One of the benefits of reading a well written book about an artist is that the author enables us to see the world through an artist’s point of view. Such was my experience upon completing Philip Kazan’s novel “The Painter of Souls,” a historical referencing of what might have been the personal motivations behind the early fresco work of Fra Filippo Lippi.
This was not a case of “never trust a book by its cover.” In fact, it was the cover of Kazan’s book that, while attracting me in the first place, eased my way through the story’s scenarios of youthfully crude conflict. My skeptical literary intake was massaged by the cover’s visual grace, the delicate lines elevating my experience to a heightened awareness of aesthetic and humanistic properties. There was no denying that Lippo was a master of capturing the soul, as attested by the soft eye and mouth so carefully detailed on the book’s jacket (details taken from Fra Filippo Lippi’s “The Madonna and Child”, c. 1440). According to Kazan, this sense of soul was due to Lippi’s devious (and revolutionary) tendency to depict his childhood friends and relatives (all poor and unlucky) on the faces of his religious icons. In other words, noticing the soul of the street can lift the spirit to the highest of heights.
It was just a few hours after finishing the book that I found myself walking the looping path around Laguna Del Rey near Monterey, CA, spending idle time while my husband (binoculars in hand) searched a bush cluster for a rare bird. While rapidly moving around the bends and pond reeds of the trail, I saw up ahead a large, slowly moving lump separate itself into a heavyset homeless woman and her overburdened cart. My walk brought me closer and I watched the woman slowly bent over with difficulty and retrieve a small object from the underbrush, then come back to a standing position. As I quickly walked by I noted that she was tanned and leathery from the sun, her hair a short tawny tangle, her clothing dark with dirt, her age looking to be around 50, and her attention so intent upon studying the dirty rectangle in her hand (a garage-door opener?) that she seemed unaware that someone was walking closely by her on the path. As I moved on along the trail I wondered, how would Lippi have watched and taken note of the movements and shapes of that woman? I thought about how in the present day, in this moment, this woman was clearly an individual who had mastered the art of appearing invisible. How does one paint that?
More turns in the path took me alongside a disheveled elderly Asian man, beaming his laughing eyes into those of my own. I observed a yoga goddess stretched out on a blanket, her body in complete stillness as she watched the multi-cultural chaos of a soccer team nearby yell and laugh together in a number of different languages. I barely avoided being trampled by a lion-maned woman loudly voicing some type of instructions into her cell phone. In a secluded playground beyond, a lone child scrambled about on the climbing structure as her mother and aunt leaned together in distracted emotional compatibility.
Upon nearing the end of my loop, I realized that I had time to spare and ventured out onto a large viewing ramp that was partially hidden by reeds. I perched my portable stool on top of the bench in the center of the platform, balanced myself carefully on the seat, and quieted my mind so as to take in the subtle aspects of the natural environment surrounding me.
A common grackle flew in from the left, it’s black tail in full vertical sail, a clear indication that this was not a black bird, but rather the newly arrived larger relative from the southeast. Below me a floating leaf atop the opaque brown of the lake shifted into the frightened nose of a pond turtle as a gull startled it from overhead. The ripples settled and around the space of the disappeared beak a reflection of the sun blossomed from behind the shadows of cottage cheese clouds, appearing in the shape of a white globe as round as the moon. Huh? I mused. I think I have just learned something new here that most plein air painters probably know already: the sun in shadowed reflection is not necessarily always a bright glare, but can instead be seen as a visible circle of physicality, not unlike the shape photographed in a solar eclipse.
As I observed these natural phenomena I felt and heard the rumble of shopping cart wheels. The homeless woman I’d passed earlier had entered the platform and appeared to be moving to a bench behind me. She did not look up at my greeting, but from what I could hear, settled herself directly at my back, about seven feet away. I wondered if I had invaded her habitual personal domain.
Aware that my back was a reigning presence seated uncharacteristically high above her (due to my stool placed atop the bench) I turned my attention back to the lake and the shifting patterns of the silver linings reflected in the surface of the water as the sun passed in and out of visibility. Distant chatter had me looking up to tune in to three silhouetted grackles cackling in the branches of sparse winter trees on a little island about 50 yards in front of me. Louder avian laughter to my right revealed a pair of Canada geese swimming out to greet new arrivals gliding in from a narrow finger of the lake. All the while I was aware that my back was not tingling… that I was not sensing discomfort of any kind coming at me from the non-sociable lump of leathery woman huddled somewhere behind me.
Eventually it was time to leave and on impulse I decided to risk a bit of generosity. As surreptitiously as possible I pulled out my purse and rolled a bill into a tight tubal shape, enough that the amount wasn’t immediately recognizable. With the tiny wad in hand, I stood up and turned to go, taking the route that had me pass close by the homeless person.
She was seated behind her heavy cart, a private individual quietly dipping a tanned, delicate finger into a tapioca pudding mini-container, licking the white with pleasure and then dipping again. I stretched out my arm towards her, awkward in my movement, the tubal bill visible between my fingers. She unhurridly raised her eyes to my offering. Silence. I asked, “Do you want…?” She slowly reached out a sticky hand, palm up, towards me. I placed the bill carefully on the cleanest area and watched as her eyes finally slid gracefully up to mine. “Thank you,” came her voice: soft, clear, delicate, knowing, and as kind as that of the pioneer mothers who lived near me in the countryside of my youth. I voiced a quiet “you’re welcome” and moved on.
My husband joined me in the parking lot (his bird not found) and I pulled myself away from the reality of Laguna Del Rey. As we drove out of town I began thinking about Philip Kazan’s depiction of Fra Filippo Lippi. Would I be like his Lippi, and someday see images of what I had just observed appear in my future artwork? According to Kazan, it was not that Lippi set out to depict his uncouth friends as saints and angels, but that he couldn’t help but do so when he needed to formulate the required features of the saints. It was the features of his friends and family -- the souls of his down-on-luck youthful companions -- that he understood the best to represent the truthful human depth that was of upmost importance.
When any of us view a piece of art, do we see images that the artist has strategically designed to portray, or do we see what he/she couldn’t help but portray? Good writing, such as that of Philip Kazan in “the Painter of Souls,” leads the reader to ask such questions.
(Book cover image from Amazon.com.)
"Musings After PAI" contains the personal observations of the artist in Studio 26, and not necessarily those of Museum Studios (PAI) as a whole. This blog, originally "PAI on My Mind," was renamed in February, 2017.