We Reach for the Firmament – thoughts on the film Third Star

“[Third] star to the right and straight on till morning.” from Peter Pan

Being a big fan of BBC’s Sherlock, I made a point to see Third Star, a film by Hattie Dalton, on the one night it was playing in DC. Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch plays James, the central character in this beautiful, quirky drama.
(Be forewarned, this post contains major plot spoilers!)

I found the opening moments mesmerizing. One watches whirling bits of fibre, green and spun gold,  disoriented by a tilting camera and blurry ground. In time this becomes identifiable as flying grass hurled by a spinning weed trimmer.  As the camera pulls back  the edge of a gravestone comes into focus. Benedict’s beautiful baritone tells us it is his birthday, and he knows he won’t live to see the another.

This tiny scene, a  minute or so, and from a worms-eye view, contains so much: fresh green blades are lopped off and sent spinning in to the cosmos, making a swirling cloud. The plant fibre seems to go golden as soon as its mixed with air, a fragrant honeyed cloud. I can smell the sweet hay.

How common is this, mowing the lawn: the relentless grass, abruptly decapitated, never hesitates to grow toward the light. Grow, be cut down. Grow, be cut free. Grow. Be severed from your roots, and fly.

benedict as james
Benedict Cumberbatch in Third Star

James  sets off with his childhood friends on a journey to his favorite place, Barfundal Bay on the coast of Wales. They’ve built a cart to act as wheelchair: part bicycle, part sled, and so off they go, full of boyish glee and irreverence.

The further they travel, the more their habitual, patterned communication falls away. In time, conversations chafe, rub raw, and truths are spoken. Beards grow, scowls too. Bitterness, critique (unrequested), disappointment are revealed.

Objects are lost, damaged, cast aside. What is thought to be important changes. Something is getting refined, sharpened. They are resourceful, stubborn, determined. Loyal. James must get to his bay, the place he sees every night in his dreams, and more and more in his morphine visions.

They come to a channel crossing, and the ferryman is an odd bloke: gruff, weathered, and wearing eye makeup. He keeps asking them “single or return? single or return?”  Then he insists on charging for the cart. “Single, or return for the cart?” he asks, and you wonder if he’s daft.

You don’t yet know that the cart will be dashed on the rocks. But by now you may be beginning to suspect that James will not make the return trip.


That whirling opening scene has all the earmarks of a powerful abstract painting: a pattern and an energy that is vaguely familiar but unplaceable; a portrait of the energy, not of the thing.

While the mind is searching the imagery for ‘What is it? What is it?” grasping for a label, a ground, the soul speeds up, drinking in more and more data. When ‘ground’ is finally found, it is the grave.

As a painter, I watched this film and noticed scene after scene composed with great care, shining with beauty, and unlike a fixed canvas, arising, cresting and falling away like waves, supported by the music and moving the story forward, a mirror of the character’s quest. In my admiration I quailed: How can a meer canvas hope to achieve this vivid purpose?

Joan Mitchell PaintingBut of course, the canvas endures, and the filmic moment dissolves like a soap bubble into the next idea, and the next, carrying you onward whether you wish to pause and contemplate or not. The painting will hold an energy in apparent stillness, for a while, decades, centenia perhaps.

Could I make that whirling gold grass, frenzied, hopeful, chaotic, gruesome, inevitable. On a canvas? Could I make you feel the vibrating universe in it ? I have seen paintings that approach this. Joan Mitchell comes to mind.

But what of the ferryman, the fool who only seems wise in retrospect?  Could a painter show for who he is? Certainly the artist could leave hints about the Ferryman, pointers to his mythic role. Yet nothing competes with film for this purpose: the foreshadow, clever joke perpetrated by the storyteller on us unsuspecting viewers.

I found so many painterly moments in this film: the four friends cresting a hill, bright light before them dissolving the hard edges of their forms; lighting fireworks which then consume their tent; the cart lying dashed on the rocks in the surf; James lying on the forest floor in dappled light.


