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Now

Now that it is summer I am glad. It has been a difficult winter. For weeks everything in sight was frozen. In front of my studio, the canal was covered in ice. The nights I slept there, I woke early, looked down onto the opaque surface, over the lines, the cracks and fissures from the previous day. They had re-frozen in strange patterns overnight. As the sky cleared, the pavement appearing in the morning light, pale and frosty, the exposed branches of the trees were covered in a crystal-like layer of white. Now that I can see green, that the parks are fuller, that I hear the stir of leaves in the breeze, I feel different. The evenings stretch out and the light does not die before I feel the day is finished. And when it rains, there is softness, a quality to the air I find appealing. It brings a smile to my lips. Not every winter is so difficult. Some winters are simply wet and raw. It rains and the city is enclosed in a clinging, cold fog that seeps into everything. There are some winters when it seems the intense cold threatens, but never arrives. And then there are those winters when the days are mild, when it is almost warm and I have to tell myself it is the middle of a December or a January, that the summer is as long behind as it is still in front. This winter has reminded me: the memory of my first winter here. The night I arrived; when I stepped out onto the square in front of the station, a stranger, the cold cutting straight into my body, the temperature minus fourteen. There was a sensation of transition. I had a sensation of crossing a point. I was somewhere where I could examine the map, take provisions, and step from one thing to another. Now when I think back, I realise that time is already a distant past: a past that is purely personal. Here I have taken root. I have grown. I have come to a deeper understanding of things. What do I remember of those first days? I remember looking out a cafe window one morning at the yellow and black tug boats, the stripe of fluorescent orange across their top, the crunch of their reinforced bows as they attempted to cut a way through the packed ice of the harbours. Or the strange colour of the sky, a glassy, stinging blue, like a jar of mint sweets that once stood on a wooden shelf in a kitchen when I was a child. It is strange to contemplate the time that has already passed. It is peculiar to grasp the way in which weeks have slipped into months and months into years. Now I cannot see myself as anywhere else but here. This is the city in which I have accrued an anatomy of experience. It is the city in which a life 1

has grown around me like a second skin, has marked me as part of what I have become, who I am.

I look at the colours on the canvas and I wonder. Perhaps in the transition from winter to spring this year, I feel I have again crossed something. I stand back and turn the painting toward the light. I position it under the overhead window so I can better see its colours. I am still not sure about the particular quality of the red. The yellow, its position, the almost saffron tone it imparts is correct. It contrasts with the flecks of white, the fade to the green, sets them off. I am satisfied with the thin line of brown across the bottom. There is a hint of both sienna and ochre in it. It is the brown I sense in the earth after it has rained. The colours are not strictly positioned. They blend and they bleed, they touch and they have space. Simple representation is not what I am after. Feeling, vitality is what I want, the energy of the soil living, the sense of spring returning, an invisible intensity, something not only seen but felt. The canvas came to me while I was walking in the park: a showery April afternoon. The sun would shine but then be swallowed up by quick moving cloud, dark and grey. Rain fell abruptly. A number of times I was caught and had to find shelter, under trees, or in one of the small cafes along pathways. Initially I thought of conveying the sensation in form. Then I considered suggesting it by actually working the paint directly and quickly onto the canvas, mixing it straight in. Eventually I decided on a different approach, something simpler. Why not let the colour alone determine where I would start, where I would stop, let it randomly suggest the nature and method of work? For some months I have been aware of this change. All I need to say, all I want to say, lies in the colour itself. Once while walking along an expensive shopping street I stopped to look in a store window. There was a row of mannequins. The display was incomplete. It was as if it had been stopped halfway through, had been left for some other time. It was an idea yet to be brought to life. One of the mannequins lay on its side. Part of it had been wrapped in plastic. I noticed that an arm was missing, that one leg was twisted sideways. Under it was a roll of velvet material, a deep, ruby red. It had a mysterious quality. Something about it made me think of blood. I saw blood in a test tube held to the light. This unique, red liquid spoke of the fragility of life: how easily it is shed. 2

