Lucca’s broad town wall entirely encloses a maze of narrow streets and alleys, stone slabs under foot. There are two towers to be climbed to view the sea of red roofs, Torre Guinigi with its crown of trees and Torre dell’Ore, steps winding up around the huge clock weights – metal-bound lumps of roughly dressed stone suspended in the long central space.
Piazza Anfiteatro shares the footprint of the Roman amphitheatre, whose few remaining bones show through rendered walls.
The bereaved house stands, neglected, at the end of a short terrace. Paint peeling around its windows, a bright green sea of uncut grass washes around its feet, waiting for the mower to be repaired. And the garden climbs up the walls and fences – roses, clematis, honeysuckle, on the brink of flowering.
Beside the back door, tumbled but convenient, three small piles of coal, logs and kindling.
Inside the neglect is more ingrained, the natural state in a house of two men (father and son – ‘we were two peas in a pod’) not much interested in housework and decoration.
Habitual hands have left their marks, on door frames and light switches, dark stains of countless touches. Many shelves line a room, crammed with dusty books, on art and magic, history and nature – a life-time’s library.
The disorder of illness overlies it all – the bed in the sitting room, a table dismantled in an upstairs room to make way for it, a small pile of plastic bags hold his clothes brought home from the hospital.
‘Here’s a picture of my father…and the dog we had…’ wiping the murky glass with tender fingers as he takes it off the mantelpiece, leaving its shadow in the dust.
But on the wall above the displaced bed there is a picture, a painting in a gilded frame, of a glorious sunlit afternoon – it shines like a jewel in this gloomy room, as fresh as if it were painted yesterday. (Though it is decades old – ‘He wouldn’t let me sell that one.’)
Two great trees stand in a green pasture which runs down to a hidden river. Beyond, the bluer green of farther woods rises to a low horizon. A black and white cow, three quick dabs of paint, repeats itself, moving slowly from left to right across the picture plane. Leaf shadows ripple blue on the warm tree trunks and the trees’ crowns reach up into a tumbling airy height of sky.
Like a window into shining memory, it redeems the room.
Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts
This is a story I wrote last year – it’s a bit clunky, but it seemed to resonate with some comments I’ve heard and read lately about hubris, climate change, transience, etc. (See On the Western Edge.)
I have arrived at a stopping place today. It seems to be where I was going. There is a house by the shore, with everything I need. The door was open and the kitchen cupboards stocked with my favourite things. No one is around, no vehicles, so I guess it’ll be ok to stay here for a bit.
I like it here. It’s very peaceful and it only rains at night. There are a lot of birds in the wood and one of them keeps appearing outside the window. I put out some bread and water for it…
I’ve adopted (or been adopted by) a dog. It’s a mongrelly thing, the colour of sand. It seems friendly.
Dog had been watching her for a while. He knew what was going to happen and was not looking forward to it. He had a soft spot for humans so he had appointed himself chaperone, but it wouldn’t make any difference to the outcome.
The others were starting to arrive. When Cat appeared she acknowledged the dog with a slight glance. This was a place apart; diplomatic protocol prevailed, though the smaller birds would still fly up in agitation when anyone came too close. Quiet sheep stood around cropping the short grass and Frog hopped gratefully into the pond. It had been a long journey for the small creatures.
It’s getting very weird out there now – the tame bird is still around, and the dog. But there’s also lots of other animals – a sheep, a cat, a frog, a deer, a goose, and even a large lizard. Surprisingly they all seem to get on, and they ignore me, except for the dog, which often watches me when I go out into the garden. Something strange is happening, but then I knew that already.
Typical of her species, the woman had not noticed any of the smallest creatures present, or the largest. She was aware only of the animals similar to her in size and type. At last all the representatives had assembled. ‘It is time to go to the place of the Eldest,’ said Cat. ‘I’ll bring the human,’ said Dog. There was a collar and lead hanging by the back door of the house. Dog pulled it off the hook and carried it to the woman. ‘Do you want to go for a walk then? Walkies?’ she asked, in that special voice they have for non-humans and babies. Dog was used to it though and found it quite endearing. It reminded him of the people who had adopted him when he was a puppy.
Once she had put the collar on him and attached the lead, he took her out of the house and down the path. It was not a long walk to the meeting place, so the woman did not object. She even managed to believe she was taking Dog for a walk, and when they stepped into the clearing she stopped of her own accord and gazed up into the heights of the huge tree that grew there, amazed.
The representatives arranged themselves in the open space, and the debate began. Goose spoke first; she had no fear of public speaking and was always quick to voice an opinion. ‘We cannot let this go on. They are disturbing all the patterns. I have seen it, from the winterlands in the south to the summer breeding grounds. Everything is changing. It is time to act.’
