The artist Mary Cassatt's painting, "In The Box," (above) is one of the most noted images in regards to representation and documentation of a woman's gaze. It is not simply looking. Post-Modern and French-feminist theorist wrote much about the gaze. I prefer John Berger's critical studies on the subject. He wrote the following in his book, The Shape of a Pocket, “The impulse to paint comes neither from observation nor from the soul...but from an encounter: the encounter between painter and model: even if the model is a mountain or a shelf of empty medicine bottles.”
An encounter implies a conversation, spoken or not. I witnessed such a "conversation" last week when I put out paints, water and paper and invited the seniors to simply paint. I had no planned activity in regards to a pre-planned project. The activity was to paint. Paint they did.
However, I found myself repeatedly looking at a particular woman's art work. I watched her "converse" with her subject via eye contact and then express that conversation with her paintbrush. She was absolutely quiet, but completely engaged.
She chose blues to paint the Alaskan landscape before her. It was an overcast, foggy day. She looked down at her art, then back up and across to the channel and the mountains behind it. She repeated this eye movement a dozen or more times.
I was her assistant. I emptied and refilled her cups of water as needed.
She would stop now and again to view her painting's progress. She held her brush just above the image and then lowered its tip to make the next mark. After twenty minutes or so, she dipped her brush into black paint and signed the painting in the lower right side. She was done. She was up from her chair a few minutes later.
This is the painting she completed.
This is the scene out the window that she studied, "conversed with", as she painted.
She captured its character. This artist does not always know my name. However, she does know how to hold a paintbrush and to control the lines and the curves it makes. She knows to add details so that the presence or absence of light is noted in her brushstrokes. She was born and raised in Alaska. The landscape is timeless and so is her relationship with it.
Witnessing her paint that day drew to my mind a quote by Rumi, “Inside you there’s an artist you don’t know about… say yes quickly, if you know, if you’ve known it from before the beginning of the universe.”
Who are the artists amongst us? Are you one?