By Robert Mertens
Flashback: When I was little, I was sent to Sunday school by my parents. We were read the stories of Jesus, with pictures and writing we could understand. Sometimes we were taken into the church to hear the minister preach a little of his Sunday sermon.
One Sunday, he spoke of angels in heaven worshipping God through all Eternity. I had no idea of the meaning of “Eternity” except that it was an endlessly long time. I thought, “This can’t be right. A little time worshipping in church was OK, but for all Eternity?” I knew there was much more to life. Seeds of doubt and questions were planted in me. Was there such a thing as “worship”? Such a place as Eternity where a person “worshipped”, and by extension, was there such a thing as God to be worshipped?.......
The story: It was more than 50 years ago that I experienced Gratitude (with a capital G).
I’m now 78 years old and my life has been good. I’ve experienced many kinds of gratitude throughout my days: gratitude for my family and friends, gratitude for animals, gratitude for the beauty of nature, gratitude for food, gratitude for health……….. and so on.
But this Gratitude I can only remember experiencing once and it changed my life.
I was living in a 4th floor walk-up on East 1st street in Manhattan’s East Village. We paid $54 a month for the apartment. There were three of us living there so we split the rent 3 ways and were usually a month behind. We made our money through a small cooperative gallery, that we ran on Charles Street, near Bleeker, where the rent was also usually in arrears. So whenever we made a sale we would pay the back rents, go out for a meal, and stock up the pantry.
I took the Long Island Railroad to my parents’ house about once a month to connect with my family, get a home cooked meal, and do dirty laundry.
It was on a late Summer day in mid August, while visiting my parents, when I experienced Gratitude. It happened like this. The day was as perfect as any I can remember. My father loved growing roses, and his roses in their second bloom, filled my senses with their aroma and beauty. The sky was a deep blue, with puffy white clouds slowly drifting across the sky. The temperature was cool, not cold and warm, not hot - in a word, perfect.
I was in a dreamy, drowsy mood, contented and peaceful. So I thought I’d go to the room my parents kept for my brother and me for a nap. I lay down on my back and closed my eyes. Dappled light played on my closed eyelids from the trees outside the window that rustled in a light breeze.
Then something remarkable happened.
I was looking at the room through my closed eyes. It looked exactly like the room did with my eyes open, but there was something else there too. It was a flaming triangle hanging in the air. It looked something like this design , except that the front and back faces were blue fire and the inside and outside faces were white fire. And I could see any of the faces from my position lying on the bed.
As I watched, I noticed a vibration coming down from the triangle through the air. It looked like the heat waves rising from a hot highway. It looked like the shimmering “mirage” that appears as a pool of silver water that disappears as you draw closer.
The vibration came down through the air and entered my chest, causing my chest to start vibrating. My awareness had moved from the room to the inside of my head where I had a strong curiosity to see what was vibrating in my chest. So I dived down there to take a look. I went into my heart where the vibration had become a ball of white light.
I wanted a close look at this ball of light, so I moved towards it. As I did so, it moved away. So I moved faster towards it and it moved faster away. It was going deeper into my heart and rapidly accelerating. The faster I chased it, the more it accelerated until it was very far off and the inside of my heart had become like outer space, enormous and dark.
The light had become like a tiny star in the distance and then suddenly it blinked out. As I hovered there, I wondered what to do. If I went farther, I might not be able to find my way up and out. If I emerged from the space in my heart, I might lose the chance of ever knowing what the ball of light was. So I was looking towards the place where the light disappeared, wondering what to do, when it popped back into view. And it was getting larger, coming right at me.
I began to retreat as it became larger and larger, closer and closer, and suddenly found myself back in my head. And then It happened. The light had become a song. The song was Gratitude, and it was singing my heart (causing my heart to sing). My heart became Gratitude and the Gratitude began to move up. It came into my throat, causing it to sing Gratitude. Then it came into my mouth and my mouth was singing Gratitude, loudly!
A thought, all at once appeared, like a ticker tape running behind my closed eyes. It said, ”You are at your parents’ house, and they are going to think you are going nuts!” At that thought, my eyes popped open.
I waited anxiously, looking at the closed door to my room, thinking someone would come into the room to see what was going on. But no one came. I gingerly walked to the door and looked out. No one was there, either. I walked the short hall to the den where my father and brother were watching pre-season football. There was no recognition of any loud singing or anything out of place, from either of them.
I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing I would not have to explain my strange behavior.
I later realized that I had experienced Gratitude, and this was/is the true worship of my soul. It came unexpectedly with no bidding from me. It came from beyond myself and went deeper into me than I could follow. It was blissful beyond words and I experienced it in a place that I can call “Eternity” in and beyond my body. And I can say that it came from God.
Understanding: So what does this have to do with the way that I make art?
As I work in the digital realm (Photoshop), I start to construct pictures. I often begin with a simple geometric shape like a circle, or import a photo, such as a butterfly. I proceed to improvise, layering other shapes and motifs in Photoshop “layers”, blending layers above with layers below, often with unexpected results.
An infinite variety of possibilities emerge as I proceed, and when something looks good, I get a little whiff of beauty and a drop of gratitude when I see it. I may then save that place as a “history state” and continue on. I go forward, adding layers, (sometimes fifty or more) and saving history states (sometimes more than a hundred). I can take elements from one history state and bring them into another state.
I can change the “blending modes” between the layers at the touch of a command button and sometimes globally change the whole picture in surprising way, revealing something unexpected new and exciting.
I work with the color and form like a kind of visual musical improvising. Sometimes it can be like jazz with spontaneous and surprising relationships, playing back and forth with each other. Or, it can be a slowly emerging organic structure, like the ordered form of a developing classical piece. It can feel like falling down a rabbit hole or entering a secret garden to see what is growing there.
I usually work starting late at night until early in the morning, as it is a time of quiet and calm. When something good has revealed itself, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction and peace as I go to bed.