The Red… and Time

People often ask why I feel compelled to draw and paint certain subjects, but not others. For example, why paint dilapidated, ugly old buildings instead of something attractive and beautiful?  Something more picturesque? These are questions I’ve often asked myself. The answers are not always apparent, but sometimes reveal themselves gradually.

What first attracted me to this landscape in Barcelona on the Avinguda Diagonal many years ago was the bold red façade of the Cine Nuevo. (Color, or rather, my reaction to it, is something I don’t understand and can’t explain, so I can’t offer any insights about how colors attract or repel.)

Dia Nuevo 1 – Watercolor – 10 x 14 inches

Much more interesting, however, is what happens during the process of drawing and painting, a task that can take weeks, or months– or longer. For me drawing and painting are forms of meditation. Merely looking at something or taking a photograph of it feels insufficient. I don’t feel that I understand anything until I draw it.  Of course, the rub is that most things, a street scene, even a common daffodil, remain impervious to our understanding: they exist in their impenetrable “is-ness” in spite of our efforts to understand. Drawing and redrawing, painting and repainting them can bring us closer to their secrets, but we still live in a world of mysteries.

Only during the weeks spent painting Dia Nuevo, did I begin to understand that what had attracted me intuitively to the scene, in addition to the red façade, were layers of Time: Look at the hollowed-out shell of the old theatre in the middle ground. When it was built in 1922, it was “new.” Now it’s a relic of another century. Equally past is the New Cinema, obsolete as well, but from a later era. The tattered posters plastered on the walls advertising concerts were also “new” weeks or months ago; now they are old. The parked cars were once new; now they’re not. The low angle of the light tells us that it’s morning– a new day, un Día Nuevo. But in a few hours, it won’t even be today; it will be yesterday.

The awareness of these layers of “pasts” that I made visible in the present of the painting was not the cause or the inspiration of the painting; rather the awareness of Time grew gradually out of the act of painting, the meditation. In attempting to paint the texture of stone, the papery fragility of the posters, the morning light on the sidewalks, I discovered layers of Time.  Or better said, in the act of painting, the layers of Time discovered me.


Thought and Memory

Wondrous animals abound in the tales of northern Europe: Fenrir, a malevolent wolf who devours the hand of one of the gods; Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse; and Jörmungand, the serpent that encircles the world and that ultimately kills Thor in the battle of Ragnarök, the defeat and death of the gods.

Perhaps because I have been studying crows and ravens for nearly forty years and feel they perch deservedly on the top branches of avian evolution, my favorite animals in the northern stories are two ravens, Hugin and Munin, Thought and Memory. Odin taught them how to speak and so every morning, they soar out into the world, returning at dusk to perch on his shoulders and advise him on what they have learned.

In my painting they appear to travel into both the past and the future. The knowledge they bring back to Odin gives him Awareness, but not, unfortunately, the power to change the course of events. In the universe of the northern gods, as well in our own world, nothing– not even our gods– is more powerful than Fate.

_Memory and Thought
Thought and Memory – oil/canvas – 24 x 36 inches

Mandalas, Monks and Ravens

All through the night the storm exhales clouds

of snow. At dawn a cloister of ravens in their

feathered cassocks pace like monks and croak

their corvid versions of Gregorian chant until

I and the two dogs emerge into the meadow from

a grove of cedars. Then they drift up into the

bare branches of the oaks to watch the dogs

chase each other in circles around the crow-footed snow.


For the past twenty winters Tibetan monks in maroon

and saffron robes have flown from the other

side of the world to spend two weeks in our small

town in California to bring Enlightenment.

In a former church they hunch for days above

a felt-covered table to craft a symbolic wheel out

of grains of colored sand. They rub slender metal

cones from which fall tiny flakes of stone: salmon

pink, ebony, tangerine, cerulean blue, fluorescent

green and rose in an ever-widening circle that

reflects the cosmic forces of the universe concentrated

into a single point of consciousness in our

little town on the Western edge of North America.


A few blocks away from the church in the warmth and laughter

of a restaurant my friend Alessya and I ignore the clatter

of plates and silverware and watch the falling snow bury

the last remnants of January. Two ravens regard us from the

cornice of the hotel across the street as we nibble at the

remnants of our fish and chips except for French fries she

doesn’t want to eat. Instead she offers them to me

because “your smelly dogs will probably like them.”


Hours later daylight darkens and the snow stops falling.

The dogs sleep at home in bliss by the wood stove.

Ravens watch from high oak branches as I trudge

through drifts into the center of the meadow to

slowly craft a circle of Alessya’s soggy fries—

amber-colored spokes in a cold white wheel.


The birds wait until I disappear into the dusk beneath

the cedar boughs, then they drop one by one into

the circle of potatoes leaving me to wonder if the

monks from Tibet would be more amused by my

mandala or by the foolishness of a man attempting

to enlighten ravens, who—of all the creatures on

this wide earth– are least in need of it.


© J.M. Keating, 2018

With Malice Towards All…

… And Compassion For None (unless they are just like us).

The inanities and misinformation that inundate us from Washington D.C. about the immigration of foreigners into freedom’s land and bravery’s home is making all of us sick.

Unless we are the offspring of the indigenous peoples who inhabited this continent before the Europeans showed up, we’re all descendants of foreigners. So let’s take a moment to reflect on words from an anonymous writer in a community newspaper in Barcelona, as quoted by the Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, in Hunter of Stories, the last of his incomparable books:


Your god is Jewish, your music is African, your car is Japanese, your pizza is Italian, your gas is Algerian, your coffee is Brazilian, your democracy is Greek, your numbers are Arabic, your letters are Latin.

I am your neighbor. And you call me a foreigner?