Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

 

Sitting on the train ride home, squeezed uncomfortably near a fellow passenger due to our bulky coats, a painting I had seen earlier at the Art Institute that day flashed across my mind. “Wrapped Oranges” by William McCloskey is a tiny oil on canvas, a mere 12”x16”. It is a still life of six oranges, two completely wrapped in thin paper, another two coyly peeping out their wrappings and the last two unwrapped. And while the oranges are lovely within themselves, the dark blue backdrop and veneer tabletop create a radiated, shining painting. When I stood at the gallery gazing at the painting, the woman alongside me gasped. She smiled shyly over to me and said, “When I saw this picture in the catalogue I didn’t think it was anything much but now that I see here it…well, I understand.” After all, how many pictures of oranges are there that can make a viewer gasp? Not many. McCloskey’s grasp of the beauty in ordinary objects and his ability to illuminate that beauty to the viewer is extraordinary. I too was taken aback by the tiny canvas and out of the hundred pieces I saw that day, “Wrapped Oranges” stood out like a beacon.

Feeling uncomfortable I was intruding on a stranger’s space in a train, McCloskey’s painting rose to my mind and I couldn’t help but smile and relax in my seat.  Remembering his gem was like a dose of good therapy. I recalled that the world is beautiful and that people have a tendency to want to share that beauty. My own present discomfort would soon pass. Perhaps my fellow passenger wasn’t too discomforted by my closeness. It was rush hour and we were all packed in anyway. After a little bit of gentle conversation, I found out she  had been to the Art Institute that day and she too had seen the beautiful “Wrapped Oranges”. We both smiled fondly, remembering the painting. We compared notes on the exhibit going on, “Art and Appetite.” Seeing and remembering art helped me to relax in my skin just bit more. An uncomfortable position became a pleasant one and while a small thing, it felt large. A tiny yet beautiful painting changed the dreary tone of an evening commute.

Comments (5):

  1. Cindi Eaton

    November 14, 2013 at 3:36 pm

    I came to your website & saw this painting, and even before reading what you wrote, I just stared at the oranges, at the tabletop, at the way the artist painted the paper wrapping the oranges. Though I’m sure there’s much more when seeing it in person, even seeing it here on your blog I was encouraged to pause, to enjoy the pause, the beauty. It was encouraging. It reminds me of the beauty around us all the time that we can miss. That I can miss. I think there’s something really special (dull word for what I’m trying to say) about seeing beauty, or a glimpse of beauty, and be able to re-create it or communicate it to others. Like the artist did. Like what you just wrote here. Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Catherine

    November 14, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    You’re very welcome. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I don’t know when you’ve been last to the Art Institute but I highly recommend taking some time to head over there and see “Art and Appetite.” I know you cook a lot and the exhibit covers the history of food in art and how people have thought about food in the United States. It’s a fun and interesting exhibit.

  3. Beth

    November 15, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    This was absolutely beautiful!

  4. Catherine

    November 15, 2013 at 10:12 pm

    Thanks so much, Beth! Art truly is magical.

  5. Dan

    December 31, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    I saw this last week at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth. It was in a room that contained other still life paintings. All of them were fantastic! The translucent quality of the tissue paper and the texture of the oranges make this piece stand out. I wonder how long it took to create this single piece – not counting the hundreds of other paintings he made until he achieved perfection.

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Tides of Snow and Ice

This winter has been a continuous series of freezes and thaws: it’s the warmest winter on record, the tenth one in a row. A more usual winter starts with a deep freeze and then stays cold for months. Instead, snow falls, piles up and vanishes; rises up again and retreats, now falling as rain, swelling rivers and creeks. Rain and snow mingle together until everything runs with water; hillsides and flat-sides are coated in a deep, dark mud.

I stopped on my walk today, halted by a sudden flash of gold. The sunset rays were falling into a tiny puddle spanning the space between the root and trunk of a maple. The puddle reflected gold and silver on top and below was dark mud, black and brown, full of microorganisms and other tiny creatures unseen by the human eye. I briefly considered putting my hand to the shining surface. It beckoned, winking like a diamond, but pull of my walk was irresistible and I continued forward. 

Mud is for March and April, mud so thick and heavy that it can pull shoes off and make them disappear like a magic trick beneath the solemn and still brown. Mud in February is a strange slight, an awakening that shouldn’t be occurring yet. It’s all the more cruel because even though the temperatures rise, they inevitably dip into the single digits and everything freezes solid. Many times I’ve spotted squirrels and tiny birds on the creek’s ice, searching for openings to drink from.

During this particular thaw, the creek casts off ice, it’s center opening like a dark cut. The water sings as it cascades over the rocks, proclaiming it’s momentarily relief from the grip of winter. In Scandinavian folklore, there is a belief that given the proper offerings, a creek could teach a human how to play the most bewitching music. I crouch down near the creek, record a video of it singing on my phone and replay its music in the evening while lying on the couch. I should give something in return for the pleasure of its song and I consider. Perhaps some lavender buds I have stored away for a certain recipe, or a small pinecone I keep on a shelf to admire, or birch bark I retrieved from a favorite tree cut down years ago. 

The next day I return, and after waiting for a few dogs and their owners to pass by, I crouch next the side of the creek and sprinkle lavender buds into the small, clear stream. The buds vanish as soon as I drop them into the water– as if they never existed. I drop some more in and the same occurs; they’re gone before I can blink. The current flows by, washing over stones, fleeting by banks of mud, until it vanishes around the bend where the pine trees tower overhead.

As I gaze at the water, first downstream and then upstream, my own self quiets, stills, and momentarily dissolves into the landscape. The relief, though short, is palpable. Alone becomes together and perhaps that is what’s this practice of thanking the creek has been about all along.

Winter in the Time of Climate Change

There is a stream near my home and I walk along it nearly every day; I know its moods and seasons nearly as well as I know my own. We are family and our connections are pure: we’re both made of water.

Every day brings more distressing news about the environment. Big changes need to happen but whatever change that does happen is so slow. Global warming is now being felt by everyone, some more than others. I go out and walk along the stream when the news and all the unfortunate future unknowns press in too hard. Right now, it is running fast. This winter has been a series of freezes and thaws. November hit hard with a heavy, deep freeze and I expected this to lead to a  white Christmas but instead, it’s been a muddy, wet winter, full of more temperate days than frosty ones. The thermometer rides up and down, every day propelled by a bouncing ball rather than a steady progression of tiny fluctuations.

The stream locks and then unlocks. It accepts each freeze and thaw with inestimable grace. After reading the news, it is hard to know what is near or far, here and up in the sky, in the mind or in the present moment. But the stream is always present, it knows no other moment. It lives in eternity; as David Hockney said, “It’s always now. It’s now that’s eternal.”

The creek is still here, I think to myself whenever I see it, it is still living. It runs forward through this strange January, sometimes under the ice and sometimes not. Patches of green moss dot the banks nearby, beyond that the nearby plants are broken, brown, and dried. They are asleep, listening to things I cannot hear, dreaming of things I barely know of.