“My foot slips on a narrow ledge: in that split second, as needles of fear pierce my heart and temples, eternity intersects with present time. Thought and action are not different, and stone, air, ice, sun, fear, and self are one. What is exhilarating is to extend this acute awareness onto ordinary moments, in the moment-by-moment experiencing of the lammergeier and the wolf, which, finding themselves at the center of things, have no need for any secret of true being…To be anywhere else [but the present] is “to paint eyeballs on chaos.””( Dogen Zenji, Shobogenzo) (249)
-Peter Matthiessen The Snow Leopard
It has been over a year since I read Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. I have read and listened to many other books since then, but I think more images from his expedition to mountains of Nepal have stayed with me than from the rest of the stories combined. It is a very beautiful book. What he saw, how it affected him, and the words he used to share the experiences really resonated with me. If I was going to write a review of it I would have to keep returning to the thesaurus to find all the possible synonyms for breathtaking.
If it had not been a borrowed book (Thanks, Jim) I would have underlined many passages, but towards the end the phrase “painting eyeballs on chaos” just reached out and grabbed me and I have been exploring it in my mind and in images ever since. Any one who knows my art work knows that for years I have literally been painting eyeballs (and hand and birds) on and in chaos. Depending on the piece, the day and my mood there are many explanations of what all those chaotic swirls of color and pattern might signify. There is not even a consistency within my portfolio as to whether the writhing shapes are positive or negative, internal or external, but they are certainly pervasive. However since spending so much time thinking on this phrase and what it meant to Matthiessen I have wondered how much of what I am trying to express in my art work could be simplified down to the problem of not being in the present and needing to get there.
Sitting down to write this post reminded me that I never read Dogen’s Shobogenzo that Matthiessen is quoting, so I have just ordered a copy. I have read many Christian Mystics whose focus on mindfulness I believe is very close to the Buddhist idea of Zen, but it will be interesting to see if his writing matches what I expect (well, if I can understand a 13th century Zen master at all). Recent correspondence and conversations on meaning with intriguing friends have my thoughts going in many different directions, but I feel like somehow they will all spiral back together to the importance of being present here and now.
Anyway, this post is not a book report, a dissection of the meaning behind my art, and certainly not a dissertation on philosophy or religion. I really just wanted to share that as I continue to explore these ideas I am now not only painting and drawing eyeballs on chaos, but I am tattooing them on as well!
As my kids get older and more independent I am discovering I have these blocks of time that are mine to spend as I please. After 17 years of being mainly focused on meeting their needs and wants I am discovering more and more opportunities to be a bit selfish. However I must admit that once I have caught up on my sleep, (and maybe a few shows on Netflix) it can be hard to know what it is I really want to do. This summer I have tried to be intentional in thinking about what sounds fun, interesting, or otherwise pleasurable and then trying to actually follow through and do it. I have had varying amounts of success with this. Sometimes I am not brave enough to follow through. I have put the Contra Dancing at SNAC on my calendar several times now but when it comes time to go, well, I don’t. Sometimes I do not plan well. For example I keep forgetting to call to sign up for the Gorge’s Full Moon Suspension Bridge Hike until after it is full.
And sometimes it is just not meant to be, like this past Friday night when I tried to take myself out to hear some live music. I have been trying to pay attention to local events that seem promising. When I saw that a restaurant/bar in downtown Clarkesville that I had visited before and didn’t find intimidating was going to have a guy with his guitar playing I decided to go. My kids both had plans so I figured I could get a Reuben and a couple of beers and hopefully enjoy the music. I packed some sketching stuff and even put on some lipstick, halfway hoping to be sociable and halfway just wanting to observe. I take myself out to eat often, that is not a big deal, but since this place was a bit more of a bar and there was music I felt like I was pushing myself out of my comfort zone a bit. It could almost have been described as exhilarating. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but I was totally shocked to arrive and the place and find it completely shut down, like out if business, never coming back shut down. No new adventure for me that evening, but I think I am likely to try again.
And I have had some successes. I have been learning a new art form that has been both challenging and rewarding (more about that soon). But I think the best days I have had this summer have been the hikes I have gone on with drawing materials. My visits to Panther Creek Falls and Raven Cliff Falls were both amazing. I had wanted to plan another waterfall hike for this weekend but I let the weather forecast stop me. Yesterday I spent a lazy morning thinking it was going to rain all day, but by mid afternoon when I realized the sun was still out it was too late for a long hike.
