Lizzie and the bath

By Vita Forest


She sits on the edge of the bathtub and trails her fingers in the water.  The water is hot, but she knows it will not stay that way for long.  Still, she finds she feels slightly touched that he has tried to make it comfortable for her.  A lesser man would not have bothered.  She knows plenty of that kind.  She hopes he will work fast however, it is not the weather for spending long in the water.  He has moved the tub in front of the fire but she does not have great faith in that gesture either, although it too, was kindly meant. 

She decides to sit there waiting until he is completely ready.  How they fuss these fellows!  She looks down at the dress he has procured for her and runs her hands over the silver embroidery.  It is finely done.  She squints down at the stitches, noting the skill in the design.  She wonders who he borrowed it from.

He clears his throat.  She looks up a trifle scornfully.  She will make him speak, she decides.  She will not splash eagerly into the water like a playful puppy.  This is not an ordinary request he has made.

He has already described the scene to her; the dark water, the rushes, the ferns and flowers, the muted, cold light.  And the body of Ophelia reclining in the current, dead and beautiful.  Luminous and mad.  Yielding to the river.  Her fingers curled over a garland of wild flowers, the current gently loosening them as she floats downstream.  The flowers drifting over her skirt.  Lips parted, palms turned upward in surrender.

Lizzie had sniffed loudly as he demonstrated the pose (standing up, mind you).  He was quite caught up in it all, she must say.  He reminded her of those pictures of Mary or the saints.  Their palms exposed, a look of ecstatic agony on their faces.  Like they were enjoying the pain, finding comfort in the life draining through the holes in their hands.  She could understand that look.  She thought of Dante and sighed.

He clears his throat again and gestures to the bath.

‘Would you mind?’

She swings her legs over the bath and sits down in the water.  She grimaces as the water penetrates through the folds of the brocade, to her skin.  This was not going to be pleasant.

‘Now if you move down the bath a little, so your hair will float.’

He gestures again.  She stares up at him balefully.  He had it all worked out didn’t he?  She sighs and lowers herself down.  The water rises and she tips her head back, shaking her hair onto its surface and then pushing her head down through its web.  The water fills her ears until she is lying alone in a silent void. 

She looks up and sees him doing that saint imitation again.  She raises her hands out of the water curling her fingers against each other.  She looks down the length of the bath and settles her gaze on the top of the window behind him.  She glances quickly at him.  He nods at her.  She looks back at the window and tilts the top of her head under the water.  She can feel her hair drifting around her and then settling.

She can feel him looking at her.  She stares fiercely at the window.  She thinks about drawing.  Dante has been trying to teach her.  He stands behind her and points out small details that he feels she should include in her sketches; the shadows in the depths of a rose’s petals, the pearl of light in the eye of the stuffed pigeon he brought out one time.  She can see what he means.  It is as if she has been given a magnifying glass.  There is more to things when you actually look hard at them and forget about what they actually are.  She raised her pencil to the paper, fully aware of his solid presence peering over her shoulder.  She felt them both hold their breath. 

Forget about the word – forget Rose, forget Bird. 

Only look!

Just record what you see…

And yet…

If this was so, why is it Dante doesn’t see the shadows under her eyes, hear the fury in her voice when he talks of doing another painting of Fanny?

Her hands are sinking beneath the water.  She adjusts her elbows and lowers them down onto the bottom of the bath.  It is entirely uncomfortable.  She will have to get something to make it more comfortable.  She sits up hurriedly and the sound of water rushing back into the bath is as violent as an avalanche. 

John frowns at her.

‘I need something for more head,’ she says.  ‘To hold it up.’

‘I want your hair to float around your head,’ he mutters as he rubs his chin.

She waits in the bath, not looking at him, looking around at the room.  She needs to be made more comfortable.  This is not an unreasonable request.  He leaves the room and comes back with a blanket which he folds up into a parcel and then passes to her.  She adjusts it, then lays it down in the bath.  It should work.  She lifts up her hair and lies back down again, resting the back of her head on the wad of fabric.  Now she can relax her neck.  She nods up at him.  He stares at him a moment then hurries off.  What is it now?

He had forgotten the flowers.

She looks up and sees him standing above her clutching a hearty bunch of wild flowers, full of colour.  He stands solemnly over her and one by one, tosses the flowers about her face and along her body. 

Blue cornflower.  Red poppy. 

