Morning Altars: Beauty From Impermanence
“Let grief turn our losses into beauty” -Martín Prechtel
I can feel her on the back of my neck, whispering to me that she’s arrived. I can sense the end is near and my adrenaline kicks in. I must finish before she devours it. My hours of meticulously placed work depend on her absence. I speak to her, sing to her, plea with her to be patient. To not arrive just yet. To let me finish what I started. Whether she listens or not, I’m abruptly aware of the limitations of my work. This won’t last. Which is perhaps why I fall in love with it even more.
I make art that has a full life: A beginning, middle, and ending. Every morning, I wander outside my front door, into the hills of Wildcat Canyon in California, and make earth art. What distinguishes my creations is that because they are alive, they are also impermanent, and their endings are inevitable. After seconds or hours, the art is scattered to the wind, the rain, the animals, or it shrivels up and dies. As much as I try to protect my work, to make the pieces last just a little longer, I know that impermanence is a part of their existence.
In short: The art never survives.
Morning Altars are intended to be that way, but that doesn’t make it any easier on my heart. Impermanence is a real bitch sometimes, but also a fierce and honest teacher.
One time, many years ago, I had the audacity to make the ultimate ephemeral art. I hiked up a hill near my home, high enough that the San Francisco Bay peeked out in the distance. There I experimented with making an altar out of pale gray mourning dove feathers.
The wind is no stranger to these hilltops, and often the gusts of wind exceed 30 to 40 mph. That day the wind was temperamental, shifting from relaxed and agreeable to blustery and full, and as I sat there with a basket full of bark and leaves and these delicate feathers that were made for flight, I asked the impossible: Would you be willing to stay awhile — long enough to look like the art of my imagination?
I knew that the real negotiation wasn’t with the feathers, but with the gusty sleeping giant herself. Without any promises but with a whole lotta nerve, I went to work for hours.
When completed, that particular altar, ripe with feathers, looked precisely like the art I had intended. It existed just long enough for me to snap a photograph and, poof, it was gone. A single, solid rush of wind took the whole thing, leaving behind only the bark, akin to the bare bones of what was once a living body.
Looking down at what was lost, I cried out, heartbroken, yet in awe. So much effort to create something, and it was only here for such a meager amount of time, making it unbelievably precious and valuable. Because my art is temporary, I see creating it as a ritual. And I’ve learned to weave the heartache into the art and convert the loss into more ritualized, life-giving beauty.
Indigenous cultures all over the world have rituals that convert the people’s sorrow into beauty. From the sand mandalas of Tibet and the flower and food rangolis of India to the despachos of Peru, traditions of creating impermanent beauty to feed life and the holy are part of earth-based cultures around the world. Ritually crafting beauty from heartbreak is a key and often forgotten ingredient in metabolizing loss and maintaining a healthy human culture.
Our modern society is profoundly impoverished in this department. We long to believe in and encourage the foreverness of things, like the puer aeternus (eternal boy), and avoid any signs of limitations and endings. Grief is the unwanted evidence that something “bad” has happened.
Much effort is spent to keep things young, acquire the new, preserve the beautiful, and prevent flaw. Cracks, holes, imperfections, and especially the old and withered have no purpose in our consumer culture. We hide, heal, cover, and conceal them in an effort to avoid the deep grief of losing what we love.
I believe Morning Altars is a ritualized, artistic response to this poverty. By creating impermanent art, I get to exercise a willingness to look at all of life, even the part I’d rather not. I gaze upon my art, which I love and wish could go on indefinitely, but with the knowledge that it won’t.
Elder and author Martín Prechtel says in his book, The Smell of Rain on Dust: “Grief is praise because it is a natural way love honors what it misses.”
What if we, in our modern culture, could let the waters of grief nourish the hole that loss leaves, making a revived beauty in its stead? What if we raised up that hole and filled it with something magnificent that honors and beautifies the loss? The Japanese art practice of Kintsugi is the act of repairing broken pottery with lacquer-dusted gold as a way to behold the cracks as valuable and to praise the whole life of the vessel, rather than disguise its flaws.
My dear friend and wonderer, Tad Hargrave, says it like this: “I think we’re supposed to become magnificent at being broken-hearted, to let ourselves feel and express the depth of the grief and to make something worthy of it to remind the world how beautiful it is to still be alive and have what we have.”
My art is my expression of life. Every altar tells a story and evokes a spirit of the time and place it was born. Some were built to honor a milestone, such as the birth of my best friend’s baby; others were built to metabolize hard and heavy emotions, and still many were created just to bring more beauty onto the land and to my day.
In the fullness of their expression, they don’t last. But their memory, like a seed, survives in the photographs, stories, and blessings of each altar, and that memory inspires me and others across the world to continue to turn our losses into beauty. This way, we not only create more beautiful art, but also become more whole.