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Spirituality of the 5 Elements, painted by America's Greatest Landscape Painters

framed painting of the Five Elements

I love Nature, and I love art. So when art is good enough to convey even a fraction of the majesty of Nature, I think it’s art worth seeking out and sharing about.

 

These days, I’ve been particularly excited about viewing art through the lens of the Five Classical Elements: Fire, Water, Earth, Air, and the Beyond. So I was asking myself, which artists really evoke these Five Elements in their work?

 

Many people don’t know that the United States has been home of some of history’s greatest landscape painters. These are folks who were so inspired by our wild American environments that they attempted to put them on canvas, for the rest of the world to see. And it just so happens that a handful of them are renowned for their distinctive depictions of Fire, Water, Earth, Air, and the Beyond, respectively. Here's why you might find their work to be relevant for your own life:


  •  For people like me, who have a lot of experience with Nature Spirituality and are always seeking new ways to deepen our relationship with creation, these masters of the craft are essential guides for a fuller perspective.

  • If you’re just starting to learn about what Nature Spirituality means to you, these artists can help prime your senses to engage more intentionally with the wild world.

  • And if you typically feel a stronger connection to the Divine through either art or Nature, these painters will be wonderful guides for you, as you branch out and bridge out in your spiritual life.

 

So, who are these great painters? And what’s so “elemental” about their work?
 

Let’s dive in…


Georgia O'Keeffe painting, element of fire

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)

 

Few painters have ever specialized in painting the literal element of fire. If you think about it, fire is quite ephemeral – in its wild form, it changes drastically from one second to the next, and soon it goes out completely. Not to mention, it’s dangerous to get too close, and darn tricky to recreate with any art supplies, let alone paint.

 

As a workaround, many more painters have specialized in other aspects of Nature that evoke fire, namely flowers and the desert. These approximations are more stable than fire, while also holding some of its signature shapes, colors, and other qualities. So, flowers and desert… make you think of anyone?


Georgia O'Keeffe's red flowers

Of course, none other than Georgia O’Keefe! She is the all-time master of these forms. One look at her flowers and you realize it’s no wonder she’s so famous for them, with her exquisite detailing of their suppleness and sensuality. Just check out these red blooms – hubba hubba!

 

They resemble fire in a unique way, don’t’ they? It’s as if by looking into these flowers, we’re looking into the heart of a burning flame. Indeed, fire is like a blossoming passion or desire – a dynamic, intimate force that, like these flowers, invites us to open up, lean in close, and reach out.


Additionally, O’Keefe’s renditions of desert trees also seem to be infused with a recognition of fire. But in contrast to her flowers spilling over with life, these trees been scorched dead by the furnace of the Southwestern sun. Surrounded by the red of the hills, they are like burning logs in a great firepit.

 

Georgia O'Keeffe's trees and antlers

Now, we might actually notice her paintings of antlers add an interesting layer of meaning here, when we hold them side by side with the parched branches. The deer skull expresses the purifying power of fire, as it rises like smoke out of the crucible of the desert. When all else is burned away, something transcendent emerges.


Maybe the trees know something of this as well. They too are like spirits, watching over the desert. Because they’ve been offered to the fire, they continue to live on in a different way, presiding with a holy presence. If only the rest of us offered these, and other spirits of the dead, as much reverence as O’Keeffe did, we’d never feel a shortage of sacredness.


Georgia O'Keeffe's desert hills

Then we have the hills themselves. Whether in her raw depiction of them, or in her embellishment with flowers, bones, or “streaks,” O’Keefe paints an amazing revelation. The hills are like mounds of ember in a huge expanse of firescape. We might interpret this as her recognition that all the world – even the most “lifeless” desert – is smoldering with the eternal fire of creation. Even death lays another burning layer of life.

 

O’Keeffe was one of those rare artists who helped us see our whole reality differently. Now I’d like to introduce you to a few others…


Winslow Homer painting, element of water

 

Winslow Homer (1836-1910)


Many of Winslow Homer’s greatest works feature people who lived off the bounty of the Atlantic, in fishing communities from Maine to the Caribbean. Like these folks, he became very familiar with the awesome immensity of the sea. His paintings of aquatic scenes are reminders never to underestimate the element of water.

 

Winslow Homer's boats on choppy water

Even when he depicts the ocean as calm enough – normal fishing or a normal tide – there’s still a foreboding about it. Even on the surface, we can see how unfathomably dark its depths are, and how risky it is to traverse them. Even if you might feel at home on the water, you are almost always safer on land.

