Saturday mornings, when other teenage kids rolled over and pulled their covers up over their shoulders, Libby and I laced our shoes and walked down the hall and out the lobby of our apartment building, into the crisp morning air. Across the parking lot, down East Bruceton Road, waiting for the light to change so we could cross four lanes of traffic on Route 51, we finally paused at the bus stop until the bus to Oakland arrived with a scream and a belch of its braking system. The bus wove through the winding streets of Pittsburgh. As we came to the grassy knoll of a park in Oakland I reached my hand for the cord strung above the windows of the bus and rang the bell so the driver would know to stop. We disembarked outside the Carnegie Museum of Art and ran double time up the steps, through the front doors, then another set of doors, down the hall past our mother's favorite painting of the wood carrier, and into the wing where the auditorium was situated. We took our seats with a couple hundred other students, two from each school in the area. Mr. Fitzpatrick stood on the stage and swept his arm across the large paper tacked to his easel, explaining the proportions of the features on the human face, methodically shaping a Romanesque nose without ever needing to pause or erase anything. I took my clipboard from my bag and tried to copy him, but the face I drew did not fit on the page, and the tip of the nose went off the paper and onto the edge of my clipboard.
I have spacial issues. The things I create are bigger than the space they are supposed to occupy, at least in the world of drawing. Libby, with her glass-half-full outlook, always said positive things about my artwork that splashed off the page and onto the easel. Hers, she bemoaned, was tidy and detailed and well centered in the middle of her paper. It was perplexing to me that we were, in my mind, basically the same person, from the same gene pool and the same environment, and about the same age; but she could organize her drawings to fit well framed on a page and I…well, I was not a good planner…and a worse executer.
After I was grown and had a couple babies, my mom and I took an evening class from Mr. Fitzpatrick. I had always admired my mother's artwork, and it was a unique blessing to share time, space and purpose with my mom in an artistic space. Mr Fitzpatrick had a mantra: Look…to see…to remember. I believe, looking back on it now as I write, that he had a powerful impact on my belief that one of our deepest obligations as heavenly souls, having a human experience, is to make ourselves aware. To be conscious of what is around us and moving through us and growing or shrinking in us.
When I look around this space where I am sitting and I tell myself to use my artist eye, I see things quite differently. The curved front of the printer behind my computer, the patina on the brass encircling the face of the clock on the wall, the shadows created by piles of papers and books on my desk, the linear pattern of the stack of cards next to my pen cup; these all become visible. It is quite strange to me that when I notice these things I feel more alive. Quite strange.
As our mother aged, and her brain had taken a few hits in the neurological sense, we used to take daily rides in the car. Mom, sitting in the passenger seat, would read the street signs, billboards, store marquees…basically anything. She would read them out loud to us, her voice as pleasant and charming as if she were reciting poetry. "Speed Limit 45, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and there is WalMart. Odgen in 9.5 miles." We called her our Designated Reader. I think something inside her was remembering Fitz reminding us to look to see to remember, like if she spoke it out loud it became more real, that she was alive and incorporated with living things. We get so focused on where we are going, we dutiful humans, that we forget to notice what we are going through.
A while back I took a class from my friend Rebecca Mann, a wonderful artist and a good teacher. The class followed the textbook, Drawing From the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. What a dynamic book!
One of our lessons focused on the recognition of negative space- the space around the object being drawn. Rebecca put a small chair up on the table before us. She instructed us to look, not at the chair per se, but at the space around the chair. Then she encouraged us to draw the air around the chair. So I took my pencil and sketched the rectangle of space between the seat and the chair back, then the air around the back of the chair, and so on, until in the end, though I had drawn only the space that was not chair, the chair appeared.
It was a mind blowing experience that took me weeks to process in my brain, not so much as an artist, but as a being of divine descent. I concluded that who I am is defined as much by what I choose not to do, as by what I choose to do. My definition includes the good and bad things I avoid. And if you looked at only who I am not, you would get a pretty good sketch of who I am.
It's a worthy exercise, to make yourself attempt to draw everything but the object before you. Difficult, and liberating. Also worthy, I think, to see ourselves and others with such an artistic eye. If nothing else it keeps us on our toes, keeps us open and aware, so that one day when we have gone to our graves and left our bodies in the dust, we will have something…because we once Looked, to See, to Remember.