I’ve been drawing old junipers this week, beautiful silvery twisted trunks and weathered branches curling and bending in such elegant shapes.
This afternoon, late, I decided to scout for trees to draw on telegraph pole bench, up a crumbly sandstone track to a flat top, lined with telegraph poles. The track meanders along the bench top’s narrow spine, graced with beautiful views on each side…. But today I was looking at the junipers.
My usual brisk walk became a thoughtful stroll, and the stroll turned into a visit to a fantastic art show. Such beauty! Such variety of unending wonderful shapes and elegant silhouettes. Once you start thinking of junipers, and not the path, an infinity of wonderful sculptures greet you.The late afternoon sky was hazy, so the light was oh so soft. The trunks of these old weathered junipers were such a sweet, gentle range of grays and browns, their branches wonderfully expressive raising skyward. And oh, what delicate fine textures too.
I wandered around utterly taken with their quiet beauty. The clumps of grass and the lava rock also looked so sweet and gentle in this low hazy light. Suddenly EVERYTHING looked so lovely…the grasses against the darkened trunks, the blue green sage and coyote mint, the orange lichen gleaming on lava rock, the pale creamy orange earth… It all took on a magical feel as though I was in a different world, just a step away from this one, a world imbued with light/life glowing from within.
Some old junipers had worn down to just a foot or two and others looked like ancient explosions, huge limbs splayed outwards from their center. There were wonderful peelings too of soft gray looking like wings or fur.
I caught myself wishing I could become an old juniper when I die…to melt down to bare bones and reach to the sky in some wonderfully expressive way and slowly grow more and more delicately silver and more finely textured and then, to slowly peel away and melt ever so slowly and gently into the earth.
It’s unprecedented! I drove part way to St. George this morning, had my appointment, and drove the four hours home, arriving around 4 o’clock. Usually I’m spent after so much driving, and wouldn’t dream of not resting, at least for a while. But the afternoon was so utterly beautiful, the light so clear, fall at it’s finest, that I decided I must go out and work on a pastel drawing, in large part too because …it wasn’t windy! Recently, the wind has not been kind to painting a large pastel on paper mounted on light foam board at a canyon’s edge. I needed to take advantage of this uncommon calm.
Weeks have gone by with only a few days of being able to work on this three foot drawing and even then needing rocks in my knapsack, hung on the easel for ballast. I associate mid September onwards for several weeks with the idyllic sweet light, clarity , calm, and temperature that allows for making big paintings. Not so this year, nor I think the last, though still I waited with longing all through the hot summer for this magical time to come. So I was unusually galvanized and collected my gear and set off. I arrived at canyon’s edge and set up my easel with just an occasional breeze.
I was amazed at how different the shadows and shapes were, outcrops appearing that had been in shadow and others having disappeared into the shade. And the relationships all seemed a bit off…was it through the eyes of fatigue? Was what I was seeing now more truthful? I found my drawing to be wildly inaccurate. It’s amazing how the eye will see what it wants to, the unconscious shifting of masses to fit them on the page. I was sure that some of the changes were due to the passage of time, but the ancient rock isn’t so fickle. My eyes and desire however are. I had managed to squeeze a very long series of undulating rock formations into a space way smaller than what I was seeing now. And it had looked good too! So now I was utterly confused. Somethings needed to remain as they were, and others I changed…but of course in my haste I forgot my eraser. I wonder what I’ll see next time!
ps. Days later I am here typing this from a yellow legal pad where I had hastily scribbled these thoughts that evening….because it’s too windy to paint!
another ps. I am never quite comfortable calling a pastel drawing a painting, as I feel I am drawing, not painting, with color. However I’ve gleaned from art magazines that pastels are called paintings, so I interchange the two terms….
I hadn’t been to Long Canyon for quite a while. The gnats are so bad in the late spring that I scratch it off my list of places to draw in. But it was time to revisit this wonderful canyon of massive orange-red walls, the coolness of the canyon shadows calling, and so I went and was utterly amazed at it’s incredible beauty. That’s happened before, that I’ve forgotten how amazing Long Canyon is. I guess like horrible pain, one can’t really remember the experience of utter beauty. Lovely to be awed anew.I thought it would be fun to do a series of small vignettes of the rock walls, their patterns of light and shadow. Long Canyon is so rich in color and texture, holes and blotches, whirls, fissures, cracks and stripes, not to mention slabs of pink orange rock arranged every which way, looking like they’re in arrested motion.What a lovely way to spend the morning before the shadows recede. It hasn’t been crowded in August and so I was mostly undisturbed by cars.