She feels a chill run through her body; it is as if she is looking up at a mourner at her own grave.  She remembers her mother’s burial, the gash dug out of the earth, the open grave, peering down into the darkness as she dropped the small posy of violets among the clods of dirt. 

John opens the palm of her right hand and closes it again over the few remaining stalks.  He walks away again.  She settles back.

She imagines wading into a river in this dress.  The ripples swigging at her fingers, the iciness of the water making it tempting to go no deeper.  And this dress – the fabric so heavy and long, she would have to fight it too.  Hauling her feet, one by one, into the cold, over the smooth stones, through the current, until suddenly it would be deep and strong enough to lift her and she would be part of the river.  She cannot quite think how death would occur, not knowing how to swim.  Would she float for a time before drowning?  Or perhaps this dress was so heavy there would be no floating.  Perhaps she would end as a pile of brocade and swirling hair among the stones of the riverbed.  She will have to ask John how it would happen. 

She glances at him.  Not now.  She knows that look.  She has ceased to exist.  He is busy with Ophelia.  His eyes move back and forth between her body and the easel but his mind does not register what he is doing.  He is under a spell.  He is possessed.  His brush is guided over the palette.  His eyes squint and frown. 

Lizzie looks away. 

 

This week

By Vita Forest

Indigo Slam, Chippendale


This week I have been

WRITING

READING Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (it is a ripper!)

WATCHING Viceroy’s House (recommended).

VISITING Chippendale Green for some sketching.  (I sketched Indigo Slam designed by William Smart.  An architecture student came over and chatted as I sketched and told me that all the furniture inside was specially designed too – including a table that seats 100 people!  This is a house that is designed to last one hundred years – fantastic!)

At Central Park, Chippendale


MEETING up with Vastra and Saskia at a favourite local restaurant where my favourite dessert was back on the menu (Flan Catalan – mmm!)

ENJOYING the autumn sunshine in Sydney.

 

This week

By Vita Forest


This week I have been

WRITING Crow

READING my old novel in preparation to rework it.

LISTENING to an inspiring interview with Tim Smit on Radio National (he instigated The Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project in Cornwall).

VISITING

  • with my old high school gang for a lovely meal and great conversation.
  • with Saskia and friends for another lovely meal and great conversation.
  • with family – to see my cousin up from Victoria.
  • a local national park with an Indigenous guide.

DANCING in the school hall for a very fun Zumba class.

MAKING 3D whimsical flowers with my class (potted up in strange receptacles in the style of Shaun Tan’s Eric).

STARTING our senior dance group’s rehearsals.

PREPARING for Parent/Teacher interviews next week…

 

This week

By Vita Forest


This week I have been

WRITING A stroll at twilight

READING two “old” books 

  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (an actual old book – an old classic and this edition itself over one hundred years old, with very thin pages inside a  stiff, maroon hardcover, the pages sewn together and with black and white illustrations of key moments appearing at intervals through the text.  Something I really like about this book is its size and weight – you can easily hold it in one hand, perhaps as you take a walk, as Elizabeth Bennet liked to do).
  • Hamilton the Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter (enjoying the content and even the look of this book -it’s a pretend “old” book, looking as if it were made in the 18th century, complete with rough-edged, thick pages and coming encased in a parchment-coloured hardback cover complete with title in what looks like gold leaf. I am also admiring the chapter descriptions such as this one for “Chapter 1  – on the Origins of Revolution, Both National & Musical, with Reference to Opening Numbers & White House Raps” love it!)

DESIGNING costumes for our performance group 

SKETCHING inside at the Museum of Contemporary Art as the rain continued to come down


SEEING one of my old students visiting there too

LOOKING after Max, home from school on Friday after a miserable night during which he was sick about 9 times in 6 hours… Needless to say we both spent much of that day sleeping.

DRIVING Lucy all over Sydney for social engagements…

WATCHING Sherlock Season 3 (he’s alive!)

Summer sketching

By Vita Forest

 

I perched on the slope on my plastic bag seat and stared at the paperbark that Katrina had pointed out.  She knew my fondness for old trees, gnarled trees, trees that had lived a little.  The branches radiating out, the bark twisting and peeling.  My book balancing on my knee and my pencil sharp.  I started mapping and tracing, scribbling and hatching with Lucy beside me, laying back on the grass.

