The healing process is best described as a spiral. Survivors go through the stages once, sometimes many times; sometimes in one order, sometimes in another. Each time they hit a stage again, they move up the spiral: they can integrate new information and a broader range of feelings, utilize more resources, take better care of themselves, and make deeper changes.
― Laura Hough, Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love Is a Survivor of Child Sexual Abuse
I’ve recently returned to painting and, searching for inspiration, ran across Agnes Pelton’s extraordinary transcendental paintings, images full of energy balanced with a cool serenity. She has quickly become one of my favorite painters.
Agnes Lawrence Pelton was born in 1881 to American parents, William and Florence Pelton, in Stuttgart, Germany. She spent her early childhood in Europe before moving to Brooklyn with her mother when she was seven. Florence Pelton ran The Pelton School of Music out of their home and kept food on the table by teaching piano, as well as German and French. William Pelton overdosed on morphine at his brother’s home in Louisiana when his daughter was nine.
Awakening: Memory of Father, 1943
Agnes Pelton graduated from the Pratt Institute in 1900, continuing her study of painting with Arthur Wesley Dow, who also taught Georgia O’Keeffe. His emphasis on structure, imagination and non-naturalistic color deeply affected both women. Pelton referred to her early works as “imaginative paintings“, “moods of nature symbolically expressed” that exhibited humanity in harmony with nature and experimented with natural light. She often dressed in flowing gowns with flowers twisted into her hair and set up her studio in Greenwich Village, a hotbed for political radicals and avant-garde artists.
Vine Wood, 1910
West Wind, 1915
Room Decoration in Purple and Gray, 1917
In 1919, Pelton made a visit to Taos, New Mexico, as a guest of the colorful Mabel Dodge Luhan, who built the image and brand of “Southwestern Modernist Art” by inviting artists to her home and promoting their work. Here Pelton painted realistic portraits and romantic desert landscapes. These paintings honed her technique and sold and showed well, but her true calling was to paint inner visions rather than realistic representational scenes. Enchanted by the desert but, most likely, uncomfortable with fitting in to a commercial, mainstream artistic movement, especially one so aggressively shepherded by a personality like Luhan, she returned to New York to be near her mother. After Florence died in 1920, Pelton took up residence in a historic windmill on Long Island, seeking solitude and deeper abstraction, still heavily influenced by nature. It was here in the winter of 1926 that her first introspective, abstract paintings were born. She also traveled heavily, feeling herself to be a bit of a nomad. In 1932, the windmill was sold. Homeless at the age of 50, Pelton decided to travel across the country to Cathedral City, California, intending on a short stay. She would live out the rest of her life in the California desert.
California Landscape near Pasadena, 1930
Early Morning in the Wash, 1936
The vibration of this light, the spaciousness of these skies enthralled me. I knew there was a spirit in nature as in everything else, but here in the desert it was an especially bright spirit.
Star Gazer, 1929
The Voice, 1930
Sea Change, 1931
In 1938, a group of artists based in Taos calling themselves the Transcendental Painting Group contacted Pelton. They were inspired and excited by her work and wondered if she would become their first president, sort of a patron saint for spiritual abstract painting. She accepted, and for five years she had an artistic community. The Transcendental Painters sought “to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world, through new concepts of space, color, light and design, to imaginative realms that are idealistic and spiritual.” The group broke up in 1943 as World War II made life difficult for everyone. Pelton’s work became more personal and abstract, and she receded not only from the art world, but from society in general. She had no interest in promoting her art, and died largely forgotten in 1961 at the age of eighty. Recently, her work has been rediscovered and promoted. I am very excited about a traveling exhibition originating at the Phoenix Museum of Art this spring called Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist. It will tour to the Whitney Museum in New York City, The New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe and to the Palm Springs Art Museum. I’d like to see it, wouldn’t you?
The Blest, 1941
Passion Flower, 1945
What I love so much about Pelton’s painting is its serene luminosity. Her light is powerful and energetic but remains benevolent and nurturing. She had a profound interest in spirituality and in finding common ground with other cultures. Heavily influenced by numerology, spiritualism and yoga, her work lies at the beginning of what would become the New Age Movement There is something very feminine and abundant about the portrayal of her inner world. At a time when many modernist painters were paring things down to straight lines and redactive images, her work is refreshing in its roundness and expressivity. Organized and elegant, she never overwhelms the eye, although she has a lively sense of color. World War II must have been a great challenge, yet she remains strong and hopeful in her painting, as if presenting a vision of healthy humanity undimmed despite pain and difficulty. What a refreshing vision for any age!
“I don’t know if I ever told you,” my therapist said. “But I’m a birder. I love birds. And when they hit a window like that, or get hurt in any significant way, they have this ritual. They shake off the pain. They shake off the trauma. And they walk in circles to reconnect their brain and body and soul. When your bird was walking and shaking, it was remembering and relearning how to be a bird.” Oh, wow. I couldn’t say much after that intense revelation, but my therapist continued. “We humans often lose touch with our bodies,” she said. “We forget that we can also shake away our pain and trauma.”
