The Watchmen

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

Les Veilleurs (6 April 2020)

With their lumps and protrusions, the three watchmen in Les Veilleurs are 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 little 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 than 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.

Water stain for Les Veilleurs (Adelphi Street, Brooklyn)

On the evening you understand in your bones that your marriage and the life you knew with Jerry are really and truly over, you cry the way you have only ever seen people cry in the movies. Each sob is a wave starting somewhere deep in your belly and cresting somewhere high in your chest or in your throat. No sooner does one wave crash onto the shore of your mouth than another starts to swell. Under the blankets of the bed of the room you are renting on Bergen Street, you do something else you have only ever seen people do in the movies: you curl up into a fetal position, and you wait to die.

Death did indeed come for you that night. And thank goodness; that person was only half alive and needed to be put out of her misery anyway. The wracking sobs, however, the feeling that something from deep inside you was making its way up to the surface, most likely had nothing to do with death. Rather, they were the first pains of birth. The real you, the inner child the little monkey in Les Veilleurs represents, was to be born again, to live again. Hallelujah! I can think of no one, dead or alive, better qualified to watch over you in the present moments of your life than that spit-fire little monkey.

Toothpick drinking water from the kitchen sink (1981)

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