Solstice Flight

featherFeather: 100 Days Project #15 

Winter Solstice is a spiritual time for many cultures. It is both a celebration of survival and the peak at which we begin the long, slow slide toward spring.  This year, the shortest day has stormed in and flung the door open, rending seawalls and toppling giant trees in a fearsome demonstration of the shifting forces of nature right across our country.

Snug and warm in our house we have the luxury of appreciating the force and our good fortune, to drink endless cups of tea and eat hot crumpets with liquid honey.  In past times the cold and wet would have been fatal to the young, the old and the badly protected, which would have brought a particular significance and poignancy to the solstice celebration.  And as the participants in the Big Sleepout would tell you, there are plenty of people right now for whom the extreme weather is not an exciting diversion, but a significant and present danger.

The Maori celebration of Matariki has been revived in recent years.  A celebration of the heliacal rising (morning reappearance) of the Pleiades, Matariki was a time to remember those who had died in the last year. But with crops harvested and seafood and birds collected it was also a happy time. for singing, dancing feasting and kite flying.

For us, this is also the day when we think most about my paternal grandmother Ruth.  Reading yesterday’s post my father Peter sent me this recollection of the day she died, on Winter Solstice, exactly 35 years ago today:

Ruth accepted her death and appeared to manage her departure in a spiritual way. Harold, sleeping in a nearby room at the hospice, was woken by a pealing clamour of bells. Going into the corridor, he met a Mercy nun leaving Ruth’s room, telling him her ordeal was over. There were no bells.

Driving out to Macandrew Bay the following night there was a huge full moon and the highest tide I have ever seen in Otago Harbour. No cloud or wind, it flooded right up to, but not over, the road.

On her easel was a small and unusual painting. A small boat is waiting to depart into a brilliant sunset. I recall a myth about the soul leaving in this way. Ruth’s signature is clumsy due to swollen hands.


Does the apple fall far from the tree?

Braeburn square Braeburn:100 days project #14

than 30 years after her death, my grandmother Ruth Haydon Duval-Smith remains one of the most influential people in my life. It’s hard to explain why.   We lived quite distantly and saw each other infrequently.  Yet all this time later, thinking of her can bring tears to my eyes.  It took me years to realise that she would not have died disappointed that I had failed to answer her last letter.

Ruth taught me how to identify shepherd’s purse and fuschia, morning glory and alpine strawberry.  She knew how to create a tiny mauve umbrella from the flower of a scotch thistle, a trick that even now, I have no idea how to recreate.

I could tell a pied stilt from an oystercatcher before I turned five, simply by our observing together at the water’s edge on the Otago Pensinsula.

We made afgans in a blue Kenwood mixer, cross-stitched on gingham and created elaborate paper cutouts from a yellow and black hardback book I still have today.   We read Thornton Burgess’ Reddy Fox and Old Man Coyote, Ernest Thompson Seton and the frightening Victorian Struwwelpeter. We read Rackham’s Brothers Grimm, the Snow Goose and the Snow Queen, the black and white illustrations of which she had coloured herself, in an act shocking to my younger eyes.  Her Morris and Liberty fabrics lodged themselves firmly in my pattern consciousness.

It’s difficult to know what kind of a relationship we might have had if she had lived longer, but I would like to think that our shared interests would have endured.  I find that even in some of my modern decisions, my feeling for what is right is rooted in a sense of her, and in particular her connection to Anthroposophy and the natural world.

DUVAL-SMITH, Ruth, ca. 1920-79 Dunedin, view from Queens Drive watercolour on paper: 360 x 237mm (sight) Given by Professor F.N. Fastier, Dunedin, 1980

DUVAL-SMITH, Ruth, ca. 1920-79
Dunedin, view from Queens Drive
watercolour on paper: 360 x 237mm (sight)
Given by Professor F.N. Fastier, Dunedin, 1980

Publically, she was well known as an accomplished watercolourist, specialising in South Island landscapes, one of which is held in the Hocken Library.  I have some on my walls today.  I also have a small brown vinyl notebook in which she pencilled the prices paid for some of these lovely works, heartbreakingly low by today’s standards.

Ironically, it was precisely her talent which created in me the odd idea that I would never be able to paint, let alone in ‘her’ medium of watercolour.  Somehow, I absorbed the idea that watercolour is a precise, difficult, unforgiving form, intolerant of error and hidebound by a number of arcane rules about equipment, paper treatment and colour order.

To my complete surprise I have found out that quite the opposite is true.  It’s fast, Great, I’m impatient!  It’s portable.  Excellent, I like to carry it with me!  If you don’t stretch and tape your paper down it warps and creates strange blotchy runbacks in that paint.  I particularly like that.  My painting is nothing like hers.  Doesn’t matter!

For me watercolour is primarily an expressive and emotional artform, not an intellectual one.  It requires a relinquishing of a certain amount of control.  You can see this in some of the more Steiner influenced works Ruth made, which were not made public.

One of my favourite things about the medium is that you never know quite how it’s going to turn out, which makes for surprises.   Like many of us today, in this thinking age, my life to date has been overwhelmingly brain-led.  It’s such a relief to go somewhere where thinking doesn’t matter, only creating.

I think my grandmother would have understood this.

NOTE: My father has supplied the following biographical information:

Ruth was born on 21 May 1915 and died 21 June 1978. After schooling in Gisborne and Levin, Ruth studied at the Elam school of Art for one year, but was unable to fund further training. After raising a family she studied under H.V. Miller in Dunedin. South Island landscapes were her love and watercolour her medium. Her skies are particularly beautiful.