The Other Side of the Fence

dream fencePhotographs by Ellen Blum Barish

June was light on blog posts because I was in New Mexico on what was planned as a writing retreat. But the desert, I learned, has other plans.

I was in Abiquiu – Georgia O’Keefe country – with six women artists who came to study and make abstract art with Marianne Mitchell, a dear, longtime friend who is a gifted painter and teacher.  I took the last available room at the casita (where the art was taking place) and helped with studio set up and meal prep. The idea was that I’d listen in, observe the demos and maybe soak up some inspiration and energy from the painters, but that I’d be somewhere with a breeze, under a tree, writing.

Well if you’ve been to the desert, you know that the sun blazes and breezes are few and far between and that what trees are available are used to build fences. I was captivated by them right from the start because the landscape was so vast and overwhelming and the fences represented the human contribution; a clue that human beings not only made their way in the desert but found a way to live in it.

If fence obsession was the first surprise, the second was that strings of words didn’t come to me. I don’t think I ever felt so dried up, word-wise, especially in such a beautiful place. Especially with the gift of time. I simply couldn’t access them. The desert staked its claim.

So I painted and sketched instead.

I decided to focus on the fences. Here are some of the pencil sketches:

photo copy 11

And then, this:

photo copy 10

The third day in the desert, I dreamed of a painting. And so, I tried my hand at oil pastels to capture it and here’s what happened:

photo 2

And then, I just played:

photo copy 5

My writing students frequently hear me touting the advantages of cross-pollinating their arts. I urge them to take out their dusty guitars, throw some clay onto a wheel or just make collages with magazine images so that they activate the other side of their brain to shake things up and not get stale. There are advantages to jumping over the fence to the see the other side. But the teacher hadn’t been following her own advice and clearly the desert was saying, “it’s time.”

In one of my workshops this week, I shared my pastels and pencils adventure with my students and I wrote these words on the board: line, shape. color, and value. These are the terms Marianne used to identify aspects of abstract art. I quickly saw that these had a writing connection:

Line: storyline or narrative

Shape: structure or form

Color: details and voice

Value: tension and contrast

I may not have strung words together into sentences while I was in the desert, but I left with four potent ones that express the way I see what painters and writers share: creative process put to paper, with words or without.

A week without words was the desert’s gift to me; wrapped in paper and a glorious bow by the women who illuminate the world with their imaginations, their skill, their insights, emotions and their paint.

If you want to learn more about Marianne’s painting workshops or how to work with her privately, go to