Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Little More about Painting Flowers

A couple of months ago while visiting a recent exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art, I was swept off my feet before I even got to the third painting among the dozens of still life paintings, drawings, and collages that made up the exhibit. But it wasn't even a work of art that stunned me; it was the written text that accompanied a 16th century Flemish (I think) painting. I know I took out pen and paper and wrote the quote down, but I've not been able to find where I wrote it, so this is from memory.

The text said that the painter of the particular, very detailed still life had been a monk in a Flemish monastery. (I just had to look up Flemish--I was feeling unsure whether it was another word for Belgian or for Dutch--in fact it refers to the people, language, etc. of Flanders. It is in fact the Dutch language spoken in Belgium, one of Belgium's two official languages. The other language I believe is French, because my college boyfriend and I were once given a ride in the Loire valley by a Belgian couple in their tiny Citroen. We managed to converse via my French, but they spoke Flemish to one another, while Jeff and I of course spoke English. I am certain that their knowledge of English was far better than our knowledge of Flemish.)

But I do digress, rather far. Back to the text with the painting at the museum.

It said something about how the close observation and rendering of flowers was seen to be an aid to the contemplation of God. Well, that got my attention! Not that I haven't felt or experienced that myself, but to read that some male religious authority, even a whole religious order or institution believed and declared that four centuries ago, and even supported it (read on)--that felt different to me! 

I wonder if I was staring at part of the divide between Catholic and Protestant spiritualities, or the chasm between the pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment relationship between science and religion, particularly Christianity (as well as Islam and Judaism). Science, one expression of the close observation of nature, was for centuries seen as a companion of religion, and all pathways of deeper knowledge about the world we live in--botany, astronomy, medicine, even mathematics!--were honored as ways of knowing the ultimately Unknowable. Art also has a stronger, more honored place in Christianity before the Reformation, with some forms of Protestantism so suspicious of imagery, music, and the like. (Think Chartres Cathedral vs. a plain white-walled Congregational meeting house.)

Without going too far down this path this morning, I will only say that human love and contemplation of the created world has not always enjoyed a central place in Christian theology, liturgy or practice, particularly in its American expressions. In my experience, love and contemplation of the created world have usually gotten a kind of a sideways nod--"Well, yes, dear, that's all very nice, but...what does it have to do with Jesus? what does it have to do with the cross and salvation? What does it have to do with this week's Scripture lessons?" (We might ask, what does it have to do with the oil still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico and begin to get somewhere.)

When I still had a practice of going on silent retreats, the best part for me usually had to do with being outside, talking to trees and sometimes even "dancing" with them, drawing ferns and wildflowers, wandering in woods and meadows, conversing with birds. But somehow that's now what I thought I was supposed to be doing. I was supposed to be having three sustained "prayer periods" a day, or meditating on some passage of Scripture and letting it illuminate some heavy issue in my life. 

"Have you asked Jesus about that?" a retreat director might say. And I would shrink inside, crumple with a little more guilt and shame. "No," would have been the honest answer. "Why would I?" No wonder I stopped going on "directed retreats" and started "directing" myself--hanging out in the silence and the natural world, sometimes with art supplies. But always with a nagging sense that I was supposed to be doing my retreats some other way. Not trusting myself. And certainly not trusting delight.

To be fair and balanced, I did once long ago, when still a very new priest, tell my bishop that I had talked to and danced with some spruce trees while on a retreat. And he confessed his own "closet pantheism" in reply. I remember leaving that official meeting with effervescent joy and buying an ice cream cone on the way home to celebrate.

But I do digress again.

I didn't think about all of that while standing in the museum. I only registered viscerally that that little piece of text and what followed were chipping away at something in me, maybe even blasting holes in some armor of mine, or at some sort of wall.

The text continued by saying that the painter of the painting had been "employed by the monastery as a painter of flowers." 

"No way!" I thought.  "What a deal! Sign me up! I want to be employed as an observer and painter of flowers!" 

A whole cascade of similar sentiments tumbled through my mind and body. I felt breathless, dumbfounded. I had "glimpsed myself" in a piece of text on a museum wall--a bit of print I can imagine lots of viewers passed right over. 

I have been a close observer and a delighter in the close observation of flowers, fruits and vegetables, plants in general, for a long long time. In that sense it has been an "occupation" of mine. But it has not been a primary source of income for me, has not been my paid employment. A primary, though perhaps largely unacknowledged, source of sustenance and of great joy, yes; a natural way of getting out of my head and into a more focused, present attention; and an avenue for being "a bride married to amazement" to use Mary Oliver's lovely phrase.

