From the Annals of Art and Psychedelia:
My First Box of Pastels
by Allegra Printz
In the fall of 1967, I had just enrolled as a freshman in the Boston Museum School’s four-year Studio Art Diploma Program. I was then a landscape novice, desiring to try some outdoor sketching on the Atlantic shoreline. I had done a lot of figure drawing in the studio, but little landscape en plein air. At the art store, I purchased a pastel paper pad and a small carton of about twelve or so Nu Pastel sticks which I had never used before. On a sunny Sunday morning I set out excitedly astride by 350 CC Yamaha motorcycle, heading south out of Boston for an afternoon of sketching and drawing on the local beaches.
Selecting what seemed like a suitable highway exit somewhere near Hingham, I was happily humming along on a two-laned tree-lined road making my way to the sea when I was pulled over by a policeman. I had not been speeding, so I was perplexed. A student new to the Northeast, I was not prepared to associate the picturesque seaside town with conservative politics. I did not foresee that this suburban town would be suspicious of unfamiliar vehicles, especially two-wheeled ones driven by a woman who did not live there. Besides being an outsider, I undoubtedly fit the visual profile of a protester in the highly polarized political climate over the Vietnam War. In addition, mainstream panic over drugs was palpable everywhere, so I could have represented a triple threat: outsider, protester, and drug dealer. But that day, high on the pursuit of the Holy Cause of Art, I did not hold these concerns in my field of vision.
Although my license and registration were perfectly in order, the policeman asked me quite menacingly: just where did I think I was going? Having grown up in Detroit, where to be intimidated is to admit defeat, I explained in a friendly outgoing manner that I was out for an afternoon sketching expedition at the ocean. I was hoping the officer might share my enthusiasm. I did not learn until much later that Hingham is not on the ocean but the bay; hence Massachusetts, the Bay State. “Oh yeah,” the cop responded, rolling his eyes, as if he’d heard that one a thousand times. I nimbly jumped off my motorcycle, unzipped my saddle bag, and dug out my pastels and sketch paper, along with a few long forgotten water color brushes. I could not have produced more potent defensive magical talismans than those art supplies, as they threw the officer completely off balance and, to my surprise, into acute mental perturbation. Confused and perhaps blinded before the blazing laser beam blast of my complete sincerity, he reacted in a manner similar to that of a science fiction robot, who simply cannot compute . . . not compute . . . not compute . . . and without further comment ran, as if pursued, to the safety of his squad car. I could hardly explain myself further and surmised that those magic pastels had momentarily morphed me into an exotic mutant beast never before written up in the logs of local police history. Shrugging off the whole incident, I was soon once again freely cruising down the road, intent on my mission of Stalking the Scenic Muse.
Locating a suitably deserted sketching spot, I grouped my materials, and thought that I was finally all set to go. I surveyed the scene in front of me deciding what color pastel I would use to begin. The tree line was a deep forest green---a good place to start. I opened my small box of pastels, but to my utter surprise, the only green was a highly saturated neon yellow — and totally unsuitable — chartreuse!
In fact, there were no chalks whatsoever in that box that resembled anything in the natural scene before me. No, I had mistakenly selected a palette of psychedelic hot pinks, fluorescent oranges, vivid high chroma blues, and acid purples. I had not looked at the pastels when I bought them, had not considered that they would not be relevant to the landscape, but were instead wholly representative of the current countercultural hallucinogenic lysergic spectrum. For a second time I was stopped in my tracks.
It didn’t take me long, however, to remind myself that as it was Sunday and I was miles from any art supply store, I was just going to have to improvise, interpreting the organic colors I viewed in Nature through this other completely different color prism. After all, I was personally experienced in psychedelic colors, just not in this particular natural setting or with a highly focused intention in mind. I would have to wing it.
I found the process of translating one color dimension into another extremely challenging and quite often maddening, but ever stalwart, I dug in and concentrated. I spent the afternoon exercising previously unused color muscles and also developing new ones. I excavated the colors beneath the apparent surface color, and practiced recording the changing flashing flecks of myriad sputtering hues that eventually coalesced into more stable complex color structures. For several hours I worked my visual cortex fiercely for all it was worth.
Even though my studies were nothing like what I intended, they evolved into the proverbial case of the process of creativity — in this case seeing — and proved far more valuable than any previously intended result. In fact, those hours were an important serendipitous learning curve for me, although I didn’t fully register it at the time. My artist’s eye was opened to a sensibility that had previously been locked down or even non-existent. After that rigorous artistic exercise, my color sense and vision were permanently, if not accidentally in spite of myself, greatly expanded. I left the shoreline on the cusp of evening a different artist than the one I had been when I arrived. The invisible hand of Psychedelia had in unforeseen ways struck me twice that day, first as a young citizen and again as a young artist.
Having endured that strenuous color lesson, I became a connoisseur of pastels and pastel manufacturers over time. As the years and the psychedelic fashions passed, pastels became available in many more numerous natural colors. The Sennelier deep forest green with an ultramarine blue undertone is difficult to find, one that I buy whenever I can. I particularly covet it for tree lines.
That Sunday afternoon stands out in my memory as a day when I pushed through the doors of perception and began to see the brilliance of colors in the mind against their mysterious counterpoints in nature. My education in the laws of color had begun to work in my favor, encouraging me to push through my mistakes, while the laws of society continued to align themselves against me.
It wasn’t too long afterward, again riding my motorcycle, this time on my return to Boston from Cape Cod, that I was falsely arrested as a pot dealer in another beautiful over-protective small town. I was held in jail that night but released by the judge the next morning in light of the obvious over-zealousness of the sullen cop who had no evidence to substantiate any unlawful charge against me whatsoever.
Since then, my repeated experience as an artist has been to take care when stalking inspiration anywhere out of doors, and to practice covert stealth and secrecy when entering creativity’s transitional realms on all property, public or private. For like taking psychedelics, personal exploration makes the individual vulnerable, and the practice of art, even by recognized artists, can be misunderstood and condemned as a crime against the state.