A Short Story

No, I’ve not fallen asleep, just experiencing distractions from daily life and deadlines looming overhead (which are now, thankfully, past). And then there was the ICE STORM. Capital letters don’t do its magnitude justice. But this is not about that. Rather, it is somewhat of a digression since our digital camera is still on the fritz and I am unable to post pictures of my progress on my latest painting. It is about Morocco, as I had promised, and coming along nicely in spite of the other things getting in my way.

But it is not for today, since it’s rather boring to talk about a painting one can’t see. Today I will paint a picture of Morocco in words, a tale from our first trip there, and one that had lasting effects on both Dave and me. This is a rather long tale, so I’ll give it to you in a couple installments. You’ll just have to tune in later to see how it all turned out. We did survive, you can surmise, afterall.

An open air market in Fez on our second trip

The Desert Calls

The front wheels of our car bump off the road in front of a sign that reads “Autopiste” and onto a spray of car tracks leading in several directions out into the barren dust illuminated in our headlights. We are at the northern edge of the Sahara Desert south of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, headed on our way to a 3-day camel adventure. We’d found our guide, Abdul, in the seaside town of Essaouira on the northwest coast of Morocco, a full day’s journey from where we find ourselves now, at day’s end, entering the Sahara.

Abdul grew up here in the desert in what he calls the family compound. He owns a small shop in Essaouira selling jewelry and trinkets to tourists, and when he can find willing adventurers, he brokers camel trips of various lengths for intrepid spirits such as ourselves. For a negotiated fee he’s agreed to drive us to our trip’s starting point in the Sahara, hire guides and camels, and provide all necessary provisions, such as food, water, and gear, for our 3-day trip. It sounded like the experience of a lifetime, and David and I were excited and dumbstruck by the prospect. Abdul had warned us that we would need to get to our turnoff into the Sahara before sunset, as the roads were weak and indiscernible, little more than tracks in the dirt. “The roads, they go like this, this, this,” he explained, motioning his hands in different directions and shaking his head to show their confusion. Since he no longer lived there and was now unaccustomed with the way from the highway to the compound, he would need the light of day to distinguish the right course through the sand.

Our day had begun with a maddening watch alarm failure due to its complicated instructions. We had awakened late on the morning of our departure from Essaouira and scrambled frantically around to meet Abdul and head south to the desert. By the time we met him just outside the city gate it was close to 8 o’clock and the day well on its way. Our journey took us up across the Atlas Mountains, where we stopped for lunch and a brief rest. We made several stops for photo opportunities, and somewhere outside of Zagora we stopped at an open market for our trip provisions. Heading south out of town we were further delayed by a slow convoy of SUVs also headed south. The sun was quickly sinking as we raced to pass them.

The twilight had enveloped us as we finally pulled off the highway onto the piste headed into the Sahara. Abdul had accurately described the lay of the road, if it were to be called that. Tire tracks led everywhere, each beckoning you to follow its lead. Ahead at the distant horizon the sun was slipping its footing, sinking into darkness. I looked behind us in time to see a bus discharge several passengers into the dusk. Where were they headed, I wondered, with no visible town or village or house in any direction? I watched them set off knowingly behind us, headed westward, just as though they’d been let off at some busy well-lit city street corner. As we headed onward I lost sight of them in the growing dark.

The first moments of panic bubbled up from the pit of my stomach as I looked out the front window trying in vain to determine the road. Abdul and David had spent much of the day amicably chatting, but now their voices were silent. Who was this man, really? What did we know about him? Instead of the headiness of a fantastic adventure about to unfold, I felt an icy foreboding in the pit of my stomach. What kind of foolishness had David and I gotten ourselves into? Maybe Abdul was taking us to some desolate place to abandon us and be off with our money, or worse. Why wasn’t he talking? Where was the jovial fellow now?

In an effort to steady myself I tried to think of something light to say, but nothing came to mind. Instead, all I could focus on was the closing way before us and the waning light. We rambled over a vague rolling terrain of sand and low scrub . Off in the distance I could make out the silhouettes of a few camels and a couple of lone people, but no lights of dwellings or distant towns. The car was moving slowly and I willed the heavens to help us find our way, to protect us. I regretted all our stops to take pictures, our time spent resting at lunch, our missed wake-up alarm, our decision to come on this journey to begin with. The car stopped ….

Stefanie

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Dreaming Morocco

Madrasa, a boys' school, in Fez
Madrasa, a boys' school, in Fez

The smallest things can provide blips in your workflow. Our digital camera has gone off its head, and so we’ve taken it into the shop to have a technician look at it. So much for posting progress of my latest paintings.

