Strange still lifes, interesting people, drawing outdoors

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The photo shows two of many stairs in a spectacular mountain brow garden – Sam Lawrence Park – in Hamilton, Ontario. I had gone into it to do some outdoor drawing. Many of the adjacent stairs, I noticed, had a similar line-up of odd little actors, bits of stone and bark and twigs and related detritus. They make for strange still lifes though I wouldn’t have been able to say whether they were there by chance or design. The park, though, is filled with interesting people who, not surprisingly, often do interesting things.

The day I took the picture, I had gone to Sam Lawrence to walk and watch and draw. It was Monday, June 7, with a decent number of stroller-pushers and dog walkers, amblers and runners, young and old lovers though not nearly as packed as the day before. That day, a Sunday, the majority of visitors seemed to be new or pending Canadians as I saw, for instance, many saris and headscarves and turbans. Several stopped to say hello and briefly chat. It never felt or feels like an interruption as I’m always surprised by how interested (and interesting) people can be and how complimentary, even when the work has barely begun or is well into it, but floundering.

One of Sunday’s visitors, an elderly Syrian, looked down at my drawing, his face managing something between frown and smile. I had based the drawing on one of the rock gardens, no flowers planted as yet, the rocks placed on a slight hill, dirt raked clean around them. They looked like loaves of heavy grey bread. The man told me he had taught drawing ‘for the United Nations’ for 35 years but no longer did so. Life had changed he said. I’ve no idea what teaching for the United Nations might mean, practically speaking, but believe he did what he said he did.

He told me my drawing was good, a bit of a stretch as it wasn’t actually going all that well. I understood the half-smile, half-frown: as an ex-teacher, I know how that expression feels on the face and why it’s there. One doesn’t want to discourage students but if they can do better, they should. I felt like one of his students.

June 7th, the Monday, I met a woman from Pakistan, sitting on a bench with two daughters. I’d say she was in her fifties. Grandma Gul. Perhaps because she spotted my drawing gear (folding stooI and easel, etc.) she called out to ask if I could draw tigers, as she was looking for someone to illustrate a children’s story. As of Covid, she said, she’d become a storyteller and had a story about her grandfather, who had been a famous hunter. A tiger was involved. I assume it was the hunted – or perhaps it and the grandfather had taken turns at the job.

She followed me on Instagram and I in turn looked at her images, one when she was sixteen, holding a rifle trained on something off-camera. A spectacularly beautiful girl. I also read that her father had been given an honorary doctorate from Yale after delivering a lecture there on animal behaviour. Later, I thought, ‘famous hunter grandfather with tiger’ and then ‘famous father who lectures on animal studies’ and last but not least, granddaughter and daughter who now tells children’s stories about animals. I had told her that I didn’t have time to do the tiger illustrations but was very happy to meet her.

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