Dunya at Ravernock ~ painting by C. Ryder
This is what I wrote to Catherine Ryder who I commissioned to paint this piece and who I also know as Layla, when the painting arrived:
“I knew where she would hang so I waited for a quiet moment in the afternoon to put her up. I love her so much. An amazing vision. I love the veils emerging from sky and land, hair combed into the wing feathers, the legs part of the mesa. I could see this in the photo but the reality is far more moving and deep. It is a beautiful painting. A real vision. I am glad I am part of it but it goes far beyond me. Yet I also know I am not just a model. And the raven. Just right. The eye gazes at me. I love the sun glowing at the edge, not a big feature but not absent. I love the tree raying up and the earth raying down, the feeling of roots and source and the ground growing into and emerging from the planet. I love the claws and the hands making diagonals. The glorious raven claws! My eyes closed as if letting my being see through the raven’s bright eye, hearing the wind around us. I love how the raven’s eye and my ear make an attentiveness between them. Everything moves out of everything else and yet there is beautiful definition. You have made something so wonderful.”
And this is what is unfolding. I look at Layla’s painting and feel my truth through her eyes. Not an idealized preternaturally young woman, nor a nonsensical goddess. Not a trivializing, objectifying depiction—not a depiction at all. Instead, an evocation. The dancer as alchemist, connected to All. An icon, yet also just me. Me moving in and out of landscape both carried by and carrying a beloved raven. Whenever I find the world snubbing me, underestimating or mistaking me, which of course it does as it does to many of us, I can look at this painting and know I am seen. I see myself there.
I have, over the course of my career, been the subject of wonderful photographs, and yet I have rarely loved them. This is partly because I wasn’t really myself; I made myself into an object that culture demanded and was paid for my pains (not well but at least enough to live on). Photographers obligingly captured what I presented. We collaborated to maintain the status quo of what is to be admired and celebrated in a woman. I was in an art form in which my body was the instrument and visuality the medium. Modern dancer, belly dancer, choreographer, etc. were dance forms but also roles, ways in which society allows a woman to be seen.
Historically, men depict women. Books, paintings, theatre. Men get the commissions. Men get the contracts. Mostly. With that money in their pockets men not only get to pay for their rent and lunch but also get to look at us and either overtly or subtly say who and what we are. That is what all those photos were in my life—a male photographer showing who he saw that I was. Why didn’t I hire women photogs? I don’t know. They were less connected or harder to to get the contact sheets from or not quite as good—all the demerits of having less opportunity and lower pay. Of course I could never afford the big women guns. I was a dancer for fuck’s sake!, doing production on my own small dime. I’m not really complaining deeply about this, only noting that the wonderful photos I do have were mostly taken by men and bear that stamp.
In secret, I unwound those fictions and headed toward whatever seemed not part of the fiction—I can’t really call it truth because it was so amorphous and slippery, unformed, uncorroborated. But it was there and it called, and the longer I headed that way the more it gathered force and vitality and began to shine. It was so utterly pleasing. It was so solid and reasonable and inspiring to be myself. I liked myself. I like myself. Yet that self had trouble finding a place at the societal table. And no one took a photograph of that self.
Then last summer, a summer when I was no longer a young pretty dancer, a summer when the ground and sky had the temerity to shift—the weather, ideals, my bones—Layla makes a sketch. She makes many sketches, of the sunset and the road and the people dancing in the studio, and the squirrels, and the ravens. But I see her sketch of me holding a raven and I see something more real than a reflection. She has caught something both about me and about a woman. A real woman with a real life. A woman who is me but also Everywoman. I see Layla’s sketch and feel for the first time in my life that this is me.
We have a few conversations about her doing a painting; I want to commission this if she is interested. Yes, she is. We part ways and over the autumn she works on it, sending me photos of her progress until we both know it is done. I send her money—which felt amazingly good, btw—and she ships the painting, It now hangs over my writing table in my studio where every day it can remind me of who I am. It is newly in my life but I feel a deep swell in the ground under me. I feel that this vision will help me. It will ameliorate the struggle to keep my heart fire lit. It takes so much to keep going. Not just rent and lunch. Yes, it takes that. And it also takes being seen. A witness to one’s truth. That I have something hanging on my wall that does this for me is some sort of miracle.
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