painting by Alec DeJesus, “Vices of the Burning Bear”
When grief comes, and suffering pulls a shroud over the sun, we move into the shadows of dark alleys and walk over shards of broken meaning. We may feel abandoned and alone, but at least this place is safe from trauma.
The darkness is where artists go to create.
They step away from the existing world, away from the bustle and chatter of the city, and enter the quiet place within. Artists and writers live in this liminal space between truth and meaning. They examine their struggles to find the origins, and look through society’s illusions (the maya of Vedic philosophy) to see the true character of reality. In the darkness there are no boundaries and no limits, and artists gather the primary elements of the universe together and begin to create.
Using images and colors, they paint on canvas, shape clay into forms, compose melodies, and weave words into tapestries of cadence that transform our perceptions of the world.
When you create something out of your grief, you take control back into your hands.
The 30-30 Coffee shop on North Knoxville in Peoria, Illinois displays artwork by Alec DeJesus. His work is often whimsical, colorful, sometimes in your face, and spiritual. Alec wrote about what drives him to create art:
“Anger, and the grief and exhaustion that it causes me, has always pulled me to art and in the most recent years I've come to embrace it more. Not in a negative way but as a fuel to push me forward and away from the very things that urge that rage to flow. It's been a gift and a curse in the way it makes me bolder and stronger yet can get me in trouble or break me down. Art has been my outlet and when I feel that fire burning with negative energy, the drawings I make to quell it have always helped me to level out.”
I asked Alec if he had a painting I could use to go with his words. He said he was finishing up a new work, and two weeks later sent me “Vices of the Burning Bear.”I saw a photo of Alec sitting in his studio looking at this painting earlier in the month. At that point it was called “Burning Bear.”The bear was skillfully painted — the fur had texture, the eyes were forceful, it had a serious expression, and the colors were vibrant. The painting was saying something, and it looked complete.
As Alec sat there, new images came to mind, which is how I think he paints. When he lets go of his conscious mind, images arrive, images that he doesn’t always understand the importance of until later. He added two fish, a bluebird, a yellow circle around the bear’s head, and “Vices” to the title.
Read his words and look closely at his painting. What do you see? What do you feel?
I will eventually ask Alec what everything in the painting means to him, although he may not tell me. He may feel like my mother, who painted abstracts, that everything we need to know is in the painting. She wouldn’t even title her works. At the end of this post are some of my thoughts, but what I see may not be what Alec or you see. We bring our lives to each painting, and see what we are ready to see.
Creating for the artist is part catharsis, part crucifix, and part crucible. You journey into the dark night of your heart, and strip away everything that isn’t essential. You step back and wait for images to come, and then you begin painting. When you think you are done, you wait again, to see if anything else shows up.
The darkness forces us to search for the light that survives in the rubble of our hearts.
If the subject matter deals with the dark side of existence — despair, abuse, or grief — then I also want to see some glimmer of light. Life is hard enough and I don’t want to think that it ends here. Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist,” painted during his Blue Period, feels utterly bleak to me, yet the presence of the guitar is important. As long as a musician plays, the music can meander around to refrains of hope.
What I look for in paintings are not beautiful images, wit, bright colors, or amazing technique. These can all be a part of it, of course. What I want most is honesty. I don’t see paintings as decorations or as splashes of colors to put on walls. I want art to say something important about what it means to be human, and transform the ordinary of life into visions of possibilities.
Creativity has power. As we burn up the destructive forces in our lives, we generate energy that we can use to create.
These are my thoughts about Alec’s painting. He has several other paintings with bears, including one with bluebirds flying around (the sublime “Honeycomb Halo”), so bears are important to him.
I don’t know why the bear is burning. Maybe it’s burning with anger at the destruction of its environment. Maybe Alec is. Maybe it just refers to the color of the fur. There is a Burning Bear Festival in Bozeman, Montana that is devoted to the arts. In Native American traditions, the bear is a symbol of inner strength, confidence, and courage to stand up against adversity. In the Urban Dictionary, the burning bear is a rebel. The artist as prophet for social justice.
I don’t know why Alec added “vices” to the title. Maybe the anger is toward those who follow the human vices of greed, lust, power, or envy. My mother also painted a series she called “Boundaries,” which were the challenges she saw (vices, diversions, temptations) that hold us back from being who we are and doing what we know we should do.
The fish are goldfish, and whimsical because they’re swimming in the air, as if the bear is dreaming of fish to eat. But then, wouldn’t they be trout? Maybe fishing is a vice for Alec, a lure that pulls him outdoors when he should be painting. Maybe the humor of the goldfish is saying that reality isn’t what we think it is, and to stop being so serious all the time. Maybe it’s a reference to the two fish and five loaves that fed the multitudes that came to hear Jesus. In China, goldfish are a sign of prosperity. Perhaps Alec is worried that his drive, and need, to make money by painting (prosperity) is going to corrupt his vision of painting.
The shape of the bluebird is similar to those in religious paintings where a bird coming down from heaven toward a person is a symbol of the touch of the Holy Spirit, although Alec’s bird is coming up from below. In Native American symbolism, the bluebird represents spring and the driving off of winter’s destructive forces. The meaning could be that inspiration rises out of our suffering. Here is where we find clarity of vision and our power.
The yellow circle, or halo, is a symbol of holiness that often appears in paintings around the heads of holy people in various cultures and religions. In the context of this painting, it suggests that those who put themselves on the line to help ease the pain and suffering of others are doing holy work. There is an underlying spirituality in many of Alec’s works, although it’s not implicitly anything. I see motifs of the Christian, Buddhist, Sufi, and Native American.
What this painting says to me is that we are to draw on our inner strengths and take care of people, because life is sacred and so is the creativity within us.
I’d love to hear what you see in Alec’s painting, as well as how you have been creative with your grief. Alec can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.