Drawing In: The Spirit of Assissi

La Romita Sketches: Assissi for La Romita

The strong aroma of coffee teases my nostrils as I walk on the cobbled street through the city’s gate.  Perched high on a hill,  its view of the Umbrian landscape below is no less spectacular than the impressive stone church which greets one immediately on the left of the entrance..  As they have for centuries,  the  two saints respectively buried beneath this church and the larger edifice on the either end of the city, continue to draw crowds.

I am one of a stream of  pilgrims & tourists who begin to fill the main street of Assissi. Moving past those who stop at the Church of St. Claire, I press onward to find the coffee I smell, and discover a pleasant fountain at the center of a piazza. Alighting here with my art materials, I go to the nearest cafe, order a cappuccino, and return to my stone seat.  Basking in the morning sun, I am mesmerized by the sound of the flowing water and the  crescendo of voices as people gather in the surrounding cafes.

What do I draw when faced with a myriad of possibilities, including the aforementioned church, the broad plains of the Umbrian valley below, the fountain itself ?  In the spirit of St. Francis, I focus my attention on  a humble (but lovely), ordinary stone wall  with shuttered windows and a plant-lined patio.   It seems ancient, having beautifully weathered the passage of time with a patina of muted rusts, browns and grays. Choosing a simple sepia waterproof ink pen, I begin to sketch the wall, placing the drawing over a few watercolor rectangles I had painted on the page with a flat brush prior to this visit. The palette I  have chosen is one I see repeated in the Italian landscapes, cities and sites we visit: neutral grays, greens, blues, browns.

Engrossed in the wall before me, I am visited by several curious passersby, first among them  a woman from Eastern Europe who mistakes me for a German tourist (perhaps because of my Birkenstocks?.)  She is intrigued by my activity as much as by the drawing itself, and tries to converse with me in broken English. ” You artist, yes? Is very good!”  Nodding & smiling, I  continue sketching as she bids me a pleasant goodbye. The local Italians who pause to converse with me are similarly complimentary and enthusiastic.  They seem pleased that an American tourist would take time to draw something in their city, rather than rush around taking photographs  in the usual manner.

Later I am told I  missed a lot of “must see” things in Assissi that day, including St. Claire’s resting place.  By the time I finish my  sketch, I have just enough time to walk to the other end of the city to see some of the remarkable interior and exterior of the stunning Church of St. Francis. Upon leaving, however, I am not bothered by what I have missed, but am content with what I have Seen.  Sitting still  by that fountain for an hour, mindful of the scene before me, and the surrounding sounds and smells, I drew in a full-bodied breath of Assissi. It’s Spirit remains in a simple sketch.

When Life Gives you Scraps

piecing together sections cut from larger painted images

Make a quilt!

My Mother is a fine quilter who persists in her craft, even as her eyes fail.  She just finished a quilt for Maeve; one which is not meant to be an heirloom, but for keeping warm on cold nights in her Palo Alto dorm room.  Mom used scraps  and left over pieces of fabric from her sewing room, and the quilt is sure to be a hit with her granddaughter. I too have dabbled in quilting, and am actually quite good (according to my Mother) at the fine hand-stitching part. However, being so consumed by my passion for drawing, calligraphy and painting, I never pursued the craft in a serious way.  Today  I found myself rummaging through my flat files and picking out scraps I had cut from larger pieces of art and connecting them.  Like my Mother in her quest for using the scraps she had to make Maeve’s quilt, I became obsessed with collaging  these bits that on their own seemed lacking, but pieced  together made something organic, harmonious and pleasing.  This is not the first time I have dabbled with piecing  old scraps together.   Several years ago I was visiting  a wonderful local artist (Judy Paul) and was captivated by her collaged paintings.  Inspired, I came home and started pulling bits and pieces of practice calligraphy out, gluing them onto canvas with Matte Medium. What did I know? What did I care? Having never done this before, it was exhilarating to plunge in with uninhibited child-like enthusiasm. Was this collage? I think so. The process was also reminiscent of my brush with quilting. However, with no training in collage-with no idea of a set of rules to temper or guide my effort, I was free to do as I pleased.  Interestingly,the result was a collaged painting that has been accepted in two juried art shows and was recently purchased by a student and friend.

If there is a moral to this story, it is this: !  You have all you need right now to make a piece of art.   You don’t have to know what you are doing or where you are going. “When Life Gives You Scraps, Make A Quilt!”

Having trusted my own intuition and dabbling, doodling. tinkering instinct, my new piece “the Wild Life of Radishes” was birthed.  And  it just got sold!


