“For the ancient Egyptians, exactitude was symbolized by a feather that served as a weight on scales used for the weighing of souls. This light feather was called Maat, goddess of the scales. The hieroglyph for Maat also stood for a unit of length–the 33 centimeters of the standard brick–and for the fundamental note of the flute.”
Italo Calvino, Exactitude, from Six Memos for the Next Millennium
In the goddess Maat, the ancient Egyptians tie together self/soul, architecture, and art. I like this intersection because it gets at some of the different ways we try to understand (and shape) our place in the world (individually and culturally). Maybe I’m assigning a little too much to the idea, but I’ve looked to this feather concept as important to me, and the intersection of all sorts of things (art, architecture, self being only some of the points to consider) is a fundamental tenet of my approach to thought/work/whatever (think about/do a lot at once, let the intersections reveal themselves, recognize when they do, and build off of that, which is probably just a long-winded way of saying divergent thought). I’m just now getting this in painting by working simultaneously on several watercolors, though that list of simultaneous works has dwindled now that I finished this one, posted above, and the Pavese sketch last week.
I recall a debate in one of my writing classes when I was in a masters program–I imagine this debate a very common one–about types of truth in writing. I don’t think anyone really posited the right terms for it in class, but the basic sides for the sake of argument were between accuracy and truth, the idea being you could be accurate, but untrue, accurate, but missing the point. I wasn’t too keen on the discussion in class because it seemed to be poorly cast, and perhaps needed to be worked out in writing over time. But I’ve thought about it in different ways over the years, and another way of looking at it might be in terms of accuracy by the wrong measure, like using ounces instead of feathers. Perhaps you could say that art is about understanding and conveying truth as measured by feathers. Or maybe better, about the pursuit of understanding and conveyance of truth as measured by feathers. Or, even simpler (but with the same meaning?): Art is the pursuit of truth as measured by feathers.
I guess this leaves the how part of this line of thought to technique and style, which I am (and will be for a long time) still working through. As my skill improves, so too should my ability to measure with feathers.
As for this work, I did it in two sessions, laying in the sky and buildings with french ultramarine, burnt sienna, cerulean blue, and nickel azo yellow. Today I put some broken clouds/fog on top of the sky laid in last weekend, then finished with the trees, blotting out paint to get the fog and steam effects. The trees were done with perylene maroon, viridian, french ultramarine, burnt sienna, and nickel azo yellow. I could probably have done this with fewer pigments, but it worked out pretty well
I did whole painting with my Escoda Versatil #10 round. I like that brush because it allows for precision work, expressive brush strokes (the trees are mostly with the tip), and broken effects with the side of the brush. It’s not so good for washes, but I wet the paper first and used the brush to its best advantage but having broken applications of paint blend with the wet paper. It’s been fun getting to know my tools better so I can take advantage of their strengths and weaknesses.
I will likely be back at the turkey painting next, but I also want to get a few more new paintings started. Just not sure what yet.
Thanks for reading.
When the tooth entered this story, I questioned myself. Was this really what I wanted to write about, a dirty human tooth? But of course I wasn’t writing about a tooth. I was writing about something broader– an exchange, a contract, the value of a story. In a sense, narrative is currency. As Calvino said, “In a narrative, any object is always magic.” So what magic is in the tooth, and what is it worth?
Here is part two. If you missed part one, click here.
Fish: Part Two
The next morning George and Ant woke early to mine the hopscotch courts with bang snaps. The low sun cast long shadows across the macadam, and sparsely gathered crows looked on from the jungle gym as the boys lightly dusted gravel over the their mines. The girls would be out after breakfast to play in their summer dresses, and the boys liked to watch them jump and squeak as the tiny paper-packets of flash powder exploded under their feet.
