photo: Judy Ferrara
Photo Credit: Tracy Raphaelson




June 2005

"Go inside a stone/That would be my way./Let somebody else become a dove/Or gnash with a tiger's tooth./I am happy to be a stone."
from "Stone," Dismantling the Silence: Poems by Charles Simic, Braziller.



A Kinship with Rocks

Dear Reader,

Obsessions and inspiration have to start somewhere. My current preoccupation is with rocks (or stones, depending on your preference or definition). They have been emerging in my paintings recently, and, so far, I have fourteen pieces with rocks in them. You can see three examples in Gallery Chapters Two and Three on this website.

Why rocks? It began a year or two ago, during a conversation with my friend Cathy Egan. She talked about rocks-they had become a personal symbol for her. She recited a verse that extolled the virtues of rocks. She invited me to think about rocks and put them in my paintings. I hadn't thought much about rocks until then. I had made landscapes in the past, with rocks painted into them. I live in New England and every spring, winter has spawned a new crop of rocks. My husband is a gifted dry stone wall builder, and since my studio looks out on hundreds of feet of stone walls, I am surrounded by superb models. I look closely and see faces, figures and odd creatures residing there.

However, shortly after that talk with Cathy, I made a painting with rocks. I do not plan my paintings, and I am influenced by the power of suggestion (Cathy's, in this case). She made me rethink rocks. As I painted, the rocks had risen to a level of meaning beyond their physicality and their beauty, beyond their being an integral part of any landscape or imagescape. Rocks had suddenly moved themselves into the group of symbols that repeat themselves in my paintings: birds, houses, fences, spheres, and ellipses.

But what do rocks mean to me? Why do I let my brushes and palette knife lead me on, while I watch rocks assemble themselves on canvas after canvas? What is my kinship with rocks?

My habit is to begin to answer questions by looking things up. While I still believe in doing research, it occurred to me that I could begin another way. It might be taking the easy way out to read what others wrote about rocks as a symbol. I would be fitting my symptoms into their diagnosis. I wasn't looking for rock obsession support yet. I forced myself to list what they meant to me and came up with these ideas:

  • barriers - rocks can be what keep me from getting to or getting on with what I need to do. They represent problems meant to be solved.
  • delineators - rocks give definition to an area. They offer boundaries and create a manageable space within which to work. They are part of a larger picture.
  • stability - rocks are solid and steady; rocks are dependable and classifiable; rocks are knowable and unknowable. They are like the BIG IDEAS that support artists and writers, such as love, death, chaos, strength, and courage.
  • rocks are us - mineral, solid, finite. We contain more than trace elements of rock: we both change with time; we erode and break; we disintegrate; we regenerate; and as hard as we try to camouflage ourselves, we are embarrassingly unadorned; we can be useful, but are not necessary. This is our kinship with rocks.

The "rock" entry on page 415 of The Complete Dictionary of Symbols [Jack Tresidder, General Editor, Chronicle Books] listed these ethical and religious meanings: "dependability, integrity, steadfastness, stability, permanence, strength and, in China, longevity...biblical metaphor for reliability...In Chinese painting, rock is a Yang (male and active [!]) symbol. Rock sculptures, notably on Easter Island, in Egypt...[and] Mount Rushmore...convey the same emblematic meaning of power. Gods were reputedly born from living rock in several Near Eastern religions, notably Mithraism."

It is difficult to say how long my preoccupation with rocks will remain active, or how many paintings will finally feature them. Writing about painting sometimes tames my muse, and she becomes silent as a stone. I'll discover the effect next time I step up to my easel.

In July, I will explore a practical question: How do I decide what artwork and/or writing to send "out there" to journals, competitions, or exhibitions? You can email me about the use of symbols in your work or share your criteria for selecting work to be submitted for publication or exhibition: See you next month.