This post originally appeared on sanskritstudies.org.
“Every beauty, which is seen here by persons of perception, resembles more than anything else that celestial source from which we all are come.” – Michelangelo
I sat down with my brother, acclaimed artist, sculptor, and Rome prize winner, Carl D’Alvia, to discuss art and his relationship to it.
Manorama: Can you say a little bit about yourself and what you do?
Carl: I am an artist. I am a sculptor. I also draw.
Manorama: And how long have you worked as an artist?
Carl: Well, I have worked as an artist for over 20 years, but I have really been making things my whole life. I’ve always been drawing. I have been making things as far [back] as I can remember.
Manorama: What was your earliest memory of art?
Carl: I was always drawing. I would make little maps of places where I’d gone, and our mother was a sculptor, so I would take her clay and make things also. At home, she helped me to do that.
Manorama: Do you have a favorite work of art from when you were younger?
Carl: That’s an interesting question. You know, it’s sort of funny because I make these things and I am so attached to them, but then afterwards there’s a kind of distance. It’s hard to remember that passion. I still feel that today. I get very excited about the piece I am working on and then afterwards it’s almost like an ex-girlfriend.
Manorama: Your piece is like an ex-girlfriend?
Carl: Yeah, I realize I had a passion there, but the passion is no longer there.
Manorama: So each piece has a kind of catharsis in it, in your relationship to it.
Carl: An obsession, a passion. And it goes through this arc and by the end there was passion there, but I can’t quite harness that same feeling. Then I start something new.
Manorama: Has that always been the relationship that you’ve had with your artwork?
Carl: I think so, but I think I’ve only learned that through many years of doing it and self-analysis, I’ve learned that that’s what I was doing. I didn’t realize it when I was younger.
Manorama: I am curious about what work you enjoy doing the most. I remember you drawing a lot as a kid, and one day you came home with a piece from RISD, and you put a sculpture on the table in front of our mom and said, “This is me,” and from then on you started sculpting. But I am curious, which work you enjoy doing the most? Do you enjoy drawing or sculpture more? Or do you enjoy the process of seeing more?
Carl: The part that I enjoy most is getting an idea, the beginning. Whether it’s drawing or sculpture, that moment where it starts to become real and it contains a lot of possibilities. Then to finish the piece, of course, it has to be only one thing at the end of the day. Not that it can’t refer to a lot of things or have many aspects, but it is one thing. When you start, it’s open-ended and very exciting. Of course, to be a professional, you have to finish things, but to me it’s kind of also the end of the relationship.
Back to the sculpture thing, I’d always made some sculpture and I still love to draw, but when I went to art school, through drawing and then looking at other people’s drawings, actually, it’s kind of interesting, I understood that my own vision was a kind of mapping vision, in a three-dimensional way. My eye was like an ant crawling across the surface of things and contour mapping it. Other people were not doing that and I realized that that’s what I was really interested in, by looking at other people who were working in a way that was much more pictorial, flat, juxtaposing of colors and shapes. That really wasn’t so interesting to me. I was interested and good at more of a kind of 3D mapping. So I started to go along that route then. In this sense, it was other people that helped me understand who I was as an artist.
Manorama: So you would say that, for your artwork, you see things more three-dimensionally? And that this way of seeing led you to sculpture? Is that what you call mapping? Can you explain a little more about mapping?
Carl: I guess the interesting thing about this is that I would look at the model. I would be drawing or painting and every once in a while, I would suddenly see hot pink on the model’s back juxtaposed with a kind of blue in the shadow and maybe a green in the background. And I’d have this view, like, “Oh, it looks like a painting, like a Matisse.” And I understood what painters and Matisse were seeing. Then it would lapse back into my usual vision, which is a kind of surface analysis. Again, my eye was like an ant crawling along the surface and noting when I was going down or was at peaks and valleys and kind of analyzing the form. Basically, this is what I was doing. And that’s what I thought everybody was doing until I saw other people and then I had a few visions of my own and thought, “Oh, OK. That’s what other people are doing, but I’m really doing this other thing.” And again, it’s the other people, it’s your failures that you try and make that slowly define your artistic territory.
Manorama: Would you say that moment for you, of artistic seeing, is where you feel some kind of connection with something higher? If you do?
Carl: Yeah, it’s… these issues of where does it come from? It’s a big question. Where does creativity come from? And it’s really a tricky thing. Because I do believe that it comes from work. It doesn’t sound very sexy, but you have to have a good work ethic. You have to put yourself in that mind frame for working and doing something creative and you need to have a practice. You need to develop a practice. I think the technical and the spiritual are intertwined. You can’t do one without the other.
Manorama: Can you describe your practice? I imagine it’s changed over the years.
Art as a lens is a way of processing the things that happen in the world.
Carl: It’s changed over the years, but it’s basically a studio practice. Ordinary life is a different space. Things are different when you’re holding a pencil to paper. They are different than when you are just sitting around thinking about your work. There becomes suddenly a creative flash….I would say, “If you want to do something, make a drawing. If you don’t like it, make 10. Make 50. Pick the best two. Take those, make more studies, pick the best two, and so on.” In other words, the inspiration happens from the work.