One could say his is a youthful romantic death, to sink beneath the slate colored waves in his beloved place. Yet James does not romanticize his longing to be enfolded in the sea. He speaks of the pain of salt water in his lungs without illusion.

His friends protest, they cannot allow him to do this. “I promised your mother!” one pleads with him. A difficult night ensues, when he runs out of morphine and they witness his raw experience When the morning comes, after this night when they have cried together, they honor his intention to determine his own death.

Despite his courage, James tells his friend Miles, who has swum out with him, “I’d rather not be alone.” Miles sinks down with him,  holds him,  holds his eyes, while he drowns.
What love. What profound love. This was all I could think.

As they drew his body back up onto the beach, I realized I was willing James to breathe again, to gag and spit sea water and laugh, and make all his friends smile and shake with relief. There’s the grass in me, reaching for the sun.

Once upon a time I was a young traveler in Scotland, who wandered alone from sacred site to standing stone, troubled, lonely and brimming with life. One day I visited the clifftops at Yesneby, on Orkney, where I danced on the cliff’s edge, heedless of the warning signs. I was reckless, half suicidal. In that moment I didn’t care if the rock gave way beneath me, or even if I fell. The wind was so strong it felt like it was holding me up, pushing back.

Some time later I realized that wild girl wasn’t trying to destroy herself. She wanted to fly. Not die, but soar.


green grassStubborn grass; it grows toward the sun, despite its fate to be beheaded, scythed, severed and stunted. Reach, grow, be cut down. Grow, stretch toward the sun, and the blade will come again, and again.

In the sparkling green of the forest, sun prickling through overhead, James rests his head back, staring up. Rising into the firmament. Wanting to fly.

another chapter comes to an end

When the film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, opens July 15, yet another chapter of the Harry Potter phenomenon will come to a close. Just before the final book was published in 2007 I discovered an entire world of HP fans online, including lots of fan artists and writers creating fanwork in great abundance.

The desire for more of JK Rowling’s amazing world drove many of us to generate stories and images to sustain us between the books. I jumped in to the fun, experimenting with digital art, learning from my (much younger!) new friends, rekindling an interest in drawing the human form.

Portrait has always been my weakest skill, and I have been tested, mightily, trying to render beloved characters. Here are a few of my fan artworks from the Harry Potter universe:

Maiden, Mother & Crone

This painting was made for the 2009 HP Crossover Challenge, and my prompt wasShakespeare’s Macbeth. All the art I found for Shakespeare’s 3 witches were negative portrayals of witches as ugly hags, so I chose to paint the Good Witches as the Triple Goddess, and as representatives of Air, Fire and Earth (Baby Teddy and his dragon are Water)

Last Kiss

I painted this for the 2008 Lily Evans/Severus Snape gift exchange. I chose a moment implied, but not written, in the text, where Severus Snape says farewell to his childhood love, as he leaves to join Voldemort’s Death Eaters, and Lily marries James Potter. Snape holds an Aspohodel lily in his hand, significant in potion-making.

Thanks, Dad

Here’s a pastel drawing made for a fanfiction story, Light Between the Cracks and it’s sequel,  where Snape maintained a secret muggle family, along with all of his other secrets! His eldest daughter is of course presented with a Hogwarts letter when she comes of age, revealing who her father really was. Here she is, a successful Ravenclaw student, having visited her father in portrait form for some advice.

Summer Solstice

I rose this morning at 5 and the sky was already growing light, the birds already stirring. I made coffee and met friend Carol to greet the Solstice sun at Calvert Manor, reputed to be a site where John Smith and Pocahantas made camp in 1608. Clouds prevailed, preventing a direct view of the solar orb, but that did nothing to dampen the beauty of the morning, as you can see in the following photographs.

