“He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words.” Elbert Hubbard

Silence has been on my mind lately, especially when I am in my studio painting.

Without silence there is no music, no prose, no composition. It is only through silence and emptiness that form can emerge.

Recently I went to the symphony and I paid careful attention to the silences. They are between the notes, they separate the movements, and they mark the end of a piece. The silence that occurs between the last note, and the first cough and shuffle from the audience, hums with energy.

The symphony hall defines a space for the silence. The audience sits within the space, and the music emerges. Without the silence, the music cannot be heard.

In the case of visual art, silence is empty space. The blank wall and the empty space of the gallery hold the silence from which the art will emerge. Without it, there is only chaos or clutter. It’s not just a matter of contrast, there is something more to it than that, although it may be something that is ineffable.

Within each specific piece of art, there are also silences. They are harder to distinguish just as the silences between notes are difficult to distinguish. The empty space or silence of a painting is not merely not touching part of the surface of the art, or leaving it blank and pristine. Blank space can be loud if it is not woven into the fabric of a painting or an image if it occurs as an abrupt change in the logic of the piece.

Spring Equinox Panel 1 & 3-Leah Wilson

Oil on wood panel; each panel is 40 in. x 18 in.; First and last 3 hours of the day

As I study my work in progress, I look for the silence, the empty space and question what parts, if any, they are. By design, the composition of each of the paintings in the Solstices/Equinoxes series is a grid of equal parts. The surface is covered with hundreds or even thousands of 1 x 1 inch squares of color. It is like music that holds the same beat for the entire song. But although the beat may have the same rhythm, the notes are not of equal value from one another. Likewise with my squares of color. The paintings may be a perfect grid when I draw the lines, but as I add the paint, the grid begins to disintegrate in places and, in turn, new patterns begin to emerge.

Where there are new patterns, I look for the silence, the empty space. Without silence, there would be no opportunity for any new pattern to start to emerge, or would there? I don’t think that the four horizontal light bands in each painting arise from silence, or are the silence, although their presence could be clearly considered a change in the pattern. I see those bands as more of an interruption. They are loud and jarring, not silent. But what happens within the bands has some silence.

Silence, the empty space, is a rest. It is a cessation of movement, even if it is ever so brief as to be practically imperceptible. No matter how brief it may be, or out of our conscious perception, it is essential. Perhaps it is even most essential when we can’t perceive it. I think that we are experiencing it on some level, perhaps emotional or within our inner being rather than being merely perceptual. We need that space and that silence to take a breath, to pause momentarily, before being thrust back into the world of constant sensory input.

Don’t try to fill the silences or the empty spaces. At first this might seem to be the thing to do. Being in emptiness can feel very uncomfortable or even threatening. Who knows what might emerge from it? Witnessing that the space is filled could appear safer, at first. After all, it’s easier to deal with what can be seen or heard. But this is limiting. It brings things down to the level of the knowable, and that is small in comparison to what can be. Empty space is infinite. This is where beauty arises. Pause in the silence, and breathe. This is where beauty is.

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