The Art of Distilling

St. Giles

St. Giles Church, Prague

Something new occurred while I was listening to a concert last month. I was in Prague. It was my first visit, and maybe it had something to do with being alone in a foreign city, pummeled with strangeness from all sides.

“There is no better way to feel part of a country whose language you are cut off from than to sit in a concert hall and listen to music. For once you understand the sounds that are coming to you, just as the natives do.” (Patricia Hampl; A Romantic Education.)

It was winter, the concert season, tickets were reasonable, and I went to no less than three the week I was there. Smetana, Dvorak, Mozart and Vivaldi in the Spanish Synagogue, so called because it was built in the Moorish style. Mozart and Dvorak at the Municipal House, “the pearl of Czech Art Nouveau,” and more Mozart and Dvorak, plus Bach (on one of the biggest classical organs ever made) at St. Giles Church, where they filmed the marriage of Mozart and Constanze in Amadeus. (Watch the clip.)

Neither synagogue or church was heated, but at St. Giles, which seemed to contain the cold of the ages, blankets were provided. I didn’t take one because the thin cushions on the 16th century pews turned out (thankfully) to be heating pads.

Music. The composer writes it, musicians play it, and we hear sound waves. Frequencies. Music is a series of vibrations. I can picture the waves darting and rippling through my energy field as the rhythms swept through me. Whether it was because I was in Prague, “the Magical City,” or because it’s rare that I attend a live concert, I seemed to be hearing on another level, analyzing my enjoyment in a different way, having a different insight into what I was hearing through this filter of music.

Filter: a device that allows signals with certain properties, such as signals lying in a certain frequency range, to pass while blocking the passage of others.

Church of St. GilesMusic was a filter. It came to me at St. Giles, where the Baroque interior dated only from the 1500s, but souls had been coming and going through the doorway of the Gothic exterior since the 13th century. Think of all the energies they’d left behind!

I wasn’t thinking of that then. I was sitting near the front watching the musicians against a background of gilded frames and pillars, the paintings and sculptures of saints and angels. There were two men and two women, all young and in black, their faces rapt in concentration. As I watched and listened, feeling my energy becoming entrained with theirs, I was aware how music manipulated my emotions, then distilled them through sound. Music was not only a filtering tool, it distilled feeling.

To Distill: to extract the essential elements of.

Artists do this with vision. We organize space so that others can see what we see. Mozart, Dvorak, Smetana, created different combinations of notes to bring up certain feelings, the same way that visual artists use line and color. Musicians, painters, poets and actors, are an intermediary between thought and feeling. Perhaps it’s no wonder this occurred to me in Prague, where I often felt I was walking through a living museum, surrounded by art and beauty with every step I took.

Art takes you out of yourself so you can more fully enter into yourself again.

I hadn’t thought how art contributes to the process of alignment simply through watching and listening, without requiring you to make it or do it yourself.

AA-Ebook-COVER-210x300I have an illustrated article, “The Painted Path,” about my own experience, which is included in the ebook, Art and Alignment by Louise Oliver. It’s about the relation of art and creativity to healing and the Journey of the Soul. But I believe there’s also a path to alignment through looking and listening to what we resonate with, distilling what we need from it. Allowing it to filter through our energy field to the deepest self.

After a little more than an hour the concert was over. The clapping was muffled in our glove-clad hands. As I rose from the pew and slowly filed out with the others onto the narrow darkened street in the heart of Prague, I thought, it’s all one in the end. Making, creating, or listening and viewing. The openness, the willingness, was all that mattered.

When you go to a concert you might think you are just going to listen to the music. When you go to a museum or an art gallery, you might think you are there just to look and observe. But depending on your willingness to be open, you are allowing yourself to be entrained to a specific mental/emotional space. And maybe into a state of alignment with your inner being.

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A Bag and a Bunch of Cards

Prague bagWomen may buy bags for all sorts of reasons, but their main purpose is a container for things we want to carry around with us when we’re out. This carpet bag made in Prague, from a real carpet woven in Prague by old ladies who lived on the outskirts of the city that I bought online fifteen years ago, was not only a container of personal possessions, it was a bag of hope. And now it was in Brooklyn, over 4,000 miles away as the crow flies, but it looked and felt Old World. And it was something physical and tangible, an actual material I could wear slung over my shoulder or clenched in my hand. Whenever I looked at its warm reds and felt its softness, I remembered my dream of one day going to Prague. Of seeing the city in person, instead of just reading about it or viewing it on you tube.

