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Onto the terracotta patio I step silently
Past lavender climbing twisting vines
The honey drops sunlight sprinkled
My mother a paintbrush in her hand
She touches color to canvas
Soft yellow orange, light
My father beyond resting seated
A cat slumbers purrs on his shoulder
A pen in his hand he touches white page
Reflects light reflects
When I saw Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring about five years ago at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., I felt something about the painting that I had never felt before when looking at artwork. I felt as if this girl, this young woman in the painting was real, hiding in the museum behind this canvas. She was in the flesh. Her skin was still dewy from three hundred-something years ago, the light across her face still glowing. She was in the round, her eyes followed mine, she was real. She was about to speak, she was in a moment of thought, she was in reflection. This girl was not crimson red or titanium white, she was flesh. Vermeer caught her, a butterfly in his hand. She was not just recorded on canvas, she was created on canvas. She was caught in a moment of stillness. Vermeer creates moments in his paintings. When viewing them, we step into a private, intimate setting, a story. Always, everything is quiet and calm. I realize now it is no wonder I had such a strong reaction to Vermeer the first time I saw him: he is a stillness seeker.
This morning I wake early from the light that creeps underneath my blinds and my bed next to the window. I wake floating on the streams of light, heated, like white wax spilled across the floor, dripping, soft. In bare feet I walk down the stairs, cold on the wood, and find my father in the kitchen, also awake early. Together, we leave the house, the house that my parents built with windows like walls, windows that show the water on either side of the island. We close the door quietly so as not to wake the sleepers. We walk down the pine-needle path, through the arch of trees, the steep wooden steps to the dock nestled in the sea-weed covered rocks. We sit silently on the bench, watch as the fog evaporates from the clear water. The trees and water are a painting in muted colors, silver and grays and greenish blue, hazy white above the trees.
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My mother stands on the shore in front of her wooden easel with spindly legs balancing between rocks and bunches of sea-lavender. Her paintbrush rests on her palette and she is standing back from her canvas, peering through a window she has created between spread fingers crossed over each other. She judges the borders of her composition, the trees she will allow to creep into the sides, the buoys floating on the periphery of the shore. She squints her eyes so that she sees only the lights and darks, the shapes. She picks up her paintbrush and sweeps color across; places this wave as it hits the shore at this moment onto her canvas. In our house are her paintings, floral still-lives and oil landscapes hanging from the walls, propped against shelves. In her studio are half-finished portraits of me from when I was ten, thirteen, eighteen- my face softer here, my smile more serious there. My father is up the hill at the house, at the desk in his study. His study has windows on two of the walls, one of which looks out onto the porch, into the woods, and the other down the pine-needle path, past the dock, across the water. He sits in a white wooden chair. He is thinking; he taps his foot on the floor, his hand poised with his pen over the paper. I imagine the words floating in his mind, strings looping together to describe a smell, a thought.
My room, wherever I go, is a collection of photographs- hanging from the walls, piled in boxes, laid out neatly in photo albums. I am the one with the camera at dinner parties with friends, on family vacations, in the woods as the leaves are changing color. Next to my photographs are journals, carried with me through the Israeli desert, to the day of my first kiss, to the day I turned twenty. My journals, it feels to me, even from when I was very young, are me writing to myself when I am eighty years old, when I will look back on what I wrote when I was young, thinking about what it would be like to be eighty.
My sister stands towering before me, really towering, my little sister as I lie below her in the hammock, the sun hot against my face, hot against her face, hot against her golden hair. This afternoon I see her afresh, she is new, she appears, she is fresh, she is so new to me. When did her legs grow so long, so long? I tell her that I love her, maybe I do not say it out loud right now, but she hears me, yes she hears me, and I hear her. We pretend we are at the beauty parlor, she calls me honey and sweeps sparkling green eye-shadow across my lid. We tell each other what our lives will be like; me, a country girl with two blonde children after a failed marriage, a tornado (we laugh), her, a writer in an apartment in a city, who comes knocking on my door, asking to be let in for a hot dinner, we eat and talk about that time, this moment now, when we shared secrets and imagined what our lives would be like... (remember this, remember this.)
Am I too young to be a stillness seeker? In a blur of motion, I seek out solace. I crave a rock in the sun by a lake, a patch of grass beneath a tree, a corner of a bookstore. I crave dinners with my family, conversations with friends. I rely on sketchpads, watercolors, pencils. Sometimes I rise before most of the slumbering campus on a Saturday morning and run past brightly colored houses to the water, see the sunlight across the sidewalk in long shadows of morning that I might normally miss. Sometimes, at night, when I am out with friends, at a party with a deep bass beat in the background, in a noisy room, a sea of beer cans, a sea of sweaty people, I find myself waiting for the moment when I can once again hear clearly, feel peaceful. I wonder to what extent this part of me, this stillness, separates me- from my friends, from the community I live in. In this world, we dance to an ever-increasing rhythm, our feet move faster and the music grows louder every day. For most people my age, the moment is an entity within itself, like a scent or a breath to be drawn in, savored, then exhaled, to be replaced with the next.