A light fall of rain forced us under the canopy of another tree.  I adjusted my layout and with a bit of artistic licence, the drawing continued.  Lucy curled up on her side, reading her book.


Then we crunched over the gravel drive where the carriages used to circle and admired the dense sprays of flowers, buzzing with butterflies, swallows swaying over the grass and even a duck paddling its feet in the fountain.  Sunflowers ripe, clutching their black seeds, petals losing grasp, rusty grass swinging in the welcome breeze come up from the harbour, through those leaning pines.  They reminded me of the ones I had drawn in Kiama, ringing the showground, sprayed by the sea.

We sat on the verandah, gentile in cane chairs and I sketched again and Lucy read again.  Katrina sitting symmetrical to the path to the fountain, us on the right, the immediate foreground a burst of sunflowers stretching up above the grasses.  And I wondered how the others could stand to stand out there in the sun to draw the house?  The heat that drew lines of sweat down my nose and back, that smeared Katrina’s paper as she leaned her arm against it.  We sat in the shade and welcomed that unreliable, capricious breeze that wound its way up from the water now and again.  Lucy tested the grass, the soft velvet grass with a couple of cartwheels, a couple of walkovers and decided it was “good”.


And later we all tramped back down to the pond, resplendent in pearly  lotus, in mauve waterlilies.  We posed for photos, sketches under our chins and admired each others’ efforts and swapped stories and made plans.   And later, as we left, Lucy and I noticed some seeds underfoot and looked up to see the overhanging branches of a pomegranate tree, positively dripping in scarlet baubles of fruit.

Gargoyle

By Vita Forest


And Uriel says No, the man over there was not who we were waiting for.  A definitive NO, he was not a sketcher, he was full of rage and swearing and a moment ago, before we arrived, he had been shirtless, not a sensitive arty type, not one for contemplation.  No.  He was NOT part of the group.

Katerina sets up her stool smack in front of her subject.  She doesn’t look for a convenient corner or ledge or wall to lean against.  She doesn’t need a wall at her back to give her power, to give her anonymity, to blend into.  Katerina plants herself right in the middle of the stream, an island the curious will have to circle around it.  She owns it.

Who knew a stool could do that?

I crane up at a stone gargoyle gripping the wall with its six clenched toes.  It could be an owl, a bat, a creature from a nightmare.  Its toes are straining anyway, gripping that wall, about to launch, about to take off.  And a woman from over the sea, from another land, wants to capture me as I capture the gargoyle.  I am trapped on the ground with my sketchbook, mid-sketch, as it is trapped on the wall, about to take flight.  With gestures she makes her request and at my wry nod, comes to stand beside me, to embrace me, to drape her arm around me, as her friend takes the photo (quicker than my sketch), before she too, comes inside the camera’s view finder to stand with me and save the encounter for posterity.  What will they say about this moment?  My friend…  An artist… An Australian…  Will the caption and the tales told last longer than the time it took to take the photo, to construct this story of intimacy and relationship?  Was I like a wild animal momentarily tamed?  How brave to touch the now anaesthetized form of the king of the jungle.

I move to get a fresh perspective, and hear Tomas giving Winona a lesson in perspective.  He tells us that to be expressive, you don’t need to worry too much about perspective.  That’s lucky.  Buildings are hard for me, scare me a little.  I decide to scare myself and sit on the stone floor with the comforting bricks of sandstone at my back and look through an archway to my subject beyond.  My spot is cool and shady but people can and do stroll by, some nonchalantly glancing down at my sketch, surreptitious, furtive, curious without wanting to disturb or invade, playing it cool except for the small girl who peers down, leaning her hands on her knees unabashed and we smile at each other before she runs off, footfalls ringing on stone.

Around us, bells sing and chime.  Up in the tower, someone plays their song and sends it out over the rooftops, over the hills, how far?  The notes tumble and ring against the tiles and the glass and the stone, trickling down to the green green grass, emerald in its brightness, a stage we all face where tourists sprawl before drifting off again, before the heat of the sun becomes too much.

We skulk around the edges, in the shadows, looking in, looking up, looking through, looking past and measuring, recording, watching, the whisper of pencil on paper, the clench of finger muscles, the crick in the neck.  The buildings are at once intimidating and playful, orderly and rambunctious, authoritarian and welcoming.