Subtle light

like a Monet painting

Spatterdock, a relative of the lotus, home of many big fish

the Great Blue

The Morning of the World – moments before, deer ran across under the trees.


happy dogs

All images ©2011 Carol Burbank

As Essential as Breathing

I found this article on creativity in Sunday’s Washington Post:

Art is to these locals like the air they breathe — an irrepressible part of their lives

an excerpt:

“The arts call them, which doesn’t always mean it pays them, merely that it takes them to another world. Or grants them communion in this one. ¶ “We can either be artists with a capital A, or we can make art with our lives,” says Patti Digh, author of the book “Creative Is a Verb.” “It’s so beautiful when you’re in the presence of someone who is letting go of outcome and making a strong offer to the world.” ¶ Some would-be artists had inner critics, or third-grade teachers, or father figures who told them to settle down, so they put their creativity away. ¶ The irrepressible ones, who make art like they breathe, never really can.”

I recognize the situation, for this describes me to a T. There have been several times in my life I tried to give up the foolish art and live a normal life.  I could dispense with mess, clutter, expenses, disappointment, and wasted time. After my divorce I moved to another state, and let go of all the trappings of artist’s life. I got an ordinary office job, and was determined to move ahead with a new life. Before long I met Myrna, who appointed herself my Jewish mother (“Because everybody needs one, honey!”) Myrna had a yard sale, and I went looking for a few things for my new apartment. I went home with a carload of supplies and furniture from her son’s former art studio. In a few weeks I was working on graphics for a friend, then working for a printer in pre-press.

Art came back to me. It was not going to be left behind! It’s like a positive version of “No matter where you go, there you are.”  I’ve had other tests of this theory. I worked long and hard on exhibiting in galleries and markets in the late 90s./early aughts, and quit after not seeing enough income for all that effort.

You know, it doesn’t matter. One of the most freeing things I’ve ever learned is that I can let my work be mediocre.  That way I can tolerate its existence long enough for it to grow into something I didn’t forsee. Something amazing. (or not!)

Follow your muse!

love, Patrise




Taking it to the Page

As a painter and visual artist, I have had many times in my life when I felt stuck and deeply dissatisfied with my work. If this creative malaise gets too entrenched, my internal critic gets the upper hand, and I create less and less, because, after all, “what’s the use?” I know many creatives who have experience with this kind of paralysis, and yesterday I  mentioned Morning Pages, a very effective practise of writing three pages first thing.

Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is a complete program. I highly reccomend you get the book and join or form a group to work through it all.  She applies a 12-step framework to the creative life: your higher power (pick your denomination or guiding principle) wants you to create. You are made in the image of the Creator, as in , you are a creator. It’s beautiful, and full of rejuvenating concepts and exercises.

Throughout the book you are urged to “take it to the page.” Whatever life is dishing up, work on it through your creative medium. If you are a pianist who is angry, play from your fury. As a self-critical painter I began to make images about my self-hatred and its effects, or just to warm up the painterly hand and eye by dumping out my frustration with mark-making. From Morning Pages (remember, completely uncensored!) I learned to bitch and complain and wibble until I had cleared that dreck out of my head. As I kept writing, other things would emerge.

Over time I found that stories would arise out of the mess, without apparent conscious intent. Or, a character I was writing would have insights, a crisis, healing about the issue that was moving through me.

I think the key there is moving through. As I was crafting that last sentance I started with ‘roiling inside’ and realized, no, that is what happens when I’m STUCK. When there is a flow, the issues, concerns, emotions flow through and change, and the art moves with them. You might even say it’s fueled by them.

So, for today, what’s bugging you? Start with a word-dump and just scribble or type without any editing whatever is top-of-mind, no matter how ridiculous. Keep it up for at least 300 words or 3 long-hand pages. Play with it: name the ‘character’ that’s speaking inside you. Write a scene where you tell [your boss, mother, congress…] exactly what you think of them. Let what wants to happen, happen.