Tarot of Prague The cards in the bag I took to Prague last month were the handy plastic kind that make a dream come true, in that they got me on the plane and into the hotel. But for fifteen years, as well as the carpet bag, there had been another set of cards that were not plastic—78 of them altogether—and these were the cards that fed the dream and kept it alive. Tarot cards. The Tarot of Prague. They helped nurture the dream. In the poem, Harlem, Langston Hughes asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” He wonders, “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” He suggests other, less appetizing fates. Meanwhile, I bided my time. I waited until my carpet bag so bulged with hope that it had to become a reality.

Each of the tarot cards was beautifully illustrated with different aspects of Prague’s gothic and baroque past, as well as the more recent art nouveau. Churches and statuary, bas-reliefs and carvings, bridges, archways, stairways and buildings, placed in such a way as to perfectly address the meaning of the cards. Fortune telling cards I would learn to interpret as I pored over the imagery until it was engraved on my brain. Cards that told me as much about myself as about the city’s medieval past that unaccountably had been left standing when so many others had been whisked away by bulldozers or bombs.

For fifteen years this bit of carpet and collection of cards bought online from the same shop in Prague, were my replacements for an actual visit. While I waited I found other bags that suited my more immediate needs. I found other tarot decks to engage with, and I forgot why I wanted to go to Prague in the first place. I had never thought about Prague at all until I watched the Velvet Revolution unfolding on TV at the end of 1989. It was mesmerizing. The Berlin Wall had fallen a few weeks before, and now crowds were gathering in Wenceslas Square every night, holding lighted candles, jingling their house keys, standing in solidarity. A few years later I read that Americans had started flocking to Prague, and I thought wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could go too.

A Romantic EducationBut the fifteen-year saga didn’t really start until some years after that when I read Patricia Hampl’s, A Romantic Education, a glorious, poetic memoir of her visit to Prague in the 1970s when it was still under Communist rule. Hampl, from Minnesota with a Czech grandmother, writes,

  Perhaps, if you go to the old country seeking, as third or fourth generation Americans often do, a strictly personal history based on bloodlines, then, the less intimate history of the nation cannot impose itself upon you very strongly. History is reduced to genealogy, which is supposed to satisfy a hunger that is clearly much larger.

  But if you go on a journey like this not to find somebody, but just to look around—then, in a country like Czechoslovakia (or perhaps only there, only in Prague), the country’s history is infused with the urgency of the classic search for personal identity. The country itself becomes the lost ancestry and, one finds, the country is eloquent. Its long story, its history, satisfy the instinct for kinship in a way that the discovery of a distant cousin could not. For it is really the longing for a lost culture that sends Americans on these pilgrimages.

Hampl describes how she “…stumbled through the ancient streets, stopped in the smoke-grimed coffeehouses,” and says, “I was simply in the most beautiful place I had ever seen, and it was grimy and sad and broken.”

  The weight of its history and the beauty of its architecture came to me first as an awareness of dirt, a sort of ancient grime I had never seen before. It bewitched me, that dirt, caught in the corners f baroque moldings and decorative cornices, and especially I loved the dusty filth of the long, grave windows at sunset when the light flared against the tall oblongs and caused them to look gilded.

That was the 70s. When Hampl returned to post-revolution Prague in the mid-90s, “Not only the color of the buildings has changed, but the entrepreneurial rush, especially in the center, has created a new kind of Kafkaesque unreality.” And, “It is as if, for the new earnest visitors from the West, Prague is a stage set—the improbable dream of the baroque city where Kafka and Rilke walked in exultation and anguish—but the purpose of the stage set eludes them. They worry that they have arrived “too late,” and have expatriated themselves to a theme park. They sense that the life of the place is something quite other than the charms purveyed by the rouged-up tourist center, beguiling though they are.”

