Color me Alive

“I prefer living in color.” —David Hockney

We just finished a simple bathroom fix, nothing so daring as ripping out and starting afresh. The swirly tan plastic tiles that cover the bottom half of three walls stayed – I have taken to thinking of them as vintage. The wall paper had to go, vintage or not. Vintage tile, vinyl floor, painted walls. Since sparkling ceramic tile, heated floors and giant tubs were out of our project scope, we opted for color. The built-in vanity was sturdy enough to accommodate the new oval sink and a fresh counter top. Its former soft blue hue gave way to a vibrant orange-red called Burning Bush that greets me each morning with a smile. A multi-colored striped shower curtain speaks right up and passes the eye to the eight-armed hanger whose ends hold primary-colored balls that are hooks for towels and robes. We met the tan tile with color and we all won!

Quebec City has a mural on a windowless wall of an old building imaging a city scene that appears to be alive and immediate. Artists call this trompe-l’oeil, or trick-of-the-eye. It creates an optical illusion of depth, giving one a sense of being able to walk right into a street filled with people and activity. This is what I am doing in my bathroom, tricking my eye to see the color that overshadows the bland tile, neutral floor and traditional tub. So much to notice, the dull drifts into the background.

I think of color and what the arts can do for us – pull us out of our dull ordinary routine – especially in winter when the soul hungers for the energy and verdancy of spring. “The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts,” said Marcus Aurelius. I say, think inside the crayon box!

Leafing through travel magazines, I notice how old European cities with long, dark winters have homes and shops painted in primary red and yellow and blue, an antidote to the gray, bleak days that spread out either side of the winter solstice. Color enlivens.

I joined the Women’s March in Washington, DC, on January 21st. The overcast skies matched the desolation of my heart. As we moved toward the mall, streams of people approached, filling sidewalks, crosswalks and eventually streets. As we neared the center of the march I saw a sea of pink hats. Bare headed marchers were offered a colorful hat by a generous knitter or seamstress who was happy to share her bounty. Pink – streams and rivers of pink – washed away the gray of my heart. My fears and sorrows were tempered, and I was reminded how a brush with color remedies the late winter dullness that can seep into life.

Many cultures embrace color differently than Minnesotans. I love to spend a winter afternoon going to celebrations or performances by members of one of our diverse ethnic communities. I am mesmerized with the swish and swirl of Indian dancers in jewel-toned silk costumes–emerald, turquoise, ruby – trimmed in glistening gold. The colors appear lifted from peacocks, parrots and lavish sunsets.

Our local Mexican market is another relief from winter doldrums. I find richly painted wooden birds, tigers, coyotes; a menagerie of tin angels and reptiles sporting pigments imagined by sun-filled artists; papier- mâché masks with painted faces ready for Carnival. I am especially drawn to artist’s renderings that don colors never found in the animal’s natural camouflage. I have a rabbit from a Oaxacan artist with a yellow belly, turquoise upper body and great big red ears trimmed in blue! She would be welcomed in my garden and woudn’t eat much.

The humorist Jules Feiffer said, “Artists can color the sky red because they know it’s blue. Those of us who aren’t artists must color things the way they really are or people might think we’re stupid.” Our great nephew comes to visit one afternoon a week. We often draw together. First graders’ art is unconstrained by reality. We use bold, bright colors for everything – and we are not limited by lines or forms either. A half hour of simple drawing and coloring and spontaneous laughter echoes through the house. Color is fun!

Geographies have their own color schemes. Going to the mountains opens a whole new set of colors. I visited Aspen, Colorado, one fall. As I walked a residential neighborhood I was surprised by a purple house, an unusual color for me. When I walked by again at sunset that purple house matched the mountain view behind it, the low sun highlighting the amethyst hue of the mountain rock; in the Rockies, purple is an earth tone! Purple mountain majesties indeed. The shades of red in the Southwest are layered one upon another. Grand Canyon oranges, reds and golds glow in the morning and evening sun. The black dirt of the midwest contrasts the red clay of Tennessee and Georgia. Sand dunes of Lake Michigan quietly free your eye to the deep blues of the vast sky and that magnificent lake. Golden grains sweep across the mid-America farmlands. Nature has its own palette.

Some of us are lucky enough to escape winter for a week or two or more, flying to lands of sun and warm and color. For those, like me, tethered closer to home, I recommend a color excursion. It could be a scavenger hunt. Make a list of flamboyant colors, favorite colors, magical colors and see how many you can find. See them on people and things – moving, still, hidden. Find them on animals, flowers or minerals. Notice them shimmering or sedate. Bring your camera and see how close you can replicate the color. Imagine yourself as a color salesperson; how might you name, promote, highlight the colors you find? How do you value them? How much saturation can you hold? How does one flow into another?

Color. Bold. Warm. Cool. Vibrant. Never neutral. Like David Hockney, I prefer living in color. How about you?

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