I’ve a new dog now, Gus, who is almost 5 months old. He has proven to be a fine companion who doesn’t wander too far and comes when called and who has a healthy dislike of cars. There’s a wash in Long Canyon right next to the road and it is a lovely place to wander and mostly one forgets the road is there. So after drawing,we take a walk.
This morning I set up and started to draw. There was quite a bit of insect activity and two large black bumblebees danced by mating in a wonderful loopy dance. Then a primeval creature landed on my car, like an extraterrestrial hornet with a long black body and orange wings.Yikes!
It flew away and I became absorbed once more in drawing.But then suddenly it was flying right towards me, the orange wings like fire backlit by the sun. I jumped up and away, scattering all the pastels (I have a set on my lap). It swerved off. Whew! I’ve ruined a number of pastel sets when they fall off my easel stand due to wind or the cross bar holding the pastel tray becomes unhinged or whatever other mishap, and generally I rail at the heavens before getting down on my knees to pick them up. But somehow this time I didn’t get angry. I knew I would do the exact same thing should such a flying fearsome thing zoom towards me again.And so I salvaged the broken pastels and continued drawing and mostly finished what I was doing. I was quite pleased at my equanimity though it would take hours to reassemble a set again. At one point a dragonfly passed close by, about the same size as my nemesis, and I thought it interesting that my reaction was entirely different than to the new flying creature I’d spotted.
After drawing Gus and I took our walk in the wash and I felt rewarded by the wonderful descending trill of canyon wrens singing to each other across the canyon.
Back home I googled what I’d seen and was amused to see that it was called a Tarantula Hawk Wasp. A fearsome name for a fearsome looking wasp! Also it has quite a sting….The following is an excerpt from The Sting of the Wild by Justin O. Schmidt.“Stung by a tarantula hawk? The advice I give in speaking engagements is to lie down and scream. The pain is so debilitating and excruciating that the victim is at risk of further injury by tripping in a hole or over an object in the path and then falling onto a cactus or into a barbed-wire fence. Such is the sting pain that almost nobody can maintain normal coordination or cognitive control to prevent accidental injury. Screaming is satisfying and helps reduce attention to the pain of the sting. “
So if flown at again I shall again jump up and I just might just scream …..
It is so nice to be out again, backpack full of pastels and my lightweight easel, though sorely missing Sophy, who always accompanied me on my painting jaunts. Scouting a few days ago I found a great vantage point to peer down into Dry Hollow from. I was happy to start a new drawing there the next day. The short hike to my spot is through red earth, peach pink sand, cryptogamic soil, past beautiful old silver tree roots, down mini orange washes and loose stones, over gorgeous gray slickrock mixed with all manner of rose and peach with wonderful blodges and patterns of lichen. It’s an art show just getting to my painting site.
Today, just as I parked the car, some light clouds covered over the sun, muting the shadows so clearly defined in the sun. I almost left then and there but decided I could at least get some of the placement of shapes on paper in. The first day had been bad enough! First I forgot an essential part of my easel and had to return to the car halfway to my destination, then again I did the same trip for the sunscreen and finally arriving at my site I realized I didn’t have my hat. Clearly I’d forgotten my regular drill over the winter. I persisted albeit squinting. But today I have all my gear, and to my delight the sun did come out sporadically to show me the wonderful shadow patterns in Dry Hollow. It was a bit gusty so I put a large rock in my knapsack and hung it on the easel for ballast.
Suddenly my pastels just dropped to the ground scattering. Some movement of mine together with the wind must have mysteriously unhinged the crossbar of the easel, which had the pastel tray attached.
And yes I screamed! and railed at the heavens, before getting down on hands and knees to gather the scattered and broken pastels . Then I thanked myself and the universe that I had my army knife with me and could rescrew a few needed screws to hold the tray in place. Equanimity restored, I continued drawing. Gusts would interrupt my work occasionally, but the sun was now out, a cause for celebration. Finally though I gave up, defeated by the wind, but happy to have had some time to draw in this beautiful spot. And then as I was returning to the car the wind became calmer, another cause for gladness as carrying a large piece of foam core, my drawing board, in one hand during windy weather is NOT easy. I got lost for a while in the beauty of the amazing sandstone swirls and lichen patches and spots as I meandered back to the car, and even saw my first blooming locoweed. It’s spring!