I roamed around Prague in January, avoiding the hordes of tourists, and though the streets were far from empty, I didn’t once think I had arrived too late. For me, an off-season bargain through Hotels.com was the right time. But neither Hampl or the pile of guidebooks I read, (or the fifteen years I waited) had prepared me for the unexpected tears momentarily blurring my vision. At first glance, Wenceslas Square, my first view of the city, was a garish commercial strip with giant screens advertising sportswear. But I was on a journey back through time to feel the energy of ancient stone and brick, of auras that might still linger in churches and synagogues, or medieval streets forming a labyrinth around the Old Town Square. I could see past the video screens and souvenir shops.

Praha in Czech means threshold. A place of transition between the visible world and the invisible one. That was the place I was looking for. That line, that place of transition. That threshold. The closest I came to it was in the Kafka Museum where the windows were boarded up, the walls were painted black, and a video scored with Smetana’s Má Vlast, (My Country) constantly played. It was old footage of Prague in Kafka’s day, edited with special effects revealing distorted views of tilting houses and streets closing in upon each other to suggest an altered perception, a dimensional shift. The effect I enjoyed the most was when the screen rippled as if it was under water. Scenes washed over by the waters of time. As if those of us who’d crossed the Vltava over the 15th century Charles Bridge to Malá Strana, using our smart phones to guide us to the museum tucked away on a side street called Cihelná, hadn’t had our perception altered enough.

Tarot CardsI left the carpet bag at home, and though I took the tarot cards with me, I didn’t look at them once, or even open my guidebook until the fifth day. I didn’t want to look anything up. I wanted to be in the moment, witnessing the present without comparing it to anything I’d seen before. I looked at the cards when I returned home, and realized that unknowingly I’d come upon the sights represented on the cards that were most meaningful to me. The Hermit and Temperance.

Temperance 1Temperance stands for moderation, balance, and inner peace. She had recently come up as my ‘Navigator.’ I came across the image that represents her in the tarot when I chanced to walk by the art deco façade in Široká Street in Josefov, the Jewish Quarter. Though I stopped to photograph her, I didn’t recall her image in the cards.

Nor did I remember the Hermit was standing in Golden Lane, one of the places at the top of my list to visit. The Hermit, as card number 9, represents my Destiny Number, therefore who I am in the tarot. In most decks, the Hermit was an old man with a beard holding a lantern to represent introspection, meditation, a deliberate withdrawal, and often foretells a quest of some kind.

HermitIn the Tarot of Prague, he stood in Golden Lane, known as the “Street of the Alchemists.” I knew Kafka had once lived at number 22, and the tarot reader, Mme. de Thebes, executed by the Nazis because she predicted Germany would lose the war, lived at number 14. None of the houses were known to be home to alchemists, but I’d felt an affinity to the place.

Before my trip I did a couple of watercolors of the tiny medieval houses.

I went to Prague for a week, and now it’s also a week since I’ve been home. The journey that began with a bag and a bunch of cards has shifted to an inner journey. Maybe it was always meant to be an inner journey. But how would I have known that if I hadn’t gone there first? This inner journey is about digesting the experience, integrating what I’ve seen and felt, perhaps coming up with new realizations. As I write about it, I’m already starting to see past the beauty of the sights to something deeper within. While I was there in the old city on the Vltava, I was too startled, too overcome by the views and vistas every which way I looked. But now, back on familiar ground, my inner eye has begun weaving together past and present.

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Happy New Year!

IMG_2098

“2018” by Nancy Wait, watercolor 6″x6″

And now let us welcome the New Year, full of things that never were. ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

We are only a week into the new year, and already it is full of things we might well wish never were! Politically, governmentally, executive orderly and so on…Or the weather! The bomb cyclone, and now the frigid cold!

And yet (I choose) to see a whole bunch of light beyond that door. Through that doorway, that portal of a new year that represents new beginnings. No matter if some things feel old already, and dark, there is light beyond. Lots and lots of light. I can see that too.

This is an actual door at the end of the hallway in my Brooklyn apartment. It opens into the living room, which opens into the kitchen, which opens into what once was a maid’s room and is now my office. And there the apartment ends. But there’s a window at the back, which looks out and up. As I do. And I hope you do too.

Meanwhile, keep warm!