Camera aside, I’m determining what my next piece will be. I’ve not done anything in a while that had to do with our world travels, and so they beckon. Dave showed me a picture from the New York Times of a scene from Marrakesh’s famous Djemaa El Fna, the greatest nightly food court cum street fair ever, which we experienced in 2000 on our first trip to Morocco. Sadly, we didn’t get back to Marrakesh in 2005, but I remember the nightly festival clearly and with fond memories. It to that date and to present remains one of the wildest experiences I’ve ever had. It is pure street theatre and purely Morocco, filled with amazing storytellers, musicians, hucksters, and a labyrinth of food stalls. We forwent the food back then, but now agree that we’re brave enough to partake the next time we’re there. And we have to go. Morocco has had its hold on me since reading The Drifters, and experiencing it has only added to its magic.

Fish for sale in French and Arabic
Fish for sale in French and Arabic

I pulled up the pictures from our electronic files from our trip to Fez and Meknes in 2005. It all came flooding back, immersing me in a feeling of timelessness, strange and pungent smells, and a bounty of colors and mystery. I like the personal dignity of the people, the men’s long gowns with pointy hoods, the bustle and bump of navigating the souks. There is a strange sight at every turn – goat meat hanging from a hook; small, whole fish for market, their names in French and Arabic script; silversmiths banging out their pots; the stench and color of the tanners’ row. Women drift by in clouds of flowing material at the periphery of consciousness, dark apparitions save for their exposed faces. Donkeys laden with a multitude of wares tread the narrow paths of the bazaars, forming an urban supply train as counterpart to the camels of the Sahara, and as time honored.

Expect some images brought to life in the weeks ahead. I dream of Morocco.

Stefanie

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First Painting

"Two Ibis"    Watercolor by Stefanie Graves    17" X 17"
"Two Ibis" Watercolor by Stefanie Graves 17" X 17"

My painting is at a resting phase, something they all go through at what appears to be their completion. I wait to let them sink in and see if they have anything else to tell me. I, on the other hand, am in motion. After so many months of not writing blog entries and not doing very many paintings, I’m trying to get my groove back on and develop some long-needed discipline. It seems I read about it every day, the benefits of setting a schedule for your work and sticking to it. Robert Genn devoted an entire letter to it recently and has spoken of his own schedule from time to time in his Painter’s Keys bi-weekly list. My neighbor, Bill, puts me to shame, painting like a mad man. So, I’ve taken note and am trying to set a new course.

I recently came across a neat way of taking credit for the time you spend in your studio. An artist I found online posted calendars for the past three years, showing the days she’d painted or drawn colored in with bright colors, so that by the end of the year they made a colorful abstract painting by themselves. Seeing the three years together also showed her progress in spending more time on her work. It’s sort of like getting a gold star by your name when you do your chores. The kid in me likes that, so I may have to make my own calendar to fill in.

The first painting of the year is entitled, “Two Ibis,” inspired from one of our trips to Florida in the past few years. I love the birds and wildlife there and try to spend at least part of each trip someplace where I can wonder in relative silence and watch the creatures go about their daily lives. Ibis are particularly busy birds, nearly always at work wading through bogs and waterways thrusting their bills into the muck to find some tasty morsel. Here, they rested, perhaps gathering energy for their day ahead.

Stefanie

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Igniting a Fire

Watercolor by Stefanie Graves   11" X 21"
Watercolor by Stefanie Graves 11" X 21"

One of my New Year resolutions was to start a new blog, one of my own that would be separate from the Cowango blog, writings about our travels and life in Mexico. Since we’ve moved to Paducah, that blog has almost been mothballed, its reason for being having pretty much disappeared. Settled here in Paducah with only periodic trips back to our casita in San Miguel, the blog needed re-thinking. I’ve felt a greater need to have a separate voice to devote to my watercolors and my efforts at making my way in the art world.

So, the fireworks are over, the calendar has been turned to 2009, and I can’t think of a better way to start things off than with a new venture. Besides the blog, I’ve promised to paint more this year and work on marketing even more than ever. Right now it feels a little like trying to start a fire. Gathering little twigs and pieces of dry grass, arranging them carefully to allow for some room for oxygen and enough energy to create a spark that will ignite even bigger things and become something of substance to give off warmth and sustenance. I’m still trying to get that flame to take hold.

Maybe this blog will be the spark, along with some luck, to get things moving along beyond where I’ve come so far. I’ll share my work, progress, thoughts, and whatever interesting pieces of flotsam and jetsam that comes my way.

The year closed with an experimental piece completed as part of a community art project about communication and community. One artist started by creating a painting, which was then viewed by three other artists, who in turn created their own work inspired from what they saw from the original painting. This continued on with subsequent artists looking at those works and creating their own paintings or pieces of art. Kind of a visual game of “Telephone.” My painting was one of 15 works of art that became part of The Ripple Effect exhibition at the Maiden Alley Cinema in Paducah exploring communication and other themes brought out as a result of the project. My painting’s theme of religion played off the idea of religious community portrayed in the artist’s painting I viewed. The process shook me up, took me into a new direction. Now I’m wondering what else it may tell me.

Stefanie

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