I decided to just take Max up to the Gorge instead. We usually just walk the Short Line Trail but since I had brought my oil crayons we did the North Rim instead.
It was incredibly humid as we walked in. The storm that hadn’t shown up yet making the air heavy. We walked briskly to the last outlook you can go to without a permit. By the time we got there I was sweaty and had to drink about half my water to get comfortable enough to feel like I could draw. But the outlook was empty, I got to sit on my favorite bench, and after just a few minutes a breeze came up and the quality of the air changed. I have no problem using the word exhilarating for the feeling of being perched on the side of such grandeur as the light shifted and the cool air swept through. I watched a large bird (I need to learn how to identify them) glide past on the current, and imagined myself along side him. I have been to the gorge so many times but my awe at its breathtaking beauty has not decreased at all.
I think that each time I have visited my eyes have been especially drawn to the red-roofed house visible above the the trees on the other side. When you drive past it on 441 it does not draw much attention, but from the outlook it calls to me. The juxtaposition of the man made structure sitting so close yet somehow seemingly oblivious to nature’s dramatic carving of the earth is captivating. Every time I visit I think about drawing the scene. I have photographed it countless times; I think in every season. Yesterday I was finally prepared, there with paper and oil crayons and no one rushing me to the next view. Max found a shady spot to lay down and for an hour I just sat and drew. I draw all the time, and in all sorts of settings, but there is really something special about drawing in nature. The picture itself turned out okay. It doesn’t quite capture what I wanted to convey, and I rushed a little towards the end when it seemed like the promised storm was finally going to arrive, but the experience was delightful. I am almost glad it is not great because it means I can start planning on when I can go back and try again.
The day between finishing at MOC and starting at FCB I had to drop my son off at school because his car was in the shop. On the way back home I made the spur the moment decision to pull off the highway at the sign for Panther Creek Falls. I had passed it a million times but never turned. I parked at the trail head and despite the fact that I had nothing with me besides my keys and phone and was wearing slip on shoes and clothes that just barely passed as not-pajamas I started walking. It was early and the trail was basically deserted except for a few tents I gave a wide berth. It was a temperate morning, neither hot nor cold and it was an incredibly peaceful walk. I think I walked about a mile along the river, thinking about work, family, life, what I was leaving behind, and what I hoped I was heading towards.
I also thought a fair amount about the fact that no one had any idea where I was or had any reason to miss me for the next 8 or 9 hours. I let my mind run through different disaster scenarios but did not feel scared at all. Thinking about the chance of something bad happening was actually a little exhilarating. I probably should not admit it, but I think I may have enjoyed myself more because of that awareness. If I had brought water, or was wearing proper footwear, I might have walked further, but I didn’t. I turned around and went home and tried to figure out how to write about the experience and failed.
Over a month later I finally returned with a full water bottle, walking shoes, and a sketch book. I did not get as early of a start as I should have because I did not realize my desire until a little before 9. I had been sitting on my screened porch, reading my Bible and drinking my coffee, when it hit me that what I really wanted was to be walking in nature. The kids were both still sound asleep so I sent them a text and left. It took me about an 2 hours to hike in the 3.5 miles to the falls. The part of the trail I had done the first day was easy walking, but as I got closer to the falls the trail got more treacherous in places. The muddy spots made me especially nervous. As slip in the mud, even one that did not lead to a fall, could give me back pain for weeks. I had been brave about the idea of a catastrophic fall, but a minor one that ended in a sore back, a twisted ankle, or God forbid another broken elbow was frightening. I did try to be cautious. I do not want to live in fear but I do not want to be reckless either.
I only saw a couple of other hikers on my way in, but when I got to the falls I must admit I was dismayed to find 30 to 40 people already there, wading, climbing the rocks, and just sitting around. I had expected there would be a few people there, but not that many. I had not walked that far to hang out with a bunch of strangers. I walked around and took at couple of pictures to register the fact i had made it all the way in then climbed back to the top of the falls.
I found a nice spot to sit on the rocks that was both comfortable and beautiful. The sound of the water drowned out all the sounds of the people below and I was able to spend over an hour drawing and writing. It felt so good. I only did one drawing, in ink, and it was not an excellent one. It lacks a focal point and tried to capture too much of my surroundings at once. But I guess that seems apt for the distracted way I find myself throwing myself through life right now. I know I need to focus. I just cannot seem to make a decision about on what. Until I figure it out walking to North Georgia’s waterfalls and trying to draw them seems like as good of a pass time as any.
