Musings / Travel

The Color of Memory

Writer, what kind of words will you fetch to awkwardly describe what drawing can instead perfectly represent? Don’t bother with words, unless you are speaking to the blind…don’t mess with things that belong to the eyes. Don’t try to smuggle them as something belonging instead to the ears.  You will always be overruled by the painter.*
-Leonardo da Vinci

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Photos courtesy of the author

Why do I create images, and what they convey about my memories and impressions of place? Why do I reach for certain colors? Recently I grouped together several sketches made over the years during or shortly after trips to visit family in northern Michigan. The color theme that emerges can be traced back to my initial childhood visual impressions of my mother’s hometown and my excitement about coming to the United States.

When I was eight and my brother was nine my parents decided it was time to move back to the U.S. from the Philippines where we were born. Until then the only world we had known was our balmy and tropical home. There we played on beaches of black volcanic sand and the ocean felt like bath water. My mother lovingly grew magenta orchids (which I picked and crushed into “nectar”). My favorite fruits were guavas (preferably-under ripe and green), tiny yellow bananas and sweet golden-orange mangoes. If I could assign colors to my image-memories of the Philippines, they’d be pink, green and orange.

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Lilacs & Wild Geese, Wassily Kandinsky, 1906

If you let your eye stray over a palette of colors, you experience two things. In the first place you receive a purely physical effect, namely the eye itself is enchanted by the beauty and other qualities of color. You experience satisfaction and delight, like a gourmet savoring a delicacy. Or the eye is stimulated as the tongue is titillated by a spicy dish.
-Wassily Kandinsky, “The Effect of Color.” 1911

Imagine our sense of wonder when Mom brought us to stay for the summer in her family’s lake cottage near Traverse City in northern Michigan. My strongest memories of this period are mostly non-verbal: tastes, smells, tactile feelings and visual images that together describe the dramatic latitude change and the vast distance from our birthplace. Though it was almost July, the 70-degree weather was a cool like we had never felt before, and certainly not warm enough for those swimming lessons in the neighbor’s frigid swimming pool. No more guava and mango trees for us. Instead we built forts in the pine forest and picked wild berries from the bushes by the lake. I remember the intensity and sweetness of the wild raspberries and blueberries, something that is impossible to describe in words, except to say that you can’t get that taste in store-bought berries. For the first time we tasted our grandmother’s divine blueberry, raspberry and cherry pies. Also wondrous to our senses were the diverse and changeable colors of Lake Michigan, from steel grey to a rich cobalt to cerulean blue on any given day. It was all so wonderfully odd and exotic. If I could assign colors to those memories, they’d be red, blue and green.

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The Checkered Tablecloth by Pierre Bonard

Draw your pleasure, paint your pleasure, and express your pleasure strongly.
-Pierre Bonnard

Though it’s been more than three decades since that first summer those impressions remain vibrant. Over the years, on trips back to Michigan (from Maryland where I have lived most of my life) I have brought my easel, paints and crayons. The most I can usually manage to do is a few small sketches while I’m there, because of our busy family reunions with lots of small children scurrying underfoot. Sometimes, after I’ve come home from a visit I’ve made some additional images from snapshots. In these paintings I see myself returning to the cool northern greens, rich blues and vibrant reds of those earliest impressions.“Colour simplicity has power and cleanliness” says painter Robert Genn in this week’s edition of the twice weekly blog “Painter’s Keys.” The clean and undiluted  colors in these sketches reflect the power of those direct childhood impressions.

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Detail – Interior with Birdcage by Matisse at the Baltimore Museum of Art

I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have for life and my way of expressing it.
-Henri Matisse, “Notes of a Painter,” 1908

As time passes and family homes are inevitably sold, I am grateful to have captured these images. They transport me to the moment I painted them and even further back to those primal childhood sensory experiences of place. All of this is to say that it is a struggle to express those feelings and memories in words. Where words fail to express what I have felt, these images step in to convey the unspeakable—what Leonardo da Vinci called “those things that belong to the eyes.”

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Painting by Author Leslie Belloso

by Leslie Belloso

*The quote was included in “A Tale of Two Brains” a presentation by internist Dr. Salvatore Mangione that I found while completing CME credits for medical licensure. He discusses how the nonverbal right brain’s holistic and observational power tends to be undervalued and even forgotten in much of modern medical practice and training. He talks about the multimodal minds of Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Rossini, Einstein, and others. A must-see on the Pri-med website. A similar talk is available on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nSij6UvjjM

 

 

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