The scene with the mannequins, despite its apparent innocence, seemed to contain some concealed element of violence. I stared until I realised it was the colour that was holding me. It was the colour that was working on my feelings and bringing up associations. I remember autumn where I grew up. I am walking along a lane through piles of fallen leaves. The trees look wounded in the tops of their branches. In the evening sun the streets, the houses, the wooden telegraph poles, are all shadowed. I hear the cry of birds as they fly over the fields on silent afternoons. I smell the sweetness of late blooming flowers mix with the odour of decay. Faces come back to me: friends and family: and in particular one face. I see her: my first awkward love. We face each other in profile. Her ebony hair is brushed back off her face. Her eyes are dark and a quiet smile has just crossed her mouth. It contrasts me. The youthful hunger in how my head leans from my body: the uncombed hair, the unsure, questioning line of my mouth. Behind us the background is diffuse. Around our heads, the colour lightens. There is almost a violet quality to where we meet. It is as though there were an energy between us that mitigates the autumn light. It is how I remember the streets at night, subdued: the provincial facades of the buildings, the resonance of footsteps as the city succumbs to darkness. Some of that energy is contained in the rattle through the city of the train that links us to the capital. Listen to it. It sound likes a metallic river running out over the still, sleeping land. I put the canvas down. Perhaps I will choose another red. Lines of softdrink bottles stand against the wall. Now I have nearly seventy of them. The labels have been steamed off and they have all been numbered. The combination, the mixture, of each colour, I have written on a list. Everywhere I go, I keep a photocopy of it in the inside pocket of my jacket. This is a form of definition. If ever anything happened to me I would have it with me. Without my colours my canvases would be nothing. Days have colours. There are blue days or lemon days or mixtures and contrasts. Some days stimulate me. They hold one colour as their theme the whole way through. Then there are the days that are grey, days when I feel alone. These are the days when I struggle, the days when I feel empty. On these days it is difficult to stand in front of the canvas. I must push myself to lift the brushes. It is on these days I understand what is meant by choice, what is meant by putting one foot in front of the other. What is colour, really, but light? Everything around me is the result of this light. How would this change if I were to travel at the speed of light? In one way the world would cease to exist. The world my eyes create would be no more. My knowledge of the world is tied up with perception, 3

with seeing. Would I experience this as a form of death? Would it not seem that the things I use to define life had disappeared? Perhaps colours are more than light. Colours are energy: an energy that transmits feeling and sensation. And feeling is also energy. Is the energy of feeling as strong as the energy of light? The energy of feeling is as tied up with my experience of the world, as the energy of light. Without the energy of feeling, much of the world would cease to exist. Would I feel myself to be nothing more than a shadow then, an incomplete person in a world of other incomplete people? One night sitting by the window of a caf I tried to imagine how it must look. This journey I have made. It was a winter evening and not many people were out. Occasionally a bicycle rattled along the canal side. A clinging fog that lay over the city began to lift. The moon appeared. Rising slowly over the gables of the buildings, it framed itself in the tangle of branches leaning over the water. In the sky were stars and it seemed as if suddenly there was a sky behind the sky, as if something had revealed itself after a long absence. I imagined I could fly. I imagined I looked down not only on the city, but also on the surrounding land: on the continent itself. I imagined how it all would appear. It would be a map without frontiers, a map that showed only the topography, only the relief of mountains, of rivers, the flat lowland of deltas. Fronts of cloud, their edges, their definition changing, drift in off the sea. Or they weave their way up from the heart of the continent. Each colour is the outcome of its interaction with other colours. It is defined by its proximity to other colours and so continually in a state of flux. Always there is potentiality, always movement. The purity of colours, the originality of colours, is an illusion. There is no one red that defines all reds. All reds are a form of light and all light is a form of energy. I stand by the lines of bottles against the wall. I look around me. It is still early evening. Should I start working now or leave it till later? For two years this studio has been my second home. Sunlight falls across its far end. It rests in patterns on the walls, lighting the area where I sometimes sleep, where I eat. The children to whom I am father, a boy and a girl, come into my mind. I have watched them grow, watched them feel their way out into the world, been amazed at their will, their determination to assimilate, to learn. It is the simple things, the things adults take for granted that have impressed me most. Learning a language, learning to communicate. When I compare their ease to my own clumsy attempts to master new words, to make sounds strange to my mouth my own, I am amazed. Now they negotiate the world around them in two vocabularies, switching from one to the other with ease. 4

When I first came to this city I was raw. I felt like a child again. In my memory is the musty smell of the first apartment I lived in. I remember the almost paper-thin walls, the tight, shabby buildings in the south of the city. I remember the narrow street that ran at right angles to the river. Clearly I recall my first weeks and months. There are things that seem to be etched forever in memory: small things maybe: the taste of vanilla yoghurt: the view from a kitchen onto a small patio: the first hesitant days of spring. The afternoon when from a tram, I saw a field of crocuses where the week before there were only tufts of tenacious winter grass. I remember the blustery March weather, the wind and squalls of rain that at night swung the streetlamps suspended from pavement to pavement, eerily. I worked as a baggage handler in the airport. It was repetitious work. On breaks I would sit in the canteen and try to understand what those around me were saying. I would examine their faces, looking for signs of interest or friendliness. They did not talk much. They just sat silently rolling cigarettes, staring into space or reading newspapers. Every lunch-hour I lost myself in a book or sketched on the pad of cheap paper I always carried with me. And each day I looked out the window, gazed at the clouds floating above. I puzzled at the sense of exposure the landscape gave. Each day I waited for three thirty. Then I would walk hurriedly to the station and take the train back to the city. Once, as the track rose and skirted a park and lake, I saw the sun like a huge red ball in the turquoise air. I imagined I could see it move. I could see its atoms, its electrons and neutrons, its hydrogen and helium turned energy driving inwards, driving down into the city-line. Then I wondered how long it would take me to become part of the city, how long it would take me to bring my energy down into it like that. The experience of being outside this city is as much part of it as being in it. This is an interchangeable city. It is a city of belonging and not belonging. For me, being a stranger, a person with a different past, has been replaced by something else. I am both familiar and strange in two worlds. In this world I am still marked by my difference. In the world I left behind I am marked by the sense of an acquired otherness. The constellation of private memory is all that is left of the world I came from: the faces, the personal experiences and events that formed me as I grew up. Occasionally I see that world as a small point in the vastness of the world, a point over which I hold a magnifying glass. I am standing on the platform of a rail station holding my mothers hand on a winter afternoon. The lights of the train stand out in the in the cold, 5

