Greenwriting on the Skarpa

My Afterword to Katy Bentall’s Greenwriting, published by (and available for purchase from) the estimable Bored Wolves Press, Krakow.

drawing by Katy Bentall

It’s dark when we arrive at Katy’s house in the Polish countryside, early fall, 2019.  My friend and I, both road-weary, climb a flight of wooden stairs to retire. My friend installs herself in the bedroom of Katy’s daughter, Magda, now a young doctor in London. I bed down in the room that belongs to Katy’s son, Sammy,  a classics major at the University of Warsaw. Everywhere there are stacks of book, fascinating books. Philosophy. History. Poetry. Books in Polish. Books in English. I want to look at all of them, but I’m so sleepy. Before I crash, I peek into Katy’s room/studio, noting piles of notebooks, vibrant watercolors.  A chorus of frogs serenades me through the open window as I fall asleep.

in the hammock at Katy’s house in Dobre

I met Katy Bentall in Warsaw a few years earlier, through a mutual friend. We bonded over a shared love of drawing, spending afternoons sketching, observing, and talking in cafes, on park benches. In the years following, I continued to find sustenance and inspiration from Katy’s artwork and writing, admiring them from my home in Los Angeles, often via Instagram. Her drawings and watercolors were a portal, for me, into a world so different from my own urban environment, and so fascinating:  the stout mushroom seller forever keeping vigil over precious fungi; the fortune teller, the pear man with his cargo of smoked fruit; the russet-red fox who feasts on fallen plums

Upon waking, light streaming through the windows, I am delighted, ecstatic, when it sinks in that I am actually here. I’m in Dobre, in this airy wooden house nestled into the Skarpa, the upland of the Vistula River, famous for its loess valleys and fields of wheat and hops, apple and pear orchards. From the front porch, there is the thrum of bees, the overwhelming scent of wildflowers, mint. (Later I will meet the neighbor who makes lip-smacking elixirs out of them.)  In the dining room, I recognize the chairs, the bowls, the blue and white checkered tablecloth, the brown teapot from Katy’s drawings. I know as well those beautiful yellow pears on a plate on the table (not available yet, to be made into pear cake, because they are going to be drawn. Please don’t eat the still life!)

This house and little studio hut on its grounds is the “pracownia,” the laboratory, that the visionary Polish art critic and philosopher Mariusz Tchorek built for his British wife, artist Katy Bentall.  Tchorek designed the house in collaboration with the noted Polish architect Rudolf Buchalik and constructed it with the assistance of local builders (son Sammy, then two, carrying two bricks at a time in his little plastic wheel barrow up the hill imitating the builders). Mariusz Tchorek passed away in 2004; his spirit is a benediction in this house, on this land.

Over the years, when their children attended schools in Warsaw, the Tchorek-Bentall family used the house as a summer and holiday retreat. Now, her children grown, Bentall has installed herself in Dobre full-time. It’s where she carries on her experiments in “greenwriting”— the exquisite drawings, paintings, collages, and texts—evidence of her determination to “live lightly” on the land, to bear intimate witness to the community in whose midst she lives.

In the afternoon, we drive the short distance from Dobre to Kazimierz Dolny, the ancient town on the Vistula, which has been, since the early 1900’s, a haven, a summer colony, for Polish artists. Katy’s weekly trips to the outdoor market and the bakery here are source for some of the Balzacian cast of  people, their gestures, their exchanges, that inhabit her drawings. The old woman with the bright blue beret is not in the bakery this afternoon; but there’s the table where she usually sits. Over the months, years, Bentall has observed them carefully, lovingly.

“Where does the impulse to draw something begin?” asks the late writer/artist John Berger. For Katy Bentall, the impulse might arise when she looks out the window and glimpses Basia, the neighbor’s wife, “skinny and strong, she could snap me in half,” ferrying a wheelbarrow full of logs. Basia who comes three times a week, who keeps the boiler going in the cellar. Pivoting from sight to paper and pen, the artist melds observation with imagination.  Fifty years from now, perhaps a hundred, when someone looks at the lively lines of this drawing, they’ll see Basia, skinny and strong and her wheelbarrow— a moment reclaimed from time’s oblivion.

drawings by Katy Bentall

That lag between seeing and drawing, what Bentall terms the “memory glance,”  is why, she explains, “if you look carefully, my drawings usually look All Wrong.” It’s what gives them, in her words, “the weirdness.” That’s what I love about them. Arms too long end in fingers which turn into bundles of sticks. We’re not talking realism; we’re talking penetrating essence.