Flight Opportunity, Acrylic on Canvas, 23″ x 31″, October 2016
I worked on this painting from April to October 2016. It has been shown at the Quinlan Art Center in Gainesville and the Sautee Nachoochee Art Center, but I just got it hung on the wall at my new house yesterday morning. It is now directly in front of me when I sit in the living room to drink my coffee in the morning to read and write. I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about what the next step in my life should be, the reasons I might chose one path or another, and the validity of those reasons in the grand scheme of things. The most recent work I have been doing has been trying to face the decisions and the emotions that come along with them head on. But somehow this painting brought me to realizations that the others had not.
The symbolism is not obscured. One does not need to be an expert in art interpretation or psychology to see that the figure in the picture is lost deep in the tangle of vegetation, smothered but still making an effort to reach out towards the clearing. Though the little bird may have an opportunity to take flight, at first glance it seems unlikely the hidden figure will. I think the case could be made that a sacrifice has been made to give the little bird a chance. The fact that I know that underneath this painting is the last self portrait I attempted before moving to Mexico literally adds another layer of meaning. Even though the years of marriage and children have covered up who I once was, I like the new painting better than the old one. I do not wish to move backwards. If by chance someone should climb up out of the tangle I would not want it to be the same person who got covered up to start with.
In June a group of twenty of us from (or related to) Nacoochee Presbyterian Church went for a weeklong visit to Guatemala. When we first arrived Emerson Morales, our trip leader from CEDEPCA, talked to us about expectations for our trip. He asked us not to think of it as a Mission Trip where we, the privileged first-worlders, come with the idea that we are going to ‘save’ the Guatemalans and fix all their issues. Instead he asked us to think of it as a Vision Trip where we focus on seeing the work that God is already doing in Guatemala and learning about how we can be a part of it. This was a defining moment for me, and I think for many others on the trip. They do not need us to save them, but they do need us to see them.
Our vision started by taking in the landscapes of Guatemala. The views of the dramatic volcanic mountains we saw as our bus climbed to altitudes of 9,000 feet above sea level were breathtakingly beautiful. An unforgettable moment for me was our magical first view of the blue of Lake Atitlan as we drove down to Panachel.We saw countless vistas of great beauty however what is especially striking is how the people have adapted what could have been seen as uninhabitable and unreachable land. They have carved roads and found ways to build their homes and plant their crops on even the steepest slopes. Land is precious and very little space is wasted. If there is no more room to expand in width then they just keep building up. Though we did pass places that are reminders of ecological and sustainability work that still needs to be done overall the landscapes of Guatemala are inspiring. Over and over we were reminded of the beauty and grandeur of God’s creation as well as the hard work, determination and persistence of the people who create homes there.
Seeing Guatemala is also learning about their history, both ancient and recent. It is a story full of tragedy and struggle which highlights the people’s resilience and fortitude. They have repeatedly dealt with natural disasters (volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides, floods and droughts can all strike Guatemala) as well as political and socioeconomic injustice of such extremes that they are difficult to fully comprehend. Unfortunately our own country and culture’s culpability in some of the events is undeniable. Though we do not want to dwell on the dark chapters of their history, it is important that we are aware of them. Our vision of Guatemala is not complete unless we recognize how its history has shaped the present and continues to influence the work being done to improve the future. And a lot of work is being done.
We were able to see firsthand what God is doing right now through the people of Guatemala for the people of Guatemala and, very importantly, we saw the people themselves. We shared smiles, waves, eye contact, conversation and even selfies. Everywhere we went, and especially in and around San Juan de Ostuncalco, we were made to feel very welcome. Our hosts, as well as people we met along the way who knew nothing about us, were warm, gracious and patient. They seemed genuinely pleased that we were visiting their communities. We were invited into their homes for fellowship and wonderful meals. We played with their children and hugged our prayer partners. We planted trees alongside them, and helped practiced each others languages. We visited their schools, attended their church, and admired their livestock and artisanship. We saw our fellow children of God and we will not forget them.
Groups like CEDEPCA and the Mam Women’s Association are working tirelessly to help people continue to improve their lives. We met people like Emerson, Rosario Diaz, Elena Mendez, and an ex-immigrant named Willy who have dedicated their lives to making things better and it is working. Listening to stories and seeing examples of what the Womens Association groups have done with their microloans is inspiring in many ways. Instead of surrendering to obstacles these women have banded together to educate themselves and others, to find opportunities and then work relentlessly to accomplish their goals. They are laboring not just to better their family’s financial situations, but also to continue to gain knowledge and skills that benefit their entire communities. They are open and eager to learn. The women we met, and many like them, are taking advantage of the chance for basic education and English classes at the Saturday school, developing skills like embroidery at the sewing school, and improving animal husbandry and agricultural techniques through programs from organizations like Heifer International. Attending and contributing to the health fair and visiting communities where new water filters and latrines have been installed reminded our group what access to education, clean water and hygienic facilities can mean. Tangible improvement been made and is continuing to be made by these programs. They are making a difference.
