I will be blogging bi-weekly with my latest artwork, discoveries, and musings. All my paintings shown in these blogs are available as fine art giclee prints from http://shoshanah-dubiner.artistwebsites.com/.
Membranes is one of the most popular of my works. Several people recently ordered prints, including Tyler Volk, whose book Metapatterns is a brilliant scientific and poetic book about my favorite topic: patterns in nature (more about this in a future blog). Jill Bolte Taylor, neuroscientist and author of My Stroke of Insight loves her print. So I decided to feature it this week on my blog.
Every cell in every living organism is enclosed in a membrane. Membranes define what is inside and what is outside. A membrane called skin encloses our physical body; it’s what people call our “birthday suit.” Even our psyches and societies have membranes, habits of thought and social customs defining “us” as different from “them.” Without membranes there would be only one undifferentiated “soup” of existence. Cell membranes don’t just separate; they also allow movement between inside and outside, making sharing and growth possible. Analogously, the concept of “I” or “me” can expand as we mature and learn about others, while still retaining a sense of who we are. In life, there is no escaping the containment of membranes, the existence of an “it.”
On the purely chemical-biological level, every cell membrane is made of two layers of molecules called phospholipids. In the painting, the part of the molecule represented by a dot is attracted to the water that is both inside and outside the cell; the part shown as a little tail repels water. There are proteins embedded in the membrane, acting like gates through which food and minerals pass in and waste products out. Within the cell there are “organelles” also made up of the same phospholipid membranes –— folded, pleated and balloon-like containers — where the business of maintaining life is carried on: food is metabolized into energy, cell repair work is done, wastes are carried away.
I created this painting in 2007 at the Meditation and the Spirit of Creativity retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center a few months after completing a summer course in cell biology. I began with a somewhat-textbook-diagram-based cell in the upper left corner. Then the large circular form metamorphosed into the head of the entire human body with hands and a large tubular mucous-lined cavity running from mouth to anus. Out of the mouth came more membranous shapes: puffs of breath, and words, too, which themselves are containers of meaning. In another fluid-filled container, a womb, a baby is waiting to be born, floating in an ocean of color squiggles that represent not just ancestral microorganisms but the countless numbers of molecules - proteins, enzymes, carbohydrates, amino acids, fats and minerals -- that come together every nanosecond to dance the intricate dance of life.
Having just returned from a meditation retreat with my favorite Buddhist teacher, writer, and scholar, Stephen Batchelor, and his wife Martine, I am happy to proclaim myself, like the Batchelors, a secular Buddhist. At the retreat, as in his book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Batchelor emphasized the secular voice of Siddattha Gotama. When I heard that “on the few occasions in the Canon where Gotama explicitly addressed the question of God, he is presented as an ironic atheist,” (Confession, p. 179) refusing to engage in serious discussions about cosmology, reincarnation, or Brahma/God, I immediately thought about my own upbringing as a secular Jew.
My parents, who were not active members of the local Reform synagogue, dutifully sent me to Sunday school as child. After several unmemorable classes, my teacher told us that a man lived in the stomach of a whale for 3 days and 3 nights days and survived. I refused to believe such nonsense and asked my parents to let me drop out. They complied with my request. The years that followed were a struggle between me and what had been set before me as God. It was impossible for me, a child of the modern scientific world, to believe that the world was created in 7 days or that all the animals could fit on Noah’s Ark. As I grew older, the anguish increased: I refused to worship a God who would ask Abraham to sacrifice his only son, who would inflict excruciating suffering on Job just to test Job’s faith in Him, who would turn Lot's wife into a pillar of salt… and so forth. For me, the Jewish God also represented Patriarchy, which, as an early feminist, I was fighting against.
In 1995, I started attending Buddhist meditation sessions and embraced Buddhism’s core teachings of inner awakening, compassion, and the Noble Eightfold Path. I knew that I was still a cultural Jew because of my upbringing, but for years I had not been at all interested in the religious aspects of Judaism with the ever-present Adonai, God, King of the Universe. I had just walked away from all that long ago.
But then, in 2007, during a process painting class, God started coming into my painting. ”Oh no! I don’t want to paint God, I don’t believe in God, I refuse to paint God,” I told the teacher. I knew the rules: In process painting classs, when you feel this strongly about what you don’t want to paint, you should paint it.
“OK, I’ll paint God. The God of my childhood. The Old Man with the fierce eyes and long beard and the outstretched arm and the mighty hand, sitting on His throne." I kept painting and painting, hating every moment, and then, when I had finished, the teacher asked, 'Where would you be if you were in this painting?' My first reply was "Next to the trees, in the Garden of Eden." But almost immediately afterwards, I saw myself as a child sitting right in God’s lap. And as I painted the young girl, her small tender arm reached up and tickled God’s beard as she said "Lighten up, God." I laughed and laughed. All my resistence had melted. I had let go of my aversion to the concept of God that had caused me such anguish, and with the cessation of my resistance to what I did not like, came a sense of lightness and freedom. The old anger never returned. Thus, the act of creating my painting (and my teacher's question) had transformed me from an resentful anti-theist to a happy a-theist for whom , like Gotama, the question of God is “gently ridiculed and then put aside.” (Confession, p. 179).
"Crystal Cave: Lost Mothers, Lost Daughters" is on display through the month of April as part of the beautiful, imaginative and thought-provoking Third Annual Juried Artist Book exhibit at Illahe Gallery and Studios. "Crystal Cave" is another in my series of dioramas (see earlier blog.)