Our formal introduction to art begins early. By three, most American tots have begun their 12- to 20-year academic trek. Art exploration starts in preschool. Smocked children delightedly dibble and dabble in billowy yards of newsprint, glue (not the tasty '50s paste of our youth) tempera paint and pipe cleaners. This process ensures messy children and equally messy creations, which are then clipped to miniature clotheslines to dry before the inevitable wave of home invasions which last for the ensuing three years, or when homework papers hijack the kids’ LL Bean backpacks. These kinderpieces are treated with respect due a Titian or Kandinsky. The refrigerator gallery allows for excellent display, new additions replacing the older ones daily, cast-offs rotated to the perilous pile on the kitchen counter, unless subject to the unwritten removal clause – child screaming re: possible removal of artwork. All, or some deemed bin-worthy, take up a new life in the attic until birth of a grandchild or grudging acknowledgment that the child never made the Picasso cut. The hoarded primitive works come to no good end other than functioning as a springboard down memory lane.
But the impermanence of art is not relegated to kindergarten creations. Art itself is impermanent (Spoiler alert!) as are we. The Japanese even have a name for it, “anicca,” meaning all things material or mental are in a continuous process of changing and subject to decay and destruction. Art surrounds us. We tend to categorize art as pieces corralled and protected by galleries and museums, with artists and conservators employing extensive, pricey archival methods to guard against inevitable aging.
As you read this newspaper or website, you are experiencing multiple layers of art in its design and creation; unless you are “sans vetements,” art has imbued the process of creating your clothing, the chair on which you sit and the china that holds your broiled salmon. Artists should suffer no illusions as to the physical custody or longevity of their work. Professionals give birth to a child which they are usually more than willing to sell – for a price. There are many artists who create for the sheer joy of amusing themselves with paint, or whatever media they employ. The luckiest ones, though, are those who get paid for playing in the mud.
All art eventually deteriorates, but there is a genre of art whose demise is swift and severe, even expected – ephemeral art. Art is not always about money. For over 2,000 years, Buddhist monks have created complicated sand mandalas as a form of religious meditation. Dul-tson-kyil-khor is what they do, taking days or weeks to pour minute patterns of colored marble powder into intricate designs using tiny metal cones called chakpur. They often use surgical masks to avoid even a breath disturbing the piece. However, when they finish, the work is destroyed in a ritual which sweeps it into a bag for disposal into a river to spread power and peace throughout the world.
In contemporary society, ephemeral art appears as face painting on kids at birthday parties and decorating world class art in Halloween pumpkin carving featuring the Mona Lisa and presidential portraiture. Three-dimensional looking sidewalk chalk painting in cities and at street festivals is outstandingly realistic, ice sculpturing at weddings and winter carnivals is astounding and Midwest farmers get in on the act with corn maze masterpieces only able to be viewed aerially.
Last month I stopped and talked to a sand sculpturalist erecting a work beside a Dennis business. Sean Fitzpatrick, a.k.a. Fitzysnowman, professionally creates transient art by ice and pumpkin carving and sand sculpturing. “Silly me,” I thought average Joes and Janes were building all those pieces, now I don’t feel so bad. He participates in regional contests and travels nationwide under contract to erect his unbelievable work, interrupted only by the random bee or curious onlooker. As soon as he completes a structure he can’t wait to start another.
Coffee baristas make frothy images you can’t fathom, and Buddy the Cake Boss makes life-size sugary museum quality concoctions, which take days to put up and minutes to gobble down. In urban China, vendors work streetside creating sugar sculptures on sticks. Intricate butterflies, dragons and flowers are produced by pouring melted sugar on ceramic tables. Some designs are actually blown like glass. Customers watch, then pay and give these works of art to their kiddos to munch. Flower arrangement art dates back thousands of years. Why do it at all if we can’t keep it or charge thousands for it?
There is a special kind of wonder inspired by transient beauty. Bittersweet on the senses, it dazzles us with the mystery of its creation. Just like the ephemeral nature of childhood, we know it is destined to disappear.
Buddhist culture is based on accepting the impermanence of the universe; so is Snap Chat and Ikea furniture, apparently. Just as we appreciate the beauty of rainbows for their rarity and transience, we look to the passions of artists to continue to birth that which will delight and amaze for even the briefest of moments.