Photo by Christian Fregnan.
It started with a telephone call more than 20 years ago.
I had been briefly introduced to meditation at a workshop, and had begun to experiment with sitting for a few minutes in my daily life. Then, I heard about a sitting group near my home and called to inquire about it. The friendly woman on the phone told me, “We start by sitting in silence for an hour…”
An hour! It loomed before me like an eternity when I first showed up. But by the end, I discovered that I was neither tortured nor bored silly, as I had feared, but instead, well, kind of exhilarated.
I soon got hooked on meditation, and started to bring the same attention to other aspects of my life. As an “art critic,” I caught myself speed-walking through exhibitions and hurrying home to write about them for national magazines. I noticed how little time other museum and gallery visitors spent in front of paintings. And one day the idea came to me: one hour… one painting? Why not give it a try?
I did. And I first offered to lead a group in the exercise at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where I was a member. With untested skills and knowing that many participants would be busy people, lawyers and doctors, likely checking their watches or pagers (no cell phones yet!), I was nervous as we gathered in front of Willem de Kooning’s Montauk Highway (1958). Would I be able to share my new-found delight with others? When the hour ended, I was thrilled to know that even the busiest of people had taken pleasure in both the aesthetic experience and the unaccustomed opportunity to simply slow down and breathe.
So “One Hour/One Painting” was born. I have offered these sessions countless times since then, and know that I can rely on the same gratified response.
I choose objects that are large enough to accommodate the number of participants—though I have worked with a wide variety of paintings from a rather small Vincent van Gogh (at the Hammer Museum) to a large abstract work by Mark Rothko (at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art) and the crowded, figurative Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 by James Ensor (at the J. Paul Getty Museum). Ideally, the painting is located on a wall without visual distractions on either side and avoiding noisy traffic patterns. And closed gallery hours are better than open—but by no means essential.
The process is simple. I spend a few minutes at the start introducing the blend of meditation and contemplation skills that participants will need, using the breath as the anchor for attention and the means to bring it back when it begins to wander. I prepare them for the distractions they will inevitably have to deal with—external sounds and movement, busy thoughts, physical discomfort.
Then, we launch into alternating periods of open-eye contemplation of the painting on the wall in front of us, and closed-eye internalization of what it is we’ve seen. I avoid “talking about” the content of the painting, but simply walk participants through it, drawing attention to details of form and image, color and texture, as appropriate to the individual work. I ask them to look intently, to see what’s actually there, in front of them, rather than the preferences or assumptions they have brought with them. The looking, I explain, should precede judgment, like or dislike. Meanwhile, the closed-eye, meditative moments are used both to rest and refresh the eyes, and to seal what we’ve seen in the visual memory, the mind’s eye.
People are usually eager to talk at the end of the experience, so I leave at least 10 minutes for feedback and discussion. It usually stretches far longer, beyond the limits of the actual hour, and is usually animated. Participants want to talk about what they have seen in the painting, yes; but they also want to talk about the experience of looking at it in a way that few have looked at a work of art before. It may be that the process itself that tends to open the mind: No one seems shy about expressing an opinion.
I write this in the hope that others will be moved to try it for themselves. In our overly busy, 21st-century lives, there is a growing call for the time and space in which to slow down for long enough to rest in rapt attention to something of value and importance, and to offer the mind the relaxation and refreshment that it sorely needs.