The shadow stalls

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While spending a few weeks in Florida this month—helping my parents with some condo-related chores they can’t do themselves now—and getting in some morning runs on the beach, I’ve set up a little provisional studio to keep working on a current painting. (Running at low tide on the hard wet sand is the perfect surface; it gives underfoot just slightly, like an old wrestling mat.) I’d shipped the painting down, along with all the supplies I needed ahead of time, but my labors here kept me away from it for a couple weeks. It’s a little harder to spend a few spare hours on a canvas after half a day of cleaning out a garage when you have the equivalent of a mild, sunny summer day beckoning to you from the open garage door. With mockingbirds singing, ospreys building nests, jatropha in bloom, and a continuous cool breeze moving through the place from the Gulf of Mexico, it’s not as easy as it is in Western New York to keep your eyes aimed at a canvas. I even spent one afternoon at Myakka River State park checking out alligators sunning themselves on the river bank. So many ways not to work, so little time. I even spent two days driving the seven hours to Key West and back, with a full day and night in the southernmost key, stopping in Key Largo on the return to snorkel in the Atlantic coral reef.

What I found during all this time away from a canvas is that it can begin to look less and less inviting, the further in time you get from your last brushstroke. Every glance makes you wonder how much time it will take to actually complete the area you’ve started, and doubts creep in about either your ability or your enthusiasm. The charm begins to wear thin. The mojo wanes. Yet—and this is what I’ve encountered over and over, and it still comes as a slight surprise—as soon as you pick up a brush and put paint to canvas, everything snaps back into focus, the painting stirs fully awake as you break the spell. It’s as if no time has passed and the momentum returns immediately—four hours go by and you have to force yourself to put down the brush to eat.

There’s some sort of axiom in nature and in human enterprise: something is either growing or its dying. It can’t be put on hold. The longer I stay away from the work, the more it shrinks into the emotional distance and exerts less and less pressure on my attention and drive. In a sense, I can put it on pause, and it will stay as it is for as long as I stay away from it. Yet I have less and less of an impulse to return–so in a sense, it’s dying to me. What Poe called the imp of the perverse eventually takes hold: the paradoxical urge not to even look at the half-finished work when the way is open and time available to return to it. I’m drawn into a fallow period, the inertia of not painting. Yet one touch and it all comes back—because at that point, again, it’s growing into what it will become and that forward progress pulls me right back into a satisfying engagement with the work. My heart is right back in it. And the painting is as alive as it ever was. Between that stagnation and revival falls the shadow, as T.S. Eliot would have put it. I wonder how many paintings I’ve lost sight of in that shadow, without realizing all I needed to do was one step back into the light by picking up a brush.

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