Two epiphanies at Pont du Gard

In October 2016, as part of a family tour around Provence in France, I visited Pont du Gard, the highest Roman aqueduct in Europe. The aqueduct and its size were impressive enough, but it was a little exhibition at the entrance, about World Heritage sites, that struck me and left me overawed.
On reading about World Heritage sites, I realised that every culture of every nation, tribe and community, is a part of human heritage. It makes us what we are as humans. It is in our DNA, and in our collective consciousness. It should be guarded like treasure.

Yet, the recent history of the country I was born in, Malaysia, has been one of governments and societies turning their backs to their heritage, in order to embrace what they thought represented progress. Street signs were changed, old buildings torn down, indigenous lifestyles wiped out, and history literally rewritten by so-called academics who should have known better.

Why do people despise their cultural heritage and denigrate it to the point of destroying it—and destroying their very foundations? What do their young population have left but a superficial substitute based on commercial fashion of the day? Are they left with a sense of identity based on dyeing their hair blonde, affecting an American accent, and owning the latest mobile device?

By denying its past the emerging south east Asian society became largely an imitative culture, a superficial homage to mass media western art, music, film and design. To me, much of Malaysian art aspired to “style” at the cost of emotional substance. It lacked the self-confidence to challenge the politics and the injustices, to express the anger and the pain, or to pay tribute to the beautiful environment or the soul of the people.
Art became a consumer activity, and the artist, a “dedicated follower of fashion.”

What had happened to our heritage—a human heritage?

My thoughts at Pont du Gard left me with a sense of being a custodian, by virtue of my age, of a culture I had experienced as a child and young person growing up in Malaysia. So much had changed over the ears, so much had been lost, so much cultural value that the young people are not even aware of. That experience of a fresh, hopeful, post-colonial nation in the 60s and 70s was something I could somehow document for posterity—for when the young decided it was time to explore their own historical culture.


At the same time I had an epiphany of a more personal nature. In my travels around France, I had come across so many brilliant artists and creative people. What was it about them that made them so “brilliant,” that excited and inspired the world? Was it a special talent? Did they grow up in a particular place that engendered artistic genius? What did they know that I didn’t, what did they have that I wasn’t born with, or hadn’t found?

Was it more a matter of self-confidence, I mused, the courage to express oneself totally in disregard of prevailing fashion or style? Were these people creatively brilliant, not because they were crazy geniuses, but because they were somehow exposing themselves, their very being?

Were they brilliant because they were willing, or driven, to be different—to be themselves?

This thought shattered my impoverished ideas about myself as an artist. I realised that I could be an artist, not by some hitherto unnattainable talent, but by willing to be vulnerable, and by doing the work—the work of making art.

I am an artist because I do creative work. I do that work for myself, and also to share myself with others. If I am triggered to photograph something because it moves me, it could move someone else, and that is satisfying.

I AM an artist. I don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to be so. All my past rejection, disapproval, embrassement, shame, amount to nothing. They no longer determine my status as an artist. They no longer determine how “good” I am as an artist.

Standing there, gazing at the 2000-year-old structure that had carried water 50 metres above the languid Gardon River, I felt free.

2000-year-old olive tree at Pont du Gard.

What is Art for?

Today is Easter Sunday. For me, it is more than about the death of someone famous. The more important message is about Resurrection, that is rebirth, renewal and liberation. As I walked in my neighbourhood in the silence of the early morning and the rising sun, I thought of art. What is art? What is it’s purpose?

As I mused, I thought of what art does to me. When art speaks to me, it “stops my world.” It jolts me, subtly or strongly, and triggers a change in myself.
It triggers surprise, delight, or awe, a sense of something beyond the ordinary. It could be a human form, a landscape, a juxtaposition of objects, or a deity.

I think art causes a shift of consciousness. What do I mean? I am reminded of a walk I took down a street in Earl’s Court, London in the Spring of 1984. I had walked down that same street for the last three years, but for the first time, I noticed the Spring flowers on the trees. I stopped, in awe. By seeing the flowers that I had not seen before, I had a shift in consciousness, an expansion of awareness. I believe art works in the same way.

When art speaks to me, it “stops my world.”

Looking at the western Romantic periods, one can see that art did its work through the pursuit of beauty – beautiful people, landscapes, lines and shapes. Even early photography tried to copy the “pictorial” style of painted art.

Then in the early-to-mid 20th century, social and political comment became dominant purposes. Later in the 20th century postmodern art became “anti-art” and tried to shock, alarm, and disturb our comfort zones. I found this pessimistic and counterproductive.

I believe the true purpose of art is an optimistic one, and I will explain further shortly. Post-postmodern art (I don’t know its official name as I am not an art critic) is more optimistic, yet has some of the postmodern elements such as surprise (a gentler form of shock). It seems to me that good art is multi-layered, like a complex wine; it surprises and delights; and it leaves one feeling uplifted. That is how I want my photography to be.

