“Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.” ~Georgia O’Keefe
Teachers in online videos use phrases like perfectly imperfectly, loosely connected, ever-changing, uncontrollable pigment, multiple-perspectives, and negative space.
I click pause.
Dip the brush into the water. Swirl it around in the clear mason jar that used to hold apricot preserves made by a friend I have not seen in person in three months. I dab the brush into the primary color yellow. Watch the hairs soak up the pigment, and then I drag it on the paper in one long arc that will become a Black-eyed Susan I’m learning to paint. Finally. After all these years of waiting until I have studio space, I’ve decided to use our dining room table to paint. Who knows when/if I’ll ever have a studio.
During this time of complete change in our lives as we live through a pandemic, the idea of what it’s like to paint watercolor has chased me. When I first saw a Covid-19 cell in January, I thought it looked like a watercolor painting. On a normal day (as if we have them anymore) when people would ask me what I do as a creative person, I’d say I’m a writer.
Words, however, are not easy right now. Every time I try to write, I lose the thread. Drop the stitch. Thankfully I’ve written the daily prompts from the Isolation Journals, but I’ve taken a break from the books I’m trying to write. This particular prompt is to write about an idea that chases you. So here it is. Day 89: Watercolor painting.
Scrolling through social media one day, I watched a process video of a watercolor artist, and I thought back to all of the times I travelled to art museums. I’d pause longer on watercolor paintings. Prior to all of this, I used to travel for a living, and my last trip to New York City, I went to the MOMA alone. I got there right when it opened, and I remember speed walking to a few paintings I wanted to be with before the crowds gathered. Then I spent hours walking around being among the tourists, the students on school trips, elderly people in travel groups. I sat with strangers, walked, and bumped into people as I kept my eyes on the paintings sculptures.
When I stumbled upon Georgia O’Keefe’s Evening Star No. III, I stood and looked at the texture created by water in her painting. Where the color gathered. Where pigment bloomed into shape. When I think back to that day, alone in New York City yet surrounded by people, I remember thinking about how I would love to learn how to paint using watercolor pigment.
This is the idea that has chased me.
Here I am.
I’ve taken up the study of watercolor as a creative outlet that avoids words. I knit and cross-stitch while we watch TV and films, so I wanted to keep the textile arts to the time that I’m focused on the screen. For less than thirty dollars, I was able to get set up with a kit to watercolor.
The narrative of how to paint is very much like the teaching of writing, which I no longer do. A perfectly imperfect new practice that I didn’t know I desperately needed. Almost a month ago, I deleted my Facebook, I stopped going to Twitter during my breaks, and I’ve limited the time I’m on Instagram to fifteen minutes a day. Now that I’m not traveling for work, I thought I should lighten this digital engagement of mine (that isn’t work-related), and pause my use of these platforms that really do not spark joy in the endless horror that is America. I love Insta–I’m not going to lie–the concise captions and easy scroll of lovely photos. When I have let myself go beyond the fifteen minutes, I watch demos of people painting with watercolor. What a world I’ve discovered! Oh, so much to see that has nothing to do with the world.
I’m also home to see my little garden grow for the first time in four years since I’ve moved to this condo. I’ve been able to water, plant, propagate, and sit next to the flowers that are growing near my windows. Nearby frogs have kept me awake at night because they are so loud. I’ve seen the moon grow full from my home office window for seven months straight. Odd to be home for so many days in a row.
I haven’t purchased a plane ticket in six months, and I have no plans to go anywhere. Unlike a lot of people I know, who seem fine with going to public spaces, I’m quite horrified by the politicization of mask wearing. I prefer not to know which side my neighbors are on, and one of the main activities people share (at least in my circles) is getting together for a socially-distanced drink. Well, that’s not as thrilling to me as it used to be (a story for another day). Rather than seeing this moment as limiting what I can do, I’ve decided to take up some activities that I’ve wanted to do for some time but haven’t. Like meal planning where we cook stuff from scratch, freeze it, and think carefully about what’s in the pantry. I’ve been baking more, trying out new recipes, and using this time to be more in my head without worrying about the future. I’ve become a daily tea drinker where I sit down and read a chapter while I sip my tea collection. Over the years, I’ve collected tea bags from places I’ve traveled or I’ve purchased new teas before I finished the old boxes, and now I’m drinking the inventory down. I’ve splurged on one fancy tea because it’s been years since I’ve had it.
Drinking this new tea and watching leaves steep, a memory came to me from when I worked at a health food store as a cashier and we got to purchase damaged packages for 10 cents. A butcher and I would tell one another about new items. A flirty coworker game. I haven’t thought of him in years. His job was so gory and horrid; his apron was always bloody but he’d come through my line to buy a snack and let me know he put away a box of tea for me from the damaged pile. We made small talk on work breaks. He was a watercolor painter married to a woman I never met. I liked to listen to him describe his studio though I never saw any of his paintings.
If only I had met you five years ago, he said to me on my last day at the store, my life would be different. I smiled. Lied. Said I’m sure mine would be different too. I never saw him again, but I do remember how much we loved that expensive tea. How we couldn’t justify two hours of work for that purchase unless it was in the Damaged Ten Cent Pile. I spend so much money on watercolor brushes, I remember him saying. The Watercoloring Hot Butcher, I called him in my mind.
Memories float, run, as days bleed into one day and then to the next.
When I lived in California, there were always plein air watercolor painters on the trails in Point Reyes National Seashore where I liked to hike. I didn’t mind them taking up space on the trail when I hiked by. They were always quiet contemplative people standing next to their eiseles, and I would hike the trail to the coast alone in the fog or the sunlight. One time when I was returning, I caught a view of one painting with a hiker in the field wearing a purple backpack–the color of my daypack. The hiker’s backpack bled into a field of orange poppies, and the painter was shaping tiny lines of tall grass when I approached. Looks like your aura, he said without stopping his grass strokes, acknowledging me looking at his painting without meeting my eyes. Could just be the lighting I said, uncomfortable that he could see something I could not.
Whether I’m drawn to experience what I’ve always admired in others’ work or if I’m chased by this idea I can’t let go, I’m not sure. I’m on my 42nd day of trying to watercolor, and sometimes memories float to the surface, but most of the time I don’t think about anything. I love the color of the paint. The way the color runs. How the water leads the paint across the paper. The brush has a push and pull, the water has a surface tension.
I’m not really sure I know what I’m doing, but I love trying. Painting flowers as a way to take a break from the words feels like the right thing to do right now. I’ll come back to writing, but for now, I make lines and circles that resemble leaves and flowers. Perfectly imperfect.