Sophy and I are lying under a blanket in the yard.It’s an absolutely gorgeous October day. She’s dying. Periodically tremors run through her body. I can’t quite imagine life without her, my boon companion, travel partner, painting buddy, and the being with whom I can exclaim on the beauty of the day and bid sweet dreams at night. And so I’ll write while she dozes, one beautiful velvet gray black ear sticking out from under the blanket, eyes almost closed, nose cuddled against my side.
Sophy came to my ex husband and I almost fifteen years ago, one January evening. Tim opened the door with his arm crooked and within was a teeny teeny puppy, just four weeks old. She spent her first night with us tucked in bed, between our heads. She was such a pleasure to watch grow up, a blue ball fetcher and tugger and teddy bear thwacker. One of our games was to throw a teddy over the kitchen wall into the living room where Sophy waited, head up, to catch it and give it a vigorous thwacking. We could do this for hours, generally involving a tug of war when she returned the teddy to the kitchen for another go.
I hope as she gently departs that there will be a moment at least when she relives running like the wind up and down slickrock waves, one minute at our feet and the next on the skyline, eyes unclouded, hearing acute, and hips free of pain.
Sophy would accompany my on my painting jaunts and was an expert at relocating the site I’d been working at the day before, knowing just which juniper, on a long ridge of junipers,was the right spot. As a youngster, she’s flop down and sigh and harrumph dramatically if I was drawing in the car too long. In recent years though she’d gently snooze patiently so I didn’t have to feel guilty about her enforced inactivity.
Five years ago I got Aphrodite, my vintage Toyota RV, and I made a bed seat for her in the front passenger seat and as soon as I reached for my pastels, she’d sidle onto her seat. She liked Aphrodite better than the car and was eager for a jaunt even last week.
And now to continue after sweet Sophy has died….
One thing that made me laugh aloud as I was lying with Sophy that last afternoon was the remembrance of her in her prime ball catching days. She’d lie down and wait for me to retrieve the ball and when I’d ask her “where’s the ball?” without moving her head she would swerve her eyes and stare pointedly in the ball’s direction.
That last ride in Aphrodite, Sophy no longer raised herself up to look with eagerness out the window to see what was going on but lay her jaw on my hand, which was holding the gear shift. And so we’d gently do a gear shift dance, her jaw moving along with my hand as I changed gears.
Sophy gradually slowed down in the last several years, first with her arthritis growing worse, and then sight and hearing became impaired so our walks became sniff/strolls. The scent still always a pleasure.Sophy loved lying outside at night sniffing the night air and keeping an eye on things. Our relationship became less about activity and more about companionship. Even in the last week, when it was hard for her to rise, if I drove off she would hobble up the path to lie in wait for me to return. So when I drove in, Sophy’s wonderful crooked eared silhouette was there to greet me, always looking glad that I was back. And towards the end, When she could no longer do the stairs, she would get me out at night to marvel at the night stars and make our way around the house with a flashlight to the bedroom below.
I have felt Sophy’s presence but so miss her beautiful gentle brown eyes and velvet ears and wonderful swishing white tail. So my dearest Sophy, thank you so very much for all of the precious years of love and companionship, teaching me unconditional love, and what being in the now is all about.You will always be in my heart.
How nice to reminisce on this white snowy monochrome day, on the glorious autumn colors and red earth, and the burbling of rushing water down by the creek. For years one of my favorite drawing/camping spots was down a red dirt road on the other side of the mountain. I’d never known there was a creek at the end of it until my sister and I walked the road last fall. I was surprised and delighted when we reached a stream, and that despite bumps and rocks, twists and turns, Aphrodite would be able to make it down the road. And there was even a lovely flat spot to park and camp.
The first time I camped there, the cottonwoods were still a bright green. I kept seeing new drawings I wanted to do as the shadows crept across the scrubland backed by siena red cliffs. On that trip though, someone took my camping table and chair when I was out exploring. So this next time I decided to stay put and not investigate the fall color elsewhere. I’m now grateful to the thief for giving me such a lovely, long, and peaceful day in one place. It was mid September and the leaves had started to turn. The combination of the green and yellow leaves with the gray blue-green of Russian olive and the red rock and pink-orange sand under the blue blue sky was breathtaking. Sophy snoozed while I enjoyed drawing by the running water. The day stretched on luxuriously.
