Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ages pass, and still you pour

Ages pass
and still you pour
and still there's more
to fill.

Your infinite gifts
come to me

only on these very small
hands of mine.

Ages pass
and still you pour

and still there's more
to fill.

For Julia Ingersoll, who spends her time painting, teaching and exhibiting in Tuscany and Big Sur, this mystical prayer by Bengali poet Tagore comes as close as words can to describing her experience as a landscape painter.

Julia and I chatted a few Saturdays ago at what she calls our local "piazza": Loma Vista. Back in the 80's, when I was escaping the City, I remember it as a sleepy gas station next door to falling down greenhouses filled with peaceful pastel begonias.

In those ante-diluvian times, the sign with the marquee style plastic lettering on the highway said simply, Gas, Cactus, Beer. People were always asking for the "Cactus beer" when they stopped in to fill up their tanks. Now it's the site of a delightful cultural center and famous restaurant, but you can still pitch coins into the moss covered fountain for the volunteer fire brigade, and enjoy the view of Mt. Manuel to the north, especially beautiful at dusk.

Julia had one of those challenging but blessed childhoods that seem to create fearless artists: Growing up the child of academics with a dose of wanderlust, Julia was schooled in Paris, and lived in a village in Morocco. She spent summers in Greece, Portugal and Austria. Coming back to the US, she rode horseback in the shadow of Mt. Shasta and bicycled in the Colorado Rockies. It was, she says, similar to what Big Sur kids experience. "No one told us there were things we couldn't do, so we did everything we could think of, without fear."

It's no accident that she now teaches painting in Tuscany for Women's Quest, an organization that offers retreats all over the world, and whose slogan is a quote from poet Mary Oliver, "What will you do with your one wild and precious life?" As I write this post, she is teaching landscape painting in medieval Tuscan villages, having just launched an exhibit of her work as part of an art and poetry festival in Bolgheri, Italy.

In college in Boulder, Colorado (where she graduated in Philosophy), Julia developed a passion for mountain biking, competing internationally for almost a decade. Her career included racing for the National Team in the World Cup. These years gave her the opportunity to travel, make money and pursue her love of drawing and painting, something she has done all her life. During her last race, she vowed she would "never pin a number on again," and chanted "all I want to do is paint" to herself as she crossed her final finish line. Later that same day, she signed up for a live drawing class in Boulder.

After apprenticing 5-6 hours a day with painters she admired, her hard work earned her a spot in the Florence Academy of Art, where she thrived. During her travels she became a self-proclaimed "Italophile" adding Italian to her fluency in French, and looked at lots of religious art. "Madonna con bambino, Madonna con bambino, over and over" she says with a flourish, adding that "and in the backgrounds of all these paintings one sees landscapes."

"The presence of the sacred was a huge part of everyday life in the Renaissance world," Julia says. "And today," she adds, giving credit to the great 19th century American painter George Inness, "instead of characters from sacred mythology imposed on a landscape painting, you have it emanating from every leaf, the sacred shining through Nature itself."

Which brings us to Big Sur. Julia's been living here for 4 years, mostly on a coastal property with panoramic views of the Ventana Wilderness "back country". Like many Big Sur pilgrims, she had no idea she would be starting a new chapter in her destiny when she stayed briefly at Esalen Institute, which she calls a kind of "butterfly sanctuary". But one thing led to another, and now she's one of us.

Today, when she rides her bike on the Coast Ridge road and looks east towards the Ventana Double Cone, and west toward the Pacific Ocean, she muses on how the ocean is infinity in terms of space, while the mountains are infinity in terms of time. Big Sur and Tuscany compel her to paint like no other places on Earth.

"The veil between the worlds is very thin here," Julia says. "Spirit is in all the land, not just in a few sacred spaces. But in places where the land has been abused, spirit retreats. Here in Big Sur, the land pulsates with spirit. Everybody feels it. You can feel your heartbeat in the waves, the soaring of birds, you can't not notice that all life is one."

