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.
And some of their cousins, in my garden. Lupines are definitely what's happening right now, along with iris of various sorts. I worked in the garden Friday and Saturday mornings (I was wrong about the veggie gardeners, it's all fine) and got a lot done, as well as getting very sweaty. Feels good...and oh, the sunshine!
An unarranged snapshot of a piece of my studio, May 26, 2014. Big Iceland drawings on the wall; Montmorency Falls (Quebec) print at bottom left, two New Zealand acrylic paintings on the drawing table, an oil of Lake Willoughby (Vermont) on the top of the cabinet at right.
When I'm working on a piece of artwork I'm not consciously thinking about much except whatever's going on between my eyes, my hands, the particular medium, and my emotions. Subconsciously, though, I'm entering deeply into the subject, looking at it as if I've never seen it before - which, to be honest, it feels like I haven't, such is the intensity of that concentration. Over the past two weeks, as I've worked on the Ruahines paintings -- the most focussed period of attention to art that I've had since doing the Iceland drawings -- I've stepped back after a long session and looked around at the studio. There are some still lives here, and some portraits, but the overarching theme is landscape. And it's made me think about why I do this: why I keep returning to the landscape as a primary subject.
Artists paint what they love. I guess that's the simple answer. Still, it seems like there must be clues to a deeper dialogue going on. (I like cats, but I don't spend my life painting them!) My friend and fellow artist Natalie d'Arbeloff spoke once about my "deep feeling for the landscape," and although no one had ever put it that way before, I knew she had touched on an essential fact. The land speaks to me, and resonates within me, not just when I first encounter it, but for days and even years afterward: the California coast, the pastoral hills and dales of England, the raw elemental quality of Iceland, the flat plains of Quebec and the St. Lawrence estuary in the Charlevoix, the rocky Maine coast, the agricultural hills of central New York where I grew up -- and so many other places. I love the vibrancy of cities, but I'm not drawn to paint them. There's something about the wildness and solitude of open nature that speaks directly to my spirit, and I think I'm always trying to capture that feeling of being a single eye surrounded by something powerful that quiets me, amazes me, moves me, and somehow mirrors me.
I'd like to say "powerful and eternal," because there has always been that element in the landscape - that it was here before us and will continue after us, changing perhaps but continuous in a way that human beings are not. However, the word brings up another reason to paint, which is to try to say, "Look. Look at the beauty and preciousness of this earth." I am not of the school that believes people will ever change their behavior by being bludgeoned, but I do think people need to be made aware of what's in front of their eyes, and that a relationship with it is not only possible, but somethat that is meant to be. Not only is the natural world endangered, but so are we, by our increasingly fragmentary, individualistic, self-centered lifestyle, driven by consumerism, technology and speed. Most people are more afraid of the natural world than drawn to it; fewer and fewer are at home in solitude, or able to be in natural places without being somehow "entertained" or tethered to their cellphone lifelines, or the screens on which they capture their experiences. It's no wonder we are at a point of environmental no-return.
I am horribly upset about the Artic glaciers and Antarctic ice sheets, but nearly powerless against the economic forces and political-corporate alliances that drive climate change; we do what we can politically and individually but obviously even collective efforts by citizens are not enough. Some of that feeling definitely goes into my art: not as rage, but as witness to what has moved me and mattered to me all my life.
Bean Fields, Paris Hill, NY. 14" x 10", oil on canvas. 1990.
And there is another kind of witness, that of recorder -- in a different way from photography. I did the painting above a long time ago: it's a view across the fields of a very small hilltop town in central New York that I've always loved. I remember standing there that day - the way the heart-shaped bean leaves ruffled in the wind, the call of hawks overhead, the smell of the mown hay. This view no longer exists; the NYS Department of Transportation saw fit to build a highway that bisects this field and cuts to the left of the hill in the distance; the reason I'm sure was that a wide road would be easier and faster for truck traffic and snowplows - this is a place notorious for blowing and drifting lake-effect snow in the winter -- thus avoiding the little town center with its right-angle turn. It's not a change on a big level, and perhaps only a few of us care, but to me it's an example of so much that's wrong with modern society. Painting the vanishing or endangered landscape carries a different kind of weight from photography; it seems less overtly political but perhaps it can speak just as powerfully.
We're shaped by experience, by people, and by memory, as well as by our own particular talents and passions. This past week I've been thinking a lot about my mother, on the anniversary of her death, and how she loved the landscape too. She was a ceramic artist and painter who didn't do much artwork after her twenties, but she continued to see with the same eyes, and to help me see. I owe a great deal of my emotional response to the land to her way of relating to it, as well as her encouragement to me in my own art. I don't paint for her, but she's always there: quietly joyful and fiercely protective of art, landscape, nature, and whoever and whatever she loved.
At last, the leaves are out, and spring has really arrived in our fair city.
Lilacs! <<she sneezes.>>
The "ruelles vertes" (green alleyways) are finally "vertes."
Apple blossoms and tulips are finally softening the lines of even the most urban facades.
And last weekend the plants moved out to the terrace. What a relief to feel outdoors and indoors breathing together again.
