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Visiting Dorian in the Country


THE PASTURE

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may);
I shan’t be gone long, You come too.

Robert Frost


Whenever I go to see Dorian in either one of her homes I am always visited by a little thrill of excitement as I climb the steps to the old brick house in Chicago or turn in off the dirt road and through the gate at the end of her place in Southern Illinois. Dorian loves to have visitors. She is a natural and wonderfully generous hostess. In as much as she deeply enjoys the life she has created for herself, she seems to understand what a rare treat it is for others to share in it. I know I will be greeted with great warmth, as well as a sort of ritualistic fanfare and accompanying chorus of barking dogs, that declares every visit as something of a special occasion. It is a greeting that was no less enthusiastic when I lived within a mile of Dorian, and saw her quite often, than it is now that I live a thousand miles away and see her only a couple of times a year.

Lately I have been going to see Dorian in Sili (her abbreviation for “southern Illinois”). I know I will immediately be offered a drink of tea or red wine, depending on the time of day (or recently, at any hour, aloe vera juice)—and we will then begin a sort of walking tour of the house and surroundings, highlighted by stops at the various paintings that have been since I was last there. And I know I will be completely delighted and utterly charmed by every single thing I see; the familiar and the new – be it painting or furniture, kitchenware or curio, henhouse or pond. It is better than a museum. It’s a non-stodgy museum you can live in! There are no strings across the armchairs, no guards. And gorgeously draped and feathery daybeds are for anyone to lounge on at any time – even, perhaps especially, dogs.

Everywhere I look in Dorian’s house I will find harmony and astonishing beauty that, combined with the company of the creator and local deity of this small dominion, somehow provides the perfect threshold for easy entry into a deep feeling of well-being. In fact, I have come to realize that crossing the doorstep into either of her homes is, for me, very much like stepping into an altogether different world, in a different dimension – a sort of haven, sealed off from the more garish and frenetic aspects of much of present day life. It’s that place, the very state, which allows for creation to happen.

This, of course, is no accident. It is the result of thousands and thousands of choices Dorian has made day after day. Just as, in making her paintings, she knows precisely what to leave in and what to leave out, Dorian surrounds herself with beauty like a diligent bird feathering her nest, selecting those things -- those activities – that will make the most likely environment for the hatching of beautiful paintings and a life well-lived.

“Look, isn’t that beautiful…” Dorian might say several times a day, stopping right where she is to stand and look a long moment at whatever it is that has caught her eye – a painting or a line of trees or an interior scene when the light falls just so. Her life is sustained by looking – always by looking. And she is a master at surrounding herself with what she needs to look at and what she needs to experience.

“Let’s go out and look at the pond!” We take coffee cups out and walk out through the dewy grass in our pajamas. Dorian is wearing a long thin white cotton nightgown, with a blood red cardigan sweater. The pond, dug a year ago, is now completely filled with water. On the bank, where we stand, Dorian has planted a slew of bulbs for the springtime. Sometimes we continue on, ducking under the fence, to walk across the neighboring cow pasture. The cows look up and stare as we go by, with our dogs trotting along behind.

“I’m going out to see if there are any eggs.” When she comes back from the henhouse, there are four eggs in Dorian’s little wooden basket. She fries them up in a black iron skillet. The eggs are delicious, the yolks a dark rich orange. In summer we eat watermelon from the garden – also a favorite with the chickens and the dogs. And in autumn, I help Dorian dig up potatoes or crack black walnuts on a rock to go in a recipe for bread.

”I’m going to feed Violet – want to come?” Dorian has taken in a tiny orphaned calf, with chestnut fur. She is kept in a little pen and needs bottle feeding twice a day. She is very anxious for her bottle and not ready to stop when it is empty. She sucks and sucks hard on several of my fingers, sometimes almost swallowing my hand in her nearly toothless mouth. Violet loves to have her neck and back scratched close to the bony wither, as well as her big floppy ears, inside and out. Such big eyes and wide, wet, dirty, pink nose and spindly legs. Later in the summer Dorian will let her loose to graze in the yard. And one day, she will even venture into the house!

“Let’s go over to Ben’s pond…” We walk out through the pasture, following a winding sort of path, up and down hills. Dorian’s dogs are tussling over the remains of some ran carcass; she either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. She is making a small frame with her fingers and squinting off at a stand of trees on the top of a hill. At the end of one of the fields, we come to a beautiful pond, shaded on one side by heavy trees. We sit there for a while and talk, admiring what we see. The ripples reflect up, shimmering on the underneath of the heavy boughs that hang out over the water, making an eerie, elfish light. Dorian wades in first and urges me to join her. I am not an avid swimmer. But she is hard to say no to and it really is a beautiful pond. There are patches of warm and cool and the water is somehow incredibly soft to the touch. Protected by rushes on one side and trees on the other, the sky is more intimate, less severe – by way of interceding trees, I suppose – than the one that oversees the ocean or Lake Michigan. Around us, only the song crickets and gentle wind in the upper limbs of the trees can be heard.

“Let’s go up to the little house.” We have borrowed four dogs of varying size and temperament from the farmer up the road. That brings the total canine population to seven when you figure in Dorian’s two Staffordshire terriers and my Lab mix. It is good to be outside. What with all the jockeying for position and status amongst seven dogs, the house proper was beginning to feel a bit chaotic. Better to step out of doors for a jaunt up to the “little house.”

It’s a pitch black night, the last in December, and I follow Dorian uncertainly with a lantern over the makeshift wooden bridge above a stream and up the hill using the rough stone steps whenever I can find them. The little house is a slightly improved version of the wooden playhouse I had in my backyard as a child. Its one room is only slightly larger. But it does have a wooden floor and a glass window that opens and shuts. By day you can see a pair of deer antlers mounted over the door. And in the spring, Dorian assures me, the hilltop in front will be covered with flowers. But now it is extremely dark inside and we have some trouble getting a candle to light. There is only enough for three dogs to sit with us. The others snuffle and scuffle around the doorstep. With icy bottles of beer, we toast the night and the year to come. Dorian sits by a table made from an ancient sewing machine treadle. I’m slumped against the wall, on a narrow metal olive-green trundle bed – almost a child’s bed – with my dog curled up beside me. But a sudden influx of dogs sends beer and lantern flying… We take it with good spirit. But we don’t stay there a whole lot longer.

One of Dorian’s favorite poems to recite lately – from among the vast and eclectic selection of poems and passages she has committed to memory – is a small poem by Robert Frost, entitled “The Pasture”. “Why does that get to me so much? I can hardly say it all the way through without tears coming to my eyes. What is it about that little poem that gets me like that?”

In a world of non-stop cell phones, e-mail, traffic-clogged cities, graceless concrete and chain stores, Dorian always helps me to remember that it is possible to unplug from that world and sit with a glass of wine and stare at the falling evening and fireflies and opening stars, and watch the ordinary miracle of each passing moment -- observing and dwelling in time instead of racing to beat it into submission. Space and mood and beauty allowed – hallowed – by light… be it sun or lantern or candles or stars. It’s the place Dorian lives from more surely than anyone I know, the place she creates from. That spaciousness and invitation to reflect is no further away than any one of Dorian’s paintings.

“You come too.”

Ellen Morrison
February 2005