A Wedding

A Wedding – Watercolor – 21 x 29 inches.

Ideally, commissions for paintings are usually clear and straightforward and they haven’t changed much since the days of Michelangelo. For example: I agree to paint your subject for x amount of florins, euros or dollars; we agree on the medium and the dimensions, and we agree on the deadline for its completion. I insist on being paid half the fee for my work in advance. After business matters are settled, it’s my responsibility to finish and deliver the work. I do my best to make you content so that you write a check for the remainder of my fee.

In the “real” world of painting on commission, the best of circumstances happen rarely. In the case of “A Wedding,“ however, the situation could hardly have been better. The client’s request was straight and clear: Please paint me and my husband alone in front of the altar on our special day. No priest, no altar boys, no relatives, just us.

The most important component of a wedding is the bride and groom; everything else is background. But what if the background is as interesting as the couple? Especially if it overflows with symbols? I mean that in the altarpiece behind this couple there’s nothing less than saints and angels witnessing the vows of the Sacrament of Matrimony. So I painted the watercolor accordingly, as if the earthly and heavenly realms reflected each other, both equally important.

Often clients don’t like such imaginative interpretations. In this case, the client was content and paid me what amounted to almost half of a round trip ticket to Madrid.

That was four years ago. I hope that, with the blessings of the Heavenly Host, the happy couple is still a happy couple.

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.”