Prayer flags

Years ago, when Ann and I first moved to the mountains of Sutton, a magnificent hemlock stood (and still stands) in the woods behind our house. We could barely reach its lowest branches and it circumscribed a space that we soon identified as sacred ground. It became our Circle Temple where we'd often go to sit in the tree's embrace surrounded by the maples, birches and evergreens that defined our Appalachian woods. Ann had large sheets of canvas which a friend had given her and, on strips torn from these sheets, we began to paint whimsical flags, abstracts and doodles, that we hung on the branches of this hemlock. We call them "prayer flags" because they reminded us of those hung by Tibetan monks on mountain trails and around their temples. Over the years nature added her own patina to these double-sided flags, weathering the canvas and paint alike, and they eventually became an organic constituent of our hemlock temple in the woods.

Every now and then another flag appears, fresh-faced and spanking new, adding to the other, older ones. When my brother, Rudy, passed away two years ago, I painted one to his memory and at his memorial we gathered at the hemlock and hung his flag among the others. We formed a circle under the tree's impressive boughs and sang "The Long and Winding Road" to send him on his way. With a flag to the memory of a dear soul gone missing, hanging from the hemlock, the Circle Temple has taken on a greater significance.

I continue to produce these flags, usually in spurts and starts, sometimes the result of a sudden inspiration or as a warm summer day's distraction, sometimes because the mood just simply strikes me. As their numbers have grown, they've begun to appear on other trees, some close to the house where I can enjoy them now simply for their presence of form, their dance as they spin in the wind. I've always thought of these flags as belonging to the trees, as additional foliage, an adornment of sorts, my way of embellishing what needs no embellishment. Many of the flags are depictions of leaves, of branches and tree shapes, with bits of bark and bits of clouds appearing now and then. Some even have words etched under the skin, words that may or may not be a poem.

The recent pandemic and lockdown have rekindled my interest in panting flags and I've made attempts at developing a broader palette of colours and possibilities. The idea of tall, majestic trees, slender red and silver maples that easily reach the sky are very much a part of this work. By painting flat, vertical shapes, mostly rectangular, I'm trying to process and distil an abstraction of the woods as I see them. I am by no means a visual artist. I am without training or inclination, but as a poet, I find the narrative of colour, line and shape compelling, and these prayer flags have given me both a medium and a reason for putting on canvas what I can't do with words. That said, however, there's nothing that prevents me from writing poetry on canvas as well -- so on many of these brightly painted flags, you'll find side B dripping with a recent poem.

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