Artist in Yemen

I will be in Sana'a, Yemen, May 27-July 10 2006. I'll be working on my Arabic language skills and painting every day, walking around asking questions about food and gardens and perfume and incense. I'll be studying and living at the Center for Arabic Language and Eastern Studies(CALES)in the Old City of Sana'a. Although I usually paint in reverse on glass, in Sana'a I'll be working in watercolor and mixed media on paper.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Work

I've had a hard time settling down to work here. I think it's because the sensory input is so overwhelming. Every time I step over the threshold of my house there are a thousand sights and smells and sounds competing for my attention, a thousand mysteries I will never figure out. I enjoy all the detail, but it takes me a long time to process it all , and I rarely have the long quiet hours that I need to paint. I am flooded with ideas that I'm excited about, and I've done a few watercolors that I like OK, but the thing I'm most excited about is a map of the Old City that I've been working on since I arrived, filling it in with information as I explore. It's minutely detailed; the viewer would need a magnifying glass, I think.

As I work on this map I've been reading "My Name Is Red" a novel by Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. It's a story of love and murder and art and politics and philosophy, and takes place in Ottoman Istanbul in the 1600s, among miniature painters in the Sultan's court. The book has crept under my skin; perhaps that explains the crazy tininess and obsessive detail of the map I've been working on.
There's a quote in the book I keep going back to: "The beauty and mystery of this world only emerges through affection, attention, interest and compassion; if you want to live in your eyes wide and actually see this world by attending to its colors, details, and irony".
That sounds like truth to me; I'm doing my best to follow it. I'll have plenty of time to paint when I return to the long sweltering Tucson summer, but my time in Yemen feels so short and precious, and right now I believe my work is to pay it the best attention that I can.

So here's my favorite thing that I saw today: In the street, a man selling crowns and necklaces of cool fresh jasmine flowers (pikake leis, Lizzy!). He was surrounded by a crowd of garbage collectors in orange coveralls on their break, all buying jasmine garlands.
Oh my heart, oh grace!

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don't go back to sleep. You must ask for what you really want. Don't go back to sleep. People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch. The door is round and open. Don't go back to sleep. -Jelaluddin Rumi