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Exquisite Palimpsests
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Mara Leigh Koslen

Palimpsest: Something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface. - Merriam-Webster Dictionary

“Of course, I can imitate a line, but that is not what I want, and the real line emerges when it wants to.” -The Journals of Jean Cocteau

The palimpsests I encounter most, at the moment, are the ones my 21-month-old son and I create together.

His first experience making art begins with lines lightly scrawled from a waxy midnight blue Crayola crayon, a few little squiggles per page. He informs me that they are, “Snakes, snakes.” He often likes to say a word twice and the repetition gives the word an immediacy and urgency that elevates it to a level of vast importance.

On a walk, just the week before his first forays in art-making, we came across a small injured Garter snake in the middle of the path that winds through our neighborhood. For many days, after, he would reflect back on the snake, “Snake ow, Mama.” And I would say, “Yes, the snake had an ow.”

When I write the letters of the alphabet on a page he informs me that the letters C, O and D are clearly, “Moon, Mama.”

He now requests I draw a bus, roughly, ten times a day. On the same page he continues to draw and draw repetitively in thick strokes until the representational image has vanished under something resembling a Jackson Pollock, if Jackson Pollock would have taken to the medium of crayons and magic markers.

We take turns sometimes with a single broken blunt scrap of crayon, like old friends sharing a flask of whiskey. He draws for ten seconds, hands the crayon stub to me, I draw for ten seconds, hand the crayon stub back to him. And we go on this way for half an hour on a single artwork. This is our Surrealist experiment, our Exquisite Corpse, our exquisite palimpsest.

At nine months old, my son started saying, “This.” It was a way for him to direct me toward what he wanted, but it was also a way for him to ask me the name of a thing. He would point up a painting in our home by Cuban-American artist Humberto Benitez, of a crowd of women and men dancing and drumming, in the spirit of a Diego Rivera, primary colors flashing and say, “This?” and I would say, “Art,” and he would repeat the word, “Art, art,” two times. Soon he would just point up to the painting and say, “Art” and I would say, “Yes! That is art.”

I hope the word art will hold an evolving meaning for him; a word that over time will just continue to absorb complexity, a word and a thing allowed to dance between definitions, dangling in its own balance, in a contented state of flux, but with its roots still intact; a word that will expand to the point in which it will defy definition over the years.

I hope I am able to teach him that art is a sort of ingenious game of the imagination, sometimes playful and invigorating, and that there is a delicious elation that can arrive during the process of its creation.

Photo Courtesy Mara Leigh Simmons

As a child, my dad would often take us to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He would say, “Mara, look at this painting! The textures and layers!” and so on. The only color on the crusty expanse of canvas: white.

My mind expanded on these family excursions—electricity surged though me—I experienced joy, ecstasy, inspiration—all this at once. I was awake, really seeing and taking it all in because art truly lit up my father. He became a firework beacon of light that could not be contained on these outings, because this was Art, Art I tell you! (with a capital A) and it was brilliant and vital and invaluable and had to be mulled over and examined. These mind-altering masterpieces could not be touched with our hands, but we let our eyes be windows to the soul when we looked at them through eyes that were seeing as if for the first time.

My toddler son and I are making our first works of art together in quick succession. We scrawl lines, circles, spirals, As and Os, wheels and eyes and noses, floating faces and body parts, snakes and sand, dots and dashes, the sea and the sky and trees until it all becomes an abstract expanse, like desert sand in a slow but strong moving storm, the new grains cover the old ones, until the ones underneath are barely discernible; until not a square inch of blankness is left or it all become monochromatic—one—one thick expanse of desert with all the geometric shapes and bodies and balls and boxes you could identify underneath barely visible, an almost clean slate of solid color with little flashes of white—an exquisite palimpsest we made together.

Mara Leigh Koslen ruminates about urban gardening, art, literature and life as well as the spaces where they intersect at

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