Have Brush – Will Travel
by Rita Rogers
“The Green Light”
I have dreamed of traveling the United States as an itinerant painter, following the example of early American portraitists, using my craft to give form to what people want to see, then packing up my canvas and colors and moving on to another town like a carpetbagger or mercenary: “Have brush, will travel.”
I jumped at the chance to accompany Ann Kiker, a co-worker, to Gran Canaria, in the Canary Islands, to do the specialized surface decoration on a 17th-century house and fully expected to be on a sunny island with yellow birds chirping in a comprehensible language. We arrived instead in a bleak moonscape of rock and palm trees, 70 miles off the west coast of Africa where the peninsular Spaniards couldn’t understand the Canario dialect.
Our liaison was a polyglot Lebanese entrepreneur who drove us to the work site directly from the airport. In the village of Ingenio we were to work on two houses while living in the first. All was ready to go. “So beautiful, you will see,” he kept saying. “You will love it. The villagers, they all love me. I make everything so pretty!”
Granted the light was a bit feeble when we arrived, but it looked like a bomb site to me. Rubble was everywhere, there was no electricity or water, carpentry and framing in progress, and cement — fresh or crumbling — shed its fine dust over all. Fortunately the owners had an apartment in the northern city of Las Palmas which we could use if we didn’t object to sharing it with the decorator and his Brazilian friend.
Bright and early the next morning we returned to Ingenio to find the nightmare a daytime horror, and the construction crew jackhammering in the street, searching for water. So began our work on la casa roja — the red house — a modern Tower of Babel.
The Spanish-speaking construction crew was headed by a blond German-speaking giant. The female owner spoke mainland Spanish. The male owner spoke Canario. The Brazilian only spoke Portuguese. Ann and I understood only American English. The Lebanese translated everything for everyone, gradually forgetting what fantastic tale he had told in what language and to whom, as the comedy progressed over the next two months. The building material of choice was cement, the soup of the day usually squid, cigarettes were strong, black and 45 pesetas a pack, and the coffee was excellent. Ultimately, the finished house was truly marvelous. Yes, you can expect faux finishes and tromp l’oeil on cement. And we had gone in search of adventure.
Gran Canaria is one of seven islands three hours by plane from Madrid. From ancient times, they have been known to sailors as the Fortunate Islands. “There one can live happily, it never snows, it never has long winters or rains. The Ocean sends a soft breeze to refresh the traveler.” Ulysses, going north, must have sailed to the Fortunate Islands and found Polyphemus, who must have been none other than a giant Guanche (a race of early Cro-Magnon people with large boned frames and red hair who looked like the Celts and who can still be seen among the modern Canarios).
The island is an irregular circle of volcanic rock coming to a peak in the center. It is dense, that is the single descriptive word, like traversing the crenellations of the brain. The ocean can be blue, our Atlantic cleansed of its grey film. More than the constant sea, the mountains change with each region; plantations in the north and west, large flats of greenhouses filled with tomatoes and bananas on the lower slopes, villages clinging to the mountains, one higher than the other, always surprisingly large; many, many people on the face of the rock and within.
The Canarios have lived in natural caves in the porous stone since pre-history. They still do, in multi-roomed habitats comfortably joined to the modern world by snaking coils of power stapled to the outside of the cliffs, bringing television, telephone, and electricity. From these caves the sea is very far but visible. The sun beats down through the stone into the very center of the earth and from that center something black rises to meet it. Some say the Canaries are the lost Atlantis. There are many theories. Some say the Canaries rose from hell.
We met families descended from the Conquistadores, husbanding their plantations and elegant haciendas with private chapels of softly glowing gold ornamentation, noble public rooms and ascetic bed chambers. And pipe smoking village women dressed in black equally interested in two foreign women working at a man’s job, covered with dust and paint, magically putting stone over plain cement and silk pillows casually arranged behind non-existent beds.
They came and watched as we progressed from room to room filling each with the light of different colors. They energetically commented on the large black and gold headboard I painted in the master bedroom and the multi-toned soft red color washing over ceilings and walls. It was a very different kind of job than those I’ve done in Boston or New York. These colors were mellow yet bright.
We had searched the Islands for examples of indigenous Canario colors. blending them into walls that were of the landscape but contemporary. The approval of the villagers who tended their families, washed their clothes in outdoor troughs, and massed fantastic roof gardens was important. So much so, that one ancient, taking a dislike to the blue kitchen door, put a curse on it and had us unnerved until he returned with a gift of food so we would know he hadn’t put a curse on us.
Columbus outfitted his ships and set sail from Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain. After discovering the New World, he returned to this large port to re-group for other voyages. His house still stands as a museum. I would like to make this voyage of exploration in reverse and return as an artist to this circle of islands, to live and paint in the caves where the layers of the world penetrate to the center.