Such a wealth of visual wonders kept changing as the day progressed. There’s an old fence there that I want to get get back to. Time has caused some posts to lean, some to drop, some to turn silver and others black-brown. It has changed spaces and angles. From man made and functional, nature has created yet one more splendid piece of art.
Sophy, my travel and painting companion of many years, is an old dog now. She’s always loved the extended dog bed I made in Aphrodite’s front passenger seat with plywood and foam. She squeezes through the two front seats to her bed as soon as I reach for my pastels. There’s a console between the seats with round holes for coffee and a big square one for pens etc. This trip she stumbled and caught her leg in one of the indentations and became leery of her beloved bed. I helped her in in the evening, saddened by yet one more limitation for her. But in the morning, lying on my bunk, I had a brain wave. I filled all the holes with dirt. And Tada! Sophy was able to come and go unassisted, though Aphrodite’s rug is turning red.
The next day turned overcast, so my unfinished pastels were not to be completed on that trip. I would need to return soon. Yipeee!
This is a lovely article about my show at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, which is on through February 14th..
‘Dialogue with Beauty’ written by Ann Weiler Walka
This winter, landscapes from the heart of the Colorado Plateau, the broken and beautiful terrain north of the Colorado River, fill the Museum of Northern Arizona’s Fine Arts Gallery with sunshine blazing on sandstone and the chill of canyon shadow, monsoon’s operatic clouds, February’s smoldering willows , and, everywhere, pristine high country light. The work of Scotty Mitchell, referred to by MNA curator Alan Petersen as one of the most exciting landscape artists working on the Plateau today, transforms the gallery into a wild world, at once dreamlike and rooted in place. The show is entitled ‘Dialogue with Beauty.’
After two fleeting visits with Scotty in her studio in Boulder, Utah, a hamlet tucked in a lush valley at the foot of Boulder Mountain (a favorite stop of mine when I was wandering the Escalante country doing ‘field work’ for a new book) , I came to stay with her for a few days in May. When I pulled up in her dirt driveway, late one afternoon, she was out racing the light, a practice of hers when she works on a drawing too large or complex to finish before the shadows shift.
Scotty often strides into the high desert with her dog Sophy, an unfinished drawing carefully tucked under her arm, to find the easel she stowed under a juniper a day or two before when the view screamed ‘that’s it.’ Sophy circles into a favorite bit of shade, and Scotty triangulates on the drawing underway, matching the light now to the light and shadow on the paper. Large pieces often take days or weeks to complete, but every drawing is finished outdoors, in its birthplace.
The morning after I arrived, Scotty took me hiking into a wilderness of slickrock above Boulder Creek. Together we climb a hill made of silica and light, skirting the crypto, greeting familiar spring flowers whose names we forget. Sophy sniffs at shrubs in the beetle-stitched pools of sand, and we humans marvel at a slant of stone splashed with lichen, a tapestry in rust, fiery orange, pale gray-green. On a high dune we sit gazing at a far blue escarpment and closer convoluted stone. The silence away from the road, as Scotty notes in a blog, is ‘heavy with potential.’
I scribble and Scotty sketches, just playing today, deftly capturing a stack of cream and coral-colored strata. Her practiced eye – the eye of a sculptor, I assume, fascinated with form and heft – quickly deciphers the topography of the rock face while in her quiet mind she perceives the textures of stone and lichen, the temperature change from sun to shadow, subtle shifts in color when a raft of vultures drifts through the cobalt sky.
There’s no drawing from that day in the quiet off white gallery, but the passion for beauty and the decades of practice with brilliantly colored pastels wrap around me when I visit on a January morning. In drawing after drawing , the color is so richly and meticulously applied that surely I could call them paintings. A remarkable union of abstract patterns of form and color and the deep particularity of a specific escarpment, a familiar juniper, a sky that places me precisely in a season and a time of day, urges me to gaze and daydream. Even if I had never visited Scotty’s terrain, I would want to linger.
