Friday, March 21, 2008

Further meditation (back to St. Ives).

Once again, while I was in St. Ives, I realized how much I love learning a place. It's possible that that love explains my dislike of tourism in general: too much, too fast leaves me feeling as though I'm tasting everything and filling up on not one single thing. Travelling at my own pace, on the other hand, gives me the time and space and quiet to pull in as much as my brain wants to handle--which often means that I'm intensely focused on seeing a small range of sights over and over. Long-time readers (really long-time readers, that is) may recall what happened to me when I travelled to Ottawa for a conference in early April 2006: I ended up in Canada's National Gallery of Art three days in a row, never getting very much farther from my hotel than that. The same thing happened in St. Ives: because I have a Tate membership, I was able to go to the Tate St. Ives, there on Porthmeor Beach, every day I was in town, poring over the pieces in the Margo Maeckelberghe and Rose Hilton exhibits. So too did I climb around again and again on the promontory known as the Island, getting different glimpses of St. Nicholas's Church and of the waves crashing around the promontory's rocky base.

What startled me most was the fact that every time I turned around--or so it seemed--another woman artist's work and life story met me and strengthened an intuition I'd been feeling long before I headed down to Cornwall: the intuition that it's just about time for me to take a deep breath and try my hand at painting. I have never thought much of my drawing skills, and I haven't wielded a paintbrush since primary school. But I haven't thought much of my singing skills, either, and my piano teacher informed me a couple of weeks ago that I have not only good pitch but good tone as well. And perhaps, perhaps, I should remember, as with the piano, that painting and sketching will not be my profession--which is to say that they will not need to be things at which I achieve some externally set standard. I can try them just to try them.

For me, then, the revelatory thing about St. Ives was its reminder that I'm on the right track, thinking that I can and should put art and artistic experimentation of all sorts at the center of my life. It's a town where people have produced art unexpectedly--that is, either because they were creating against some steep odds (in the cases of Alfred Wallis and Bryan Pearce, for instance) or because they have pushed boundaries and frontiers, making it new all over again. And yet once they have had their visions, they've stayed with them: Margo Maeckelberghe produces landscape after gorgeous landscape, abstract yet not wholly abstracted; Rose Hilton has painted canvas after luminous canvas, awash in joy in her domestic spaces and her artistic pursuits, again balancing perfectly between abstraction and representation. Walking through Barbara Hepworth's studio and garden, one can feel her exultation in form and space, can feel the love she felt for her surfaces.

And on a less monumental scale, St. Ives is full of galleries and studios where painters and sculptors and glass artists and ceramics artists and jewelry makers are creating and exhibiting and interacting with one another and talking to whoever turns up on any given day. When it rained, I went to the Tate. When it was fair, I poked through cobbled street after crooked cobbled street, going into every gallery whose window displays looked even remotely interesting. In one gallery, a young Cornish painter had three new paintings hanging; in the 30 minutes I spent in the shop, three or four different couples or individuals came in to ask the gallery's owner about his huge, brilliant canvases. In another gallery, one artist kept watch over works by herself and six other painters, who founded the gallery together years ago and have functioned in a kind of partnership since then.

And in another gallery, one I stumbled into one day after my early afternoon coffee, a woman named Sue sat painting, her border collie Roscoe on the floor near her feet. Had it not been for Roscoe, I might not have started talking to Sue, and I thus might not have made my way beyond her studio partner Pauline's paintings and back to Sue's own--two of which are now hanging in the flat, both because they're small, brilliant visions from St. Ives (and Newlyn, a nearby town that has been, like St. Ives, both a fishing town and a kind of art colony) and also because I want to remember what she said when I told her that I've always wanted to try painting: "Then you should. I didn't start until seven years ago." Because I was curious--and, I suspect, because her dog was so utterly enraptured by my attention to him--she told me about how she started, how she made her way through different kinds of paint and surface, how she finally experimented with applying acrylic paint to board using a knife rather than a brush, how that experiment made everything else possible. The next day, when I went back to buy the paintings I hadn't been able to stop thinking about, I talked to Sue's studio partner, Pauline. "I've always wanted to paint," I told her. "Then you will," she replied. "If you want to do it, you will."

Yesterday, in the gloom of bad weather and my beloved Brooklynite's departure, I wandered down to the art supply store on King Street and stood, baffled, before the displays of tubes and brushes and canvas and paper. Then, I stood awhile longer, baffled by charcoal, graphite, conté crayons, pastels. I have very little sense of how to start, and so it seems like a good idea just to try something. I plan to try the conté crayons, and pen-and-ink sketching, first--and then to see where that leads me. John Ruskin informs me that "the best drawing masters are the woods and hills," which would seem promising, since (as you know) there's almost nothing I'm happier doing, when I'm not reading, than studying minute elements of woods and hills (and fields and meadows and bodies of water).

Meanwhile, I brew and brew writing ideas. And so it would seem that spring has come in with a ferment, or perhaps a surge and a crash and a spray.


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