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Calm Things

Maybe it is worth something, too, in this world of ours, to write two words at the top of a piece of paper. Calm things.

We live in the world as little as possible. When the phone rings in this quiet house, there is genuine shock. We answer, incredulous, stuttering and stumbling over too few words. I wonder what most people talk about at mealtimes. For us, the subject is usually still life. Rob says what area of his painting he’s been working on. He works from a photo that I’ve seen beforehand, and still there is news. The grapes were much darker than he thought they would be before mixing the paint. Adjustments have to be made continually from photo to canvas. A shadow has to be deepened, a band of light refined. The calligraphy of stems needs be rewritten.

At the kitchen table is also where I hear the news of the rest of the world. Rob listens to the radio, usually CBC, while he paints, and he breaks it to me gently while we eat and in between telling me about his current subject matter—maybe an apple, a lemon, a Chinese vase.

This past year or so has been especially tiring, exhausting. We have been out of breath continually. I finished my M.A. and defended my thesis all in a year and a half. During this time, a book I had written previous to this had been rejected by one publisher and later accepted by another. Rob had a show that didn’t sell terrifically well. He was taken on trial by two new galleries and then let go—by one gallery on the very same day as I defended my thesis. We came home to this news after my defence and never even got to drink the champagne we’d set aside for that evening as our puffed up hearts had been stuck with pins that day and we couldn’t bring ourselves to celebrate. None of these things are particularly unusual in the lives of poets and artists. But for a while the highs and lows were off-balance and we found ourselves teetering about, half sunk.

But the work rights one, it calms. We sink into it, and somehow our breathing aligns once again to the silent song of the still life, to the poetry in and of it all.


In a book on the painter Balthus, Claude Roy notes that in Japan, during the Meiji era, the term seibutso was formed. This translates as “calm things” and is the term used by the Japanese when talking about what we most commonly call “still life.” Roy says that “the peaceful contemplation of calm things, has its roots deep in the Japanese past, in politeness with regard to those objects that man has fashioned, generated, humanized.”

I believe in the calm of things, and also that one must come to them in politeness. The great paintings of still life that I have come to revere, that I come to with utmost politeness, are ones that must have been painted with the same approach. I think of Morandi’s rough clay jugs and pitchers and vases. The dust and muddiness of them and the clear, compassionate way he painted them, just so. Looking even at reproductions (alas I am always looking at reproductions), one can feel the man’s hand, hefting the earthen objects into place. Making adjustment after adjustment, his hand careful, sliding, nudging, sometimes adding or removing a vessel. The intimacy of these gestures! The way he has come to these things is with a direct politeness. He doesn’t presume to know them—one can see that he comes to knowing through the paint, but the mystery of what they are remains.

And so it is with a painting like Juan Sanchez Cotan’s Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, which was the poster art for the Spanish Still Life from Velazquez to Goya show at the National Gallery in London in 1995. Each seed of the melon, each vein in the cabbage that hangs by a thread, and all the dimples and crags of the cucumber resting near the edge of the niche, are respectfully recorded, the colour and line and heft of them. They are arranged in their darkened niche in a parabola, the light falling on each object with utmost gentleness and a common stateliness. The air is cool where they are, and as the eye curves around the invisible crescent moon-spine, from the quince down to the cucumber, there is time for a slow and deep exhalation. Back up is the cool, quiet, discreet inhalation. It is as if the painting is training the viewer how to breathe, telling what rhythm it requires.

This picture of the lambent curved breath by Cotan was painted circa 1600. Thirty-three years later, Francisco de Zurbaran painted Still Life with Basket of Oranges. To the left of the basket of oranges crowned by leaves and blossoms, is a silver plate with lemons. To the right is a plain white two-handled cup with a rose, both on another silver plate. All of these sit radiant on a dark wood table before a black background. They glow as if they are the centre of the world, and yet they are a world too, a fine and serene one.

As John Berger writes about Zurbaran’s still lifes in his book Keeping a Rendezvous, “What is visible has been placed on the very edge of this darkness, as if somehow the visible has come through the darkness like a message.” And these paintings do indeed seem to hold a message that comes to us through the darkness, through slant and sliver, and through the fires of time. Berger also says, “Zurbaran has become eloquent at the end of our century because he paints stuff—stuff one might find in a flea market—with a concentration and care that reminds us how once it may have been sacred.”