"All of this is so vivifying," she adds, flashing me her million-dollar smile. "Sometimes I think that being a painter is just an excuse to be out there in IT," she laughs. "You can't paint what's really there, anyway...It can be hard sometimes to be face to face with this ecstatic quality of Nature. It can push at your limits of what you can receive."

After our chat, Julia rides home on her bike. "Hey, where's your helmet?" I call out, and she just smiles that smile back at me. As I drive away, I repeat softly to myself "Ages pass, and still you pour, and still there's room to fill."

The Gathering Hour, Oil landscape by Julia Ingersoll
At Loma Vista
November Cypress, Oil, 24 X 30, Julia Ingersoll
The artist in her element

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Late Summer Walkabout

Sometimes, when we're looking for that land over the rainbow, unlike Dorothy, we have to go farther than our own backyard. Although I live in the soul-opening majesty of Big Sur, I still feel a touch of wanderlust. Due to the "recession" we are mostly in stay-cation mode, but work, long overdue social and family visits, plus a compelling art exhibit called us out of Oz into the larger world.

San Francisco's De Young Museum exhibit "Birth of Impressionism" was mind-blowing, and dovetailed nicely with my husband's gig as a wine sommelier at the SF Chefs Food and Wine Festival. We dreamed and sighed over the Impressionist paintings on loan from the Musée d' Orsay in Paris, sharing the audio tour as we wove through the crowd.

Seeing the canvases in person (v. looking at reproductions) is like listening to live music instead of recordings. You are there beside the artist making the brush-strokes. These paintings hold immense energy. How radical these painters were, to paint exactly what they wanted, and to show so perfectly what they saw. In the early works (think: Bouguereau) I decided that no, that was not paint, but luminous flesh on the canvases holding those figures lifting lamps or sprouting wings.

I have so many favorites from this exhibit, and am eagerly awaiting the Post- Impressionist show at the De Young beginning later this month, but what stands out to me now are Renoir's The Boy with the Cat, and Stevens' The Bath. Sisely's painting of The Barge During the Flood, Port-Marly occasioned this comment from my husband, "I was there!" I had to laugh, but then was surprised to hear him mentioned on the tour as a former patron of the pub on the edge of the Seine (kidding).

Later we dined on the best pub food I've ever enjoyed at the Phoenix Irish Bar on Valencia St., followed by a drive across town to the St. Francis Hotel on Union Square (despite the encouragement of a girlfriend, we did NOT have an amorous encounter in the fast-moving glass elevator).

Toby had pulled some very interesting strings and scored The Windsor Room on the 31st floor, a large and corporate style suite (with yummy red wines and chocolates strewn about). Queen Elizabeth II stayed there in 1983. We felt rather regal, at that. Apparently the Queen and Prince Phillip had bumped then-President Ronald Reagan downstairs into another room, and in the photo of the hotel lobby you can see them toasting, Reagan wearing his signature strained smile.

Next came a quick trip to Discovery Bay, to see one of my oldest, dearest friends, and her fiancée. After watching the bride-to-be do flips on a sky board behind their speedboat, we christened her Our Dolphin Lady of the Delta! But before we made it out of the murky city fog into the blazing heat of the central valley, we had to pass through the clogged arteries of the megalopolis that the Bay Area has become. Mysterious road crews performed arcane deeds, their minions directing traffic below overpasses and onto the Bay Bridge. I tried hard not to think of that 7.1 shimmy California's tectonic plates did in 1989.

Instead, I thought of one of my favorite books of all time, where caterpillars climb enormous pillars composed of their fellow squirming worms. Obsessed with reaching the top, they discover that transformation comes only by jumping off the damn pillar. Which is what I felt I'd done when the roads finally cleared around Concord, as I headed east on Highway 4 to the Delta.