Geology verges on poetry here; the wide sweeps of white, wind-swirled slickrock, sheer terra cotta cliffs and shell pink monoliths both charm and convince. A handful of paintings capture the gifts of scarce water in dry country: willows flushed orange in the early spring, the cottonwood extravaganza of late fall and their naked filigree in winter, the shimmer of young aspens on the snowy mountain. Three small drawings evoke winter in Boulder town, the black cows and hedgerows nearly swallowed by clouds in countless shades of gray. Aphrodite, a boxy little vintage RV with a custom picture window, carries Scotty, Sophy and the pastels up on the mountain or down the Burr trail when it’s too inclement to work outdoors. This woman can’t not go out to draw.
Stunning as the country’s landforms are, Scotty’s skies can be even more captivating: those blues from winter pale to turquoise to lapis lazuli to deep October cobalt. In the monsoon paintings, the drama of the desert storms and the intensity of the artist who calls herself a ‘cloud chaser’ electrifies the paper. Scotty writes about driving around, aching “to capture all of those wondrous clouds that leap and dance and hover and disappear.” The quality of her attention, the commitment to being there, the years of drawing allow her to be in her own words “quick, quick, quick and enter that zone of being on one’s toes and fully present… And then some magical times I am able to abandon thought and run on heart and intuition.”
Scotty’s dialogue with beauty offers us a look at a deeply informed sensibility, a lively mind and a passionate heart, along with the remarkable stone and sky and light of the Plateau country. Any visitor to the gallery may join in the conversation.
The exhibit ‘Dialogue with Beauty’ is on at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff through February 15th. Scotty will be at the exhibition on February 14th at 2:00 p.m. and will be happy to answer any questions.
About the Author
Ann Weiler Walka explores and writes about the backcountry of the Colorado Plateau, both the tangible terrain and the landscape of the imagination. Her book Walking the Unknown River: Travels in Escalante Country is a collection of poems and stories from the heart of the plateau province. Most recently she was invited by master photographers, Don Kirby and Joan Gentry, to collaborate in making The Anasazi Project.
Monsoon season always has me gasping at beauty in every direction.My profession in these rainy months is a cloud chaser. Generally I start a ton of drawings of storms and fast moving skies and feel fortunate when I finish any of them.
A few days ago I started one drawing, with the Henry Mountains a deep dark blue under a layer of clouds. The next day when I went to work on it, and one, the Henrys were in sun, creating an entirely different picture, and two, a man on an ATV was there and told me a truck would be loading ATVs where I was parked. He added that they’d be done in no time. And so I wandered off in range of my site and then became intrigued with another view and happily started yet another drawing.
So today I drove up the mountain hoping to finish one of the two drawings, having a choice of the Henrys in sun or in shade, but after driving fifteen minutes I was enveloped in the kind of rain where your windshield wipers are pretty useless and the sky is without a gleam of clouds breaking anywhere. I turned around, plotting to go south later in the afternoon. I thought I’d take Aphrodite* who has the advantage over the car in that I can recline and read or make a cup of tea while waiting for the sky to amaze me once more.And I was glad I did , because the skies on either side of the Hogsback were breathtaking.
I had loaded Aphrodite with several unfinished drawings from last year, and was glad I was able to work on one of them…but then the clouds became so utterly spectacular on the other side of the road, that I was helpless to resist starting another drawing. And so the monsoon season goes. May it last for weeks!
Living a Still Life
I’ve been having a peruse into the past, and found this article by my friend Louise Steinman, who visited me on Crete several times over the 20 years I was there. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
Peace on Earth; Living a Still Life; On the Island of Crete, Sharing an Artist’s Vision
By Louise SteinmanWashington Post
December 20, 1992
Three hours to go until the ferry leaves Piraeus. I ponder a snapshot of an old stone house, painted robin’s-egg blue. It’s the only blue house in Gerani, the village in Crete where my old friend Scotty lives. The color of the house is a clue to its inhabitant’s calling.
Scotty is a painter of landscapes and still lifes. Crete has been her home for the past 15 years. At 26, alone, she decided to settle on the island. She’d fallen in love with the landscape and figured it would be a cheap home base for a painter. She picked a village in the mountains, Spili, and moved there. I don’t know how she ever had the guts.