To imagine that such an occupation was once upon a time truly honored as a way of contemplating God and was supported with financial reward (meaning, I assume, that the selling of the monk's paintings was a source of income for the monastery that fed, housed, and clothed him)--well, that just set me humming. 

And the humming continues. 

Friday, June 25, 2010

Flowers, Flowers, and More Flowers

Cosmos, c 2009, Sukie Curtis, oil on canvas

"I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers," declared Claude Monet. I know this because David gave me a twelve-inch tall, soft Claude Monet "doll" for my birthday. He currently sits on my desk, cheering me on, decked out in a blue painting smock over his white shirt, with black beret, black tie, and grey pants. He is clutching a paint brush in his right hand. This is an elder Monet, sporting pince nez glasses and snowy white hair and beard. His "identification tag" includes the above quote about flowers.

As you may have noticed, flowers do tend to be a regular feature in my paintings. Years ago, before any art classes, I often drew and dabbled in water colors while on retreats. Often the subjects were closely observed wildflowers and plants (I remember unfurling ferns, in particular). Now fruits and vegetables have joined the line up, but flowers are always inspiring companions, sometimes muses, even when not the subjects themselves. Even withered blossoms can be fun to draw. (That's one of the fun things about drawing--at least the way I draw--it puts me in a sort of "toddler mind" in which a dead flower is as interesting as a fresh new one, sometime even more so!)

This painting of cosmos stems and blossoms is one that began as a drawing. When something about the drawing really got me excited, I decided to use it as the starting point of a painting. This one, like many, was done over an earlier painting of trees that wasn't so successful. The original painting gave the newer one some interesting texture and depth. Many of the glimpses of green, especially in the left half, are part of the original painting.

I am delighted that this painting now lives in the bedroom of one of Anna's best friends.

Friday, June 18, 2010

"Except you radish me"

Except you radish me, c 2010, Sukie Curtis, 24x24", oil on wood

Here's an image to help you welcome summer! It's a recently-finished painting called Except you radish me, which is a playful borrowing of a line from a poem by John Donne. The poem is his Holy Sonnet XIV, one of two John Donne poems that occupy some space in my memory bank. 

In the poem Donne begs God, in powerfully personal and sensuous terms, to make God's presence felt and known. The poem begins with the line, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God" and ends with these lines:

          Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
          Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
          Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

There's not always an obvious rational or reasonable explanation for why lines of poetry, hymns, or childhood songs  suddenly float up to consciousness from the recesses of memory. In this case, when I knew I was nearly finished with the painting, or perhaps even long before that, I found myself playing with the words, "Ravish/radish my heart, three person'd God," mixing up Donne's first and last lines.

Why radishes, you might ask? Simple!

I often feel "ravished" by the sensory world we live in, by the shapes and colors (oh, and yes, the flavors too, though I confess that is often a secondary consideration) of vegetables, fruits, flowers and trees. Last summer I was won over by a bunch of radishes I had purchased from a local farmer. 

I drew the radishes a few times, then started and nearly finished (members of my family thought it was finished) this painting, then put it aside for many months because I found it boring. I didn't even come close to conveying my true delight at the actual radishes from the farmers' market. A few weeks ago I decided I was ready to see what I could do to jazz it up a bit. And I'm very happy with the result!

If you or someone you know loves radishes (or not) and would enjoy being ravished by these glowing beauties, let me know! (I will also have new notecards available soon.)

In the meantime, enjoy some local fruits and vegetables of your own to welcome in the summer!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Another Kind of Letting Go

Yesterday I found myself in the right place at the right time to assist a trapped bird. Digory and I had just enjoyed an evening walk on the beach, and I was savoring the luxurious length of the day and the perfect (to me) temperature in the low 70s. Just plain feeling full and content in a basic kind of way.

As we walked past a currently unoccupied summer house, I heard an erratic rustling sound--I first thought squirrel or chipmunk in old leaves and undergrowth, but the sound wasn't coming from the direction of the trees. It was coming from the house. I looked at the house, though I couldn't imagine how that sound could be coming from the house itself (and I guess I didn't want to think of possible sources for the sound).

A bird, I think it was a pine warbler, was struggling to flap its way through a cellar window with chicken wire on the inside. It would flap desperately, then grab onto the wire with its feet, rest briefly, then try again. Its wings never fully rested between escape attempts. The bird seemed to be exhausting itself.

"Buddy," I said to Digory, "I might just be able to help this bird. You stay here." I told Diggie to sit and stay, dropped his leash, and headed through the open cellar door. Think creepy, dank, old smelling New England cellar.

I was surprised to discover that the bird and the window were in a distinct room, to my left after I entered the cellar. Through another door I went into a small room stuffed full of junk. I didn't take the time for even a casual inventory. I headed for the window.