Yes, in search of that elusive summer sunshine, we went far afield, including even a quick trip to Lake Tahoe, a visit of surprising gifts. There is just no substitute for actual contact with the branches, leaves, and acorns (not to mention the odd squirrels and wing-nuts) of one's family tree.

We need to breathe the same air, to laugh and break bread together in order to make it real. So we did that too, on this last summer trip. Our reward included not a rainbow, but the heavens shined on us after all, and showed us love.

Photo by Toby Rowland-Jones

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Dansayoga Surprise

This past weekend I took my slightly hungover self to Dansayoga, a wonderful two hour yoga and improv dance class held Saturday mornings at Big Sur's Grange Hall.

There were only two students, myself and my businesswoman friend, and two teachers, a lovely dark-haired yoga instructor and Dansayoga's founder Carlotta, the wild and creative Swedish expat who guides us weekly in our improv dance adventures. The four of us checked in briefly, complaining a bit about life's ordinary stresses, and (a common theme) the general malaise of mid-life marriage.

Halfway through the yoga class, two beautiful (and I mean beautiful) shirtless young men joined us, forming "planks" and then standing with us as "trees". I said a silent prayer of gratitude. I tried to catch my friend's eye, but she stayed focused on her poses. Later, I raised an eyebrow and she winked back at me from across the hardwood dance floor.

Yes, these two would be EXACTLY the kind of angels we would dream up: handsome friendly faces, perfectly sculpted (and lightly tattooed) torsos, a willingness to play. The kind of young men who make you smile inside and sigh a little, too.

The energy in the room shifted perceptibly when we began to dance together. First we moved on our mats, un-kinking our bodies from the hour of yoga. Next we stood up and began to work through those first self-conscious moments. The music inspired me, and I lost that dance-floor awkwardness pretty fast.

My friend was a professional dancer in her former life so the two of us began to play with more confidence. The young men jumped into the pool as well, moving in their own unique ways. Carlotta encouraged us to "steal each others' moves" pairing up to follow each other, taking turns with different partners. Everyone moves differently, and I love mimicking moves, it gives me a subtle sense of being someone else for just a moment.

As the music warmed up, so did we, and soon the Grange Hall became the hottest dance club on the coast, all of us stone-cold sober on a Saturday morning. We kicked into overdrive: spinning and leaping around the room, grinning at each other as we tried out all our own different moves. The music possessed us, we glowed with perspiration, it was divine. There's a reason why Carlotta calls this "Dance Church".

At one point, encouraged to so some contact improv, I thought of the tradition of couple's dancing: socially acceptable ways to touch and be together on the dance floor, the old-fashioned way. I suddenly saw my shirtless young gentleman in a cowboy shirt, hat, jeans and boots, as we did some modified swing dace moves. Men and women dancing together feels deep in the race, civilized and kind.

The light is soft in the Grange for Dansayoga, with candles and sparkling white string lights along the edges of the floor. And so, Dear Readers, the moment of truth arrived (as it always does) as we sat in a circle and passed around a small book of Rumi poems.

In the stillness after all that dancing, we read aloud the first poem we open to for inspiration. Yes, I had to extend my arm as far away from my body as possible, and squint, in order to read the damn words. My friend didn't even try -- when the book came to her she walked to the window, and she read her poem in the brighter light.

Our two visitors were on their hero's journey through Big Sur on a holiday weekend. They confessed they'd never done anything like this before, had only seen the sign on the highway the night before and decided on the spot to join in next morning. They both sincerely thanked Carlotta for creating the space, and quizzed us on the best options for another night's stay. Oh, how I wanted to offer them the hammock in my backyard!

But, as we learn with age, discretion is the better part of valor. As my friend and I left the Hall, off to our busy Saturday schedules, our dreamboats stayed behind. "Who dialed up Hunks R Us?" she asked, and we doubled over in laughter in the parking lot. So, will we see you at Dansayoga this next Saturday morning, at 10am?
Photo by Carlotta Persson