If I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this.” – John Ruskin writing about J. M. W. Turner’s painting “The Slave Ship.”
I’m staring at a postcard that hangs above my printer. Eilean Donan castle in Scotland. The image of the castle is small, the straight lines of a building in the foreground set against the mirrored water and the craggy, snow-capped mountains behind. The sun is setting, and the sky looks as if God has set a campfire beyond the horizon.
This image stills my spirit today in a way that even the place itself might not. If was I there in Scotland, I would want to be talking to my friend who lives there, walking the edges of the loch, taking in all that I can see. But in the image, I can find the placidness of the scene as I might find it if I was from there – a place where I could sit and gather my thoughts and calm my mind.
Perhaps this is why so many writers turn to photos or paintings or sculptures as a part of our writing practice or as the basis for our art itself. Maybe we are seeking the stillness of a moment captured so that we can live in there rather than in the frenzy that is our lives or our minds. Maybe, staring at a photograph of a prostitute gave Natasha Tretheway the stillness and anchor she needed to write Bellocq’s Ophelia, and maybe Ruskin found time to explore what it was to be in the Middle passage by losing himself in J.M.W. Turner’s “The Slave Ship.” There’s a space in a piece of art that does not always make itself readily available in life not shaped by fingers.
Today, as I stare at an inventory of people enslaved, I plan to let my eyes caress the loop of the ‘l’ on Lucy’s name and the sit enclosed in the curl of the tail of a ‘y’ in Ben’s surname Creasy. I’m not going to try to find more. I’m going to sink into the image before me and let it speak of backs ached up from hoeing and campfires on which love was cooked.