Concerning Bees

Frances-studioin Feb.'08

Frances' studio in March, 2008 (Stefano Baroni)

My studio is a hay barn. A date on a ceramic plaque above the door says it was constructed in 1911, the year my father was born on a farm in upstate New York. The building is brick; on three walls high grill-work windows, typical of hay barns in this area, let in blades of light that move around according to the time of day. On a morning of sun like this one today, the sweet darkness of the interior becomes a mosaic of luminous tiles. Not far from where I paint, an imposing device designed for kitchen use as a double boiler, maintains a mixture of bees’ wax, Venetian turpentine, and various pigments in three stainless steel pans at 63 degrees C.

On the easel there is an unfinished painting; the thick surface suggests the presence of vegetation. From nearby you can see a lone bee. She hovers in the air as if in search of pollen or nectar, but her real interest is in the material itself; she suspects – correctly – that it has something to do with her. She lives just 150 meters away, at the foot of the hill on a terrace next to a small orchard. I shoo her out the door and she disappears into the celestial blooms of a rosemary bush. The branches tremble as if animated by a chorus of voices murmuring in a temple. The farmers who lived in this region 2000 years ago thought that bees were sacred… Maybe they were right.

From where I am standing, near the front door, my painting is just beginning to look like a landscape. When I move back inside and up close, it breaks up into abstract colors and forms. Both views are important to me. But what I was searching for when I first started experimenting with bees’ wax was not specific subject matter but a way of painting, one that would feel coherent with a way of thinking.

“Nature is an endless combination and repetition of a very few laws.” Emerson said. The almost random gesture of dripping warm colored wax on a panel creates signs and textures of increasing complexity. It only takes the slightest change, a subtle rotation of the wrist, to create an unpredictable variation. This system, in favoring a interlacing of signs, integrates the foreground with the background. The composition spreads and becomes abstract. And a certain distance is required in order to recognize the subject as a landscape at all.

The rhythm of the process is fast. As if under a spell, the color on the large flat brush hardens after only a few minutes and requires a new immersion in the warm viscous medium to soften it. Once the result looks promising, the painting is promoted to an upright position. At this point, I can manipulate it, scraping, wiping, smoothing (with a hot iron). What I like about this stage of my work is that it represents a metaphor for memory. The layers of color underneath determine the quality of the surface and can be revealed, suppressed, or elaborated.

Memory plays an essential part in every phase of the operation. The sudden realization of an image or a scene depends on its being triggered by an evocation. Recollection is a good word to describe what happens because what is retrieved is never an intact picture but rather the collection and reassembling of various moments from various places: damp maples huddled on a small island, mist rising from a northern lake, an old love letter disguised as a sunrise, a distant shore, barely discernable.

The tingle of recognition I feel when this happens is one of the primary reasons for painting in the first place. Patterns imitating nature seem to be most convincing when they are not caused by an imposed treatment. Instead when entwined branches, ripples on a lake, richly furrowed bark, result from a course of action such as dripping or melting, they can be as astounding as the markings on a butterflies wings that make it resemble a leaf.

Only rarely does this process lead to figures in the landscape, and when it seems they are starting to emerge, I dismiss them before they start giving order to what had been left purposely vague.

When I was a little girl I lived in New York City, and, desiring more Nature in my room, I painted a supplementary window – complete with a tree-lined view – along a good part of one wall. My mother let me do that kind of thing. But a guest of hers, a portly woman wearing a long necklace with shiny jet beads, seemed skeptical. She asked me, “where are the people in your landscape?” I was speechless. How could an adult woman be so stupid; we were both standing right there!

Instead, the human form as a subject in itself has always interested me and, in this period, is gradually becoming the theme of a series of small sculptures. The subjects have evolved – even in a Darwinian sense – from small animals into upright Homo sapiens, and are proliferating in the Bosco della Ragnaia, under the guidance of Sheppard Craige, its creator and my husband.

The Bosco marks a point in Sheppard’s artistic development. He stopped painting or – more accurately – changed the scale of his landscapes and began transforming an abandoned piece of land into a park. In this project, Sheppard follows no preconceived overall design, but works the way he paints, with the same diffuse joy an artist derives from physical contact with his materials.

On a trip to Greece several years ago Sheppard and I gathered acorns from under a grove of stooped evergreen oaks into a big white handkerchief, tied into a bundle. We rested for a while, watching the sky above an electrical plant some distance away. The steam billowing from the enormous stacks, transformed into clouds, were perfectly round and spotlessly white. In the foreground – dominating a field of wild flowers – a score of wooden containers rested on a stone wall. Painted in varying shades of blue, each hive was a whirlwind, a hum of palpable energy.

We planted the acorns in a corner of the Ragnaia and what I wonder about now are the following: When they grow, will they feel different from the existing trees around them? Will something remain from that day, when we gathered them, something that will attach itself to the new roots like a parasite of joy? And will they think they are in Arcadia?