The Watchmen

The art of life is to live in the present moment. – Emmet Fox

Les Veilleurs (6 April 2020)
Water stain for Les Veilleurs (Adelphi Street, Brooklyn)

For Easter Sunday, a piece about resurrection.

It’s called Les Veilleurs, and it was painted on 6 April 2020. It has the markings of my early paintings in the sense that what we see on the page mirrors very closely what we see in the stain that inspired it. Nothing has been added or subtracted or smoothed over or modified. With their lumps and protrusions, the three watchmen are thus imperfect beings. In the case of the character sitting atop the central figure’s hat, a completely fictional one.

What is that thing? A bear? A bird? All we can say for sure is that he is looking backward. With a limb that looks like an elephant’s foot, this watchman points at the road that has been traveled thus far. He watches over what has passed. The bear in him does so with strength, courage and patience; the bird in him understands that he shouldn’t dwell too long.

The dominant figure of this piece is clearly a bear. Dressed in a beautiful guard’s uniform, he faces the opposite direction of the animal perched on his head. He contemplates the road that remains to be traveled; he watches over what is to come. If he feels scared or small in the face of this vast unknown, he does not show it. He stands tall, his head is cocked slightly to the side; he is strong, he is curious.

In her article Bear Symbolism and Meaning and the Bear Spirit Animal, Kristen M. Stanton explains that the bear spirit tells you to lighten up a bit, and to embrace the someone in your life who is being spontaneous and fun. In Les Veilleurs, that someone is the monkey.

Of the three watchmen, the monkey is the smallest. Minuscule, in fact. His charge, on the other hand, is the most important: he watches over the present moment. Why would art have laid a task as daunting as this one on the shoulders of such a little creature? To keep the present moment from slipping into either sad or angry thoughts about the past, or anxious or fearful thoughts about the future, wouldn’t one need the strength of a much larger, much stronger animal?

No, actually. In Monkey Symbolism and Meaning, Garth C. Clifford writes that in dreams and artwork, monkeys seek to awaken our youthful and cheerful spirit; in other words, our inner child. And who better then a child to watch over the present moment? Indeed, no one understands the art of living in the present the way a child does: naturally, with playfulness and curiosity and humour.

On the evening I understood in my bones that my mariage and the life I knew were really and truly over, I cried the way I’d only ever seen people cry in the movies. Each sob was a wave starting somewhere in my gut and cresting sometimes in my chest, and other times in my shoulders or my throat. No sooner had one wave crashed onto the shore of my mouth than another one started to swell. Under the blankets of the bed of the room I was renting on Bergen Street, I did something else I’d only ever seen people do in the movies: I curled up into a fetal position, and I waited to die.

Death did indeed come for me that night. And thank goodness; that person was only half alive and needed to be put out of her misery anyway. But in retrospect, I no longer believe the wracking sobs had anything to do with death. They were the pains of birth. The real me, the inner child the little monkey in Les Veilleurs represents, was born again. She had died, but now she was risen. And thank goodness; I can think of no one, dead or alive, better qualified to watch over me in the present moments of my life than that spit-fire little monkey.

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