The 1008 Paintings Project: 1008 Meditations on the Human Condition
The 1008 Paintings Project came about from an simple idea: I needed a creative challenge to get me back into painting again after more than a decade of not showing or selling my work.
At the time, I happened to be reading novelist Haruki Murakami’s engrossing memoir, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”.
I’ve always admired people who like to run, and do marathons to challenge themselves. I’ve tried to be a runner. It’s not my thing. At all.
Reading Murakami’s book got me thinking about what creative challenge would be my marathon equivalent.
At that same time, I happened to find a stack of human behavior encyclopedias from the 1960’s at a yard sale. The moment I saw them, I knew they would become my sketchbooks, that I would paint and write directly into them.
The idea was to cultivate a strong creative practice to get into painting, showing, and selling my work again. Showing and selling my paintings was something I had stopped doing more than ten years prior.
The urge to paint again kept knocking at the door, so I needed to find a way to allow it in without so much pressure to produce something “marketable”. So I the idea of painting as a creative practice was meant to be a bridge to producing work for sale.
Initially, I started painting right into the encyclopedias, as a daily meditation and creative practice experiment. I thought that this practice would be a kind of solo meditation retreat for myself, that I could do right in the heart of Los Angeles, where I was living at the time.
After just a few days of painting this way, the project evolved into something else entirely. I wanted to have the paintings out in the studio where I could look at them, not closed up in a book.
Since I was still thinking of the project as a personal creative practice, I wanted to use whatever materials were readily available. I’ve learned that going shopping for the “perfect” art supplies is a sure way to derail my creative ideas.
It happens that I love painting on cardboard, and the dumpster outside of my apartment building was constantly overflowing with boxes. So I started tearing out the individual definitions and glueing them on scraps of cardboard from the recycling bin of my apartment building.
After doing about a dozen paintings, and noting the seeming endless number of intriguing entries in the thick encyclopedia pages ahead, the idea for the 1008 Meditations on the Human Condition came into focus.
I had found my marathon.
As I was formulating the project, set this up to be a learning experience for myself, I was wondering:
What would it be like to get into regular painting again?
What would it be like to have a marathon project that felt rather out of reach to do?
What would it be like to chart my progress (including the ups and downs)?
Where would painting take me if I just let myself have time and space for it in my life?
What if I were to start selling my paintings again, after 13 years of not selling my paintings?
Project tracking is something I explored in depth as I painted.
All the while, I kept detailed project sketchbooks that mapped my inner process and outer results. Originally intended to be completed within one year, the project took two years and four months from start to finish.
I wrestled with these questions:
How do we stay on track with a big goal?
How to we start again when we’ve gotten sidelined?
What supports constructive action and creating? And what undermines?
The 1008 Paintings Project evolved as a way to learn more about how I work, and a way to learn more about this thing called balance, and a way to do more of what I really want to do more of (paint!) in the midst of an already busy life.
Each painting in this series takes as it’s title some kind of disorder, or behavioral, psychological or physical condition culled from American human behavior encyclopedias from the 1960’s.
As I looked through these encyclopedias, it was sobering to grasp just how delicate the balance of the human organism is, and yet how miraculously most of us are almost perfectly healthy. But there is so much that can go awry, from either nature or nurture, and then how do we deal with it, or attempt to heal it?
Why 1008 Paintings?
When I was designing this creative challenge for myself, I wanted it to feel like a marathon, or like a long sitting meditation retreat. If you’ve ever done a long sitting retreat, you’ll know it is just as arduous as running, but in a different way.
What amount of paintings would constitute a marathon challenge?
As I considered numbers, 100 paintings didn’t feel like enough of a marathon for me. When I considered doing 1,000 paintings, that’s when I felt the pang of excitement mixed with a touch of terror, a recipe that always lets me know I’m on the right track with a new idea. One thousand and felt much more like a marathon to me. One thousand felt exactly like the reaction I get whenever I have considered doing a running marathon: no way can I do that. One thousand seemed even likely impossible, considering all the other responsibilities on my plate.
When I got up to 1,000, it was a natural step to round up to 1,008, which is a sacred number in many spiritual and mystical traditions, especially in Buddhism. The number 1008 represents the infinite, and is said to contain the dimensions of the universe. I’m not a scholar on these things, but the number 1008 just felt right as I sat with it.
What is the figure in the paintings? Are those Buddhas?
I think people should see what they want to see in these pieces. For some, they see a Buddha. In fact, so many people see these as little Buddha figures that my shorthand name for this project became simply, The Buddha Project.
The Buddhist traditions teach about developing our Buddha nature. This is done, in large part, through the practice of meditation. Meditation is an act of observing the mind and body without judgment, without interpretation. The meditator is literally sitting there, watching the mind. Breathing, and coming back to the present moment. The act of mediation is one of those things that is simple, and yet not easy. Especially after five minutes or thirty minutes, day after day for one, two, five, ten, thirty days.
For me, these figures represent the person sitting with what is: the ups and downs of life, the myriad human conditions that affect us all, directly or indirectly at one time or another. They also represent the Buddha nature of the meditator.
At large meditation retreats, I am always struck by the sight of hundreds of people sitting together. Each person sitting with all of their thoughts and memories and aches and pains and not leaving the room. Simply sitting with what is: simple, yet not so easy.
Whether a person meditates or not, we are all sitting with so much going on inside of us. Not literally sitting in meditation, but going about life with all of these thoughts and feelings and problems and challenges and joys and sorrows that no one else can see.
Everyone has these worlds within them, these human conditions and struggles, these breakthroughs and joys. But we don’t talk about it much, and it doesn’t really show in the outer world. I have always been fascinated with the interior life of us humans, and all of the unseen forces that shape us into who we are.