Why Paint?

“Wittgenstein…had the concept of what he called the unspeakable. He said philosophy operates in the realm of the speakable, but eventually we must confront that which cannot be said…and that’s where real authenticity then flows back into the world of community and speech. But it comes from a place of utter silence and unsayability. How could it be otherwise? What hubris it would be to expect that the small mouth noises of English could encompass being. That’s a primary error that all philosophy chooses to makes at the beginning of its enterprise in order to…set up shop at all. These are lower dimensional slices of a reality that is ultimately unitary, ineffable, unspeakable and dazzling.”
said by Terrence McKenna as part of a talk heard here


I was 30 when I quit language for the first time. That’s when I picked up painting. Here’s the story:

I graduated from college in 1994 with an interdisciplinary degree which just means I changed my mind a lot about who I thought I was. As I switched the tassel on my flat top hat from one side to the other, the door to my future opened up into the abyss. I realized that every single inclination I had toward any action—from career choice to relationships to leisure activities—I could not trust as truly mine. When I imagined myself doing something, I found that what I was really imagining was how I would appear doing the thing. Different ideas had different audiences. None of them were me. This was terrifying. I also read Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums at this time and an on-the-road type of life that involved writing and meditating seemed like, if not a route to truth, at least not phony.

I quit my job, sold my Dodge Colt, left my roommate in our apartment to pay the rent by herself, bought a VW bus to live in, a notebook to write in, and started obsessively doing stream-of-consciousness writing. It kind of worked. I wrote things I had never thought before. Images rolled out in my mind’s eye and onto the page simultaneously. It felt like I was constructing a self from the raw material of being.

I ended up in various cabins in woods in Mendocino County and spent my 20s filling notebooks with sentences, my looping cursive barreling through line after blue line. There was an endless supply of words. They piled up on top of me, tied me up in my own mind. I traveled to some very far reaches psychically, but I couldn’t find a place inside that felt like home.

By the end of the decade, writing became a terrible burden. I wanted it to take me somewhere real and it was only taking me farther into abstraction. I wouldn’t have articulated it that way at the time, because all I really knew was abstraction. I just felt trapped.

At 29 I made what felt like the most momentous decision of my life. I quit writing, without any other plan for fulfilling my destiny or identifying myself.  What had been my lifeline had become a shitty tuna net choking an innocent dolphin. I was the dolphin.

Then it happened.

In the weeks after I stopped writing, I had a mystical awakening. Or maybe I was just relieved to not be living under constant pressure. Maybe that’s the same thing. But, you know the YouTube videos where blind people are given special glasses that let them see for the first time, and they are just looking around in awe, double, triple, quadruple taking at the wonder of sight and form and color? My experience of seeing was like that. It was like, once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see amazing grace. The seeing itself felt deeply meaningful. There was nothing to be said or thought. The world was luminous and numinous. Being and form were the same.

Hearing Terrence McKenna say what he said reminded me of this time (that has faded or maybe I just got used to it) and gave me some philosophical context for my thoughts about the process and purpose of painting. The place I go in painting (in the best moments) IS “unitary, ineffable, unspeakable and dazzling.” Then we talk about them, trying to say what can’t be said, but we know it when we see it and seeing it makes us remember that even if we can’t say it, it’s still there. Then there’s how thinking we can say it can keep us from seeing it. Let’s keep seeing and saying in balance. I just said a lot. See???