From my secure vantage point at the time, I followed her life’s choices with awe. She was the first foreigner ever to live in Spili. She had an affair with a villager who still lived with his parents. “I was too young and too in love to care about the scandal,” she says now with a laugh. They’d meet at a designated spot outside the village. She would climb on the back of Manolis’s motorbike (papaki, or “little duck”) and they would zoom off in the balmy night air to summer festivals in nearby villages. One night, after she told him it was over, he broke down her front door. Great stormy stuff. I’m sure the villagers were delighted with the drama.
Seven years ago Scotty bought the house in Gerani. She has a large room under the house (meant for goats) for her painting studio. In letters over the years she has sounded happy. Poor, but happy. She’s been able to support herself as a painter of landscapes and still lifes, selling her work at galleries in Europe.
A truckful of unhappy billy goats are loaded onto the ferry beside mine. The sounds of their raucous discomfort accompanies me as I wander into the crowded lounge. The ferry is full. Everyone smokes, right under the “no smoking” signs. A Gypsy man walks through the lounge, lifting his shirt to show a long scar. He carries a scrapbook documenting his misfortune. A few people give him drachmas.
I am hoping to find in the quiet of fall in Gerani an antidote to my frenetic life in Los Angeles. What better way to understand a still life painter, than to live in the still life?
Early morning, Souda Harbor. I hope I told Scotty the right date. Then, standing at the rail, I see her waving. She’s a sturdy woman with strong handsome features. If you didn’t know otherwise, she could pass for Greek, her skin bronzed from years of painting outdoors. How did it happen that we were 16-year-olds at a girls’ school in L.A., and then we were 30, and now we’re two 40-year-old women grinning and hugging each other on this dock in Crete? Our faces are traced with the experiences of the years – losses and loves. We have more gray hair.It’s early and we are both bleary and excited. We throw my bags into the purring 20-year-old Toyota and lurch off for Gerani via Chania, the nearest large town.
Clustered on the street corners in Chania, Eastern European men (Albanians, Bulgarians, Yugoslavs) eye the passing traffic, hoping for work as day laborers. They are a new feature of the urban landscape here, as ubiquitous as the Oaxaquenos on the street corners of L.A.
It is a hair-raising 30-minute ride from Chania to Gerani. The locals are not hesitant about passing, even on blind curves. Scotty finally noses the Toyota down a precariously narrow road, stopping in front of the blue house of the snapshot. I walk down the dirt path, an orange kitten ambushing my shoelaces. The terrace is graced by blooming succulents and shaded by a fig tree. In the distance, the sea.
The old stone house has “potential.” Wood floors and high ceilings. Two rooms above the studio, visible through the holes in the floor planks. Scotty gives me her bed in the room that looks across the valley to Gerani.
While she makes lunch I nibble a few wrinkled black olives in a ceramic dish on the round table. They are dry, but tasty. Scotty shrieks in alarm when she notices. I am eating her morning still life.
It takes a little while to get used to the amenities of the blue house. The bathroom consists of an outhouse in the olive grove. It’s important to button your pants before emerging, because the bright blue outhouse is next door to old Costas’s bean field, and he might be hoeing his rows. The “bathtub” consists of plastic buckets; indoors is just a cold tap. Taking a bath is an elaborate ritual of heating water, hanging up tablecloths in the windows with clothespins so no one can peer in. You stand in one plastic bucket and pour water from another bucket over your head.
A cock starts to crow mid-afternoon, igniting another across the valley. The milk goat chimes in. A man calls across the village for his mother to make him coffee. He sounds fairly hysterical. Scotty calls him “The Voice.”
Gerani at Night
We walk down the hill behind the blue house into Gerani, carrying empty plastic jugs to fill with wine at the kafenion. We pass an old woman, Calliope, and her niece Nauseca, a friendly pudgy girl with a little beard on her chin. Scotty says she is “not quite right.” The two of them are on their way from the cemetery – the memorial day for a friend who died 40 years ago. They carry little buns and a bag of sweets (kolyva) eaten at memorials. They insist on giving me a handful: cinnamon, sugar and corn.
Today was our first expedition. Scotty wants to show me some of the villages where she’s painted over the last years. I am fascinated to see how she chooses a landscape subject. There are practical considerations, like where to park the car. There’s the foreground, the background. There are certain colors that call out to her. There is above all the light. The site must be accessible each day at the same time. “The conjunction of things has to hit you just right,” she explains. “They have to scream `that’s it!’ and sometimes it happens in the middle of the road. Or a storm blows off two branches and you realize the magic is gone.”