I believe the true purpose of art is an optimistic one

Art has substantially moved away from being literal and become more participatory for the viewer; it seems that abstraction and ambiguity allows the viewer to fill in the blanks, to interpret in their unique way. This makes for a more meaningful and satisfying experience.

I used to be a natural health practitioner, and for me, art is a healing modality. Healing means making whole. In the world we have made, we are disconnected from our body that we despise, from our sexual energy that we are ashamed of, from our society, from our natural environment.

Art heals. How? It reminds us of connection, say, to the astounding beauty of the female body, or of a flower or a mountain, or the awesomeness of the ordinary things in life.

For the artist, it is an expression of meaning, that is healing in being shared.

Art, for the artist and the viewer, reconnects us with the divine order of the world. As we struggle to make sense of the chaotic events of our life, of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, art can remind us that, in the apparent chaos is an amazing order, an order that underlies all of life and existence. This order has been called God, and many other names, throughout human history.

Art heals. How? It reminds us of connection, say, to the astounding beauty of the female body, or of a flower or a mountain, or the awesomeness of the ordinary things in life.

Therefore, art heals by reminding us, and giving us the experience, of the wholeness that we share, the wholeness that is always inherent in the divine order. In encourages us to feel again the divine wholeness of ourselves.

In many traditions, including the ancient western one, art was sacred. It was created as a reminder of our connection to God. It was created to hold society together—to heal it.

We have gone through hundreds of years of secular art, which, free from the rules of ritual and dogma, has explored itself, just as a modern teenager explores life; exhilarated and emboldened by its independence from organised religion.

Yet, in my personal experience, art has come full circle, and has become sacred again. People have discovered spirituality outside the bounds of organised religion. Art, too, has become a spiritual healer through its explorations and metamorphoses. It has become more simple, refined and direct, and thus more powerful in its effect.

As I came to the end of my walk, thinking these thoughts, I saw a Chinese man walking in the park, talking gently to his little son. What I saw next brought tears to my eyes. I saw two chickens pecking at the grass near them, and realised they lived next door to the park, and had taken their chickens for a walk. This act of kindness, like great art, moved me and changed my life another little bit.

I dedicate this post to a dear friend who is studying art therapy, as part of her own healing journey.

The Artist’s Way – Week 2

I‘ve been reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and doing the exercises in the 12-week course. Last week was about Recovering a Sense of Safety, and this week was about recovering a Sense of Identity.

It became apparent that the identity I had created for myself—as an artist and a photographer—had default properties which had been baked in by my early creative experiences. My sense of myself, and quite possibly of the identity I put out to the world, was obviously coloured by those experiences; especially the negative, shameful ones. When I decided to become a photographer in 1985, I had a hard time describing myself as a “professional photographer” to others! For a very long time I admired my artist friends as being more creative than I could ever be!

My task for the week was to review the default identity I had taken on and expressed through the years, to observe how irrelevant it was to my present needs, and to consciously create a new one.

Interestingly, my week started with a lot of inexplicable anxiety. But as the week progressed, I would wake up in the middle of the night, imagining myself in a new, greater identity. I saw myself doing bigger jobs, international projects, books, assignments for governments and NGOs. I was having bursts of energy which kept me awake at night.

The anxiety came back, and I realised I had organised my life and my business to stay small. I was feeling anxious because I had not created the infrastructure and processes to handle more and bigger jobs.  My business therefore had to be rebuilt from the ground up, if I was to move to the next level.

I realised that my increased energy was coming from stronger identification with the role of Bard that I had been initiated into in 1995. My work as an artist is starting to have a more overarching purpose, a societal purpose. What actually is an artist? I explored that question.

An artist—a bard—tells the story of the society he or she is in, but perhaps in ways that push it forward. The artist does it in a way that makes the invisible visible. The artist is said to be in touch with the Ether (Akasha in Sanskrit), and miraculously plucks visions or songs from it, and offers it to society.

The act of expression is the ceaseless process of rendering the invisible visible.
That which is visible, that which structures the everyday, passes for reality.
The act of expression requires a transition from a world of apparent certainties to a world in which we cannot even locate ourselves.

Koji Taki

Coming into a new identity is a metamorphosis, with its attendant discomforts and struggles. I believe that when the choice of identity is right, there is a release of energy and power, and something beautiful can arise and fly.

Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.

Carlos Castañeda

The Artist’s Way – Week 1

“A word after a word after a word is power.”

Margaret Atwood

I recently came across a book I had bought in London in 1995—and had never read. It was The Artist’s Way—A Course in Discovering and Recovering your Creative Self, by Julia Cameron. I had been looking in the last month for a course to help me gain confidence in my creativity—and this unread book popped back into my life!

