Steep climb to bliss
Mary Ann Gage, an educationist, went into dark caves and climbed steep cliffs in pursuit of her `bliss', and metamorphosed into a painter
Mary Ann Gage: `I had never painted before.' Photo: K. Gopinathan
THERE MUST be something about caves. Remember how the whole world goes topsy-turvy after a visit to the caves in Passage to India?
It was a visit to the caves that changed the course of Mary Ann Gage's life too, at 52. Not quite on the lines of what happens to Mrs. Moore, Adela, and Aziz, though. Having retired as an assistant professor who designed programmes for parents and teachers of physically-challenged children, she was hiking with her husband in the rough terrains of south-western United States when she first came face to face with a cave painting. She had seen pictures of them in books before, but seeing a real one was an altogether different experience. Mary Ann can hardly find words to explain what it felt like. She puts her hands on the chest and lets out an "Uhhh!" with eyes wide open.
From then on, it was this sense of awe led her way. "I wanted to have replicas of these paintings at home. But I realised that I'd have to make them myself since there were none making them then." That was 15 years ago. She took a short course in watercolour painting and started replicating these works. At the same time, she continued what she calls her "detective work" on rock art climbing steep cliffs to take a closer look at the paintings and photograph them, reading up "all that she could lay her hands on" on the subject, and speaking to indigenous people in search of clues. One of her memorable adventures was climbing a steep mountain at four in the morning to reach the top just in time to catch the sunrays falling on a panel. "The sense of artistry, perspective, and shading that these people achieved on the rough surfaces of dark caves, steep cliffs, and canyons is simply amazing!" she says. They used a concoction of zinc or iron oxide, vegetable or animal glue, animal fat, and blood to paint with their fingers (like Rafiki in Lion King!). Sometimes it was plain charcoal. "They sank in, became part of the rock, and lasted. Some, like in Cahuvet caves in southern France, are 35,000 years old," she says with awe.
Back home, Mary Ann continued her adventures on the canvas. She used thick watercolour paper that allowed her to "abuse it", and worked assiduously for days on end. She came up with a method of using 10 layers of paint to achieve a certain background effect and making jagged edges to give the works a sense of the primitive. The emphasis was always on accuracy, on "not changing a single line". After many trials and errors, she reached a stage when some of the paintings turned out decent enough to be displayed at home. In course of time, a few friends began asking her if they could buy some of them. A gallery owner followed. And before she knew what was happening, Mary Ann had a career in art.
"I had never painted ever before and I never imagined I would end up like this," she says. When you raise your eyebrows in disbelief, Mary Ann quotes Joseph Campbell who said that doors open where none existed when you decide to "follow your bliss". Her show in Bangalore is also, for that matter, something of serendipity. She was visiting her daughter settled here ("I can't bear to be away from my granddaughter for too long!") and she dropped into Mahua gallery to see a show. When the daughter introduced her as an artist, people at the gallery showed interest, and soon, an exhibition was fixed. Since it just "happened", she doesn't have her entire repertoire, though.
This process of "following the bliss" has, no doubt, been one of many unexpected joys for Mary Ann. She has been able to connect with native Americans who are (and with good reason) suspicious of white Americans. She terms the massacre of the indigenous people by white invaders "shameful" and says that she is "embarrassed" about her own ancestry. "But they know that I am not exploitative and am trying to preserve a culture in my own way," she says. There have been instances of native Americans letting her into spaces where no one is usually allowed. But with bliss have come heartaches too. Mary Ann, for instance, is anguished by the callousness with which these precious remnants of history and art have been treated.
People have carved their initials on them and used them for target practice. (And we thought such things happen only in India!) "Many of them are in private lands and you can't do anything. The government would have to buy up that piece of land if it is serious about preserving them."
And she does not foresee President George Bush doing any such sensible thing. "He is interested in spending only on military and not on art... I didn't vote for Bush, that crazy man." With obvious outrage, she continues: "You can write it if you like. He does not represent me and I would say it on his face!"
(Mary Ann Gage's works will be
on display at Mahua, Rajmahal
Vilas Stage 2, I Block, Dollar
Colony, II Main Road, between
February 28 and March 6.
Send this article to Friends by