Still, as the clouds passed over and the sun rose and fell in the valley, the boys could think of nothing so much as the tooth. They waited impatiently all day for George’s mother to leave the house for one errand or another so they could take the whiskey. They turned out the kitchen, but found nothing. They turned out the closets, but found nothing. There was nowhere left but the basement, dark and unfinished, filled with concrete and cobwebs. The air conditioner fans stormed in the shadows of the naked light bulbs. “This is the kind of place where teeth are pulled,” thought the boys. They looked around cautiously as the fans cut in and out. The rusted bikes, the workbench cluttered with vises, chisels, and pliers. The reserve supply of bottled water and toilet paper and baked beans. And then they saw it. The whiskey. Exactly two bottles on a shelf far in the corner buried in lint between the pipes and clothes dryer. Two bottles. Within an instant they were up the stairs, bottles in hand, leaving nothing but the echoes of their footprints suspended in the particle-laden air.
Car doors opened and closed in the driveways and streetlamps flickered on along the measured sidewalks of the neighborhood. Dinner would be served soon, and the boys agreed to meet by the big tree when the sun and moon lit the sky together. George arrived first with the bottles and climbed into the branches to wait. He thought about a battalion of tanks rolling through the valley laced with power lines; how easy it would be for them to cross the stream; how he would see it all from the top of the big tree where no one else would climb; how he would shoulder-fire anti-tank missiles at them as they passed.
Down below, Ant called out for George, impatient to see the stranger. Green leaves fell on the crickets and wildflowers as George descended. “You can see the smoke from the city up there,” he said, offering Ant one of the bottles to carry. “And if you try real hard, you can even smell it.”
On the way to the woods, the boys talked about the stranger. They talked about the fights he must have been in to get his scar and broken nose. They talked about what he probably kept in his pack—a gun and a deck of cards with naked ladies on the back—and they longed to see them. But most of all, they talked of the tooth and how he twisted it out of the mouth of a POW or how he pulled it from his own mouth on a dare and grew a new one.
When they came to the bridge, they made birdcalls to announce their presence. “Over here,” the stranger replied from his fire. “You have my bottles?” He filled his flask and stored the bottles in his pack. The boys snuck an unfulfilled glance inside. “If you’re looking for the tooth, I don’t keep it in there. I keep it in my pocket. Always.”
The boys protested their innocence.
“Now,” said the stranger. “We had agreement. Are you ready to hear the real story of the tooth?” Smoke drifted up from the fire, flitting sparks into the moonlight. The boys nodded.
“I want you to look at the tooth closely in the firelight. Do you see this cavity here? It’s small, so you have to look so close that your eyes go out of focus. Then you’ll see it. Remember the cavity.”
The boys strained their eyes in the shifting firelight, but could see nothing.
The stranger continued: “That’s what he told me. Remember the cavity. He was an old man on a little farm on the other side of the world. His fields were all fallow and there was blight on the crops for longer than he could remember, but he survived somehow. He took me in for three days and fed me on fresh fish he caught in a dirty stream behind his house. I looked at that stream every morning, but I didn’t understand how fish could live in it, it was so shallow. There was barely enough water there to drink. Each day I played cards with the old man to help him pass the time, so when I had to leave, he felt sorry for me. He told me I would never make it across the fields without food. ‘You have been good to me,’ he said. ‘Now I want to be good to you. I have seen you wondering how I have so many fish to eat when there is no food for miles around.’ And then he showed me this tooth. ‘This tooth,’ he said, ‘is special. See this cavity? Always remember the cavity.’ The old man then told me that whenever I wanted to catch a fish, all I needed to do was place the tooth in a stream and count to three. The next cast would catch a fish without fail. At first I didn’t believe him, but then he showed me how the fish rose up from the silt and bit his hook, one after another. ‘I can’t take such a gift,’ I told him, knowing that it was the tooth that kept him alive, but he insisted. ‘Every gift should be given again when the time is right.’”
Scattered raindrops slipped through the leaves as the rattling of cicada songs rose and fell in the distance.