 


Winslow Homer's raging seas

Conditions on the sea or a river can change in an instant. All we humans can really do is hope and pray the weather doesn’t turn, that we don’t hit rough rapids. After all, the sides of our boats only go up so high – it really wouldn’t take much for us to go under. And heaven forbid a storm comes in, or the sea monsters come after us, or both. Then we’re goners. Then only a miracle can save us.

 

Though most of our interactions with this element aren’t as unnerving as one of these paintings, Homer draws our attention to some valuable truths about water.

 

Water is absolutely essential to our livelihood, yet we hardly understand it. What’s even in the ocean, how does it work? We barely know. How can one simple molecule be responsible for the entirety of life on our planet, maybe even all life in the cosmos? Beats us. Water is a mystery, maybe even the embodiment of mystery. An embodiment of just how mysterious life is, how little we can fathom it, let alone control it.

 

Sometimes life carries us along – wind in our sails, waves at the stern. Other times life is treacherous. At all times it is unpredictable. Given the dangers, to take our little boat out onto the waves of the world each day takes gumption, maybe even willful ignorance of everything that could go wrong. And to get through life, we have to hope and pray.

 

Winslow Homer's ocean at rest

At a certain point, we might wonder why the people in Homer’s paintings are out on the water at all. Are they just nuts? Or is there something mysterious happening beneath the surface for them too, and for us?


Indeed, each of us has a vast longing for adventure, propelling us into the strangeness that is the roiling sea of life. We have to go out in order to see into water’s mirror, to glimpse the great ocean within our own Soul. Deep calls unto deep.

 

After all, why else are we here, other than to experience the awesome immensity of something mysterious? After all, isn’t that how we encounter miracles? Water itself is such a miracle, and always a reminder of our humble place in the grace of Nature.


Thomas Moran painting, element of earth

Thomas Moran (1837-1926)

 

Thomas Moran was part of the so-called Rocky Mountain School of landscape painters. (So was Albert Bierstadt, who gets an honorable mention in both this category and the next one.) Moran was one of these folks with a wild heart who sought after the Wild Heart of America.


He followed the heartbeat of the land down every trail, like a little kid trying to figure out every place on his body where he can feel his pulse. Throughout his lifelong quest up and down the Rockies, he painted the wilderness as only Wild Hearts like him had seen it before, and so inspired generations of them to come.


Nowadays, people travel to the U.S. from every other country on the planet, just to witness the same sights Moran put on canvas. In each painting we see the breathtaking sweep of the earth’s glory. Textures and colors, a scale of time and space, beyond human imaginations. This land is truly a land of wonders. But Moran was about more than just eye-popping vistas. If we look at the breadth of his work, we find a recognition that there’s more to the element of earth.

 

Thomas Moran's abundant landscapes

His paintings that include water show just how abundant the land is. It overflows with life and color and sustenance. The earth is hospitable. Most of us usually associate the element of earth with this notion of abundance and hospitality.

 

But we can forget – the earth is also host to winter, dryness, and harshness too. Most of us try not to spend very long in places where we experience the earth’s austerity, but Moran didn’t shy away from habitats where life was just scraping by. There are regions and seasons where the earth can be downright inhospitable.

 

Thomas Moran's austere landscapes

The crucial point is this: the element of earth holds it all, both the extremes of austerity and abundance and everything in between. Because it allows for such staggering diversity, it therefore is ultimately hospitable and abundant, just not in the way we might expect. Green and gray, majesty and mundanity, life and death – it is home to all alike.

 

Because the earth is so much more constant than the other elements, because the seasons play out their terrestrial tableau in a recurring cycle, because we each live out our lives mostly in one corner of the globe – it’s easy for us think we have the earth element figured out. But in reality, it has an inexhaustible supply of surprises, and therefore, wonders.


Thomas Moran's grand vistas

 

There are still places on this planet that have not – cannot – be tamed, or even named. Places no human has ever tread or seen. Places the Earth will keep hidden and secret in her Wild Heart until the end of time. Places right here in America. Somewhere, the next Rocky Mountains are being born. Somewhere, the next Grand Canyon is being carved. And in all the other places, endless surprises and wonders and breathtaking beauty await those Wild Hearts who resolve to follow the heartbeat.


Thomas Cole painting, element of air

Thomas Cole (1801-1848)

 

Thomas Cole's beautiful skies

You thought fire was tricky to paint – at least it’s visible. How does one paint the invisible… air? Well, again you approximate, in this case with the sky, and its attendant phenomena and effects on everything else. Thomas Cole, of the so-called Hudson River School, went so far as to paint the sky and its weather as an active character in his artwork. In his otherwise bucolic landscapes, it adds palpable drama.


Thomas Cole's stormy landscapes

Even in his more serene works, Cole paints a sky that’s gearing up for something, brewing. The wind is picking up. Thunderheads loom on the horizon. A storm is gathering around the mountain.

