Six years ago, almost to the day, I slipped on black ice and broke my ankle forcing me to spend six weeks in a nursing home and an additional six weeks in my daughter and her husband’s “handicapped accessible” apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan. They went about their busy New York lives, leaving me in the gentle care of the housekeeper, Julia. Unable to go out on my own, I found myself confined to the “guest” room with its glorious 11th floor views of the city, and nothing to do. In retrospect, it was one of the most productive, wonderful periods of my life.
A recent letter to the New York Times quoted the writer, Amy Tan, as expressing the “classic writer’s fantasy – going to jail to have enough time to read and write. “ In my case, I had six weeks of uninterrupted time to draw, finally understanding much of what I had been taught but never fully comprehended. Every morning, I pulled my chair up to the window overlooking West End Avenue, took out a pad and pencil and began to sketch the same scene over and over again for six weeks. I’ve never been much good at architectural rendering, barely passing the subject in college, but my initial efforts on a small 4”x6” scale were passable.
Hour after hour, day after day, I drew the same scene: all kinds of weather, light, and from different vantage points. The drawings grew somewhat larger, never exceeding 8”x10.” I generally finished one in the morning, another one after lunch. In a sense, I was proceeding on the path taken by Cezanne in his sixty-plus views of Mount Ste. Victoire, or Monet in his numerous views of the Cathedral of Rouen or his waterlily pond. By repeating the same subject matter, over and over again, I could reach its essence, go beyond the purely visual and create art. As I worked, I kept hearing Manet’s words: “There are no lines in nature.” He, of course, was referring to the way shapes are formed by flat areas of color butted up against one another, I was doing drawings and my shapes were formed by the black, white and gray of the pencil.
I discovered that the scene before me was constantly changing. In bright sunshine, the edges of dark and light were clear and defined; when the weather was cloudy or near evening, grayness took over, muting the buildings and the sky.
I had accidentally come across the perfect drawing paper, a heavy tan “butcher” stock I found lining tables at a nearby restaurant. It provided my work with a “middle tone” that allowed for deep charcoal darks and white pencil accents. Soon, without my being conscious of it, barely-defined people began to appear on rooftops alongside Classical arcades, ornate cornices and robot-like water towers. What were they doing? Going about their daily lives or contemplating suicide? The drawings took on a surreal, DeChirico quality that I liked. I had entered, without being aware of it, a psychological state known as “breaking set,” (literally, “breaking down a mindset”) referring to freeing oneself from habitual responses and thought processes. I now saw the scene before me, not as a drawing “problem,” but one of depicting shapes, the ever-changing light, intriguing shadows, mists and clouds, mysterious people and menacing black birds.
And then, fully healed, I went home, resumed my regular life and put the drawings away… until today, when I wrote this post.