Saturday, June 15, 2013

Starting with Irises

Last weekend I celebrated a beloved teacher's big birthday with about forty others at Easton Mountain. To be in community for a few days with that many queer men, some old friends and acquaintances, and many more new, in a place that brings out the best in all of us, carries for me the sheer joy of homecoming. The loose scheduling of the weekend was just what I needed: events I wanted to be part of, but long stretches of discretionary time when I could lose and find myself.
Outside the main lodge stood a bed of blue irises in full riot, begging to be drawn; the art supply cabinet held a fabulous cache of watercolor pencils. For the next two days, I couldn't keep myself away from the flowers, or my hands off my sketchbook. I fell into the out-of-myself absorption I've experienced so little of for months: the kind of state that reminds me I'm not so much an artist as somebody who needs to make art in order to stay alive.
The longer you look at, and into, a bearded iris, the more seductively complex you realize it is. Unruly petals define convoluted inner spaces. Light plays across diaphanous surfaces. The scent is one of the underappreciated wonders of the floral world. The flower will utterly defeat you as you try to translate all this into lines on the page and variations of colour to suggest depth. And the defeat is the best part of the experience, the "hook" that will bring you back again and again in happy obsession to try to get it the next time. 
I spent more time drawing than I have the last six months--and still had time for the sauna, for the erotic massage exchange that was the centrepiece activity one afternoon, for reading Tarot two or three times with friends. I came away with four drawings that pleased me more or less, and with a resolve that I'd take my obsession into the studio course I'd booked for afternoons the following week.
Being a student in the studio is always a challenge for me. I don't like producing drek in front of even the most supportive of instructors. I want success and praise on the first brushstroke. Given an exercise, I'm headstrong and want to strike out with it in my own direction. I'm too invested in what I produce and in how others see it. Showing a teacher what I've thrown myself into, only to have him take it as the starting point from which he'll encourage me to depart, is a tall order. So opening my sketchbook on Monday afternoon to say, here's where I'm at, was probably the toughest moment of the whole week.
I didn't go further into the irises as I'd planned. Instead, I spent the week pulling back from them, thinking hard about the backgrounds behind them, learning how to scumble color into the negative contours along their edge, coming back to the challenge of mixing the color I saw, then letting it go in favor of the color that pleased me on the palate; practicing the dance of knowing when to press forward with a line or patch of color that wasn't working, knowing when to leave a shape as it was, knowing when simply to move on. Trips back to the flower were starting points, not the place of repose I'd imagined they'd be. The flower into which I dove turned out to be the flower within.

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