Drawing the Way Home

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

A ball of red thread, unravelled as he entered, led Theseus out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth after he’d killed the beast, then returned him to freedom, safety and life.

During these days of restricted movement that we have endured - and some still are enduring - a daily walk has been the red thread to freedom, albeit a restricted freedom, and to some semblance of safety from the confusion of a mind in turmoil. Here in Spain, where we had total lockdown, even this small freedom was taken from us for almost two months. Luckily I live close enough to countryside and woods to be able to nip out very early in the day, before the rest of the world was awake, to get some daylight, fresh air and much-needed exercise. It was a risky business that could have earned me a fine of at least €600 - I did have to take cover under a handy mimosa tree on one occasion, when I heard a police drone flying around overhead - but it was a risk that I was prepared to undertake. Living alone and in a very small, dark and airless apartment, I would have very quickly lost my marbles without that daily exercise and dunking into nature,

Under the circumstances there was only one possible route. It led through woods for most of the way, and made a circuit of about forty minutes all the way round. I could work it clockwise, or anti-clockwise and rang the changes that way but, of course, it did become fairly monotonous. And then something extraordinary happened - the monotony acquired a ritualistic quality, richly laden with sensory experiences - the moist, early-morning scent of herbs, the crunch of pine needles underfoot, the rough feel of the bark on my cheek when I hugged the pine tree each time I reached it, the orange glow of dawn sunlight on the tree trunks on the edge of the woods ….each became an essential element of the set of my day, a connection to something outside of myself, my whirring thoughts and my churned up feelings.

The strange thing is that, even now that our lockdown has been lifted, that particular walk has become a mainstay of my week. I take different walks now, too, but that is one that I still like to take at least once a week. The familiarity of it is reassuringly stable. Safe - now that I can walk it without the fear that I will be punished for breaking a rule.

Without anxiety clouding my perception, I am beginning to be able to understand things about the significance of that walk - subtle things, that I can’t find words to describe. So I’ve decided to draw. Perhaps, I’m thinking, I will be able to express whatever is in my mind through drawings.

I didn’t dare to linger anywhere along the way during the lockdown, so took photographs on my phone to use as my source material when I was back in the safety of my flat. It works - kind of, but actually working in situ, in front of something or someone, adds that sense of immediacy that gets lost through the intermediary of a camera.

So, off I went, armed with nothing more than a small, hardback sketchbook (15 x 13 cm), a pencil and a rubber, with a plan to stop at various points along the way and make a sketch. Immediately I found myself with a dilemma. The first part of my walk is along a short stretch of road - and a lot of parked cars. In fact, you could say that the parked cars are what defines this stretch of road, and cars do not particularly inspire me.

But I had set myself a task, and this was part of it, so I had to confront my own resistance and deal with it. I did, and it was interesting to discover that I could tackle something as uninspiring (to me) as parked cars, but felt much more at home once I was back to nature.

That first time I was out for about an hour-and-a-half, stopped four times for between ten and fifteen minutes at each stop, and stood while I drew. The drawings are very sketchy - they are, of necessity, shorthand kind of drawings.

There was nothing to lean on, and it was not particularly comfortable standing, but it certainly focused my attention and has added another dimension to my experience of each location. There is one point along the route where it is the lay of the stones and rocks that define a little rise in the ground. Suddenly, when I was sketching, I realised how much a part of that place and my experience of that place those stones are, and I remembered hearing how, traditionally, the Australian aborigines would locate themselves in the stark outback by the way things like the stones and rocks lay and were orientated. And so I have a new perception and a better understanding of a remote and ancient culture too.

What treasure!

I have taken the sketches into the studio, and have been working them up in size, exploring ways of transforming them into something else. Not wanting to lose the compelling quality of the marks of those first sketches, I have been drawing with the paper fixed to a board that’s on the floor and my pencil attached to the end of a stick.

It’s a well-known technique that artists use to break away from the ego-centric control that stultifies our working process, and it is yielding some lovely passages that I know I could not create in any other way.

I’m not at all sure where I go next with this project. Part of me - the joyful part - wants to add colour.

Another part of me likes the idea of the simplicity of black-and-white. The only thing that I am sure of is that I want try my best to not lose the freshness, the immediacy and the intensity of the experience.

If this article has given you any pause for thought, if your daily walk has inspired you to create something - a story, or poem or drawing or painting - or if you have any thoughts about walks or places that help to keep you sane that you would like to share, I would love to hear from you. Drop me a line at marylynne.stadler@gmail.com

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