Art, the Meaning of Life, and Hummingbird Moths

Once, when I was still teaching art, the new principal asked my colleagues and me, about that, which gave us the most joy. I told him that there was nothing like a snow day. A whole day given, to do absolutely nothing more than what pleases you. He seemed shocked by my irreverence. Like my colleagues, I should have taken more pride in my family, I know. But I remember those sporadic days, without demands and without time limits, looking up from the watercolor on my drafting table, at the gray and cloudy sky, and watching the snow fall silently. It was magical. 

Orange Flash by Isolde Sarnecki
Watercolor, 2020

I came late to painting. At one time, I did receive a BFA in graphic design, but back then, that entailed making fancy letters with a graphic design pen. When I graduated from college, design pens had become a thing for the quaint tools museum, because Steve Jobs had invented the Mac with all the fonts software you could possibly need.

Fifth of December, Quilt, 1993

I had my three beautiful daughters. And I made quilts in stolen moments, while they were watching Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street on a 13 inch tv. Not the kind of quilts made from patchwork blocks, but whole scenes of appliqué, mostly wistful memories of my childhood in the Netherlands. And then, as you read earlier, I became an art teacher.

“The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The meaning of life is to give it away.” Picasso? Shakespeare? anyone?

I have retired from teaching, but I often think that I should have kept my day job. After all, the children thought that for the most part, art class was fun, plus, they gave me a paycheck. The work on my easel is often anything but fun and I spend more money on my art than I earn. “You have such talent”, my friends say, after I have wrestled with all the elements of design for weeks or months and have finally produced a painting. We painters do a lot of pretending. My friends picture me sitting at my easel in a state of divine inspiration, surrounded by the things I love. That last part is true. I have a small studio and I have surrounded myself with the colors and stuff of inspiration. I do love being there.  But as you know, the activity of painting is complicated and demanding.  You can’t shake a painting from your sleeve. (Dutch proverb) Every painting presents new challenges that have to be solved and when things don’t work out, as they so often don’t, it can be a disagreeable process. The rare and stolen moments of my snow days have become thousands of hours of hard work.

Doughnuts and Fiesta Ware by Isolde Sarnecki, Oil on Canvas 2020 Virtual Juried Oil Painters of America, Salon Show

There are many days when I want to abandon the great aspiration in my life so that I won’t have to deal with the frustration. But I press on, for I know that it won’t be the end of me to overcome obstacles, which are essentially manageable discomforts, in order to find a solution. I work hard, I read and I study, because some day I want to attain mastery. But why?  

Beach Hat by Isolde Sarnecki
Fifth Place, non-commissioned portrait, Portrait Society, December 2018

“An insufficiency in the self, the need to be a snail, leaving a trail of yourself as you move through the world. Hansel, leaving a trail of crumbs to lead you home.” William Kentridge on why we make art.

A young and talented painter asked me once what I would do if my paintings would fetch 6 figures. I chuckled. She’s young. As the reader realizes by now; I am older and perhaps wiser. At this stage, I know that this is not the reason why I paint. Yes, I can see many successful young people rightly become painters of great distinction, and I can wish, but, “You’re welcome, we, art teachers, taught you well” 

Benediction by Isolde Sarnecki
Oil on Canvas, 2020         

And thus we have arrived at the part about the hummingbird moth, as the title of this blog suggested. I remember one summer looking at an amazing bug, flying around my butterfly bush. An entomologist friend told me that I had been observing a hummingbird moth. An insect with wings like a hummingbird that used its long proboscis like a hummingbird to get to the nectar in the flowers. “Some people live their whole lives without ever seeing one,” she said. It struck me as profound, because I have always felt that the eye that sees, is self aware and is a link to the great order of all that is. I paint because I want to share the things and the people that I’ve seen. I want to hold on to that moment, when my eye has become aware. And hopefully, for a while at least, I can convey that I looked for something that made you, or the world we live in, precious to me. I know that mastery is an unattainable goal. But passion and commitment is what counts, and yes, despite the struggles, it is very satisfying.

Yvette by Isolde Sarnecki
Finalist, Bold Brush Painting Competition, April 2018

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