Center for Creative Inquiry

A Painter’s Cave


Think of a painter as someone who attempts to capture reality. Not in a way that is most truthful to pure and plain existence, but in regards to what best illuminates their inner experience.

In each of us, we experience a reality marred with the brushstrokes of our perception, formed by a combination of experiences unique to us and our predisposed personality. Paintings, therefore, manifest a snapshot of the painter’s reality, and for those that ring the most true to us, we step through.

Quite like Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, society seems to chain us to its own perception of “the truth.” The shadows dancing on the walls are the absolute morals and conglomerate monstrosities meant to feed us absolutes until we come to realize that maybe, there are other ways of looking at things, and perhaps, we are only chained to our preconceptions because we were convinced to do so.

However, unlike Plato’s cave, one cannot simply be released from the chains that bind them and ascend the imposing cave stairs to experience the glorious relief and enlightenment of mother nature. In reality, change requires an unbearable amount of one insignificant step placed after the other. For example, when a painter practices their craft, it is not just the perfection of the brushstroke technique, but also the harmony of the colors and shades, the framing of the light, the desired depth to be seen by the naked eye – all working to bend perception inside their mind, moving them to invent a style derived from an amalgamation of all the artworks they’ve seen before. A good artist learns the fundamentals so they may shatter them. Each broken piece is either refitted or discarded, transforming the filter of their perception in the process – each minor change, each small detail is a refinement of their new reality.

The shadows dancing on the walls are the absolute morals and conglomerate monstrosities meant to feed us absolutes until we come to realize that maybe, there are other ways of looking at things, and perhaps, we are only chained to our preconceptions because we were convinced to do so.


Van Gogh painting
Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity's Gate) by Vincent Van Gogh

Let us say that we could step into one of these paintings that have been entrusted to us. I noticed one day – with some elation – that I could greatly relate to Van Gogh’s Sorrowing Old Man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’). His bent knees, crooked legs, hands clasped over his eyes as he folded over, lost inside his miseries. Many times over the past two years have I found myself in such a position, wishing that everything – all my problems, the world, my brain pounding and pounding itself – would just stop. But it wouldn’t, because that’s not how life works. So it goes.

But for the first time, in what felt like the existence of ever, I felt seen by this painting, as though it perfectly mirrored my darkest perceptions – the ones that go unnoticed and unseen by most. Not only that, but the strangeness of it, of feeling more seen by a painting than by other people. I even thought it was hilarious – I pointed at it, “That’s me!” I said.

And I laughed at myself.

Any reasonable person would think that after noticing a truth about oneself – having a great epiphany or revelation – that they would be freed from the suffering caused by their ignorance.

They’ve forgotten the part where you must reckon with it.

I later caught myself again, in my own personal thrashing. Whether by the problems the world caused me or the problems I caused myself, I’m sure my mind was enmeshed in both. My knees were bent, my legs crooked, my hands clasped over my eyes. I folded over myself. Imagine my shock when I realized that I was in the same position as the old man; a snapshot of reality that was far too real.

I thought about it again. How long had I been allowing myself to get this way? How many times did I simply accept being invalidating, perpetuating my habitual meekness? How often did I ignore myself in favor of pleasing others? Kill my emotions, so I wouldn’t make others uncomfortable? Bottle my emotions up so much that the only time I could feel them is when they came up to choke me? At that moment I remembered the time, a few days shy of my 21st birthday, when my driving instructor told me that I didn’t seem like I was so young. I asked him what he meant by that, expecting, of course, the dopamine kick of another stranger telling me that I was mature for my age. Instead, he told me that I seemed tired of life.

And he was right.

Suddenly, panic claimed my eyes and anxiety shook me over this predicament – a horrid realization of how I was the one who anchored myself in the lake of my emotions. I stranded myself, looking outward for someone else to blame. My constrained vision created my own personal cave. My own filter that I projected onto the world to interpret things in cynical misery. My peace from being seen transformed into an omen. As I became situated in the distorted, marred reality of this painting, it quickly became another one that I needed to escape, lest I remain a prisoner to it.

Trepidation busying my fingertips, I realized I must reel in my anchor and row further into my emotions, no matter how terrifying the beasts that lie within me. Only by journeying onward will I be able to transform my pain because nothing compares to the horrifying prospect – that one moment of clarity – where I realize I’ve let years of my life pass by, simply rowing in circles. I’d rather practice the craft of sitting in my own emotions. Each new technique that I apply is a new brushstroke, an attempt to change one small detail. One small distortion. In order to distill my perspective into new creations, I would have to endure pain – old and new.

An artist’s finished piece is said not to be completed, but abandoned. Even if the artist is unhappy with their work, it must soon be forsaken so that the author is not bound perfecting that single frame – a snapshot of their reality doomed to become all that there is. Like a monk perfecting their mind, each attainment in skill is a step towards self-realization. It’s hard to remember to appreciate each stroke when you can’t see the full picture, or it came out all wrong, but doing so is better than brutalizing yourself to remain in a cave, forever a prisoner.

Description of Work:

Perception is reality, and a painter’s artwork is a snapshot of how they experienced the world. Their piece may move you so much that you step into it, but be warned - should you remain there, you may become trapped in the cave of that one perception.

Description of Process:

Often, I don’t get inspired by something, I have to find inspiration. But, when I sit down to write, that great demon, Perfectionism, comes to take my tongue. I know that if I sit down and type for long enough, I’ll eventually get to a story that I can be proud of - but the demon frequently interrupts me. I’ll go back to my past works and think, “I wrote that?!”. Sometimes I’ll feel overwhelmed, afraid I won’t find my way back to that voice, and other times, I resolve to do so. Eventually, that angel, Self-compassion, will become my champion.

About the Author:

Hillary Severino

Currently, I’m teaching myself how to write. I’m making an effort to write for the sake of self-nourishment so I can move away from the hustle culture and hurry sickness of society. Eventually, I hope to self-publish a novel. In my free time, I regularly meditate, whether by sitting or walking. I’d like to choose a path one day, perhaps Jnana yoga, but for now, I’m learning to savor the present moment and to be kind to myself.