When I begin a drum painting, I just look. I am not trying to find anything, just gazing, more like I am waiting for something to find me. Sometimes this takes days and days. Weeks. Just looking.
Usually eyes come first. I think we humans are oriented to eyes because our vision is our superior sense. Like dogs and sharks look for smells, we look for eyes. I use old, mostly worn out paper stumps for blending chalk pastel to lightly sketch who is looking back. There are two criteria I look for to determine that this image is THE image that wants to come.
The creature or person needs to be in a relationship of some sort…with me the viewer or with a story unfolding on the drum surface. And maybe more importantly, the natural marks and pigment shifts in the skin need to be somehow engaged in the image rather than left out. So here at the next level of sketching with raw earth pigments, the otter’s gaze is the story, and the streaks of darkened bruising are the correct extension of paws and body.
And while I am working, something remarkable occurs.
I realize the otter is seeing me.
So what is the difference between looking and seeing?
Presence. Connection. Communion.
It is hard to look away. Questions arise. What?
Of course a drum has two sides, and one of the peculiarities of the way I make drums is that the interlacement pattern that becomes the handhold of the drum has to be put in place before the drum is painted. So between the front and the back there is an opportunity for presence, communication, communion, or not.
I have never tied this pattern before: a 10 pointed star, first shown to me by Kathy Sager and her magical daughters in the drums they made. But how to pull in the centre enough so fingers could fit in the spaces along the rim?
Sometimes objects live in small, messy household corners for years, trying not to get lost while waiting for their purpose to be realized. I find a magnet with just the right size opening. A magnet? What does this mean in a drum?
When something is magnetized it has
an orientation, a preference, a tilt of will.
Just like the reference photo of an otter face I used at the beginning of the painting to accurately place ears and eyes and size of mouth, I look up some symbolic meanings of “Otter.” What is this drum attracting? What is seeing me, and wants to be seen in return? Joy. Playfulness. Curiosity. Creativity. Seems like we could all use a bit of otter right now.
And how is the ocean part of this story of looking and seeing? Certainly the foam and blue patterns are its surface, but the visual impression is that the otter has just floated up from the depths. A moment’s pause that offers a chance to engage. Perhaps all of nature is like the deep ocean, filled with moments to not just look, but see and be seen. True connection rising to the surface, and then sinking away. Did you see that? Just there? A sparkle. Oh, now it’s gone.