I sit with a smallish ink painting (11″ x 16″) that Michelle acquired from our neighbor, Sarah Sutro. Sarah and Michael have owned the loft across the stairwell from us since the inception of the artists’ community that has occupied the Eclipse Mill since about 2004, but until recently we knew them only by reputation as “the couple who live in Thailand.
Before Thailand, they lived in Bangladesh, where Sarah studied ink- and dye-making at a shop called Aranya, in Dhaka. She has written a marvelously big little book about her exploration of color, its extraction from plants and minerals and its use in fabric and on paper. Colors: Passages through Art, Asia and Nature is a slim volume that one might (in theory) devour in an evening. I wouldn’t know. I have steeped myself in its measured imagery, its quick excitations over the subtleties of visual, chemical and cultural interactions for the past couple of months. The read is not a slow one, but the absorption of it ought not to be rushed. “There is no way to make this go faster,” she writes of the 9 steps of dyeing fabric. “I cannot hurry the process. I find myself, as usual…wanting to push it along. Slowly, slowly, I poke the folded cloth in the solution.”
Slowly, repetitively, I dip into the strange, wide world that contains monsoons and jackfruit, East Cambridge, Ossabaw and the British Empire, phytochemistry and chemotherapy. Her recollections and her recipes seep into the fibers of my own imagination over time, coloring my own relationship with pigment, both the natural and the synthetic varieties. The vividness of ordinary life, in Sarah’s writings and in her paintings, unfolds little by little, never quite predictably. Both are saturated with soft aha!s.
This painting in front of me–I don’t know its title yet, if it has one; I’ll sit with it a while longer before I ask. The composition is simple to the point of austerity: a series of vertical stripes in blue and brown, with thirteen spirals to dominate the lower third, hovering, not quite opaquely, in front of the stripes. The whole thing is done in just two colors–three if you count the ground, a near infinity of them once you begin to penetrate the lush tangle of nuance and gradation–a study, in neutrals and blues, on the nature of limited means and extravagant expression. One stroke veils another and, in so doing, reveals it, releases the deeper secrets locked in the essence of, of all things, brown.
An almost audible thrum emanates from this play of stroke laid net to stroke, coming as if from underneath the obscuring dance of spirals, a shifting curtain of sound and power like that of a cataract pounding the earth through which its current runs. This quality of liminality courses through much of Sarah’s work (whether she lays down her ink by hand, in bold strokes of the brush, or less directly, in print), this grounding power of gradualness to overwhelm the senses, to slow us down and shake us awake to the vitality inherent in being cognizant, in an awareness that rushes continuously past the boundaries of assumption and stasis to an unexpected encounter with the self-modulating force of time, of change, of process.
I want to look at this manner of unfolding more closely through the lens of a single sentence, one that stopped me in my tracks the first time I read it, and backed me up to read it again, and again, the way I keep coming back to this little, vertical painting to see what else it has to show me. In the passage called “Planting Blue Gold,” she speaks of the history of indigo. She is a guest in Bangladesh, a westerner learning from her hosts about a history interrupted and forever altered by British imperialism. She writes:
There is a bad feeling, I learned from Moni, still, in Bangladesh, among old farmers, about indigo production.
The sentence emits a beat as palpable as that of old Anglo-Saxon poetry, albeit without the hammering alliteration. More to the point, it carries the same chant-like beat felt in so many of Sarah’s paintings, with their repetitive strokes that set the paper vibrating like the skin of a drum. The reverberative pattern she sets up lulls us into a state of near-hypnotic reverie, an opening of the eyes and ears to something subtler, even, than the bodily senses can detect, an expansive ripple-effect on the awareness.
“There is a bad feeling,” she warns us, a global tension, a sense of unease at once both vague and pervasive; then with, “I learned from Moni,” we feel a moment’s relief. The bad feeling does not, at least, belong to us. We pick it up second-hand–but no, third-hand, even–from a Bengali woman we barely know. Granted, we’re on a first-name basis, but note how we switch from the present tense “there is” to the past of “I learned,” allowing us to take a slight backward step, to establish a more comfortable social distance, as we might in the presence of an infectious disease, because, you know…we just don’t know this bad feeling yet; we’ve only shaken hands with it. Then comes the lingering “stillness” at the center of this deceptively awkward sentence, the word around which everything that has come before and will come after pivots. We hang on it for a moment, unsure of what it means, what it portends. “There is a bad feeling, I learned from Moni, still…”
Still might mean however. It might offer a solution, a qualification, maybe an ameliorative or at least a paliative effect.
But no. Still means still. It means currently and enduringly. The bad feeling doesn’t go away, it is persistent and intractable. And with each successive beat, we get a more and more specific diagnosis of the problem. It has a location: in Bangladesh; it affects old farmers in an ancient civilization; and we know, even from so far away, we know the root cause of it. It is about indigo production. It is, in other words, about color and globalization and the import-export business of human sweat-inequity and the consequences of arrogance.
Colors is hardly a political tract. The recipes it contains are for inks and dyes and teas, not social reform. It is, in its quiet, straightforward way, a demonstration of the capillary absorption of life and thought and experience that we call human expression, that we call art.