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!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Walk in the Woods

A bright Saturday afternoon, a dear friend and her son. A walk in the woods to the Source: the Partington watershed springs. "Who needs a sculpture garden?" Margaret remarks as we come around the path and find this tree, its skeleton delicately suspended in the air.

My former Maid-of-Honor Margaret now lives in the big city, but relishes her trips to Big Sur. While living here she met her husband, (yes, I take responsibility for being the matchmaker) tended her garden on a neighboring ridge for a decade, and birthed her baby boy Nigel.

This is the first time we've been in this canyon since the Basin Complex Fire this summer. Mostly we notice the quiet, that and the brand-spanking new PVC pipe that goes from the springs to the manifold, the beginnings of a system that serves all the families on the ridge. Instead of an overgrown, leave-the -breadcrumbs-behind-you-as-you-go hike, we can see our way clearly through the devastated but greening landscape.

We play make-believe science fiction inspired games with Nigel, 6 (almost 7!) shown here with a specimen for the lab back at the mother ship. Crumpling Bay leaves and holding them up to our noses, taking in that powerful tangy scent, makes our hike even more invigorating.

What trip to the woods would be complete without a sighting of mysterious fungi? After consulting David Arora's fabulous guide, All That the Rain Promises and More... These look just like the photo of the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) Darn, I guess we won't be eating these.

Near the the bottom of the watershed we find the springs, with redwoods climbing all the way to the heavens. Even, or maybe especially, burned to a pitch-black, they are beautiful. We half-expect to see colorfully dressed hobbits emerge from the roomy "cat's eyes" (the burnt clean bases of the redwood trees) to offer us cups of spiced tea and biscuits.

Time marches on, as the stream feeding the Source flows quietly into the sun. The land has given us our Epiphany again: our "sudden, intuitive perception of the essential meaning of a simple experience."
But what's this? Emerging from the forest we find we've entered another continent...When I first saw these charismatic creatures I thought I'd slipped into a portal that had delivered me to the far reaches of the Andes. Next stop, Machu Picchu? (Hint: don't miss clicking on this link!)

Back on the road towards home, we promise each other we'll be eating delicious home-made (by Margaret!) chocolate brownies and enjoying French champagne bubbles (for our Twelfth Night celebration) very soon.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

What Nature Would Build

Master architect, Mickey Muennig came to Big Sur in 1971 because he was curious about a workshop in gestalt awareness offered by the Esalen Institute. After completing his architectural studies with the noted architect Bruce Goff at the University of Oklahoma in 1959, he’d been working in his home town of Joplin, Missouri (where he built the landmark Foulke House and also designed a mineral museum) and in Denver, Colorado.

He arrived late to the class at Esalen, and was instructed to “meet people by touching them,” so he found himself silently groping about in the dark, encountering his fellow students. You might say that he has been feeling his way more deeply, into his art and life, ever since.

During his stay at Esalen, he was invited to build a home for a local. Thus began the next four decades of building in Big Sur. Soon after, he discovered Partington Ridge, driving a friend to her teepee on the mountaintop. Determined to buy land here, he eventually purchased 29.5 acres halfway up the ridge.

Here he built his own teepee of glass and steel, which he lived in for 18 years, followed by the creation of his own simple home built into the hillside, which has an indoor garden, gentle archways and tons of natural light.

As with many Big Sur folks, his commitment to living here is so profound that it has sustained him through difficult times. When the landslide of 1983 turned Partington Ridge into an island for a year, the National Guard helicoptered in food and supplies. With a sparkle in his eye, Mickey recalls sharing champagne with the pilot on Sundays.

Mickey is a practitioner of “organic architecture” promoted by the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright, so his work, visible throughout Big Sur, integrates the natural world with his structures. His architectural creations amplify nature, and given the backdrop of Big Sur, this is saying a lot.

Wright, who would stride regally into the lecture hall at Oklahoma University wearing a cape and a pork-pie hat, once remarked that “it was better to be a little bit right than a lot wrong” in response to Bruce Goff’s question about why Wright's students’ work imitated his own. Goff taught by incorporating the rhythms of music (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was a popular inspiration in his classes) and demanded that his students come up with new ideas.

As a young man, Mickey studied aeronautics, and his vision of Big Sur architecture is influenced by his fascination with flight: “I wanted to build the wildest homes possible here,” he says, “I’d like to tell Frank Lloyd Wright and BG (Bruce Goff) that they’d be proud of me.”

In Mickey Muennig, Big Sur is blessed with an artist who creates substantial, large scale works that are both innovative and inspired by the dramatic landscape. Since he has basically created an indigenous style of architecture here, Pilgrims regularly come to his office door to learn more about his life and work. The Post Ranch Inn, the Hawthorne Gallery, and the Esalen Baths are examples of his work that are open for the public to enjoy.

If, as writer Henry Miller said, “Big Sur is the face of the Earth as the Creator intended it to look,” then Mickey’s structures are what Nature would build, allowing mortals to live, work and play in spaces that honor her majesty.

Teepee photo by Jack Ellwanger, Pelican Network
Mickey and Mickey's home photo by Toby Rowland-Jones