When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters.
“Watch your step!” Sheila’s warning coincides with my fall off the ladder, landing on my knees. She had told me not to come down the ladder facing away from it. This won’t be the only time I should have listened to her.
Realizing I would only have a few bruises, I stand up and face the giant painting we had started that morning. This is not my first time in Sheila’s art studio. I have come often to behold the metamorphosis of paint into landscape. For this visit, though, she tells me that rather than just observe, I’ll be collaborating with her to create a painting that we might use in our show.
I’m nervous and hesitant about this joint endeavor. What I learn is that art is a lot tougher work than I realized. This sounds trite. Of course, art is difficult. I know that landscape paintings don’t just appear out of nothing.
Still, I have no idea what to expect. The giant 10-foot canvas stares back at me, daring me to put a mark on its expanse of beautiful, blank whiteness.
To begin, Sheila uses gesso to prime the canvas. Afterwards, she mixes white and blue together and spreads them into sky, then uses umber with reds and blues and green to create the trunk.
“Hey, Pederson,” Sheila says. “Didn’t you write something once about trees or leaves or fall?”
“Yes,” I reply. “We could use that, I guess.”
I find the article, but am suspicious about what she wants it for. “Now, we’re going to put those words on the tree,” Sheila says as she hands me an oil pastel crayon. The black stick feels greasy and slippery. I wipe my hand and realize that an oily smear is now on my shirt.
Sheila puts the ladder up near the canvas. I climb up and begin writing my words on a limb of the tree: “ Falling is what leaves do best when the season turns from the hot intensity of summer to the crisp, chilly air of fall.”
It doesn’t take long to realize that the letters need to be much larger if the words are to be read from any perspective other than mine on the ladder. I use bigger letters, but while I rest my hand against the canvas to balance myself, I smear the sentence I have just finished. When I write on a computer, I hit delete and the words vanish. Not so with the words on a painting.
We find a rag, put turpentine on it, blot out the smudge, and wait for it to dry. I’m already tired from standing on the ladder, balancing myself, and writing on the canvas. I want to quit. Sheila’s the artist, let her do the work by herself. However, I’ve promised to try and so, after a long pause, I begin again.
About an hour later, I step back and realize that what was once the blurry outline of a tree has been transformed into the rugged, furrowed bark of a living bur oak. A landscape has appeared on what was only a blank canvas. I feel like my first-grade self, wearing a new pair of red patent leather shoes with bows.
As I’d learned, however, art does not come easily. Sheila leads me through the steps of what she calls “foreshortening” to give the tree a more three-dimensional perspective. She guides my arms with verbal suggestions. Some branches now appear closer, while others recede into the distance. I realize how much more I need to learn in order to truly see. I feel like the blind man Jesus heals in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus puts saliva on the man’s eyes, places his hand on him, and asks, “Can you see anything?” The blind man replied, “I can see people but they look like trees walking,” So, Jesus lays his hands on him again. This time the blind man looks intently and sees everything clearly.
Like the blind man, I realize that I am learning to see in new ways. The hard work of creating the tree, of transforming words into bark, of getting greasy smears all over my hands and clothes, means that I am no longer just an observer but now a participant in creating art.
Sheila reminds me once more as I climb off the ladder: “Watch your step.” This time I don’t fall. I move back and look intently. And then I can see: What was once a hazy outline is now a living, breathing tree.