I have always been a big fan of hallowed ground. If there is
an artist or writer whose house and/or studio has been preserved,
I'll try to get there.
Stanley Kunitz dedicated the poem which I have excerpted above
to Carol and Greg Stockmal, of Worcester, Massachusetts. The
Stockmals have done an incredibly wonderful thing: after learning
that their house once belonged to the Kunitz family, they restored
Stanley's childhood home and garden. Stanley begins the poem
by telling how they mailed "eighteen Bartlett pears/hand-picked
and polished and packed/for deposit at my door/" each fall.
Stanley Kunitz died last May at the age of 100, and astonishingly,
last year the pear tree bore no fruit.
On the special occasions when the Stockmals open their house
to the public, I try to be there. I love to see that pear tree
and hear the poem play in my head.
On August 17th, my husband and I boarded the train from Paris
to Vernon for a visit to Claude Monet's house and gardens at
Giverny. When I stood in his studio/living room, I couldn't
help but think about who had walked on these floors or sat and
talked about art and gardening. His yellow dining room could
qualify as the Eighth Wonder of the World; according to Monet:
A Visit to Giverny, it took "two tons [!] of yellow"
paint to create this space where I felt as if I were standing
inside the sun.*
Walking in the gardens, I stopped to look back at the house
and recognized the composition of "Path in Monet's Garden"
(Musée Marmottan, Paris). He must have set up his easel
in this exact spot! That happened several times as we took every
path available. A walk through the tunnel brought us to the
water lily garden, with its weeping willows dipping into the
water, and of course, the Japanese bridge crowded with tourists
posing for that memorable snapshot. The story goes that the
original bridge collapsed under the weight of the wisteria in
full bloom on the metal trellises.
Monet's once simple house grew as he bought and converted adjoining
barns; the parcel of land expanded to satisfy his passion for
gardening. In his quest to study the effect of light on water,
he bought more adjacent land. He had a pond dug and filled it
by diverting water from a nearby tributary of the Seine. Obsessed
by water lilies, he worked hard to acquire as many varieties
as possible. What impressed me the most is the lengths (and
depths) Monet went to create the entire visual experience. In
other words, he made the whole thing up! And then he went on
to create paintings that changed art forever.
On the return trip, I started to think about other houses and
studios that inspired pilgrimages over the years. The list included
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Edith Wharton, Emily
Dickinson, Rembrandt, Anne Frank, Paul Cezanne, Constantin Brancusi,
Gustav Moreau, Herman Melville, Auguste Rodin, and Sir Walter
Why do I make special trips to see an easel and artist's materials
preserved in the very spot great art was produced? Why does
my heart beat faster when I am surrounded by paintings and sculptures
(or reproductions) by the great ones in the very place where
they created them? You would think that once I'd seen one or
two famous writers' desks, there wouldn't be many others that
could send that chill down my spine.
I think that my quest is tied to the act of creation and seeing
how close one visit can bring me to it. I remember the thrill
of casually slipping into a pew in the Seamen's Bethel in New
Bedford, Massachusetts and glancing at the wall plaque that
identified it as Herman Melville's.
What hallowed ground can I look forward to in the future? What
would I'd rather see: John Updike's old computer and keyboard
or Chuck Close's studio? My answer is: both.
What thresholds have you crossed? What made you buy that ticket
and climb those steps? How did you feel when you paused in the
same spot where one of your favorite artists or writers stood?
*I later realized that this must be a typo in Monet: A Visit
to Giverny. The sentence reads: "Monet had the walls,
the ceiling, the windows, the doors, the chairs, the two buffets
and the sideboards painted in two tons of yellow, one rather
pale and the other deeper." I think the translator meant
two tones of yellow.
Next month, I will continue to explore the differences and
similarities between art and poetry making. Please contact me
if you would like to get in on the discussion: email@example.com.