‘But what can we do? They are everywhere and so busy all the time. How can we stop them? They don’t even notice us most of the time. And when they do, they put out traps.’ This was Mouse.
‘What choice do we have? They are going to take our homes and kill us all in the end if we let them. We must fight back.’ Goose was shouting louder now.
‘But they look after us. How can we fight against them?’ The others looked at Sheep and shook their heads in disgust. ‘If you were a proper animal you wouldn’t need them to look after you. You’ll just have to learn to cope again like you used to.’
‘Perhaps they will realise what is happening and stop?’ This was from one of the smallest representatives, a bacterium. ‘We can, we stop multiplying when we run out of room. Surely such clever animals will do the same. We just need to give them time.’
‘If they were going to do that they’d have done it by now. They only seem to be clever. They can’t see beyond their little world; they have no sense of the things around it, the things that sustain it.’ This was Cat, whose detached voice carried weight. She did not often condescend to join in the conversation.
‘But what can we do? Mouse is right. They may not be clever but they are very powerful.’
‘So are we. We are many and if we act together they cannot stand against us.’
‘Are you saying we declare war?’ asked Dog. This was what he had feared. Dogs had thrown in their lot with humans long ago. It would be hard to break that bond.
‘Yes’ said Lizard. ‘We must or it will be the end of everything.’
The discussion went on, tactics and strategies, ways to combine the skills of the species against the human empire. Dog was quiet though, watching the woman as she sat oblivious among them. He was the one who had argued that there should be a human representative at the convocation. It might mitigate the anger, he thought, if there was a reminder of the innocence of a solitary human. At least the species should not be tried, judged and sentenced in absentia. But it made no difference. The woman’s total unawareness of what was happening around her made things worse. As Lizard pointed out, ‘there’s no talking to them – they don’t understand. Look at her.’
Then, in a lull in the debate, a new voice was heard, deep and slow, a humming in the ground beneath them. ‘You are all as foolish as the humans.’
‘Eldest … you honour us,’ they all spoke the ritual words, then fell silent, waiting for the ancient voice to continue. ‘You do not need to wage war. You only need patience. This has happened before – I have seen it. The balance will be restored. It is already happening. You smallest ones – soon you will be strong again. The weapons they use against you have made you stronger. And my ancestors and yours that they have pulled out of the ground for fuel – they are almost gone. Change is coming, to the humans and to all of us. But that is nothing new. You do not need to make it happen. It will come.’
‘But that is why we need to fight! We do not want this change. It will destroy so many of us, not just the humans! We want things the way they were before.’
‘I said you were fools. There is no going back. Time will not stop for you.’
‘What should we do then, Eldest?’ asked Mouse.
‘Live your little lives. What else? That is all anything can ever do.’
A silence fell. A breeze passed through the clearing. The woman watched a leaf fall from the highest branch of the great tree. ‘The sun is setting, dog. Shall we go home?’ She stood up and Dog followed her back down the path towards the house.
Today was the strangest yet. I took the dog for a walk and we found all the animals in a clearing in the wood. It was almost as if they were talking to each other. There was a tree – the biggest I have ever seen. It gave me a leaf… I mean a leaf fell, even though it is not autumn, a green leaf – but it is turning brown already. I have pressed it in a big book to keep it safe. And I’ve remembered where I came from, where I should be. So I will go back tomorrow. I hope the dog will come with me…
As a sculptor I had little or no interest in the idea of still life. Rendering an object as another object seemed a bit pointless (which shows a lack of imagination I suppose). I was vastly more interested in people as subjects. I still am, but since I started learning to paint I’ve been a bit more open minded.
The only way to learn to paint is to do it and there is rarely a person available (unless you can bear to specialise in self-portraits), so you have to paint other things. Also, as a painting of a person will often include furniture, background objects and space (unlike a sculpture which borrows its background from its situation), you need to be able to deal with more than just flesh. So I have found myself having a go at interiors and still life, apples, onions, even flowers! And I’m finding they are not just a means to an end.
One of the virtues of still life painting (for me) is that I can arrange the subject and the painting at the same distance from my eye so that the issue of what glasses to wear does not arise. Younger readers may not be aware of this, but when you get to the bifocal age, trying to see your model over there and your easel over here can be a frustration – do I want to see the model or the work more clearly? The reading section of bifocal lenses is not big enough to see all of a largish painting or drawing, so I often end up working without any glasses, which may lead to an unintended lack of precision. But when painting a small still life near at hand I can just wear single vision reading glasses to see both subject and painting. (The down side of that is that the ‘still’ subject moves a lot when you move your head, so you have to keep checking your perspective.)
Anyway, here’s yesterday’s exercise. ‘White’ really is an abstraction.
Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts
Some thoughts about consciousness, imagination and ethical value – a brief philosophical excursus (with apologies for pontificating and a vaguely relevant picture to dilute the verbiage)
Our ethical universe is defined by the scope of our imagination. That is, the moral significance of another being for me corresponds to my ability to imagine the world they experience. In a world of so many people, we are inclined and encouraged to focus our concern on those nearest to us, whose lives resemble ours. One death near at hand counts for hundreds on the far side of the world. And people nearer to home may be excluded from our attention by the differences between us and them, differences which we perceive as barriers, the walls of a black box we need not look into.
Consider a person whose physical or cognitive faculties are very constrained, whose life one would think from the outside is terribly limited. Such a person might well be neglected by society and by individuals in society, as living a life of little value to themselves or anyone else. How many ‘utils’ can such a life hold, even in the best of all possible worlds? What is the point, says the devil’s advocate, of wasting resources on such as them? (Think of the people not so long ago, put away in institutions, left there to endure miserable lives, out of sight, out of mind.)
But as soon as one seriously considers what it would be like to be that person, to be in that box, such dismissive neglect is hard* to maintain. Because for them, their life, their world, is (as for all of us) a universe. So if that life is deprived, miserable, painful, a universe is those things.
From the inside, we all live in/constitute an entirety – the world as experienced by us. While, from an objective point of view, we are each only insignificant fragments of a vast physical manifold, from a subjective point of view, our (my) consciousness contains everything. And before/after this life, nothing exists.
Is this a solipsistic image? Perhaps – except that we are capable of a less egoistic stance, which asks us to exercise our (moral) imagination; we can attempt to empathise, at least to think about the content of those other black boxes. That is to recognise that every conscious being contains/constitutes a personal universe. This recognition is what calls up the claims of respect, à la Kant. As soon as I consider the life-world of the other in imaginative empathy, the weight of their needs for whatever would make their universe tolerable is felt. This acts as a counterweight to the caricatured utilitarian idea that individual values/utils can be added and subtracted, balanced against each other, and perhaps that some lives might not be worth living.
This may be an impractical thought. It does not much help us make policy decisions, which must somehow deal with costs and benefits and the distribution of scarce resources. How can choices between equally and absolutely valued lives be made? But perhaps it does just act as a reminder that no life, no person, ought to be seen as ultimately negligible. General policies tend to treat people as statistical abstractions, as beans to be counted. This makes the decisions easier. Such decisions should not be easy, though; they should not be taken lightly. They need to be anchored by an acknowledgement of the weight of particular lives.** Again we look to Kant: every conscious self deserves, demands, respect, as an end and not simply as a means.
*I had written ‘impossible’ but that would perhaps underestimate our capacity for hard-heartedness.
**It often seems that the people with power are, perhaps because of that fact, less likely or able to engage in imaginative empathy with respect to those they have power over, because their lives are so different or because it would make hard decisions even harder. Hence the recurring suggestions that members of government should experience the effects of their policies themselves by, for example, attempting to live on benefits.
Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts
I know I shouldn’t do it, but I can’t help blowing my own trumpet this morning* (having woken again to the sound of the 5am cockerel).
But first, Friday’s little adventure. I had to deliver some work to Lowes Court in Egremont for their summer exhibition, and while I was down there I visited Florence Mine to see the Paintmakers. The old iron ore mine is no longer in production but you can tell you are getting close by the red tracks on the road, which get redder the nearer you are. This is the red that is now going into the paints and other art materials being produced by a small group of artists. I had a lovely chat with two members of the group – their quiet excitement and enthusiasm was catching. So soon I will be doing some drawings in Egremont Red, St Bees Yellow and Kirkby Grey. After that I also ran into an unexpected friend at Lowes Court and a stimulating chat – it is good to get out of the house sometimes!
Yesterday I went to Kendal to the launch of Open Up North, driving down through the Lakes (Thirlmere, Grasmere, Windermere, all dazzling in the sun). After the speeches and the prize giving, we toured the exhibition, which is spread over three venues, including the oldest building in Kendal - a beautiful maze of old stone and dark wood. Here’s a glimpse of one of the upstairs rooms.
The exhibition includes over a hundred very varied works, mainly paintings and prints, but also photography and a few 3D pieces.
When we found my painting in the Warehouse Cafe at the Brewery Arts Centre, it had a Judges’ Commendation! (Cock-a-doodle-doo!) I was absurdly pleased by this pat on the back. I may be too old to count as an ‘emerging artist’ but I was nearly as chuffed as a six-year-old getting a gold star from miss. Here is the painting with its ‘accolade’:
There – trumpet blown – I’ll stop now. :)
*I’ve put in lots of links to other things to prove I’m not totally self-absorbed.