In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.
This picture is for my friend Leslee in Boston, who writes, "The snow here is all bunched up (and dirty) between buildings, as I imagine it is in Montreal." Yes, you're quite right, Leslee. Today is still frigid - minus 14C - but I did go out to Little Italy and the Jean-Talon market yesterday to do some shopping, and managed to take my gloves off long enough to take this photograph. It was OK in the sun, but the wind was straight from the arctic and very strong, blowing my furry hood off my head whenever I turned to face it and sending clouds of dry light snow whirling off the roofs of buildings.
Some of us are still pouting, curled up in wool and fleece...
But others, like me, are starting to feel the pull of outdoors and the increasing intensity and healing power of the sunlight. The lack of light up here is really no joke. Canadian are all urged to take Vitamin D because we tend to be deficient simply by virtue of our latitude, and a lot of people suffer from SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and are helped by special lamps. Nearly everybody is affected one way or the other by the sheer length of the winters, let alone the extreme cold like we've had this year. I just begin to go stir-crazy with what we always called cabin fever in New England, and no matter what, I have to get outside and moving. I miss downhill skiing, and wish my knees had held up so that I could have continued!
But in the studio, our plants are clearly telegraphing the message of lengthening days:
That's not just a forest of avocado plants, but a batch of cherry tomatoes that came up from seed that must have been hiding in the planter, a gift from my gardening friend Eric F. back in October, and are now spilling over. I've thinned them and am pinching them back. On the left, the four-year-old lantana is bushy and vigorous after I cut it way back around Christmas. On the right is a geranium I rescued from a neighboring studio after they moved, along with this massive cactus:
And the bougainvillea is still pumping out its gorgeous blooms, delighting me up every morning when I walk into the studio...
...and reminding me that soon, I'll be here:
And when we return, it really will be almost-spring.
How are you holding up, if you're in the north? And if you're in a warmer climate, what are your first signs of spring?
Mid-February, and the winter doldrums have finally hit. It's been so damn cold up here, for so long, that the throngs of people moving through the transport system feel sullen, withdrawn, silent. At least it doesn't seem like as many people are sick as last year; when you get on a bus everyone isn't hacking away. Swathed in our layers of sweaters and fleece and down and fur, we slog through piles of snow, under which is slippery ice, hard as concrete. All the floors of public passages and entryways are muddy and wet, so you have to be careful not to slip both inside and outside. Today was bright and sunny and I checked the thermometer before leaving home, thinking maybe it was a bit warmer -- but no, it's -23C! (-9.4 F) You've got to be kidding.
Something I love, though, and find hard to describe to people who've never lived in the north: the clarity of the air. On a morning like this, absolutely clear blue and extremely cold, it's as if a sharpening filter has been applied to everything in front of your eyes. The distance has no atmospheric perspective, no haze. And the air doesn't feel like anything except coldness: there's no moisture to give it thickness, just your breath which condenses the minute it leaves your body. It's almost...as if the air isn't there. And yet, what else is it that hits you the minute you walk out the door? So it's quite strange, this double sensation of an invisible wall of coldness, and its utter clarity, so that you feel you can walk through it and see through it and hear through it with perfect transparency.
On the unusual mornings when we leave the island and drive over the Jacques Cartier bridge and the frozen St. Lawrence, and the air has this quality, I love to look at the city: the glass and steel and stone gleaming in the sunlight, every church spire and skyscraper tower a cut-out punctuation against the sky. The far becomes near, and of more equal importance with the close and familiar. Of course, there is steam rising straight up from heating towers, but wood fires have been restricted in recent years, so there is much less smoke.
From the height of the bridge, you can see the monadnocks of the Montérégie above the flat floodplains of the great river, where the productive Quebec farms lie sleeping under their white duvets, and the mountains of Vermont in the far distance. Somehow it is like looking back across my own life with bright dispassionate vision, and a surgical clarity that's so sharp it doesn't hurt at all.
Rue de Lanaudière, 7:30 am. The picture doesn't show the wind that was howling around the buildings at the time. Today is warmer than it's been: about -10 C when we left the house. A heat wave! Yesterday it was -25. Even so, people are riding their bikes, and going around without hats on. Complètement fou.
This is a "brigadiere scolaire": a crossing guard. Her sign says "ARRÈT," and she holds it aloft when helping school children cross the street. The reflective vest is important: it's still pretty dark and low-contrast in early morning, and when the kids come home from school in mid-afternoon.
Underneath that snow is a solid coating of ice. The snow has made it a little easier to walk, but it's also deceptive. Driving is hazardous. I can only imagine how difficult it is right now for the elderly and people with disabilities. Just before I took this picture, a tractor came up the sidewalk pulling a trailer spreading road salt. The salt helps some, but it can also create water that simply freezes again.