Our Vision Trip to Guatemala will have a lasting effect on each member of our group. We have been given the gift of seeing Guatemala and with that gift comes a responsibility to share what we have seen done and what still needs to be done. I feel honored to have made this trip and to be part of a church that has supported this work for a long time and is committed to continuing to support it. I hope we will not “grow weary of doing good,” for the work we witnessed in Guatemala is able to continue to grow in depth and reach because of our contributions of money and time as well as our prayers. Lives are being changed. Children are not getting sick from dirty water, jobs are being created, education is more available and the Word and Love of God is being spread.
I am a Christian and I support the right of gay people to get married, however I have not been especially happy since the Supreme Court decision last week. As pleased as I am that we are getting closer to our country’s promise of all people being created equal I feel like we are headed towards an even deeper division in our country and that neither side will be content to agree to disagree. As an individual that for the last decade or so has been spiritually very conservative while politically liberal I have grown skilled at smiling and nodding and keeping my opinion to myself, but the time for that has passed. I think it could become dangerous if we allow those with the most extreme views on either side speak for those of us whose thoughts and opinions fall somewhere in-between.
When I first made the decision to be an intentional Christ-Follower I was afraid to let my closest friends know. Though there were many complicated layers to that fear I think it boiled down that I didn’t want to them to think I was stupid or that I was no longer able to think for myself. In the years that followed as our family settled in Georgia and got more and more involved in the church I think it was more lack of energy for conflict that kept me from letting the good people that I worshipped with that my reading of our Lord Jesus’s words brought me to an exact opposite place politically than it brought them. I may have also been afraid they would question my love for Jesus, but mainly I just wanted church to be a peaceful place. I thought the best thing was to keep politics and current events in the secular world completely separate. (The only consistent exception being issues of immigration. I have spoken my truth without fear on that issue as we are a family of mixed citzenship.) However in today’s world the issues of racism, sexuality and nationality cannot be ignored by the society or the church. The extremists on both sides will continue to be vocal, but they do not speak for all of us. The rest of us also need to have the courage to speak out and be honest about what we believe.
We need more than courage though. We need grace and discernment and of course love. If on one side we can say “Love wins,” and on the other read “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” it does not seem like we should end up so far apart. Love should unite, but here we are, divided, Christian/atheist, gay/straight, liberal/conservative, and so many other categories and names that serve to further separate. Fear, resentment and self-righteousness have become our only common denominators. It hurts my heart for all of us. I fear what we will become.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about asking God to reveal the places within ourselves that need to be changed. I still think this is very needed. We all have blind spots, very large blind spots. I think this is especially true for Americans when it comes to the Bill of Rights and our freedom of expression. No matter what side we are on in an argument we all seem to think that our side should have freedom of expression but the other side needs to shut up. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say we are all hypocrites. We all think we are right and therefore our side is the side that needs to be heard. We all seem to think, as my grandfather likes to say, that the other side is ‘dumber than dirt’ for not seeing it the way we do. And very very few of us are willing to step out of the security of being surrounded by people who think just the way we do. We insulate ourselves. The channels and stations we listen to, the organizations and churches we belong to, the friends we hang out with, we pick them all because they tell us what we already believe. It is comforting to be told what you already know to be true. It is a natural human response to flock to those like us, but sometimes we need to fight against it. I think our country (and our world) desperately needs us to really make an effort to understand where our neighbors are coming from, especially our neighbors that are different from us.
I do not think I will be able to change anyone’s mind about the core issues. It is just as likely I am as wrong as you are, but I do think I might have a unique position to talk about how we view and interact the people we disagree with. My immediate family and closest friends have very varied political, cultural, racial, economic and spiritual backgrounds. Because of the fact that I am a politically liberal Evangelical Christian living in the South I have not been able to find a clear group of people that think like I do. Maybe if I did I would be so pleased I would want us to just circle up so we could tell each other how right we are. But that has not been my reality. I have had the choice to sit by myself and pout or build relationships despite deep-seeded differences. Sometimes it is incredibly hard, issues like religion, sexuality, race and nationality are core to how we think of ourselves and invoke extreme and emotional reactions. Finding a way to bridge all the gaps that divide us will not be easy, but it is imperative that we try. There are people I love and respect on all sorts of sides of all sorts of issues and I feel called to try and help them understand each other.
