What Do I Paint?

I’ve been thinking about this since my friend asked me, “What’s your obsession with reality?” First, everyone has an opinion. I have opinions, too, about what artists paint, but generally I keep them to myself because there’s something behind every painting that I cannot possibly know. Second, what moves a person — person A — might not move person B. That’s obvious.

What a person sees in a work of art can change through their life, too, depending on who they are, how old they are, where they are in that moment, their mood, their physical health, biases, expectations, education, good god…

One of the paintings that moved me most deeply is a fresco panel I saw in Milan. I am pretty sure it was painted early in what is known as the Renaissance. It’s a painting of Vulcan. I am the first to admit there is nothing spectacular about the painting which is why it was in one of the many storage/display rooms that exist in the Pinacoteca in the Sforza Castle. But it said everything to me. Besides being a nice painting, it was painted mostly using green earth. Why would Vulcan be painted with so much green? I have no idea. Maybe the artist had a lot of it? But I saw in that fresco (the first one I’d seen in very close range) how magical it was to paint with dirt on plaster — gypsum, crystals, basically. Dirt came to life. I had not yet been to fresco school and had no idea that I might go someday. But colors — where they came from and how they worked — fascinated me.

I went back to see Vulcan I think three times while I was in Milan. Other paintings I liked during that long peregrination in that fantastic city??? I can’t even remember them all. It was beyond description and if I’d gotten what I went to Italy for? I never ever would have had all that — and before 9/11!!!! ❤️

Well, for a long time most painting was religious art. I’m OK with that. Painters need to eat and God is worth the time. Some of these paintings were just paintings, some of them were more than that either spiritually or because of the world they showed. Sometimes their paintings said, “This is what I see in my life every day.”

I like those paintings. They are offerings across time, letters in bottles. One such painting is in Verona, Saint George and the Princess, a fresco by the Italian painter Pisanello. It’s in the Church of Sant’Anastasia. It’s very difficult to see in the church because it’s way up there near the ceiling, but it’s a world. Who’s world? St. George’ world? No. Pisanello’s world (and some fantasy??).

St. George and the Princess Pisanello

I have tremendous respect and gratitude for these messages in bottles. When I was writing Martin of Gfenn I spent a lot of time looking at a copy I have of a medieval book of hours. These are books for meditation, but the most beautiful ones (usually commissioned by some noble person) have scenes from daily life painted around the meditations. And why? To me this is beautiful — because the person who owns the book isn’t in Heaven, but in the world. There are seasons, and within the seasons particular necessities — harvest, boar hunting, apple picking, spring flowers. These books were little gifts to me from past centuries. “Here, Martha. This is what we saw in our time in our world.” OUR world because now I’m living in it.

I paint two things; landscapes and self-portraits. The self-portraits have been labeled “expressionistic.” And, they are a little odd. I thought about them all as a (so-called) body of work the other day and realized they are all about seeing. Every one of them.

The first one is about seeing what’s out there. I’m wearing my all time favorite Halston wrap dress given to me by a friend in the 70s. The shoes are red heels. The sofa began as an experiment to see if I could paint velvet. The panel all this as on? A failed painting I wiped off. The flowers, bunnies, all that, is straight from a medieval tapestry. When it came together it was a big surprise to me. Until I moved here and hung it on my living room wall, I didn’t know what it was.

The second is before seeing everything I saw in Verona. It is me in a hotel in Munich the night I arrived, so tired that I went to sleep before I even knew it. A couple of days later, I got on a train for Verona where I stayed a month. The light from an Indian restaurant across the street was coming in the window. The name of the painting is Danae. Danae was one of the women Zeus raped. He came to her in her sleep, raped her, and left behind gold. There is gold on those sheets…

The third is me looking for something in the gigantic grave that is the earth. The strange part of this painting is it IS the Refuge, but I had not yet ever been in the San Luis Valley and the new plants coming up from this vast decomposition are — BEANS. If you look, it’s the same landscape as in my newest crane painting. The fourth is literally me looking in a mirror, but with a twist. I’m holding my cellphone to take a selfie. My phone cover looks like a watercolor set (it does) and I painted this with oils. It’s a little arcane, but I was amused. It’s a representation of a representation of myself. It was fun.

There is a lot of symbolism in these paintings but it was all accidental. I was, “Huh? Where did that come from?” Painting activates, involves, the unconscious. I guess that’s what gets people all jazzed about finding “hidden meaning.”