 

Then it hits. It rushes in, blotting out the sun, shaking the forest, ripping trees up by the roots.

 

Then it passes. We return to calm, and the storm leaves no trace in the sky, save a few wisps of cloud.

 

This is the eternal drama of the weather. It is rhythmic, yet it never happens the same way twice. We could say the same about a form of the air element that’s even more pervasive in our lives: our breath.

 

At rest, the wind moves through us evenly, breezing to and fro. It’s not robotic though – it’s different every time. Then we go to exercise or have an animated conversation, and pretty soon you have gusts blowing around. Hopefully we don’t have too many outright hurricanes, emergency situations where our breathing is in acute stress. Hopefully at most it’s a blustery emotional outburst. And hopefully we’re always able to come back from drama, to the baseline gentleness of the air in our breath.

 

Then there’s the other way air is present moment to moment in our lives: through our voice and others’ voices. Here is where we like a little more drama. Think about it: probably the most important things you’ve ever said, and most memorable things you’ve ever heard, were delivered with some gale-force. That song you sang. That speech you heard. The hardest you ever laughed. We feel so alive when we use the theatrics that our voices are capable of. A little drama makes for good living.


Thomas Cole's calm landscapes

Cole understood that it makes for good art too. The skies are so restless and epic in his work, there is even a sense that he interpreted the weather as something more than just a “function” of Nature. He seems to have seen the element of air as the very breath and voice of Nature. Few other painters have found a way to portray all the verbs we assign to the wind. For him, the wind does indeed literally sigh and moan, howl and roar, and sing.

 

Through the wind and weather, sky and air, the world breathes over us and into us. It even speaks to us. There is a magnificent drama being whispered all around, all the time. Will we listen, breathe into it, and respond in turn?



Georgia O'Keefe painting, element of the Beyond

And… it’s Georgia O’Keeffe again!

 

I couldn’t resist. She was a true mystic, who gave her visions the devotion they deserved, and was ready to see the essence of things. Her work is just so elemental, and she really is the champion not only of fire, but this final element too: the Beyond.

 

What do I mean by the Beyond? Other than simply being beyond the other four, what the heck is this fifth element?

 

I’ll offer more answers to this and other questions in upcoming posts, and at the upcoming class I’m teaching at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality (see the video below). But for now, I’d love Georgia to answer for us. In fact, I think she offers three takes on what the Beyond is about.

 

Doorways

Georgia O'Keefe's doorways to the unknown

 

O’Keeffe saw in her usual subjects the shapes of the numinous. Everyday objects we normally ignore are intimations of the profound magic at work in our world. Music and flowers become doorways, and each doorway leads somewhere beyond our full understanding.


We can really only look at these portals askance, taking in a fraction of the picture. Even in the case where we face the doorway full-on, carrying a lit match with us, we are actually just facing a dark veil that shrouds whatever is next. Yet our little light, and our curiosity, lead us onward. To where? Possibly…

 

Transfiguration

Georgia O'Keefe's transfigurations from death

We can see several of O’Keeffe’s bones, skulls, and trees transcending their association with fire. Stripped of all that is not at our core – including the fear of death – we can perceive a deeper reality.


Death is only the bridge between Earth and Heaven, the gateway into the world’s underlying structure, the passage through which all must pass – not the end. By accepting that we too will become no more than bones, we can truly become part of the grand artwork of creation

 

Source and Creation 

Georgia O'Keefe's moments of creation

Georgia O'Keefe's sources of life

Many of O’Keeffe's works are evocative of moments of genesis: the infancy of the cosmos, the origins of life, the births and rebirths happening all around us and within us all the time.


Again, she had the genius to see images of these phenomena shining through our landscapes, our flowers, even music. The rush of elemental forces. Galaxies swirling into being. The formation of an embryo. Parting of dark and light. The primordial Earth taking shape. Thought and feeling and expression and potential in raw form, emanating from their first source. If these things aren’t beyond, I don’t know what is.

 

My hope is that we can learn from Georgia, from Winslow and the Thomases, how to better appreciate what the five elements are up to, right under our noses. Sometimes it takes a painting to show us how to see deeper into the living world. Sometimes it takes an artist to teach us about the eternal purification of fire, the mystery of water, the heartbeat of earth, the drama of air, and the essence of creation.

 

And now, you are the artist, going forth to craft your Nature Spirituality. Onward, Wild Heart.

 

Thank you for reading! Please share around!
 
For a deeper exploration, again, I invite you to the upcoming class I’m teaching…


1 comment

1 коментар


Beryl Bissell
Beryl Bissell
22 бер.

What an amazing post Brian. So much beauty and shared wisdom. Thank you!

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