Artist Talk - The mountain beneath the soul

Recently I had an art opening and poetry reading at a fantastic gallery space called, Phoenix. Here is the transcript of the talk I gave that evening.

“Welcome and thank you for coming. My name is David Nyquist. The art, writing and poetry you see tonight is mine.

I’d like to introduce myself tonight in a way maybe you don’t yet know me.  

I am a mystic

Being a mystic is a way of life -    not by religious order, but by a love for contemplation, quiet, and stillness. 

These “spaces” that I create throughout my life are not ends to themselves but doorways to a rich spirituality woven into the essence of the natural world. 

Spending time “awake” in the natural world has taught me how to receive a deep sense of belonging to my life that surpasses my insecurities, is helping me to overcome my selfish ambitions, and is freeing me to love more the things in this world that I find difficult to love.  To this transforming experience I ascribe the word “Belonging”.  This is a belonging that understands no national borders, nor any reason for shame.  It is the interconnectedness and interdependency of all creation.

I realize for some of you this sounds too woo woo; too high minded or idealistic to be of any practical good.  I will grant you that.   

And yet, in this place of belonging,   what I know is that if we all belong, and we are all different, then it is for some of us to write, to paint or to sing for the the high minded ideals that will restore our humanity, and for others to resonate with this inspiration and discover their part in the whole, their work on behalf of what is GOOD and right and just.

So, I am first a mystic.  My spiritual practices deeply inform my creative practices.  

My paintings are an attempt to capture the essence of what life feels like for me, and likely what life has felt like for you.  For example, I worked on the Marooned Series for several months.   

They are each distinct, and yet they came from a time in my life when I was learning how to trust the unknown and how to trust life and others when I am not control. Because the natural world is my great teacher, without conscious intent, I find myself using the imagery of oceans, fire, light and darkness to communicate my experience.

It was just 3 years ago that poetry found me. I was in Guatemala with a group of Westerners for an immersive experience into Societal Injustices for a Master’s program.  We were driving down a highway outside of Guatemala City - after leaving La Limonada, which is the largest slum in Central America.  I couldn’t keep it together. I pulled my hat over my eyes and wept silently for what I had seen. Moments later I had a pen and paper and was drafting this poem - La Miseria. 

La Miseria


Weave our way

into your tapestry of pain

through streets

     carved 

into the womb

     of a nation

daughters and sons

     of oppression 

fathers and mothers 

     whose confession

can not be written

     will not be heard

though their blood 

     cries out

          "No more words!”

It paints the walls

     and makes holy 

the stream

     at the bottom

of this ravine

     whose coarse is charted

by mounds of garbage

     and buried dreams

 Please,

     in your overcrowded

home 

     of discard 

and smoke

     across Devil's bridge

at the bottom of

     hope

make room for my heart

     I leave it with you

weave in me your

     unspoken truth

La Limonada, Guatemala City


Returning home I entered back into a world that seemed more upside down than the one I had just left.  Being American is a difficult identity to embrace when you consider the many genocides and human rights violations that have secured and continue to secure for us our land, resources and wealth.

My experience in Guatemala shook me awake, and pushed me deeper into the marriage of my spiritual and creative practices.  

One of the ways I learned to confront my grief and outrage was by taking slow walks. Slow walks happen at the sort of pace that makes other people wonder if there is something wrong with you. 

But a slow walk actually slows everything down; thoughts, heart rate, attention span, our bodies, and it helps create a present-moment awareness.

Here are three poems from three such walks.

Birdsong

I’m turned around, 

looking down the dirt path 

I have just tread.

Why did I come so far

unthinkingly? 

Some fear or grief 

arrested my mind

and stole my body 

as I strode the 

familiar path home.

I have no recollection 

of the paces which 

have brought me 

to this point.

The birdsong I long to know 

has yet to become my own.

Wasting the hours 

The evening sun is bright 

and I want 

an unvarnished look 

at my neighborhood. 


I’ve never noticed 

how this young tree 

bends toward the sidewalk 

just beyond the brace 

of its formative years. 


Further down the path 

I become the man 

spied by boys 

while tying his shoe. 


I am avoidant;

of their eyes 

(and the story 

they conjure about me);

of the smell of the estuary 

(as she purges herself of our shame);


of the cars reproval 

(for my slow, meandering way);


until this moment,

when the smell 

of some blossom 

stops me in my tracks,


and I linger like a fool 

with my nose in the air;


but it has gone,

and I 

for the life of me, 

cannot find it's source.

A Walk Within a Walk

Tracing my steps 

on a well worn path to sea

I can easily miss the beauty

as I pine for a mountain to climb. 

The sound of a jet plane above, 

an electric saw 

reverberating across the estuary,

a city shimmering on 

the bay in spring

as I seek the solitude 

of one alone with nature.

Time to begin again.


