel it too. I was recently at a show opening of mine in NYC and there is a painting that I made to honor and remember our dog Petey who died last May. It is a painting that embodies the joy that he brought to this life. Almost every person who came in the gallery that night was drawn to that painting. Some commented, some not, it was interesting to listen. But it seems that they felt the joy of Petey, and were drawn to it.

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