smoky air. We are waiting on my grandfather. He steps off. His thin, grey hair is combed across his forehead. In his wrinkled hand is a worn but polished suitcase. It exudes a presence of some past time. I watch him greet my mother and wonder if he has done as I once did when going to the city with my father. Did he go into the bathroom and lock the door behind him. Then push his foot sharply down on the pedal that worked the flush, look through the open space, watch the tracks rushing past below him, see the swaying, silver lines of rail, the blur of the stones between the sleepers? Did he feel the acceleration of the train through space? Did he feel its movement in the roll, in the sudden lurches from side to side? If he looked through the window, did he see the landscape move by, see the vast, cloudy sky press down over the fields, over the rise of hills and forest, the scattering of towns? Did he wonder where this country ended and where it started? I listen as my mother greets her father in German. I watch them as they embrace, as they look at each other for a moment. Sadness swims up into their eyes. Later that night before I sleep I carefully place the crumpled stumps of the tickets my grandfather has given me under the pillow. In the pale, yellow light of the lamp, I read again and again the words. Leipzig - Praha. Suddenly I understand the look of resignation in eyes. I understand the sense of something being torn away at its roots. I place the canvas against the wall and stand back. Putting my hand to my unshaven chin, I squint a little. Then I lean to one side. I want to see the contrast of the colours in another light. There is the accumulation of work, the roughs, the false starts and the unforeseen successes. Each picture is a mark on the long list of marks I have made. There have been times when I have felt like a man crossing tundra. With every step, the need to continue has strengthened. Every canvas has brought me deeper to myself. I have learnt to recover the ground beneath my feet, to detect the life sustaining streams, the rivers and places where there is shelter. I have determined how the land lies. I have understood that destination is nothing but a variation of the point from where I started. As if departing and arriving were really one and the same thing. What I experience as my first point of reference, is only so because of my lack of other points of reference. As my reference points increase, so what appears complex becomes simple. Choosing threads or strands of experience is not about choosing one thing over another. It is about various ways of looking at the same journey. Familiar and unfamiliar are contingent. If the canvas defines me between these two points, then am I defined by the energy of my experience? Are my paintings, my memories, my loves and losses, everything that falls between these two points, all that I am? 6

And if so, what happens to this energy, this experience, after I am no longer living? Why do I feel compelled to explore. Why do I feel my experience of the world is something other than arbitrary? In summer I like to open all the windows of my studio while I work. Often I paint late into the night. It is good to hear the city around me: the sound of the trams as they rattle over the streets. I like to listen to footsteps on the pavement, voices, raised and laughing: or music drifting in from other buildings: the sound of a radio, the sound of someone singing to themselves perhaps as they prepare to go out. If it rains the drops patter on the leaves of the lines of trees. They fall and run across the roof above me. There are times when the night mixes with the smell of my studio, or the smells of the street: times when the smell of the acrylic, of the medium is the smell of the city. When it mingles with the perfume of plants and trees, or the beer from a cafe, its doors open because of the warmth. Sometimes I bring the children around and let them run in the space, let them simply play. The sticky feel of the paint beneath my fingers, the spring of the brush off the canvas, gives me pleasure. Mixing the colours I watch and enjoy. I see the slow blending, the one starting point becoming multiple. It is in summer in front of the canvas I come closest to the echo, the energy that drove me from where I was born, drove me like the train along the silver lines of the rails, drove me to let the blurred hard stones between the sleepers sink into memory. On my map of colour and relief there are no borders. The lines of rail connections, the tangle of motorways, the winding course of rivers, are only channels of ever changing and ever moving variations of colour. The geography through which I travel is my canvas. This delta in which I find myself is the slow converging of land and sea. And the city, in which I live, is the last outpost before land is consumed by sea. City and canvas are the points where the solidity of land meets the fluidity of sea.

I walk across the floor to the window and open it. I lean over the ledge and feel the breeze around my head. The sun is suspended, compressed into the evening sky. On the small gravel square below me, the trees are obscured by a light breeze: they bend and sway. The air is full of the blown remnants of blossom, blossom fragile and filament-like falling in favour of the stronger leaves of summer. They drift and flutter, their oval,

transparent shapes eddying through the air, forming and reforming in myriad patterns where they land in the flow of the canal. Over the harbours, the water quivers and sparkles. A ship cuts its way through the shining surface, the white surge of its bow moving ahead, catching the burn of the evening light. Down streets, shadows, still short, still sharp, run, or lie against the warm colour of the brickwork. Now that it is summer I look back on the winter and think of transition, of the way in which I move on. I stain the canvas again and map my way, cross this delta, this confluence of expectation. I watch each painting emerge from the darkness, watch it become another mark on the journey I have started here.

Copyright Peter Millington. June 1996.

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