Here Comes the Sun – Solstice Sunrise Ceremony at the Rothko Chapel

Smoke paints the air / Swirling images through my mind / Like a whirlpool spin beginning to unwind / And I stand at the edge cautiously awaiting / As time slips by / Carefully navigating by the stars in the sky / And I sit / And I think to myself / And on the horizon the sun light begins to climb
– from “Namaste” by The Beastie Boys

It’s still dark when I leave my home.  I am running late, but I still opt to walk over driving or cycling–walking seems most appropriate.

Young punk rockers are feeding stray cats in the parking lot to the Vietnamese restaurant on one corner.  The only sound beside my rushed footsteps is of birds and cars, until I pass under the canopy of a closed Shell station, which is blaring some kind of lite rock.  Think Richard Marx or something.


There are maybe one hundred  people on the plaza before the Rothko Chapel when I arrive.  A small fire is already burning cypress branches. An Argentine man, Alejandro Chaoul, explains what will happen.  There will be some Tibetan chants some prayers, some incense and branches burnt in an offering of smoke.


Offerings are made.  Tones are chanted.  Prayers are read.  Smoke paints the air.  The crowd reflects in silence.


I wonder about the implications of holding a sunrise ceremony outside of a building made to house  black-on-black paintings by a man who committed suicide.  (To me, it is fitting because as the summer solstice marks the longest day of the year, days will henceforth grow shorter upon this turning-point.  I mourn this day.)


At one point, the fire grows overwhelmed with the offerings of foods, oils, cheese (?), and branches dipped in rosewater, so a Trader Joe’s bag is sacrificed to revive it.  A bystander brings offerings of coupons from his car to do likewise.


I wander about.  I note the leavings of what must have been last night’s celebrations of the shortest night of the year.



The real star of the show is Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk.”




For a moment, the Broken Obelisk is graced by the presence of a blue heron, which may be visible if you click on the above image to enlarge. I like seeing the night’s collected dew streaking down its side.

IMG_1850We are led in a final, closing prayer.

IMG_1838Some reflect as others text.

IMG_1855I ponder whether we can all be “winners” or whether that is just hokey New Age Feelgoodism. Does the existence of “winners” not necessarily imply “losers,” or is this an example of the “dualistic thinking” that we were encouraged to banish just moments ago? Maybe the punks feeding strays are losers–or are the cats the real losers?   Do winners have to jog?  Either way, this Solstice, I reaffirm my commitment to side with the “losers.”

Afterwards, I ask my friends Chuck Jackson and Hank Hancock for their own musings on holding this ceremony outside the Rothko Chapel (for reasons cited above).  Chuck goes home and writes me this email:

the paintings are not “black on black,” but the colors of twilight, dusk, late night, midnight, and the wee hours, which helps me to think about the connection between the paintings and the solstice. the solstice is the longest day of the year, the day on which there is the most light, the longest duration of light, and the shortest night, the shortest duration of darkness and shadow. maybe the rothko paintings are about duration — color’s temporality and the seeming inseparability of time, light, and vision. on the day of the summer solstice, we not only look deeply into the shortness of the nights of the paintings, but notice the light that surrounds the canvases, starting with their shimmering edges and moving outward, and we carry that vision with us into the long beautiful day.

I enjoy Chuck’s reading. I also enjoy the Beastie Boys song he alludes to:

Namaste.  Merry Solstice.  Enjoy this longest day.  Tomorrow, if we are lucky enough to see it, will not last as long.


Hank Hancock and Chuck Jackson beside Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” (dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr.)

[CORRECTION:  In a previous version of this article, I described Alejandro Chaoul as “Chicano.” Knowing the frustration that many Latin Americans feel in being misidentified as Mexican-American, I deeply regret this error.  I should not have assumed:  I should have either asked him or refrained from commenting on his race or nationality.  That said, my intent was to share the rich, cross-cultural nature of the ceremony, but I did it in a lazy, if not tasteless, way.  My sincere apologies to Mr.

One thought on “Here Comes the Sun – Solstice Sunrise Ceremony at the Rothko Chapel

  1. manuel

    Chuck’s interpretation is interesting. While I do not see ‘twilight, dusk, late night, midnight, and the wee hours’ when I look at the Rothko paintings, I definitely appreciate the temporal experience. Initially the appearance of be ‘black on black’ pigment is before me , although with patient engagement, slowly the hue and tonality is awarded to my eyes. There is significance to this engagement with the Rothko paintings and it speaks well with the light.


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