The mountain 

will soon rise before me, 

but not before the tide comes in, 

and with it an abundance of life.


I have come from 

the dust, mud, and clay, 

like the mustard flower,

the beetle, 

and the tide, 

which needs little help 

returning to shore.

Neither the writing, reading nor publishing of these poems, nor the making of paintings is enough to assuage my outrage over the many injustices in the world, and nor should they be.  

As much as I’d like my contemplative practices to heal the world of its ailments, both human and nonhuman, they really only serve to help me know how to better respond. There are times that a slow walk takes me further away from the point of inspiration I needed to find in my outrage and grief.  

This next poem is  A Keening for Liberty.  A keening is the sound of wailing you might hear at a funeral that goes on for days, in a place where they understand what to do with their grief.

A Keening for Liberty 

There are no new frontiers.  We have claimed them all. To 'own' untamed wild will cost us a lifetime of societal enslavement. 

Now 40 acres might suffice, but recompense has yet to come and so we wait (as sons and daughters do) for our parents to lead us into truth; but truth is lost on a piece of land somewhere between the coasts of my body. 

When we speak of such things it is better to ignore the tide that rises in the throat threatening to consume an honest reflection, lest perception be won by those who think that winning is the same as victory. 

Powers that be, your lot may be large but you are too small to see the forest for the trees which block your view and yet shelter me. 

In hidden places of the mind, where a man can truly be free, I sway gently in the breeze as my roots go down deep into a land you cannot see.  


As a mystic and contributor of creative things to our world, I have tendency to seek solitude. I’ve found that if I am attentive to the needs of my soul then I will show up better as a husband, father and friend.  This next poem was written after spending nearly a week in one house with four other families who are some of our best friends.

Together

From our separate, hurried lives

we come together to savor again

the intimacy of belonging.

We swim through hot days

which dwindle all too fast

into evening.

 Then rest our weary bodies 

in close quarters

for the comfort we find in the 

soul of companionship.

The armchairs are where

spoken dreams are born 

or laid to rest.

Around the table

candles illuminate

our dark nights

with laughter 

and memories.

Our song is witnessed 

only by the stars who 

hold space above

and remind us of our own

eternal brevity.

This crease in time 

gathers the sacred waters 

of our friendship.

Here we learn to swim

and find strength

to meet our unknown horizons;

Where grow the promise

of thorn and thistle,

though the child within 

shall find an abundance of fruit.

Arnold, California

Cherishing one’s self is important, and if we learn to do that well, we will also cherish others, and hopefully find language to speak it forth. 

This final poem is called Friendship, and while it was written after a lovely evening with my friends Sarah and Tom, it goes out to all of you with whom I have ever had the pleasure of sharing a fire or an intimate conversation. 

Again, thank you again for being here tonight.

This is Friendship

Friendship

Friendship ablaze 

around my hearth

like starlight, 

the afterglow of being seen.

Our words wove a tapestry 

into the night sky.

Threads of long suffering 

bound by glimmering hope and 

dark, unspeakable grief.

Now I sit alone, 

an ember.

The warmth is a memory

to which I return

until winds that blow

fan our flames 

once again.”


DEVIL’S  BRIDGE 

I arrived in Guatemala with a knowing in my soul that said, “this is gonna hurt”, and for that reason I was scared.  All too recently I had overcome my own terribly vulnerable state of being, and here I was heading into communities of systemic injustice and chronic vulnerability.  When presented with the opportunity to feel compassion, it can be tempting to choose judgement as a swift and quick end to vulnerability.  Fortunately, my heart remained open and I permitted myself to feel the suffering of Guatemalan’s indigenous people.  

It’s too long and detailed a story to tell here, suffice to say that in the 1980’s, native lands were stolen by American corporations, tens of thousands of husbands and fathers were secretly murdered and buried in hidden mass graves, and all of this was condoned by the US government.  

Those native people that remained relocated to Guatemala City with no money or applicable job skills.  They began to build shanties in a long, steep sided ravine which becomes quite dangerous in the rainy season.  Today, this ravine is home to nearly 100,000 people and is the largest urban slum in Central America.  Gangs to wage war in broad daylight and someone in Guatemala City dies of gun violence every 90 minutes. 

I left my 3 star hotel lobby one humid Guatemala morning and in the company of 20 other Westerners, I descended into the heart of this slum, called by it’s residents La Limonada because of their necessary belief that they, tough as lemons, will one day prevail.  The deeper our descent, the fewer people we saw on the street until it was just eyes peering out of slits in makeshift window frames.  The walk from our van to a nearby school was the most harrowing as we were all so exposed.  Did I hear gunshots?  Is that a large blood stain on the unpaved earth?  Why are we here?  

