When I learned to draw, one of the techniques I found so helpful to capturing reality was “negative space, ” paying close attention to and drawing the space around an object, rather than the object itself. It helps particularly with complicated objects and with linear perspective.
Hasn’t this past year been a communal exercise in negative space? We traced the space around the objects that we thought defined us and in that space we found the dimensionality of what we once took for granted and a perspective that was so hard to capture.
As a yogi, when I hear “negative space,” I also think of the Sanskrit word, “dukha,” commonly translated as “suffering.” One understanding of the etymology of the Sanskrit can be traced back to the seed words of “duk,” meaning “bad,” and “kha,” meaning “space.” The origins of dukha as suffering refer to the imbalance in the axle of a wheel, which caused discomfort to a traveler. And isn’t that how we feel when we are suffering? In a bad space, bumping down life’s highway.
One of the prompts I offered to my Art and Yoga class at All Soul’s this past spring was to create a piece inspired by negative space. I wrote this piece for the class, but didn’t share it then, so I share it here. The painting above is an old one done years ago from the “In the Garden” series.
As I drove around the corner and was about to pass the elementary school, I saw a toddler trying to climb the curb on the opposite side of the street. There was too much space around this tiny person, dressed in a dirty pink fleece jacket. She was small enough that climbing the curb meant that she bent to touch the cement to lift her foot towards it.
I pulled the car over and unrolled my window. As I did, I could see an Audi rounding the corner and waved for caution. The care stopped. I could see from my rearview mirror that the driver was going through the same thought process I was.
Opening the car door, and leaving it open, I asked, “Where is your Mommy, honey?” as I walked towards her. I looked around. No one on the ball field. No one on the sidewalk in front of the school either.
When I picked her up, she bared her little teeth at me in a halfway smile, or in looking up at my face she grimaced to focus, I couldn’t tell. She was young enough to wear diapers or pull ups. She pointed at me and then at the house beyond the curb.
“I’ll drive up the road to see if there are people looking for her,” the man in the Audi said to me as he drove slowly past us.
“Does your family live here?” I asked too brightly and too loudly. I knocked at the front door of house she had pointed to and waited. She slumped on my hip and rested her head on my shoulder. There was no sound in the house.
The Audi circled back.
“There’s not a soul anywhere.” The only sound was the car’s idle.
“I guess we’ll have to call the police,” I said.
Then: movement at the furthest corner of the ball field, in the woods beyond the school building. A woman ran towards us, her hands outstretched, her long blond hair electric behind her. I began waving, pointing to the child at my chest. As she got close, I could hear her urgent sounds as she ran low to the ground, unaware of the mechanics of her body’s propulsion, so single minded in her focus.
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” she breathed.
“I found her as I was driving up.”
“Oh my God, oh my God. There. Oh my God! Thank you. Thank you. My lead teacher is there…” she looked to the school. There was still the emptiness of the ball field. No one.
“She was where?! Oh my God. She…we! She’s part of the school. I’m day care. Special ed. I don’t know how. We have an outdoor classroom. She was gone.”
The woman didn’t look strong enough to handle adrenaline pumping in her slight frame. I was thankful she wore a mask, not because of the coronavirus, but because her fear and her guilt would have been too vivid and sorrowful to witness on this beautiful spring morning.
The man in the Audi drove off, waving at us, his calm smile incongruous with the flames of panic that continued to engulf the teacher.
“Thank you. Thank you. I hate to think…” the teacher said as she took the little girl from me. She clutched the child to her chest as she ran back to the school without looking back.
Later someone suggested that I should have followed up with the police anyway. But having worked at an elementary school for a brief time, I knew the teacher would have to file an incident report with the school and notify the little girl’s family. The negative space this child had created on an early spring morning would leave a permanent scar.