The pandemic winter of 2020 in Dobre was, Bentall reported,  “so cold it hurt to swallow.”  The artist invites us to take a night walk with her on a snowy eve, painting the scene with words. Feeling safe in the velvety dark—suddenly she’s face to face with a wild boar. She stands frozen in place, waiting for the beast to cross the ridge, then watches in astonishment as seven more boars follow, like “shadowy giant mice scampering over a mountainous iced Christmas cake.” The wonder of this winter vision negates any fear. In the morning, she searches out the boars’ footprints in the snow, marvels at the differences of various creatures’ modes of movement: the hare’s “a high-speed train leaving a whooshing sound in its wake,” to “the little ruffled feet flecks of the partridge as they fluttered by at dawn.”  Exhale.

Later that spring, during the pandemic, Katy wrote me: “All I have felt able to do is allow the garden to be as wild and self-seeding as possible and watch the wildlife thrive! There are plenty of hidden human interventions required but at least I don’t dominate. I suppose this is the point of the drawings—they are meant to not dominate—still art continues to try to dominate—I am struggling with this thought. What matters? Why make art? What does it mean to live lightly? To affirm those around us.”  

drawing by Katy Bentall

How do we affirm those around us when the world is in turmoil, when the world is in pain? The artist plants sunflowers. It’s a gesture that makes perfect sense, and yields one of my favorites of Bentall’s drawings: the figure in red bending under the sunflower’s extravagant gaze, its shower of knowledge, human fusing with the thrust of nature. 

John Berger, himself both artist and writer, chose to live in a remote village (his in the French Alps). Like Katy Bentall, Berger valued the rhythms of rural life, the wisdom of those who worked and lived close to the land, and to animals. When he drew, he wrote:

I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or bees constructing their cells. I’m aware of a distant, silent company. Almost as distant as the stars. Company nevertheless. Not because we are in the same universe, but because we are involved—each according to his own mode—in a comparable manner of searching. Drawing is a form of probing. The first generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place things, and to place oneself.”

Greenwriting is a record of Katy Bentall’s searching and probing.  Her drawings are the way she places herself— an artist, a British woman living in a foreign land—in this house, in this village, in this miraculous and troubled world.  

 How these drawings delight me! 

 I trust they will delight you as well.

-Louise Steinman, Los Angeles

Sept 17, 2021

15 Responses to “Greenwriting on the Skarpa”

  1. Penny Phillips Says:

    Louise, Katy’s drawings and your words are so beautiful + well-matched. I love them both. Thank you for taking me on this gentle, loving journey to Katy’s home and work. Love, Penny

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Erica Clark Says:

    I adore this piece, and you for writing it. It arrives in another fraught day and instantly calms me….the penetrating essence, as you put it.

    The only tiny comment: I’m pretty sure that Berger lived in the Alps and the Jura, not the Pyrenees…

    One of these days I want to go to a place like Dobre. It truly sounds like the place nearest your heart, much as Struel will always be for me.

    Love, E

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    Like

  3. Betsy Amster Says:

    I love the photo of you in the hammock!

    On Sun, Sep 18, 2022 at 12:39 PM The Crooked Mirror, Louise Steinman’s Blog

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Deidre Sklar Says:

    Thanks Lulu. This is lovely, writing and water colors.

    I hope you and Lloyd are navigating this current world with your usual wise perspective, sense of humor, willingness. I guess I mean yes-saying.

    I’m fine thanks to the ocean and beach, teaching Feldenkrais.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to have a group lunch?

    Love, Dede

    Like

  5. David Schneider Says:

    Dear Louise,

    Thank you for this. Loved it (possibly again? I think I might have read a shorter version, earlier…is that possible? I remember the part about not eating the still-life. My favorite line this time is: “a mountainous iced Christmas cake.”

    Being a nice English woman, your friend Katy will know that one doesn’t mess around with boars, if one can possibly help it!

    Anyway, good going! Love D

    >

    Like

  6. Louisele, I love this appreciation so much. Beautifully, lovingly written and illuminating. xoxo Melissa

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Such a lovely tribute, Louise. It sounds to me like, even though living in Poland, Katy belongs in the great tradition of British “amateurs”–lovers–quiet, intensely modest but astute observers, poets, artists. What a treat, to visit with her! I don’t see a link to her book, however…

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you so much for this introduction to Katy Bentall. I’ve ordered a copy of her book for my 73rd birthday in early October. In this past year, I’ve discovered that I can draw well with my non-dominant left hand and have a renewed sense of the joy of drawing and of being in good company with others who draw.

    Like

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