This is where I came to see my friend’s choir, where I came for a lecture, where Josie Alibrandi raced John Barton in that movie (as Lucy reminded me), where students for years and years meet, and Tomas came in the past with his family on silent Saturdays and abandoned Sundays when they were the only ones around, and this is the place where brides and their entourages visit for the atmospheric backdrops to the beaded and brocaded.  And now we sit, facing in, around the periphery and study and record and express.

We draw.

A tale of two brides

By Vita Forest

From a hill in The Rocks

From a hill in The Rocks

After meeting my sketching pals near the quay, we dispersed to go our separate ways, to find our own preferred subjects, to see what would catch our attention, to do our own drawings, before we would meet up again later.  Some of the group gravitate towards architecture, some to street scenes, others hone in on individual plants – leaves, petals, stamens.  Some like landscapes, others tiny-crafted details – door knockers, statues, gates, while I seem captivated by people and plants (an aversion to straight lines?)  We use different media too – coloured paper, textured paper, tiny, discreet, hand-held sketchbooks, larger pieces of paper clamped onto boards, cheap cardboard and thick watercolour paper on wooden easels.  We use pastels, ink, paint, varying lead pencils through the range of “B”s, waterproof permanent pens, watercolour crayons and graphite.  Though we sketch at the same time and vaguely in the same place, it is exhilarating to see the diversity of styles, subjects and media.  And even though we might not see each other again until the end of the session, we offer each other some kind of moral support.

I walked up the hill and headed to the historical area of The Rocks.  There were historic buildings, there were tourists at cafes, there were market stalls.  I could sit on a step outside a shop, or on the ground in a park, or on a café chair, or stand against a wall.  There were endless possibilities.

I wandered through the crowded markets hearing gentle melodies wafting through the air and headed through a cool, narrow alleyway.  I climbed metal stairs, stone stairs and found a shady park against a cliff, overlooking rooftops.  There were benches beneath jacaranda trees, strewn with purple.  There were rusted silhouettes of household items set incongruously in the stony ruins of a house built up a hill.  There was shade (shade is a priority for sketchers as the weather gets warmer).  There was a gnarled and twisted pepper tree with delicate sheets of fish-scale leaves swaying in the breeze.  There was a pepper tree…

I swept purple blossoms off a wooden seat, flicked open my sketch book, chose my favourite lead pencil and began to draw the pepper tree.  As I drew, mauve bells sprinkled down from the jacaranda tree above, tourists wandered through the outdoor rooms snapping selfies on their phones, and a bride and her posse clanged down the metal stairs in high heels, cameras swaying from shoulders, the train of her skirt held high by a friend.

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I finished my sketch and walked down to the market place.  There was a busker on one side whose music I did not like, and another couple further on that I did.  (Music and other ambient noise is another consideration when sketching).  I found a discreet table by the side of the plaza and sat and looked at the scene – the busker with jaunty hat strumming his guitar and singing a mellow tune, the onlookers relaxing at circular tables, the trees and plants framing the scene.  The people staying still.  (This is an issue for my drawings – sometimes my figures become an amalgam of a bunch of different people if the subject moves on too fast).  I pulled out my pad and drew again, conscious of people peering over my shoulder, but continuing nonetheless.

The Busker

The Busker

What kind of sketcher are you?  Do you announce you are an “artiste” setting yourself up squarely with your equipment spread out about you? Or are you incognito, hidden in plain view, a recorder of the scene without being a performer?  There are added difficulties if you draw people.  It might be fine to have onlookers scrutinize a scene of the harbour, but it is a little disconcerting to have your subjects break down that “third wall” and come and look at how they have been portrayed…  And yet, I understand that if someone is drawing, you want to see what it is that they are working on.

There was still a little time left, so I strolled back to the harbour and tried to scribble a few quick portraits while I waited.  But the people were not cooperative, kept moving, kept rushing on, not waiting for longer than it took for a quick selfie before striding away.

Then I saw the bride.  Hobbling along in her high heels, train held off the ground by a photographer’s lackey, her groom on his phone chatting.  (It was very romantic).  The photographer had scouted out a good spot with a view of the Opera House in the background and so they stopped.  Perhaps if I was quick…  I stood under a palm tree and scribbled it down – the assistant adjusting the veil, the proprietorial black stripe of the groom’s arm around her waist, the tight fists of roses in the bouquet, the skirt billowing in the breeze.  And they held their position for just long enough.

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The photographer was happy and so was I.