Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Sunday Afternoon in an Art Gallery

I met someone this weekend. Someone who inspired me. I was at a senior art show on campus. What better place to find inspiration? The art pieces were exquisite. As I walked from frame to frame in the gallery, I felt overwhelmed. Perhaps due to of my own hectic lifestyle, and thinking about the things that constantly demand my attention, I was particularly overwhelmed by how much time was evidently poured into each piece.

I'm well aware that with art, time must stop. When attempting to truly capture something, there can be no time limit, only a finished product. As I leaned in close to pencil drawings, taking in every detail, every careful, disciplined stroke of lead, I had to wonder at the precision of it all. I wondered if anybody else thought of paintings and drawings in the context of time; what endurance it must require to hold the mind inside the wrist bones, thumb and index finger long enough to render, not just anything, but something so very complicated, from nothing.

I realized there was no absolute way of knowing the product would turn out as hours were invested into a single canvas. How many pieces had the students thrown away and started over again before reaching the final solution? Skill was evident here, but what of time? Time had to be a factor in the excellence, too.

I noticed the gallery held several pictures of elderly people. I admired the way the students applied the deeply set lines on the subjects' features. These faces seemed to tell stories. Old stories. There was one elderly portrait that I remember in particular. The piece was a black and grey water-based stipple (hundreds of tiny ink dots). It was brilliantly done. As my eyes moved away from the frame, I noticed an elderly woman standing, poised, with one arm extended, holding a cane. She was examining the watercolor-stipple image as well. After a moment, the connection dawned on me. They were identical--the old woman next to me was staring at her own reflection of paper and ink; she was the subject of the portrait. There was no doubting it, both had the same soft, fluffy hair, the same oval rimmed glasses, and perfectly matched creases in their facial features.

By Annie Palasinski
Strangely enough, I had heard about this woman before. She was a well known member of the community. Several of the other students at the show knew her personally. Later on that afternoon, after their initial prompting, I had the privilege of meeting her. As I looked into her face, all I could think of was her portrait. Every detail was there: the curve in her lips when she grinned, the little freckle on her left eyelid, and the delicately indented wrinkles everywhere. Her name was Ruth. I did my best to introduce myself, but she couldn't quite grasp my name. We laughed about it, I tried to explain it was normal, people had trouble with it all the time. With a warm smile, she took my hand in both of hers and said, "Now that we've met, you need to come over and visit me. I just love it when the students come by to visit." She went on to explain where she lived, that it was the blue house, not the yellow one, and also not to mind the dog who just wanted to be petted and told she is beautiful.

As I reflect back on this conversation, I wonder why I was so encouraged by a single brief interaction. Maybe it is more the idea of her that I am impressed by. Ruth was elderly. She held a certain other-wordly grace about her. Or maybe I am romanticizing too much.

I tend to mystify things. I take first impressions of people and places, and make them seem better than they really are. I idealize, I get excited for no justifiable reason, like a little girl.

Ruth was just an elderly woman. There was nothing inherently special about her. I suppose growing old is not something to look forward to, with more and more medical complications, the body beginning to ache all over, even the mind slipping away. That is the reality of life.

I know this, but I want to believe there is something more.

Something more...beautiful.

Now, I could say Ruth's sweet refinement was like the paintings and drawings hung in that gallery, a captivating product from an unthinkable length of time; but I won't. I could also say that her character, her inner joy, and her warm ora of hospitality are a cumulation of tiny, intentional choices she has made throughout her life, like small brush strokes. Yet I can't say that either. That would be too quaint. It is cliche to use the "life is a blank canvas" metaphor. This is elementary, like saying: our smallest choices in life are the individual strokes of our true identity; combined, they make up the final product of who we are. No, certainly I couldn't say any of this.

No, Ruth is simply Ruth. I nice old lady I happened to meet at an art show. I mustn't go trying to make it into anything else. I mustn't try to see the beauty, that would be childish.


What to make of her then? Ruth, closer to her own knowledge of death than any of us, and yet far more joyful regardless. No one can tell me that is not magnificent. No one can convince me there is no beauty in that--the courage it must take to face each day with joy despite the discomfort of growing old. Reader, can you imagine? No, you cannot. You cannot unless you are old.

Someday I will be able to show you these mundane yet magnificent details of life. Eventually, I will give a deeper understanding, I will give you the truth. Perhaps it's my own restriction of time, or lack of ability that limits me right now. Yet, I hope to help you one day to see what is not there, what is not written plain and obvious.

Maybe one day we will not need the blank canvas metaphor and you will understand what makes Ruth so beautiful.
“Truth has to be given in riddles. People can't take truth if it comes charging at them like a bull. The bull is always killed. You have to give people the truth in a riddle, hide it so they go looking for it and find it piece by piece; that way they learn to live with it.”― Chaim PotokThe Gift of Asher Lev