Archive for June, 2014

I Visit Him Everyday

A portrait I drew of Saleh

A portrait I drew of Saleh

This day one year ago I was whining and complaining once again over the detailed drapery I was supposed to draw tied in the background to a bottle and a jar.

“Sharpen your pencil! I keep asking you to sharpen your pencil.”
“I did.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes I did. You saw me.”
“That’s not sharpening your pencil. Let me show you how.”

And he took my pencil and knife and sharpened it to a needlepoint, then he made me get off the chair and began to set an outline for the shadows and the curves that were evident in the drapery. He pointed to details I could barely notice. Thus began my first lesson in the most important prerequisite for art: patience. There was no chance for a good drawing with a real life looking outcome except with precision, and precision comes with patience.

He then walked away from my easel and left me to what was my third or fourth attempt as I silently cussed and cursed until it was time for me to leave. I was more or less satisfied with the result. The guy was right, I never sharpened my pencils. Before I left I decided to show him what I managed to accomplish and looked for him in the studio. I could overhear him talking to someone from his private room so I decided he was too busy. No big deal, I thought, I’ll see him again in two days and then I can show it to him.

Only he never got to see it again, and I never got to hear his voice again. A few hours later after I walked out of my last class with him, Saleh, that assertive, fiery, funny artist who walked into my life and shook it vigorously died of a heart attack at the age of 37. That bolt of lightening that used to show up suddenly behind my shoulder whenever my lines began to shake and dwindle out of frustration, was snuffed out as easily as a candle.

The drapery. The last drawing when Saleh was alive. I deliberately left it with a plain background to preserve his hand sketch on the left, barely seen here.

The drapery. The last drawing when Saleh was alive. I deliberately left it with a plain background to preserve his hand sketch on the left, barely seen here.

Before I met Saleh I had a liking for art, but as much as I used to enjoy drawing as a child my attempts never went too far beyond what they were; an eight year-old’s drawings. In the last few years, however, my liking turned into a passion, and I was always the type that needed to get physically busy, I needed to be able to express myself with something that was other than words, because sometimes emotions can run so sore it’s hard to find the right words to express them, or sometimes silence can be your best cry. Drawing can deliver emotions of love, anger, and serenity with the strokes of a pencil, and that was what I hoped to achieve but never dared to express for lack of confidence. So when I first walked into Saleh’s studio and looked around at the paintings and drawings I stood in awe as I stared at a detailed pencil drawing he told me was at entry level. “Could I possibly draw like that just by the end of the course? I can’t imagine,” I said with my eyes popping out with wonder. “Yes you could,” he replied, “and you will. You’ll see.” He said it with so much confidence that I felt a little puzzled and, to be honest, motivated.

Saleh was actually glad that I had no proper background except for my childhood drawings. Students of this kind are so much easier to teach, he said. It’s always easier for a beginner to learn new techniques than it is for an established artist to change to new ones. Art is always very subjective and affected by the person who delivers it to you, but a good messenger would take you bit by bit, hand in hand, until you’re strong enough to stand on your own and go on alone, developing your own approach and technique. That’s the kind of messenger Saleh was.

There’s not a day that goes by whenever I think of my drawing that I don’t see Saleh and remember the sound of his oud as he played for us in the background while we struggled with the shadow outlines–that incredible technique that, to me, is the whole difference between a real life picture and a drawing that is just a drawing; one that borders subjects with actual lines. Sometimes his dog, Picasso, would wiggle his tail and sit at his feet whenever he reached for his oud and begin to sing along each time Saleh began to play. His favorite song was Zorooni (visit me), a famous old sad Egyptian song lamenting loneliness: “visit me once a year, do not forget me.”

Little did I know then that I would be visiting Saleh every moment of every second I’m holding a pencil and staring at a blank page.