“Is the time right now?” the boys asked.
The stranger urged patience. “The tooth can only change hands when the moon is full. Tonight is too soon. Tomorrow will be better.” He paused and looked at them with a narrow eye. “What makes you think the tooth should be passed to you?”
The boys replied at once with all manner of reasons, but none of them would satisfy the stranger. “Those are good,” he said, “but this tooth is very valuable to me. If you want it, I’ll need something valuable in return. Something I lost a long time ago on the other side of the ocean.” The fire hissed lightly in the rain. “A golden ring.”
In houses full of jewelry, a golden ring was not hard to find. In fact, as soon as their parents left, the boys found several. They carried them all day on their fingers as they wandered around the fields and the neighborhoods and hurled crabapples at the occasional passing car. They watched the moon slowly appear in the afternoon sky, and they talked of the craters formed on its face from massive explosions years ago, until finally the daylight fell away and they could see the ragweed and dandelion seeds held aloft in shafts of moonlight. It was time for them to claim the tooth.
Fireflies lit the trees and underbrush as the boys looked for the stranger’s encampment. They tried the places they had seen him the previous nights, and they tried the stream. They tried the bridge, and they even tried the hollowed-out tree trunks they imagined were washed-up submarines. And then from behind them, a voice whispered, “Have you brought the ring?”
The boys asked the stranger about his fire, whether he would leave tonight, but he only repeated his question, “Have you brought the ring?” George and Ant brought out their fingers, adorned in gold, for the stranger to see. He thanked them for offering him a choice, commending them on their kindness. “We had an agreement. One ring for one tooth. Now, which of you will take the tooth. I will take a ring from only one of you.”
George volunteered himself, and Ant put away his hands. The stranger examined each ring in turn, taking notice of how the moonlight interacted with the luster of the gold, until he made his selection.
“This is a fair exchange.”
George felt the absence of weight on his finger as the stranger disappeared back down the tracks, the breeze from his footsteps lightly bending the wildflowers that peered up through the sleepers. The words, “Always remember the cavity,” echoed faintly behind him until they too dissolved into the damp night air.
When Ant arrived at the stream the next morning, George called out to him, “You missed it! I did just as the stranger said. I put the tooth in the water and came up with a fish!” As the boys discussed the stranger’s last words and the supposed size of the fish, the ghost of a cicada shell landed softly on the water’s surface and drifted downstream towards the city.
I am starting to think about a painting of an Alessi espresso percolator and a bag of Zeke’s coffee, a small batch roastery in Baltimore. This is my favorite coffee because it has a wonderful flavor when you drink it, and that flavor lingers afterwards without that harsh, bilious aftertaste. Coffee is an experience drink. The effect is felt long after the cup is empty. Drinking it is a routine, almost ritualistic, that even on a busy day provides a sense of security and optimism when the coffee is good in both taste and aftertaste, or a sense of dread when it is bad. It is the right relationship of taste and aftertaste that make the a good cup of coffee. I wonder if Vladimir Propp has a secret monograph on this subject.
The same idea applies to art and literature. Thinking again of Calvino, some of his stories are most effective while reading (the Nonexistent Knight, The Cloven Viscount, and The Baron in the Trees), while others such as The Castle of Crossed Destinies and Mr. Palomar were more interesting to me as memory artifacts. Invisible Cities is for me his most compelling, complete work of true art. I wonder if some of this relates to the structure used. The best reading experiences were structured like more or less normal chronicles. Mr. Palomar and The Castle of Crossed Destinies are deliberately structural in their focus–it it a core element in the meaning, but the story takes a lesser role. Invisible Cities is also structural in emphasis, but the language and story telling levitate the structure to a comprehensive artistic experience.
In preparation for this coffee painting, I want to look at a few different structures with these two objects, and think about how those structures will work with the quality of lightness in watercolor. Some preliminary sketches are posted below. I would love to hear your thoughts.