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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The Taste of Tea

A favorite film of mine, The Taste of Tea, centers on an eccentric family living in the Japanese countryside. They spend a great deal of time sitting outside, sipping tea and staring into space. They sit as a family, alone, or in a small group and no one talks. They just stare out into the deep green that is the summer. And then they get up and go on walks or go off to work.

The first time I watched The Taste of Tea, I was shaken and delighted that the film gave space and respect to one of my favorite pastimes: sipping tea and staring into space.

When spring grew warm enough, I was inspired by the film to sit outside and stare into my backyard in the early morning. The Taste of Tea had given me a sort of permission to leave stress behind and take this time for one of my deepest desires: to enjoy and contemplate nature while sipping tea.

I named my new practice “Sipping Tea and Watching the Grass Grow.” I felt ridiculous whenever I mentioned it to anyone but that hardly mattered. I was doing what I loved so much, watching plants grow, watching the birds and small animals moving through it all, and sky glowing blue and serene over us all.

 

Grass grows slowly, imperceptibly but after each rain, it leaps up by inches. The violets came in May and they lasted for weeks. After that the dandelions bloomed and I lost a little bit of my heart to them. The wind picked up their seeds and sent the white fluffs floating into the air in sweet, downy clouds. After that, small wild strawberries, glowing like fierce red gems, appeared in the lawn. Now at the end of June, a luxurious, emerald green covers nearly everything. It reaches up from the ground, covering fences and stones or it high overhead, green leaves moving in tall, imperceptible breezes.

 

The heat has settled in so now even in the mornings, I pour sweat while drinking my tea. On some mornings the birds are noisy and busy and on other days they are not. Sometimes a great big bumblebee comes tumbling along, droning in that low, hazy buzz as it investigates every surface and flower. And then sometimes it does not come. Some days the clouds are like fluffs of cotton, other days there isn’t a cloud in sight. Each day brings a new configuration, nature is never still. I watch it all and at other times, I close my eyes and listen to my breathing. I’m not alone, never alone, a part of a whole.

A Tale of Two Worlds

I walk past a window on my way to get a glass of water and note the snow falling outside.  As I fill my glass at the sink, my thoughts have already turned back to my work on the computer. I’m wrestling with the household budget, when I’ll fit some reading in, how to get on with my writing work, when I’ll exercise, when I’ll catch up with email correspondence and the list goes on and on.

Anytime I stop my work and look up, past the chatter in my mind, the snow catches me off guard as if it’s the first time I’m seeing it. I debate whether I can put off the grocery store to avoid driving in the snow.

This is the world of the everyday. It’s full of a thousand petty cares, some essential to living, others not as much but all in a lump group, tugging us along.

But there are times my mind needs something more refreshing, and it’s time to take a break. And that’s where music comes in—as powerful as Circe creating a circle of magic with her staff. I pick out music without words (or words I don’t understand). Today is Rimsky-Korsakov, tomorrow might be the film Phantom Thread’s soundtrack, or a piece of jazz played by Lucky Thompson.

As Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden starts, the circle opens. I come out of the everyday world and enter somewhere extraordinary, where beauty converges with life and cares and worries exit for a time. And all it takes is a little music, a little snow, and entering the moment that is now.

I watch the snow falling, noting the wind direction as the snow blows southeast and then drops and then exhales again southwards. I note the density of the snow, how it’s light and sparkling and then downy, heavy, and wet.  My thoughts finally still and I turn off the music. A heavy relief passes over my body and mind and I am still, watching the beauty of the world.