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The Nancy Who Drew Buildings*

9th St. upper half

9th St. Park Slope, Brooklyn

I got into rendering buildings because one night I drew a candleholder. A ceramic candleholder with a reddish-brown glaze and a braided handle, not the sort of thing you’d think would launch a career drawing Manhattan real estate. But I happened to be married at the time, and my husband’s cousin bought and sold buildings, and he was over at our apartment that night. While the two of them were watching the sports in the living room, I was at my desk in the dining room practicing pen and ink by drawing a candleholder. When the cousin was leaving they had to pass through the dining room, and they stopped to see what I was working on. The drawing was almost finished by then and it wasn’t bad. That was when the cousin said, “Can you draw buildings too?”

As it happened, he’d bought a rundown three-story building on First Avenue, and all the defects—the peeling paint and chipped moldings—were glaringly obvious in the photographs. He said he would pay me twenty-five dollars if I could draw it for him in pen and ink. I jumped at the chance. I had only recently taken up art again, and no one had offered me money before. Twenty-five dollars doesn’t sound like much today, but this was 1978, when it was worth fifty subway tokens—more like a hundred dollars in today’s money.

What luck, I thought. My first commission! He said the building was on the southeast corner, so the following afternoon when it would get the sun, I took pad and pencils, plus ruler and eraser, and sat on a little stool across the street from the building, away from all the people passing by. The building was painted white, and though it hadn’t seen much love in a long time, it retained the grace and charm of an earlier age. I shut out the noise of traffic and tried not to be distracted by all the movement on a busy corner in New York City. I was so absorbed in my work I didn’t notice the bus stop on the corner, or the sudden appearance of a mass of children coming off the bus, or the little boy coming towards me until he was standing next to me, asking innocently, “What are you drawing?”

I didn’t look up. I didn’t sense any danger. I thought he was just a curious schoolboy. So, I kept my head down and went on with my work as I answered, “I’m drawing that building across the street.”

I should have looked at him. Because before I knew what was happening, he was grabbing my hand, saying, “Can I help?” Pressing down hard on my hand, he forced my pencil to make an indelible black zigzag all over the paper. Then he let go, and laughed, and ran off down the street.

The lines were dark and heavy. Even if I could have erased them, the pressure of his hand had dented the smooth vellum. The picture was ruined. Such mindless destruction astonished me. I was more upset by such wanton damage than I was by the thought of having to throw away hours of work.

The following day I returned with my husband’s Polaroid camera and never attempted to sketch outside again. It was too risky. Working indoors with no distractions went faster anyway. As I steadily improved I raised my price, and over the years I found enough clients to enable me to quit doing office temp work and earn my living as a freelance artist. This was possible in the 1980s. Commissions dried up by the end of the decade when scanners came out, followed by digital photography and Photoshop. But I had it good for a while. For examples of my work at that time, please visit my pages HERE and HERE.

Still, drawing buildings was work, and however much I came to appreciate architecture and take pleasure in it, many years passed before I thought of drawing architecture for the sheer joy of it, adding my own interpretation, such as for the Philip Johnson building on 56th Street and Madison Avenue, headquarters of the AT&T building at the time.

Fast forward to the present in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where I have lived now for a quarter of a century. I’ve had the occasional commission, but more often I’ve chosen subjects from my own neighborhood. Many are posted HERE. Then, a couple of years ago I had fresh inspiration to commemorate this landmark district when I joined The Sketchbook Project, an international yearly event where every sketchbook submitted finds permanent shelf-space at the Brooklyn Art Library located in Williamsburg. I will be teaching a drawing class there later this month, and another one in January and February. Information HERE.

Meanwhile, I think back on that ceramic candleholder with the braided handle that started it all. A candleholder with a base to catch the dripping wax as you carried it through dark rooms, lighting the way as it were. I no longer have the candleholder or the drawing I made of it forty years ago. But when I think of it now, I think of the lighted candle that was missing. The candle that even though it wasn’t there, the thought that it could be was. For what is a candleholder without a candle. And what is a candle without a light. So, even if it wasn’t there, it was lighting a new path. Setting the stage for a new possible. And I jumped at the chance.

7th Ave9th St 29th StThese are a few drawings done in October 2017. For more, please visit my FaceBook page, Painting Park Slope.

