“Oh, how good it is that I have been sent here to such beauty!” Diary
I have had the delightful assignment, this past month or so, of selecting 40 watercolors from Lilias’s three 1890’s Journals to be paired with quotes from four decades of her diaries, journals and out-of-print books. What a luxury to turn page after page of text – museums in miniature – to discover buried within the journals exquisite watercolors on the headings, in the margins and on bits of paper applied to the lined pages.
How to choose? Cheerful daisy faces smiling from a sea of green foliage. . . robe-clad figures of men, women, children. . . a tiny rowboat against of sea of coral and pink reflecting the setting sun. . . bright red poppies in varying life stages. . . a woman’s face, in profile, scarf tied around her head lifted high – saucy, even defiant. . . slender trunks of palm trees with their umbrellas of swaying branches against a dusky desert sky. . . a goatman leading a trip of goats through an expanse of desert, rose-washed mountains in the horizon. . . white dome-shaped houses of the Souf against powder-white drifts of sand. . . To chose one is to reject another, or so it feels.
No doubt about it: Her paintings have possessed me – trained my eyes, my spirit – through the years. I see a seed pod differently, or the bare architecture of a leaf-stripped tree, having been informed by her vision. I see Lilias “sunrises” and “sunsets” in my sub-tropical sky. I find a warming in my heart toward people of different culture and race having become acquainted with her beloved Arab friends portrayed with dignity and respect. Lilias has instructed me in “a way of seeing” that leads from that which is visible to the unseen things of the spirit.
Such is the power of visual art. To make one see. Lilias was intentional in recording what she saw, first for herself, I believe, a form of personal processing, a visual record of God’s world. She captured images of a land and a people she loved to convey the same to others. And she made a visual and verbal tally of lessons learned about the Creator by reading His creation.
A defense for visual art was made by Sylvia Shaw Judson, sculptor of the famous Bird Girl of Savannah, in a little gem of a book: A Quiet Eye. She was a member of the Quaker Society of Friends, drawn to “their sensitivity to fundamental social values” and veracity of faith based on “spiritual inwardness.” She was, nonetheless alarmed that those same values seemed to arouse an attitude of distrust against art. She argued: “The artist serves humanity by feeding its hungry spirit in as real a sense as if he fed its hungry bodies. He needs to be accepted as a useful member of society, otherwise springs of creativity dry up or turn bitter and society is the loser.” Toward that end, she selected, from four centuries, examples of pictures “with a ‘divine ordinariness,’ a delicate balance between the outward and the inward, with freshness and a serene wholeness and respect for all simple and first-rate things, which are for all times and all people.”
John Ruskin, eminent figure in Victorian culture and society, was both friend and mentor to Lilias. He saw in her an innate talent and a unique sensitivity to beauty – in people and in nature. He shored her natural inclination toward beauty with a philosophy that combined “learning to look” with training in technique: “I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love Nature, than teach the looking of Nature that they may learn to draw.” He went on to posit: “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.”
The power of painting was brought home to me in full force several years after moving from the Midwest to Central Florida. I mourned the “northernness” I left behind: vivid changes of seasons, fall colors, snow blanketing the earth, spring bulb flowers and summer meadows yellow with golden rod and black-eyed Susan. I sought out places that connected me to the north: the tree-shady slopes of Bok Tower Gardens, for example. I scattered tributes throughout the house – reminders of lost beauty: a vase of dogwood on the fireplace mantle; spring flowers duplicated in china, pewter or paint; sentimental paintings of northern house and garden.
Then one day, I was invited by a friend to see a newly acquired painting her husband had given her, fulfilling her desire to own a painting by the talented regional artist Robert Butler. The work depicted a Florida dear to her heart, she explained, the place of her childhood.
I studied the framed scene. It was a familiar Florida landscape: a stream meandering through marsh scrubland, a bay-head with a cluster of trees – tall Florida pine flanked by cabbage palms, a cypress, and maybe an oak. Several ducks dotted the sky. A forest of pines lined the horizon. The painting portrayed the very Florida I had rejected. Yet as I viewed this landscape, I began to see it through new eyes – her eyes: the eyes of love.
That painting taught me to accept a place for what it is, to surrender myself to its particular cadence and rhythm. “If you would learn the song of the land,” mused Robert Blanding in Floridays, “you must look and listen and. . . understand. You must root your heart in tropic soil.” C. S. Lewis advocated a “serious, yet gleeful determination to rub one’s nose in the very quiddity of each thing – to rejoice in its being (so magnificently) what it is.”
Such is the power of painting. To teach us to see. To change ones heart.
In her introduction to Between the Desert & the Sea, her love story of Algeria, Lilias invites the reader to “come and look. . . The colour pages and letter press are with one and the same intent – to make you see.” Echoing her mentor Ruskin, she concludes, “Many things begin with seeing in this world of ours.”
“We learn to praise God not by paying compliments but by paying attention.
Watch how the trees exult when the wind is in them.
Mark the utter stillness of the great blue heron in the swamp.
Listen to the sound of the rain.
Learn how to say ‘Hallelujah’ from the ones who say it right.”
Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking
Painting: 1889 Pocket Scetchbook