I recently went through my old morning pages and found that I had written this three days after Saleh had died:

Third morning I wake up with him gone. The emptiness surrounding me and the lump in my chest grows bigger everyday. I’m still left hanging from a cliff, his hands are no longer holding me up, I’m holding on to nothing but a thin rope we were supposed to strengthen together. Now it’s just me, my grip, and the rest of my body and soul in the air. Just what am I supposed to do now? I feel lost and helpless, but I can almost hear him say “Hold on with a stronger grip, pull yourself up and you’ll get there, and I’ll be there. You’ll find me when you try. I’ll always be there.”

I drew my cat

I drew my cat. I had to use two pictures for this, one with the face only that didn’t have the ears, and another one of the ears that I shot especially for the drawing, getting bitten and chased in the process.

After Saleh’s death, and at the very moment I walked into his empty studio to finish the drawing, met the grief-stricken eyes of his assistants and took his lonely, confused dog into my arms I resolved to turn my grief into art. There was no better way to honor his memory. So I set my easel and looked at that drapery that used to give me so much pain with much more determination. I could feel him looking over my shoulder as I did my layering with the perfectly sharpened pencil he had prepared to show me, and I began to draw with my tears streaming uncontrollably down my face. Luckily there was no one else to watch me except Picasso, who sat huddled in a corner with his eyes over me until he fell asleep. From that day on I decided to turn his loss into a positive energy that simmers within and brings out the best that it can.

When my drapery was done I left out the background where the outline he had done for me to illustrate his technique was on the side. A small, unintentional gift that I will continue to cherish.

And from that day on I didn’t put my pencil down. I had found that unspoken language I could use whenever words were nothing but a fuel for war. In a time when Egypt was even more turbulent in the summer of 2013 people were becoming more and more polarized as I felt more and more alienated from everyone. My only refuge was the art that Saleh taught me, so I grabbed my pencils and tried to draw some more on my own. I decided to draw my cat, and since there was no way I could keep him still I had to copy from pictures. Later I decided to draw Saleh himself. It was a rather ambitious project for me, he hadn’t gotten to a point where he explained human skin and how to depict it. I put every bit of emotion I felt for his memory out there, and I know that if it hadn’t been for this, the madness that was happening around me and the unsettling words that came to me from the social media would have killed me. I could see Egypt on the verge of a civil war and I had never felt more frightened. My friends may not have realized it, but without uttering a single word I let my passion bare itself for the world to see, and miraculously I was able to pull everyone together to agree at least on one thing: my work. It was a chance for me to remember the important things, and I thought perhaps it was a way to remind my friends to cherish the people they love every second, because life is very, very short.

For that reason and for countless others I thank Saleh. He may or may not know it, but I do visit him everyday.

 

 

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The Healing Hand of Art

Primavera by Sandro Boticelli (1445-1510)

The streets are happy. The TV shows are happy. Fireworks never stop in my street. We have a new president. No one wants to hear any words of truth right now. Those who wish to speak of anything that is not remotely euphoric are considered party poopers. I keep my mouth shut as I have had it for the past two years. There’s a war going on inside me, but I’ve learned over time to live with it. I’m tired and drained of sharp argumentation. I’ve learned to marginalize my feelings and my sentiment and enjoy the day, but sometimes I fail to ignore a piece of news or a little article and the feeling overtakes me once more.

Now it’s all over me because I just finished reading an article by Ahdaf Soueif titled “Let Them Rejoice” that goes on to list the young people who are held captive in prison without visitation or even lawyer rights. All fine, energetic, well educated young people. Some were picked randomly and some have a history of activism. All from the age group that constitutes the majority of the population. All are the kind of people that a rising nation would anchor itself to if it entertained any hope for a better future.

There is nothing I can do about any of this except sit and take it. So I’ll take you with me and show you how I deal with this. We’re flying to other places and we’re talking about other things. We’re talking about art. I’ve never studied art, but I have an ignorant man’s drooling passion for it that I find myself drawn to museums and galleries like a magnet.