"OK," I spoke aloud, as calmly as I could, hoping to convey trust and compassion to the struggling bird. "Here goes."

All I could think to do was to cup my hands as gently as possible around the bird, wings and all--trying to time my embrace with a moment of less wing movement--and ever so slightly close my hands. I didn't want to startle the bird into more panic and more struggle, nor cause it to fight against me and possibly hurt itself. It took a couple of tries to get it right.

Soon enough I was holding the bird, cupping it gently around body and wings, allowing its head and beak to rest free of my fingers. I moved as quickly and carefully as I could, hoping the bird wouldn't try to escape when I was still in the house. He or she was a perfect passenger--no struggle.

One step out the door and I held up my hands and let her go. She flew off without a pause.

Having spent many years thinking of myself as a trapped bird, I took all the more pleasure in aiding this bird's escape. And Digory was still waiting patiently for me when my task was complete. This letting go was unambiguously celebratory.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

On Letting Go

Lilies and Books, c. 2010, Sukie Curtis, oil on canvas

When this painting was hanging in Starbucks in Portland last month, I wasn't ready to sell it. It was my unrivaled current favorite painting, and it may be I was even a little worried that I might never paint another one of a similar quality and strength and confidence.  

It felt like some sort of landmark painting for me--perhaps a marker of my arriving at a new painting phase of some kind. It was at least a more successful attempt to integrate my drawing (this began as a drawing of an actual lily stem and blooms against our bookcase and window) with painting. Including my frequent tactic of painting over an unsuccessful painting. (There's an aspect of letting go in doing that, too.) 

Maybe it's too much to claim that this painting marks a new "phase" because I don't know how long it will last and if I will approach lots of paintings this way. Perhaps it is simply what worked this time.

A neighbor of ours saw the painting and expressed an interest in buying it, acknowledging disappointment back in May that it was marked as not available for sale. He asked if I might paint more like it some day, and I answered that I thought most likely I would (knowing of course that creative endeavors don't always end up the way one imagines they will). But his clear interest in this particular painting kept poking me and prodding me. 

Does it make sense to get so attached to a painting that you're not willing to sell it? Maybe it's not rational, but I am sure it happens. Other painters I know certainly choose to keep some of their work. How do they decide? I wondered.

What was making me want to hold onto this one? Was I clinging to something? Clinging to what I felt it represented for me? (An observer of the painting back in February, when I spoke at St. Luke's Cathedral sharing some of the stories of my midlife journey, had commented that she saw in it who I am now, boldly expansive and joyfully stretching my limbs in paint, while my more restrained, book-oriented past was in the background.)

I never really zeroed in on an answer. Nor did I ever lose the sense of being needled by the knowledge that someone wanted to purchase this creative endeavor of mine, and I was resisting.

When I put new paintings in Starbucks in June and brought this one home, I was excited to have it on our living room wall for a while. To enjoy seeing it more often (though I had enjoyed seeing it through the window of Starbucks from the street) and to feel its companionship. And I did enjoy it. Some days I even talked to it, looked closely at it to remember how I had approached painting it, to revisit the process as well as the result.

And I continued to ask myself why I wanted to keep it. And whether I might change my mind. And when? And soon enough I noticed myself thinking the painting was really too small for the space on our living room wall where I had put it (the most natural option). Rather than look around for another place to hang it, I found myself imagining that it might really belong somewhere else entirely. That having enjoyed its presence for a while, I was ready to let it go. 

Really, what more could a painter ask than to know that someone else really loves one of her works? And isn't the point of it all to create not just "private things" for my own private enjoyment but also to let my work be seen, wondered about, sometimes appreciated and enjoyed? To do my best to share my enjoyment of painting as well as my delight in the objects painted--to communicate and offer up to others my own quirky curiosity, amazement, wonder and delight at this world we live in? Yes, and to let my paintings speak to people's eyes and minds and hearts however they may, with whatever blessing they may carry.  

I let my neighbor know that I was ready to let my painting go if he was still interested. Which he was--he and his wife and their adorable young boy. They were all quite excited, which made it seem all the more right and good to let go. 

Though it was not without a tug, mind you. I said my own private goodbye to my painting when I took it down from our wall. Even kissed it (is that really corny to admit?) and gave it my blessing and my thanks and wished it well. 

My neighbors, not knowing the twists and turns of my inner drama, graciously offered to me to come "visit" my painting from time to time. I might like that. And in the meantime I am comforted to know it has been welcomed into a loving, appreciative family. 

Monday, June 7, 2010

Cliffs of Fall

"O the mind, mind has mountains" declared poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 - 1889). This poem, one of his "terrible sonnets," continues:

"O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there."