The world is not just black and white, and it is not just a bunch of muddy grey places between them. The world is full of color, vibrant brights, delicate pastels, clashing complementaries and muted variations. Just as our homes and wardrobes can be made more visually beautiful and interesting by adding different colors, so can our minds be enriched by opening ourselves up to different thoughts, opinions and beliefs. As I share my own I do so not to try and win you to my own point of view, but to entreat you to open yourself up to the possibility that it may not be a matter of right or wrong, but just varying perspectives and as crazy as this may sound, not everyone who disagrees with you is evil or out to get you. They are human, flawed and fragile, and even when it may not seem obvious, probably motivated by love.
According to the Pew Research Center 70.6% of American adults describe themselves as Christians, and more than half (55%) of Americans say they pray every day. This week, after the tragedy in Charleston, even more of us will be praying. We will be praying for the victims, for their families, their community and our nation. We will be praying for comfort and healing and peace. We will be praying to know how to forgive the unforgivable. But even though so many of us pray to the same God and profess to follow His Word from the same book we are still incredibly divided. As a nation and as followers of Christ we are not all on the same page. We are divided by race, politics, economics, social issues, and much more. We read the same scripture but come up with vastly different interpretations of what it means and how we are supposed to apply it.
In Thoughts on Solitude Thomas Merton writes, “the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.” That could be the case for any of us. And we could be following God’s will in one part of our lives while completely missing it in other parts. We are all human. We all have places where we are wrong. We could be joyfully serving and seeing God work miracles in our lives yet still have thoughts and believes in other areas that are in contradiction to His teaching.
I know we cannot go around pointing at the splinters in each other’s eyes. I do not have firmer ground than anyone else to say that the way I read scripture is right and their way is wrong. However, those of us who profess to follow Christ, those of us who pray, we can ask for our errors to be revealed to us. Each of us can privately ask God to convict us of our own biases, our ignorance, and the ways we misunderstand and judge not just our fellow humans but our fellow Christians. The over 150,000,000 of us that say we reach out to God every day can ask to see people and situations not through the lens of our own prejudices but as closely as possible to His perspective. He will answer this prayer. He will show us the hard parts of ourselves that we need Him to soften, the wrong beliefs we didn’t know we had, and He will help us change.
Those of us who follow Christ are to be His light in the world. We are supposed to be known by our love for each other and for all His people. If we can acknowledge the shadowy places within ourselves and prayerfully ask to be changed individually then we can truly come together as brothers and sisters to pull out the dark roots of hate and anger that divide us. Through His strength, power and love we can unify our families, communities and country.
The light shines in darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. -John 1:5
I now have seven small paintings, ranging from 3.5×6 to 8×11″, on different grades/textures of paper but using the same four tubes of acrylic paint. None are frame worthy, but even though I have not created any single piece of great merit I have made great strides as an artist this week. I feel pleased. I feel like I am starting a transition that has promise.
There are three things that have come together to inspire the creation of these mundane yet momentous little paintings: a thick book on SQL programming, an anti-climatic Old Master’s Color Theory class, and an evening spent with one of my very oldest friends.
The SQL book has actually been sitting here next to my bed for almost a month. Starting to learn remedial Structured Query Language has been one of my favorite parts of my current job. Managing to put together a few lines of code that make the database give me the information I want (and from different tables even) gives me a satisfying sense of accomplishment. I like the puzzle of it. I also just generally like it when I can do something today that I didn’t know how to do yesterday. Whether it was learning Spanish or learning to cut a case of lettuce to the right size in the right amount of time I enjoy the process of turning something that seems bewildering difficult if not impossible at first into something manageable. The strides I have made in understanding a small bit of what the programmers are doing has kept me from getting bored or discouraged in what many would consider a very deary job. I have fantasized of surprising everyone by being able to not just keep track of tickets in a queue but actually work them as well. Neither the thrift store nor the public library had any books on SQL so I was thrilled to find a used copy of what is supposed to be a good text on it at a greatly discounted price. I ordered it without hesitation and when it arrived I read the prologue immediately. It was when I started exploring the server where I keep this site to see if I remembered correctly that it offered the opportunity to create a MySQL database that I realized how neglected poor Azulita’s had been. I ended up spending several evenings updating images and trying to incorporate old posts instead, but the plan was still to read the book and learn to read and write the language.
