By Nelli Horrigan

Just as pure abstract art is not dogmatic, neither is it decorative.     

Piet Mondrian

Why abstract art? My family and some friends just can’t fathom and shrug their shoulders. “You actually can draw so well, why you keep painting these strange meaningless things?” I can’t blame them, most of my young life I hated abstract art and didn’t have much regard for all the other -“isms” except realism.

I’ve started painting when I was 17-18 old, all I did was portraits of people. I drew my school-mates sometimes but mostly painted sad pale imaginary damsels and knights in an old realistic style. I was a very sad and lonely teen and young adult, painting something sad helped me to vent “my darkness” plus admiration and praises of people around were so soothing for my fragile ego!

“The Meaning” – was my motto in art and life until my late 30s. When your mind is so completely wrapped up in conceptuality you just can’t accept something that does not adhere to your “mindscape”. It has to be something that mind can put into a familiar box – “pretty flower”, “romantic sunset”, “sensual beauty”, “mysterious look”, etc.

When I moved to Australia, my admiration for its colors and weird wildlife pushed me to expand my mental and artistic horizons. Plus, I was unemployed (but supported my husband) for a whole year, during which I painted a lot and actually took some art classes in Adelaide School of Art. It is amazing how far you can progress if you just stay at home and paint for months! I’ve started with very childish flat animals, which gradually took on more and more dimensionality and character.

How much “meaning” can you put into a portrait of a kangaroo? Well, a little bit, but not that much… At this stage, it became more about expressing the character of an animal, the dance of light on its fur or feather, its otherworldly “Australianness”.

In my late 30s, I went to the USA for a month-long art retreat with Zen Arts Center/Zen Mountain Monastery and met its founder – late Daido Roshi, an amazing person, spiritual teacher and artist (more about him in my blog here). His abstract photographs were striking, there was not a shred of “meaning”, yet the dance of light and shadows, the subtle colors were just so alive, full of such harmony and vividness.


One of Daido Roshi’s abstract photographs

For me it was a new beginning, I savored every moment painting for hours in a forest cabin adapted for an “art studio” shared between several retreat participants. I poured paint, I dabbled, I smeared, swinging my brush like crazy with freedom and happiness I never experienced before!

Eventually, I stayed for six months at the monastery and was actually considering taking ordination as a Zen nun, but it was not to be for various reasons. Yet, my time there was life-changing. In the long meditation hours my conceptual world and all that “me” drama mostly based on many conflicting “meanings” in my mind,  just started to disintegrate, revealing purity, beauty and simplicity underneath which are hard to describe!

I simply have lost any interest in imitating existing forms or even expressing their character, inner nature. “The container” of conceptuality has lost its appeal, instead, everything is just so full of color, lines, shapes just waiting to be painted, drawn, combined, played with, used for the creation of something new, some crazy novel tunes, melodies, rhythms – just because I am here, now in this form to play with it all!

I have been with the Abstract for almost 10 years now, we meet and part and meet again! In this time I played with gouache, pencils, acrylics, oils, digital and now experimenting with sculpture! It is still as fresh and joyful for me as in the very beginning, I still look forward to the next surprising thing springing out of my canvas or computer screen. People like it – great! Don’t like it – oh, well… The process itself and a buzz I get when the painting “happens” is quite enough!

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