I am sitting in my studio space listening to the melting snow on the metal roof. It sounds like raindrops, but the sky is a brilliant blue and the sun is beaming down on frosty-covered Tetons.  I am alone in the space with my dog, Olive, who lies beside me, but it is far from silent. The raindrops are accompanied by the hum of the refrigerator, the slamming of outside car doors, and the occasional human voice. Olive’s dog sounds of sleep and my typing fingers round out the orchestra that has been created.  There is silence, but there is art as well.

Having just hung a body of work in Pinedale at Isabel Jewelry & Gallery, I have been thinking about stillness in my work and the need for space so that viewers can fully dive in.  This is a difficult outcome to reach, as it is easy to keep reworking, adding, tweaking the color here, the shape there.  Adding more noise. Finding the silence is not an easy endeavor.

These thoughts have been influenced and ignited by the magical words of Terry Tempest Williams in her new book When Women Were Birds, a memoir about her mother, finding voice, and a great deal more.  Williams is gifted her mother’s journals upon her mothers death and when opening them discovers that every one of them is blank, white pages that reveal nothing and everything at the same time.  Silence that is deafening. “Silence introduced in a society that worships noise is like the moon exposing the night. Behind darkness is our fear. Within silence our voice dwells. What is required from both is that we be still. We focus. We listen. We see and we hear. The unexpected emerges” (Williams, pg. 58).  Williams goes on to talk about the famous composer John Cage and his notorious composition 4’33” where the pianist sat down on his bench, closed the lid, and started a time watch for four minutes and 33 seconds. Some angry audience members walked out, others sat in shock as Cage’s masterpiece wove together the sounds in the concert hall: the wind, the rain, the human happenings. Within the apparent silence there was a cacophony of music. Cage talked about the composition being a breathing space and credited his courage to create such a work to his friend and contemporary Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg’s equally scandalous White Paintings, large panels of white that hung in Stable Gallery in 1953, challenged the idea of how far you could push a piece and still have it stand for something. “ There was a kind of courage that was built into them in their uniqueness. Most of the work in this collection scared the shit out of me, too, and they didn’t stop frightening me” (Williams, pg. 59). This series of work was before the rise of Minimalism and shocked the art world immensely. Cage saw these paintings as, “airports for dust and shadows, mirrors of the air” and applauded their stillness.

It is really about looking and listening with heightened eyes and ears. About being with a piece of work and not being afraid of the silence that it may convey. Seeking out the moments of quietness that do exist in our chaotic world. One of the reasons many of us live in this valley is that these moments are more prevalent here. It is what Williams speaks about, the silence making us open to the unexpected, to the parts of ourselves that may be more internal, maybe more darker, maybe more difficult to own.

“I fear silence because it leads me to myself, a self I may not wish to confront. It asks that I listen. And in listening, I am taken to an unknown place. Silence leaves me alone in a place of feeling. It is not necessarily a place of comfort” (Williams, pg. 57).

2 Comments on “silence

  1. Very Thoughtful. The moment of silence in any art discipline is an interesting study in stripping away the unnecessary. I don’t think it can last more than a ‘moment’ though or the tradition loses its relevance. Maybe because its success depends on its context. That must be an infuriating observation to a disciple of abstraction.

  2. Alissa, I love reading your thoughts on art and how themes and questions of silence weave through your own work. To me the word “silence” is infused with meaning from my time in NYC in the 90s when the slogan “silence = death” was so prominent in the gay community. It was the height of AIDS activism. The art generated from that community wrestled with political silence and also the impending silence of death. My good friend Tory Dent titled one of her books of poetry “What Silence Equals”. The poems are her contribution to saying ‘I was here. These were the images and details and experiences that comprised my unique life.’
    Anyway this is all what comes to my mind when I think about the concept of silence.

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