I don’t think politicians change the world. I think artists and perhaps philosophers who become true spiritual leaders have that power. Scientists and engineers and business men and women can effect change, but in reality what they are doing is translating art and philosophy into something concrete, something ephemeral. An important role, of course, but nonetheless secondary to that which is eternal.
Chinua Achebe says that “art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.” I would go further to say that art springs indelibly from the very stuff that is the source of life. It survives and supersedes, as Katherine Anne Porter has said, all manner of chaos and neglect, “outliving governments and creeds and… even the very civilization that produced (it).” It is, in Porter’s words, “what we find again when the ruins are cleared away.”
Art has the ability to freeze time long enough for us to see who we are, to fathom for a moment what life is, and then inspire us to move again. It springs from our unconscious and, in so doing, captures the essence of reality and our humanity. Even at its darkest, it allows us to contemplate the beauty and the mystery that informs our very existence. It is with these thoughts that I return to a visitor to Stony Brook a few weeks ago, one whose impact upon me has yet to fade.
When Justyn Zolli came into the Nature Center with his father, Frank (a member of the local Lion’s Club who has generously supported Stony Brook as a volunteer over the years), I immediately found myself engaged in one of those conversations that renews the spirit. Justyn was back from San Francisco for a week or so and was clearing out some books, a telescope, and even some skeletal remains that he thought might be of use to Stony Brook. He wanted to make a donation, which I was pleased to accept. But I wanted more. I wanted to know about him and his art.
Punctuated by loving and proud anecdotes from his father, Justyn told me a story of his exploring the woods and fields and streams of Stony Brook when he was young and his growing recognition of, and fascination with, Nature’s patterns. He began drawing what he saw at an early age and carried his love of Nature into his studies at RISD and the Museum of Fine Arts School, and later into his work as an artist in New York and eventually San Francisco.
His words echoed those one finds on his website. At times he seemed almost to be reciting them:
“My art practice is a conversation with the timeless, the primal, and the elemental. My works draw a connection between mysticism and modernism, passing beyond representation in search of transcendence, addressing silence, interiority, energy, and communion through a meditative iconography.
Through my artworks, I explore the unifying and transforming qualities of light and structure. I explore the relationships between pure color, timeless geometry, and the flowing, visual rhythms derived from my study of the dynamics of great Nature. My inspirations come from my studies of ancient and mystical art, my many travels to the world’s sacred architecture and wild landscapes, and my love of modern painting.”
As he talked, I was mesmerized, as these were flashbacks to my own interests and studies, ones which I rarely access now that I am older and “on with my life.” Though I was never an artist and do not have the talent to become one, I knew exactly what he meant. It had been years since I had heard anyone talk like this or think like this, seemingly not since my time in the classroom, whether as a student or as a teacher myself.
I listened as he recounted his travels through India, the British Isles, Europe, the Himalayas, Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, and the American West. He told me about his fascination with the laws of change and transformation, especially as they work through Nature and us. He cited his study of ancient Chinese landscape painters in the Taoist tradition and, in particular, their concept of “li” (which means “natural principle”), that which gives form and substance to all life.
Heady stuff, I know, and to some extent so arcane as to be difficult to translate into reality. Justyn, however, seems determined to do just that. He referred me to the words of a 14th century Zen painter named K’un-ts’an, whose philosophy he has whole-heartedly embraced:
“Speaking of painting in its finest essentials, one must read widely in the documents and histories, ascend mountains, and trace rivers to their source, and only then can one create one’s ideas” (again, from his website).
Listening to him, I was reminded of one of my favorite plays, Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard, in which he explores the possibility of translating certain natural rhythms and laws into mathematical formulae. I talked about fractals and the basic premise of order arising not out of design, but out of chaos, an idea to which Justyn seemed to give a knowing nod.
Our conversation continued for several more minutes, but as I recounted it to Doug (Stony Brook’s Director) a few days later, I thought that what was most striking and significant about our chance meeting was this revelation: in a time of uncertainty and upheaval, of falsehoods being cast off as truth, of money and power and socio-economic status being equated to importance or value or even dignity, it’s refreshing to know that there are still individuals among us who believe in something larger than themselves and who have goals and dreams that they are willing to pursue to the ends of the earth.
In all sincerity it was not so much the esoteric philosophy and the avant garde artwork of Justyn that impressed me. It was his humility and his honesty, his dedication to discipline and hard work, his belief in knowledge for its own sake, and his willingness to share it. Grounded in an attachment to Nature and a spiritual reality, he reaffirmed for me the basic dignity and desires of ordinary people, though in many ways he and his work are anything but ordinary.