Discovering A Bridge by Florence Siegel
Octamandalagon ™ ® © September 24,1998
Florence Siegel, aged seventy-eight, is a painter, inventor of puzzles, a wife, mother, and a grandmother. In her introspections, she has an epiphany on the intersection of geometry, number, art and music, leading to the convergence of lifelong interests, and a feeling of restoration.
I am a healthy, seventy-eight year old, educated artist, mother, grandmother, a secular Jew, from Queens, NYC. I smoked marijuana for the first time in 1968 after my family physician, citing the LaGuardia Commission report and her own experience, assured me that the dangers had been greatly exaggerated. I wanted to be able to bring first hand knowledge to bear in cautionary discussions with my daughters, ages 18, 20 and 22. As it happened, I found it to be a highly interesting and enjoyable experience, with none of the miserable side effects I had with alcohol when I was a student.
After confessing to my daughters, and they to me, gatherings in our home were often enhanced by the passing of the pipe and marked by great conversation, great music and great feasts. I never would have considered proposing that we all get drunk together. People getting stoned together don’t compete, they cooperate and disagreements dissolve into laughter, not fights.
In 1969 I lost one of my daughters. In time, marijuana was helpful in restoring intimacy between my husband and me, as well as appetite for food, work and other pleasures of life. I had avoided solitude until 1980 when circumstances left me rudderless after the collapse of the art centered community and the coop-gallery I was associated with. In tandem to that event, I had lost belief in my work. In another year I would be turning sixty. I saw the vanishing point looming in the gloomy future. In that unwelcome solitude, revisiting grief, I began to smoke more often, seeking the relief gained from listening to music. Getting stoned and listening to Bach always guaranteed an exalting experience. The pain expressed in the music mirrors my own. Grief mingles with joy in those moments of extreme beauty.
I don’t recall making a decision to use marijuana to stimulate creative thinking. It just happened. I spent a lot of time drawing, writing, reading about philosophy, cosmology, perception, design theory, diagrams, physics, the fourth dimension, and revisiting old favorites, among them Abbot’s Flatland and Hesse’s Magister Ludi The Bead Game. Reading while stoned, as I flitted from one book to another seemed random and aimless, but in retrospect, appears to have had a hidden goal. The cumulative effect liberated me from ideological constraints, lubricated my imagination and long held assumptions faded as my true interests revealed themselves to me.
“All art constantly aspires toward music” Walter Pater
Patterns of Bach fugues, made visible under the influence, rekindled memories of long-ago attempts to capture the forms of music, trying to incorporate time, the missing dimension on the flat plane of a canvas. Now, listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, trying to visualize the patterns of the sound of the music, this idea came to me: To borrow an idea from Bach to use the letters of my name to generate a shape as he had done to generate a theme: 8 letters in my name, 8 notes of the musical scale, 8 points of the compass, and 8 on its side, ∞, the symbol for infinity.
I visualized an octagon as a path where the end meets the beginning. And I tried to visualize the consequences of disrupting the sequence of the 8 vectors, naming them
The reorientation of the vectors yielded maps of fifty-five different paths, twenty-one non-intersecting
and thirty-four with numerous intersections, with the beginning and ending points remaining constant.
I had wandered by chance, across the bridge, formed by geometry, between music and painting. Where would it take me?
Being stoned emboldened me to pursue an undefined goal that would, but for marijuana, have been shelved as either worthless, or beyond my means or ability to execute. After eight months of what otherwise would have been tedious labor, moved along by intuitive nudges, and within the limits I had set for myself, I had dissected one hundred and sixty- eight octagons in twenty-one different ways in multiples of eight.
Then, it seemed as if each of the twenty-one sets of eight, in an irresistible autodynamic urge, radiated themselves around mysterious octagonal spaces.
And then the six-hundred and ninety-six diverse pieces united, as if by force of nature, to form one embracing mother octagon.
When I put in its place, the last piece of the puzzle I had unintentionally invented, I had the overwhelming feeling that I had discovered a truth.
Substituting marijuana for the abandoned habit of reaching for a cigarette was indeed serendipitous. Suddenly I saw, that what I had thought was a finished product was perhaps infinitely transformable. The puzzle, an EPIPHANY; a question asked and answered, a metaphor, a double analogy, intrinsic and extrinsic, a symbolic message from the subconscious and the cosmos. I had taken myself apart, reordered my beliefs and put myself back together again. Discarding the idealistic notion, the responsibility of an artist to be a social critic, I had given myself permission to play and to explore questions that had intrigued me since childhood.
Was there a precedent for the geometric tricks I had played on the octagon? Where would I look for support of my contention that the limit to the number of 8 sided polygons with four pairs of parallel, equilateral sides was twenty-one? Math phobic since school days, but for marijuana, I would never have seen beauty in numbers, nor had the chutspa to delve into areas I believed were beyond my intellectual powers. My research into the form of the octagon led to readings in sacred geometry and symbolism that revealed links between art, science and religion and to the realization that I had constructed a mandala, the universal symbol of order, balance and wholeness. I was dazzled by the notion of …. the limitless emerging from the limits… As an atheist turned agnostic, my mistrust of the idea of spirituality, has succumbed to acknowledging the creative impulse and its fulfillment, indeed, as spiritual. If we say “ideas come to us”, are we not acknowledging the links to something beyond ourselves, a sense of being part of a whole, of oneness? The choices I made eighteen years ago provided me with points of departure for a continuum of variations on the theme. Marijuana is an aid to perception. It enables me to discover patterns formed by different geometries, to integrate the centric and the eccentric movements, where to place accents that direct the gaze along various paths at varying speeds as in a measure of music, where to throw light and darkness. It enables me to see the parts more clearly, separately, in groups, or melding into the whole. I believe it has helped me to appraise my work by infusing me with the warm thrill of elation that tells me when all has come together.
Thanks to the pipeful I smoke daily, the aging years that I feared at sixty have instead been among my most productive, satisfying and fun filled. Three ago, my family presented me with a computer for my seventy-fifth birthday. I taught myself to do computer graphics and I was invited to conduct a few workshops on art and geometry for college students. I have not experienced any impairment of eye-hand coordination in wielding an xacto knife, executing precise brush work or in control of the mouse, nor relaxed my role as homemaker to my active eighty-two year old husband of fifty-five years. I consider my good health to be the best of all gifts to my daughters and their families; a testimonial to the restorative and mind-opening power of Marijuana.