I’ve known a few artists in my time, among them my son, my daughter, and my brother. But one particular artist entered my mind as I sat to write this. He was a friend of years ago, a professor of art and a prominent artist in my native city of Philadelphia. He would have a show once a year and sell it out on opening day. Every year. Some of his paintings are part of the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His work appears in other museums around the country too. On a fellowship once, he met Salvadore Dali! He taught my daughter and my brother in college and, lucky us, he became a friend of the family. His name was Will Barnett.
In the summers of that time long ago, Will would share his New Jersey beach house with us – me, my husband, and my four small children. This was an unbelievable treat, since we lived packed into a small, un-airconditioned city apartment while my husband was going to law school. Will, a bachelor, opened his house and stepped aside, allowing us to make it our own. He took us out of a hot, crowded apartment and we gave him a family. Sometimes our friends came, and their children, and the house was a noisy, joyous place. Will, bless him, seemed to revel in it all. He would get up early, while it was cool, and paint on a giant easel in his sun-drenched living room. He let me sit and watch him while the kids and my husband slept. I asked him if I could because I wanted to see how those hands and brushes and palette worked together to create the other-worldly things he put on canvas. I sat still and silent, trying to be invisible and unobtrusive, but it didn’t matter to Will. When he painted, he was somewhere else, mindless of everything but what was before him.
One day on the beach, I asked him if there were times when he felt as if he were not in control of the painting, if it felt like something other than himself would take over, mix the colors, make those strokes, and create. He looked at me and said something like, “Oh, sure.” His answer was so matter of fact. And then he looked at me as if to say, “Doesn’t that happen to everyone?” I suspected that happened with artists and musicians, but I didn’t expect his answer to be so ready, so…matter of fact. I had never discussed spiritual matters with Will. I never thought of spiritual matters in those days. I was busy, overwhelmed with raising a family, working at a job, and trying to make a go of a failing marriage. I lived in survival mode. Only later would life make room in my life for spiritual thought.
Will had no religious affiliations as far as I knew. His father was a Russian Jew who had come to this country and changed his name from Baronet to Barnett. Will was just a good, kind man with amazing gifts. Besides being a visual artist, he was also an accomplished pianist and violinist, talents he wore like a loose garment. He did not take them, or himself, seriously.
Those days at the beach were years before my son Eddie died, and my own life became a nightmare and then a long spiritual search for meaning. Now, I think Will’s secret was that he knew how to get out of his own way and let the painting and music flow through him. I don’t know if he believed in God or not, but he sensed a Force that painted and played through him, and he let it. He let it. It has taken me years to learn that this is the sign of a true spiritual master.
It has taken me most of my life to understand that God is content, not form. It can come through us, whether we are religious, spiritual, enlightened, unenlightened, atheistic or agnostic. The Force is something we sense, something we feel, not something intellectually captured. It cannot be forced or controlled. It is something we surrender to. It doesn’t matter if we name it or not. It has been given to us. It is ours. We only have to let it work through our minds, our hands, our deeds.
I saw this Force again in Will when, years later, he was dying of leukemia. He and his wife (he had found love later in life) were living on top of a mountain in California. He was near death when I got a beautiful letter from him. It was all about the joys of living on a mountain. Leukemia was an afterthought. When he passed, I got a letter from his wife, who had also become my friend. Will died peacefully and gently, she said. I was not surprised. Like the spiritual master he was, he got out of the way one more beautiful time and let the Force flow through him.