The Old Masters’ Color Theory class was 3 weeks ago. The blurb on it in the Georgia Art League’s schedule was tantalizing. “You will need to bring 1 average sized brush and three primary colors plus white: Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Red Medium and Cadmium Yellow Medium. You will learn how to use the old masters’ painting techniques of Sfumato and Michael Angelo’s Cangiante and Raphael’s Unione.” I joined GAL, paid the yearly dues, and went and bought tubes of the required colors. However, despite my anticipation, no great Renaissance secret was revealed. Though the old masters’ panting techniques were defined and we got a nice handout of terms, what we actually were shown was how to create a color wheel. I have known for as long as I can remember that ‘yellow and blue make green.’ There was no sense of accomplishment in mixing the colors together and filling in shapes around a circle. I was disappointed at the time (you would think that by this point in my life I would have learned about the dangers of high expectations) but I found myself thinking about one of the instructor’s paintings. It was a large still life packed full of carefully rendered objects that held no particular allure, but she did the whole thing with just the four tubes of paint. That seemed an interesting challenge. I put the color wheel and my new tubes of paint on my art table with the plan to give it a try when I had the time.
Last weekend I went to Boone. Being at my father’s house always makes me want to make art. This visit the desire was magnified by the figure drawing session I had been to the week before, the quality work we saw at the Turchin Center opening, (Andrew Abbot’s strong showing deserves a post of its own) and just the particular high that comes from being around artists and people who appreciate art. By the time I sat down to catch up with my dear old friend I was a bit giddy. I didn’t just want the good feeling of drawing, I wanted to be an artist, an artist period. I wanted my own exhibit at the Turchin. As I listened to Anthony tell me about his life and work I wanted a gallery in New York and international collectors as well. I wanted to be an artist like I had when I was twelve and I first met him on a trip to the Mint Museum. And just like way back then he was so enthusiastic and encouraging and he made me feel not just like it was possible, but that it was required. We had a wonderful time, great conversation about the past and the present, art and life, but it was a sentence in a facebook message that he sent me once I was home that made the difference. “I make it a strict policy to paint or draw at least 15-30 minutes a day, it is blissful and great therapy,” he wrote me on Monday evening.
I was tired and stressed and laying on my bed mindlessly scrolling through fluff would have been my evenings main activity, but I read his message again. “I make it a strict policy to paint or draw at least 15-30 minutes a day, it is blissful and great therapy.” 15-30 minutes, surely I could manage that. I got off my bed and went to the art table. I looked at the in-progress pieces I had laying around, but each was in a stuck place I did not feel I had the energy to face. I needed something less strenuous, more like the color wheel, and there were those four new tubes of paint, just waiting. I considered putting together a complicated still life, maybe with some symbolism or irony, but instead I just went out front and picked two marigolds, one fresh and bright, the other withered. I found a piece of thickish sketch paper under the table that my daughter had just barely started painting on then discarded, tore it in half, and then squeezed out a bit of each of those four tubes of color. The painting that resulted was pretty awful. Tuesday I tried again on the other half of the paper. Wednesday I tried on a smaller but much nicer scrap. Thursday I mixed things up by painting on dark paper. Then I left off the withered flower and added a fresher one. So tonight I have six small paintings of marigolds, each one a marked improvement over the last. I plan on doing other tomorrow. I don’t know yet if Monday I will let myself move on to a new subject or make myself stick to the marigolds, but the plan is to keep painting.
Rather than try and learn a new skill just because it is new and different or unexpected it makes much more sense to spend my time and energy improving on the skill I already have and know I love. 40 is not too old to learn a new trade. If I retire at 65 I still have 25 years to go in the work force. If I really had a passion to be a software developer I could make that my focus and probably have a decent second career. But do I really want to spend the next 25 years sitting at a desk staring at a screen trying to figure out what line, or what character, is blocking all the rest from producing the desired report or graph or invoice? I think it is very likely that by the time I was proficient I would be bored. I have been a proficient artist for a while now. I am not bored, but it is time to stop painting the things I know how to paint in the way I know how to paint them. It is time to challenge myself to take my art to the next level in both quality and quantity. If I can make this much progress on a marigold in a week, imagine what I could be painting this time next year. What if in two years when all the lingering restaurant issues have been taken care of I have developed a reliable habit of studio time, greater technical ability and strong body of work? It seems entirely plausible that then I could be an artist, period.
