It is another in a seemingly unending season of cold, gray, rainy March days, and I’m dreaming of Assisi. To be specific, I’m dreaming of a summer evening on the terrace of the Hotel Giotto in Assisi, drinking wine, eating a fabulous meal, and engaging in spirited conversation with writers and painters at Art Workshop International, as the ancient stone buildings in the valley below us turn pink with sunset and fade into night.
I attended this workshop last summer, thanks to a Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts Council of Indianapolis and the Lilly Endowment—not as the novelist I am, but as a (very) beginning painter. I fell in love with the work of Piero della Francesca on a trip to Umbria in 2000, my proposal explained, and knew instantly that in time I wanted to write a novel that would hinge on his work. Since then, I’ve studied his beautiful paintings, researched his life and times. But suddenly I realized that what I really need to know is how it feels to paint.
How amazing is it that my city responded, "Yes, go!"
It turns out, painting feels just like writing: you’re not here. You’re…somewhere, lost in color, the pleasures and problems of color. The tension between the story in your mind and the one it’s possible to bring to the page, based on the limitations of language, is exactly like the tension between the painting in your head and the one it’s possible to bring to the page, based on the limitations of paint. The process is equally ambiguous. Often, I thought I’d get one color when I mixed the paints, but got another. Was it a mistake? If so, what could I make of it? Or was it a fortuitous accident, something that wouldn’t have occurred to me while I was thinking what I wanted to do, but clearly the absolute right thing? How could it be, when I didn’t even know what right was?
Visual ideas are like writing ideas, too. The idea that generates a painting comes directly from your own experience—and the finished work may directly represent it or may be spun so far from that kernel of reality that it's completely unrecognizable—except to the painter. When you’re lucky, ideas come in litters, as stories do.
I loved my teacher, Bea Kreloff, who’s been painting and teaching for more than fifty years, and who shepherded me through a series of exercises that grew quickly into paintings that were in their own way as much an expression of myself as my novels are. Here are the two I like best. The one above is inspired by St. Francis’s worn, patched cloak displayed at Santa Chiara; the one below, by the marvelous Byzantine hats in Piero’s "Legend of the True Cross" in Arezzo.
One day, Bea stopped by my easel and looked at my cloaks and hats for a long moment. “I love what you’re doing with all this,” she said. “You get me. You’re making art out of what’s here, what you see.”
It seemed to me that I had never been so happy as I was at that moment.
The days passed all too quickly. The large studio, filled with light, offered a view that might have been the background of a Renaissance painting. All day painters of every level worked at their easels, stopping now and then to listen to an impromptu lecture by Bea or her partner, Edith Isaac-Rose. Outside on the terraces, writers tapped away at their laptops and scribbled in notebooks, gathering in groups each morning or afternoon to talk about their work.
Assisi itself is full of treasures, and each day I explored the small city, camera and sketchbook in hand. I followed singing pilgrims down the narrow, winding path from the Hotel Giotto to the Basilica of St. Francis, hiked up to il Rocca for a view of what seemed like the entire universe. I loved the small things that looking as a painter must look made me see: the swirl of marble, the geometry of roof tiles, the gnarled branches of olive trees, their silver-green leaves
against the blue, blue sky.
The Saturday evening before I left, a group of us joined a religious procession winding through the streets, falling in behind priests in their rich vestments, monks in their brown robes, nuns in the habits of their order, townspeople in costumes of of earlier time, carrying banners and torches. There was scent of incense drifting out from the swinging censors; the sound of church bells ringing, voices raised in chanting and prayer. The fall of our steps on the cobblestone streets seemed timeless, echoing the steps of the countless pilgrims who journeyed here over nearly a thousand years.
But it was three gangly teenage boys who careened past us on skateboards as we walked down a steep, cobblestone street on the way back to the hotel that made me feel I was in the one right place in the whole world at that one moment.
I’m going back. I am!
For now, though, I’m looking out the window at the bare trees and gloomy sky, dreaming.