Thursday, March 21, 2013

My Song

"My Song" Marilyn Yanke

I’ve always loved to look at paintings and to write about paintings and painters, but a while back I began to feel that I was missing some fundamental piece of understanding. What does painting feel like? Where do visual ideas come from and how do they evolve? In 2007, I applied for a Creative Renewal Grant through the Indianapolis Arts Council, proposing a project that would allow me to attend Art Workshop International’s workshop for beginning painters in Assisi.

Lucky me: they said yes.

And I’ve been back every year since.

Think of it: two whole weeks in which writers and painters come together, write and paint all day—with a little time off to stroll through the charming town, maybe take a pass through the Basilica with its magnificent Giottos—then gather for a fabulous meal and fabulous conversation on the terrace as the sun sinks behind the mountains beyond.

Art Workshop deserves a post of its own—and I’ll do it. Soon.

But today I want to write about Marilyn Yanke, an amazing painter I met there, who’s become a mentor and friend—and, who, recently, gave me a gift that took my breath away.

She lives on a ranch way out in the middle of the Texas Panhandle and has to schlep herself and her art supplies though numerous airports to make her way to Assisi, where she sets up at one of the dozen or so easels positioned around the spacious painting studio...

...where I could sit and watch her paint forever—especially when she is making a painting of something inspired by an experience we shared.

One year the filmmaker Charles Hobson taught at Art Workshop, and the group spent an evening watching his documentary, “Harlem in Monmartre.” It chronicles the small, but very talented community of African American musicians who settled in Paris after World War II and created a vibrant music scene that introduced jazz to the French and flourished until the Germans occupied the city in 1940.

Marilyn is a quiet, reflective person. I doubt she said much, if anything at all, in the lively discussion that followed the film.

But in the next days, I watched her paint what she had felt.

Here’s one example of the whole series of paintings honoring Hobson's work born of that evening.

"Lost in the Moment"

For others, visit the figures gallery of her website at

I love all of these paintings, but my very, very favorite is the one you saw when when you clicked to read the blog post: "My Song." I love how the boy is so utterly present, yet also goes beyond the frame. I love the crisp white-blue of his shirt, the blue blur of the world behind him and the shine of his trumpet set on it. I love jazz-like the energy in the visible brushstrokes that made them. The stillness of the moment filled with a song that touches me deeply, even though I can’t hear it.

For me, the painting captures the essence of what it feels like when you’re making art: that paradoxical combination of not being here, in the real world, but at the same time being in touch with every single thing that world has ever taught you in the process of creating a world of your own—a story, a painting, a song.

It’s the part I know (but all too often forget) is the best part of writing, the only part that really matters. Making the “song” is what sustains me, what I need to stay in any kind of balance in the real world.

This is knowledge that Marilyn and I share.

Not long after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I came home to find a big, flat cardboard box on my porch with Marilyn’s return address on it. I opened it with excitement, unwound the bubble wrap, and found “My Song” inside.

I’m not a crier, but I looked and looked at it and sat down and cried. Because the painting was such an amazing gift, of course, but mainly because Marilyn had understood I needed it. She knew how important it would be for me to remember who I am as I set out on that path—a writer, who needs to write, no matter what. She knew that what I would be going through was just another kind of song—and I would need to sing it.

I hung the painting over my writing desk. I look at it every morning and then, fingers on the keyboard, I begin to play my own song.

1 comment:

Yanke said...

When two souls touch with facades laid aside, there is no separation. Thank you, you made my morning.... just to know there is one person who "gets" it, makes it all worth while. I can't cry, but inside I am crying with joy, with a love of acceptance. Keep writing! Keep singing your song!