Recently I joined the Quinlan Arts Center in Gainesville as well as the Georgia Art League that meets there. One Friday a month they have an undraped model and as I perused their website earlier this month I was excited to see that a session fell on my birthday. I marked it on my calendar and planned to ask to take a long lunch to give my self the treat of drawing from life. It had been four years since the last time I had the chance to join a figure drawing session and for weeks I let myself look more and more forward to it.
The fact that it was my fortieth birthday and I have been feeling the need to more strongly stake a claim for the artist part of myself surely contributed to how important it felt. When I realized that my coworker was going to be out of town and I would have to stay in the office to answer any calls, emails or tickets that came in I was crushed. I tried to tell myself I could make the next one, that it wasn’t a big deal, but it was. I prayed a string of self-centered prayers asking for my boss to change his mind, but didn’t beg or plead. I mentioned on Thursday I was disappointed not to be able to go out on my birthday but he was noncommittal. On Friday I considered calling in sick, but was uncomfortable with how obvious my lie would be. So I didn’t even pack my sketching supplies and headed to work feeling gloomy.
The morning turned out to be a better one than expected. The DotNet team of developers and I were able to make big strides on a large group of tickets we hope to deploy next week and my sister had a gorgeous bouquet of flowers delivered to the office. I was almost over not being able to go draw when my boss asked me why I hadn’t left for my “appointment” yet. I don’t think he has ever seen me smile so broadly or move so fast. I dashed out of the office and rushed to Target where I found no art supply aisle at all. I ended up buying a child’s pad with a carrying handle awkwardly carved out of every page, a box of crayons and some #2 pencils. I was in such a hurry I left the sketch book at the checkout and didn’t realize until I got back to the car.
But despite the trip back into the store and catching every red light and the gas light on my car coming on I made it to the session on time, got a good seat and even had a bit of friendly chat with a couple of the other artists. The session was meeting in a smaller room than normal as a workshop was using the large studio with easels, but everyone managed to find a place around the tables and a few easels brought in from other rooms. There were at least a dozen, maybe even 15, artists there, and it was a bit cramped. The armchair had a wretched pattern and the lights were set in a way that I worried would block my view but I was just so happy to have made it there nothing else mattered. Every bit of it felt like such a gift.
And it was a gift. Even though I had been anxiously awaiting the chance to attend the session I had not completely remembered how much I love to draw from life. I do not think there are many other activities that give me such happiness. For an hour and a half I totally lost myself in the pleasure of rediscovering it. The softly smirking model, her wavy hair, disappearing neck, and perky breasts and my eyes and hands working together to see how much of her pose, her attitude, how much of her could be captured in a two or five minute pose. Then with the longer poses the discipline of trying to slow myself down, keep the marks light while I tried to find the shapes, not lose the proportions or blow the composition. It was pure joy. I do not even know how to explain it. I think they used to call it getting “in the zone” but I do not think I am exaggerating to say I was ecstatic.
The drawings themselves are not excellent. It is obvious that in places it took me 5 tries to find the line, there are odd proportions and a torso that is incredibly improbable even with all the fore-shortening, but I am so grateful to have had the chance to make them that I just have to share them anyway. I enjoyed my career as a graphic designer, being a line cook fed parts of me that I didn’t even knew existed, and the daily challenge of my current job keeps me interested, but I love to draw. There is something deep in my core that knows that when I am in the studio with a pencil or crayon in my hand trying to give shape to what my eyes (or mind) see that I am where I am supposed to be. In that moment I am most me.
I would have thought that by the time I was forty I would have acquired more wisdom than has yet to come my way. It seems like all I have figured out is that things cannot be figured out and that we have far less control over anything than we like to think. I do not know what is in store for me. I do not know what will happen tomorrow. But I hope and I pray that no matter what path my life leads me down in the short or distance future I will not let myself to forget to keep drawing.
Trees line both sides of the old highway that meanders between the town of Cumming and the small city of Gainesville. Lake Lanier’s many fingers reach out to fill the space in between the two communities and the road is named for the largest of the three bridges that make the drive possible. The glimpses of the lake itself vary depending on the season and the zeal of the crew tasked with keeping the shoulder clear. Throughout the winter when I start my drive in darkness I am sometimes rewarded by the site of the sun rising on the other side of the lake, the colors of the sky reflected across the water, sometimes still, sometimes rippling in swatches of rose, peach and coral. After the second bridge the road cuts quite close to the lake and there is a break long enough in the trees for more than a just a glance of the water. A small cove opens up into the larger body of the lake and a small island of trees sits there. On foggy days the mist seems to rise up off the lake and swirl around this little island and seem to offer the possibility of Celtic mystery or magic.
