One visit to Tekakwitha Woods and I knew that I wanted to make a painting there. The woods are open under a shady canopy that allows you to see the ravines that crisscross and run down the bluff to the Fox River. Large old trees tower over all and enchant the place with a history one can only imagine. I spent a long afternoon sketching in the Woods. The composition of one drawing showed promise so I went home and transferred it to an 18×36 inch canvas.
A few days later I went back into the Woods with my French easel on my back and the canvas in my hand. It was a bright warm humid day in mid July. I moved off the path and walked up, over, and down into the gully where I had been before. At the bottom of the gully was a game trail that climbed up to the top of a ridge. I climbed a few yards up that trail to my prospect.
From that point my whole experience went into a frustrating tailspin. First, I could barely find a way to position my three-legged easel on the steep slope of this narrow trail. The only position I could settle on also meant that my canvas substantially blocked the view that I meant to paint. The trail elevation rose so quickly that I had to shorten the telescoping front leg of my easel to such an extent that its overall height left me awkwardly bent over, a stance that I knew I couldn’t sustain. Then I discovered that there was no way that I could avoid brilliant sun-spots and dark shadows that played constantly across my canvas – a camouflage affect that made it impossible to really see whatever I tired to paint on the canvas surface. Now add in the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes.
In minutes I was completely drenched in sweat as I struggled to wrest something intelligible from what my gut told me was a doomed venture. Confused, crying inside for help, defeated in the first moment of wrestling with the earth, I felt broken and lost. The landscape would yield nothing to me and my artistic plans.
Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a poem called, “The Man Watching.” He describes a powerful storm moving over a landscape. Rilke urges us to give in to such overwhelming forces. He says that the one who surrenders,
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.