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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Winter Aconite & Snowdrop

Spring is whimsical and wary right now, first appearing in a patch of sunlight and then fleeting away in an ice-cold breeze, only to reappear a little later in the liquid song of a redwing blackbird. I wear my winter coat one day, a hoodie the next, and then it’s back to the winter coat the next morning as a heavy frost sparkles on rooftops. Only recently have I given up my thick scarf, though if there’s a wind tomorrow, I may have to pull it out of the closet and wind myself up in it once more.

None but the bravest flowers are blooming, the winter aconite and snowdrop. Winter aconite is a small yellow flower that’s easy to overlook; it remains shut until the sun has deeply soaked its petals, then pops open like a tiny jewelry box to reveal gold petals centered on delicate pistils and stamens. The snowdrops this spring huddle close to the ground, nearly lost in the mud and dead leaves. As of yet, there are no daffodils blooming—their leaves have come up only an inch or so out the brown ground. They are cautious and since it freezes each night, I cannot blame them.

Beyond the flowers there is the ground itself: a muddle of browns, thick with the rotted tree leaves and the dead foliage of last year. There is nothing lovely to see here, only the form of the land itself. It swells and slopes up from the river, lies low along the horizon, and finally drops into a ditch.

On an unexpected day in early March, once the snow disappeared, city workers came to clean up the young trees and invasive species that have been growing avid and unchecked along the creek near my home. It is the first time I can see the contours of the land clearly in all the years I’ve been living here, and I’m struck by the curves and lines that slope down towards the creek, a rollicking bed of dark brown that makes a strong contrast to the bright blue overhead. The undulating land here is small but it’s a dream, a reason, a mysterious being that wraps through the neighborhood’s mind. Soon enough, this dark and curving space will be clad in green, heavily wreathed by plants, bushes and eager saplings. But for now, it is bare and exposed, revealing the dark space between winter and summer. This is where the wind snaps cold like a knife, but the brilliant sunshine keeps calling everyone out despite the drear.

Tips on Surviving the Never-ending Winter

It’s been a long, hard winter. Now that it’s mid-February, the cold days have started stealing into my bones, urging me to stay in bed and sleep until the warm weather comes. As much as I long to take a three month long nap, there’s stuff to be done and living to do.

I’ve gotten more intentional about warding off the winter blues this year and not let myself, mentally or physically, wander off into a nearby snowbank and fall asleep. I’ve been observing and writing down little notes to myself on what lessens the gloom. These notes have become guideposts of sorts, gently illuminating the path through a difficult winter.

  1. The first guidepost may be the most essential: drinking hot beverages continually and consistently helps to ward off the deep cold. I brew a small pot of my favorite breakfast tea blend in the morning, switch to ginger and lemon herbals mid-day, and then return to caffeinated teas like black or green at night. Other people love coffee and others their tisanes. Find one or many and slurp away happily all day. Hot drinks are so deeply comforting when it’s cold and dark.
  2. I’ve learned to take walks even when the weather is crap. Obviously if everything is sheeted in ice, a walk isn’t going to happen but for the those other days, time willing, I make an effort to head outside. There’s the exercise aspect but more than that, it’s important for my spirit and soul. I walk to de-stress, to come in contact with a bigger world than my own, and to climb out of my circular thinking. There’s something about the rhythm of walking that clears junk out of the mind and soul. Our bodies evolved to walk over this earth and so when we participate in it, the old rhythms occur. Walking is a way to feel freedom. And it’s a way to fight too. I feel incredibly alive upon coming inside after walking through high winds and bad weather.
  3. Reading extensively helps to cast off the smothering feel of an endless winter. Last winter I read Alexander Pushkin and discovered the joy of reading Russian literature during the dead of winter. This month, I read City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, one in a pair of sisters that wrote during the mid-1800’s. City Folk and Country Folk is a delightful satire, ridiculing a variety of “city folk” and everyone else besides. Among the cast of characters is the intellectual Ovcharov, a dead ringer for Austen’s Mr. Collins. The book centers on neighbors visiting each other, eating each other’s food, drinking each other’s tea and generally getting on each other’s nerves until they all decide to stop visiting one another. Needless to say, I adored this plot line.
    And after a three month long wait, I received The Library Book by Susan Orlean from the library with two week checkout period to read it. No way was I going to read part way through, return the book, and then have to go back into that long waiting line. I set up a rough estimate of how many pages I needed to read a day to make the two week goal and then started. To my surprise, I enjoyed having a book reading goal and  diving into Orlean’s generous and easy-flowing prose every evening.
    My last read for this month is Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom. February is Black History Month and the perfect time to read his work. I’m only a few chapters in but his thoughtful and beautiful prose has pulled me in hard into the tragedy of his story and it’s hard to stop reading his eloquent prose.
  4. Spring will come. It feels so far away and even the evergreens and pines are looking haggard but it will come. When the sky is a certain shade of blue, I remember that it will. I remind myself of this daily.