In case you're curious, that vertical structure above is the machine where you pay for parking. They all have solar panels on the top: not too effective when covered with snow!
Holly and a Skull, fountain pen on paper, about 18" x 6"
Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, has come and gone, so Christmastide is officially over. For those of us who still live within a liturgical calendar, the end of Christmas means a look forward toward the rest of that child's life and eventual death, and toward our own as well. The other parts of that story are hinted at or even mentioned explicitly in a lot of the old Christmas carols and Advent motets, reminding me that in prior ages, human beings were not in the present state of denial about what happens to all of us. Christmas was joyful, but carried with it the same poignancy as every human birth, and in many of the songs about Mary, in particular, later events are darkly foreshadowed. The steady increase in life expectancy for adults in developed countries, the decrease in infant mortality, and the decreased likelihood of sudden death have all contributed to less preoccupation with being prepared to leave this mortal coil at any moment. That's nice for some of us, but a luxury that's still not available to millions of people on our planet. I ponder this as I survey the charitable donations I still haven't made for 2014.
Lent, the penitential season, comes early this year, and Easter could be - in Montreal at least - still a wintry holiday. Even though we're in the depths of winter right now, with new snow on top of ice just last night, and treacherous walking and driving everywhere, by the end of January the days will be visibly longer, and by the end of February, there will be palpable hints of the spring to come. I was surprised and happy, when drawing these little branches of holly, to notice little bunches of white flower buds at the tops of the stems, developing in the unexpected heat of the house. In the studio, my bougainvilla is putting out beautiful pink flower-bracts, while snow falls mercilessly a few inches away, outside the window. The life force is very great, even when we pluck and transplant ourselves and other species into unfamiliar environments; somehow, most of us survive to reproduce, create, and live this mysterious and miraculous existence, at least for a time.
There was an ice storm a few days ago, setting the trees glittering and clattering, and making it nearly impossible to walk. Fortunately the ice came off quickly and the wind wasn't violent, or there would be many more trees down than there were, but the result has been a concrete-like snow, covered by frozen rain, that cemented parked cars in place, and is so rock-like that it challenges even the heaviest snow-removal equipment. Yesterday was bitter cold. Today is warmer, but it's as if we're living in a black-and-white film. I find it quite beautiful, but my patience will begin to wear thin after another couple of weeks. Meanwhile, I have stretch crampons on my boots, and pick my way across the ice fields.
Drawing and painting a bit, on these slower days of Christmas week. The holly and yew branches I brought back from central New York are still looking bright and cheerful.
This "Turkey Red" tablecloth is an heirloom of sorts and always comes out at Christmas. My grandmother had a collection of these and I always loved them. They are reversible; the other side is simply the opposite, with the lighter parts of the pattern appearing as dark red and the background lighter pink. The other day I got into drawing these patterns; it's interesting to me how a proliferation of patterns flattens the picture plane. Matisse and Gauguin both used that effect in their paintings.
Still life with smoked salmon and dill on a Chinese plate. Fountain pen on paper, 9" x 6".
Maybe this profusion of pattern says something about how I'm feeling after the holidays, too...
It's been dark, windy, and rainy in Montreal this week, though not terribly cold. The snow is almost all gone, but we wake in darkness and the sun is going down again around 3:30 or 4. A Christmas present to myself was a lightweight v-neck cashmere sweater, on mail-order sale, in a beautiful bright pink, and I've been wearing it almost every day to cheer myself up. Nevertheless, I feel perpetually sleepy in this kind of weather -- and probably need to catch up on some sleep as well.
Persimmons in a Wedgewood dish, pencil on paper. 9" x 6".
Two persimmons on a bamboo mat. fountain pen on paper. 5" x 5".
Persimmon and Batik Pouch, 9" x 6" (cropped), pencil on paper.
I've never drawn persimmons before, so I'm studying them because I want to put them in a painting. They aren't a fruit either of us especially likes to eat, so we rarely buy them, but I was captivated by the beautiful bins of fresh persimmons at the Arab market the last time we shopped there, and came home with a few.
In Florida, my aunt picked one off a tree and gave it to me, and I did eat (that sounds and feels a little Garden-of-Edenish.) It was better than the ones I've had from stores, though there's a mustiness to the taste that I don't like. But the color! So magnificent! I also find the dried bud-leaves around the stem quite interesting and characteristic: they're papery and dogwood-blossom-shaped, with a flat square center.
Anyway, we'll see what happens. Which of these drawings do you prefer?