Manorama: While you are engaged in the practice?
Carl: Yes, while you are engaged in it. And also setting aside a space to do this is quite important. So I think for artists, it is very important to have a space, a sanctified space for them to do their art.
Manorama: I see. For you it’s… two things. There’s acknowledging the practice of it and within the practice you’re saying there needs to be a set space where that action can happen. There’s a well-known yogi from India named Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. He has trained thousands of people, he is often quoted as saying, “Practice, and all is coming.” For him the yogi’s inspiration, the contact happens when the student is on the mat or I would say when the student engages the philosophical point or the sound in Sanskrit. For Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, it’s in the experience of the practice where everything is revealed to the practitioner. It sounds as though that’s a similar dialogue for you within your artwork. Also that you feel that there has to be a designated space and a set time where you need to have as you called it a sanctified space to enter the world of deeper seeing, or at least the possibility of it.
Carl: Yeah, it’s set aside from the world, a kind of sanctum.
Manorama: When you say, “from the world,” do you mean from everyday life?
Carl: Yes, from everyday life. Ideally it’s a separate space, but sometimes it’s in your house, a separate room at times, you do what you can do. I agree with the former quote of the yogi. The idea of practice reveals all. In general, I believe in action, in doing something. When I have taught students they always talk about “when I get an idea,” and I say, “Forget that. Get in the studio from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the ideas will come to you. They’ll find you. Start cutting wood. Start making drawings.”
Manorama: It’s in the practice where art happens?
Carl: Yeah, it’s real and things come to you then. I think there is a lot of mysticism swirling around artistic practices. And yes, of course, whether it’s cooking, whether it’s yogic principles, whether it’s art, the more you do it, the better you get at it and the more that you are connected with it. And the more it expects of you also. You start to create this secret world that suddenly wants and needs your attention. Which is kind of interesting….a secret garden that you need to constantly water. It’s always there for you.
Manorama: What do you think it means to have an artistic view? Or for a person to live from an artistic viewpoint?
Carl: I think that art in any form, whether it’s literature, drama, visual art, is set aside from the world. The world framed, in a certain way helps us understand the world. How would we understand anything without famous literary characters, stories that are obviously more schematic, simpler, more crafted than real life, (which is a messy thing), but through the crafting, we come to understand real life. I feel the same way about music, paintings and sculpture.
Art is a way of understanding the world. I don’t think I would understand the world without having art as a lens.
Manorama: When you say, “understand the world,” do you mean in essence, your self? Or do you mean something outside of your self?
Carl: I mean both. Art as a lens is a way of processing the things that happen in the world. The world is messy. It’s a chaotic place. A lot of things happen, but through the lens of art, literature, film, we can come to find a place in it. And, yes, ultimately understand something about ourselves and our place in this big fabric.
Manorama: Switching gears a little bit. What do you think is valuable about art nowadays in modern life?
I believe art is a kind of translator, a distiller of something, of culture.
Carl: Well, I think there are a number of things. First of all, I think the interesting thing about art is that it’s often treated rhetorically as an extra. But in fact, every single society from the smallest tribe to the greatest empire has always had art. It always had objects and things that they revered in a sacred context and in a secular context. But there’s always been art. And I think that that’s one of the things that’s kind of interesting.
Manorama: So art is not ancillary?
Carl: No, it’s not ancillary. It seems to be, but isn’t.
Manorama: For many of us, art is relegated to galleries and museums as a kind of Saturday afternoon or a Wednesday evening activity or whenever shows are scheduled. But you’re suggesting that art is actually woven into life itself.
Carl: Right. You think you can get along without art—people think that, but no society ever has gotten along without it, which by de-facto proves that art is a necessity. Every society is going to create some form of art.
One of the interesting things about our time right now is all the information that is there suggests the need for more translators. We need more people to make sense of all this information, i.e. the world. Translation is where art comes in. Art distills the noise in culture.
Manorama: So, art is a translator?
Carl: Yeah, I believe art is a kind of translator, a distiller of something, of culture. And also, there is something even more radical and interesting to have hand-made objects around your home. Where things nowadays are so mass-produced, and often produced very far away, in fact, very recently, produced on the other side of the world. It’s ever more magical to have something that was handcrafted by an individual in a room. A lot of contemporary art isn’t this way. A lot of it is big fabrication and big cost, but there’s still a huge portion of it that’s made by an individual, in a room, alone, responding to things and trying to make sense out of the world. There’s something very delicious, informative, and still important enough about that choice.
Manorama: I have heard it said that art is a representation of eternality, especially the creator. How would you say art is a representation of eternality?
Carl: Well, there’s this interesting dichotomy and in a kind of dialectical way they reinforce each other… the moment itself reinforces eternity. Just the fact that you have a record of a moment, of somebody’s thoughts, somebody’s process, in a moment, is in essence, talking about the flow of time. And in some sense, the inexorable flow of time and a specific point in a specific time. It’s fixing a point, which I think is a very important thing always.
