Cheekwood Botanical Gardens covers 55 acres on the edge of western Nashville. In April tulips wind along paths and quilt the landscape; spring flowers lay balanced amid rock walls, sculpture, and specimen trees. A waterfall winds its way toward ponds. Spreading Lawns meander between woods, and benches for weary or meditating visitors sit along pathways and under spreading branches.
Last week on Thursday with my easel and art supplies in a yellow backpack, I walked down a winding sidewalk to a lawn overlooking tulip beds. While my artist companions chose their views, set up easels, and sketched, I circled the area hesitantly until I was drawn to a viewpoint with a bench, a line of pink tulips and white narcissus, and a twisting tree trunk with octopi branches.
An electric excitement overtook me as I rushed to render the shapes and colors in front of me. Clouds threatened rain. Sunshine traded with shade. At times I held an umbrella over my painting, soft rain drizzling on my head and shoulders. All the week’s anxious headlines and the layer of responsibilities in my life evaporated as the distant woods, the flowering bulbs, the flames of shrubs, and the graceful branches of a crab apple shading a bench flowed onto the canvas.
Amateur that I am, I am still enthralled by the creative relationship of scene to brushes and tubes of paint in my hand, much like falling in love over and over.
What if on that day at Cheekwood while I was spreading pink pigment for rose colored tulips, I was also aware of a frightening deterioration of conscience and humane civilization? How would you react to my description if outside the entrance to the gardens, a pogrom had begun with the registration of all people whose heritage extended to Muslim grandparents? Or every dark skinned, Hispanic or Near Eastern looking person was stopped at check points and asked for proof of citizenship? Or informants were paid by Homeland Security agents to report any suspicious acting neighbor?
It is a far fetched scenario, I admit. But just for the moment, suspend skepticism, imagine the contrast of plein air artistry vs. hedonistic governance. The one scene is full of joy and freedom; the other ripe with fear and insecurity.
During the liberation of Paris by the Allies in August of 1944, while he listened to gunshots in nearby streets, Picasso, who had waited out the Occupation of Paris in his Left Bank studio, painted a “joyously liberating work, The Triumph of Pan,” described by Ronald C. Rosbottom in When Paris Went Dark: “It depicts a Dionysian festival, one that might celebrate the joy of freedom from want and fear. The work is small and done in watercolor and gouache, but its exuberance belies all the somber work that had preceded it during Picasso’s volitional exile in Paris during the war years (331).”
It goes without saying: I’m no Picasso. I am also not confined to my studio while Nazi thugs and excited ad hoc soldiers of the Resistance engage in a patchwork of violence in surrounding streets. However, for months I have suffered the thoughtless and dangerous rhetoric of our politicians, a thuggery of words, prevarications designed to dupe memory and excite resentments, to prey on ignorance and fear.
If I were to paint my feelings after reading or watching the news, the result would be abstract and confusing, unresolved, like a recent near-satire I did on the American flag on a barn in a restless, disordered field. I find in that painting I want the flag to be worn, untended; the barn ramshackle; the mountains oddly purple and orange; the trees and shrubs overgrown and scrubby. I want the lines of the barn to be incongruent, even broken, but the furrows racing, out of control, toward the barn. The painting puzzles my teacher: “You work has been disquiet lately. I don’t see much peace in it.”
Last week I passed through the gates of Cheekwood and left with a painting energized with joy and love, about a place where peace expresses itself in shapes and values simply because the subject exists no matter what goes on outside the gates or what inner disturbance lies within oneself.
While I was painting, during a sunny spell, two women strolled by — a sweet faced, white haired woman with the shuffling gate of Alzheimer’s and her younger duplicate, a brunette, fiftyish,with a patient and gentle pace. They were holding hands, these two women, one who would not recall the event, the other left with the indelible sweetness of their walk through the garden, presumably mother and daughter, finding a liberating moment together, even though most surely the Mother’s affliction restricts them and distresses those who desire more hope than the Mother’s condition promises.
Yesterday a friend asked about my painting. I hesitated, stymied. “I’m not sure I can talk about it,” I thought. “It’s a Bench,” I could have said. “Too complicated” seemed inaccurate and maybe unkind for polite chat.
But here I am, finally and quite spontaneously, able to say, not what the painting actually is, but what it represents and how important it is to be able to react with joy and love, in intermittent rain, with a paint brush in one hand and an umbrella in the other, to insert shadows and light from imagination, to color the moment — much like the daughter and mother in spite of their circumstances and the weather — even though afterwards a current of social unrest can be switched on with a power button.
Rosbottom, Ronald C. When Paris Went Dark, The City of Light Under German Occupation 1940-1944. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004.
“The artist produces for the liberation of his soul. It is his nature to create as it is the nature of water to run down the hill.” W. Somerset Maugham