We spent the holiday weekend in Florida, a trip I never mind making. I love a road trip, after all, love loading up the car and heading down the highway with our dog, a couple of great audiobooks, a pile of magazines and a stash of knitting. My sweet husband drives, and I am most content to be the passenger for a while, responsible for nothing more than keeping myself entertained on the long drive.
That’s particularly easy now that I’ve studied with Mary Bentz Gilkerson, an artist who takes (intentionally) mediocre photographs of unremarkable landscapes and paints them into glory. I’m not exaggerating when I say Mary’s example of looking for potential in the ordinary has totally transformed the way I look at the world around me.
Inspired by Mary, I spent much of the drive snap snap snapping out the window with my iPhone’s camera. I rejoiced each time the landscape changed. Then on the way home, we hit standstill traffic on I-26 and Tim took a quick turn off the Interstate and onto Highway 6. I could not believe my good fortune.
Thank you, Tim. Thank you, Mary! Thank you for opening my eyes to all that is there, just outside my car window.
It was remarkable. Transformative. And ridiculously fun.
It’s also a story that began weeks ago, when my dear friend, Vickie (one of the Wise Women) came from Virginia for a long overdue weekend visit. Vick and I talked and talked and talked, we drank good wine, we hiked Saluda Shoals and strolled up and down Main Street at Columbia’s Soda City Market. Then late on Saturday afternoon, as the sun moved across the sky just far enough to allow “reasonable” temperatures on my gigantic screen porch, I looked toward my friend and timidly asked:
What would you think about pulling out the easels and doing a little late afternoon painting?
That quiet little question ignited something fierce, I’m not kidding about that. By the time our palettes were laid and the canvases prepped, we painted like Mad Women into the night and all the next day—right up until the very moment Vickie had to chase the car out of the driveway to jump in the passenger seat (wet painting in hand) for the trip back to Richmond.
When the opportunity to attend a weekend Mary Gilkerson painting workshop (thank you, City Art!) presented itself, you won’t be surprised to learn I was on the phone in seconds, recruiting my friend Vickie. It took a bit of courage for each of us to register for the class; Vickie is brand spanking new to oil painting and I, still a novice, had never wielded a Palette-Knife-As-Brush before. Still, we bravely reserved our places, then marched boldly into that most magnificent of spaces‚ City Art’s main gallery, for class. (Do you know what it is like to approach a blank canvas inthere?)
It took about 30 seconds for Mary to make us all feel capable, so unassuming is her manner and her teaching style. I positioned myself and my overloaded bag of supplies right between Vickie and my dear Columbia friend, Pam, an interior designer and already trained painter whom I had insisted take the class with us. Along with the other dozen brave souls in the room, we began to paint.
I learned so much from Mary Gilkerson.
Develop a ritual. Look for the shapes. Thumbnails (X 3). Mix color, all of it, first.
Remember to breathe.
Cathy, are you breathing?
Then she got onto telling stories, our teacher did, regaling us with tale after tale of the most delicious characters*, all the while effortlessly creating the most phenomenal Mary Gilkerson Painting-A-Day**, right before our very eyes.
(I can’t possibly describe for you what it was like to stand there in that group gathered around her, each student mesmerized, the teacher chatting nonchelently about this and that while pure magic occurred at the end of her palette knife, there on a common 6 x 6 gesso board. Pure magic.)
We watched, we listened, we made copious what was that color combination? notes. By the end of the first day—six hours and 15 rolls of paper towels later—I think I can speak for all of us when I say we felt victorious, students bolstered by our ability to at least cover a panel with paint.
Stepping out into the late afternoon sunshine I looked down to find this little gem on the mat at City Art’s front door.
Well of course was all I could say.
We drove into town again Sunday morning, this time for the final day of class. A strange thing had happened over the course of the night. Rather than returning to the gallery emblazoned and ready, that familiar I’m just a hack and the world is going to discover it feeling had returned, an insecure undercurrent that does its dead level best to bring down any soul crazy enough to face off with a canvas.
But you know what awaited us right there at the door the City Art?
It’s going to be a great day we said to each other as we opened the big City Art door and made our way inside. And then we laughed, Vickie and I, knowing it was true, knowing in our hearts this was a grace-filled moment, painted with a magic all its own.
*I might have made a note or two in my Cathy’s Going To Write A Novel Someday I Swear It notebook.