“In the magical universe there are no coincidences and there are no accidents. Nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen.” William S. Burroughs
In 2006, I went to Fresco School in LA. I had prepared well for this. It was a HUGE experience for me to learn to paint what Martin of Gfenn had painted. I had fallen in love with fresco from writing about it and fallen deeper in love from seeing it in Italy. A few years later, I wrote about it — finding it today, I was stunned and entertained and wanted to share. I was rewriting Martin of Gfenn in 2009 and reached a passage in which Martin’s teacher tries to help Martin understand the difference between a detailed sketch and what will ultimately work on a large wall.
January 2009 — Perhaps behind our perception of coincidence is a level of unconsciousness. In my novel, Martin of Gfenn, the protagonist, Martin, faces the moment when he paints his first solo wall-mural fresco. The subject he’s been given to paint is a sequence of panels telling the story of Man’s Fall from the Garden. He begins with the Temptation of Eve, and is guided by his teacher, Michele, to understand that the central symbol of the story is not the serpent, but the apple. Martin decides (correctly) that the apple must be perfectly beautiful and irresistible. When he brings the painted sketch to his teacher…
Michele smiled when Martin showed him the colored sketch of the apple. It was an elegantly colored drawing, rich in detail and intensity, lovely on its own but impossible for its purpose.
“That will never work, Martin. Such intricacy will be lost in a picture of this size. Your strokes, shapes, everything, the colors, must have meaning and these will have no meaning.”
“How can you say that? It is clearly an apple.”
“You are not making fruit, Martin. You are painting fresco! It is an apple NOW, but on that wall it will be confusing, unless everything else you have in mind is of the same pattern. Then it will simply be bad.”
“It should look real if it’s going to be believed, you said that yourself, you said, ‘catch the life within it’.”
“The life within the apple, Martin, is not that it has myriad tiny yellow dots.”
“But it does, Michele. I drew from life; it is an apple.”
“I don’t say that it is not a lovely rendering of an apple. It is just that it will not come to life as an apple on the wall you are painting.”
“But isn’t THIS the center of the picture? Isn’t this the essence of the sin? I think it has to be perfect!”
“An apple, a perfect apple, as an apple is perfect. Here,” Martin reached into the pocket of his cassock. “This is it!” The two were virtually identical. “Is that not a perfect apple?”
“All right then. Tell me. Do you want to illustrate books and have your work closed between jeweled covers where only monks will look at them or do you want to paint for people, stories they can see? Decide now.”
“You make no sense! You keep saying, ‘discipline your eye and hand to see what is in front of you’ and I have done that; you yourself say, ‘that is a perfect apple’ so I have disciplined my eye and hand and produced this and you tell me it is wrong. If that discipline is wrong, what is the point?”
“Discipline, Martin, is not only in your eye and hand as you draw from something in front of you. It’s also in the tools, the paint, the walls. You must cooperate with them.”
“But I will be the master, isn’t that right? It is just a wall!”
“A true master surrenders to the imperatives of the craft, of the surface. You must see them as partners, teachers. Someday, God willing, you will understand that is freedom. Go try again, or not, as you choose. It is your wall.”
I have been going through this part of the novel today, making sure all the bits fit together in preparation for another attempt to send it out there. As I read this I remembered something and was amazed I had not thought of it before.
In March 2006 I went to L. A. to The Fresco School. I had spent the whole winter in my freezing, drafty, leaking laundry shed relearning how to paint watercolor (because I had the idea that fresco would be like watercolor) and relearning how to draw. I had no idea what my fresco would be, but I had been told to find a simple subject for the one fresco I would be painting on a 12 x 12 tile. At the store I found an apple; it was absolutely the most beautiful green apple I had ever seen, and completely different from all the other green apples there in the apple bin at Vons. I bought it and three more apples and brought it home. It would be my fresco. I was honestly in love with that apple.
I photographed the bowl with its apples, and drew from the photo since I knew my divine apple would lose some of that perfection through time (or I’d eat it – I never did, though…) and drew a black and white sketch, and a colored pencil sketch, and a grey and black wash drawing, and everything I could think of to get to know that apple as I’d placed it in the bowl with the others. The result was that THE apple appears larger than the others (bigger than life!). I sent it to my fresco teacher who approved the drawing. He liked it!
Colored Pencil Drawing of What I Imagined My Fresco Would Be
When the time came, I got in the Scion and drove up to LA, to my sleazebag hotel in Venice Beach (do not ask me why; I had some Bukowski reason or flaky nostalgia or something to account for that choice) and my agonized hip. It was cold and damp and the deteriorated joint made my life very difficult, but I was excited. That night I parked where I had been told, ate my dinner, read my book about Masonic rituals (which I left in the sleazebag hotel) before going to sleep with ear plugs and the two vicodin that made sleep possible. In the morning I headed off to make my fresco dreams come true.
There are many stories of that weekend but this post is to tell the story of what I realized today as I worked on my novel when I realized that my first fresco was the same subject as my protagonist’s first fresco, almost as if I re-enacted his experience in my own. How much do our creations captivate our minds? I think it may be impossible to know.
The Hideous Painting that Was My Fresco
I hated my fresco when it was done — not ONLY because it was bad (it was) but because my teacher took over. Two people cannot paint a small painting. He was just so worried that I would fail, or be unhappy with the result, that he took the brush out of my hand, painted the apples and the rocks himself, and stole from me my own glorious opportunity to fail. I drove home frustrated and resentful with another bad painting in the back of my car. There was ONE good part and I took some consolation knowing I painted it all myself. I love the medium and really want to learn it; that I had THIS success was heartening.
The One Good Part — the Wicker Seat
So the question, does art follow life or does life follow art? I don’t know. Is art the future and did I predict in my story what I would do when given the chance? Maybe. Is the protagonist of my novel me? Loosely, I guess, as much as I can be a male, 13th century artist who gets leprosy — certainly in that he is my creation — but I am ready to argue now that I am also his.