Hopkins wrote from an experience of depression and intense internal anguish (and yes, in other poems, from an ecstatic celebration of his senses engaged with the natural world).

But those lines about the mind and its frightful, sheer cliffs came to me this weekend when I was contemplating and experiencing (in mild form) the turbulent currents of an elderly woman's mind suffering from dementia with a long tendency toward anxiety thrown in, plus recent dealings with low sodium and doctors meddling with her medications.

There were wide swings of mental ability--from not recognizing the face of a beloved family member to being quick to recall appropriately and speak the name "temporomandibular joint disorder." From being connected to her sense of humor to lamenting her continued existence on the planet, transitioning between these two poles seemingly in a breath.

The doctor suggested that in speaking with her, we begin again every moment as if from scratch--not counting on her memory of what has already been spoken, even a minute before. Every sentence is a new experience. It's not hard to see the spiritual wisdom and practice in that! Begin every moment as if from scratch. See things new. Let go. No agenda. Begin again and again and again.

The backdrop to this inside drama was an equally dramatic and turbulent outside one, as waves of sooty, dark clouds, torrential rains, winds blowing leaves inside out swept through the area two or three times in a matter of hours. I tried unsuccessfully to bring my mother's attention to the weather out the window, thinking she might enjoy it, thinking it might distract her from her aches, pains, and fears.

To me the weather out the window was a kind of solace, a fascinating piece of physical reality, forces way bigger than me, easily appreciated from the warm, dry safety of a hospital room. A little recharge for my spirits--to watch the weather outside while doing my best to stay present to the weather inside the room.

The mind has mountains indeed.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Unanticipated Consequences

Image: "Path in the Woods", c. 2009, Sukie Curtis, 12x12", oil on panel

Sometimes you just don't know what results will follow from something you do. (Actually, maybe we never really know for sure!) I suppose in the right frame of mind, that fact just keeps things interesting. I mean, if we really knew beforehand the exact outcome of everything we dull!

I keep mulling over and feeling grateful for the fact that when I said yes to a friend's offer to put me in touch with someone at the Starbucks on Middle and Exchange Streets in Portland, I was thinking it was a good idea because maybe I'd sell a painting. I was thinking of modest financial gain as the mark of success. That, and having people see my paintings.

That hasn't happened, though at least one person has expressed an interest in purchasing a future painting, and many people, at least thirty at last count, have taken one of my business cards. And of course people have seen my paintings, and perhaps quite a few people stopped to gaze a while.

But what has happened was both unanticipated and even more significant than my idea of selling a painting or two. It happened in two parts. First, I originally was offered the month of May as the month that Starbucks would host my paintings. Soon after settling on that, the assistant manager called to say that June had just opened up, and she thought I might prefer June, since the summer tourist season would be kicking in, and June includes the Old Port Festival, which brings lots of people to that part of Portland. So I said, "Sure! I'll go with June. That sounds great." (I also knew it would give me more time to paint new stuff and freed up some time back in April when I was working on something else, so it really did feel helpful.)

Right at the beginning of May, the assistant manager called again, somewhat apologetically, to say that their May artist had backed out. "Could you possibly be ready to hang some art this week?"

I knew that I could be ready right away, even if it wouldn't be the newer paintings that I had hoped to display. I also knew that I didn't want to give up the month of June, or at least not all of it. So I bargained a little, suggested a compromise. (Or perhaps she had offered me part of June at the start--at least through the Old Port Festival--although her boss was clear that I couldn't have my work up more than six weeks in a row.) We settled on six weeks, roughly three in May and three in June, and that was that.

Until David and I were hanging my May paintings and the assistant manager asked to speak with me again, this time to say: "The manager says you can have all of May and all of June, as long as you are willing to change paintings before the First Friday Art Walk in June."

"Great!" I said. "Perfect."

So here's what happened after that--the delightful yet unanticipated consequence of saying yes to the chance to hang art at Starbucks: it got me painting. As in day after day painting, or at least painting more days of the week than not.

And I found that regular painting really grounded me, felt like something solid to build on. I looked forward to getting up in the morning on days I knew I would be painting in a way that's different from how I get up on other days. I was "inhabiting" my life in a different way, if that makes sense to you. That sense of solidity coupled with contentment was powerful.

I've read of a couple of painters in Maine who undertook a "May marathon" of painting. One set out to paint every day in May without fail, often painting outdoors (a great month for that), some days creating three or four small works.

Without planning to, I had my own sort of May marathon, and the after-effects are still with me, still unfolding, still offering me a different wave to ride on. I couldn't have planned it to turn out this way if I'd tried.