The Artist, the Old Man and the Sea
by Charles Donelan
The Independent, June 3, 2004
The sea is the mother of all metaphors it nourishes and completes the world, as waves alternately bathe and lash its shores. Poets and artists have long gone to the sea for inspiration, and the results from Botticelli's shell-borne Venus to Walt Whitman's hymns to the shores of his beloved Paumanok (the Native American name for fish-shaped Long Island) are among our most enduring and mysterious works of art. The sea is the subject of Mary Heebner's current show of paintings at Sullivan Goss, and of a beautifully produced new collaborative book by Heebner involving the poetry of Chilean Nobel-winner Pablo Neruda, On the Blue Shore of Silence: Poems of the Sea, from HaperCollins/Rayo. Heebner has succeeded, with the help of Neruda and translator Alastair Reid, in making this traditional metaphor new, and in introducing her audience to the spiritual and aesthetic depths of the world's most profound resource, the sea.
The project had its genesis in a place, Isla Negra, that was extremely important to Neruda, who wrote the largest part of his oeuvre there and made it his home. "Isla
Negra" is Neruda's playful name for a location 90 miles from Santiago Chile that is neither black nor an island. It is instead a coastal highland with extraordinary views of the Pacific, a kind of Chilean analogue of Santa Barbara, where Mary Heebner and her husband make their home.
Both Neruda and Heebner take a cosmopolitan approach to the aesthetics of place, one that distances them from more conventional "picturesque" art about the shore. Heebner's paintings are abstractions and her method involves building the artworks up, not only out of literally years of work in the studio, but also out of years of traveling the world in search of materials and inspiration. Observing the salt formations around certain high- altitude saltwater lakes in the Southern Hemisphere, for example, inspired the extraordinary crystalline whites in many of the pictures on view. Strands of Fijian bark cloth are joined to paper imported from India in a celebration of the artist's roving eye and peripatetic presence in the markets of the South Pacific and the Far East.
The sea poetry of Neruda extends from a Romantic tradition that is by turns subjectively personal and breathtakingly visionary. Like Whitman in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" or Percy Bysshe Shelley in "Ode to the West Wind," Neruda leaps from humble perceptions of his insignificance in the face of the sea's apparent indifference to sublime identifications with its vastness and power. In "Strangers on the Shore" the poet
fee's himself to be lapoca cosa ("a feeble thing") in relation to the ocean stretched out below his home because, when one returns to the shore, "no hand reaches out to you, / no
mouth kisses you; / and you must realize / what a feeble-thing you are." But in "The Poet's Obligation," which is addressed to those who are trapped inside on a Friday morning (can you relate?), Neruda takes the part of the messenger. He delivers the seas call to liberation, ending with the lines, "So, through me, freedom and the sea / will
call in answer to the shrouded heart."
Thus two world travelers, their creativity stoked by wandering, return to homes by the Pacific to seek release in productivity and in a shared vision. In his afterword to On the Blue Shore of Silence, an essay called "The University of the Water," Antonio Skarmeta calls Neruda "pirata de la palabra" This literally means a "pirate of words," a name Skarmeta gives to Neruda both for his globe-trotting propensity and for his plundering of the sea for the many nautical treasures that fill Isla Negra, now a museum to the poet. In Blue and in On the Blue Shore of Silence, Mary Heebner has performed a similarly daring work of adventure, earning for herself the honorary title "pirata de la pintura"
Mary Heebner's Blue shows at Sullivan Goss, 7E. Anapamu St., through June 23.