Scents and memories of the world contained in an unassuming plastic box, small enough to be held in a pocket, a handbag even. Potential to be unlocked, hopes to be feared for their fragility. The blue of once lapis, the red of iron oxide… and one pauses to ponder the power of iron over man’s world… surely this color too holds something of that power, something of red rocks rising into solitary air, something of the clang of the blacksmith’s tools, molten iron plunged into steaming water, to froth and boil in its role in the alchemy of swords and breastplates and horseshoes. The green of leaves and fresh grass, distilled from old copper, the stuff of vessels and garnish of objects once daintily held. The white so treacherous, the poisonous lead oxide of light, bound to be held prisoner and changed through the years, cursed to turn black for the hope it brings.
Blessed Leonardo, did you not know? How now will we teach our bored schoolchildren of your glory, how now will we ever see your vision? Lead’s treachery has fossilized through the centuries, legible now only to those who dare to reverse, to remember through the negative images of your mastery, a sacrilege it is considered, this reversal, yet the only path to your hidden truths… The ochres and siennas and umbers of earth, passed through fire or not so, earthy always, ancient as the days, honored once in long forgotten rites, underground caves, keys to the secrets of our race, still vital to the rendering and immortalizing of life. These are the contents of the box, these and a small, standard size paintbrush, quality irrelevant, these and the hopes of the shaking fingers that hold it along with a threatening jam-jar of water, that which can dissolve and dilute, mix and transmute, fated to turn muddy and be discarded, yet without which the power of the box cannot be unlocked.
Watercolor then, watercolor of romantic Victorian ladies and English meadows, the watercolor of school-children and hurried artists, the water color in thrall to its watery nature and stubborn indeed, too thin now, too thick now, a transparent wash which will nevertheless leave the stamp of its passage across white, absorbent, too-accommodating paper, bride willing, blithe and keen in her innocence born of watercolor illustrations in her storybooks, watercolor like water which will flow as nature orders, watercolor so delicate and suited to flower petals in their transient beauty, suited to a maiden’s blush, only suspected in the movement of the light, small blocks of color awaiting liberation from the plastic box shoved, often unceremoniously, into a bag, a pocket, a hope of creation on this day also.
A sunset on an Eastern cliff, red sun descending into the sea beyond, gulls swooping and wailing, water water all around but not a drop to drink. Mere forgetfulness accompanied the muse’s calling and desire for solitude as the duty to bear testimony on this, unique sunset sank below the horizon. Feverish, tense, the artist’s body must now replace necessary implements, fingers become brushes, saliva becomes the water, mouth reddened and blackened in the service of memory and reflection of this beauty, hair uprooted and twisted with grass for a better brush…. only blood remained…on this blood-soaked, hallowed, yet so beautiful land, to complete the true nature of the colors’ need. Yet the picture was completed, the gulls too were honored…. the waves imprints of human spiraled fingers, the sun’s reflection also. The urgency which brought the image into being, exposed not on the page, not on the celebrating paper bride of color, only in the artist’s eye, only on the stains under nails and forgotten in lips already painted, on the memory of endless possibility. Memories burned into the mind as it lay beneath a mother’s heart, memories burned into the bones as they followed and grew in the spiral patterns of their ancestors, memories burned into the flesh as it seeks to immortalize its transience, memories burned so deep that to raise them is needed water of the body, fire of the mind, air of the sea, salty and earthy at once, earth bloody with its own memories and with the rays of the setting sun, land still called blessed by those, human and not so, who yet weep and bleed in its name.
