Category Archives: Painting

Rising above nature

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Good grief, it has been a long time since I last posted. I’ll do my best to get back on the wagon. My children are like kittens, and when I try to write or draw, they do the equivalent of a cat’s sitting on one’s newspaper, or knocking things off of shelves, only on a more problematic scale.

In lieu of a drawing, I present the painting above, which I love, done by my redoubtable mother-in-law. It looks like it could be a western North Carolina scene – it would look even more so if the blue trees in the background were mountains.

On to the burden of this post. It’s easy to wax idyllic about rural life. Our little vegetable gardens are producing like mad. There are pretty trees and flowers and horses and goats all around. On the other hand, there are also large snakes, spiders, and ticks; sweaty-hot days, weeds and thorns and poison ivy.

Poison ivy!  I had no idea of the hidden depths of this plant. It has settled comfortably down in our woods and has spread itself liberally. Did you know, that so much more than leaves of three which ought to be left be, poison ivy makes thick and horrifying V.O.U.S.s (Vines of Unusual Sizes)?  Hairy winding vines, some as thick as your arm (well, my arm) that climb up and choke trees? So I have learned, and we have a couple of fine specimens here, along with all their running branches. Our little homestead, if we were in England, might be named ironically “The Ivies.”

My sister and I, when we are NOT feeling the idyllic side of nature, declaim a version of Katharine Hepburn’s character’s words from The African Queen – “Nature…is what we are put in this world to rise above.”  A couple of weeks ago I went down into the woods, full of vim, to forge some trails. If you want to experience a physical analog of the dark and tortuous depths of human nature, come and visit our woods. Long neglected, it’s got scads of matted thorns, fallen logs, decay, even a dark and spooky gully. It’s given me a new appreciation for park services – and for saints.

If you want to see it you might come soon. I emerged after 45 minutes to ask my husband to get hold of a Bobcat. Untouched nature has a lot of fans, but civilization is a lovely thing, so say I.

A little Donne

A mural near downtown Asheville NC

A mural near downtown Asheville NC

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to another due,

Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

***

John Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” (also known as Holy Sonnet 14) has a vivid central conceit – the soul as a walled city, and the Holy Trinity employing a battering-ram to gain entrance. While my husband and I were on a walk this week we saw the mural above, and it instantly brought the poem to my mind.

“Good” life and “good” death

A depiction of the Battle of Agincourt from the early 15th century (Image Source)

Some months ago I contrasted the outlook of St. Therese of Lisieux, and that of St. Josemaria Escriva – the first with her “Little Way” of childlike trust in God, and the latter with his encouragement to strive (“Esto vir – Be a man!”)

Life is not easy, no matter what your path or state. St. Therese’s way seems attractive – it is attractive. Sometimes I wish God would sweep me up in His arms and clean up my overwhelming messes for me while I sleep. At times He does just this. However, sometimes I find myself wishing life would just stop – that the striving could be done. St. Therese, who endured many pains of body and mind, would not advocate that.

I was reminded this week of King Henry’s St. Crispin’s day speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V.

[G]entlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks,
That fought with us upon St. Crispin’s day.

Of all the teeming billions of human beings ever created, just a relative handful of us are here, now, living out our brief span, assailed by “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Life is a battle – but I think we are meant to be in it and not out of it – falling down, and getting up again and again as long as we can, until the end.

Lately many have been reading and thinking about Brittany Maynard, the young American woman who chose euthanasia after receiving a fearful medical diagnosis. It was written of her that she “loved life.” That’s just it though – did she love life (not that that is easy) or a limited part of it? Euthanasia means “good death”. What is a good death? What is a good life?

Can you fight like a soldier but have child-like trust? I think, yes. It’s hard to say which part is more difficult.

Speaking of living clay

We are, not metaphorically but in very truth, a Divine work of art, something that God is making, and therefore something with which He will not be satisified until it has a certain character. . . Over a sketch made idly to amuse a child, an artist may not take much trouble; he may be content to let it go even though it is not exactly as he meant it to be. But over the great picture of his life — the work which he loves. . . he will take endless trouble — and would doubtless thereby give endless trouble to the picture if it were sentient. One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumb-nail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less.

-C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Finding peace

"The Crown of Peace", by Sir William Blake Richmond - according to Wikipedia he was named for the poet and artist William Blake, who was a friend of his father's.

“The Crown of Peace” by Sir William Blake Richmond – according to Wikipedia he was named for the poet and artist William Blake, a friend of his father’s.

“You will nevah – evah – make everybohdy happy. There is only one whose opinion you should worry about, and that one is God.”

I appreciate very much this advice from an African priest, which he delivered with an emphasis that made me think it must have been a lesson he learned well, probably painfully, through personal experience. It is important for me to remember, as I am easily affected by the opinions of others; and remembering it often helps me to find peace.

Leonardo da Vinci on painting vs. poetry

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You say that a science is correspondingly more noble to the extent that it embraces a more worthy subject, and accordingly, that a spurious speculation about the nature of god is more valuable than one concerned with something less elevated. In reply we will state that painting, which embraces only the works of God, is more worthy than poetry, which only embraces the lying fictions of the works of man. – Leonardo da Vinci, Trattato della pittura (“Treatise on Painting”)

We have in our library a collection of the writings of Leonardo da Vinci, which includes various passages wherein he defends painting against those who maintain that as a mechanical art it is inferior to the liberal arts. I can’t say that I agree with all of his arguments placing painting above poetry, but one has to admire the energy with which he defends his beloved art.