*The title of this blog, The Nancy Who Drew Buildings, is a riff on the title of my memoir, “The Nancy Who Drew,” the memoir that solved a mystery.

7th St. 2

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Filtering the World

PPW #4An art teacher once said each attempt to create an experience on canvas or paper, “is imagination reaching outward to filter the world.” This is true even if one is not seeking to ‘imagine’ anything but only ‘copying’ the entrance to the building around the corner and filtering out everything else.

Here is an entrance out of context, unrelated to the noise and rush of the city, the shifting light, the passersby. Here are only lines and shapes, crevices and protrusions. The grand flourishes and ornate details circa 1900 as they appear on a six-story apartment building in Brooklyn that overlooks the park.

You will find it on Prospect Park West between 8th and 9th Street. People go in and out or walk by it, cars and bikes whizz by. Who stops to stare and marvel at Brooklyn in the Beaux Arts style? I never did until the other day, and I only live around the corner.

The art teacher also said: “Perception is not passively given us; it is a continually expanding interaction and engagement, both mental and physical, with the world… What a writer or painter undertakes in each work of art is an experiment whose hoped for outcome is an expanded knowing.”

Exactly. By following the lines and measuring them, leaving the lights and filling in the darks, familiarizing myself with details as I seek to copy what has already been created, I’ve expanded my knowledge of what was once just another apartment building around the corner. And somehow made it my building too. It’s called filtering the world, one drawing at a time.

PPW #3So I drew the one next to it too, because they’re similar and look like a pair, and take me back to a time of grand flourishes and needless decorations of the sort that Howard Roark would have loathed… But he needn’t have worried, because who looks or notices them now but an artist who happens to live around the corner…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Personal Items: Desk

my deskNow that I’ve settled on calling the sequel, The Nancy Who Drew the Way Home, I started to think about what the concept of home means to me now. In the book it’s a metaphor for soul consciousness. It took place thirty years ago, and it’s where the story ends, in 1987.

1987 was a long time ago! The story is about how and why I became I an artist, and what happened then. In the years since then, as well as entering into motherhood, I became a writer. I live with memories of what “home” meant when I was growing up, and what it meant when I was married and raising a child of my own. Now, after spending the better part of two decades writing about the long ago past, it feels refreshing to look around me and draw and describe particular objects that represent “home.”

The first that came to mind is the secretary desk that’s followed me about for the last 40 years. It’s where you’ll find me first thing in the morning with coffee, and last place at night with tea. I will be seated on an old chair with a new cushion at this beat-up secretary desk made of yew wood.

The glass doors of the bookcase are gone. The back has fallen off too. It lies behind, gathering dust on the floor against the wall. From this drawing you can’t see the nicks or the missing pieces of molding, but it makes no difference to my writing or typing, sketching or scribbling, reading or dreaming, streaming movies or music, sometimes eating, texting, or talking on the phone.

The drawers under the drop-leaf hold treasures from the past. The framed photos on the top shelf of the child who grew up are from the past too. And in between are books and staplers and paper and envelopes and a multitude of writing instruments lounging about in their canisters. Because I’ll always remember the day long ago when the desk was new and shiny and I sat before it with a tear-stained map trying to figure out a route to the coast where I could drive my car off a cliff into the sea. And then a week after that when I sat down to write out a dream that made me realize I knew things inside. But the only way I’d ever find out what that knowledge was, was through writing or drawing. So I always made sure I had plenty of paper and the tools to mark it up with. And though I found other desks and easels for drawing and painting, the writing has mostly been done here, at this very desk that has witnessed it all.

Yew wood. Because I would. I would live and express and describe and perceive and wonder and despair, and then not despair. And wonder and express some more. Seated at this silent, stable pile of wood first seen gleaming fresh and new under a spotlight at Harrods.

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Drawing Leaves

red leavesFor this lover of fall, October can never come too soon. But alas, after only one chilly week, summer has asserted herself once more with warm humid days we haven’t quite seen the end of yet. So, though not many leaves have fallen, I managed to catch a few.

Fall has always been my favorite season. The time when everything bursts with its last beauty, as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale. ~ Lauren DeStefano

leaf drawingAutumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower. ~ Albert Camus

 

 

 

 

 

I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. ~ L.M. Montgomeryleaves

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