There is really only one way to restore a world that is dying and in disrepair: to make beauty where ugliness has set in. By beauty, I don’t mean a superficial attractiveness, though the word is commonly used in this way. Beauty is a loveliness admired in its entirety, not just at face value. The beauty I’m referring to is metabolized grief. It includes brokenness and fallibility, and in so doing, conveys for us something deliciously real.
A wound in the soul, coming from the rending of the spiritual body, strange as it may seem, gradually closes like a physical wound. And once a deep wound heals over and the edges seem to have knit, a wound in the soul, like a physical wound, can be healed only by the force of life pushing up from inside.
Imagine the feeling of relief that would flood our whole being if we knew that when we were in the grip of sorrow or illness, our village would respond to our need. This would not be out of pity, but out of a realization that every one of us will take our turn at being ill, and we will need one another. The indigenous thought is when one of us is ill, all of us are ill. Taking this thought a little further, we see that healing is a matter, in great part, of having our connections to the community and the cosmos restored.
― Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief
It is surprising to me that one of the great crimes of history has gone unnoticed; the abduction of god by religions. This slight-of-hand has been the cause of countless blood-shed and has been found at the root of innumerable acts of evil. The argument continues today, as to which religion the true god belongs, when what would be most healing and empowering is to free god from the shackles of religious limitation and judgment. It is by emancipating god from the ignorance of our ancestors that we become empowered to explore and express our own relationship with what god may or may not be.
We classify ourselves into groups which give meaning and order to our experiences. What happens when those groups inhibit growth?
Ronit is the daughter of an orthodox Jewish rabbi, living a secular life as a successful photographer. Disowned by her family and cut off from her roots because of a teenage romance with a young woman, her life is thrown out of balance when she receives a call that her father has died. Returning to her community in order to attend the events surrounding his funeral, she finds a mixture of forgiveness, suspicion, judgement and sympathy. Esti, the girl that Ronit had loved, has grown into a strong but tightly wound woman, married to Dovid, their best friend growing up, a man who trained with Ronit’s father to become a rabbi. Indeed, he has been selected to succeed the celebrated Rav Krushka. Dovid and Esti are poised to take on the most important position in the community. But something is not, and has never been quite right under their roof. Now that Ronit has returned, the fragile life they have built together is rocked to its core.
In making Disobedience, it would have been easy to pit people of faith fully against homosexuals and require us to choose one side or the other. That is not what Sebastián Lelio has done in this adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel. Jewish tradition is honored, the beauty, depth and expressive power of its theology and, especially, of its liturgical music is depicted. Neither does the film shy away from the shortfalls of the faith’s adherents, nor the uncontrollable desire that binds Esti and Ronit. Clearly their romance has troubled the waters in this small Jewish community. There is not much sympathy and no support for homosexuality here. Most of the reactions to the unsanctioned romance are lacking in compassion. All are at least somewhat ignorant. And yet, there are enough ambiguities in the faith, in the sacred writings themselves, to create space for new interpretation that may lead somewhere in future generations. The place where we see this revolution of faith is not within the community itself, but within Dovid. I don’t want to spoil the film. The first time I watched it I had no idea how Dovid would reconcile the interior crisis of faith caused by the realization that his relationship with his wife is based on the premise that he, through his caring nature, would be able to convert her to heterosexuality. He has not, and their relationship has caused psychological damage to Esti by making her feel obligated to have sex which she does not desire. His community has required him to violate her personhood and now implies that he, as Rav Kuperman, should require her to completely give up her feelings for good. But is this what God requires?
One of my favorite scenes is of Dovid teaching from the Songs of Solomon. He postulates that surely there is something higher in the love between man and woman than physical sexuality, while the young men in his class agree that the text, bold in its passion, says otherwise. The trouble is understated, as is almost everything in the film, but you get the sense that Dovid is aware that his passionless marriage, as respectful as it is, is not what it should be.
This is a quiet, intimate movie. There isn’t screaming and railing. Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola, who is nearly unrecognizable behind a full beard, all give sensitive portrayals of complex individuals that never behave in cliché fashion. Ronit, Esti and Dovid are controlled people, quietly torturing themselves in their own private solitudes. They are living their experience moment to moment, not knowing where they are going. The cinematography enhances this, as does the musical score, which often goes dead silent. There are many closeups of inscrutable faces and the camera constantly catches small awkward gestures and movements. This renders the erupting passion between Esti and Ronit incredibly powerful in its decisive boldness. The only scenes which are not understated are the physical encounters between the women, culminating in an intense extended love scene. By contrast, the scenes between Dovid and Esti, while containing more nudity, are clinical and cold. The camera reinforces the emotional and spiritual climate that Esti must navigate.
Disobedience gives me hope that there can be space for dialogue within the most conservative faiths. It is in our best interests to expand our definition of ourselves and how we relate to others rather than allowing our institutions to do it for us. No group is a monolith: be it race based, gender based or faith based. It is often said that we join groups or causes to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, but it is also true that how we live our lives enriches and imparts meaning to the causes and groups we embrace. Speaking of our inward beings and granting each other freedom are the very first steps in allowing ourselves and our beliefs to grow. We may not understand each other, but we have to start the conversation somewhere. The healing and wholeness of our communities depend upon it.