Even on the most breathtakingly beautiful mornings and afternoons not all the views I see on my commute are classically picturesque. I pass many squat structures marooned in dark empty fields of asphalt that spark no curiosity. I have no desire to stop at the brightly lit squares full of convenience or even to visit the stately lake homes with their promise of comfort and repose. However on this stretch of road there are many abandoned structures, old homes and businesses that have already resigned themselves to the passage of time. These places call to me, tempt me to pull over and spend time gazing into their dark windows, craning for just a hint of what secrets might be hidden within.
I tell myself that one day I will make the drive leisurely, leave the house or office with time to spare. I think of how nice it would be to pull over and really absorb the scenes I just steal glances at every day. A few of the views even seem to warrant bringing a camera or sketchbook along to try and capture the unique pull of these places I pass so often. I have been driving this road twice a day, five days a week for six months now and I have yet to feel bored by it. I like my commute. I appreciate my listening options as much as the views. The books I don’t have time to read, sermons, lectures and other programs are available to listen to as I drive. When the words become especially compelling the landscape returns to its role as background, but sometimes the scene I am moving through is louder than what comes through my earbuds.
The most memorable example of this was a Friday when I was driving home listening to a lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls and watching the clouds. It was towards the end of February, a warm day that stood out, sandwiched between so many frigid ones. The clouds were especially dramatic that day. Dark masses of thick clouds roiled about the sky on both sides, but to the left the sun was streaming down from behind them in distinct rays that seemed to belong in a fresco or alter board. As I crossed the second bridge I thought to myself that it is no wonder that since ancient times we have looked up at the sky and seen heaven there; that of course most people’s traditions tell of battles in the sky. The struggle between light and darkness is immense and shown to us everyday, writ large across the sky.
It was not quite sunset but the light was changing and a breeze seemed to have come up. Bright hues of blue stood out in patches around the masses of cloud, the dark ones gathering stronger on one side while the light continued to pour through others causing them to glow. As my car left the bridge and started down the hill the scene before my eyes did not change, but my perception of it did. Everything became more vivid. I got a sense of vertigo as the saturation of everything intensified and the sky seemed to grow larger. What had seemed like casual observations of the sky seemed full of deep and important meaning. Though I could not have been staring at the sky for more than a second, I startled myself with the realization that I was driving a car and needed to focus on staying in my lane. When I looked back at the road it seemed to warp away from me at a strange angle, the curves and hills more pronounced, deeper. In that moment it seemed possible that my car and I could fall off the road and into the sky. I felt breathless and a bit nauseous as I gripped the steering wheel more tightly and continued on my way. I did not want to keep looking at the sky but I did not want to stop looking either. The thought occurred to me that I should pull over. I do not know if it was fear or the responsibilities waiting for me at the end of my drive that kept me in the car, mainly looking at the road, only stealing quick glances back at the sky the rest of the way home.
The vertigo went away and my breathing returned to normal before I got to my daughter’s school. But even while preparing and eating dinner I was a bit queasy. Though my surroundings and actions were all the same as they are every evening, nothing felt routine. The air was prickly, the colors too rich, sounds too loud,even ominous. After dinner I went out on the front porch and sat and felt the night. My skin tingled. The neighbor’s windchimes, a dog’s bark, the leaves rustling in the yard, all raised goosebumps along my arms. Anticipation engulfed me. It is an inelegant comparison but the sensation was almost identical to watching and waiting for hallucinations to begin after ingesting a drug to provoke them. There is certainty that something is about happen with no assurance of what form it will take. I do not think any dramatic news would have surprised me that night.
It has been several weeks since that experience. I continue to drive back and forth across the old highway and its bridges twice a day, five days a week. I am still not bored with the views.The moments of breath taking beauty in the sky still make me smile and whisper prayers of appreciation. The buildings in decay still awaken my curiosity. I even still think about which of them I would most like to try and draw or paint, but it all seems dimmed somehow by the moments of vividness. The clouds and roads and trees I saw that afternoon are the same ones I see everyday, yet I feel like I was given a chance to see through a window to something different. When I look up at the sky now there is an added combination of fear and hopeful expectation. I do not know if I am more scared that it will happen again or that it won’t.