Shell in Oman
I paint, and then I step back to watch what the colors will do. It’s one of those mysteries of life, a realm science can’t explain, why colors make you feel the way they do, as they blend, harmonize and sometimes irritate. The creative process is unlike any other endeavor. It brings all of your senses into focus. When I paint, I am my eyes, my ears, my touch. I am all of my senses, nothing more.
In my studio, the 81×65 cm canvas looms large before me. I begin to think…maybe I should have chosen a smaller canvas, maybe I should have taken more time to sketch it out, maybe this isn’t the right subject to paint…fear is speaking.
I silence the resistance by enlisting trust. Every creative endeavor requires energy and trust, patience too and ambition. I keep on keeping on. Desire is 99%, it moves me forward. I am listening, not to fear, but to that part of myself that wants to create. I’m opening the door and bidding her to come forward, “Here, you’re invited, won’t you stay a while?”
It’s a mind game, it feels like a gamble, 50-50 it could all go to squat, and then what?
I don’t answer that question. I’m too busy trusting. My brush moves compulsively, dabbing at the colors on my palette, mixing, swiping vivid strokes on the canvas. I want to fill the white space, but more importantly, capture the essence of this tiny broken shell I found on the beach.
The day I collected it, put it in my pocket, brought it home, washed off the sand, I felt it spoke to me. Not in words (thank goodness), but the mere fact that it existed, survived, had been tossed by the waves, but had come to shore, parts broken, with what remained intact so lovely so achingly beautiful. A delicate purple swirl, surrounded by hues of pink, yellow and blue. The colors were luminescent, almost emerging while I gazed on the surface. I was enchanted.
Somewhat rash and unthinking, I began to paint this tiny shell, only to regret my impatience later when I had to rework several angles, change colors, enlarge some parts, reduce others, but still, the process of creation, of coaxing this shape into life, was exhilarating.
I worked for a couple of hours, time flew by. I didn’t stop for lunch. When I started to feel real frustration, I knew it was time to let the oils dry—stop muddying the color. I needed to focus my attention on something else, anything else. But before I did, I took a moment to stand back and assess what had been achieved. To my dismay, I found the simplicity of the shell—what had drawn me to it—had evaded me. I was doing too much. It was simple. Why was I complicating it?
I put away my palette, washed my brushes and lay them to dry. All the while my mind stayed on the painting, reworking it in my head, trying to sort out what needed to change. If only I could consult with another artist, they might give me some insight. But wait…that was possible…in a way. I could consult with artists via google–the wonder of this modern age. I opened my laptop and searched O’Keefe, which is to say, I summoned her genius, creativity, and spirit. She is a master of simplicity and color and many other things, and her work often guides my path. I found exactly what I needed, an image of a shell and hope. You got this, she seemed to say.
With a vision of what was possible, I returned to the now dry canvas several days later. It was time to simplify, lay shadows, bring out highlights and come to some final conclusions as to the background color. There were decisions to be made and it took a few painting sessions before I made them all and completed the work. It was during this phase of the process, that I begin to understand something deeper….why I was so drawn to the shell to begin with, why I HAD to paint it.
A shell, after all, is a home, an abode for some small sea creature to temporarily set up shop; it’s a living quarter, built and used, then passed on when it’s time to grow bigger. Was not my own quest similar…to find a “home,” to understand this place so unlike anywhere else I’ve ever lived in the world?
I’ve been in Muscat for 7 months now, time enough to unpack and settled, but still, there’s a lingering sense I am not quite home. The “shell” or rather “home,” I’ve physically moved into, is still unfamiliar to my way of life and experience. My physical landscape is a bit unwieldy—6 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms, 4 living rooms and a gigantic rotunda situated in the center of it all—much like the round swirl of the shell, the starting point of the shape. Is it coincidence that this small found object that crossed my path, physically defines my space, even my brokenness?
I look at the shell, then at my painting. I ponder this revelation. The shell is an outer presentation while the organism that lives inside, stays relatively hidden. How much of me is still hidden living here in Oman? How much of others do I really see? The shell protects as it projects an outward appearance. I am living in a culture where women are covered from head to toe in black abayas and head scarfs. I cannot see the inner identity of a woman, but I know that within each similarly robe clad female, there is someone unique. I try to remember that my own appearance is also apt to throw people off. They might see me as a “Westerner,” when really, I am ME. I am my own version of myself and no one can define that by my outward appearance—my jeans, my age, my short hair, my weight, my skin color.
We are, in essence, a collection of beautiful shells, vibrant entities, not understood, unless we take the time to look deeper. Is that why O’Keefe painted shells? Is that somehow connected to the need I feel to collect shells and put them around my house and paint them too, on occasion?
I’m expert at over analyzing, but I really think I’m onto something.
My studio is on the second floor of our villa with southwesterly windows overlooking the Gulf. I watch the waves and the palm fronds tossed by the wind with a bird’s eye view. It is the gift Oman has given me, so much nature in constant view. I watch the people too, walking along the paved walkway. There’s an old man with a cane walking slowly, arm and arm with his wife, they look European. A man in a dish dash—a white robe—and hat is holding onto grocery sacks, more men behind him, they’re looking for a place among the palms to sit and eat. There are people lined up along the grassy knoll, facing the waves, a man taking a photo. Shells and people. I see a connection. My hope is to observe individuals with the same thoughtful attention I offer to this tiny shell. People are complex, but there is simplicity too beneath all of our differences.
I stop work on the painting. I’m not sure it’s done, only that I’m done. I know each painting must come to a close, but it’s never an easy task deciding when exactly to cease and desist (painting does feel rebellious at times). I’ve already got another subject in mind—palm trees. I’m going to sketch them out first, take a little more time to prepare so I spend less time fixing mistakes. Live and learn.
The birds are calling outside my studio window, the waves crashing. I don’t take any of this for granted. I’ve lived in so many different places, cultures, homes, countries. I know what it means to be temporary and that one day this too will be gone. But I’m just as certain of another truth—that this place will never leave me. Neither will this moment of clarity, along with all the other life lessons I’ve experienced along the way. I’ll keep my painting of this shell, hang it in my next home, as a reminder that each time we outgrow our abode, therein lies the opportunity to create and discover.