“Will you paint or make sketches on your trip?” It’s the question that I get when I mention travel plans. ”I’ll be just looking -- shorthand for eyes wide open, that state of being more easily accessible on vacation than at home. Yet as a working representational artist ‘just looking’ is part of the job description.
The truth of the matter is that while I do love to visit new places I also miss being in my studio, which to me is home base. Anyhow on a recent trip to France I had one of those experiences that informs making pictures and which is why getting out of the studio is so important.
I’m riding in the back seat of a car (my husband Orin Grossman is driving and we’re travelling with our friends Jane and Bob Cottingham) looking out the window at magnificent mountain ranges and at a scare- your –pants- off steep drop along the edge of the narrow roadway along the Gorges de Verdun (where the Swiss Alps continue into southern France). Suddenly out of nowhere a wild black boar charges across the road about 20 feet in front of the car. The shock of seeing this 250-pound behemoth, and what might have happened if the timing had been different, disrupted our ability to continue as passive observers of the awesome vistas.
Privately, at the moment the boar upended our sense of tranquility, I had been far off in unbidden thoughts. Anyone who has spent time lost in thought while ‘just looking’ knows how quickly the mind can wander. You think you’re looking at the scene in front of you and out of the blue bits of memory, a replay of a recent conversation, a longing for something, reviewing a personal difficulty, remembering a chance encounter suddenly become present and weave and twist upon each other.
Artists learn to live with this function of our personality and to exploit it knowing full well that for art to be fully alive it too must have a mind of its own. We can assert control over what we look at and we can control the materials and techniques of our art form, but it is the random sensations, memories and associations that make what we see come alive. Looking back on the wild black boar incident I was reminded again of the importance of the streak of lightening, the dot of red where it doesn’t belong, the tiniest unexpected element, and the killer detail that lifts a work of art from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
As for the hill towns visited in and around Seillons, France -- a charming and quite typical small hill town about an hour and a half west and slightly north of Nice there were also striking elements to be found in the color and texture -- doorways painted in an array of blues and greens accenting smooth plaster walled buildings painted in tints of yellow, tangerine, and yellow ochre; walls crafted of orderly stone or rough-hewn stone, and red tile roofs glowing amidst the densely covered green hills.