Absence of Bloom

How can we bear the absence of her bloom?

Art saves the world. Art saves me.  When Maeve went to college last fall, I knew it would be a time of reckoning and re-shuffling. My priorities were shifted and I was left to ponder empty spaces.  Vowing to remain mindful, I experienced fully the grief, the relief, the excitement, the longing. Once again, art was my refuge and my solace.  The first line of this poem came to me when I was teaching a multi-media class called “What’s My Line?”  We were responding to flowers, objects, vegetables, with sticks and unusual tools dipped in Sumi, and then working over the images with acrylics, gesso, walnut ink. The resulting pieces (for me) were in response to a dying sunflower. Captivated by its wilting, bent head, it made me cry. The beauty of its dying reminded me of my own grief, and inspired hope. I know that the Sunflower seeds will bring new flowerings. My daughter’s departure will also result in blossoming and blooming in myriad ways.

Leaving empty spaces in her wake
while fading from our view
How can we bear the absence of her bloom?

we  take the empty vase away,
wishing for her return
in sunshine, seed and sunflower
A vision for longing eyes,
laughing, blooming
pure joy

untethered by expectation or fear,
living, growing,
while we plant new seeds alone.

SZ 2013

If it’s Tuesday, it must be Italy

Back in the 1970’s I saw a hilarious film about a group of American tourists traveling abroad in Europe called, “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium.”  It was clearly satirical, mocking a type of travel where the aim is to visit a number of countries in a week, and cram as much as possible into a short itinerary. Collecting snapshots was more important than actually seeing sights, and cringe-worthy antics ensued throughout this silly film, including thefts of towels and toilet seats.  One tourist was left behind, while another got mixed up with a group of Japanese tourists.  If, understandably, the European view of the “ugly American” tourist  remains, my hope as a traveler is to offer a more positive perception. For me this means making attempts to communicate in the native language of the country in which I am a guest, as  well as to take time to engage with local inhabitants of the places I visit.  Having a sketchbook and art materials in hand has helped a lot to bridge the foreign gap, for I have found that wherever I am sketching, people gravitate towards me in a friendly and curious way. Indeed, art -making is universal, and whether it evokes “oohs and ahs” or head-shaking (young Italian children) people are inclined to respond to it.

As the leader of another art group to Italy in September of 2014, I am particularly focused on cultivating the role of reverent participant within the communities we visit.  How? By encouraging students to slow down, sit in one place for awhile, and focus on one detail to sketch or paint. In sketching a particular wall, fountain or lamp post, one’s senses will be ignited by the fragrant smells of coffee, flowers, baking bread, or the musical sound of the ebb and flow of surrounding conversations. Indeed, as morning turns to noon in any small town piazza, the  crescendo of voices and activities is a remarkable thing to experience. Inevitably passersby will stop to offer comments or to start up a conversation when one has a sketchbook in hand, and locals typically express pleasure when they notice that a visitor is quietly taking time to observe the beauty of their town or village.

But what about the missed sights of a particular area?  It is true that there are limits to staying in one location. However, the trade-off is “depth over breadth,” and as I have noted, by slowing down, one is more likely to  engage with and actually SEE the place and it’s people.

Back at our monastery home of La Romita, we can continue our slow and reverent pace, working quietly in the studio to develop the sketches or paintings done in the field, and to write about our experiences.  As we become settled, it becomes clear that one need never leave La Romita to have a full, delightful, authentic experience of  Umbria. Whether enjoying the local, healthy cuisine in the dining hall,  noticing museum quality paintings and artifacts in the studio, walking among ancient olive orchards or painting the lovely flower-filled gardens,  there is much to delight and engage all the senses.

Breathe. Sit. Observe. Write. Paint. Draw.  Through slowing down we learn to see, and wherever we are, we become in tune with the heart and soul of Umbria.

Away from Home

Where is January and the birth of a new year? I scrambled to keep up with the continuous unfolding of events: childhoods’ end, rites of passage, cataclysmic change, and looked up to notice it is August. The year now worn with months of days fully lived, wanes into Fall. I fall into tears of joy and anguish as I prepare to let go, to release my child into the world. Never mind the words of Khalil Gibran, “your children are not your children.” Even so, they move through our lives with such epic force as to bring us humbly to our knees and change us forever. Our hearts remain tethered no matter how far afield they go, the bond intact, unyielding.

Alone I turn inward to that familiar still and unmoving place, the one untouched by outward concerns, pregnant with infinite possibilities. A child moves on and art remains. Home.