Manorama: This leads me to my next question: How do you see art cross sect with spirituality? In the last twenty years, yoga has become prevalent in America, as well as around the world. To some extent there’s a creative dialogue that’s going on between art, yoga, and spirituality. I’m curious what your thoughts are about how you see art and spirituality connecting?
Carl: Well, I think there’s a long history between art and spirituality. In essence, artists have visions. You can see their practice as being a kind of a visionary thing and it’s an ungraspable thing. Again, because, as an artist you never know exactly where your idea’s going to come from. It’s this kind of a magical thing that suddenly visits you. What is that? Where is that coming from? The universe?
Manorama: You mean it’s as if it’s a vision of its own?
Manorama: Artists are like visual shamans. They access something we don’t ordinarily access in modern life.
Carl: Yeah. I agree with that. It’s a kind of thing you prepare yourself to receive; this bounty, this vision, this wisdom, this thing that you are able to translate, in a way for the world. The artist, through his/her vision, makes that vision concrete and visible for others. I think that’s a long tradition and one that’s still very relevant today.
Manorama: People are interested to know how they can bring art into their lives more and especially as yogis-in-training. In order to get inside of the yogic understanding, you have to engage a way of seeing the teachings that’s artful. The student must step outside of their ordinary vision to see more deeply inside. Perhaps that idea comes from our mother, but I am wondering if you can give three simple suggestions for how readers can bring art and artistic seeing into their daily lives?
Carl: Well, I think that you need to devote time to it, which can be daunting sometimes for people because we are all busy. I like to start with a very simple idea of do something for fifteen minutes a day that’s artistic. Do a couple of sketches. Do a couple of things and like exercising. Start doing it, and after a while, instead of the 15 minutes of drawing, it might turn into a half an hour, it might turn into two hours, it might turn into your whole free day. Begin with something simple, then from that, things will grow.
As far as viewing art, try and make a simple schedule. Say to yourself, ‘This month, I will visit a museum. I haven’t been to a museum in a while, but I am going to go.’ Once a month, try and visit a museum, an art show, or something like that to put your self in the frame of artistic seeing. Those kinds of things are very helpful: a simple schedule, where you make yourself do the thing. Once you’re sitting down in that frame then all sorts of things happen.
Manorama: First you suggest that a person spend fifteen minutes making art. The second suggestion is to create a schedule for viewing and allowing other’s artistic creativity to meet you.
When viewing a piece of art it’s not necessary to know what it’s all about, the key is to just be open to it. I think now-a-days people are often daunted by art, and focus on how they don’t understand works of art. It’s as if the not-knowing stops them from the possibility of connecting with it.
Carl: Yeah, I think that’s a really important point. People often feel that they don’t understand modern art, and this is a big problem for them. They feel inadequate in the face of modern art. There are many, many levels to a work of art. But I would say, no one ever gets every single level to a work of art. It’s impossible because there’s just so many things you would need to know to get every nuance of a Kandinsky painting: that moment in Russia, that moment in European history, that moment in his personal history, the things that are going on. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t appreciate it. And that doesn’t mean that you can’t look at it with some objective criteria and understand it and frankly just enjoy it. The key is to enjoy art and not worry about what you’re getting or what you’re not getting. Get what you get.
Manorama: That’s beautiful.
Carl: It’s like reading a novel. You know you read a novel and it will be about a society, another place and you can’t know every nuance. But that doesn’t mean you are not getting a lot from reading it.
Manorama: Right. And sometimes, when you don’t know what you’re getting in a moment that could be when you are getting something important, if you have the patience to just be with that.
Carl’s Suggestions for bringing more art into your life: Make art. Create a schedule to view works of art. By doing these things you’re creating the space where you invite artistic vision.
Manorama: Howsoever small or big, simply put your self in the position where art is possible. And making that space possible is about scheduling.
Carl: Right. I think that’s huge. You create a space for this thing to happen. Intentionality is very important. You need to go with curiosity and wonder and to enjoy yourself. Also be aware you must be careful not to fall into this idea of trying to acquire culture in some way. If you go to the symphony, to acquire culture, you won’t hear the music. If you go to the symphony and you abandon your self to the music, it’s beautiful, it’s rapturous, and you have a transcendent experience. When you try to acquire something, ironically, you don’t acquire anything. If you go and let yourself go, and have that experience where you truly enjoy the painting, the sculpture, the music, you can have a transcendent experience that’s enriching.
Manorama: Thank you so much for meeting with me. I really enjoyed it. Not only are you my brother, but you are a tremendous artist, whom I admire.
Carl: Well, thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to spend some time together, which is always fun. It’s good to talk with you about some of these things and to clarify these ideas and then share it with others. Thank you again for the opportunity.
Manorama: Your comments and insights today have provided a new way to both view and bridge the topic of art and spirituality. Thank you so much for participating in this series, The Conversation.
To view Carl D’Alvia’s work and to learn more about his shows visit www.dalvia.com.
Top photo via iStock. All other images of art work contained in this post are copyright protected by Carl D’Alvia.