I committed to going through The Artist’s Way. This blog will be a weekly account of what I learned and experienced in this 12-week course.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Maya Angelou

The first week was about Recovering a Sense of Safety. Why are we not more creative than we can be? Cameron says it could be because we are afraid to be creative.

For me, creativity is sharing. It is self-exposure. It requires one to become vulnerable, to show one’s feelings, to reveal one’s heart and soul. Creativity, once released, can be judged, criticised, made fun of. Of course it can be admired and loved and enjoyed as well. But, in our society, criticism tends to be taken more seriously and personally than praise. I know; if ten people praise my work and two criticise it, I remember the criticism more clearly and painfully.

My first homework was to identify three sources of discouragement in my creative life. When I remembered them, I was hit by how hard they had affected me.

The first memory was of when I was seven years old, and an art teacher ridiculed my work in front of the class. I remembered the pangs of shame, and my decision there and then not to continue the art course.

My second memory was of when I was about 20. I had eagerly gone to a photography agency in London with my portfolio of photos I had taken thus far—snaps of my house, the dog, my friends at a party, a Rolling Stones concert, a Wimbledon tennis match. The woman went through them in silence, looked up at one point to say “cute dog,” then shut my portfolio, pushed it back towards me, and said, “Mr Lopez, you’ll never make it as a photographer.” I was crushed.

My third memory was vague one of having come to the belief that to do art you had to be “artistic” and have “good taste.” Since I had no idea what being artistic meant, I knew that I wasn’t. Not being artistic, I couldn’t possibly be a judge of good taste, and therefore it remained always elusive to me. This belief was the worst; I had unquestioningly accepted its influence in the background of my consciousness all my life.

“To live the creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.”

Joseph Chilton Pearce

As I realised the import of these events and the beliefs I had formed, I was overcome with grief for the seven-year-old boy and the 20-year-old young man—grief for the creative life they lost. The life I lost through unconscious fears and beliefs.

Some people push through such events and become successful in their lives. But how much of that success is compensation for the pain they bear? I went the other way, and shrank into my shell. Even though I did become a photographer and did “make it” as one, I always felt I never belonged, that I was missing something. I ended up admiring creative people from a distance, jealous of photographers whom I thought were more “artistic” than me.

I had become what Julia Cameron calls a “shadow creative.”

“Make your recovery the first priority in your life.”

Robin Norwood

So the first step was to remember the events and people that led to my limiting beliefs, to acknowledge their past influence on my life, and to release them. The next step was to remember the people who had championed my creativity—the people who admired my creative work, who encouraged me, who told me I could do it. This is the time to acknowledge the truth—that I am creative, that others have been moved and inspired by my creativity, and that creativity is our natural gift.

To those who have championed me (you know who you are), thank you from the bottom of my heart, your words and actions are more-than-ever important to me.

And now to move to Week 2 of my creative recovery.

“Undoubtedly, we become what we envisage.”

Claude Bristol

Hello world!

I am a private person.

Yet, in the last few weeks, I have felt a voice wanting to express itself.

I remembered an event that happened in 1995. I was stark naked in a sweat lodge teepee near the prehistoric Uffington Horse in England, facing an equally naked Chief Druid, his robed wife, and another senior member of the Order.

“Gerald, you are now initiated as a Bard…” the Chief Druid said, as the ceremony came to a completion. They left into the night, and I sat alone in the teepee, rivers of sweat pouring down my face and body, as I absorbed what had just happened.

I then returned to daily life, and promptly forgot my initiation.

I remembered it again a few weeks ago. “What is a Bard?” I thought. “Why did I forget that I am now a bard?”

In ancient Druidic culture, a bard was a story-teller and music-maker, someone who memorised the culture and recounted it back to their society. I had become a bard for a purpose, but at the time I didn’t know it. I was just interested in Druidry as a way to find  out more about spirituality, and the initiation was part of that experience.

It has become apparent to me, that the story I had told myself about myself, had deeply influenced the outcomes and my experience of life. If I could review that story, and recount it in a different way, my experience of life could change.

The stories that societies are telling about themselves, impact all aspects of society, including politics, laws, and culture. These stories are being told on social media and in the news; while some stories are inspiring, many stories  are robbing people of their belief in humanity.

“To poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralised nation tells demoralised stories to itself. Beware of the story-tellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art…” – Ben Okri

Thus, I feel a responsibility to speak: in words, in photography, in music, in any way that people understand.

I also feel a responsibility to express in a way that reminds people of who they are and of what could be; that reminds them of their dreams and hopes; that helps them find their voice.

I don’t know how many will read this blog. It doesn’t matter. If you found something interesting or helpful, please post a comment.

Thank you.