Piece of the Continent

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“Piece of the Continent, Part of the Main” 24×30, oil on canvas

I got the title for this painting from something I learned when I was thirteen.

My seventh grade reading teacher had a couch in her classroom– a throne individual students got to spend class in as a reward for some task well completed. But even more than the famous couch, I remember that she made us memorize poetry. It was part of our grade, and each of us had to stand before the class every so often and recite what she’d assigned. 

At the time I probably complained a bit, although, truthfully, I didn’t mind it. I loved words, but was often too afraid to speak up. Reciting poetry made me feel powerful, gave me a compelling voice when I was still in the process of discovering my own. I’m just shy of 40, and I still turn to those seventh grade poems, almost daily. 

When hiking in a new spot– “Whose woods these are, I think I know.” In times of challenge or uncertainty– “Out of the night that covers me– black as pit from pole to pole– I thank whatever gods may be– for my unconquerable soul.” And, my number one go-to when politics or grocery lines or headlines make me weary: “No man is an island, entire of himself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main….any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” 

So, sometimes, when I think about what to title a painting, one of Mrs. Patton’s poems will pop into my head. I’d nearly completed my “Walking Peace” series when I added this painting to the mix. It combined two of my most common subjects– abstract landscapes and pelicans, the birds that first got me back into painting. 

Memorizing those poems was like gift wrapping them for me. I now have access to them whenever I need them. Perhaps it is those treasures given to me by a thoughtful teacher that kindled what has become a life-long love of poetry. Lately, I’ve been reading through Mary Oliver’s collected poems as though they were a novel. She has this way of showing me the interconnectedness of all things. Somehow nature reveals us to be both far more and far less significant than we could imagine. Oliver asks me to both zoom in (on a flower, a bird, a tree) and zoom out (on the world where all these things and more belong and are sacred). Donne’s “No man is an island” has been my language for human interconnectedness since the seventh grade. This pelican, this landscape, the viewer of them both outside the painting (me, you!) taking in their harmony with one another, we all are the “piece of the continent, part of the main.” Not just “no man”, but “no thing” is an island.  

I believe we are all, every single one of us, part of some vast landscape– one I could never capture nor understand with paint, and still one I will forever use paint to explore and appreciate.

I’ve not memorized a single poem since the seventh grade, and I feel like, given how much it has meant to me over the years, I should change that. What poems speak or have spoken to you in your life? I’d love to check them out and maybe use a few of them to inspire my January paintings. 

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Picture of Denise Hopkins

Denise Hopkins

December 9, 2020

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