If we hold these things at the centre of our heart, if we look closely and attentively enough, as carefully as the painter did, then there is a visitation, the calm eloquent message. We stand in the darkness of a door frame and suddenly remember to dip a toe into the other side, into the brightness.


After a few years of predominantly painting still lifes with swaths of dramatic white, light-filled drapery as the background, Rob has begun painting ones with a dark background, not unlike Zurburan’s or Cotan’s or many other painters from the Baroque period. The current painting in the living room, on our old rickety sideboard, is of purple grapes, pears, and lemons. The pears are in a sapphire blue glass bowl, and the lemons and grapes are heaped in a tarnished silver scallop-shaped dish. They sit on a red carpet. To me they seem as sacred jewels lit from within, working against the darkness, eloquently oblivious to it, too.

It seems to me that part of what a still life does is make what is regarded commonly as un-sacred, sacred. The un-holy, holy.

We experience life in all its details. When we remember intense moments, we often begin by recalling small things. Memories of lost loved ones are often triggered when seeing and touching an object that once belonged to them or that was associated with them. A Globe and Mail article about survivors of the Tsunami tells of a woman whose family and home had been wiped out and who was left to care for a child—the only other person left in the world to whom she was related. At the communal shelter, aid workers had at last provided her with a pot and a small stove to cook on, and though she’d been stoic to this point, here is where she broke down. Because the pot reminded her of another pot that had resided in her kitchen, now lost, and the kitchen and the pot reminded her of all the people she had cooked for, also irretrievable.

In writing of a friend who had simultaneously lost her apartment and her lover, Susan Griffin says, “For loss is experienced through detail, when, for instance, one shops alone if before one shopped for the night’s food with a lover.”

For loss is experienced through detail. This is when we most intensely feel the details that connect—and also that every last detail is somehow connected.

Anita Albus quotes the early Christian mystic, Nicholas of Cusa, who believed that “all is in all and each is in each.” And in this way, we are all connected as well. Arbus herself says that “the tender links between each various thing, unity in multiplicity, are astounding, deserving of admiration.”

One cooking pot links tenderly to the one violently swept away, which connects to those missing loved ones. Apples hefted at the supermarket link one to the lover who has left. We think of the still lifes of Pompeii, the pears and vessel of water on a shelf, the asparagus, bread, and fish. Someone once ate this food, and poured and took refreshment from this vessel, someone long since gone. And all the objects that we, too, use will at some point in the future belong once again to the dead.


The pears from the bowl in Rob’s recent still life have been eaten. I cut them into quarters and peeled and cored them and placed them in a dish for our daughter. The grapes we all had a hand in eating. And the lemons were made into lemon ginger muffins. The tarnished silver dish has been returned to its place on the shelf above the bathtub and filled again with seashells. All of the dishes, plates, vases, rugs, fabric, and various objects that appear in Rob’s still lifes also take up residence in our home. For the most part, we use them. The fruit is always eaten by us, and many of the flowers were grown in our small garden along the length of the fence.

Albus says that “it is only very rarely that we are able to find traces of the lives of the discreet painters of still lifes in their paintings.” But I see this isn’t true. For I gaze at my own small, quite ordinary life there in the pictures that Rob paints, and I can tell you the story of each one. I can see the scant weight of my entire life held in the yellow lily that I grew near the west side of the house from the bulbs given to me by a friend. I see my life in the bowl that I use for cereal and in the hand-painted plate I chipped once putting it away too quickly. Perhaps the traces are discreet, but they are nonetheless traces.

But the still life tells another story too. While the Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century mirror a society that was wealthy and that traded with certain countries, the still life of today mirrors a different economy. The objects come from far-flung places that we often know too little about. And the same is true of the fruit that is flown into our barren, sleeping winter. We try to keep all the stories straight about these objects, these things, our abundance, but they get away from us sometimes in spite of that.