Our guide is well respected in the community, and she was the only reason we were permitted to walk freely through this neighborhood.  As she shared about the work they do with young children, I grabbed on to the hope in her words, like a passing raft in a raging sea.  And for a moment this was not my problem.  I remembered my 3-star hotel and loving family back in America.  I remember walking back out into the streets with a welcome self-deception.  I had survived this trip.  I would donate some money to this amazing organization.  It was going to be okay.  

Walking out of the school you turn a sharp corner and face a small bridge, beyond it the steep sided ravine climbs high with shanties.  There just 100 feet in front of us was an old woman with a laundry basket on her head, presumably going to do her wash.  I watched her walk and then stop at the bridge.  The normalcy I was desperately looking for was once again ripped from me as I washed her tip her basket full of plastic trash bags right over the edge of the bridge.  A split-second later they landed wet and heavy with a sound I will possibly never forget.  It was now my turn to cross the bridge, and as I peered over the edge every last vestige of hope spilled out of me.  What was once a small river had become the slums dumping grounds.  I found out later that the poorest of poor in this place will walk barefoot through the sludge and trash in search of small bits of metal that can be sold.  

Back in the van I pulled my hat over my eyes and wept.  Then I wrote the poem, La Limonada. When I returned home a week later, I began painting scenes from the stream at the bottom of the ravine, where I stood on Devil’s bridge and remembered why I had been so scared to come to Guatemala. 

RELEASE

My recent works really begins here, with the painting called, Release. I remember the moment four years ago when I was just about to make my first brush strokes after a nine month mental health hiatus. 

I was trained to never paint with true black, its inorganic presence in a composition has tendency to overpower.  But I presently knew no other color than the darkness that had been my jailer.  From the “black” I had just emerged and so into the black I would dip my brush in order to paint to my experience. 

Black, as it turned out, was not the right color.  It was too brilliant; too familiar, like a night sky.  My experience was that of one who ate food but could no longer taste, like who slept but was never at rest. 

And there was nothing I could do to change my state. It was only in the letting go of understanding, letting go of my need to ever be “better” again, and just showing up in the moment “as I am”, while open to all the possibilities held in an instance.

This is the moment I have tried to capture in the painting titled, “Release”. Alone, in my car by the ocean, letting everything go, a dim light of presence or hope came to mind for the first time in a year.  It was intangible, surrounded by my weariness and confusion, but it was there and somehow I knew that my descent into darkness was complete and the next portion of my journey was beginning. Following this I painting I began to work on the series called, Marooned.

MAROONED SERIES

Imagine yourself drifting in a life raft in the middle of an ocean.  The seas are rising and falling all around you.  There is nothing to do but drift.  The horizon holds all the possibility for life, but it is always just a horizon and nothing more.  Even as the weather changes the fact remains, there is nothing you can do to change your circumstances.

Marooned is a series of six, open-water paintings.  The theme was not a conscious one, rather I was looking for a way to say what I was feeling in this new season of my “adult aloneness”, to quote the poet David Whyte.  I had just entered the great uncertainty of mid-life, and it was engulfing me with a most unexpected vastness.

Looking at these paintings today I am comforted by the hope I see in the light breaking through the clouds.  This marks a shift in perspective for me, as prior to this Marooned series I was not so willing to receive with gratitude the simple gifts that life offers in the midst of otherwise difficult times.  Too often I had believed that a lack of joy and happiness meant that I was failing to engineer a good life.  When those efforts fail and we let ourselves fall apart, what remains is more true and more beautiful than any controlled outcome.  This is the beginning of acceptance, and becoming present to “what is”.  It is the very doorway to contemplation.

TRAVELER’S RAFT

No matter one’s preference for comfort and security, each one of us is a traveler on a journey into the unknown.  A journey that will challenge us and change us, if we let it.

In the Buddhist koan that inspired my painting, Traveler’s Raft, a traveler that must cross an expanse of water to reach Nirvana.  After lashing together some logs and crossing over, the Buddha poses the question of what to do with the raft.  The story suggests he advises the traveler to gently place the raft on the shore and be on her/his way.

In life there are many threshold moments that capture the spirit of this “crossing over”.   The ones that loom largest in my mind usually require me to let go of something, be it control over a loved one, the mind’s faculties as we age, or the body in death.  The spiritual practice of “letting go” helps to prepare me for these inevitable thresholds.

When I painted Traveler’s Raft, I didn’t realize that the Buddha had offered the traveler an answer.  My gut response was to “burn the raft” and send it back into the water like Cortez in the Spanish conquest of Mexico, leaving me no recourse but to press on into my uncertain future.

I had in mind with this painting to express my own difficulty with change, and to acknowledge how tempting it can be to lose hope when life becomes challenging.  I never want to be in a position where I choose the easier option of losing heart while in pursuit of the things in life which are most meaningful to me.  If there’s a raft still floating on the shore that could take me back to what is familiar and comfortable, I just might go back.  Better burn the raft.