Like stars, mists and candle flames
Mirages, dewdrops and water bubbles
Like dreams, lightning and clouds
In that way will I view all phenomena
– Prayer of the 12th Tai Situpa
The numbers of the dead are announced daily.
I am twice moated, once by saltwater, once by fresh. Just out of sight, the sea encircles this island, and my home lies beside a wide freshwater loch. The burn that flows out of it skirts the edge of the garden.
And what am I to do with all this stubborn loveliness? The sun slides out from behind the clouds and the whole loch surface lifts and sparkles in Orkney’s northern light. Waves and grasses are shimmering in the wind. Raindrops held in the tender leaves catch the light and throw it back, a sudden scatter of diamonds.
The loch rests before me in a shallow bowl of low green hills. Every day, I watch the water. I try to understand it. The strangeness of it. Its ancientness, each molecule cycling through billions of years. Its freshness every moment. Its lightness in mists, sea fogs and rain clouds. Its massive weight in swells and tides, the heavy breakers that thump at the cliffs. Its patience, dissolving mountains to dust. Its particularity. The Romans knew this. They built different aqueducts for different water sources, each one kept distinct and unmixed, with its own properties, its specific uses known and valued. Each one named. The Anio, the Anio Novus, the Marcia, the Tipula, the Aqua Virgo. Each one let flow freely, not stopped with taps or valves.
This water. Every day I watch this water.
Today, I have been drawing a rain cloud drop by drop. It’s a very small cloud. Still, it has taken a long time.
I’m trying to draw water. Drawing it helps me to see it. Surface and depth, movement and stillness, light and dark, dewdrops and water bubbles, repetition and change, no two instants the same. First, I lay out gessoed boards or stretched paper, set them level and gently pour inky liquids over them. It can take a few days for the puddles to dry. Then I rub the surface back and pour another wash over them, leave them to dry again, building layer after layer until finally it’s ready to start the drawing. I work on several at a time. My studio fills with unfinished, half-finished, maybe-finished, almost-finished-then-change-my-mind again drawings. I keep returning to them until one day a certain drawing seems to coalesce around itself like a crystal forming out of liquid solution, and then I know it’s done.
The artist Morandi painted his grey bottles day after day, living his whole life in the same modest Bologna apartment. While all around him roiled the angry politics of fascism and the chaos of war he went on quietly painting his bottles and jars and the cool light that lay over them. And his paintings still speak to us. With all their stillness and calm, their apparent mundanity, Morandi’s paintings have outlived the shouters and the strivers and the soldiers that surrounded their making. Art doesn’t change the world. It’s not a panacea. The Nazi commandants read Rilke and listened to Beethoven in the evenings. But it changes something. Stills us. Shows us something.
There’s no need to try and do something big and important. Work incrementally. Paint your grey bottles. Keep going.
So I keep on drawing water. Rain clouds, mists and fogs, waves breaking silvery over rocks and churning themselves to spires of foam. I watch the water and then I draw it drop by drop.
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