Boticelli's Flora

Boticelli’s Flora

Let me take you to the sunlit hallways of the Uffizi gallery in Florence. This beautiful old building that was originally a private property holds a treasure of the Renaissance art that always mesmerizes me. I remember last year when I went there with my family. We had one day to spend in Florence and we tried to compact the entire city in a few hours. By the time we were at the gallery it was going to close in minutes. We created our own tour and decided on the particular works we absolutely had to see and began our mission, racing from one work to another until it was time for the reason why we got in in the first place. There shone down on us Sandro Boticelli’s Primavera, spring, that beautiful, colorful, almost sparkling painting bursting with life, symbolizing love and, to me, hope.

Venus stands in the middle of the picture, yet the face that draws me is that of Flora, the goddess of flowers, who stands on the right. The serenity in her face and the soft, subtle smile inspire me. That’s the mental state I wish I could stay in all the time. Yes. All the time, no matter who says what and no matter who kills whom. I want to keep that face and I want to keep that inner peace that comes with it. Some people do that no matter what goes on around them. They give flowers. They blow me away and make me feel ungrateful.

Anyway, back to my journey.

Time Orders Old Age to Destroy Beauty

Time Orders Old Age to Destroy Beauty by Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787)

How about London? I could sure use a nice cup of coffee while I take in the beautiful June breeze of Trafalgar Square, then eagerly fly up the gigantic stairs of the National Gallery and walk in silence and contentment as I let the refreshing scent of old wood awaken my senses and tickle my brain. Unlike the freaked out visit to the Uffizi (which I intend to go back to with more time on my hands), I was blessed with countless visits to the Gallery. Over there I’m a dreamy wanderer floating from one painting to the next. Sometimes a certain one grabs my attention and I stand still before it, sit down if I can, and stare at it for as long as it takes. A particular one that captivated me was eighteenth century Time Orders Old Age to Destroy Beauty, by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni. There stood a hunched, old woman reaching to a young woman’s face, while Father Time sat pointing at the face. The painting is very large, large enough to be a mural. So the first time I saw it I sat back and looked into it for a very long time to take in the lighting, the drapery, and the detailed feathers of Father Time’s wings. But in reality I think that it was the idea itself that grabbed me the most; the thought of time and what it can take away from you. Looking back, it wasn’t about the fear of getting old as much as it was about the things we lose over time; all those people and moments we take for granted.

Le Lion de Florence by Nicolas-André Monsiau (1754-1837)

Le Lion de Florence by Nicolas-André Monsiau (1754-1837)

Apart from Primavera, I seem to have an unusual taste in paintings; ones that have a sense of anguish and loss usually draw me. That’s something I wasn’t aware of until a friend of mine pointed it out to me on our visit to the Louvre as I wandered everywhere trying to show her that painting I saw on my first visit with my father when I was only sixteen. It was a painting of a screaming mother whose baby was snatched from her breast by a lion. I didn’t know the title of the painting and I didn’t know who had painted it, but the mother’s expression had stayed in my head for 24 years. I found the painting with a miracle. It was also from the eighteenth century, painted by Nicolas-André Monsiau and titled Le Lion de Florence, the lion of Florence. I could not understand how a human hand could depict emotion so truthfully, how it could – with a paint of a brush – create sound and send chills down your spine. This is the beauty of art.

La Jeune Martyre by Paul Delaroche (1797-1856)

La Jeune Martyre by Paul Delaroche (1797-1856)

And it’s the very transcendence of European art that grips a person like me, coming from another part of the world and living in a faraway future, and matches her silent cries with a flash of light stemming from a painting or a pair of eyes that draw me into the souls behind them. During my visit to the Louvre, when my friend gave me her observation of my taste, I was a little drawn into myself, I didn’t know if it was true that I went after such paintings. It was too soon for me to accept that, but then my feet were suddenly stapled to the ground before a nineteenth century painting by Paul Delaroche, La Jeune Martyre, The Young Martyr. It depicted a beautiful dead young woman with tied hands, floating in dark water against a dark background, but her face was lit by a halo that was brilliantly reflected in the ripples. If you look closely in the dark background you see a silhouette of a man on a horse about to run off. I’ve read some interpretations that the silhouette was a symbol of moving on, of letting go, and hoping for a better future. To me, though, it was like a fragment of an ongoing war that resulted in the death of this young beauty. The focus on her in the painting told me that she was what mattered the most, she was the only thing at stake, and yet she was lost and the battle continued, indifferent to her loss, and the water carried her further away, out of the sight of the man on the horse, but further into the center of the picture, making her forever the most important, irretrievable loss.