Tied and bound in silk and velvet, the journey from the Orient but a slim memory now as warmed by the white body, such elegance fated for the silkworm’s toil… the song of the dead whale floating around chaste, dimpled knees and ankles, ahh my brethren, my companions in the deep cold waters of the north, ahhh the fjords and well-wished blessings on the small creatures that will be our downfall, ahhh the memories of the time we walked on land and the reasons we left it, ahhh the leaps from our watery home to breathe, to dance, in the air and in the depths, we who hold the secrets of the depths and dance for the Kraken, unfearing, we who join our loves in stormy waters and with the blessing of lightning… these are the green fields we dreamed of when we made space for these creatures millennia ago, we who bore testament to the sinking of the golden land, this was our purpose and our fate, to bind together ribs and softly mounded breasts, to keep too much air from entering these apple-blossomed lungs, to keep soft these voices to give inspiration to the poets… ahhh my brethren, my companions, this was our fate as the sharp blackness drew blood and we were triumphantly raised into the air for evermore… lace feathering more secret places, hands blissfully free, the ankles crossed, the head, elaborately coiffed and curled, is elegantly raised. Eyes narrow and rosebud lips delicately purse. Virginal mind now given over to the secrets of color and water, inexperienced dives into their depths, treacherously seeming shallow. Green meadows and cow-bells, sweet images of maids for seen at a distance they are all beautiful, their songs so sweet… not a thought for the grime of cattle-sheds, the prickling of straw that was their entrance and will be their exit from this world, the poverty of blighted vegetables and the pains of bent backs, knees encrusted with mud, hands chapped by winter sores, no. Only gaiety, dances around the maypole, song raised to the Lady of Spring and the mystery of Yuletide. Shhh, black cats have no place in this story, but they will not be forgotten, assuredly not. And it is thus that the sweet white hand, kid glove on lap for preservation of its snowiness, may bring to conjugal life on the sheet, the greenness, the blossoming, the sweet maid’s song to her shepherd love, the mansion’s brick walls, but not its ivy, its scarring, its shadow, that too must belong in another tale… all of this while dreaming of the poets’ words and stories told from mother to daughter in an unending cycle of lies. All this, watercolor hears. All this, embedded in its deceptive powdery softness, to be released by water, needs must be grasped, controlled – controlled? – before it sublimates, before it too spirals up to join with all the more memories and the frustration of yet another paper bride ruined, a slim booted foot stamped in disappointment of failure, a gentleman’s soft laugh of contrived comfort, a maiden’s laugh and now rough fingers slamming closed the box in irritation and dismay.
All this and more belong to the box. All this and more must be negotiated, brought out of the senses before watercolor will deign to answer the artist’s call. For the most transient and transparent of colors holds the longest memory, in its bondage to its element, which it serves most faithfully. For in the case that the element is justly honored, only then shall the colors dance, only then shall the colors break their secret spell. The nature, attributes and demands of water cannot be underestimated, misused. Sustainer of life, undulating, turbulent, deadly and life-giving, it has no need of us, no need to teach us nor trust us. It is the artist, again as sacrificial victim and sagacious wanderer through these paths of color and element that must unlock the box, unleash the color. The price of failure is not a steep one, it seems, one to be paid in disappointment, perhaps dismay, but the compounding of these is as the dripping of water, the power of which was proverbially discovered in the Orient. And why, we may rightly ask, is this of such import? Flimsy, transient watercolor, fading through time, lacks the stability of other media, cannot give such glorious power as can oil, enamel, marble or gold. Ah yes. It is so. But the secret of this Pandora’s box cannot be so easily dismissed. Glacial power to hew rocks and move mountains was but water in another guise. The determination of ocean waves to shape continents is carried in the spray that sprinkles lovers’ faces on coastal roads in the cover of night. Not a drop of water is ever lost as it cycles around us, inside and out, carries the blood in our veins, gives shape to our grief in teardrops and our passion in its joyous flowing, a tide which may bring forth life. It is not the secret of color that is to be unlocked, it is the secret of water, for as color will fade and seem to perish in the arms of its yellowing, shriveling bride, the path of water will remain and etch in memory, carry on its inexorable passage through time, mneme and spirit. The color is controlled, owned and bound to water before it ever enters, much less leaves the box. Water cannot be held, only guided, perhaps coaxed.
And so it is that this ode is woven in its honor, so it is that so much color will be sacrificed in its name, so it is that the whale song, the virginal blood spill, the winter rains and mud in fields, the crimson Eastern sunset and stained fingers will all kneel, twist, gyrate, groaningly yet in smiling supplication. It remains for the eyes shining in the red rays of the dying of another day, the spray-salted cheek, the sienna stained spiraling fingers to reach the painted lips, the hair to be entwined with color and the water dance to begin with the waiting paper bride until such time as the bride is made flesh and water with her blood of mercury.