I'm not as happy about my community garden this year. Several of my friends have left, and a number of the gardens are being converted to high raised beds for vegetables - the soil is contaminated with heavy metals from industrial use long ago, so when I joined, everyone was growing flowers, and there was a consensus among most of us to create a place of beauty together. But the big demand in the city is for vegetable garden plots, and I guess people got wind of the fact that they could grow here in containers or raised beds. The communual feeling seems to be disappearing quickly. Flower people, as J. said, are not always the same as vegetable people...Two gardeners have constructed a huge vegetable planting bed with high walls in back of mine, squeezing every inch out of the space so that I have almost no space to stand even on the shared path. It changes the feeling of being there a lot. So I'm not sure what will happen, but I'm not feeling happy about it except that I do like to grow flowers to cut and bring to the apartment, and having the garden allows me to do that. I can go early in the morning when few people are there, and enjoy the solitude.
Living with a great many other people in close quarters is one of the big adjustments I've had to make in the move from country to city, and sometimes it isn't easy. The use of public parks, walking and bike paths, public gardens, public transportation, and so many other shared services, is something I strongly believe in, support, and enjoy, but for those things to work, people need to be considerate of each other. For the most part, people in Montreal are extremely polite and aware of each other. But every spring, I do find myself missing the privacy and solace of my own garden. I thought I had adjusted, but this development shows me I've got some more work to do. In spite of loving the beauty of spring, in a lot of ways it's always the hardest time of year for me: too many losses that came in these months, too much sense that - like Christmas for many people - everyone is overjoyed and I should be too.
Grief is always hard, isn't it? And it creeps up on us when we don't expect it, when we thought we had gotten over things that were painful. It's important to be gentle with ourselves, but also to think about what we do have, and be grateful. As urban existences go, we have a pretty wonderful one, and even though many people I love are no longer with me, they gave me so much that lives on.
This was a bigger painting with a stream running out of a forest above this section. I didn't like the top of it and cut it off; all the energy was in this pool. I like how even though the scene is in New Zealand, it felt to me as if it could be in the Adirondacks, or anywhere in northern New England or eastern Canada.
The leaves are still trying to come out on most of the trees here -- it's that magical time of year when all the branches have that greenish haze - but the flowers have decided it's actually spring. These two pictures are from my own garden, the one below, taken with my phone, was across from Eglise St-Stanislaus on Blvd. St-Joseph.
That's me, on the left, photographed by Jonathan as we wait for a neighbor, who's been out riding a bicycle, to open the back door to the studio building. The drift was up above my knees, and the wind was howling. I think it was saying, "What the f*%# are you people doing here???"
A few more shots of the ride to choir rehearsal this morning at 9:00 am. Somebody remind me why I came back from Mexico?
-12 C. When I open the blinds: sunrise through a fine veil of snow. A neighbor, waiting for her dog, sees me standing at the open window, but she is never friendly and only scowls, turning back to pull the poor animal along the sidewalk. They disappear and I remain, unperturbed, enchanted by the whiteness and the soft filter of snowy air above the more brilliant ground and shiny, packed paths, the straight black trunks and complicated curving branches written across the white page like Persian script, and beyond it all, the golden disk of the sun rising over the river.
We're more than halfway through the Canadian winter. The days are longer now, and yesterday, outside the metro, the maple sugar kiosk had already been set up, even though there's hardly been a day above freezing and no sap could possibly be rising in the trees -- they must be selling last year's candy maple leaves and boiling last year's syrup to make tire d'érable, sugar-on-snow: a romantic treat in time for Valentine's Day. I know better than to get too optimistic. March is inevitably stormy, April tends to be a cold month here, and May is unpredictable. Still, I'll be back on my bike in April, and the city will begin to open up again. Between now and then, it's better to find ways to love it.
In the meditation sessions I lead twice a month, I've been talking about developing a non-dualistic mindset, and opposites are perhaps more on my mind than usual. Cold/warm; winter/summer; light/darkness: I notice the freight carried by each word in the pair, how the scales tip, and also how other pairs, like spring/fall, shift the balance less. Always it's the judgement that's extra, that pushes us into positive or negative territory and emotion: I hate winter, I can't wait for this to end. And yes, the season comes with its difficulties, but I rarely feel more alive than I do during these months, or more entranced by the stark beauty of nature asleep. I stand at the window and merge with the figure walking along the fence in the distance, bent forward against a bitter arctic wind; I watch the Olympians and remember being on skiis on the tops of mountains -- that high-elevation world of krummholtz and rime ice and absolute silence -- and then pushing off: the rush of adrenaline mixing with gravity; edges biting into the snow, now velvety soft, now crunchy with ice; knees and arms somehow knowing what to do.
The days lengthen; the downward slope. I slit open a small package and plant tiny black Greek basil seeds in pots of dry earth that swell when watered, and set them under a plastic cover to grow warm in the sunlight. At the bus-stop I scoop snow into my palms, fashion a ball, and throw it across the street. As it shatters I remember a boy who had a crush on me, and shot his frozen arrows accurately all one winter, right between my shoulder blades.