SONG OF THE LARK by Laura Munson
When I was twenty, I had a summer internship at the Art Institute of Chicago in their Prints and Drawings department. In the afternoons, we’d assist visitors who wanted to view certain works of art in the by-appointment public gallery, and in the morning…we had the place all to ourselves. There were five of us, all wanna-be one day art historians, and about as many Phd curators who were happy to stop what they were doing and answer questions. So our days began in a vault full of stacks and stacks of boxes in alphabetical order. You name it—if there was a famous artist who put writing implement to paper, they very probably had a piece in this collection. Rembrandt. Rothko. Mary Cassatt. Matisse. Michelangelo. DaVinci. It was absolute manna, so typical of Chicago’s long line of artistic patronage. They had Cezanne’s sketchbook, for Lord’s sake. With his grocery list and his son’s drawings in the margins. I loved those mornings.
I’d spent the last school year in Florence, Italy after all, feasting on the Renaissance. I was in a place of artistic glut. Dizzied by an embarrassment of riches in the way of visual art and inspiration. So it was no small mistake that in that year, I decided to write a novel. Just as an experiment. I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t consider myself a writer. I considered myself an artistic person who wasn’t good enough to be an actual artist, so I’d be a champion of artists. It seemed more practical. More the sort of thing my North Shore parents and friends could relate to. More the sort of thing I’d been raised for. Maybe I’d work at Sotheby’s. Maybe I’d own an art gallery. Maybe I’d go back to school and get my Phd and become a museum curator. The only thing was…none of those prospects really appealed to me. Not when I was sitting in that vault deciding between Mary Cassatt’s aquatints and Matisse’s Jazz book.
Sometimes, I’d bring my journal in there and just write, feeling the hearts and passion play of those artists throbbing in my body. I was writing more and more, all about this girl who was a painter, living on an island in Greece, who had fled her life of higher education and societal expectation. The first line of that first book was “Claire sat on her patio wondering what to paint.” I was sitting in that vault, twenty, wondering who I really wanted to be. Who I really was. I felt trapped by my future. I was angry. And lucky for me, I was restless.
Each day at lunch, I would shove down a sandwich and head up to the main galleries of the museum, and I would wander them, memorizing their placement so that my emotions would surge in anticipation around each corner. I knew those galleries. I loved those galleries. But there was one painting that took my breath away, quite literally, every time. The Song of the Lark by Jules Breton.
The image is of a peasant girl, barefoot on a dirt road, holding a sickle in her hand, looking skyward as a bird flies by, the sun low in the sky. I was that girl. My true self was stuck in the wheel society had carved for me. Only mine was in no way the life of the peasant. Quite the opposite. Somehow though, I related with this girl. I was made of dreams that quite possibly would never come true too. And, like the girl, I was going to do something about it. There was no way that girl would be on that road in that peasant’s skirt and bare feet much longer, holding that sickle in that fist. She was going places. Probably that very night she was going to run away from home and hop on a horse going west. I’d follow her. What kind of lie was I telling myself? I wasn’t the person behind the art. I was the artist. I had things I wanted to put down on paper. Only they were words. So I spent that summer writing that novel in every free speck of time I had. And I haven’t stopped since.
Whenever I return to Chicago, I make a point, like a pilgrimage, of going to the Art Institute and standing before The Song of the Lark. It still takes my breath away; it still gives me chills. But the way I have come to look at it surprises me. Now I see something different in the girl. She did not leave. She’s still there. Another day in the field. She is not free. But the bird…the bird is free. And she’s raising that sickle, not against her lot in life, but against that bird. Against that freedom she will not know. Her fingers are drawn up like a fighter in both hands. Her mouth is slack like she’s been sucker punched. She is bound by that painting to which Jules Breton committed her. Where she once was my heroine, she now smacks as a willful slave. I am sorry for her, and I am sort of ashamed of her.
That’s what art does when it’s true. It’s alive in the heart. And we make it our own. At least I do, with this painting of this girl. I have needed to. I have needed to see that I have grown out of rebellion and into freedom. She is my reminder. The last time I went, in fact, I could barely look her in the eye, for all her victimhood. She couldn’t leave. You can always leave, I wanted to shout. No matter what your lot is in life. You can. And coming from privilege doesn’t necessarily make it any easier. So much to lose… But in the end, I learned that I am not bound by the painting that was painted for me. I am only bound by myself. I left that bondage, and I wrote and I am not that girl in the painting. I am, dare I say, the lark.
The beauty of it is that I’m sure there is a twenty year old girl somewhere, probably in Chicago, who comes to this painting and sees her fight and sees her flight and realizes it, in part, because of this girl’s raised fist and sickle. And maybe she will get on the horse and get out of town. Or maybe she will stay and paint her own painting of herself right where she lives, because that is possible too. That is perhaps more than I had the guts for.
And yes, maybe she will return one day, the fight out of her, and relate more to the bird in the sky. I hope that for her. I hope that we grow in the seasons of our life and that in the deliberate act of moving through them, we find ourselves with new pilgrimages to take and new ways to see.
Noah Riskin is a new friend of mine. He’s a writer and a photographer, a former national and international champion gymnast, an MIT teacher, and much more. He too knows what it is to take a stand for himself and to throw himself, in his case, truly out in the wilderness to find his way. And he too knows this very painting. Please enjoy his beautiful story and images. And may you be inspired to take your own pilgrimages. Maybe you already have, and maybe you want to help inspire others to do the same. I’d love to hear about them at THESE HERE HILLS. Yrs. Laura
PILGRIMAGE By Noah Riskin
“Pilgrimage to the place of the wise is to find escape from the flame of separateness.”
–Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi
I remember writing down the dream; the thrill and fear of what it meant as I sat inside the glow of a candle, 3AM. Somewhere on one of these shelves sits that journal. And, closing my eyes, I can still see the dream–at least the heart of it: I’m on a mountaintop. Not a snowcapped peak but a jagged outcropping of rock bordered by snow, high above tree line and domed by a pale blue sky. She is next to me; a young, ruddy-faced woman with fire-red hair and cerulean eyes. She is showing me how to make art straight from the earth.
I sat with this the rest of the night.
And, finally, after freefalling in my life for many months, I knew exactly what to do.
Now, twenty years forward, and for all of the work, travel and teaching positions
–to be honest,
I’ve lost my way.
At that time, life was relatively simple and so I doubled up on work (some welding and bread baking) and saved my pennies. I bought a sky-blue ‘78 VW minibus with camper top and a richly illustrated mechanics guide. In the weeks that followed I overhauled the engine and worked the interior into a living space/studio on wheels. The day before I left, I filled Mason jars with millet, red beans and rice and slipped them into compartments I’d built beneath the seat that folded-out as my bed. I filed painting canvases into a slotted carrier lashed atop the bus and filled the riggings inside with all of my gear. Early September I rolled out of the driveway, picked up the Mass. Pike and headed west.
Cocksure, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
That first night I made it as far as upstate New York. And, sometime after dark and a long fumbling with the camp stove, I lay curled-up in the bus on the edge of a Walgreens parking lot, cold and slowly losing it to a growing terror. The howl of a distant train, big rig thunder from the highway, a sickly cast of orange light that edged the lot and bus–what had I done? So, I sat there in the dark behind the wheel and pulled a pack of Camels as I decided what to do. I wasn’t going back to sleep. And, somehow, I wasn’t going back to Boston. With Store 24 coffee between my legs, I drove on into the predawn chill.
From here things moved faster:
Picture sky-blue minibus running long stretch of highway across western plains…
See sky-blue bus scampering distant mountain ridge,
winding river valley,
wandering lost roads…
Three weeks in and I still had no idea what I was doing. But, I knew how I might find out. It went like this: I’d choose some faraway place on the map and drive there on roads that feathered away, dirt to brush. I’d pick a place to park, make camp and then spend the evening planning hikes. Backpack loaded and a little nervous, I’d head out early morning hoping for some spot that would speak to me, a place to make the work like in the dream. Sometimes I’d leave the bus for a few days and camp on-site. Other times I’d hike to and fro, dawn and dusk, as if going to work. At night I’d sit in my union suit, boots and hat with a shot of whiskey, book and bowl of rice, the curtained camper lit round by a candle lantern. What I learned was that the places did, in fact, tell me what to do. And soon, I was making the work.
Using a heavy string I floated stones over a glacial lake. I climbed trees and suspended quartz pieces in a wave marking sunrise. I painted straight from the desert floor and walked spiral meditations in Colorado sand dunes. I made such pieces over two or three days, photographed them and then left things as found. So unfolded a collection of extraordinary moments, some inspired and some an insult to the species as I plummeted from a treetop, careened down a snow covered pass in a bus without brakes and jumped out of the camper into a stand of bison just the morning after seriously pissing-off a rattlesnake. The list goes on.
A few months later, while wandering through some small town, Wyoming after weeks in the bush, I rounded a corner and came face to face with a wild-haired and grisly version of me in a shop window so feral it scared me. But, I saw something else too; something she’d taught me. I was doing it. I was stepping into the world–into the present, naked as could be and, somehow, making myself whole. I could feel it.
Months later still, after looping the north and southwest chasing the warmer weather, I was in Chicago. I remember slipping into the bathroom for a shot of minibus-trip whiskey before the Art Institute interview. There I sat in a small office showing the Department Head slide after slide of my fieldwork. When he tired of me talking the cryptic nonsense I thought necessary to make it into graduate school, he stopped me with a simple question: Why? We both sat there in the silence until I muttered the only thing I could mutter: I told him about the dream and how “…it’s what I had to do.”
Weeks later, back in Boston, I was scrubbing around a toilet when my mother called. An envelope had arrived from the Art Institute. Should (could) they open it? And so, we listened together to hear that I’d won a full scholarship.
The trip continued on.
It was during my initial few weeks at the Institute, walking the stone-dense halls of the museum that I first stood before the painting. In The Song of the Lark by Jules Breton a peasant girl stands barefoot in a field at sunrise. She’s clutching a sickle and is utterly seized by the bird’s call. And, there I stood, clutching a sketchbook and utterly seized by the sight of her.
It was then that I understood a little something about the work I’d done; a little something about the work we all must do…
Now, cloistered atop a brownstone with pen and paper upon a mountain of past, I feel like I’ve lost my way. Everyday I get up at dawn and work the fields. But, the lark;
I think she’s flown away.
It’s not about going back. It’s not about finding another minibus and tracing the same route. Life doesn’t work that way. Besides, there’s something wrong if you’re not tearing it up a little wild in the world at 25. And, there’s something wrong if you’re still doing it at 45.
It’s more complicated now.
it’s really very simple.
Later, walking to the store in search of some dinner, I watched, listened a little more closely to the world for some small hint of my future self.
BIO: Artist, educator and writer; identical twin and former national and international champion gymnast, Noah Riskin lives and works in Brookline, MA and is currently finishing his first book, The Art of Falling: Coming Back to Earth in Search of One’s Self.