Just like the young men and women in my country who dared to dream for their homeland. Some gave their lives, and some are losing it slowly behind bars, and the battle wages among us, making us lose focus and sight of what really is at stake.

So this is what I do when the ugliness begins to choke me. I travel with my brain to beautiful places and recall the memories I have of them. Yet somehow I always find myself coming back, seeing everything with the lens of the anguish and sorrow that I feel. Albeit with a deeper perspective that shows me that my feelings are universal. Art delivered the hands of the masters over time and across continents to me, to pat my shoulders and tell me that I’m not alone.

 

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30 Seconds

When I used to work I used to stare uncomprehendingly at colleagues who used to complain to their bosses that they wished the day had an extra 24 hours so they could accomplish everything. It made me feel weird because I wasn’t quite sure what was wrong with the 24 hours God gave us. Reflecting on this years later in think I figured out my own humble answer. Sometimes recognizing the importance of time comes when your life stands still. It’s true that busy people running all over the place half the time wish for extra hours within the day to get everything done and to have time to rest. They’re always baffled at how fast time flies before they’re aware of it, but they spend it so busy with what they’re supposed to be doing that in reality they’re not actually conscious of the time, and that is why it slips. I think that the best way to truly grasp the significance of time is not by losing it or having it slip through your fingers as you race to compact all your chores and obligations, it’s by standing still and looking at it, observing it.

I never thought time could be so long, and I never thought it could go so slowly, but it does specifically when you’re conscious of it. You’re never fully aware of how long 30 seconds can be until you actually wait for them to pass. This whole talk and writing of time feeling like it stood still or feeling like it’s dragging its still, heavy legs isn’t coming out of nowhere. But I don’t mean it here except in the most positive sense. There is a reason why 24 hours are about as long as a day is, because 24 hours is already an awful lot and there is so much that can be accomplished in it. Take it from a jobless, childless, manless woman like me. I have no reason to be running around pleasing anyone while juggling that with a career I’m so desperate to keep. My time is mine and that is why I’m so aware of how precious and rich it actually is.

When divided by intervals of 30 seconds it becomes clearer. To some people 30 seconds is a small, uncounted part in a more precious 15 minutes, 30 minutes, and to others even an hour. But in my life 30 seconds are in many ways an eternity. 30 seconds is how long it takes for my milk to heat up in the microwave while I stare longingly at my coffee waiting for it to run through my veins and bring me back to life. 30 seconds used to be the hour of torture when my trainer first introduced me to planks and showed me what it would be like for your muscles to squeeze the breath out of you. Now it is the unending eternity of Hell when I battle with gravity and do those complicated push ups that require some bizarre knee on top of elbow action while bouncing from all fours. 30 seconds is more than enough for a silent response to a question to become awkward. It is also just enough for your entire tense, anxious body to loosen up and relax once you take a conscious decision to take a deep breath, close your eyes AND meditate. 30 seconds is that final, breathless push to the summit point on a mountain, that moment when you see it but don’t believe you’ve actually made it until you touch that sign that tells you you’re there. It’s the difference between your sense of desperation and sense of accomplishment, between the crash and the hope.

That is the only answer I can think of for why there aren’t 24 more hours in the 24 hour day, because it’s all right there, you just need to look at it and appreciate it to realize that it can give you a lot more than what you actually take from it.

Divided into a series of 30 seconds, I can live and laugh and cry and grow old in just a day.

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