My Painting of a stream flowing under a stone bridge.
Nicola's painting of an Island in Cardigan Bay
I wanted to push myself creatively during my sabbatical. In one sense, this plan was built into my time in Wales: I assigned myself the task while here of writing a novel (which hums along nicely, now nearing 300 pages – but more of that in a future blog). And, as I bragged about in an earlier post, I have been trying my hand in the kitchen. But my efforts there, though edible, are neither aesthetic nor culinary masterpieces. They fall yards short of being creative. I throw myself wholly on the mercy of a recipe, and even then reproduce something that bears little resemblance to how the original looks or, I suspect, tastes.
So I needed something more. And I found it a mere skip and a jump away, in the tiny village of Henllan, next to our tiny village of Pentre-cwrt. There, in her little one-room studio beside her home, artist Diane Mathias plies her trade, with oils and pastels. She hangs a sign by the roadside inviting all passers-by to stop in for a peek at her art and a cup of tea. So we took her up on it. One thing led to the next, and last Friday Nicola and I signed up, with 3 others, for a 5-hour art class with Diane, using the medium of pastels.
It was both hard work and pure fun. She got us down to the task right away, no preliminaries. We each chose a photo from a thick pile she had on hand, and within minutes we were wrist-deep in the chalky residue of pastel crayons. Our hands look like we'd smeared them in buckets of condiments – mustard and ketchup and guacamole and refried beans. Diane walked around, said encouraging if vague things ("Well, that's coming along, isn't it?"; "My, that's colorful!" "That's an interesting way of depicting that tree!"), and gave pointers. Slowly, our smudges and blobs emerged into something half-way recognizable, rough facsimiles of the photographs we were working from.
The results, as you can see, are clumsy and amateurish.
But something woke up in me during it. As I struggled to capture the shapes, the shades, the hues, the textures of the picture I was trying to render, I realized how much the visual is its own language. It wants to tell a story. It wants to articulate, not just what things look like, but how they feel, what they mean, why they matter. I know that my pastel drawing captures none of this. But I sensed it. I felt its pulse. I glimpsed what skilled artists are able to convey: the deeper reality beneath the surface reality, the inner beauty that gives the outward form its mystery and its potency.
In some ways it's like worship. Art is taking the world as we find it, transforming it through sustained attention, and offering it back. It is rendering the everyday into the everlasting. It is an act both of surrender and of thanksgiving.
My first attempts at this are childish.
But I don't think the Father minds.