When she scouts for sites, Scotty stands for a long time staring: a cluster of trees; the slope of a hill; stones artfully mortared into an old wall; a series of flat red roofs. Her love of this place is intensified by her close attention to its physical details. Her eye is constantly searching for beauty in the wild, melancholy Cretan landscape. Autumn is the season for wild heather. Wild black goats clamber over the lavender clumps, luminous against the red rocks.
We eat our picnic of bread, feta and olives at a small Byzantine chapel. The door to the chapel is open. Tiny silver votive offerings of hearts, hand, feet and breasts stud icons of St. George slaying the dragon. The chapels are frequently locked now, says Scotty, because villagers fear desperate Albanians will steal the donations.
Suddenly we are rocked by an explosion. They are dynamiting the hillside down below the church. That’s how they break up rock when they want to build houses. The Greeks are fond of dynamite. Though it’s illegal, they still fish with it sometimes, setting off a charge, then netting the dead fish that float to the surface. The use of dynamite accounts for a number of accidents each year, and is one reason (the other being World War II and the civil war that followed) that you see men in the villages missing several fingers, an arm or a leg.
On days when we stay home, the day separates into two working sessions, punctuated by lunch (a good salad with olive oil from Scotty’s grove). She works on a morning painting and an afternoon painting, trying to hurry and finish the second so we can eat at the dining room table. The table is currently arranged with bowls of eggplants and red peppers, which give up more of their essence to the atmosphere each day. In short, they’re rotting.
I’m tantalized by human scenarios suggested by the configuration of objects in Scotty’s paintings. It’s like seeing the stage before the players enter. Might there be a lover lying on the bed beyond the doorway, illuminated by slanting late-afternoon light? I sense the hand that will reach for an olive in the brightly patterned metal can. I conjure a relationship between two sisters suggested by the fragile blue airmail envelope lying on the table next to a vase of chrysanthemums. I smell fragrant Greek coffee brewed with those long-handled copper coffeepots hung on the wall by an unseen inhabitant. A straight-backed wooden chair looks alert and ready for the weight of a human body. These objects are invested with life and delight.
The morning rain stops and we walk through Modi, the upper village. We pass village men sitting outside the kafenion in the late-afternoon sun. I keep my eyes to myself, listening to the click of their worry beads. The landscape is ecstatic after the rain. The new grass under the vineyards is as green as the vines. The canopied and carpeted enclosure is an inviting, secret space. Handsome speckled hens peck busily in their yards. Fragrances of citrus, urine, manure.
The morning painting in which the dining room table figures is finished. Tonight we eat our lentil curry there.
We load up the old Toyota with Scotty’s easel, watercolors, pastel, oils, charcoal and canvas, my typewriter, sack of books and writing supplies. I write in the car, gazing off at a soft landscape of olives, figs, oaks, just this side of the awesome Preveli Gorge. We visited Spili this morning, after spending the night in a coast town. Spili is known for its running mountain waters, which flow out of the stone mouths of 19 lions in the town square. There is a saying, “If once you drink the water of Spili, you will always come back.”
Scotty knows everyone in the town. The old men in the kafenion, the kafenion proprietor, the cafe proprietor’s wife, the man digging ditches near the main square, the cobbler, the baker. As we walk the little alleyways up the hillside, people stop to talk, their faces light up when they recognize her. It’s been 10 years. The yiaya (grandmother) in the grocery store insists on serving us local raki, distilled from mulberry leaves. Raki burns the lips, and according to the grocery lady, Vangeliou, curls the hair on your chest.
Two days of rain knocked down several walls in the village, and two men, one quite old and bent, attempt to fix them. The old man recognizes Scotty. “Did she ever marry?” he asks. “Yes, and widowed.”
“Will you marry again? I’m available,” says the old man. Scotty manages a smile. As we walk away he yells, “I will kill myself for you!”
Plakias, on Crete’s southern coast, is our “home base” for a few days. The souvenir shops are empty, the restaurants close down day by day. A howling wind outside. A poignant desolation. A resort town without the tourists is a surreal environment. An armada of fat geese struts around, letting loose with the most unholy screeches. No newspapers in this town, a remote outpost. The eerie wind is conducive to writing but not to painting landscapes, which is what Scotty is doing somewhere. I wonder if she has been hoisted aloft by her easel.
