“There is the hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives.”
Michael Ondaatje— from his novel, Divisadero
My oldest friends in Spain are Toti Romero and her husband, Manolo Blasco; their presence in my life has been anything but brief. Exactly 30 years ago, in 1988, they opened their arms, their home and their hearts to this curious artist from California. During our first afternoon together in Valencia they fed my curiosity about words by introducing me to paella, the fragrant dish of rice, rabbit, green and white beans, saffron, chicken and rosemary and to the word, socarrat, the crusty, burnt rice on the bottom of the paella pan. That evening, Manolo fed more of my curiosity by guiding me through the narrow, noisy streets in the old part of the city, explaining that “old” in Valencian terms refers to the founding of the city by a Roman consul 2,100 years ago. He showed me the Central Market, one of the most beautiful in Europe, and the 500 year-old Silk Exchange with its gargoyles and twisted colums, and the immense Serrano Towers that were part of the medieval fortifications of the city, and the Art Deco Train Station, located directly across the street from the bull ring.
I don’t remember how I discovered La Calle de las Comedias, the Street of Plays, (or Comedies), but it was probably by just wandering around one day and getting lost, one of the best ways to encounter strange things in strange places. The ruins of the destroyed buildings, in contrast with the church and the tree and the modern building on the right, were intuitively attractive. Toti became curious. “Why are you interested in drawing piles of rubbish?” she wanted to know. “I walk by wreckage every day on my way to work and pay no attention to it. Now you are painting it and now I find myself noticing it all the time.”
I didn’t have a clear answer for her, or for myself, except that heaps of rubbish present a challenge– the jumble of shapes is really difficult to draw, so I had to work slowly and reflect on what I doing. In order to get a more angular view of the church and the tree, I changed my point of view and set up my easel a few metres away under the awning of a shop that sold watches, binoculars and telescopes. During several days of painting, I noticed that every afternoon at about the same time, a man would pass by in an unusual three-wheeled chair. The photograph doesn’t allow us to explore details, so let’s just imagine the design of a normal bicycle: it’s propelled by a big sprocket with pedals connected by a chain to a smaller sprocket in the rear wheel. In the man’s wheelchair, however, the chain and sprockets were aligned vertically and the pedals had been replaced by hand grips so that the man could drive and steer the chair with his hands cranking the big sprocket.
I added the motor scooter to serve as a counterpoint to the wheelchair and also painted a cat in the bottom left corner in homage to his or her feral family, who used the pile of rubble as their own personal condominium.
During the process of painting Escombros, it occurred to me that the answer to Toti’s question is that in many paintings I’m trying to find a metaphor for change and the passing of time. Another challenge. As you can see from the photo at the top of the blog post, the church and the tree still stand at the end of La Calle de las Comedias. The cats are long gone, but I hope the man is still alive, with the strength to drive his wheelchair and that he still shares the streets of Valencia with whomever owns the motor scooter. Michael Ondaatje is right, but in addition to persons, the presence of cities and streets are often within us as well.