The following article is from Pastel Journal (subscribe to Pastel Journal here). Discover how an adventurous trip and amazing cultural experience leads to artistic risk, growth and connection, in this feature by Aaron Schuerr.
Moroccan Memories | Painting Abroad
By Aaron Schuerr
I had set up my easel with the intention of painting an old stone home at the edge of a hillside village in the heart of the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. It was an idyllic scene except for the distraction of the old man who blocked my view. He clearly wanted something from me, only he wouldn’t play language charades, that travelers’ game of exaggerated gestures and over-pronounced words as a form of communication. He simply stood there, smiling and waiting for me to understand. I continued to set up my easel, hoping he’d just wander off so I could get to work.
Then, with a sudden spark of understanding, I pointed to the easel, and he nodded. I pointed to him, and he nodded again. “You want me to paint your portrait?” I asked as though he’d suddenly understand English. He nodded again.
I walked to a flat-topped boulder and gestured for him to sit. Feeling a mixture of giddiness and intimidation, I set to work. Since arriving in Morocco, I’d painted the tight, teeming alleyways of Marrakech, a mosque tower lit against a night sky, green-terraced fields rising to mountainside villages, and now I’d paint the portrait of a weathered village elder with bright hazel eyes and a thin-lipped smile.
I wanted more than a likeness. I wanted to be able to capture his story. No doubt he was born in this village, had witnessed firsthand the French occupation and subsequent disruption in centuries-old trade routes, then the birth of independence, and only very recently, electricity, satellite dishes, cell phones, and the paving of the road over the mountain pass out of the valley.
So much had changed there in that remote area, and yet life continues in a slow, timeless rhythm. Women dressed in brightly colored robes still wash clothes by hand in the river and carry loads of wood cut from the hills. Stone canals snake between hand-plowed barley fields. Shepherds follow herds of goats and sheep up timeworn paths into the high mountain meadows. Only now, however, a shepherd might stop to check his phone messages, or a family might gather together to watch a Turkish soap opera at night, a modest disruption in a life lived outdoors and at a walking pace.
Legend has it that the region’s founder, Sidi Said Ahansal, a traveling Islamic scholar, was charged by his mentor to set forth and found a religious school. Where? Sidi surely asked. Where your cat jumps off the donkey, his mentor was said to have told him.
As the story goes, Sidi set forth with his cat riding the donkey over towering mountains to an inconspicuous meadow near a rushing river. Thus the village of Amezray was founded by the impulse of a cat and the will of Allah. The very spot, only a short walk from where I painted the portrait, is still revered by hundreds of pilgrims who travel to the region every year.
I imagine Sidi Said Ahansal to be learned, adventurous and slightly mischievous. Otherwise, why would he agree to travel with a cat? I think he’d be the kind of man who’d stand in front of an easel and wait patiently for an artist to paint his portrait.
While I worked, villagers walked by in twos and threes, stopping to see the portrait-in-progress before walking over to greet the old man. In Morocco, one does not greet an elder with a casual nod. The process involves the exchange of peace, hands to heart, kisses and conversation.
The old man would have none of this, however. Every time villagers approached, he waved them away. After all, he was getting his portrait painted and couldn’t be interrupted with greetings. I was charmed.
I’d like to report that I achieved a profound likeness of deep psychological power in that portrait, but
I didn’t. The painting was lousy, but the experience was unforgettable. It reminded me that art happens between people. The painting is the vehicle that connects people across time and distance. I tell my story in as honest a way as possible and then allow the viewers to finish it with their own story. The real magic is that the artist need not be there; the painting hanging on the wall is the conduit. Stand in a museum before a Rembrandt, and you converse across the centuries with the artist. Is that not a wonder? In its truest form, art is a gift given and a gift received.
It’s also, I discovered, a way to transcend the barriers of language and culture. Even a poorly rendered likeness brought a Berber elder and an American artist together in a unique and tangible way.
Art as Experience
While packing up my gear after painting the elder’s portrait, a trio of women approached and played the game of language charades properly, with exaggerated gestures and much laughter. After a few failed attempts at communication, I understood that they were offering me tea and food, which I readily accepted.
They signaled for me to wait while they disappeared into a nearby home. After a short while they emerged, carrying between them a small green table; a tray with a silver teapot, a bowl of sugar and two small glasses; homemade flatbread; a bowl of olive oil; and another bowl filled with biscuits. They set it all before me and then continued down the trail, chatting and laughing all the while.
I poured a glass of tea, stirred in the sugar and sipped it, wondering how something so simple could taste so good. The bread was fresh, the olive oil delicious and the view unmatched.
A man emerged from the house, took one look at the table and kneeled down to slide flat stones carefully under one of the table legs. Satisfied that it was now level, he sat down next to me, refilled my glass and poured one for himself, and we drank together in silence. Something in his patient consideration of a seemingly insignificant detail overwhelmed me, and I had to fight back tears.
It’s fitting to sum up my experiences in Morocco in memories: the first, an old man standing before my easel, waiting patiently while I try to render his likeness; the second, a trio of women laughing as they try to get me to understand them; and third, a young man leveling a green table by carefully stacking flat stones under the table leg.
I think often of my time there, how I learned to take risks and paint the unfamiliar. Growth and failure, I learned, are inextricably linked. Avoid failure, and you won’t grow.
I had the chance to return to Morocco in 2014, and to my surprise and delight, I found that I painted with more confidence and better results. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll be ready to share a portrait or two from these travels, but even if I don’t, I know that the art is in the experience, and the experience is what connects us all.