Distant Selia (near Plakias)
The only people left in this town, besides the few villagers who work here (all of whom Scotty seems to know) are all young Germans. One can imagine, at dinner, that one is in Bavaria. The package tours end in a few days. Because Crete has staked its economic future so thoroughly on tourism, when the last package tour ends, most coastal towns really shut down. There aren’t even restaurants open for the villagers, for whom a Sunday meal at a restaurant used to be a regular ritual. Instead of living rooms where families gather, one sees a solitary grandpa watching TV in a barren hotel lobby.
In the one restaurant still open, an old Cretan teaches a German tourist how to eat snails. You tap them with a fork, then suck hard. That’s how the Cretans survived the war, eating snails.
This early Sunday morning we drive from Plakias through the Preveli Gorge to its end on a steep cliff, the waves of the Mediterranean Sea slamming below. The wild gorge with its uncanny wind has been Scotty’s favorite place to paint, and her favorite spot to roam, ever since she moved to Crete. The stark landscape has always inspired her.
The locals call Preveli “Hands Clapping Gorge,” for the sound the wind makes. The old Preveli Monastery hugs the rugged slopes of this isolated landscape. Besides a few sheep, the magnificent old stone buildings are deserted. I’m surprised when a bearded man appears, in pullover and trousers. He is a priest caretaking the monastery for the weekend, and he invites us into his quarters for coffee.
The Preveli Monastery
The priest and his cohort invite us for coffee, but ply us with raki. The one with the dancing eyes surreptitiously fills my shot glass while I talk to the other toothless one. Five glasses of raki before noon! These two rascal priests admonish us to “love life, every minute of it!” They revel in my intoxication. To help absorb some raki, they serve us holy bread, which is fragrant and sweet, plus raisins and peanuts. The strong Greek coffee is untouched.
During the Battle of Crete, in WWII, the monks at Preveli sheltered British and Australian soldiers. The Germans rewarded them by burning half the monastery. In the chapel, in a glass case studded with rings, left as tokens by pilgrims, rests a piece of the “True Cross.” According to our hosts, the Germans tried to abscond with it, but their planes wouldn’t take off with the cross aboard.
There are no more monks left. The last and youngest one, age 60, had a stroke last year. Village priests now take turns taking care of the monastery; most of it is boarded up.
Not just monks are scarce on Crete. There are very few master craftsmen anymore. “Everyone wants to be a doctor, a lawyer or a pharmacist,” explains one priest sadly. Scotty suggests perhaps artists could live at the monastery, fix up studio spaces and work there. The priest solemnly thinks it over, then says, “They would enjoy the beauty here, but they are not true believers.”
Village life is not intended to be lived alone. If you can’t cut your own wood, your brother-in-law will. If you’re sick, your aunt brings you soup. But Scotty has no family here. Yesterday she cemented the crack above the front door, I dug flower beds, carried in kindling. She pruned olives, I shook down almonds. Just washing clothes by hand takes a whole morning. There are no laundromats on Crete. When I walk around Gerani I pass village women hunched over their washing – their posture a result of years of washing their father’s, husband’s, children’s undershorts.
I stand on the terrace with morning coffee and look around at all the signs of life strewn about: the brightly colored plastic buckets for washing clothes, taking baths; the hammer and the pile of almond shells from where we sat and husked the other day. The ceramic dishes with bits of sardines and macaroni clinging to them, for the cats; the box of detergent; the broken bricks for roofing; the empty easel.
These messy artifacts are not included in Scotty’s paintings. Within the universe of her canvases, there is balance, harmony and cohesion. The paintings are a respite from the rigors of her daily life, and a celebration of its pleasures.
I came here figuring the only way to really understand a still-life painter was to live in the still life. I’ve learned that what’s outside the frame is just as revealing.
At 4 a.m., I wake and walk outside, settling on the stone steps to watch the dawn of my last day on Crete. Hundreds of cocks in the valley are crowing. The sky grows lighter, a dark cloud blushing terra cotta. Dogs, goats and donkeys add to the delicate din. A shooting star flashes over the olive grove.
On this late November day, the sun is strong, no clouds and a mild wind. Fig leaves fall from their branches, the lone freesia blooms in its pot. Broom leans against easel, the kitten toys with an empty plastic water bottle. On the day I leave Gerani, Calliope milks her shaggy white goat into a red plastic bucket.