My first memory of an art gallery is my father lifting me above the crowd in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He raised me above his head to catch a glimpse of the painting we patiently waited to study. I recall being eight or nine years old and wondering why people were slowly filing past the painting with such silence and respect. The woman in the painting sat with her hands folded, her head slightly turned and framed by straight long black hair. Her lips formed a peculiar smile, an expression I had not seen before — or since. Only years later did I realize this woman was the Mona Lisa, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpieces. My father’s patient desire to show his son the work of a master planted a seed.Twenty-two years later, during a sabbatical from my professional life in Alaska, I wandered through Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. My travels included the national galleries of art in Tokyo, Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Athens, and Sofia. During my stay in Sofia, in the rapidly changing atmosphere of post-Communist Bulgaria in April 1992, I found the right mixture of earth, air, fire and water to sprout the seed planted by my father.
As soon as I walk through the door of the Bulgarian National Gallery of Art I feel slightly off-balance, slightly different. I chalk it up to the greasy food Sofia’s less expensive restaurants offer a budget traveler. I wander through room after room of 18th- and 19th-century art. None of the stories told through color capture me until I reach a particular room. The walls are full of paintings of men planting fields, clearing a battlefield, saying prayers on a hilltop, and displaying their wealth.
Walking into the room my eyes immediately focus on one painting: men gathering in a tavern on a late winter day. The patrons gather around many small tables, some standing, others sitting. They are deeply immersed in the atmosphere of the moment. Most of the crowd faces the center of activity. Their hands are raised clapping a rhythm; they shout encouragement to the men in the center of the room. Red cheeks highlight expressions of good feeling.
In the foreground of the painting, two men are in the middle of the local gathering place stripped of their winter clothes, naked to the waist. They are lost in a trance, driven by impulses flowing through every muscle. Around the room, eyes focus on these two with awe, with respect, for their dancing ability and passion for life.
The faces radiate a kinship between men, a connection of strong male friendships. The way they are focused on a common shared experience makes me realize how seldom I feel such a focus with my men friends back home in Anchorage. The last time I felt this in tune with my gender was with my Boy Scout troop during summer camp. During those summer retreats, boys came together through shared scouting adventures to learn the companionship of our gender. The men in this painting share this companionship with their neighbors. I suspect they could not conceive of a community where the brotherhood of men no longer carries on this tradition.
Drawn in by the colors, lighting, and facial expression, the story brings a rise within me. A surge begins at the base of my spine, an awakening; of what I know not. In a moment of discomfort, I look around to see if anybody else is in the room. I am lucky. No one is watching, no other human is in the room. No one except the men on the walls.
I return to the painting. Now I notice some men are bored and unexcited. They look away from the center, they look down at the floor, and they distance themselves from the other men. These men are worn down by life. Their bodies sag, like summer ripe corn enduring a three-week dry spell. The zest for life does not flow through their arteries. They can not, or do not, tap into the flow of life force that binds men between heaven and earth.
Their eyes and body tell the story; the signs are subtle, but distinct. The eyes are downcast, weak, and withdrawn. The windows to the soul are cloudy. The light inside indicates the inner fire is about to die out for lack of fuel. The bodies are slouched, flaccid, and pasty. The vessel of the soul suffers from poor maintenance. The reservoir within that holds a man’s nourishment suffers from leaks and cracks in the container.
I study the scene some more. Now I notice the contrast between men who feed the internal flame, the hearth of creation, and the men who neglect the fire. Another shiver flutters up my spine. Studying the faces of the lifeless men, I recognize the expression I saw so often in my father’s face in the years leading to his death the year before my sabbatical. This is the expression that I started to see in my face while shaving. This lifeless expression convinced me to leave a secure job and set out on my journey.
My attention returns to the moment, to the men in the middle of the room. What are these men so passionately engaged in?
They are carrying on the unspoken traditions of their father, and their father before them, and their father before them — a tradition that cleanses men’s souls. They are dancing.
One is crouched in a deep knee bend characteristic of Cossacks or Greek dancers. He is kicking out the deep bass notes. The other stands tall dancing the fine steps of a tenor. Each is engulfed in emotion, entwined in the energy of the other. Each is embraced in a tradition of manhood.
The mixture of pigments on the canvas captures me; I sense the room is moving, or is it just me that is shifting. I feel dizzy. The density of my body disperses like a drop of food coloring dissipating in a pool of water. While standing before these men a subtle current swirls through me, a current that binds me with these men. The men in the tavern open their brotherhood to welcome me. They welcome me for what feels like an eternity, though I have no idea how long in clock time. I stand joined in a way that nurtures my body and soul. The seed planted by my father finds a new source of nourishment. I savor the feelings these men spark within me.
Boundaries of time and space return, the timeless moment retreats, the density of my body returns. My body armor reforms, bringing the return of restrictions on my feelings. Timeless clarity quickly becomes a fleeting memory. The traditional circle of men dissipates; linear words and time return. I return to the world of flat, two-dimensional paintings of men in this land between Europe and Asia. It takes me a few moments for me to readjust to being in the art gallery.
As I readjust, I remember how seldom my father bonded with men the way the men in the tavern are connected with one another. I realize how seldom I connect with other men. Like father, like son.
My visit with Bulgarian men of the early 19th century draws to a close. I walk over to a bland Stalin-era museum bench and sit down. I need a moment to regain my equilibrium, a moment to survey the painting once more. I doubt fifteen minutes have passed since entering the room. Somehow this painting, or this place, binds me with men in a way that knows no time clock, work shift, or assembly line. For a brief moment I return to one of the traditional practices of men, the power of nurturing transformation.
In that moment of transformation, standing with the gathering of men, I entered a cauldron created by opposites. The opposites of fire and water, of radiant passion and flowing emotions, combined with the opposites of air and earth, of ephemeral thoughts and the power of place. They demonstrated the alchemical tradition of joining opposites together to form the crucible of transformation. The medieval tradition of turning lead into gold. I feel the leaden life I walked in the door with is transformed. Though I sense the transformation is not complete.
Six years after that day in Sofia I now understand one of the few times I felt my father come alive was the day he held me high above the crowd to see the Mona Lisa. His instinctual response of raising his son in offering to a master passed on a timeless male tradition. In that moment he intuitively combined the four alchemical elements to create the crucible, the vessel, that men draw upon to sustain them in their daily life. He instinctively passed on a lesson from father to son of how to recharge one’s vessel.
My father passed on his passion of learning about the treasures of the world. That moment in front of Leonardo’s masterpiece set deep within me the seed of tradition. The tavern of men in Sofia awakened a conscious appreciation for the alchemical traditions of men necessary to sustain life. I sense my journey, my transformation, is incomplete until I pass on the traditions of my father, and forefathers, to my son.