Sunday, January 18, 2009

From Tuscany to Big Sur: Marlene Sunyata Adair

On some rolling hills a ways north from Partington Ridge lives an elfin lady who communes with Nature and paints on prayer flags.

Her spiritual name, Sunyata, means silence in Sanskrit. Not the blank, sterile silence we find in empty rooms in office buildings, but the full, potent silence of nature, which carries quiet birdsong, wind and rustling leaves. Sunyata is the “empty full,” or, as the Sufi poet Rumi alludes to in his poetry, the space between voice and presence, where information flows. Her oil paintings, like her wisdom, flow out of her in streams of joy and light.

As Big Sur is a Mecca for seekers, many of our artists bring deep spiritual and psychological awareness to their creative process. A former Montessori teacher, Sunyata (OK, we call her by her given name, Marlene, or Marly for short) graduated from the University of Santa Clara in Psychology, with a PhD from Stanford and additional studies at Johns Hopkins. She has taught infants’ and young children's social development, and currently trains family doctors in human development, counseling, and, as she puts it, the “'inside job’ of mindful professional practice.”

Her first trip to Big Sur was to Esalen Institute in 1988 with colleague Helen Palmer, to assist in a workshop on Palmer’s pioneering work on the Enneagram.

“My experience of Big Sur on that first visit was feeling that I could die here, and it was not a morbid thought, it was a glorious feeling,” she says. “I had a sense of laying back on one of these ridges and melting back into the Earth. Becoming the oat grass. It was a wonderful sensation.”

At Esalen she befriended a great local lady, Kay Andres, who became one of her spiritual teachers. “Kay was relentless in her search for her own self-awareness and understanding. “ Marlene says. “Name it and It is yours; that was her motto. She was (sadly she passed away in 2005) what the Buddhists call a ‘noble friend’ the one who drives you crazy yet gives you untold gifts.” It was Kay who suggested that she study with local plein air painting teacher Ronna Rio.

Although Marlene painted in Florence, Italy, during her college years, she took what she calls a "35 year moment of distraction" from her passion. Her father told her that if she wanted to be painter, she had better mean “a house painter.” But an essence of the richness of Tuscany, Italy, the land which produced both Marlene’s parents, would eventually come forth in her own lush work.

Her maternal grandfather came to California from the island of Elba, Italy, as a sailor in the Italian Navy, navigating around Cape Horn and up to San Francisco in 1906. He grew tomatoes, onions and grapes in the San Joaquin Valley, and made wine during Prohibition. Her father, also a farmer, from Lucca, had an artistic sensibility as well. Marlene recalls him picking up a cantaloupe and telling her passionately, “Isn’t this beautiful, Marly?”

Her artistic goals range from the simple: “What makes me happy is to paint pieces that a 1st grade teacher can share with her students, to brighten the classroom," to the profound: "I want to weave the traditions of east and west into my work, and to announce the sacredness of daily life." One feels this in her still life paintings that incorporate weather worn prayer flags.

The daily life Marlene experiences in Big Sur is a prayer: taking deep breaths, being present, and watching what comes up in her work. Her waking visions are surreal—a luminescent egg at her throat, fiery Chinese symbols, radiant persimmons. She paints every day, and her most recent inspiration is a late work by Matisse, "Two Masks (The Tomato)."

Marlene tells me about Eckhart Tolle, (author of The Power of Now) who wrote that when we are overtaken by beauty, the mind stops. That’s what we really love about beauty, that we stop. “The human lifetime is not only a blessing,” she says, but “there is not a moment to waste.”

Big Sur light is blue, Marlene says, and the view from her home illustrates this perfectly. It recalls a dreamscape from a fairy-tale: rolling green hills to the west, north and south, with a backdrop of the enormous, sparkling sea, stretching to infinity.

“Pay attention to your distortions,” Marlene says, “because, like finding your voice, your distortion is your style.” Now that’s a concept I can really believe in!

The Artist at work

You can find Sunyata's paintings only at the Del Campo Gallery in Big Sur!

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