Maybe it’s because of this that I have always found it interesting to read articles about a still life painting whose author has painstakingly tracked down an item similar to the item depicted. In the monograph from the 2000 Chardin show are photographs of various pieces of decorated porcelain similar to those in the paintings: a Chinese porcelain ewer, a basin, a cup and saucer, and a small pot made of Japanese Imari porcelain. In her essay “Contemplating Kalf,” Anne Lowenthal researches the covered Chinese porcelain bowl ringed with the memorable “eight Taoist immortals” in Willem Kalf’s most incredible Still Life with a Nautilus Cup. A photograph of a similar piece in the Rijksmuseum is included in the appendix, as is a photo of a seventeenth-century Persian carpet like the one in the painting. In other places, I have seen photos of a similar nautilus cup.

I wonder where this desire to match up the real object with the painted one comes from. Is it that we imagine a connection that is yet possible to make? That our loss is somehow lessened by knowing the object still exists? Is it a sort of atonement for all that we have glossed over, taken for granted? Does it speak to a slight disbelief in the still life—that more-or-less ordinary objects could be raised to divine status? I only know that it is oddly satisfying to see these photographs of the original object, even if it’s not quite the same one. When I see these comparisons, I feel inexplicably comforted.


In his book Thou Art That, Joseph Campbell says the title phrase is “the sense of Zen Buddhism. You must find it in yourself. You are it.” He compares this to the Christian idea that the Kingdom of Heaven is within you. Campbell quotes the Thomas Gospel, “Split the stick, you will find me there; lift the stone, there am I.” The mystery is always there, in everything.

And this is where Campbell gets at what I think is also at the core of still-life painting: “Take any object, draw a ring around it, and you may regard it in the dimension of its mystery. You need not think that you know what it is, for you really do not know what it is, but the mystery of the being of your wristwatch will be identical with the mystery of the being of the universe, and of yourself as well. Any object, any stick, stone, plant, beast, or human being, can be placed this way in the centre of a circle of mystery, to be regarded in its dimension of wonder, and so made to serve as a perfectly proper support for meditation.”

It seems to be enough, most days, to draw our circles, our rings. To split the stick. It has to be. We’ve reached the point, too, Rob and I (and this is a gift), where we have quit asking why? Why keep going on with this odd and lovely and at times, invisible life? It’s not that the question isn’t hovering there along with us, behind us, like a crazed neon sign, blinking out of the darkness. The darkness, that’s part of the answer. The mystery, the mystery is another part of the answer. Also, living with still life is a way of breathing.

Heidegger quotes Johann Herder: “A breath of our mouth becomes the portrait of the world, the type of our thoughts and feelings in the other’s soul. On a bit of moving air depends everything human that men on earth have ever thought, willed, done, and ever will do; for we would all still be roaming in the forests if this divine breath had not blown around us, and did not hover on our lips like a magic tone.”

And perhaps it is my particular bias toward the genre of still life, but I think that when we sit long enough, quietly enough, and calmly before a fine and eloquent picture of things, it is possible to enter into that mystery, into the sweet breath of the world, magical, wondrous, divine. When we practice politeness in this contemplation, when we bow our heads, breathe deep and clear and even, we have the capacity to enter into the souls of others, to experience a delicate tracery that connects across time and distance, from one ordinary life to another.

Copyright © 2007 by Shawna Lemay


Shawna LemayShawna writes:
In this house, our entire existence seems to revolve around still life, the poetry in objects, things. My husband, Rob, has been painting still life for more than twenty years. We notice the way the light comes in through various windows at various times of day. Our daughter, now nine years old, has been trained to notice shadows, and the way light transforms things. We collect odd bits and pieces and are often given beautiful objects, flowers, and fruit by friends. There is something miraculous to notice in the details of things every day. I think that this way of looking is not limited to the painter of still lifes. I wanted to share this stance, and in doing so it seemed natural to move from poetry to essays.

Shawna Lemay is the author of four volumes of poetry: All the God-Sized Fruit, Against Paradise, Still, and Blue Feast. She has recently completed a book of essays about living with still life and the creative life, titled Calm Things. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta, with her husband, Robert Lemay, a visual artist, and their daughter, Chloe. Rob's work can be viewed at, where Shawna also has a page: Shawna has also recently started her own blog, Capacious Hold-All, a blog about books, art, and whatever else might suit her fancy.