It wasn’t really that late, but I was tired and, after a big dinner and two glasses of wine, perhaps I was prone to imagining things.
The lights were dimmed, candles were flickering around the room, and the others were lost in conversation. I was sitting apart, quietly staring into the distance, lost in thought, when I noticed the painting in front of me.
It is quite large – about 4 x 8 feet – and brightly coloured. It’s hard to miss, and admittedly, I do often look at it from various angles around the house. But it has hung on our wall for several years and it’s just one of those things that happens to the things you see every day; you stare through it, you take it for granted, you don’t very often notice anything new about it.
On this night, though, I was sitting directly across from it and when my relaxed mind finally focused on it, I noticed something I had never seen before. The orange in the centre of the background seemed to be glowing. I had always thought of the fluorescent orange shape behind the figures as a design, just part of the bright colour scheme. But for the first time, I realized it was a sun. A sun glowing as it set behind the figures in the foreground.
I realized then, too, that the orange at the bottom of the painting was not supposed to be the ground or just another bright blotch of colour, but it was a river, a great river of life, reflecting the glowing orange sun.
The three people who are the focus of the painting are a grandmother, mother and child. Three generations. They are standing together, mother and grandmother facing each other, with the child resting in the mother’s arms. I’ve always loved the painting for its bold colours, for the way the painter painted the flowers on the branch in the grandmother’s hand, for the little birds and fish and the turtle and butterfly that populate every corner of the scene, and I’ve especially liked the idea of the three generations – it reminds me of my mother, my son and myself.
But now, I felt as though I was looking at the painting for the first time. I was seeing even the animals and the people in a different light.
As I sat and watched, enjoying this new perspective, something in the picture shifted. It became three dimensional, almost hallucinogenic. The spiral pattern on the turtle’s shell seemed to slowly turn. The bright, colourful eyes of the animals and the people seemed to stand out, to be looking at me. The fish in the illuminated water darted here and there as the birds peeked out from behind the three figures. The flowers and leaves on the grandmother’s branch seemed to rustle.
I shook my head and blinked my eyes.
The three people seemed to be breathing. It looked as though their chests were rising and falling, almost imperceptibly.
It must be my imagination, I thought.
But then I was sure I could hear them talking quietly, in undertones below the voices in the room around me.
I leaned forward, and pushed up until I was standing. I felt myself move, trance-like, toward the painting. I paused in front of it, to get a better look, to try to stop the tricks that my eyes were playing.
And then, it was as though the painting subsumed me and I became part of the scene.
It did not occur to me to be scared, or to feel out of place. Instead, I was full of wonder and reverence as I stood and looked around.
I was standing in a woodland. The sun was glowing like a ball of fire and it shone blindingly into my eyes. It was just on the verge of setting behind the three people who stood before me, just across the little stream. Its brilliance, shining out from behind them, made it almost impossible to look directly at them.
I could smell damp earth and the cool water rushing past my feet. I could hear the fish as they broke the surface and I noticed the turtle floating, mid-stream, looking up at me.
I stepped across the stream and stood in their midst. It seemed the right thing to do.
They looked fleetingly at me, nodding slightly to acknowledge my presence, but continued the conversation they had been having before I arrived. The child in its mother’s arms looked in rapt attention at the flowering branch in his grandmother’s hands, and reached out to grasp it.
They were speaking a language I couldn’t understand and so I watched them, mesmerized, fascinated.
Their faces were beautiful and dark, as was their hair. The two women wore long dresses of red, blue, pink purple and green, with red and blue felt boots that went up to their knees. The grandmother had upon her head a large hat of such fantastic shape and colour that I understood implicitly that it signified her wisdom and her status as an elder. Her daughter, though she did not wear a hat, had her hair tied up high on her head, almost defying gravity, and pinned with a purple and green leather fastener. The little boy wore black boots, with purple and green pants and a red and blue sweater.
More enchanting than the colourful clothes were the birds which perched upon the head and shoulders of the mother, and the brilliant butterfly which fluttered just above her. I noticed then that there were birds everywhere; they pecked at the ground at the women’s feet, looking up curiously every now and then, and one hung from a leafy branch beside the mother. They were small, with round bellies, tiny wings and black, curved beaks.
Standing there, I felt as though I had been allowed to step into the scene for a special reason, a reason I could not yet fathom. I looked at the sun again, the animals, the flowers and the leafy branches growing nearby. I looked behind me at the stream, still glowing, with its fish and the turtle. I looked back at the grandmother, the mother and the child.
I don’t know how, but I knew it was time to go. I bowed my head in silent thanks and stepped back across the stream.
I turned one last time to look at the family and then, stepping backwards, found myself back in the house, standing on the wood floor, looking up a the painting.
The sounds of those around me roused me from my trance and, wordlessly, I returned to the chair I had been sitting on. No one had noticed my absence.
I looked around and felt as though I had just awakened from a dream.
Had I been asleep on the chair the whole time? Or had I stepped momentarily into another realm, witnessed another place, another time?
I sat for a while, watching the figures, wondering what it was that I was supposed to have learned on my journey.
I think the artist was trying to remind people of the myths and the magic that the elders used to believe, myths that have been forgotten, magic that is dismissed. He has coloured his paintings with this traditional, ancient knowledge, for those who take the time to notice it.
Now when I look at it, the painting seems to glow more than it ever did before. It will forever more be imbued with a certain special magic for me.
“Myth must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are the artists of one kind or another.” ~ Joseph Campbell