Art as the "Open Sesame" to Experiences / by Jeannine Cook

Every time I get involved in art, I learn something new.  It is usually something totally unexpected, frequently something delicious.

The most recent insight I have gained through my art - a very minor item but a delight to me - is about the diminutive, secretive but oh-so-melodious warblers who spend a season in my garden.  There is a lot of asparagus fern which periodically dies off, so I have been pruning back the dead tendrils and leaves in the interests of "a tidy garden".  During the late autumn storms last year, an exquisite small nest blew out of the trees above the ferns.  I saved it and am now trying to draw it in silverpoint (still an on-going complexity!).  What should I find as the major ingredient, woven in with such skill and elegance, but the dead asparagus fern leaves.  So I now learn that my small feathered friends would really appreciate it if I left them all the leaves when they die.  That would make their nest-building much more straight-forward!  Without art, I would have never known this.


My thanks to Sergey Yeliseev and Frank Vassen for the use of these images of one of the warblers, the  Blackcap,  which I know frequent our garden and gives us wonderful songs.

As I was drawing this nest, I remembered a quote I had noted from Eric R. Kandel's book,  The Age of Insight, to which I have alluded in previous blog posts.  He wrote that through art, we can embrace all sorts of aspects of life, from beauty to  violence and ugliness.  "Art enriches our lives by exposing us to ideas, feelings and situations that we might never have experienced, or even want to experience, otherwise.  Art gives us the chance to explore and try out in our imagination a variety of different experiences and emotions."

I am not sure Kandel would have expected the type of example I have just given, but...!  Nonetheless, I was allowed another type of fascination and experience yesterday at an art history class, when the professor examined the restoration and meaning of Peter Bruegel the Elder's The Wine of St Martin's Day, recently acquired by the Prado Museum in Madrid after being shown to them in 2010.  For a start, I was unfamiliar with the medium combination of glue-sized tempera on linen, which was apparently a cheaper way of providing a large painting to a buyer, rather than using a wooden board (more widespread in  the North than the canvas used in Italy for a painting surface).

The Wine of St Martin's Day, c. 1565-1568, Peter Bruegel the Elder.  Image courtesy of the Prado Museum, Madrid

Without exposure to this painting in detail, I would not probably have ever imagined what it was like to participate in the sampling of new wine on 11th November, the  feast day of St. Martin, with such a crowd, people from all walks of life.  It took me on quite a stretch of imagination!