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History in Hidden Harmony

Ian Willis visits an artists’ retreat…

What has history got to do with an artists’ retreat you might ask? Quite a bit as it turns out. I was recently invited to address such a gathering at Varroville in New South Wales; it was quite an enlightening and stimulating occasion.

Leonardo da Vinci_s earliest known drawing, the Arno Valley (1473), Uffizi fragment
Leonardo da Vinci’s earliest known drawing, the Arno Valley (1473), Uffizi (fragment)

 

The three-day 2016 Artists’ Retreat was titled Hidden Harmony. It was facilitated by artist, musician and teacher John Charadia and held at the Mt Carmel Retreat Centre. The art workshops were led by artist and teacher Amanda McPaul-Browne.

John invited me after seeing my book, Pictorial History Camden & District (Kingsclear), in local retail outlets.  He asked me to talk about the importance of history and heritage in the Macarthur Region.

My presentation to the gathered art students prompted early questions. The discussion quickly turned to the role of the historian as a storyteller.

While art and history have had a long connection, it is still instructive to see the cross-over between the historical writing process and teaching the art of drawing.

As budding artists were taught to build details of complex subjects by starting with simple pencil lines, so historians build stories on complex subjects by starting with simple types of evidence drawn from their research. Similarly the historian builds the story by ‘drawing’ the principal elements from the beginning.

A pencil drawing has fine detail, supported by lots of dark and light shading to highlight the finer points of the subject. The historian builds the layers of the story as does the artist, highlighting a piece of the subject here or there. Both student artists and historians must learn to be careful with their work.

The art students were given step-by-step guidelines on how to draw a complex subject. Their instructions stated:

A line drawing can be as complex as you like to make it, but sometimes, if carried too far, it loses the spirit of the subject.

And so it is when writing a story about the past. The art instructor could have been giving a lesson in storytelling. Use ‘tone’ and ‘light and shade with bold, positive lines’. ‘Try to get the correct contrast of dark and light as you work’.

On reflection it seems so obvious: both historians and artists see the layers of meaning that make up a complex picture. The context and perspective add shades of colour and movement to the subject.  Budding students were encouraged to see these aspects of their art—part of the hidden harmony of the discipline of drawing based on stories.

Through the ages stories have been part of the human condition. Storytelling is a powerful medium for relating personal feelings, experiences and memories. Stories can have a healing effect, which helps individuals deal with trauma and grief.

I would encourage other historians to think laterally about the implications of our discipline. I have learnt much in recent months about the potential for stories about my local area to touch many hearts. It is thrilling to witness the effect that you work has on people in their daily lives. You touch their souls in ways that you would not even think about, including at an artist’s retreat.

This blog was originally posted on PHA (NSW & ACT)