Ashley Widman reflects on her creative time in Tetouan …
One of the first things I drew when I arrived here at Green Olive Arts was a red and white striped cloth caught beneath an external fan on the side of a building, one end hanging down. This “flag” of sorts marked the start of my two week stay, each day bringing opportunities that might never come by again. Fearful as I was, it was tempting to pass on many of these.
For the first few days I was very tense. Here I was, used to restrained color and economy of motion, suddenly confronted with so much to see and hear and do all at once! Rainbows of fruit and fabric shifted as people moved in the streets as well as on the sidewalks, heads bobbing by under fantastic hats. One man even strolled down the center of the road carrying a full length mirror! People made affectionate greetings and vehement disputes, animatedly waving their hands. It was an overwhelming display of exuberant life, and I wasn’t sure at all what to make of it. In my mind’s eye I could see that cloth I had drawn, billowing threateningly. It was as if it were above my head, slowly lowering, and filled with hundreds of nameless terrors.
But the thing about being a resident artist in an unfamiliar country is that the ties to regular life drop away like a door closing, shutting out the sounds from before and introducing a new range of sounds in its place. Here I could just be an artist and not the artist + the commuter + the businessperson + the numerous other identities that life normally requires. I could forget who I was supposed to be and start being who I really was. I could try all these new things, create pieces that were nothing like previous bodies of work, and still be myself.
Saying yes to these opportunities brought great rewards. In stepping out of my comfort zone I could experience some of the great generosity that Moroccans show to everyone – a baker who insisted that I take a fresh flatbread, a tailor handing me a needle when I needed one, all the fruit venders who offered free samples of their wares. As the local language sank in, I could speak a few phrases and would always be greeted with an enthusiastic response. I met many new faces, wandered avenues and sunlit parks, sketching as often as possible. I shared my on-site accommodation with another artist, and we were able to exchange art-world experiences, give advice on each other’s work, and trade first impressions of Morocco. I drew all the time and my drawings expanded themselves and came to life.
Color flooded into my work naturally, for the first time in years – an outpouring of all I saw each day. I spent 12-13 hour days in the best studio I’ve ever worked in without feeling bored or tired. Though there were still times when I felt stuck and didn’t know how to resolve some aspect of a piece, I didn’t feel too frustrated. Instead I viewed the snags with curiosity and determination. And they resolved more easily for that change of mindset.
On one of my last evenings I sat out on a balcony, a dusty blue sky full of swifts spiraling overhead and the ever-changing combinations of random conversation and vendors’ chants swirling below. The cloth from the start of my stay was pictured again in my mind. Afraid as I had been, I had interpreted its unknown contents as contrary to my self-imposed rules. But by risking what I believed was another upheaval of identity I had grown as a person and as an artist. And I realized that the cloth had only ever held good things.