Seeing is not that easy for me (for everyone?). First it’s mechanically challenging. I’ve worn glasses since I was five. And, one of my eyes has a condition called “asteroid hyalosis” which means it has all sorts of gunk inside. You might remember when it looked like I’d need retinal surgery because my eye doctor couldn’t see into that eye to see if there was a detachment? I have to look OUT of that eye. I think most people get floaters over their lives. Just think of an eye that is MOSTLY floaters with a few little windows of clarity. It’s no biggie for me, but it sure freaks out eye doctors. Second, seeing what’s in front of me — maybe for all of us? — isn’t easy. It’s a discipline, a quest. Seeing a landscape, even photographing it, is, for me, incomplete. Painting it is seeing it. If — as I have a couple of times — I inject myself into a landscape it’s me seeing me seeing the world.

Putting a person into a painting changes it. It gives the painting an “actor,” and that opens a whole world of stuff to people looking at the painting. I realized that when I started the tree painting which was originally going to have my friend not me. But at the moment I started it Covid started and I realized that if I put her into this painting, it would become not her looking at a tree which she absolutely LOVES — and we go visit it from time to time — but my friend looking off into a scary unknown, an infinite, dangerous, horizon. If it were Bear and me? It would no longer be a scary painting because this is where we go, what we do, what we love and share with each other.

I also know that this kind of landscape — even as a photo — scares very urban people. I’ve been told and I’ve witnessed it with my friend Pietro (who lived in Zürich and grew up in Bari) when we were in the wilds of Arizona, looking for a ghost town. He found himself in the middle of nowhere and was terrified. “Ho paura, Marta, per favore, torniamo a Tombstone, ti prego.” For Pietro, tombstone was great. It was a town he’d been in love with from movies, but the REAL Arizona? It terrified him. I remembered how I felt the first time I was alone on the convoluted streets and lanes Zürich old town. Avuto paura. We turned around.

One of the things I like most about nature is that I’m not the boss of it in any way shape or form, so painting nature (my obsession with reality) is a record of my surrender. They are also “religious” paintings in their way, or my way. I cannot know what will happen when I’m out there except for a few simple things like the shoes I wear, where I go, who goes with me, if I have water, something about the trail. Once anyone is ON the trail the trail is the boss, friend, ally, challenge. OK, this is less true about the gravel road I walk at the Refuge but still true. The trail is itself. Since most of my journeys into the natural world have been solo (with dogs) I’ve had the chance to fully be wherever it is I am. Dogs enhance that because of their complementary senses.

There’s a self-portrait I would love to paint, but I don’t know how. It’s me on a single track on a sharp rocky hill with my dog Truffle. We’re being dive bombed by a red-shouldered hawk. It was a crazy moment. Wondrous and scary. Of course, we got out of the way. Maybe the hawk’s baby had somehow gotten on the ground? It could have been that it had dropped a prey animal and didn’t want my dog to get it. Red-shouldered hawks are noisy when they hunt, too, so no way to know. If I paint it, it will be because I saw it — but the painting will say weird shit to people who haven’t been there. I imagine it painted from an angle above the hawk, but not that far above the hawk. From the height of, maybe, a second hawk.

Another is me and my wolf-dog, Ariel, staring eye-to-eye at a mule deer doe in a thicket from a distance of about 18 inches. How that happened? It was a cloudy August afternoon, cooler than usual, I’d just finished reading Riddley-Walker which is a fascinating, mesmerizing book. I wanted to get out, so Ariel and I headed out. The novel was still filling my mind. We took a narrow trail across a hillside, turned a corner, and saw the doe. She took off. For some reason, I decided to follow Ariel instead of her following me. It was an interesting walk and a little iffy (rattlesnakes, but…). After many twists and turns and odd stops there we were, looking at the doe who had hidden in the sumac (lemonade berry) bushes.

I know that if I paint these they will change from landscape to something else because a figure will be in them. It is not then “This is what I saw.” It is “This is me seeing what I saw.” When I paint I am conscious that I am offering my eyes to the person looking at my painting, like the wonderful artists who gave me the 13th century book of hours. People who buy my paintings (if I meet them) usually say things like, “I’ve seen that!” I love that. What a miracle to see something. What a miracle to share a vision.

