A Constellation of Memory

The sun sank toward eye-level as I walked to Beardsley Hall, clad in my “most flamboyant patterned shirt,” as per Sarah Diamond’s request. “I have an idea,” she warned me at the end of her email invitation.Her idea, it turned out, was to paint me in my most singular look — which, she thought, must be the florid shirt and glasses that she instructed me to wear — with a background of her own composition. I’d never sat for a painter before and felt a hint of Dorian Gray enter my stride on the path to the art building. Walking into the Senior Studio space for the first time is an out-of-Swarthmore experience: there are no walls, only curtains divide the space into personal allotments for each of the Studio Arts seniors, and there is artwork everywhere. The tiny laptop music that permeates the curtained spaces and the half-finished canvases and hunks of clay somehow alerts you aurally to the vibe that the space emits: this is where people who know what they really want to do, do it.As someone who aspires to the title of artist (or even just person), this setting was particularly exciting. Sarah sat me down in a worn leather armchair and began to sketch. Watching her hand fill the canvas captured my attention more than any finished painting would, and for that I felt grateful. To experience art in the present, a moment when artist’s and observer’s (and subject’s, in this case) experiences coincide: what a rare thing indeed! Never will I read a novel or a short story as the author pens the words, nor watch a film as it’s being shot — the relationship between painter and model is more aligned with that between stage actor and audience, or musician/singer and their audience.

The performative aspect of painting elucidated several links and divides between color and words for me, the languages upon which each medium is founded. Color can be saved and stored on a palette, making the act of choosing definite and limited, effectively restricting the painter to a mood and tone externally. On the other hand, writing prose draws, at each word, from the entire lexicon and therefore offers countless moods and tones to the author and he or she must abstractly limit him- or herself to establish a tone. These and more revelatory notions streamed through my hand as Sarah’s hand cocked up and down on the canvas. The profound, half-formed connections amassed until I noticed a glint of finality in Sarah’s eye, and I scooted over to inspect the portrait.

I was painted in reds and browns, the colors of my shirt, and I could see myself in the heavily brush-stroked canvas as I would in a stained mirror — here, however, the stain was not simple tarnish, but Sarah’s artistry. Each stroke contained within it the contours of her expression, each curve nudging the viewer closer to her vision. In painting, even the minutiae are employed by the artist for his/her aims; in writing, the words are already fixed, and the play comes in the arranging and the structure of the set. After being painted in an hour, I had formed contradictory conclusions of the two disciplines, thus troubling my already complicated schema of art.

I then left Beardsley, agitated and thinking. Treading along the asphalt paths, I felt my mind leave my body and enter the spring of art: memory. To my right was Kohlberg Hall, the bright nucleus of my academic career at Swarthmore, and where my freshman year culminated with wine-red revelry. Ahead stood Parrish, whose third floor housed me the year I left home. Still farther, down the hill, the smokestack rose above my second home for three years: Clothier Field and our antique field house, where I spent the energy that my intellectual pursuits left stagnant and unused. Walking the well-worn routes stirred parts of me that had bonded to the place, flushing loose fragments into emotion and tears.

The place where I learned and relearned how to read, to write, to live and to love; how could I flourish anywhere else?

In “The Short Story,” Professor Betsy Bolton relayed a useful distinction in defining the short story genre. The authors of such stories, she explained, often wished to communicate one of two things: their sense of place or of the past. In the section she called “Lore of Place,” we read Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson and Flannery O’Connor — three authors whose fiction reflected the Southern tradition from whence it came. Likewise, the “Lore of the Past” portion of the syllabus focussed on writers like Ray Carver or Jorge Luis Borges whose projects were, in many ways, intertwined with memory and the past.

With lore of place and past vibrating in my mind, I pass McCabe, the teeming core of Swarthmore’s academic rigor, and continue downhill. On my left, hidden amid a fecund grove, is ‘Mina’ — the pond outside the arboretum office. This same pond, years ago now, watched as I found love at Swarthmore and learned bliss from its bottomless depths. On to Willets, where the love bloomed, and also where I spent my first night at Swarthmore as a prospective student, and finally to Worth, whose high stone walls cradle me each night. One brief walk down from Beardsley took me through years of memories, landmarks on a map that weighs a good deal more in my mind than the physical ‘here.’

The thing about memory, though, is that it’s not a static cache: each present action confers new meaning to the past, therefore reshaping that past and drawing new lines to the future. When living in a place where the past has stacked up all around you, the present challenges you and the future threatens to stomp it all out, what do you hold onto? Not to answer my own rhetorical question, but I think you hold onto this liminality we live in — the both/and scenario of life and learning — which might soon be snuffed out by life’s definition and tedium.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading