Saturday, December 18, 2010

Moments of transcendence

Last week I called in to see my artist neighbour, John Knapp Fisher. He is one of the finest painters in Wales , working from the small village of Croesgoch on the North Pembrokeshire coast. On the walls of his house come gallery was a tiny water-colour of a bare field, the furrows white with snow, trees stark against a bitter sky. It was dated 1962; the sticker said, Not For Sale.

I was living in Suffolk when I painted that, he told me. I gave it to my father and when he died I had it reframed. I reminded John that I owned a similar picture that I'd bought off him twenty years ago. I did a number that year, he replied. But you know, I remember everything about this one: the smell of the field, the trees bending, the taste of paint on my lips. I remember the brush strokes, the colour of my water - everything, everything, he said again.

I smiled as John talked. His words said more about the intensity and integrity of the picture than could any formal description. I knew too, something of what he was saying.

On my computer is a photograph of Dan and Michael when they were small. They are lying together on a double bed - the visitor's bed, we used to call it - where they would often choose to sleep together. I remember thinking they looked like figures by Klimt. And I remember too the smell of that room, the warmth of their breath as I kissed them and pulled the covers over their soft bodies. I remember Michael stirring, and me standing for minutes, watching them from the half open door. I remember dimming the light, the sound of the TV, and the taste of salt on my lips as I walked downstairs.

I suspect we have all had experiences like this. Moments when, for whatever reason and perhaps for only an instant, we see things differently. Moments that burn into our consciousness, unlike the billions of others that we will never recall.

A few months ago I watched an interview of the scientist Buckminster Fuller. He was talking about a girl in a white dress that he'd noticed walking off a ship, fifty years previous. I don't suppose she even saw me, he said; and yet not a day of my life has passed without me thinking of her. Why was that he wondered, and what did it say about human memory and consciousness? 

The truth is I can barely remember the details of my sons being born, and yet if I think of climbs I did in my twenties I can bring to mind the shape and sequence of each hold, the pull on my fingers, the strands of heather on the ledges, the harness on my waist...  And more darkly, I have images from my childhood, of a father with manic depression and little self control, that have haunted me for forty years.

The artist Terry Frost said that his painting could take that long to gestate. In his later life he was painting the fields and boats and sunsets he had seen as young man. The late Pembrokeshire painter Peter Daniels said something similar to me once; I'm interested in the moment of seeing; the instant before consciousness, before we categorise and commit the image to memory.

Talking to John last week reminded me of this. It reminded me too of how art - be it images, music, or writing - is a means of connecting with a world beyond ourselves. And how when that happens, even in some small measure - even in a photo of two sleeping boys - it can bring back memories that are more vivid and real than the taste of the coffee I have just put down.


  1. Me too. Since my grandfather died last year I had so many forgotten memories returned to me or unlocked - not sure what - none of them significant in their meaning but, by God, the details in them are cinematic. They are a great comfort.

  2. Now I know why I enjoy reading your posts... sheer poetry at times, and wonderful use of language. The sight of one's children sleeping is one of innocence, and you immediately want to keep them safe more than at any other time, for they look so vulnerable, asleep. Then they grow into hulks of men in their late thirties and early forties - and you still want to keep them safe!
    Merry Christmas and all the best for the New Year, if I don't get chance to say it later.

  3. How lovely, I wonder why the mind selects some moments to recall in such detail, even though they seemed quite insignificant at the time?

  4. I was lost in your writing here Mark. Beautiful.

  5. I think your quote from Mr. Daniels describes it for me...
    Thank you, a beautiful piece of writing if you will allow me to say so.

  6. I think the first time I realized this whole point of your post, was when I looked back in memories and saw a drawing I did and I saw a painting I saw in my head and most of what I have done is already planted in my head and getting them out and visible is my life as Abraham Lincoln (me) saw it, painted it, drew it or wrote about it. Marvelous post.

    Thanks for visiting the last model from the Lincoln Production Company, Melissa. Copy and paste the link below to see what Mark saw.

  7. I've been struggling with several snow paintings this past month, they've all gone in the bin - now I know how, thank you, thats a wonderfully expressive painting.

    The writing is not half bad either :)

  8. What a beautiful post, one of the best I have read this entire year and one that has really made me think about memories and expression. You have totally inspired me. Thank you Mark!
    Have a wonderful Christmas in your new family house and I hope it provides some more wonderful memories x

  9. A lovely post, and so true. Since her passing, I find myself recalling small details about my mother I believed forgotten...

    Have a wonderful time in your new home and I hope the year ahead will be a good one.

  10. This is so beautiful and touching. Probably the best bit of writing I've read this year. Thank you.

  11. What a brilliant post. Thank you x

  12. Mark, this is a great post as always and so intelligently written.

    The memory is truly an amazing thing. I had a bit of a rough time with my daughter's birth and never think about but agreed to write my birth story for Maternity Matters, as I sat there writing it I realised that I remembered it with almost photographic detail. All my thoughts, feelings and sensations came flooding back. Memories are so often tied to strong emotions of love, fear, anxiety, longing, joy...the list could go on and this embeds these moments within a little cupboard in our minds just waiting for one day to be jolted back to the forefront.

    Thanks for sharing this moment in time with us for the Maternity Matters Meme. And personally I would like to thank you for you sharing your art with us and making me want to hone my own craft. x

  13. What a well-written memory - I can almost feel your emotion. I love to watch Baby Badger sleep (and not just because she's quiet!) - she looks so serene and peaceful.