Is every painting trying to “say” something? I don’t think so, but every painting will, even if it’s “only” (ha ha) “I saw this.” Some paintings hit us over the head with their symbolic meaning. Others are (god forbid) just “pretty pictures.” I’m pretty happy painting a pretty picture, honestly, I’m grateful that (so far) nothing has inspired me to paint Guernica. Or Dada, which I love, (and the reasons behind it)and have made several pilgrimages to the Cabaret Voltaire in its honor, but I’m grateful nothing in my world has driven me to represent anything like it. I’m no revolutionary. I’m just a person with a paintbrush alive on this planet with (finally) time to paint.

Renoir once said, “For me a picture has to be something pleasant, delightful, and pretty — yes, pretty. There are enough unpleasant things in the world without us producing even more.” Renoir suffered from Rheumatoid Arthritis. Painting is a kind of medicine for me, certainly. I have a friend who’s a painter, but now he’s blind and he has rheumatoid arthritis and STILL he wants to talk about painting more than any other subject so we do. I describe everything to him. He would rather hear my paintings than not know them at all. He gave me my first (and so far only) big canvas. This is what is on it. It is a Sandhill Crane walking among some young willow trees. It’s 4 feet wide by 3 feet high. It represents a sandhill crane walking among willow trees. I saw this. No one else did. No other human was anywhere around.

“creative expression is not just a means of getting attention, although some have approached art that way. think of art as a way of connecting, of sharing your insights with others.”

-nita leland

12 thoughts on “What Do I Paint?

  1. I’m enjoying your ruminations on the “meaning” of paintings, both yours and those of others. I don’t paint or draw, so this is new ground for me. But, your thoughts and comments have clearly had an impact on me, because last night, during a video meeting of a non-fiction writers group I recently joined, after listening to others describe what they “saw” in the piece submitted for review, I quoted your quote, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” The interpretations were so varied and… wild! I wondered what value, if any, the individual’s perception had for the artist.

    • That’s a really good question. I’m very receptive to perceptions like “The contrast here isn’t really working. Maybe lighten the jeans a little bit?” And, “I’m a little lost. Who’s speaking in this dialogue?” Objective stuff is always useful, I think. Even “I don’t like this,” that’s OK because that’s on the person looking/reading.

      I have to judge all those Indie books every year (have to? no GET to! I love it) and that’s the challenge because there is the “what does it say?” “Is that useful to the book’s audience?” (I don’t judge fiction, so useful matters) “Will the audience get it, even if I don’t?” “Does the writing get between the reader and the point?” (that happens) A couple of times really poorly written (grammatically) books have still made their (very important) points with power and clarity. I was all, “Yay you, bad writer for writing well!” To me good criticism for writing (and painting?) considers what the writer wants to do and for whom. Good writing has integrity with itself.

      I’ve had a couple of my own books get two thumbs down because of all the scripture in them. Well, that critic didn’t get the story (a leper living in what is essentially a monastery? A bunch of brothers (a family of six bros) arguing about the nature of God during the Reformation? What ELSE are they going to talk about???) But people don’t think, “I don’t like this” is enough and come up with reasons, but they aren’t reasons and not liking something is, in itself, a reason. I think of other peoples’ writing as a closed system. Within this world (between the covers) is this thing doing what it is meant to do?

  2. Seeing is a funny thing. I went to a show by a Chinese painter and one painting caught my eye as I entered the room. I walked straight to it and the label said NFS. The painter said she could make me another of that painting (a traditional subject she may have done dozens of times) but I couldn’t have that painting. I commissioned another. It is a nice painting, but we both saw something in the one hanging in the show that she could not duplicate.

    • Seeing is as elusive and ubiquitous as air. She could copy the painting, but not the moment, the experience any more than the second Martha and Bear is as evocative as the first. It isn’t. It doesn’t matter much because they aren’t the subject of the second painting, but it’s still true. I was afraid I couldn’t capture in a painting what I had in a drawing but to my amazement I couldn’t but there was something else I could. I don’t if any painter ever knows fully what will happen in the process of painting.

  3. I think painting and poetry are similar – the person has to see and then translate that to the art. As for what catches the heart, there are so many different components that factor in, that as a ceramic artist and a poet – I create what makes me happy! If someone likes it or doesn’t like it doesn’t make any difference as long as I like it….

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