A small painting: 12 inches wide by 16 inches high. Thin, lightly touched scrapes and dabs of paint in ochres, viridian greens, and a flurry of blues. The paint has both the diffidence and the self-awareness of a Gwen John. A courtyard in Rome. Green shuttered windows partially opened with shutters at angles to the wall. Two lines of laundry draped in the well space between walls. Sheets, shirts, a dishrag, and perhaps a pair of jeans. The life of a family captured in their clothing, attended to by women and noticed and celebrated by Sandra Stone. The painting hangs in my bedroom where I can see it every day in every light.
The painting describes 4 walls: moving from right to left across the vertical format, the first wall is a strip of greenish ochre, the narrowest band of all four vertical planes. It is parallel to the picture plane and to us, looking out our window. The next wall is at a sharp angle to us, made clear by its contrasting bleached white-ochre light and some of the top and bottom angles of the indicated window wells, and by the stronger green strokes which reveal themselves as partly opened window shutters from which the laundry lines emanate. The meeting point of these two planes is an uneven vertical edge of marks brushing against each other. No straight line this: it is the meeting of crumbling old walls of Roma, shifting with the weight of a millennium of structures built one on top of the other. The third band is full of reflected light and color with the increase in warmth and intensity of ochres moving from greenish to pinky yellows. The whites of the polygonal sheet shapes bisect the greens of closed shutters, the blue cold whites making the ochre warms warmer.
On the left side of the painting, the vertical band cools again to a greener ochre and the shutter greens cool to almost bluish in the light shadow. The center of the painting is where the movement is. Here is slightly more intense color, the active shapes of cloth against wall and window. The strokes of paint make the wall push up into the edges of the cloth encouraging the slight billow and heft of the large plane of white; directional strokes within the whites increase the lift and movement. Within the wall-shape, a change of color moves diagonally out to the right becoming a line which becomes an indicator of the angle of that wall before it merges into the smear of darker green ochre in the crease between walls: a stain perhaps of mold or an algal bloom. The color of the interspaces darkens slightly against the white cloths, emphasizing both the whiteness and the shape of space. There are 4 different blues in the laundry, each one delicately chosen: cerulean, cobalt, a light ultramarine, and two dabs verging on the deeper greener blue of prussian. These blues are like a melody rising above the rhythm of the slower softer theme sung by warms and greens.
Rather than create light with changes of value, Stone uses subtle temperature shifts and the pulses created by shifting densities of paint dragged by the slow, deliberate, but sensitive movements of her coarse bristle brush. Each small change of direction creates a sense of the way, perhaps, reflections off the water in a fountain or pool in the courtyard below might send ripplets of light across the walls above.
It is a quiet painting, although we can hear the voices of women calling to each other as they work, the sound of a news announcer on the radio, or a song, perhaps a finch in its cage singing, and the background throb of a pigeon from the rooftop.
There are several ideas that come to mind every time I see this painting.
1) In 1984 I was in Rome at the end of two months in Italy, and stayed in an inexpensive pensione near the railway stazione termini. The rooms opened onto corridors with large windows that looked onto just such a courtyard. Each time I look at this painting I am back in this very simple place, eating bread and jam with my caffe latte, listening to the sounds of the women who cleaned, the clamour and noise of the train station 2 blocks away completely shut out by the high walls. After seeing all the big “important” paintings by the men of 5 centuries of Italian painting, this real morning seemed very vivid and alive.
2) After my first child was born in June 1987, I had a period of 6 months where my only painting time was the few hours during the day when he napped in the morning and afternoon. I sat in my house looking out the windows at the walls of the house across our 8-foot wide driveway, and the cast shadows of my house on its blue walls. The images I could make were of light on walls and windows, delimited by the trapezoid of my own window. The spaces were narrow and confined but the light animated all.
3) I heard a story told about the Quaker Dorothy Steere, known for her activism and spirituality. A harassed parent asked her how it was that she could come to Meeting so centered and ready for divine inspiration. Dorothy said that she practiced holding her children in the Light. She gave the example of making a child’s bed. As she fluffed the sheet over the bed and it settled on the bed, she imagined that it was God’s hands gently holding her child and settling her.
The daily activity of women making beds, cleaning and doing laundry is an act of peacemaking and bringing to the family the settling power of God’s love. But it has to be seen that way and not as an endless round of drudgery. The difference is in how the individual channels God’s spirit in their daily activities: either they can be that conduit or they can’t. If they don’t bring that awareness then the divine doesn’t really have much to do with it. But it is something we can all have access to.
The person who told me this story was that harassed parent at Radnor Meeting outside of Philadelphia, and she is now an esteemed teacher of Insight Meditation and a very wise thinker about how to bring the awareness of the divine spirit into one’s daily living and one’s every breath.
Lawrence Weschler writes in Vermeer in Bosnia (Pantheon, 2004) about Vermeer’s paintings being imaginings of what a peaceful world would look like: his own Netherlands of the time being ravaged by war. The women in his paintings and the light on the walls of their rooms are hope and a breath of peace.
Looking every morning at Sandra Stone’s painting brings all these thoughts to mind: the idea of focusing God’s love with our daily actions, the intense practice of choosing and moving color around on canvas, the simplicity and peace of watching the light on old walls, the sounds of domesticity and the taste of butter and jam on good bread.