If I remember my dreams when I wake in the morning, I explain them to my friends, I write them down in my journal. I wake and am still wrapped in a warm shroud of haze; I can still feel the dream, the smell. If I record, I will not let go, I will not forget. But if I open my eyes too soon, the images are gone, water evaporated from my skin.
Leaving the island is waking in the morning with the sunlight reflected from the water, silently dancing on the bedroom ceiling. It is walking barefoot down the pine-needle carpet, across the rocks clothed in deep red and brown bubbles of seaweed. It is watching the mist evaporate over the trees across the bay, changing from light silvery gray to deep blue to green. It is plucking the last blackberries from the bushes, collecting them in the palm of your hand, squeezing the purple juice between your teeth. It is crouching over the tide-pools that collect in the dips and curves of the rocks, searching for tiny yellow snails. It is cutting the remaining bunches of daisies, sea-roses, pink snapdragons. It is breathing in the air, a mix of fish and salt and smoke and sweetness. It is saying a silent thank you for this white rock for this water for this sunlight for this warmth for this hour for this moment.
The Tibetan monks have an ancient practice of creating paintings in circles of sand, called mandalas. They spend days creating the intricate symbols and colors, then, with a ceremony, they pour the sand into an urn and sweep it into a river. The monks create beauty, then let it go. Works of art, in the Buddhist teachings, are intended to guide students from sambara, the suffering of mundane existence, to nirvana, spiritual liberation. I see the sand being poured into the river as I return to my university after a day at a nearby wharf town, spent walking along the cobblestone streets with my mother and sister, trying to take in the fresh autumn air, the sunlight, my sister's face, for as long as possible.
Why do I create art, why do I paint? I paint because it is meditative; I paint because I need to. Sometimes I think of myself as a translator. I take in light, smells, sounds, and I find colors to say these sensations. I pick out the line, the curve of a birch tree, and the brown of its reflection in water. I find the dip of my sister's cheek, the blue shadow that means round. I paint to record, to capture the moment, but also to create the moment in a fresh way. What I see and sense passes through me and emerges new, perfume mixed with my own bodily scent. I paint to know the world better, to know it intimately. For me, drawing is like learning something with my eyes. If I climb the face of a rock, my hands learn the ridges, the grooves, the bumps, the smoothness of that rock. If I hike a mountain, my feet learn the trail, the softness of the soil, my nose the scent of the sap from the pine trees. If I swim in the sea, my skin learns the temperature of the water, the sting of the salt, the softness of the sand under my feet. If I draw that rock face, that cluster of trees, that water, I study the colors, the direction the breeze blows, the slant of light and shadows. I learn the shape of the clouds, the texture of the tree bark, the length of the centipede on a blade of grass. I feel, after studying a landscape for an hour, two hours, five, that I am somehow a part of it; the quiet of the heath or ocean or forest infiltrates me. When drawing a person, too, I learn every dip and curve of their shoulders, their cheekbones. To draw someone, to study the shape of their almond eyes, is to create a strong connection. Henri Matisse, wrote around the turn of the century, of painting models, that "after a certain moment it is a kind of revelation, it is no longer me. At these moments there is a veritable doubling of myself: I don't know what I am doing, I am identified with my model1." Sometimes when looking at paintings I like to imagine what the artist must have been like. When seeing Botticelli's Birth of Venus, I imagine him with wrinkled clothes and uncombed hair, hunched over a canvas, swathing his paintbrush over the blonde curls of an idyllic woman wearing a flowing, transparent dress. I imagine him staying up late into the night, becoming obsessed with his paintings, falling in love with the imaginary women he creates. He walks through town in the morning to buy a loaf of bread at the marketplace, all the while thinking of the beautiful women waiting for him on his canvas at his studio.
When I take photographs, I feel that I am capturing a moment in a completely different way than when I paint. Taking a photograph draws into question the definition of a moment. Is a moment a measure of time, an infinitesimal quantity, a slender slice of life? Is the flow of time made up of connected moments, of stilted frames, or does photography freeze time in a way that is unnatural and misleading? In a different sense, are the moments of photography measured in something other than time- are they measured in emotions? Is the moment of a woman's face measured in her thoughts? Matisse also writes on painting representationally that to "copy the objects in a still-life is nothing. One must render the emotion they awaken in him." He says, "if I close my eyes, I see the objects better than with my eyes open2." Sometimes I wonder if I let go of what I see in front of me, if I loosen my grip on what I have before me in my life and I move more blindly, I may in fact find that I see more clearly.
My father cuts the engine on the boat; the loud buzz and stirring of water stop abruptly, the waves become smoother, then the water is motionless. I am sitting next to my sister, across from my parents. It is night time and the sky above us is black cloth studded with crystals. In the dark water, I can see the reflections of the stars, floating flames in the ripples like fireflies. How many thousands of years ago did these stars project this light? These stars are photographs, images from a far-away place from the ancient past, reaching me now, floating on this surface of water.
1 Page 13, John Elderfield, Pleasuring Painting: Matisse's Feminine Representations. Great Britain: Thames and Hudson, 1955. 2 Page 24, Elderfield