I just returned from the annual ArtLife Mentorship retreat which was held at the Gabilan Ranch in San Juan Bautista, Ca. There were about 20 artists there. We spent the time painting, discussing art practices, eating great food and even managed to squeeze in some dancing.
On the second day, I discovered some drawer cabinets tucked away upstairs in the art studio. Raquel, my friend whose family owns the ranch, explained this was her great Aunt’s collection of natural objects. Her name was Helen Tripp, born in 1891 in Salinas. Raquel grew up watching her Aunt pursue her passion of collecting natural objects, making scrapbooks, and gardening. It wasn’t until I slid one of the many thin drawers open that I realized the magnitude of this woman’s fascination and devotion to the natural world.
Each drawer, and there were dozens, was divided up into hundreds of tiny handmade boxes, each lined with a felt covering sewn in. In each box there were several or sometimes just one, variety of seashell, chosen for it’s particular coloration and beautiful form. Next to this box was another, impossibly different than the first, but equally mesmerizing.
Some drawers held rocks, but the ones I opened held seashells. I imagined how this all began. Her great aunt deciding, possibly in her early childhood, to explore the world before her by collecting these amazing shell and rock specimens There was no Internet then, probably no TV either. There would have been only books, with illustrations of exotic shells to reference, but these would of paled in comparison to actually holding them in the palm of your hand.
She must of felt that zing of wonder every time she re opened these drawers as I was now doing some 45 years later. Raquel said that most of the shells were found by her Aunt during her life, however, as she grew older, her friends, when visiting, would always bring a shell that they too had found.
What drives someone to spend a life collecting things, sewing little boxes to hold each one, cataloging and organizing so fastidiously, a small corner of the natural world? I believe it is curiosity. It is the same garden variety of wonder and curiosity any artist feels when experiencing something we haven’t before. Whether it is the undersea world of tiny shells, the infinite variety of found rocks or stones scattered hundreds and thousands of miles from one another or simply the surprising outcomes that sometimes occur when you decide to play around with art materials. The creative process, any creative process for that matter, is fueled in part by wonder and curiosity.
I believe these feelings are not only contagious and very desirable but also are ultimately responsible for making you feel more alive. I notice they are always present in my life when I feel the happiest. There is an open heartedness, a degree of humility and a large measure of gratitude that just ends up circling around genuine curiosity. It starts with a question and thankfully, more often than not ends with another one. It is a delicious cycle that just ends up making you want more and more.
With wonder, Nicholas