Artists collect old magazines as an unending source of inspiration – full of images and words that feed our imagination. Over the years, I’ve cut out hundreds of pictures, articles, poems, and quotes. I keep them filed away. Sometimes on rainy days, I indulge myself by going through the old folders, bags and envelopes. Some people think that inspiration comes to artists like a lightening bolt from a cloudless sky. No, inspiration has a lot to do with preparation and discipline. You have to set the stage. Go outside. Eavesdrop on people in line at the grocery store. Watch kids playing at the park. Ride the subway. Sit on the fence of a pasture and wait for the cows to saunter over your way. Go to a garden. Watch bugs. Study leaves. Blades of grass. You have to put yourself in a place where sparks of artful energy are swirling. Only then can a lightening bolt strike across the open skies of your mind.
Africa has always held out its arms to me. Someday, I plan to visit the entire continent, country after country. There is something about Africa that speaks to me – the history, the colors, the landscape and most of all, the people. I am enthralled by the way they are, especially the women, the way they work together, sing and dance together, and love their land. I am also fascinated by the animals. Why are all the really interesting ones in Africa? Take Zebras for example. We have horses in America – most in shades of brown, with occasional patches. But Africa has horses with stark black and white stripes! And the giraffes – they could have coats of brown boring patches, but no, they walk with stately patterns of infinite interlocking geometric designs. I am in awe.
When I was in fourth grade, my art teacher taught us about watercolor. I painted a lush African jungle with several women walking across the paper, loads of laundry perched in baskets on their heads, headed to the river. This came straight from my imagination – layers and layers of images piled in the recesses of my mind from hundreds of National Geographic magazines that my father kept laying around the living room. Thank you, Dad. I read all of them dozens of times. My art teacher entered that painting in a state contest. I won.
Thirty years later, Do Your Dance was a re-entry into my African world of watercolor. I would not have been able to get back to that world had it not been for a friend, an older German lady, who had been by to visit a few times and had watched me create some of my pencil drawings. One day she stopped by with her daughter and they proceeded to bring in a load of art supplies – a dozen sheets of high-quality handmade watercolor paper, 32”x 48”; pads of smaller watercolor blocks, pastel paper, and sketchbooks; a set of the top-quality drawing pencils; tubes of watercolors; and a portfolio to hold my work. Ida’s act of kindness overwhelmed me. It was such a joyful surprise. In the face of daily deprivation predicated by a husband who refused to provide for his family, Ida’s loving generosity lifted me to a place where I could see beyond my everyday troubles to a place where there was hope.
I remember watching the watercolor form the mountains in the background of Do Your Dance. The paint flowed off the mountain just like shadows in a sunset. I was amazed. The image was coming to life. When I got to the dancers themselves, I began to feel their energy, their joy. I could feel the movement of the beads on their chests. I remember when I connected with the tallest dancer’s face. It was one of those magical moments in painting when the world stopped spinning and his face appeared through only a couple of brushstrokes. It came suddenly, swiftly, in seconds. I was surprised. I remember stepping back from the painting and looking at his face like I had just met him, thinking, wow, how much joy can one face contain.
Someday, I will be in Africa wandering the hills, and come upon dancers in a field. We won’t have to introduce ourselves.