• mjgfurnell

Thoughts in the Silent Night.

A short conversation about art, poetry, loss and longing. A brief window into the life and mind of an old painter.

It’s all comes down to a feeling, he says. I observe him. He is eight-six years old, although he looks much younger, as if he had some agreement with the passing of time. His eyes are intense, his gaze darts around me, rarely staying still for long, only occasionally locking with my own. It’s hard to watch his eyes without feeling intrusive. They are totally exposed; not through an innocence or tenderness, but through an addiction to observation. If eyes are the windows into one’s soul, his appear to be wide open, no curtains or glass panes. It is as if he stands on the window’s edge, looking out into the world. You can’t help but catch his gaze. You know Li Bai, he says, wrote the poem 'Thoughts In the Silent Night' sitting just over there, looking out over the lake. He was travelling through here on his way to the West. Thoughts In The Silent Night, I ponder. I don’t know this poem but something about his tone makes me feel I should. It’s a beautiful poem, I say. Yes, he says, you seen that cabin over there? During the full moon the light enters and… and well it is enough to create a feeling, he trails off. His attention turns to something else over in the distance. His eyes almost dancing as they skip over the landscape. If he was an animal, I think he’d be a hare; at any moment it seems like he’s on the point of bounding away. Not in flight. Not to cause offense. But casually, for his own enjoyment. Instead of ears that bring him the news, he has eyes. Amused eyes. The only thing about poetry that interests me, he says, is the images it creates. I am no poet, but I am a painter. For the first time I see a haze come over his eyes, like he is thinking back to a different place and a different time.  Do you still paint? I ask.  I am always painting, he says, whether I have a brush in my hand or not, I am creating images in my mind. That’s a bit like photography, I say, a photographer needs to train his eye to break down a scene and a frame even when he doesn’t have a camera. You like photography? He asks. It is hard to read his face. His eyes are so open but his face is strangely blank, an empty canvas. I am not sure if it’s contempt or admiration.  Yes, do you? I like photos of the mountains, of the trees, the lakes. Photography is difficult. When I paint, I can put everything where it needs to be. When taking a photo, you can’t move the sun or position the moon. But nature does seem to have a way of being in the right place. I suppose it just is. I usually take photos of people, I say. Again, his attention seems to go elsewhere. For a moment I think he is about to leave. I don’t like photos of people, he says. In life people come and go. They enter your life, form memories, then eventually either them or you have to go. I don’t like photos of people who have already gone. No, paintings are better. We have more control over them. But I think what makes photography beautiful is the lack of control, I reply. Capturing a moment, freezing a memory. I don’t want to remember what was, he says. All we have is what is. With this, he slowly stood up, and wandered off towards the cabin. Later I searched for the poem he had mentioned written by Li Bai: Thoughts in the Silent Night. Beside my bed a pool of light— Is it hoarfrost on the ground? I lift my eyes and see the moon, I bend my head and think of home. 靜夜思 牀前明月光  疑似地上霜 舉頭望明月 低頭思故鄉 I wonder if he misses home.


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