Dentro de nosotros existe algo que no tiene nombre, y eso es lo que realmente somos. Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.
José Saramago (Ensayo sobre la ceguera/ Blindness 1995)
Last week I went with my sister and parents to a museum in Denver called the Clyfford Still Museum. When Mr. Still died he wrote in his will that he wanted to give all of his works to an American city that would put all of his life’s work on display in one place. The bids went out and his wife interviewed many cities, finally deciding that Denver was the best option for the painter’s works.
Clyfford Still was an abstract expressionist, but much of his early work was of sketches of people and of nature. His artwork at the beginning of his career was of portraits or natural landscapes inspired by one of his childhood homes in Canada. He was an autodidact who taught himself to draw and paint and experimented profusely with many different mediums and expressions.
The museum docent, by name of Lindsey, who was just over a month away from giving birth to her first child, beamed as she described this man’s work. I wondered why she was so excited about his art until I eventually realized her impetus. We entered another room of Still’s works and after perusing a bit on our own she asked us to look at the smallest piece in the room. I can’t even remember what he used, to me it looked like chalk or pastels and it was next to the one that is pictured below (sorry, doubly, first of all I don’t know how to write about art and secondly I know posting the drawing below is probably against all copyright laws).
The piece depicted a rectangular splash of red at the left-hand corner which one could make out to be a truck if you stood far enough back. There was green grass dispersed throughout, and some seemingly random brown vertical lines that one could discern to be a kind of fence. It was beautiful! And the reason I thought this was when Lindsey said, with her perpetual smile that never left her face the 45 short minutes I knew her, something about the fact that you could only come to these conclusions about the painting because of what we already know. And from what we already know, we can then know that there is a red truck driving down a road that is flanked in green grass and a fence that has seen better days.
Lindsey proceeded to show us Clyfford’s abstract pieces that had as their central focus, life-lines. A term that Still had come up with that stood for living beings in his works. And they came across the canvases just as lines, and then just as colors, sometimes vast blank spaces where the onlooker had to decide what to make of such a depiction. And this is when I realized why our guide had been so excited. She knew that there was a lot that we, her audience of un-art-educated visitors, didn’t know about Still and his work. She filled in the gaps of our ignorance pretty well in this area. But she also knew that each of us had an imagination and we could paint our own picture of what Still wanted us to see–which may have been in our own mind’s eye, and not his.
After the tour I briefly looked at some of Still’s other artwork but was most interested in creating my own in a room where there was an interactive community drawing project as well as tables with art supplies galore where I drew to my heart’s content until the museum’s doors heaved their last open and close for visitor’s that night.
Sometimes it’s a relief to know that what we really are and what really is, doesn’t really have a clear answer, doesn’t have a clear depiction; and it is open to our imagination to figure it out. At the same time, we know that our true essence does shine through if we let it, and this light is what we become; it shines through us to other people and we might consider this light our soul.