As an artist who’s been focusing almost entirely on figurative (that is, realistic, not abstract) drawings for the past several years, I sometimes wonder what the point is. Drawing helps me to see the world more clearly, but does it help the viewer to do the same? Doesn’t the most successful realism defeat its own purpose, in that people look at it and say, “Right, that’s a person,” without seeing any differently than they did before? I want to help people to have the experience I have when I draw: to get beyond “Well done, it really looks like her” to “That’s something I never noticed about her before.” I’m not sure realism can get them there.

Photo by Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Photo by Amy Zucker Morgenstern

At least, I wasn’t until recently, when I realized that I am really looking at clouds for the first time in my life. I don’t know how I got to this age without noticing that the clouds are different every day, and every few moments. That they come in an incredible variety of shapes that the nomenclature of cirrus, cumulus, cumulonimbus, stratus doesn’t capture. That their colors are infinitely varied even in simple mid-day light. I do have a pretty good idea what made me finally notice them. It was the paintings of two artists, Diego Rivera and Wendy Miller.

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Photo by Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Wendy is an artist I know who lives in my neighborhood, and I saw her paintings for the first time when I moved here in 2010. Diego Rivera’s cloud paintings were unknown to me until earlier that same year, when we went to the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City and saw a whole series that he did from the balcony of his patron’s home (Dolores Olmedo herself, if I recall correctly), one evening after another, at sunset. I looked admiringly at both artists’ gorgeous paintings of clouds, acknowledging how difficult it must have been to portray them so vividly, but something beyond that happened inside me. Inside my eyes, I think, or whatever parts of me are needed to perceive clouds, because I see them now.

I do a lot of driving up and down the San Francisco Peninsula. There’s nothing new about that; I did it before 2010 too. Now, though, the clouds up ahead hold wonders for me every day, and now I know firsthand that “merely” painting what we see can open others’ eyes.

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