A Sketch for Heathens

A Sketch for Heathens – Watercolor, ink and pencil – 8.5 x 11 inches.

The 16th century Russian archbishop Makarij complained that the “unholy objects of worship” of many Northern peoples were “forests, stones, rivers, marshes, springs, hills, the sun, the moon, stars, lakes and simply all manner of things.” Had he visited the Northlands recently, he would likely have had the same lament. In Iceland, for example, people whose beliefs predate the arrival of Christianity a thousand years ago, usually do not like to be referred to as pagans. We’re heathens, they told me, and after a moment’s reflection I understood why. If a heath is a “wasteland,” terrain that is “uncultivated,” then Iceland has more heath than any place I have ever visited. The landscape looks empty and desolate, like the surface of the moon, except that it is green, greener sometimes than the radiant greens of Ireland.

Iceland is a painter’s dream. Imagine a low sky of writhing clouds, mountains after mountains and miles of undulating hills with a few sheep grazing here and there and perhaps an occasional farmhouse. Many mountains are active volcanoes; earthquakes and geysers are also part of this heath, and searing winds from the North Pole, and the slate-colored sea all around. Geysers, storms and waterfalls create a magical landscape that is always present, like a pulse, or a heartbeat. In this stark landscape I felt like I was continually walking on the skin of a drum.

Unfortunately, this little sketch can’t suggest lava flows or thermal springs, let alone the presence of Huldufólk, the “hidden people,” who live contentedly, mostly invisibly, here in this harsh beauty. But I offer it anyway to friends in Iceland and elsewhere who revere all manner of unholy objects.

Musicians: July

Musicians: July – Pencil, ink, watercolor – 8.5 x 11 inches.

Few people, I imagine, attend rehearsals. An actual production is a different story: Actors appear on stage in costume under the lights; everyone knows their lines; the drama unfolds as it should from beginning, to middle, to end; the curtain falls to hearty applause from the audience; the actors reappear to take their bows; the audience disappears into the night; the next day a new audience arrives for another performance.

But rehearsals? Why bother to attend? Everything is being worked out, worked on, nothing is finished, everything is in flux. Will an actual comedy or tragedy eventually appear out of the mess?

Here’s a messy drawing, an example of a rehearsal. My sketch books tend to be ragbag accumulations of stuff: old train tickets, images from the Tarot, stubs from entradas to museums, quotations from the I Ching, drawings without intent or purpose, just a way of paying attention to the world, in this case a Sunday afternoon jam session at a local brew pub.

That was a summer ago. Today we are in a cold, gray, bleak January, in a parade of storms visiting us since sometime before last week. Ludmilla Khersonsky’s poem arrived from a January on the other side of the world where ordinary people like you and me are freezing to death without heat or electricity under skies that rain missles and bombs. I’m sorry to have carelessly obscured the last lines of her poem with pen and ink. They read:

“… Do not open, the door boomed./ Do not offer it anything./ Do not wear a pretty dress./ If it starts breaking in, hit it – hit it – with an axe.”