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Back in my first post, I wrote about my intention to draw leaves that are worn down to their skeletal forms. It actually proved very difficult to find any near my home in California, though I did find one with a lot of exposed veins and did some sketching shortly after writing that post.

This week, I’ve been drawing a different kind of skeleton leaf: the pad of a prickly-pear cactus (opuntia), or nopal. Prickly-pears grow here like weeds, and are currently blooming with pink buds that open to bright yellow flowers. I’d be hard pressed to say which is more beautiful, the living plant or its fallen, decayed pads. Here’s my subject, with the drawing underway.

Last week, I was doing a negative-space exercise with my drawing teacher. It’s a good, basic art practice that helps you to really pay attention to what is before your eyes instead of what you think something looks like. (Betty Edwards calls this a shift from left-brain thinking to right-brain thinking and uses this exercise, along with many other good ones, in her Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.) When I sat down with my nopal skeleton, there was no doubt that I was going to focus on the dark shapes in between the veins, not the veins themselves. It’s not because I have white paper and black charcoal; I could use dark paper and draw the lines in light gray and white. It’s because the spaces are what attract me.

So there I was, drawing my empty spaces, humming happily away at my new friend the nopal, and thinking once again about lacunae, the absences that have such presence. (I wrote about them here on Feb. 11.) I’m just fascinated by the way we are shaped by absences, gaps, the spaces in between. I often think of this phenomenon in psychological terms: for example, how one’s personality takes shape around the things one is anxious to avoid. In my previous post on Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, I was thinking largely in terms of political history. But when I see a piece of art like Goldsworthy’s “Roof” (to give one example–he has many works that use a similar hole motif), its impact feels like something spiritual. That space draws me out, into itself–not at all in a scary, oh-no-I’m-falling-into-a-black-hole way, but in an intriguing, welcoming way. I recognize that space; it has a counterpart within me, something for which I don’t have any words, but which I know is there the moment I look at Goldsworthy’s piece. (I suppose that for some, these pieces must be disturbing, if they were locked into the cupboard under the stairs as kids. But like a cat, I’ve always liked small, dark spaces.)

Two poems that I had in my notebook back when I was working on a similar theme in college still resonate. One is “Anecdote of the Jar,” by Wallace Stevens. I usually can’t make head or tail of Stevens, but that year, when I read this poem, I thought he’d written it for me and the vessels I was making. My art thesis show was all large hand-built abstract sculptures, not wheel-thrown pottery, but I still made them all vessel forms because of the way vessels evoke that sense of the space inside and around. I thought I knew just what Stevens meant: put a jar in a space and suddenly the space without is shaped around, shaped by, the space within. (All these commentators mentioned in the Wikipedia article could be right about industrialization and Keats, too. But that isn’t what the poem means to me.)

The other poem is the eleventh chapter of the Tao te Ching, Lao Tse: pick your translation. Here’s Gia-fu Feng and Jane English, and here are about a dozen others.I started to write, “the spaces in the nopal make it what it is,” but that implies that “it,” the cactus, is the veins (or “bones” or whatever they are), while the spaces are just air, or emptiness. That would be as nonsensical as a jar that was made only of clay, not of space.  The nopal is all of it, stuff and space alike. Drawing the spaces helps me feel that in my own bones.

Switching gears, here’s the other drawing I’ve been working on for, oh geez, a few weeks now, an hour or two most afternoons while the light is right. It’s the view east from my roof. (The view, ha. It’s just a few degrees of the whole view, of course. The rest is absent . . . most of artmaking being the decision about what to leave out. More on this aspect of lacunae soon too.) I think it’s almost done. It quickly turned out to be about texture more than anything else. The variety of textures of walls and trees in this little chunk of city is incredible.  One thing I notice as I look at this smallified version is that I might want to fix up some of the verticals with a t-square.  There’s nothing wrong with parallel lines not being quite in parallel (look at van Gogh’s city streets and interiors), but it might distract from what I want to be the focus here.


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