“Solitude is a dimension too complex to be captured by a single definition.” — Douglas Zaruba
In a new installation at the Delaplaine Arts Center, Douglas Zaruba invites viewers to contemplate solitude, which can be an art in and of itself.
In front of each of his paintings, a meditation cushion has been placed on the floor and faces an altar-like setting, complete with candles, encouraging guests to spend a moment sitting there, alone, taking in the work in silence.
As a culture, we’ve grown more familiar with solitude since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Zaruba instigated his own “social distancing” many years ago, when he left Frederick for an island off the coast of Panama, in the name of healing. He has since returned to the states, living and working in Hagerstown as a jeweler and fine artist.
The art of solitude is one that he has built upon in the years since, and its wisdom is echoed throughout this show.
The work, a combination of paintings and sculpture, hovers the line between solitude and isolation. Perhaps where that line is drawn is dependent upon the viewer.
Below is our conversation with the artist.
Did you read Stephen Batchelor’s “The Art of Solitude” during the pandemic?
I read it prior to the pandemic. When I was offered a solo show at the Delaplaine, I chose the title “The Art of Solitude” — before the pandemic shut everything down. I work in solitude anyway, so very little changed for me when everything closed.
Do you practice meditation?
I meditate daily and I have for years.
I want to hear more about this cryptic reference to living alone on an island for four years, which I read in the exhibition description online. Where did you go? Why?
In 2005, I sold my business in Frederick to my son, Andrew, and moved to Bocas del Toro, Panama. I had Lyme disease and couldn’t work at jewelry any longer. In Panama City, I found a doctor who was able to treat it, and I made a full recovery.
While living in Bocas del Toro, I purchased a property on a remote island, 1 1/2 hours by boat from the nearest town. I built a small cabin over the water and lived alone with my dog, Tank, for four years.
How did your time in solitude affect you to this day?
When you experience solitude and embrace it, loneliness fades away. It is replaced by a feeling of deep peace and an appreciation for all life.
On the island, the air was much cleaner. The world was much quieter, and I could hear the wind coming well before it arrived. At night, the world was totally dark, and there was not even the slightest light except for the stars.
Yes, I miss that.
I still get out in my canoe as often as I can, but even in Western Maryland, the sky is never that dark.
What did solitude teach you about yourself or about life?
Too often, we equate solitude with loneliness. Loneliness is unwanted solitude. Solitude can be a beautiful experience. It can be the rapture of someone in deep meditation or prayer, it can be becoming lost in a piece of music or the stillness of a starlit night in the wilderness.
I watched so many people begin to panic, when they were forced to sequester at home. For me, it was just a continuation of life as it has been. I did enjoy being able to wear a mask when I went into a bank!
What did your day-to-day life look like during those early pandemic times?
When I am painting, I find myself seeking that familiar place of inner stillness. I woke every day at dawn to experience the magical light of a new day. When I work at my jewelry bench, I am completely focused and patient.
A lot of your paintings have a meditative quality, and some of your titles almost act as mantras or koans. I’m curious about your “Ghosts in the House of Time” titles in this show. What was the thinking behind that?
“Ghosts in the House of Time” reminds us that there is only the present moment.
I am hoping that my paintings will create a sacred space for the person who views the work. I have been told by those who have hung my work in their homes that they experience a feeling of peace whenever they enter the room where the painting is hung.
I believe that the real art of each painting is not the painting itself but what the viewer experiences from the painting. For example, when you think of a Tibetan singing bowl or a church bell, it is the sound that you experience, not the form of the bowl or the bell.
Tell me a bit about the sculptural element in this show and why was it important for you to include 3D work.
I have been working with 3-dimensional objects for a long time. My jewelry is 3-dimensional. Sculpture was the first direction that I worked on in fine art; I made sculptures based on pendulums. I like the motion of a pendulum at rest and in motion. A pendulum always swings equally back and forth, until it comes to rest.
In our lives, we sometimes act like a pendulum that has become frozen. We may cling to spirituality and deny the opposite motion, sensuality. We may cling to life and deny that death is a part of life and part of the motion of our pendulum. You have to accept and experience the full motion of your life’s pendulum.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.