And look for the breadcrumbs that will lead you somewhere new. I promise, they will appear!

Writer’s block: are you stuck or just re-prioritized?

Alas, I missed my posting yesterday. I allowed life to sweep me along, and although I started something, I didn’t like it and didn’t complete it.

So often, it’s distraction, demands of daily life that take me away from my creative life. But there’s another element. It requires a certain devotion, a willingness to put my creative work at the top of my queue, in order to have the backbone to stand against the forces of obligation and distraction that can, no WILL take me away from my work.

Sometimes it’s dramatic: “oh! I must rush to the emergency room!” (Take a notebook, whispers the Muse.) But more often it’s the way water wears away the stone. The phone rings, the dogs need a walk, you go grocery shopping and it takes longer, your job keeps your mind occupied, your kids need something, there’s something on tv, your neighbor asks you “did you hear about the appalling [whatever] that [whoever] did!?”, you decide its finally time to clean out the closet… shall I go on? Before you know it, it’s time to get to sleep.

The challenge then becomes protecting time and inspiration, hoping they will arrive together. Often, of course, they don’t! But if you’ve created the time, there are tricks, techniques, exercises that become habits which can carry you across those inspirational deserts. Protecting time for writing is a way of creating time. How can you declare the time more important than anything else?

One really effective method I’ve used Morning Pages, comes from The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. I write my Morning Pages before anything else but coffee. It’s important for me not to ingest any words from outside sources, so I don’t read the papaer or watch the news or talk to anyone until I’ve done them. Cameron defines the practise (underscore mine):

Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages– they are not high art. They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only.

I use the computer to write mine – I just flow better that way. Choose your more comfortable medium. Morning Pages are a highly effective way to get in touch with your ‘voice.’

Tomorrow I’ll give you more ideas for defeating blocks and exercises to inspire you! In the meantime, what can you do to devote daily time to writing?

Let me know!!

November is for NaNoWriMo, and blogging!

If you are a writer you may know about NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, now in it’s twelfth year. My writer friends gear up for NaNo by preparing plots and outlines and committing to a daily word count goal, and aim to achieve at least 50,000 words in November. Go watch the short video on the NaNo home page, and check out the wealth of resources! The pep talks are great, even if you aren’t up for 50,000 words this month.  Next time you’re in a cafe, look around at the laptop users. They may even be sporting a WriMo button or mug. So pick up your laptop or pen,  join the cheering section and encourage someone you know.

NaBloWriMoAlas, October was National Blog Writing Month (NaBloWriMo), and I missed the boat! as one who is guilty of letting her blog languish, I am going to support my sisters and brothers in word and write a post each day on Art, Spirit, Nature. Naturally, I am a day late. **facepalm**

I’m an artist who occasionally writes, so the written word is not my primary means of expression. But I love the feel of writing, and I seek out that kind of flow when the days grow short and the fireplace becomes the heart of the house. Comfy chair, cat, laptop, fire and a cup of tea will conjour the word-smithing spell around me.

As a non-writer, taking on a writing challenge gives me more appreciation for the  form. I pay more and better attention to what I read. I’ve learned a great deal from hanging out with writers online – about the challenges and techniques for creating written work, inspiring more respect for all writers. Much like painting sharpens my eye and makes the world sparkle more brightly, the words in a novel or essay ring with more depth, and I can savour them like wine.

So, follow me, dear friends, and put a few words down of your own.

More tomorrow!!

Deep water flows within

This week the Potomac River is over her banks in the rite of spring, flooding streets, sending whole trees whirling through churning cafe au lait water as all the rain and snow come surging seaward.

from lreed7649's Flickr

Floodplain from lreed7649’s Flickr


Last night  a friend and I went to a meditation group that we once attended regularly. We had heard it was going to be the last meeting, and even though we hadn’t been for some years, we felt a need to be there.

Continue reading “Deep water flows within”