The Vast Bright Tapestry

Towards a Grand Unified Practice

Today I received an email with a great question from someone who had attended an artists talk I gave on Zoom last month for Falmouth online MA Illustration. I wanted to share it here as it illuminates my approach. Indeed, I often find I think better and more clearly in conversation with someone else, whether in person or by email. I had been speaking in the call about my approach, and the harmonisation of many different aspects of artistic practice. Perhaps this will speak to you, too.

Dear Caroline, I hope this finds you well. I am a student on MA Illustration at Falmouth University. I loved the talk you gave about your practice. I admire that you have brought together many elements in your practice to make it holistic and honest. There is a phrase you used which I keep thinking about. It was ‘grand unified theory’. I was wondering if there is anything you have read that uses that phrase in a cultural/artistic context? I am writing a report at the moment, trying to figure out how to make my own grand unified theory! I’d be very grateful for any leads. All the best, B.

Dear B, thanks for your email. I really enjoyed teaching on the Illustration Online MA at Falmouth that day.

GUT or Grand Unified Theory is a term from particle physics relating to the quest for one theory that would be able to unite and explain the Strong Force, the Weak Force (including electromagnetism) and Gravity. Currently one needs different theories and maths for these things. As a metaphor, GUTs are how I might term an overarching theory that combines seemingly different things in vastly diverging areas of thought and life. And as an example of this metaphor, Taoism fits very well. But Taoism is an embodied path, and not just ideas communicable in words. Indeed, most of Tao is unsayable, hence ‘The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao’ being the first line of the Tao Te Ching. (Which is still one of the best jokes in literature.) Nb, I like Thomas Cleary’s translation of the second line very much: ‘Names can be assigned, but not permanent labels’.

Personally, outside the context of physics, I am a little suspect of Grand Unified Theories! Especially as many of my friends are writers, prone to positing over-arching explanations of everything, which may conveniently leave out important outlying details. So, in the talk I was really mentioning a ‘Grand Unified Practice’ for myself, where all the many parts of me and my work could be seen as what they really are: part of one life manifesting in myriad ways. I value reliance on practice as the guide, and embodied experience as the test, rather than whether something fits a preconceived idea or set of rules or beliefs. This puts me at odds with the current popularity of defining everything in words and then looking for infringements. I don’t mind. As a lifelong taichi person and nature lover, I have come to trust embodied experience more than theories. It is how our ancestors ever learned anything, and passed it on, until very recently. Our ancestors were scientists and artists, and they really knew how to pay attention, which is how they survived and thrived.

I don’t know about anybody else using these terms as metaphors in this way. There may well be, but I haven’t read them.

I advise not making yourself a GUT! Instead, pay close attention to what it is you are doing (when it works, when it feels just-so, when it is good in the world), and to the results of what you do, and then after the fact you can extrapolate on what it was. You can then test this theory, and keep modifying it, and changing what you do according to the goodness of the results. This could be called art, or enquiry, or creating a lifeway. This is also at heart the phenomenological model, or empiricist approach, based on things as they are rather than ideas in the mind. 

Thoughts in words are useful, but they are not the same thing as what they seek to describe. The wild world itself is beyond word-language. We need all our senses and more to approach it. There is a ‘shortcut’, which is to recognise oneself wholly as identical and part of the wild world itself. I say ‘shortcut’, but it took me 20yrs painstaking dismantling work in body, psyche and lifeways before I could stand here at this laptop tapping these words to you and them not just be wishful thinking. The methods I used for this work were taichi pushing hands to learn yielding, counselling and internal work to sort out my stuff and what was not mine, immersing myself in nature and really paying attention, allowing my hands or voice, or body to craft or draw or sing what it was inclined to, without judgment, until I saw what needed to be done, finding my posse and being convivial with others, not dwelling on self. Then trees and rocks, books and birds all began to speak to me, and the wild materials of earth came into my hands. Dreams helped, and I work with these and have developed a method to do so.

Hmm, writing all that down it seems a lot more deliberate than it was. In fact, the whole thing was mostly ‘following a hunch’ and ‘trusting my gut’.

I realise you were probably writing to me about art. But as your question was a good one, and sincere, then I owed you a good and sincere answer, and once I pulled on one thread, the whole vast bright tapestry was pulled into view.

Many good wishes to you, warmly, Caro.

[Photo shows current work in progress, iron gall ink drawing on vintage leather telescope case, drawn with feather quill]

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